Monday, June 28, 2004

Due process demands that a citizen held in the United States as an enemy combatant be given a meaningful opportunity to contest the factual basis for that detention before a neutral decisionmaker.

--Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, writing for the majority in the Supreme Court's decision today in Hamdi vs. Rumsfeld. The ruling repudiated the administration's arguments that it is entitled to hold in jail whomever it wishes merely by labelling them an "enemy combatant" -- without having a court review this classficiation.

This ends one of the most vicious assaults on civil liberties in recent memory. The Bush administration had decided, post 9/11, to hold American citizens captured on American soil as "enemy combatants" -- meaning keep them in jail without a trial, without letting them see a lawyer -- justifying this to the public by claiming they were planning to commit terrorist acts. This gave the government, in theory, unlimited power to throw in jail whomever it liked. All it had to do was apply the "enemy combatant" label -- it would never have to actually prove this claim in a court of law.

Although in practice the number of people prosecuted was quite small, and the effect on the life of the average American quite negligible, the actions taken by the administration set disturbing precedents for the future.

Its scary to see how easily the constitution was undermined in the last three years -- with what ease the Bush administration has been able to hold American citizens in jail without a trial -- and what an impressive array of talking heads jumped to a defense of this policy on TV.

Saturday, June 26, 2004

An interesting article in the Times documents the efforts to provide some job training to liberal arts majors, mostly by allowing them to take business and law courses for credit.

Most interesting for me were the efforts of resistance mentioned in the article:

But while some see these courses as a sensible extra that will ultimately help protect the liberal arts degree, some liberal arts educators vehemently oppose the idea of trying squeeze professional training into students' schedules.

Anthony Marx, the president of Amherst College, said that if students had more time they should "go deeper into the liberal arts, because that is the seed corn of an intellectual life and informed citizenship."

"To dilute the power of the liberal arts with premature professionalism will deprive our society of the thoughtful leadership it needs," Mr. Marx added

Thoughtful leadership? Mr. Marx needs to figure out what percentage of graduates end up actually being leaders -- and what percentage end up waiting tables. My observations indicate there is a lot more of the latter than of the former.

(link via Newmark's Door)

Friday, June 25, 2004

From the interview (starts 15:28 into the clip) with Irish tv mentioned below: Bush defends the Iraq war,

But I do think that the world is ... becoming a safer place, I know that a free Iraq is going to be a necessary part of changing the world. Listen, people join terrorist organization cause theres no hope, theres no chance to raise their families in a peaceful world where there is not freedom. And so the idea is to promote freedom and at the same time protect our security. And I do believe the world is becoming a better place, absolutely.

I probably would have agreed if you told me this before the Iraq war began -- but the idea of a free Iraq as a bulwark against terrorism looks more and more like a pipe dream every single day.

Bush, from an interview on Irish tv,

Listen, I wish [the critics of the war] could have seen the seven men that came to see me in the oval office, they had their right hands cut off by Saddam Hussein because the currency had devalued when he was the leader. See..and guess what happened? An American saw the fact that they had their hands off and X's carved on their forehead and he flew them to America and they came to my office with a new hand, grateful for the generosity of America and with Saddam Hussein's brutality in ther mind.


(link via

Thursday, June 24, 2004

There is a genocide going on in the Sudan.

NASA Aerial photos document the destruction of roughly 400 villages.
The number of displaced people is at least 500,000. There are over 100,000
refugees in neighbouring countries. The number of dead is thought to be
at least ten thousand so far.

However, the number of people who are paying attention is abysmally low. One would have thought that after all the hand wringing over Rwanda's '94 massacre, the same thing would not be allowed to happen again; but it is, right done to Kofi Annan's personal refusal to act (in '94, Annan was head of the UN's peacekeeping operations and was aware of plans to exterminate Tutsis in Rwanda; he has now pointedly refused to call the events in Sudan a genocide).

One exception to this has been Nicholas Kristof who has been repeatedly writing columns on the Sudan.

And nobody outside the United States seems to care much anyway:

U.S. officials have been highlighting the plight of the displaced Sudanese, mindful that the world's inattention to Rwanda a decade ago may have contributed to the genocide that occurred there.

Natsios said the U.S. government has spent $116 million on the relief effort in Sudan — more than all other donors combined — "and we pledged $188 million between now and the end of next year."

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

The Times fronts an article today entitled Top Colleges Take More Blacks, but Which Ones? dedicated to a discussion of affirmative action at Harvard and across the nation. The emphasis is mine:

In Professor Guinier's view, there are plenty of other blacks who could also succeed at elite colleges, but the institutions are not doing enough to find them. She said they were overly reliant on measures like SAT scores, which correlate strongly with family wealth and parental education.

"Colleges and universities are defaulting on their obligation to train and educate a representative group of future leaders," said Professor Guinier, a Harvard graduate herself who has been studying college admissions practices for more than a decade. "And they are excluding poor and working-class whites, not just descendants of slaves."

