Thursday, March 30, 2006

Berlusconi's 'Happy 'Handshake'?

Some people are claiming this video isn't legit. To be honest, I have no idea if it is. If not, they did a pretty good job in finding a Berlusconi look-a-like.

Silvio Berlusconi?? manages to reinforce every sexist stereotype about Italian men in this little video clip. With the Italian parliamentary election only a few weeks away, Silvio shows his special way of greeting an unsuspecting female voter.

If it is real, it shouldn't be too surprising considering his history of putting his foot in his mouth.

Visualizing the Iraq War

A bunch of links showing the human and economic costs of the Iraq war.

Here's an unsettling visualization of the coalition casualties by date and location in Iraq. It does make an impression on you when you realize that each of those blips means a few lives lost.
Here's a link to a map of US casualties by their hometown.

A few graphs comparing US casualties in Iraq to Vietnam. Here's some figures on the number of US soldiers wounded in Iraq.

You can get some idea on the financial cost of the war for US citizens to date. Here's a detailed report, co-authored by the Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, describing the direct and indirect financial costs of the war on the USA. Including direct military costs and the negative macroeconomic effects (e.g. increase in the price of oil), the reports makes a Conservative estimate of the eventual total war cost being $1.026 trillion, and a moderate estimate of $2.239 trillion.

The best website cataloguing violent Iraqi civilian casualties is probably Iraq body count. This figure currently stands at 33,000-38,000 according to the website. Their estimates however are probably conservative as they only take into account officially reported cases of violent deaths. An article published in the prestigious medical journal the Lancet calculated deaths resulting from the war to be 98,000, and that was as of October, 2004 (including both violent and non-violent deaths attributable to the onset of the war). Here's another demoralizing link showing that violent civilian deaths in Iraq have actually been rising every year since the start of the invasion. You can find out more Iraqi casualties in thiswikipedia article.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Deeyah: The' Muslim Madonna'?

Recently stumbled across an artist that's being touted as the next big 'ethnic' pop-star sensation. Her name is Deeyah and she's been dubbed by many as the 'Muslim Madonna'. Deeyah is apparently a Muslim of 'Pakistani-Afghan-Persian' decent (I get the feeling she's trying to snatch up every ethnic label she get her hands on ;-)). You can watch her latest music video 'What Will It Be' here. Definitely not my cup of tea when it comes to music, even with all the 'exotic' samples I still find her music pretty unoriginal and dull. You can find more samples of her music and her videos on her webpage. To be fair, her stuff is probably not that much worse than most other girlie pop acts out there. I was amused by how the Deeyah video tries to throw in anything 'Eastern'. Her video mixes classical Indian percussive chanting, shisha smoking, burkas, Muslim feminist political messages, and clips from an Indian street. Now is that ethnic enough for ya?! But it looks like she's having some success. She's been working with Darrin Prindle (producer for Madonna, TLC), and one of her music videos hit the top of the charts in the UK recently.

Deeyah was raised in Norway, and became a pop-star in her teens. She ended up moving to the UK because of threats and disdain from offended Muslims who felt her 'provocative' act was somehow denigrating their religion. She's also received 'intimidating' phone calls in the UK. Here's some biographical bits from, a website dedicated to free expression in music:

At the age of 16, Deeyah signed with BMG and released her second album the following year, a more pop-oriented offering of songs recorded in multiple languages - Deeyah speaks five. The album went Top 10 and yielded two Top 10 singles and music videos.
The award-winning music video for the second single from that album made Deeyah the target of conservative Muslims who were outraged that her uncovered back could be seen in the video. This led to harassment, threats against Deeyah and her family, physical assaults, and an attempted abduction at her school.
"I would get very abusive phone calls," she explains. "I would get abused as I walked down the street. I would have people spit at me."
At a concert in Norway, she was attacked on stage by angry Muslim men who thought she was degrading their culture.
By mid-1996, at just 18 years old, Deeyah was disillusioned and fearful and decided to leave the music business and move to London to escape the tension and dangers she faced in Norway and start a new life.
In 1998, Deeyah's need to make music had become too strong to ignore. Towards the end of 1999, she signed a deal with Warner Records and went back into the studio in early 2000 - wanting to break her silence and speak out about her struggle against it. But then her producer suddenly died of cancer, and it took another five years before her next album was completed and published.
The music video for the first single from the album reached #1 on The Box, the leading request music video channel in the UK. As was the case when Deeyah's last album came out, her video led to new threats from conservative Muslims who are angry that Deeyah appears in sexy clothes and dances with a black man. The video has been frequently shown on Indian tv channels.
She has received intimidating phone calls, aggressive emails and verbal threats from Asian youths warning her to "tone down and cover up".

And in the words of Deeyah herself:
"It is not going to make me go away. This is such a liberal, multicultural country and I never thought my background could become such an issue to some people. It does scare me but it also angers me and encourages me not to give up, and my parents encourage me. I do not flaunt my religious background, I never sing about it and compared to other pop stars I am not particularly risque."

She does have a point about not being particularly risque by contemporary pop vixen standards. In the arena of pop-girl combat, Deeya is easily outskanked by Mariah or Jessica Simpson or even J.Lo. I do not flaunt my religious background. Not to sure about that one considering her use of a burka a striptease prop in a controversial video she ended up pulling. Not to mention that the 'What Will It Be?' video showcases a variety of Muslim feminists (like Irshad Manji shown with Deeyah above) and features her? strolling around in a Burka. The lyrics to What Will It Be? also have a strong anti-Muslim-fundie message to them as well. Given her background, it's perfectly natural that she would have an interest in Muslim issues and culture. But, for her to claim she isn't flaunting her background is a little dishonest to say the least.

Is Deeyah really breaking down barriers or is she stirring up controversy for the sake of publicity? Well probably a bit of both. Almost any publicity is good publicity for a newbie pop celebrity, so stirring up controversy will benefit her career. On the other hand, given her past experiences, it isn't surprising that pro-feminist messages for Muslim women would be a big part of her music. The truth is, the treatment of women in many Muslim societies is pretty abysmal. So it is an important message and she's bringing attention to it- which is good. That said, at the present time it's an issue that already receives a great deal of attention in the Western media. What's really needed is some reasonable debate about the subject, and more importantly human rights laws in the 'offending' countries. Given that her message is wrapped up in the typical soft-porn imagery of a contemporary pop video, her music isn't going to get much play among the people who should arguably hear a Muslim feminist message. Seeing her 'provocative' videos get so much attention by 'Western' media, is far more likely to elicit knee-jerk defensiveness rather than any meaningful debate in the Muslim community.

Obviously there's plenty that can't tolerate the idea of a Muslim woman flaunting her sexuality in public. A Muslim organization in the UK even tried to claim she wasn't a Muslim because she has a Hindu name (on her website she denies this allegation and explains she was named after a family friend). I'm sure some young Muslim women will listen to her music and find it inspiring. And as for the thugs that are threatening her- get a grip. Threatening and trying to intimidate her is only going to end up giving her more media attention, and confirming every negative stereotype the West has about violent Muslims. If you don't like her music and message, you do have the right to 'preach' against it if you want. But there's absolutely no justification for threats and violence.

What about her chances to be the next big thing on the music scene? I think this article on summed it up best:

However, once the threats subside (or not), there's the question of finding an audience for the message and music. "A lot of us are working for women's rights, particularly in the Muslim world. I think we have more self-respect than to dance around naked to make our point," said Hoda Fahmy, who works with an education group for Muslim women in Canada. "It's unfortunate that she has to use those means, because it's true - women are not able to speak up in a lot of these countries." Musically, it goes without saying that the Sami Yusuf crowd will give Deeyah a pass, though she may also find her song too sabre-rattling for the mainstream hip-hop/R&B crowd, too lacking in the Bollywood-inspired sentimentality of bhangra/Indo-pop, and missing the edgy innovation of artists such as M.I.A.

Well put. So far, the little music I've heard from her is kinda lame and her videos are the typical seductress pop vixen fluff. While she may get plenty of attention for being controversial, in the end she may end up having few devoted fans of her music. But hey, she is just starting out- she may eventually come up with something interesting. And one has to admit, if nothing else she is pretty easy on the eyes ;-)

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Bush's Latest Press Conference: "History has proven democracies don't war."

