Tuesday, April 24, 2007

From the Times today,
Military and other administration officials created a heroic story about the death of Cpl. Pat Tillman to distract attention from setbacks in Iraq and the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the slain man’s younger brother, Kevin Tillman, said today...

Former Pvt. Jessica Lynch leveled similar criticism today at the hearing about the initial accounts given by the Army of her capture in Iraq. Ms. Lynch was rescued from an Iraqi hospital in dramatic fashion by American troops after she suffered serious injuries and was captured in an ambush of her truck convoy in March 2003.

In her testimony this morning, she said she did not understand why the Army put out a story that she went down firing at the enemy.

“I’m confused why they lied,” she said.
I don't buy the interpretation Kevin Tillman puts on this. The number of things supposed to distract us from the failure of the Iraq war seems to grow larger and larger every day. Is it really that distracting to know that someone died heroically? Yes, it puts a more positive spin on the war, but only momentarily, and at the end it might even lead you to question whether those deaths were worth it.

The lies in question are actually not very surprising. Who wants to tell the parents their kid died from friendly fire? Indeed, why wouldn't the military make every soldier into a hero whenever possible? It costs the military nothing, it makes the parents feel good, and it lets the person be remembered in a positive light. I'd guess this is an extremely widespread practice, rather than the effort to make a small number of public figures (Tillman, Lynch) into hereos.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Steven Landsburg writes in Slate:
Why parking your car is more environmentally destructive than driving it....It's crazy to feel guilty about dirtying the atmosphere without feeling even guiltier about clogging city streets. You might argue that global warming is a bigger problem than urban congestion, and you might be right. But that's not the issue. The issue is your contribution to global warming versus your contribution to urban congestion. And if you're a typical urban driver, the latter probably dwarfs the former.

Even if you never drive into the city, you're (at least indirectly) still part of the problem. Suburban shopping malls almost everywhere are required to have vastly oversized parking lots that are never close to full.
So, lets get this straight. Your contribution to congestion is greater than your contribution global warming, and this is true whether you are a "typical urban driver" or whether "you never drive into the city." And yet as a whole the problem of congestion is less serious than the problem of global warming.

Landsburg is aware that if you add up bigger numbers, your result will be bigger? I could put it in terms an economist like him can understand by saying that addition is a monotonically increasing function of its arguments.

Two points about the Virginia Tech massacre.

1. I've been surprised at the number of people who have blamed NBC for releasing Cho's videos. There is the classic argument for free speech - that while ideas may actually be harmful, it is better to diffuse and debate them out in the open, rather than achieve dubious results by suppressing them. If you do not believe this, on some level you must be opposed to free speech, since the case for suppressing harmful ideas is immediate. Either a whole lot of people are not being consistent, or the support for free speech in our society is not as near a consensus as I had believed.

2. Now that the material is out there, we have a much better idea of what went on. This knowledge may be helpful in figuring out how to prevent incidents of this form. This article in Slate, contrasting Cho with the Columbine killers, is particularly useful.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

I've never been able to read the Volokh Conspiracy. David Bernstein and Orin Kerr are quite good, but the rest of the gang, especially Volokh himself, are apt to fill their posts with non-sequiturs. Today provides us with a shining example of this:
What, though, is the argument against allowing professors and other university staff to possess weapons, if they choose? ...One argument is that it's just dangerous for law-abiding citizens to have weapons, because they'll start shooting over arguments or fender-benders. But that's precisely the argument that has been rejected by the 38 states that allow any law-abiding citizen to get a concealed carry license (or, in 2 of the 38 states, to carry without a license).
No, not 38 states!

When reading stuff like this, I constantly wonder whether I should write something refuting it (um, there is no reason to substitute majority opinion for evidence, especially when the majority in question is comprised of politicians who spend a fair amount of time thinking about how to influence donors, various lobbies, etc) or whether it would be a waste of my laptop's battery power to do so.

Update: More nonsense from Volokh:
...I know of zero evidence that for those professors who are likely to seek and get concealed carry permits, the risk of misbehavior is materially greater than for police officers.
On the other hand, I know of no evidence that arming professors reduces campus crime. Oh, wait - could it be because no one has studied the effects of arming professors on campus crime?