Ummm. When exactly did it become reasonable to assume that colleges and universities have taken on an obligation to produce a representative group of future leaders? As far as I am concerned, the only obligation colleges and universities have is to scholarly research and education.

Arguments can be made that universities should, in fact, try to educate a representative group of future leaders -- this is a debate we are still having. Its intellectually dishonest to pretend everyone has agreed on this but universities, even those that maintain affirmative action programs, are defaulting on their natural obligations.

And if these people think that its so important to train a representative group, it follows they should think that the disproportionately large number of asian kids who perform well is a bad thing?

Anyway: the article is mainly about immigrants from africa and the west indies being the main beneficaries of Harvard's affirmative action program,

At the most recent reunion of Harvard University's black alumni, there was lots of pleased talk about the increase in the number of black students at Harvard.

But the celebratory mood was broken in one forum, when some speakers brought up the thorny issue of exactly who those black students were.

While about 8 percent, or about 530, of Harvard's undergraduates were black, Lani Guinier, a Harvard law professor, and Henry Louis Gates Jr., the chairman of Harvard's African and African-American studies department, pointed out that the majority of them — perhaps as many as two-thirds — were West Indian and African immigrants or their children, or to a lesser extent, children of biracial couples.

They said that only about a third of the students were from families in which all four grandparents were born in this country, descendants of slaves...

"This is about the kids of recent arrivals beating out the black indigenous middle-class kids," said Professor Gates, who plans to assemble a study group on the subject. "We need to learn what the immigrants' kids have so we can bottle it and sell it, because many members of the African-American community, particularly among the chronically poor, have lost that sense of purpose and values which produced our generation."

Doesn't this fact dramatically undermine the arguments for affirmative action? If black immigrants -- who typically arrive in the country no richer than most American-born blacks -- dramatically outperform blacks born in the US, shouldn't this suggest that cultural factors are ultimately responsible for the poor performance of African- Americans? Not, as one person in the article put it, "being dealt a crooked hand?"

More on the Ryan sex scandal I mentioned earlier.

Over at, I saw a quote that was unbelievable enough I wanted to post it here. The Washington Post, describing an interview with Paul Bremer, notes:

Among his biggest accomplishments, [Bremer] said, were the lowering of Iraq's tax rate, the liberalization of foreign-investment laws and the reduction of import duties.

You need to have a maniacal faith in conservative ideology to believe that lower tax do much good in the face of a rapidly disintegrating security situation.

More on Michiko Kakutani: her review of Clinton's book contains one rather ridiculous part I neglected to mention in my previous post on the topic. Kakutani writes,

...the former president's account of his life, read in this post-9/11 day, feels strangely like an artifact from a distant, more innocent era.

Lies about sex and real estate, partisan rancor over "character issues" (not over weapons of mass destruction or pre-emptive war), psychobabble mea culpas, and tabloid wrangles over stained dresses all seem like pressing matters from another galaxy, far, far away.

Right. A sex scandal could never happen in this serious post-9/11 era.

Today's Times includes an article about Illinois Republican candidate for the Senate, Jack Ryan. It begins:

When Jack Ryan, a wealthy investment banker, and his wife, the actress Jeri Ryan, faced off four years ago over custody of their young son, they evidently thought the steamy accusations in their court papers would remain private.

This week, however, disclosure of Ms. Ryan's claims that her ex-husband took her to sex clubs over her objections have filled the front pages of Illinois newspapers, throwing his campaign for a United States Senate seat here into prurient turmoil.

According to court depositions unsealed Monday, Mr. Ryan, a Republican ... took his wife to sex clubs in New York, New Orleans and Paris in the late 1990's. The documents suggest that Mr. Ryan insisted that they have public sex but that Ms. Ryan angrily refused, and the issue led to the breakup of their marriage.

Republican leaders here have been stunned by the claims. Some have called on Mr. Ryan to drop out of the race.

By the way: All the nerds in high school had crushes on Jeri Ryan after she played the borg in the skintight suit in Star Trek:Voyager. Not me, though. All the women in Voyager looked too 1950's for my taste.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Over at Talking Points Memo, John Judis blames the Bush administration and the Department of Homeland Security for the tightened visa rules for foreign students at American universities. Judis writes,

During the Cold War, American officials discovered that one of the best ways to promote democratic capitalism at the expense of communism was by luring foreign students to American colleges. Some of these foreign graduates returned home to become the leaders of reform movements in their countries. Others stayed in the United States and contributed their skills to the great postwar boom. The same reasoning that prevailed during the Cold War should prevail during the war on terror. The United States should be eager, one would imagine, to expose students from abroad to democracy and religious pluralism, as well as to take advantage of their skills. But not the Bush administration and the Republican Congress...