Last Tuesday Bush held a rare one-on-one press conference in a desperate attempt to boost sagging public support for the Iraq war. The press conference was particularly unusual for its candour- with the White House press corps actually doing its job and asking Shrubya some difficult questions. You can find the transcript and video of the press conference here on the White House website. I was somewhat surprised the Bushies actually put the transcript up in its entirety given the tough questions and Bush's lame performance. While they seemed to put up the whole transcript, not everything is on the level in the video. Having watched the original televised press conference, and the video on the government website, it's pretty obvious to me that the White House has sped up the video slightly in order to make Bush look more articulate then he actually is. I'm 95% certain of this. If someone can prove me wrong let me know. On TV he was talking quite a bit slower and fumbling for words, speeding up the video really helped smooth this out. Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if they edited the transcript a bit too, but I haven't looked at it closely enough to tell.

Surprisingly, Helen Thomas, the 85 year old doyenne of the White House press corps was called upon for a question for the first time in 3 years. While a lot of the other reporters asked critical questions as well, this was the probably the harshest exchange of the whole press conference. Prior to this she had been locked out of questioning Bush, basically because she was too probing and critical- of course this is exactly what a good reporter should be doing. Here's the transcript from the Thomas/Bush exchange below:

THE PRESIDENT: Helen. After that brilliant performance at the Grid Iron, I am -- (laughter.)

Q You're going to be sorry. (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT: Well, then, let me take it back. (Laughter.)

Q I'd like to ask you, Mr. President, your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is, why did you really want to go to war? From the moment you stepped into the White House, from your Cabinet -- your Cabinet officers, intelligence people, and so forth -- what was your real reason? You have said it wasn't oil -- quest for oil, it hasn't been Israel, or anything else. What was it?

THE PRESIDENT: I think your premise -- in all due respect to your question and to you as a lifelong journalist -- is that -- I didn't want war. To assume I wanted war is just flat wrong, Helen, in all due respect --

Q Everything --

THE PRESIDENT: Hold on for a second, please.

Q -- everything I've heard --

THE PRESIDENT: Excuse me, excuse me. No President wants war. Everything you may have heard is that, but it's just simply not true. My attitude about the defense of this country changed on September the 11th. We -- when we got attacked, I vowed then and there to use every asset at my disposal to protect the American people. Our foreign policy changed on that day, Helen. You know, we used to think we were secure because of oceans and previous diplomacy. But we realized on September the 11th, 2001, that killers could destroy innocent life. And I'm never going to forget it. And I'm never going to forget the vow I made to the American people that we will do everything in our power to protect our people.

Part of that meant to make sure that we didn't allow people to provide safe haven to an enemy. And that's why I went into Iraq -- hold on for a second --

Q They didn't do anything to you, or to our country.

THE PRESIDENT: Look -- excuse me for a second, please. Excuse me for a second. They did. The Taliban provided safe haven for al Qaeda. That's where al Qaeda trained --

Q I'm talking about Iraq --

THE PRESIDENT: Helen, excuse me. That's where -- Afghanistan provided safe haven for al Qaeda. That's where they trained. That's where they plotted. That's where they planned the attacks that killed thousands of innocent Americans.

I also saw a threat in Iraq. I was hoping to solve this problem diplomatically. That's why I went to the Security Council; that's why it was important to pass 1441, which was unanimously passed. And the world said, disarm, disclose, or face serious consequences --

Q -- go to war --

THE PRESIDENT: -- and therefore, we worked with the world, we worked to make sure that Saddam Hussein heard the message of the world. And when he chose to deny inspectors, when he chose not to disclose, then I had the difficult decision to make to remove him. And we did, and the world is safer for it.

Q Thank you, sir. Secretary Rumsfeld -- (laughter.)

Q Thank you.

THE PRESIDENT: You're welcome. (Laughter.) I didn't really regret it. I kind of semi-regretted it. (Laughter.)

Q -- have a debate.

THE PRESIDENT: That's right. Anyway, your performance at the Grid Iron was just brilliant -- unlike Holland's, was a little weak, but -- (laughter.)

My googling revealed that this ballsy old bird actually has her own podcast where she regular rips Shrubya a new one. Make no mistake Helen is an outspoken critic of the Bush administration. Here's another a link to a recent interview where she's being harassed by a right-wing radio host, Hugh Hewitt, for not liking Bush. Helen holds her own pretty well considering Hewitt has obviously ambushed her with the irrelevant line of questioning.

Clearly, the Bush administration, notorious for shielding Bush from any overly critical questions, recognizes that even they have to answer some of their critics given the increasing weariness over the Iraq debacle. The press conference was their attempt to provide a rebuttal to the growing dissent over their disintegrating foreign policy. I wasn't impressed. Just more of the same empty bluster...but this time with a lot less confidence.

My favorite 'Bushisms' from the press conference:

History has proven democracies don't war.

But I see progress. I've heard people say, oh, he's just kind of optimistic for the sake of optimism. Well, look, I believe we're going to succeed. And I understand how tough it is -- don't get me wrong -- I mean, you make it abundantly clear how tough it is. I hear it from our troops; I read the reports every night. But I believe -- I believe the Iraqis -- this is a moment where the Iraqis had a chance to fall apart, and they didn't. And that's a positive development.

I believe that my job is to go out and explain to people what's on my mind. That's why I'm having this press conference, see. I'm telling you what's on my mind. And what's on my mind is winning the war on terror. And I understand war creates concerns, Jim. Nobody likes war. It creates a sense of -- of uncertainty in the country.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Wafa Sultan's Interview on Israeli Radio

Recently Wafa Sultan, the West's great beige hope for Muslim reform was
interviewed on Arutz Sheva, Israeli National News Radio. She was interview by Rabbi Tovia Singer who is apparently a famous right-wing talk radio host in the Israeli media.

It's pretty amusing to listen to Singer's unctuous flattering of Wafa. Even more entertaining is listening to Wafa snatch the bait wholeheartedly. After a glowing introduction where Singer literally expresses his love for Wafa, she explains her role as the anointed one self-appointed to tear down the wall of ignorance blocking 'her people' off from modernity. She actually says "I've been asking myself who the savior is, and answering myself by saying 'It is me'". Even Singer seems taken aback at certain points by the self-righteous tone she seems to take on at points. At least you have to give her credit for having self-confidence. Then again one person confidence is another's delusions of grandeur ;-) She finally seems to wake up a bit from her self-aggrandizing reverie at the end of the interview when Singer tries to extract some pro-Israeli statements out of her, and appears to register that he might be using her to prop up his anti-Palestinian agenda. One can only give her credit for falling back on her proclaimed secular humanism by emphasizing how both sides of the Israel/Palestine conflict need to recognize the humanity in each other.

She certainly seems committed to 'spreading her message' and willing to face the inevitable rejection, threats, and scorn that will come her way. She has already announced plans to publish a book called 'The Escaped Prisoner: When God is a Monster'. However, the fact that she gives her first 'western' interview to some far-right Israeli radio bloviator isn't the most promising sign for her chances of bringing on an 'Islamic enlightenment'. Not to mention her strong atheist message is unlikely to have much resonance among devout Muslims. Nonetheless, I'm sure we'll be hearing more about Wafa in the near future. She's certainly endeared herself to the anti-Islamist right (and much of the left for that matter) in the West. That will likely secure her healthy book sales, at least in the English language market ;-)

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Evolution of the Razorblade

The razorblade tech wars continue with Gillette uping the ante anouncing the'fusion' five blade razor.

Eerily this was forecast in this prescient Onion article.