Saturday, April 14, 2007

It will be interesting to see how this develops:
A federal Green party candidate in British Columbia said the media have mischaracterized the meaning of a column he wrote in which he appeared to cheer on the Sept. 11 attacks.

In the column, he said that "when I saw the first tower cascade down … there was a little voice inside me that said, 'Yeah!'

"When the second tower came down the same way, that little voice said, 'Beautiful!'

"When the visage of the Pentagon appeared on the TV with a gaping and smoking hole in its side … I felt an urge to pump my fist in the air."

He added that "whenever I passed a TV or newspaper with a report on the ensuing U.S. war to capture Osama bin Laden, I secretly said to myself, 'Go, Osama, Go!'"

In an interview with the Canadian Press, Potvin said he didn't mean he was dismissing the deaths.

"If you read the story that I wrote, you'll notice that I'm talking about it on a symbolic level," he said.

National Green party Leader Elizabeth May said she found his statements "shocking," adding that she would not sign his nomination papers if "those reflect his real views."
The ambiguity of the last sentence makes it difficult to predict what will happen. Note that the green party is Canada is less marginal than its American counterpart, polling close to %10 recently. The full text of the column is here.

What strikes me about the column is how monstrous it is. Potvin first frames terrorists as fighting against "corporatism and militarism." As for their methods, he argues
...is terrorism not war, waged by those who can't afford tanks and airplanes? If someone wanted to wage war on the US, with all its satellites and drone bombers and smart missiles, what other form could it possibly take besides terrorism?
The obvious moral distinction between terrorists and the American military is that the former deliberately target civilians, while the latter do not. It is true that many civilians have died as a result of the Iraq war, but the US government has not been targeting them. Note that civilian casualties were fairly low during the fight between Saddam's army and the US military. If they have increased since it is due to the propensity of insurgents to blend into the Iraqi population, making it difficult to figure out who the civilians are. Moreover, the Pentagon has invested a very large amount of money over the past few decades to develop extremely accurate weapon systems which can hit military targets without causing as much damage to the surroundings.

None of this is to suggest that the US military has been flawless as far as civilian casualties are concerned. With over 100,000 US troops in Iraq, its plainly impossible that no slip ups will occur on the part of the individual commanders. And yet the moral difference remains - either we accept that certain things are beyond the pale, or everything is permitted and one can massacre at will.

Note how Potvin's column slides this difference under the rug, describing both sides as simply at war, ignoring the massacres on one side and the restraint on the other. The equivalent of Potvin's view on the right would be those who argue that we should nuke anyone who threatens us. This complete disregard for civilian lives is what I mean when I say that Potvin's column is monstrous.

I've had no warm feelings for the Canadian greens previously. But if this guy continues as a candidate - well, how much respect can you have for a party where this view is considered within the realm of reasonable discourse?

Update: CBC - "Green party drops controversial journalist as candidate"

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Here is a conversation between a girl of about 7-8 and a woman in her 30s that I overheard at a Vancouver starbucks:
-Mommy, where are you going next week?
-To the US honey.
-Isn't that where the bad guys are?

This is amusing.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Take a look at this instapundit post. It makes me wonder if the man knows basic facts about American government. I remember that my grade 12 goverment textbook had a sidebar devoted to the Congressional approval rating. The most basic fact about it is that it tends to be extremely low, and as I recall there was a question on my grade 12 final to this effect. It's always been this way - take a look here, for example, which has data from the past 40 years (to spare you the clicking, it was 29% in 1966, 29% in 1978, 28% in 1990, 35% in 1996, and 38% today). It's one of those things about the American political psyche - we tend to think of Congress as slow, wasteful, uncoordinated, etc. Instapundit's endorsement of the link between Congressional approval and the "loss of faith in America's political class" highlights some basic ignorance on his part.

Monday, April 09, 2007

There is an interesting article in Der Spiegel highlighting the "comprehensive Islamicization of Indonesia." The accompanying photo gallery is interesting too, see a sample below:

Monday, April 02, 2007

From Der Spiegel:
The fate of 12 German giant rabbits delivered to North Korea is in doubt. The breeder who sent them suspects they have been eaten by top officials rather than used to set up a bunny farm.
Life imitates Borat?