I don't think having foreign students study at American schools is nearly as beneficial as Judis imagines. Many of the fundamentalists the US is currently fighting were educated in the west; for example, Sayyid Qutb, whose writings form the foundation of modern Islamic fundamentalist thought. Qutb was educated in Colorado State College of Education, in Greeley; furthermore as this New Yorker piece on Al Qaeda notes, the time he spent in the US was a crucial period of Islamic radicalization for him:

Qutb had studied American literature and popular culture; the United States, in contrast with the European powers, seemed to him and other Egyptian nationalists to be a friendly neutral power and a democratic ideal. In Colorado, however, Qutb encountered a postwar America unlike the one he had found in books and seen in Hollywood films. "It is astonishing to realize, despite his advanced education and his perfectionism, how primitive the American really is in his views on life," Qutb wrote upon his return to Egypt. "His behavior reminds us of the era of the caveman. He is primitive in the way he lusts after power, ignoring ideals and manners and principles." Qutb was impressed by the number of churches in America—there were more than twenty in Greeley alone—and yet the Americans he met seemed completely uninterested in spiritual matters. He was appalled to witness a dance in a church recreation hall, during which the minister, setting the mood for the couples, dimmed the lights and played "Baby, It's Cold Outside." "It is difficult to differentiate between a church and any other place that is set up for entertainment, or what they call in their language, 'fun,' " he wrote. The American was primitive in his art as well. "Jazz is his preferred music, and it is created by Negroes to satisfy their love of noise and to whet their sexual desires," he concluded. He even complained about his haircuts: "Whenever I go to a barber I return home and redo my hair with my own hands."

Qutb returned to Egypt a radically changed man. In what he saw as the spiritual wasteland of America, he re-created himself as a militant Muslim, and he came back to Egypt with the vision of an Islam that would throw off the vulgar influences of the West. Islamic society had to be purified, and the only mechanism powerful enough to cleanse it was the ancient and bloody instrument of jihad. "Qutb was the most prominent theoretician of the fundamentalist movements," [Al-Qaeda second in command] Zawahiri later wrote in a brief memoir entitled "Knights Under the Prophet's Banner," which first appeared in serial form, in the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat, in December, 2001.

Mohammed Atta, the lead 9/11 hijacker, was also a student at a western university (in Germany).

My personal observation has suggested that many students from Arab countries tend to have much the same reaction. They usually do not fit in well with most American college students, a circumstance which breeds isolation and radicalization.

Judis disapprovingly cites a statistic on the fall of graduate school applications to the US: they are down 32% this year. It should be noted, however, that almost all graduate school programs (with the exception of MBAs and law degrees, which make up a very small percentage of the programs that foreign students usually apply to) pay stipends to the students without requiring any tuition. This is quite unlike programs in Europe, which, on the contrary, do not offer financial support to non-EU students. Which means that each foreign graduate student costs $10,000-20,000 per year to the American taxpayer/undergraduate student body. Surely this hefty price tag should be entered into the calculation before proclaiming that the end result makes America worse off?

Monday, June 21, 2004

A question: why is New Hampshire so conservative, relative to its neighbours?

New Hampshire was the only state in new england Bush won in 2000. As of the time of writing, Kerry enjoys huge leads in each of New Hampshire's neighbours: 10% in Maine, 24% in Massachusetts, 15% in Vermont. Kerry also has sizeable leads in the rest of new england, with 24% in Rhode Island and 10% in Connecticut. However, Bush and Kerry are tied in New Hampshire.

Why is this state so much more conservative than the rest of new england?

Sex in the 18th century: from Daniel Defoe,

We had not sat long but he got up and, stopping my very breath with kisses, threw me upon the bed again; but then he went further with me than decency permits me to mention, nor had it been in my power to have denied him at that moment...

However, though he took these freedoms with me, it did not go to that which they call the last favour, which, to do him justice, he did not attempt; and he made that self-denial of his a plea for all his freedoms with me upon other occasions after this. When this was over he stayed but a little while, but he put almost a handful of gold in my hand and left me a thousand protestations of his passion for me and of his loving me above all the women in the world.

Last favour? What in the world is it talking about? Intercourse? Oral sex?

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Dude, just cause I read the Times doesn't mean I recognize Jonathan Swift allusions: from a story on the prosecution of Russia's richest man,

The charges against Mr. Khodorkovsky and Yukos, like everything else in the trial, are of Brobdingnagian proportions.

Maybe it's because I don't get out much, but this is the first time in my life I have heard someone use the word "Brobdingnagian."

Michiko Kakutani is overrated.

I feel compelled to say this after reading her review of Clinton's book.