The economist speculates on a shaving Moore's law enabling us to predict future progress in razorblade tech.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Real Life Horror Story from India

"This happened about a month or two ago near Lonavala, and even though it sounds like something out of the X Files or the Twilight actually happened! This guy drives from Mumbai to Pune and decides not to take the new expressway as he wants to see the scenery. The inevitable happens and when he reaches the ghats his car breaks down - he's stranded miles from nowhere. Having no choice he starts walking on the side of the road, hoping to get a lift to the nearest human habitation. It's dark and raining and pretty soon he's wet and shivering. The night rolls on and no car goes by, the monsoon rains are so strong he can hardly see a few feet ahead of him. Suddenly in the midst of pitch black night he barely makes out a car just a few feet away, coming towards him with its headlights out. The strange vehicle stops next to him. The guy is SO relieved to see another human soul that he immediately flings open the car's door and jumps in without a second thought. Seated in the back, he leans forward to thank the person who had saved him when he realizes there is nobody behind the wheel! Even though there's no one in the front seat and no sound of any engine,the car starts moving slowly. The guy looks at the road ahead and sees a curve coming the hills and there is a steep drop beyond the curve). Scared almost to death he starts to pray, begging the Lord for his life. He hasn't come out of shock, when just before he hits the curve, a hand appears through the window and moves the wheel! The car makes the curve safely and continues on the road to the next bend. The guy, now paralyzed in terror, watches how the hand appears every time the car is at a curve and moves the steering wheel just enough to get it around each bend. Finally, the guy sees lights ahead. Gathering his courage he wrenches open the door of then silent, slowly moving car, scrambles out and runs as hard as he can towards the lights. It's a small town. Wet and in shock goes to a roadside dhabba, which is open, and asks for a drink. They find some hooch and give him a shot. And he starts telling whoever is in the dhabba about the horrifying experience he just went through. A silence envelops everybody when they realize the guy isn't drunk, and is really frightened - he's crying and shaking. So they give him more hooch and talk about what they should do, whether to call the police or find a priest, or what. But just then two tired looking men walk into the dhabba. One excitedly points a finger and says to his friend "Look Raj! That's the asshole that got in the car when we were pushing it..."

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Canada gives safe harbour to music freebooters

Pay for me music?? Arrr, take that you scurvy CRIA dawg!

Another reason to be proud of Canada. According to the The Canadian Recording Industry Association(CRIA) Canada has the highest per capita rate of illegal MP3 downloads in the world! In light of this, the CRIA has been
bitching and complaining about Canada's lax copyright protection laws. According to the CRIA illegal downloading hasn't just hurt the music industry but also software developers.
Canada's failure to modernize its copyright laws has come at considerable cost to the economy. A recent study conducted for the Canadian Alliance Against Software Theft (CAAST), an industry alliance of software publishers, found that software piracy rates in Canada are significantly higher (36 percent) than those of major trading partners such as the United States (21 percent) and the United Kingdom (27 percent) that have enacted digital copyright reforms. As a result, Canada has lost more than 14,000 jobs and suffers $7 billion in annual economic losses in the software industry alone. For Canada's music industry, the rise of file-swapping coincided with a 41 percent - or $541 million -- decrease in retail sales of pre-recorded CDs and cassettes between 1999 and 2005 and a 20 percent loss in employment.

Waaaah waah. So a number large software and music companies suffer some economic loss. It's likely massively overstated because many of those 'pirates' wouldn't own the software or music if they couldn't get it for free. And just think about all the wealth in digital products gained by the starving masses out there with high-speed connections ;-) However dark clouds are gathering as Canada is looking to 'tightening' up its copyright laws.

OK, even I admit that 'something will have to done' about illegal downloading, but what's going to work is probably something far different than what most in the recording industry think should happen. The reality is that the nature of the medium makes a mockery of strict copyright laws regardless of what the courts decide. Most digital content can ultimately be hacked and cracked. The content providers can make it extremely difficult for the hackers to do their work but someone will eventually find a method for circumventing their barriers. Once these protections have been broken the digital content can then easily be 'shared' via the world wide web. Not to mention there will always be countries like Canada and Sweden which will have less strict interpretations of copyright which will make other countries laws harder to enforce. Given that a strict interpretation of copyright law is virtually impossible to enforce, because of the decentralized nature of the internet and ease of reproducing digital content, a major task of media enterprises of all sorts will be figuring out ways of generating revenue through their using audience. Charging users to own the content isn't the only way producers of the content have to make money. There is also advertising and even donation models that do work for some. A good analogy is the advent of commercial radio or television. The creators of radio or television content didn't start demanding that 'users' pay for their product. Rather they developed an advertising sponsorship model to fund their work.
A pay-to-own model can still work for providers of media content. But it will only work if the price to own that content is low enough to make it worthwhile for the consumer to buy it from a 'legitimate' source. The reality is that, any digital content can be reproduced and spread at virtually no cost. It simply isn't the equivalent of stealing a bunch of CDs or DVDs. On top of that, you can't regulate your way to a monopoly on the internet, digital information is too easily manipulated and spread. Many will probably dispute this and point to the emerging monopoly on MP3s that Apple itunes has. Sure a company like Apple has a growing monopoly on MP3 devices, offering the possibility of a monopoly on the distribution MP3s. This has definitely bolstered the pay-to-own model through itunes. Eventually, I'm sure as the pay-to-own internet distribution models mature there will be a push to eliminate CDs to tighten up their monopoly on distribution. But inevitably there will be someone out there that will find a way to get past the barriers they put up, and much of that protected content will find it's way on the internet and will be distributed for free.

There is now a strong hacking/cracking culture committed to keeping as much content as possible free on the internet. Free content has its advantages, it more readily allows for the free flow of information and ideas. Take public libraries as an example, it can be argued that libraries deprive many authors of a great deal of revenue. But fortunately there is a strong culture of promoting the free flow of ideas amongst authors and in the publishing industry- there has to be free access to books since everyone should have access to the ideas they promote. This idea of knowledge being accessible by all was not always promoted. In various stages knowledge and writing was monopolized by a priestly, scribal, or bureaucratic class, much like trade guilds monopolized the trade and know-how of a specific craft. One of the main things that brought about a literate culture with a free flow of ideas in Europe was the printing press which made producing books much less expensive. Now with the contemporary computing and communications technology, ALL media are reproduced at virtually no cost. Therefore, this content should be much cheaper for the consumer than it was before. Even more important, people who can't afford to buy the content should not be deprived of the right to view it since it costs the producer nothing to allow them access. There will likely be tremendous benefits to society as a whole of allowing free access to all types of media.
In my view, the recording industry should be selling their music for much cheaper prices. If they did, many more people would actually pay for their music online. Why is itunes charging $1 a song?! That's pretty close to the price they charge for a song on a CD, yet the overhead for distributing the music is much lower. Not to mention, with the advent of cheap software for music production, the cost of producing the music should also be far lower, and can now even be done independent of a high-priced studio. The music industry is gouging the consumer because they have a great deal of control over the means of distributing and producing the content- it's as simple as that. How about a dime or a quarter for each song? If they charged 10 cents a song I'd probably get most of my music 'legally'. Why should the price of a song cost roughly the same as it did when the only effective distribution method for music was CDs, tapes, records? I don't have any stats but I'm willing to wager that in the case of many artists the bulk of the recording industries money goes into advertising. Why not throw the music out on the wild world of the web and let the strong songs survive. The good songs will natural reproduce and spread- you don't need to spend as much to hype stuff up in the age of viral marketing and considering how fanatical music fans can be. A devoted horde of music fans will do all the marketing for you. And if the music is unable to garner a devoted fan base on its own than why should some corporation prop it up. It's corporate subsidies for music. Not to mention that much of the music they 'patronize' is watered-down content-free unoriginal garbage that they promote because it's the easiest to spoon-feed to a mass audience. In the digital age, a mass audience isn't required to support the production and distribution of music.