I have not read Clinton's memoir (not planning on it either) and I have little to say about Kakutani's unrelenting dissatisfaction. Certain portions of the review, however, bristle with incompetence. For example:

In many ways, the book is a mirror of Mr. Clinton's presidency: lack of discipline leading to squandered opportunities; high expectations, undermined by self-indulgence and scattered concentration...But the very lack of focus and order that mars these pages also prevented him from summoning his energies in a sustained manner to bring his insights about the growing terror threat and an Israeli-Palestinian settlement to fruition.

The peace settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians failed because...Clinton didn't concentrate hard enough? Perhaps the literary reviewer should stop playing foreign policy pundit. That the Times -- the most prestigious newspaper in America -- should allow such drivel to be published on its pages, even in the guise of a book review, is astonishing.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

More on Iraq and Al-Qaeda: why were there no weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq? How did it happen that the claims made by the President and Vice President turned out to be so wrong?

The WMD commission, created by President Bush to answer this question, will report its findings a few months after the election (how convenient).

Meanwhile, there are two competing narratives. One faults bad intelligence reported to Bush by the CIA for the error. The other faults the ideologues in the White House who 1. pressured the intelligence officers to exaggerate the threat posed by Iraqi weapons 2. went above and beyond the CIA's classified claims when selling the war to the American people.

One reason why Bush's statement today to the effect that there was a connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda, quoted in my last post, is important is that it shows how unlikely the first narrative is.

By today -- on June 15th, 2004 -- it has become fairly obvious that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and that the connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda is practically nonexistent. Pre-war evidence for both of these claims (Iraq sought to purchase uranium from Niger, Mohammed Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague) has proven to be completely false.

And yet the president continues to claim that the baseless connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda is an assertion supported by evidence in an attempt to manipulate popular opinion.

How, then, is the claim that this was not done with Iraq and WMD's at all believable?

What the fuck: from today's Times,

Nor did Mr. Bush shy away from a statement on Monday night by Vice President Dick Cheney that there were "long-established ties" between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda terrorists. To the contrary, Mr. Bush embraced the vice president's remarks.

Asked what he considered the "best evidence" of such a link, Mr. Bush shot back, "Zarqawi."

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant believed by the Central Intelligence Agency to have ties to Al Qaeda, has been named by the C.I.A. as the suspect in the recent videotaped beheading of a kidnapped American contractor.

"Zarqawi's the best evidence of a connection to Al Qaeda affiliates and Al Qaeda," Mr. Bush went on. "He's the person who's still killing."

No, Zarqawi's presence in Iraq is not evidence of a link between Saddam and Al Qaeda. Yes, terrorists have streamed into Iraq to fight after the American invasion -- including Al Qaeda terrorists. But it does not mean they were there before that.

How can any person with a shred of conscience vote for a president who keeps on misleading the public for his own political gain?

Sunday, June 13, 2004

When will the New York Times finally stop William Safire from writing columns whose only conceivable purpose, as far as I can tell, is to demonstrate he is important?

His latest should be titled Some of My Best Friends are Secretaries-General of the United Nations

Saturday, June 12, 2004

Did you know: Kerry's campaign has an intern whose main responsibility is to look up the definitions of the polysyllabic words Kerry uses? (source)

I saw portions of AI today together with my parents. The movie was initially conceived by Stanley Kubrick who planned to work on it shortly before he passed away; after his death Steven Spielberg ended up remaking the screenplay and producing it.

The result, though, seems to me to be a Kubrick movie rather than a Spielberg movie.

The trademark feature of Kubrick's movies is the detachment of the viewer from the inner world of the characters. The events on the screen appear remote and almost surreal. Even in movies that are outwardly realistic, Eyes Wide Shut for example, the viewer constantly maintains a sense that the events on the screen are chimerical, presented as part of an imagined narrative.

Spielberg, on the other hand, makes movies which feel extraordinary realistic. Maybe you have not thought of Jurassic Park as realism before, but it is. The movie takes great pains to make the dinosaurs look real, to make the sequence of events in the movie appear plausible, to get you to put yourself into the shoes of one of the characters. We are treated to a parade of details (electric fences blaring, leaves rustling, dinosaurs growling) designed to make us part of the fictional world.

AI presents us with a phantasmagoria of images, neither one of which we can identify with or place ourselves in. Each image is elaborately constructed and plays a precise role in the fable -- which we end up observing without emotion, never losing track of its fictional status.

Friday, June 11, 2004

How to deal with a slow news day: today's New York Times fronts an article reporting that campaigns are trying to win over undecided voters.

What will be tomorrow's headline? Teachers doing their best to educate students?

Thursday, June 10, 2004

From a letter by Queen Victoria to William Gladstone dated May 6, 1870,

The circumstances respecting the Bill to give women the same position as men with respect to Parliamentary franchise gives her an opportunity to observe that she had for some time past wished to call Mr Gladstone's attention to the mad & utterly demoralizing movement of the present day to place women in the same position as to professions -- as men; -- & amongst others, in the Medical Line.