Will the record execs ever get it? Some of them definitely don't; they just don't realize that a new medium often comes with a new business model. Some of them probably do and resist anyways because they realize they're profits are largely a product of the influence they have they have over the means of music distribution. Regardless, the future of music is going to be more decentralized in production, distribution and marketing. This will mean a much greater variety of music- a much wider body of musicians (part and fulltime) being able earn some money by creating music. And yes it will also probably mean fewer millionaire superstars. A wide variety of easily accessible, interesting and good music, versus, popstar hype 'for the masses' churned out by corporate execs. I know what model I prefer.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Muslim R.A.H. Profile #1: Wafa Sultan

This is the first installment in a new series on Blovi-blog. Every couple of weeks I'll be featuring a new Muslim R.A.H. (Reformer, Apostate, or Heretic). The militants and fundamentalists steal all the limelight, while the challengers of the orthodoxy usually only garner attention when someone is trying to kill them. In that light, the R.A.H. will be dedicated to highlighting all the Muslim dissenters and critics out there. Yes, they do actually exist. Some of these people are quite articulate and perceptive, some aren't. But the all of them deserve some respect for promoting open debate about religion in the Muslim world.

My first profile is a rising star in the arena of critical debate on Islam, Wafa Sultan. In the last week or so, the video of her controversial interview on Al-Jazeera has been spending a lot of time zipping around the fiber-optic arteries of cyberspace. You can find Wafa Sultan's famous Al-Jazeera appearance here. Here is a link to the transcript of her Al-Jazeera appearance on the M.E.M.R.I. website. Here's are some of the more interesting remarks she made in the debate:

The clash we are witnessing around the world is not a clash of religions, or a clash of civilizations. It is a clash between two opposites, between two eras. It is a clash between a mentality that belongs to the Middle Ages and another mentality that belongs to the 21st century. It is a clash between civilization and backwardness, between the civilized and the primitive, between barbarity and rationality.

The Prophet of Islam said: "I was ordered to fight the people until they believe in Allah and His Messenger." When the Muslims divided the people into Muslims and non-Muslims, and called to fight the others until they believe in what they themselves believe, they started this clash, and began this war. In order to start this war, they must re-examine their Islamic books and curricula, which are full of calls for takfir and fighting the infidels.

What civilization on the face of this earth allows him to call other people by names that they did not choose for themselves? Once, he calls them Ahl Al-Dhimma, another time he calls them the "People of the Book," and yet another time he compares them to apes and pigs, or he calls the Christians "those who incur Allah's wrath." Who told you that they are "People of the Book"? They are not the People of the Book, they are people of many books. All the useful scientific books that you have today are theirs, the fruit of their free and creative thinking.

The Jews have come from the tragedy (of the Holocaust), and forced the world to respect them, with their knowledge, not with their terror, with their work, not their crying and yelling. Humanity owes most of the discoveries and science of the 19th and 20th centuries to Jewish scientists. 15 million people, scattered throughout the world, united and won their rights through work and knowledge. We have not seen a single Jew blow himself up in a German restaurant. We have not seen a single Jew destroy a church. We have not seen a single Jew protest by killing people. The Muslims have turned three Buddha statues into rubble. We have not seen a single Buddhist burn down a Mosque, kill a Muslim, or burn down an embassy. Only the Muslims defend their beliefs by burning down churches, killing people, and destroying embassies. This path will not yield any results. The Muslims must ask themselves what they can do for humankind, before they demand that humankind respect them.

Wafa apparently chose her words to be as provocative as possible for the Al-Jazeera audience. She passionately states her case and it's pretty obvious there's a great deal of anger behind what she says. If nothing else, you have to admire this woman's courage to assert her taboo opinions so openly. By openly stating such controversial views she is sure to have generated some debate in the Arab world. She does raise some valid points about the barbarity of religiously-motivated violence, it's prevalence in Islam today, and the orthodox ideas that perpetuate them. In traditional Muslim societies where this sort of debate is forbidden, this may be the first time they've heard an Arab woman openly make such arguments. However, much of what she says is overblown rhetoric, and of course it's completely one-sided. I came across this interesting rebuttal to the M.E.M.R.I video and transcript of her appearance on a Desicritics discussion thread (scroll to the bottom of the page, comment #18). I don't agree with all of the points, the posts author occassionaly resorts to Wafa-style rhetorical tactics at points and makes a spurious claim about her being a Coptic Christian. Nonentheless, I found the points about the translation and editing of the debate by M.E.M.R.I, and the misrepresentation of the Quranic passages Wafa makes reference to in the debate to support her claims to be very valid points.
Hmm, how is she a hero?

to those that will bother to learn:

i WATCHED this clip on Al Jazeera itself, and guess what, EVERY point she said was replied to, and after a certain point, she changed her tone... don't take memri seriously cause it's biased EVEN in words translated.

anywho, here are some points to those that'll bother to read:

1- This clip is incomplete, there's a HUGE part that's NOT in there, where SHE ended up looking like an idiot and changing her tone because she knew what she was saying was wrong. memri is VERY selective, notice the cuts in the video.

2- If you think stuff like this doesn't come on Al jazeera and other arab channels all the time, you're kidding me... you need to follow arab tv more before you critize it... believe it or not, Al-Jazeera was Bush's pal before they broadcasted something bush didn't like. Yay.

3- secondly mistranslations from memri such as "woman as a beast, no, woman as a mule" "are you a heretic, no , are you an Atheist" "secular, no, science believer" "i'm a secular person that does not believe in spirtual things, no, i am a science beleving woman that does not believe in anything paranormal" memri is VERY selective in translations to invoke even more anger. especially the heretic point, since he wasn't insulting her, he was asking her if she was an atheist or not. (and additon i'm just adding, he was saying that if she was an atheist, then there is no blame on her of committing blasphemy, which actually SHOWS civility)

4- other than her points, which mostly DON"T make sense and which SHE HERSELF retracted afterwards (in the part you don't see) it's obvious by anyone that knows arabic is that her Arabic is NOT native, it's TAUGHT as a second or third language. any phonetics expert could tell that.

5- it's obvious she hasn't been in most of the muslim countries lately if she thinks we're backwards and living in some sort of "repression and ignorance" do yourself a favor, do a search on Melody tv and/or singers such as the egyptain "ruby" the lebanese "nancy agram" and a zillion others, or do a search for arabic movies from even the 1950's and before.

6- she opposes that muslims refer to non-muslims with names they haven't chosen, well then she should be offended by the term 'goy' ,'gentiles', 'unenlightened' and whatever term christians use or used to denote non christians... and don't even CLAIM they didn't exist, because guess what, christians thought non christians were barbarians and savages and that's why there were missionaries, you know who else thought they needed to bring enlightment to others? the japanese when they invaded and buthchered china.
anywho, for the terms she opposes;

a- "Ahl el Beit" directly means "people of the house" meaning wise means: people of the house of God.

b- "ahl el kotob" directly means "people of the book" meaning wise means: people of the books of God, i.e people who believe in one of the holy books (torah, Enjeel, Qu'ran).

c- "ahl el Dhimma" directly means "people of Concience" meaning wise means: people who have concience.

d- "el nasara" directly means "the victory helpers" meaning wise: "those who saved the Muslims" or "those that stood by the muslims" in islamic history, when the Prophet Mohammed and his followers were being attacked and killed in Mecca, they left for Madina, Madina was a Christian City, and the people of Madina helped the Prophet and the muslims, and they shared their houses and Bread, el Nasara is a term used to show how much islam LOVES these people.

so far, the above three names AREN"T in any way offensive... now let's see what she says that SEEMS offensive:

a- " El Maghdoob 3alehom" (3 denotes a sound unavalible in english) : directly means :"those that are angered upon" meaning wise : "those that God frowns upon, or God is angry at" HOWEVER, this word is NOT used to refer to christians or jews , or even ANYONE in particular, it is used to refer to those that have gone astray and God is angry at, it's part of a prayer that basically is asking God not to be one of those Gone astray... not so evil sounding now is it?

b- "el khanzeer we'll Korooud" : "the monkeys and pigs" (both translations) : Everyone attacks this point for existing... HOWEVER what they don't understand, YES it exists in the Qu'ran but it's telling part of a story.
In the story, Some people angered God so God turned them to Pigs and Monkeys. and yes these people WERE jews. however this story is a story that PREDATES Islam by eons, and it's not used to riducle or attack jews, it's used to show that EVEN followers of God can anger God if they disobey him. in this vein i guess everyone should attack both the bible and the Qu'ran for having mass genocide (Noah's Flood).
are these words used in a bad way? Yes, sometimes by some people THEY ARE USED, but then again, so is the term Sand Nigger.

i can't recall what other names she was "angry at"

7- in NO part of Islam does it call to "Fight non muslims until they believe" in fact, in Part of the Qu'ran, The Prophet was sad that he couldn't get everyone to believe in God, and God told him " I ordered you to Preach to them, NOT to force or convert them,if you can go into the deepest earths or highest heavens, to find something that would make them believe, then do so, If i willed, i would make everyone a believer."