And she is most anxious that it should be known how she not only disapproves but abhors the attempts to destroy all propriety & womanly feeling which will inevitably be the result of what had been proposed. The Queen is a woman herself -- & knows what an anomaly her own position is: -- but that can be reconciled with reason & propriety tho' it is a terribly difficult & trying one. But to tear away all the barriers which surround a woman, & to propose that they should study with men -- things which could not be named before them -- certainly not in a mixed audience -- would be to introduce a total disregard of what must be considered as belonging to the rules and principles of morality.

A similar logic underlies most arguments against gay marriage. Most people who oppose it do so because they feel its not appropriate, not right, not what they grew up with. To buttress up these arguments, they resort to the fanciful claim that if gay marriage is adopted, the institutions of our society will suffer grave consequences -- not so different from Queen Victoria's claim that equality between the sexes will induce a "total disregard...[of] the rules and principles of morality."

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

European integration is a wonderful thing: from a Times article on the upcoming election for the European parliament,

...a European Parliament advertisement featured a woman offering a bare nipple to her baby. In the image, the baby must decide which nipple to suckle on, just as European voters must choose at the polls.

Ireland initially barred the advertisement; Britain blurred the nipple on screen. Spain, meanwhile, just insisted that it be translated into all four of its regional languages.

I really must take a trip to Spain sometime.

Your lies precede you and your grave is in front of you.

--Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah to Libyan dictator Muammar Khaddafi, at the last Arab summit.

Today's Times fronts allegations that Khadaffi had ordered his intelligence agency to assasinate Abdullah last year.

Laura Bush has announced that she will not support Nancy Reagan's call for federal money to be used in stem cell research.

My father remarked that this sounds like an old joke:

A man asks his boss for a raise. "I apologize for being so demanding" he says, "but my wife says that after working in this office for two years I deserve a raise." The boss takes his cell phone, excuses himself, and comes back a couple of minutes later: "I'm sorry, I called my wife, and she says no."

Ronald Reagan with his first wife:

From the most recent issue of Time.

The biggest relationship age gap I am aware of: 71. At 89, Talleyrand had an 18 year old lover.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Paul Martin is the sexiest man ever. Mmmm-mmmm, he can be my "prime minister" anytime.

As Andrew Coyne recently wrote on his weblog,

Hockey commentary is always moronic, but it reaches a special intensity of moronitude at playoff time.

Indeed. During the final game of the Lighting-Flames series, the commenatators made much of the fact that no team in the last 33 years returned from a 2-0 defecit in game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals.

This fact was supposed to demonstrate the desperate position the Flames were in after being down 2-0 in the middle of the second period.

Ummm. What are the chances of the Stanley cup going to game 7 and one team being up 2-0 at some point in the game? These are two independent events and one wouldnt expect them to combine very often -- which is enough to explain why you must go back quite far to find a blown 2-0 lead.

On a related note: during the first game of the Lakers-Pistons series, "Lakers are on an 8-4 run" was flashed on the screen.

Lets assume a model where the teams are exactly equal and during each possession each scores a basket with the same probability p. The probability that during the course of a basketball game, there exists one period where one of the teams outscores the other 8-4 is pretty close to 1.

An "8-4 run" is a completely meaningless statistical fact.

On growing up in the Soviet Union:

Once again, our teacher discusses politics with us. We are told of the horrors of the western lifestyle. We are used to these stories and are no longer surprised by them. I am absolutely certain that most people in America live on the streets in cardboard boxes, that all Americans are constantly preoccupied with the building of air raid shelters, that the country is undergoing yet another crisis.

This time we are told about New York. An article from "New York Times" is shown on the distribution of cheese to the homeless. A few tons of cheese were given away for free, 100 grams to each person. Our teacher stresses that these people will receive nothing for the next month.

I ask whether they will die of hunger.

Of course they will die -- replies the teacher. But they will be replaced with new crowds of unemployed workers.

I believe her.

From White on Black by Ruben David Gonzalez Galiego.

More than once, evangelical friends tried to convert me used some version of Pascal's wager. Pascal argued that either God exists, or he does not; if he does exist, and you believe in him, you will receive an infinite reward in heaven; if you believe and you are wrong, you suffer no loss; on the other hand, if you do not believe and are right, your gain from a life of careless leisure is only finite. Therefore, he reasoned, balancing infinite gain on the one hand and finite gain on the other, it is logical to chose the infinite gain.

Pascal was one of the first to use a decision-making under uncertainty argument to justify belief in God. The argument's logical basis lies in decision theory: suppose you believe that God exists with probability p. Your expected utility from a belief in God, according to Pascal, is (infinity)*p+(some finite number, i.e. your utility if you were wrong)*(1-p)=infinity; your expected utility from non-belief is finite.