YAY FOR MISINFORMATION! i hope the above passage cleared up the view of "FORCING" someone into a religon, which DOESN"T EXIST in islam. and umais already said, it's spreading in europe and the usa and other western cultures... is anyone FORCING them to convert?

8- Muslims started a culture clash or a clash of civilizations? really? hmm, that's odd... i thought people were doing that for centuries and ages and ages.... even before the existance of muslims.... hmm... anyone care to clarify to me how this is even possible? is it a time paradox of some sort? did some muslim guy invent a time machine or something?

9- as for saying "they're people of all scientific books" yeah, go ahead and ignore all the arab and muslim influences on science... in fact go ahead and ignore the MUSLIM egyptain scientist called "Ahmed Zoweil" who's researches have more or less changed physics for the past few years. yeah.

10- As for her point that no jews burn embassies or kill germans... some probably did, but other than that, did she point out that they've killed and bombed arabs and their holy places?

Maybe she is secular, but she is misinformed in her suggestions that The arabic and muslim world hasn't added anything to the worlds of science. Perhaps not so much in the modern world but they paved the way, pretty much all modern maths (algebra and further concepts of greek geometry) originated in the mid east.

Now on her statement that other peoples (christians, buddhists and jews were what she mentioned) don't commit attrocities for their religions and specifically the Jews who have achieved everything with hardwork and perserverence rather than complaining and murder;

The creation of Israel is the bloodiest blackest event in Jewish history. Not only did they conduct an incredibly violent hostile takeover in 1948 after they were eventually awarded a state, before that time they committed acts of terrorism both in the mid east and on the King David Hotel (a British fortress in Jerusalem) to muscle their way into Palestine.

Another main pivotal argument for the creation of Israel, the rights and respect attained by jews as the speaker suggested, was the holocaust. It is known that the Zionist movement used the holocaust as leverage and continue to defend their actions and label anyone who questions them as antisemetic.

If 50 years ago is too long ago to consider Jewish terrorism as significant then consider everyday of the time since then. Israelis broke into ['Israelis' is wrong, I believe he's referring to Baruch Goldstein] a mosque not too long ago and sprayed hundreds of bullets into the place murdering many not so long ago is just one such example of terror comitted in the name of Israel.

Christians aren't much better, from the Crusades where they roasted babies up to the conflict in Ireland and one can even argue American foreign policy today is Christian aggression.

also be sure not to ignore the recent attack on a church by 3 israeli's (one jewish) (there's an article i posted about it on shoutwire) , the attack on people PRAYING at the Aqsa mosque, the uss liberty, the borrowing that's threatening to make the Aqsa mosque collapse and a million other such attacks... Yes i know not all jews have done this, but hey, since she's generlizing i might as well do the same!

11- Islam says Judgement lies with God only... which is why there is a story in the Qu'ran about a brother that was constently praying, and another that wasn't... the one that was praying went to his brother and told him that he's going to go to hell, in the end it was the brother that was praying all the time that went to hell because he had done more evil even though he was praying at the same time.

12- she is not an atheist, she is a Coptic Christian. [She's defended Copts publicly but is a Syrian of Muslim background] She's well known in egypt.

13- in the videoclip, in arabic, she ATTACKED ALL MUSLIMS, and supported ALL Jews, she did NOT single out extremists in islam.

The point about M.E.M.R.I. being biased has been reiterated by Juan Cole and Dr. Bhaskar Dasgupta. M.E.M.R.I. has a very strong presence on the internet but undeniably has a strong pro-Israel agenda. Not exactly the most balanced source of information on the Arab media.

The NYTimes wrote a somewhat sympathetic piece on Wafa. In it we learn that the killing of one her professors during a vicious anti-Baathist uprising by Muslim militants is the key event that precipitated her questioning of Islam. By the way, this was a vicious uprising on both sides in which Syria's dictator at the time Hafez Al-Assad killed some 10000-40000 dissidents. You can find a somewhat more critical article about Wafa in the LA Times.

According to the NYTimes piece she's already received some death threats.
One message said: "Oh, you are still alive? Wait and see." She received an e-mail message the other day, in Arabic, that said, "If someone were to kill you, it would be me."

Dr. Sultan said her mother, who still lives in Syria, is afraid to contact her directly, speaking only through a sister who lives in Qatar. She said she worried more about the safety of family members here and in Syria than she did for her own.

"I have no fear," she said. "I believe in my message. It is like a million-mile journey, and I believe I have walked the first and hardest 10 miles."

While she's certainly captured a great deal of attention with her provocative statements, will her message have much resonance in the Muslim world? She's won a lot of admirers in the West. One of the many Western blogs bravely 'standing on guard for the free world against Islamofascism' has proclaimed her to be the first Muslim Voltaire. Maybe just a tad premature? ;-) After all Voltaire was a highly regarded intellectual before he ever took on the Christian establishment, was an outstanding scholar of Christianity, and wrote an enormous amount- he wrote over 20000 letters alone not to mention books, pamplets, novels etc. (he would have been a kick-ass blogger). Given that Wafa was born in the middle-east and is fluent in Arabic, she certainly has more credibility than some other 'Westernized' critics of orthodox Islam such as Irshad Manji. She has also won some praise from a few secular Muslims. However, I'm quite certain the majority of Muslims would interpret her message as nothing more than a full frontal assault on their fortress of faith. In their eyes she probably comes across more as dangerously unbalanced, and a 'brainwashed sell-out', rather than rational and brave. In the LA Times article she's quoted as saying "I don't believe you can reform Islam". Her message obviously isn't a constructive reformist one, nor is it truly one of religious tolerance. It's a strong athiest message, it is clear Wafa hopes to tear down the walls of a faith she's come to despise. Sometimes hearing this sort of message can be a good thing, it can help wake the great mass of slumbering and complascent believers. On the other hand, this approach can backfire and end up provoking a vicious backlash. Not to mention it helps to bolster some of the most unfair and one-sided anti-Islamic rhetoriticians that currently flourish in the West. While she does raise very important points about the intolerance and rigidity plaguing contemporary Islam, in my view her repudiation of all things Muslim is driven as much by anger and hatred as it is by reason. The website she started her career as a critic on Annaqed (The Critic), is full of similar enraged anti-Muslim and pro-US rhetoric. I'm partial to a more cold-blooded and synthetic approach to debating the issues- I think it produces a lot more meaningful progress in the long run and less destructive backlash. Even though I wished she toned down the rhetoric and took a more balanced approach, one has to admit her uber-confrontational style has stirred up some discussion among Muslims. Unfortunately, since much of what she says is unbalanced and totally lacking in nuance, it will be easy for critics to pick apart her arguments and ultimately ignore what she has to say.

One of the things this interview clearly demonstrates is that Al-Jazeera is a genuine forum for democractic and open debate. The accusation that they're a mouthpiece for extremists is misleading at best. They allow free debate like no other media outlet in the Arab world. Occassionaly free debate is going to bring up some voices that people won't want to hear but that comes with territory. Open Source recently had a very informative show on Al-Jazeera, you can find it here.

The debates were aired on the Al Jazeera show Al-Itijah Al-Mu'akis, Opposite Directions, a very provocative debate program hosted and put together by Dr. Faisal al-Qassim. The show is notorious for getting extreme voices on different sides of very devisive issues. Apparently this show is hugely popular and has a reputation for debating any issue, no subject or opinion is taboo- as demonstrated by the Sultan video. Ironically, Opposite Directions has been the source of much of the 'unacceptable comments' which have led to government censorship of Al Jazeera. Not only in Iraq but in the West as well. If the West is serious about encouraging free speech in the Muslim world it has to learn to tolerate shows like this. Of course there's going to be some people who espouse a militant Islamist perspective because it exists in the region, but at the same time there will be plenty of voices to argue a pro-Western and reformist ideas. In the end, censorship ends up cutting off debate.