Putting aside a couple of obvious objections -- how can one assign probabilities to God's existence? -- the argument can be used to justify support in any deity and any religion -- does the idea of infinite gain make any sense at all -- Pascal's argument still suffers from a number of problems.

For one thing, the utility of eternal stay in heaven is not necessarily infinite. Sure, the gift is infinitely good; but your capacity to appreciate it is only finite.

Alternatively, if one accepts the idea of infinite utility, what about the possibility that a forgiving God will reward you with an eternity in heaven regardless? With two infinities on the balancing table, the argument does not hold.

What if you believe the probability of God's existence is zero? This does not mean that you believe God's existence is impossible. Plenty of events with probability zero occur all the time. Consider a dart thrown at a dartboard which hits any point on the dart board uniformly. What is the probability that dart will hit the point it actually hit? There are an infinite number of points and the probability of hitting any one point is zero; yet some point gets hit. If you believe that the truth of Christian doctrine is akin to the chance of a dart hitting a given point on the dartboard, it is logical to assign p=0 in which case the argument fails.

Finally, consider a thought experiment: rather than believe in God, you throw a fair coin, and believe in God if it falls on heads. What is your expected utility? It is (1/2)*(infinity)+(1/2)*(some finite number) = infinity. So this strategy is, by Pascal's argument, no worse than belief in God! Quoting from the Pascal entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Suppose that you choose to ignore the Wager, and to go and have a hamburger instead. Still, you may well assign positive and finite probability to your winding up wagering for God nonetheless; and this probability multiplied by infinity again gives infinity. So ignoring the Wager and having a hamburger has the same expectation as outright wagering for God. Even worse, suppose that you focus all your energy into avoiding belief in God. Still, you may well assign positive and finite probability to your efforts failing, with the result that you wager for God nonetheless. In that case again, your expectation is infinite again. So even if rationality requires you to perform the act of maximum expected utility when there is one, here there isn't one. Rather, there is a many-way tie for first place, as it were.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

From a new biography of Alexander I by Sergey Tzvetkov:

He could think independently and even make conclusions based on what he had heard; [the empress] Catherine had once said that he seems to educate himself. Without knowing coercion, he learned to obey, and he did it without a sense of duty but with eagerness. The Empress remarked to [former Russian ambassador to Germany] Grimm, that when [Alexander's brother] Konstantin had a cold and was forbidden to approach the window, a line was drawn through the room lest he forget. Nevertheless the small child kept crossing the line; then Alexander approached him and said:

--Brother, when I am told not to go past here, I, in order to remember this, draw another line in my mind behind the one meant for me, and when, due to my forgetfulness, I pass my own line, I remember that I should not cross the next one.

Who were the most prominent Nazis after Hitler? Most people would say Goering or Goebbels, and perhaps a few would mention Himmler.

One person that doesn't come to mind is Martin Bormann. Yet Bormann was the second person in the state after Hitler for much of World War II, dwarfing all the other members of the party by his influence. By controlling who came to see Hitler each day, and by being ever-present whenever Hitler made decisions, Bormann exercised tremendous influence, effectively controlling the day-to-day affairs of the reich.

By contrast, Goering was a drug addict who, for much of the war, lay idle in his office as head of air force without getting too involved in intra-party politics. Goebbels was tremendously important in engineering the propaganda campaign that brought the Nazis to power, but was just one of a group of high-ranking Nazi officials during the later years.

Saturday, June 05, 2004

On "real" life: anyone reading this is most likely familir with "irl" -- internet slang for "in real life," referring to something or somebody you are familiar with in person, as opposed to online, as in, your real life friends.

Yet, when you are spending 90% of your waking time starting into a 19 inch computer monitor, there is something grotesque about referring to your life outside of the internet as real.

Friday, June 04, 2004

Right off the bat, let's put to rest some misconceptions about who should and who shouldn't be writing advice books. There's no point in getting advice from hopeless failures. A hopeless failure has experience with only one mode of living, the hopeless failure mode, and can only give advice of a negative variety: "Don't do what I did." "Don't do this." "Don't do that." And no matter what hopeless failures tell you, life is much more about deciding what to do than what not to do.

On the other hand, enormous sucesses have little to offer in the way of practical advice for ordinary people. Because of their enormous success they are so far removed from the struggles faced by the rest of us that their advice tends towards matters Olympian, of interest only to other mega-sucessful people. For example, you probably won't be interested in how to approach crucial decisions about the layout of your private jet cabin. I can remember wasting a day and a half reading billionaire Paul Allen's Should the Seats Face EachOther, or All Face Forward? (The answer, if you care, is that they should all be swivel seats, which can be locked in place for takeoff or landing)

No. The perfect person to write an advice book is me. Someone who is very sucessful and yet still flies commercial, albeit first class, separated from ordinary people by no more than a flimsy curtain. I know what its like to struggle, or at least have some dim recollection.

From the beginning of Al Franken's advice book, Oh, the Things I Know

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Two more quotes from Albert Speer:

1. [On Hitler and his dog] Hitler knew, of course, that a dog regards the man who feeds him as his master. Before the attendant opened the dog cage, Hitler usually let the excited dog leap up against the wire partitions for a few minutes, barking and whimpering with joy and hunger. Since I stood in special favor, I was sometimes allowed to accompany Hitler to this feeding, whereas all the others had to watch the process at a distance. The dog probably occupied the most important role in Hitler's private life; he meant more to his master than the Fuehrer's closest associates...

During conferences that often lasted for hours, or during meals, Hitler ordered his dog to lie down in a certain corner. There the animal settled with a protesting growl...I avoided, as any reasonably prudent visitor to Hitler, arousing any feelings of friendship in the dog. That was often not so easy, especially when at meals the dog laid his head on my knee and in this position attentively studied the pieces of meat, which he evidently preferred to his master's vegetarian dishes. When Hitler noticed such disloyaty, he irritably called the dog back.

2. [On grasping at straws in the final days of the regime] On yet another of these early days of April, I happened into Bismarck's former sitting room and found Dr. Ley surrounded by a sizeable group, among them Schaub and Bormann, sever adjutants and orderlies. Ley came rushing toward me with the news: "Death rays have been invented! A simple apparatus that we can produce in large quantities. I've studied the documentation; there's no doubt about it. This will be the decisive weapon!" With Bormann nodding confirmation, Ley went on, stuttering as always, to find fault with me: "But of course your Ministry rejected the inventor. Fortunately for us he wrote to me. But now you personally must get this project going. Immediately. At this moment there's nothing more important."

Ley went on to rail at the inadequacy of my organization, which he said was calcified and overbureacratized. The whole thing was so absurd that I did not bother to contradict him. "You're absolutely right," I said. "Why don't you take it over personally? I'll be glad to give you all the powers you'll need as 'Commissioner for Death Rays'"

Ley was delighted with this proposal.

-- From Inside The Third Reich, by Albert Speer.

I've just finished reading the memoirs of Albert Speer, Hitler's Minister of Armaments. I've written about Speer before when I was halfway through the book. Now that I've completed it, I must say it surprises me how American Speer really was.

Speer, who was sentenced to twenty years in jail at Nuremberg, due chiefly to his going along with the German program to use foreign slave labor in German factories, was a non-ideological man with little interest in politics. Hitler seems to have distrusted career politicians; when Hitler's previous Minister of Armaments died in a plane crash, Hitler ordered Speer, an architect with absolutely no political training, to take his job.

I say that Speer reminded me an American due to his ultra-focused and workaholic approach to life. He was given a job and he did his best to fulfill it. Speer spends pages and pages explaining all the bureaucratic hoops he had to navigate to keep German war production going in spite of allied bombings. His memoirs are, more than anything else, a fascinating guide to the Nazi bureaucracy and to the clique of party officials competing for Hitler's attention. He did not contemplate the moral aspects of his job nor did he ever seem to stop and formulate coherent opinions on world affairs; he simply did his best to make sure his job was performed as well as possible -- and indeed, Speer is credited with managing to increase German armament production despite the continued wartime destruction up until the very last stages of the war.

Some more interesting quotes from the book:

1. For Ribbentrop's fiftieth birthday in 1943 several of his close associates presented him with a handsome casket, ornamented with semi-precious stones, which they intended to fill with photocopies of all the treaties and agreements concluded by the Foreign Minister. "We were thrown into great embarrassment," Ambassador Hewel, Ribbentrop's liaison man, remarked to Hitler at supper, "when we were about to fill the casket. There were only a few treaties that we hadn't broken in the meantime."

Hitler's eyes filled with tears of laughter.

2. [On his success in armament production] ...things went so well because I applied the methods of democratic economic leadership. The democracies...rewarded initiative, aroused an awareness of mission, and spurred decision making. Among us, on the other hand, all such elements had long ago been buried. Pressure and coercion kept production going, to be sure, but destroyed all spontaneity. I felt it necessary to issue a declaration to the effect that industry was not "knowingly lying to us, stealing from us, or otherwise trying to damage our war economy."

The party felt acutely challenged by that to sharp attacks, I had to defend my system of delegated responsibility in a letter to Hitler.

Paradoxically, from 1942 on, the developments in the warring countries moved in an opposite direction. The Americans, for example, found themselves compelled to introduce authoritarian stiffening into their industrial structure, whereas we tried to loosen the regimented economic system. The elimination of criticism of superiors had in the course of years led to a situation in which mistakes and failures, misplanning or duplication of effort were no longer even noted. I saw to the formation of committees in which discussion was possible, shortages and mistakes could be uncovered, and their elimination considered. We often joked that we were on the point of reintroducing the parliamentary system.