Wafa Sultan's vital R.A.H. stats:

Religious status: Apostate, Secular humanist

Location: Syrian-born, Currently living in Los Angeles.

Raging Against the Mullahs Since:

July, 2005

What Got Her R.A.H. Ball Rolling:

Watching one of her professors being killed by militants from the Muslim Brotherhood.

Exposure Rating (0-10):

In the Muslim world- 5
In the West- 8

Likelihood of Influencing Muslim Reform (0-10):

2, she's declared herself to be non-Muslim. It's not going to win her much influence among the devout majority.

Special Abilities:

Talent for delivering a sustained, eloquent, and forceful rant in hostile territory.


Too much hate behind her words. One-sided, totally lacking in any nuance. Possibly emotionally unstable and probably will allow the anti-Islamists fawning get to her head.

Most provocative quote to date:
The clash we are witnessing around the world is not a clash of religions, or a clash of civilizations. It is a clash between two opposites, between two eras. It is a clash between a mentality that belongs to the Middle Ages and another mentality that belongs to the 21st century. It is a clash between civilization and backwardness, between the civilized and the primitive, between barbarity and rationality. It is a clash between freedom and oppression, between democracy and dictatorship. It is a clash between human rights, on the one hand, and the violation of these rights, on other hand. It is a clash between those who treat women like beasts, and those who treat them like human beings. What we see today is not a clash of civilizations. Civilizations do not clash, but compete.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Bush Announces Energy Breakthrough??

Bush recently announced that the US is on the verge of startling new energy breakthroughs.

This is the most entertaining part of the whole article:

On Tuesday, Bush plans to visit the Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., to talk about speeding the development of biofuels.

The lab, with a looming $28 million budget shortfall, had announced it was cutting its staff by 32 people, including eight researchers. But in advance of Bush's visit, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman over the weekend directed the transfer of $5 million to the private contractor that runs the lab, so the jobs can be saved.

Great strategy shrub. Get all those research labs lean, mean and downsized so they'll be all primed to pump out the next revolutionary energy breakthrough. Right.You can find a copy of Shrub's speech to the funding starved NREL here.

You probably don't need to hear this but it's worth repeating. Scientific research under Bush has been
highly politicized and funding hasn't kept pace since he came to power. His record on funding research and development in the area of alternative energy isn't any better than his funding of research in general.
Despite the hoopla of the president's whirlwind tour, and his promises of more federal dollars in the future, the nation's premier center for research into wind, solar, and ethanol energy labors under a shrunken budget at a time when consumers are facing record-high prices for fossil fuels. Regardless of the last-minute move that allowed NREL to hire back its fired workers, the center's funding is down 11 percent from last year, and Bush's proposed budget would not even restore the lab to 2005 levels.

So why is Bush hyping up alternative energy all of a sudden? Is he privy to some earth-shaking new tech developments that will come to fruition with a bit more funding? I highly doubt it. More than likely he's just talking up some minor tech developments in order to stave off criticism from the energy independence crowd. The beneficial environmental and security effects of alternative energy development can't reasonably be denied even by the most rabid and cynical of the neocons. Another likely reason for hyping-up alternative energy developments is the need to make pre-emptive maneuvers to appease a furious US electorate in the event of $100 a barrel oil. If oil prices do rise that high, and the average citizen gets drained every time they go to the pump, feeding them dreams about a glorious alternative energy future is better than nothing. At least Shrub will be able to say he's doing something about the problem. Probably a smart idea considering the midterm elections are about half a year away.

I wonder how much further alternative energy would be if Gore were elected in 2000. I'm pretty certain he would have massively increased funding in this area after 9-11. Well presuming it would have happened on his watch ;-)

Sunday, March 12, 2006

More Political Quizzes

Here's a couple more political quizzes.

This one is from the Fraser Institute. Basically a Canadian version of the Shortest Political Quiz in the world I had a link to in the previous post. Again, I view is it as how a libertarian would see your particular political ideology.

Here's another one from the US, from a website called Politopia. According to that one I'm socially liberal and in favour of bigger government. The most interesting part of the quiz tells you what part of the US agrees most with your political views. Apparently I should be living in California.

I thought this next quiz was actually the best of the lot. It's pretty similar to the one from Politopia but I think it's little more thoughtfully put together. It tries a little harder to get at the underlying attitudes that ultimately determine your political views rather than just listing off a bunch of very specific issues. You can find it here on the Political Compass website. Here's an explanation of the test and how I scored on it.

About The Political Compass
In the introduction, we explained the inadequacies of the traditional left-right line.

If we recognize that this is essentially an economic line it's fine, as far as it goes. We can show, for example, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung and Pol Pot, with their commitment to a totally controlled economy, on the hard left. Socialists like Mahatma Gandhi and Robert Mugabe would occupy a less extreme leftist position. Margaret Thatcher would be well over to the right, but further right still would be someone like that ultimate free marketeer, General Pinochet.
That deals with economics, but the social dimension is also important in politics. That's the one that the mere left-right scale doesn't adequately address. So we've added one, ranging in positions from extreme authoritarian to extreme libertarian.
Both an economic dimension and a social dimension are important factors for a proper political analysis. By adding the social dimension you can show that Stalin was an authoritarian leftist (ie the state is more important than the individual) and that Gandhi, believing in the supreme value of each individual, is a liberal leftist. While the former involves state-imposed arbitary collectivism in the extreme top left, on the extreme bottom left is voluntary collectivism at regional level, with no state involved. Hundreds of such anarchist communities exisited in Spain during the civil war period.
You can also put Pinochet, who was prepared to sanction mass killing for the sake of the free market, on the far right as well as in a hardcore authoritarian position. On the non-socialist side you can distinguish someone like Milton Friedman, who is anti-state for fiscal rather than social reasons, from Hitler, who wanted to make the state stronger, even if he wiped out half of humanity in the process.
The chart also makes clear that, despite popular perceptions, the opposite of fascism is not communism but anarchism (ie liberal socialism), and that the opposite of communism ( i.e. an entirely state-planned economy) is neo-liberalism (i.e. extreme deregulated economy).
The usual understanding of anarchism as a left wing ideology does not take into account the neo-liberal "anarchism" championed by the likes of Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman and America's Libertarian Party, which couples law of the jungle right-wing economics with liberal positions on most social issues. Often their libertarian impulses stop short of opposition to strong law and order positions, and are more economic in substance (ie no taxes) so they are not as extremely libertarian as they are extremely right wing. On the other hand, the classical libertarian collectivism of anarcho-syndicalism ( libertarian socialism) belongs in the bottom left hand corner.

Here's my score

Your political compass
Economic Left/Right: -1.13
Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -4.15

According to the test this means I'm basically in the center on the economic scale, and pretty far towards the Libertarian side on the social scale.

Here's a couple graphs showing how the 'professional team' of the political compass website ranked some famous figures. The first graph shows how they rated the various Canadian political parties in the last election. The second graph shows how they ranked contemporary political figures. The third if their highly speculative ranking of the political views of composers. I get the feeling their test is a little too skewed towards the libertarian and left sides of the scale, but they're some interesting results nonetheless.

Hat tip to Eugene Plawiuk over at the Revue Gauche for pointing out Political Compass test.

Those Old Fashioned Values

Recently read one of the most famous quotes attributed to Genghis Khan. Found it an interesting book called The Empire of Debt (I plan on writing a review on this book sometime soon). I think the anecdote speaks for itself:

One of the Khan's generals commented that the sweetest pleasure in life was practising the art of falconry. This was Genghis' reply:
No, you are mistaken. Man's greatest good fortune is to chase and defeat his enemy, seize his total possessions, leave his married women weeping and wailing, ride his gelding and use the bodies of his women as a nightshirt and support.