3. It seemed far more practicable to all concerned to employ German women rather than assorted foreign [slave] labor. Businessmen came to me with statistics showing that the employment of German women during the First World War had been significantly higher than it was now...

At the beginning of April 1942 I went to Sauckel with the proposition that we recruit our labor from the ranks of German women...he offered to put the question to Goering...

Our conference with Goering took place in Karinhall...Sauckel laid great weight on the danger that factory work might inflict moral harm upon the German womanhood; not only might their "psychic and emotional life" be affected but also their ability to bear. Goering totally concurred.

4. ...Hitler remained unimpressed:

These difficulties can be overcome as all difficulties can be overcome! First, we must conquer the road. Then the way is open to the plains south of the Caucasus. There we can deploy our armies freely and set up supply camps. Then, in one or two years, we'll start an offensive into the underbelly of the British Empire. With a minimum of effort we can liberate Persia and Iraq. The Indians will hail our divisions enthusiastically.

When in 1944 we were combing through the printing trade for unnecessary assignments, we came upon a plant in Leipzig that was turning out Persian maps and language guides ... in large quantities. The contract has been let and then forgotten.

5. [Goering] appeared in an euphoric mood, his pupils visibly dilated, and delivered to the astonished specialists from the steel industry a long lecture on the manufacture of steel, parading all his knowledge of blast furnaces and metallurgy. There followed a succession of commonplaces: We had to produce more, must not shun innovations; industry was frozen in tradition, must learn to jump over its own bombast, Goering's speech slowed and his expression grew more and more absent. Finally, he abruptly put his head on the table and fell peacefully asleep. We thought it politic to pretend to ignore the splendidly uniformed Reich Marshal and proceeded to discuss our problems until he awoke again and curtly declared the meeting over.

Wonkette, in discussing Alexandra Polier's New York Magazine article, aprovingly quotes a letter from someone who supposedly went to school with Polier:

This whole thing is a fucking joke. Ego flattery - I love the part where she describes herself as the perfect political wife: "pretty, polite, informed, and inoffensive." Gotta love writers who are not only willing to flatter themselves, but able to do it excessively. I'd give her "pretty" since that's subjective. But the other adjectives strike me more as antonyms for most of her traits. And being "too ambitious" to be a political wife?? Who's the self-described socialite, who's marrying a rich Jew who lives in Kenya, whose only writing cred to date is a sleazy and name-dropping tell-all, [that's] much too long.

The phrase is right out of the classical vocabulary of modern anti-Semitism.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

On race in southern politics: five Democratic senators from the south are retiring this year -- John B. Breaux in Louisiana, John Edwards in North Carolina, Ernest F. Hollings in South Carolina, Zell Miller in Georgia and Bob Graham in Florida.

All of these seats will most likely go to Republicans.

The Times profiles the Democratic candidates for these seats. On thing unites them: they all seem quite eager to de-emphasize their party affiliation:

"I don't think my ideas are Republican ideas and I don't think they're Democratic ideas," Erskine Bowles, the Democratic candidate for the Senate in North Carolina, recently told 12 voters at a restaurant. "I just think they're good ideas."

A few hours earlier, Inez Tenenbaum, the education commissioner of South Carolina and the Democrats' Senate hopeful there, stood on the southern steps of the State House in Columbia - petite and steely - and likewise promised to be "an independent voice" beholden to no national party.

The truth is, however, that even repeated efforts to create distance from their party will not make these candidates competitive.

I've lived in the south for seven years. One of the things that surprised me when I moved to Atlanta is how rarely race tends to become major issue in political elections. Don't get me wrong, race is always an issue; but it is not discussed, barely mentioned, rarely argued about. Both candidates usually do their best to avoid a statewide or district-wide debate on the topic.

Over 90% of the black vote routinely goes to Democrats in the south. Clearly, Democrats have little to gain by bringing up race; but what about Republicans? Given that a moderate approach on the topic has clearly failed to win them black votes, it stands to reason that a rational approach would be to make anti-affirmative-action one of the central planks in the platform in the hope of winning white votes. Yet this does not happen.

I think part of the reason for this is the Republican dominance in the south. Republicans have no incentive to introduce race because they can easily win without it. Moreover, if southern Republicans were to bring up race it would adversely affect Republicans running in other parts of the country.

The Times article I linked above documents signs of hope in Democratic candidates (it is entitled Democrats Starting to See Chance of Keeping Senate Seats in South). My prediction is that if the south starts to get more competitive, race will begin to play a bigger role.

That kind of language is unacceptable in a strip club: from a Times article on the American dream,

Several strippers got into it over the prostitution question one night in the locker room. That was after two dancers had been fired in three weeks. One, the house dominatrix, had told an Asian dancer with imperfect English to "use a dictionary," and they had had it out. The dominatrix was fired.