Ahh, the good old days, when real men were maurading murdering rapists. Fortunately, people have changed. Or have they really? I think it's more accurate to say that the basic human instincts are the same, but are channeled in more productive directions by 'civilized' rules of engagement. In the long run it's better for everyone involved to slay their opponents in the market place, or in a debate, than to actually fire an arrow into to their eyesocket. I have to admit though, there are times when the latter would be far more rewarding in the short-term ;-)

For those of you not familiar with Genghis' wonderful record here's my very brief summary. The 12th and 13th century are often called the "Age of the Mongols". The Mongol armies during that time were extremely well organized, using the classic central Asian steppe warrior tactics lethally combining superb horsemanship with deadly accurate archery skills. Genghis was clever enough to use blitz and withdraw tactics in the field and was able to learn how to conduct seige warfare mainly during his conquest of Chinese cities. Genghis conquered and laid waste to Northern China, Central Asia, and 'Persia'. He had a habit of completely annihilating entire cities usually when they offered any sort of resistance to his armies. But on occasion he slaughtered entire cities even if they didn't resist because 'he had no use for them' (particularly in areas of modern-day western Afghanistan, areas which never fully recovered from the Mongol depredations). His offspring continued his legacy laying waste to much of the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and his blood could be found running through the veins of later mass-murdering conquerors such as Tamerlane. His conquests laid the foundations of the largest land empire in the history of the world. The death toll (by battle, massacre, and famine) of the Mongol wars of conquest has been placed as high as 40-60 million, up to one fifth of the world's population at the time.

And what's the reward for being one of mankind's greatest butchers. Here's a passage from the Wikipedia entry on Genghis:

Historians and scientists are looking into positive aspects of Genghis Khan's conquests. Genghis Khan, successor Khans and Mongols are credited to bringing the Silk Route under one cohesive political environment... Genghis Khan is ranked #29 on Michael H. Hart's list of the most influential people in history. An article that appeared in the Washington Post on December 31, 1995 selected Genghis Khan as "Man of the Millenium".

Splendid idea, since there's no longer any full-blooded visceral record of his crimes (i.e. since there was no one with a camera to capture what an entire city of people being slaughtered by hand looks like), let's glorify him as a great empire builder. The ivory-tower dwelling sophists that come up with these types of arguments are the same sort who argue that war can be a good thing when it stimulates a moribund economy, or the black death was ultimately for the best since it helped to bring on the renaissance. Don't believe a word of this Panglossian nonsense. If someone dropped a nuke on London I'm sure you could find some positive consequences after the fact. Word of advice for future rampaging conquerors, make sure you win. The old adage of the winner writing history is true. But probably a more accurate way of putting it, any winner with any sort of lasting constructive legacy is always viewed kindly by history- no matter how much they destroyed to establish their dominance. After all, the ruler usually gets a good chunk of the credit for anything positive happening during their reign.

But what was the biggest prize was for good old Genghis, this great sower of human misery:

The authors of a paper published in 2003 identified a Y-chromosomal lineage present in about 8% of the men (or about 0.5% of the men in the world if extrapolated) in a large region of Asia stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Caspian Sea...The authors propose that the lineage is carried by likely male-line descendents of Genghis Khan, and that it has spread not through any biological advantage, but through social selection resulting from their behavior.

The quote from Genghis doesn't just reveal the mindset of one man, but it reveals some of the 'values' most men living in a conquering warrior society would have held. It isn't just pleasurable, but somehow a good thing for the most savage and strong to exterminate (or at least dominate) the peaceful and weak. It's certainly hackneyed, but it's undeniable that much of human history is a litany of horrors and outrages. It's an important reminder to all the gloomy cynics out there: for the most part, the world used to be a much more wretched place for human beings than it is now. Despite all the talk of inhumanity and decadence of our modern age, we're largely shielded from the ugliest side of the life. We only catch glimpses of what real human depravity is vicariously. The vast majority of us only see the tip of the iceberg in our day to day interactions with others.

A lot of you are probably thinking to yourself: Why is he bringing up all this ancient history?? First of all, I think it shows that those who look to the past for a some golden-age better than the one we live in are deluded. I'm definitely not saying that history can't teach us anything, on the contrary it shows how humans behave in a variety of circumstances- it reveals a great deal about human nature. The genetic legacy of Genghis Khan is as clear a demonstration as any that our human heritage is largely a product of the most ruthless and savage triumphing over those with more gentle temperaments. In other words, much of human nature has been inherited from the most savage competitors in life and death zero-sum contests. Of course, some of human nature is also a product of those who successfully learned to cooperate with each other as well. We do derive much of our inheritance from those likeable backslapping ancestors who had amenable and ingratiating characteristics. The inner savage can be noble and generous but also hideously cruel as well. In my view, it is clear that much of human morality is about promoting 'the greater good' over the natural selfish, base, and destructive human instincts that lie in all of us. Natural impulses are not necessarily good. This idea was eloquently presented in Robert Wright's The Moral Animal, I highly recommend it.

Believe it or not, I'm an optimist. The constructive side of humanity has been winning over time, the progress of civilization is a testament to that (Actually, Robert Wright wrote another great book exactly on that topic called NonZero). But we shouldn't forget from where we came from...and what we always have to potential to return to.

For a humourous take on good old fashioned male warrior values, check out Gary Brecher's article (one those wretched souls over at the Exile), on how an old fashioned Dane might have dealt with the whole Muhammad cartoon kerfuffle.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Virtual Tour: Scenes From Rural China

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Libertarian Quizzes

Here's a link to the Web's shortest political quiz. Basically, it tells you how a libertarian ideologue would classify your political beliefs.

This is what it said about my score:

You fall exactly on the border
of two political philosophies...


LIBERALS usually embrace freedom of choice in personal
matters, but tend to support significant government control of the
economy. They generally support a government-funded "safety net"
to help the disadvantaged, and advocate strict regulation
of business. Liberals tend to favor environmental regulations,
defend civil liberties and free expression, support government action
to promote equality, and tolerate diverse lifestyles.

LIBERTARIANS support maximum liberty in both personal
and economic matters. They advocate a much smaller government;
one that is limited to protecting individuals from coercion
and violence. Libertarians tend to embrace individual
responsibility, oppose government bureaucracy and taxes,
promote private charity, tolerate diverse lifestyles, support the
free market, and defend civil liberties.
Your PERSONAL issues Score is 90%.
Your ECONOMIC issues Score is 50%.
(Please note: Scores falling on the Centrist border are counted as Centrist.)

Here's a longer test assessing you're 'Libertarian Purity'.

This was my scoring range:

31-50 points: Your libertarian credentials are obvious. Doubtlessly you will become more extreme as time goes on.

I used to have more centrist-liberal views, but have been becoming more libertarian over time. I guess it's starting to show ;-)

The Ten Lego Wonders of the World

A list of the world's greatest lego creations. My favorites are the Lego Car and Pinball game, and the lego sculpture of Han Solo trapped in carbonite.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Marc Faber: Dr. Gloom and Doom on the Weakness of the US Economy and Investing

Here's some very gloomy economic analysis from Dr. Marc Faber, a famous Swiss-born and educated economist, who has lived in Asia for the past several decades. He has a reputation as a solid economic prognosticator due to a track record of being able to deliver accurate assessments on when economic bubbles are forming and are likely to burst. Dr. Faber has long held contrarian views on the economy and investing, and strongly believes in the necessity of the gold standard as a means of stabilizing and properly valuing paper currency. I have a great deal of respect for his views, and think they are well worth considering for anyone interested in economics and how to manage whatever assets they have. While I find many of his arguments compelling, I am somewhat skeptical about the degree of his economic pessimism- he really thinks a major economic catastrophe is about to unfold.

My first link is an audio interview of Marc Faber by Jim Puplava on the Financial Sense Newshour. Here's a brief summary of his major points:

- Loose monetary policy, and the subsequent indebtedness of the United States, will lead to the devaluation of the US dollar and hyperinflation in the US economy. Predictably, these economic phenomenon will lead to a major economic downturn in the US economy- one in which the current world hyperpower may never fully recover from.

- The US Dollar will most probably undergo a major 'correction', with its price declining in particular to commodities, and especially declining relative to precious metals such as gold.

- Inflation is going to come about largely because it is in the interest of the wealthiest 1% of the population. The very wealthiest benefit from asset (stock, bonds, real estate) inflation which is what is currently occurring due to loose monetary policy. Since the 'oligarchic' elites benefit from the present policy, they are likely to use their political influence to delay necessary changes to US fiscal policy. Delaying the 'correction' will only make the coming economic crash more dramatic.

- While he wouldn't be surprised if commodity prices drop in the near term, in the long run we are likely to see a bullish trend since Asian demand for raw materials will increase as their consumer markets expand. In addition, investors will flock to commodities in order to preserve their wealth during the coming period of major instability in fiat currencies and asset prices (the traditional outlets for the world's capital).

- For many years to come the best investment opportunities will be in the booming economies of Asia. It's important to diversify your assets around the world, and not a good idea to hold all your money in one bank or in one country.

A more detailed presentation of his argument can be found in the article I've pasted at the bottom of this post. It might be somewhat hard to digest for novices on macroeconomic issues and monetary policy, but it's definitely worth a careful read. You can find quite a lot more intriguing and informative analysis on Marc Faber's Gloomboomdoom website. This is a link to the very latest opinion piece from Marc Faber, where he finds more economic indicators to make us worry, pointing out signs of a fast approaching decline in US stocks. Here's another interesting link from Dr. Faber's website related to Asian investing. Dr. Faber argues that Taiwanese stocks may prove be an excellent investment for several decades to come. This of course highlights his argument that the best opportunities for capitalists have shifted to Asia (i.e. allocating your capital to Asian investments will give you much greater returns).

Since I'm throwing out all these dismal econ links, I might as well point you towards a few other similar websites. Some very gloomy macro/monetary and investing news presented with a good dose of humour can be found on the daily reckoning website. Another fantastic resource for finding gloomy news related to the world economy, energy consumption, and out-of-control fiscal policy is The Energy Bulletin website. Here's a fairly well-researched paper written by devoted gold-bugs making predictions on the possible long-term increases in gold prices due to the Fed's loose monetary policy. Finally, here is one of the best Macroeconomic blogs out there, by Brad Setser with a critical perspective on US monetary policy. And finally I'd be remiss if I didn't include a link on the most obvious sign of excess liquidity sloshing around the US asset markets.

If anyone else out there has some interesting and relevant links to share by all means post a link in the messages (but only relevant links- no spam please). I particularly welcome any links to any well-articulated counter arguments to all this gloomy gold-standard-loving, anti-fiat currency, economic analysis.

This Marc Faber article was originally posted on the Whiskey and Gunpowder website:

Fed Rate Hikes: A Roadmap to Financial Ruin
by Dr. Marc Faber
Whiskey & Gunpowder
Chiangmai, Thailand
November 23, 2005

FOR AS LONG as the Fed perceives the economy to be healthy, it is almost a certainty that it will continue to increase the Fed fund rate in baby steps to between 4.25% and 4.50%, and possibly even higher. Some observers believe that in order to gain credibility, Mr. Bernanke will increase rates more aggressively than Mr. Greenspan intended.

However, the economy is most likely far less healthy than what Fed officials believe. Plunging consumer confidence and especially the Consumer Optimism Index's expectations seem to confirm this point (see the chart below). (The Consumer Optimism Index, compiled by Ed Yardeni, is the average of the Consumer Sentiment and Consumer Confidence indexes.) Note the close correlation between the Consumer Optimism Index and stock prices in the past, which would under normal circumstances suggest a significant downside risk for equities in the near term.

Fed Rate Hikes: Expansionary Monetary Policy

But here is my point: the market participants may be beginning to anticipate that the Fed will shortly (in the next three to six months) wake up to the fact that the economy isn't as healthy as it thought. And once the Fed notices, home prices will decline (as is indicated by the sharp drop in the shares of homebuilding companies), and consumer spending will stall or even decline moderately. Mr. Bernanke, whose principal concern is deflation, will immediately cut interest rates again and move to an expansionary monetary policy.

Depending on the Fed's view on the impending threat of asset deflation and its negative consequences for the economy, the money-printing press could, in this phase two of our roadmap to the next severe recession, possibly run at full speed. This renewed monetary easing is likely to stabilize asset prices. This is what the stock market may now already be discounting by not selling off and following the Consumer Optimism Index on the downside. However, in phase two of our roadmap to ruin, two new trends will likely become more persistent.

From the chart below, courtesy of Barry Bannister of Legg Mason, we can see that, in the past, upturns in commodity prices have always led to upturns in the Consumer Price Index, while downturns in commodity prices have always led to declining consumer prices - except for the period post-Second World War when, after 1980, declining commodity prices only led to a deceleration of consumer price increases (disinflation, as opposed to deflation). Why was the pattern of declining commodity prices bringing down consumer prices broken after 1980? Very rapid money supply growth and unprecedented budget deficits in peacetime led to rapid debt growth, which prevented consumer prices from deflating.

From yet another chart below, we can see that following Paul Volker's monetary squeeze of 1979/ 1980, money supply growth exploded in the period 1982-1986. I would argue that if money supply hadn't exploded at the time, it is likely that we might have experienced for the first time since the Second World War declining consumer prices for several years in a row. (This would certainly have been the case under a gold standard.) Note that whereas in 1983 most economists, including Milton Friedman, expected consumer price inflation to reaccelerate - based on the rapidly expanding money supply - it didn't happen, as inflation had moved away from consumer price increases to asset inflation (bonds, stocks, and real estate).

There were at the time two main reasons for the moderation in consumer price inflation. First, as can be seen from the second chart, commodity prices tumbled after 1980, which certainly removed some inflationary pressures for consumer goods prices. In addition, as a result of rapidly growing US consumption, Asian manufactured goods began to flood the US market and pressured at least manufactured goods prices.

This trend has continued, as Chinese imports began to increase very rapidly in the 1990s. Rising imports of low-cost Chinese goods then led to import price deflation and contained wage increases in the developed world. The trend to declining wages in real terms gained momentum in the last few years as more and more high-value services became tradable and allowed their outsourcing to countries such as India.

We can therefore say that, in the 1980s and 1990s, the developed world enjoyed the tailwind of declining commodity prices and the outsourcing of production and services to low-cost countries, which, despite easy monetary policies, didn't lead to rising consumer price inflation. (Other factors contributing to disinflation were the peace dividend, privatizations, and aggressive cost-cutting measures by the corporate sector and - not to be forgotten - declining interest rates, which reduced the financing costs of companies.)

Fed Rate Hikes: Demand will Exceed Supply

But the next time the Fed embarks on a massive liquidity creating exercise (such as the one Mr. Greenspan implemented following the Nasdaq collapse in 2000), these favorable conditions may no longer be in place. For one thing, it is evident that the commodity cycle has turned up (see Figure 6). And while I don't rule out a meaningful correction for industrial commodity prices, it would seem to me that the dynamics of demand and supply as a result of the growing need for commodities from countries such as India and China, which are in the process of industrializing at breakneck speed, are so vast that, in the absence of a global deflationary depression, the demand will structurally exceed supplies - especially for energy - for years to come.

Therefore, my view would be that we are at the beginning of a long-term upward wave in commodity prices that could last for another 15 to 20 years. (Commodity cycles, also called Kondratieff cycles - see the second chart-- tend to last between 45 and 60 years from peak to peak.) Also, one should consider that whereas industrial commodity prices look stretched and vulnerable at present, many soft commodities such as cotton and agricultural commodities have not yet participated in the commodity cycle upturn. Their future rise could cushion - at least to some extent - any medium-term decline in industrial commodity prices.

So, whereas declining commodity prices provided expansionary monetary policies with a tailwind between 1980 and 2000, from here on their price increase could become a strong headwind. (In September the CPI increased by 4.7%.) As far as the benefits from low-cost imports and the outsourcing of services are concerned, it is debatable whether import prices will continue to deflate. I have no doubt that China and India are both at the beginning of huge market share gains in the production of goods and the provision of high-value services, which will keep some pressure on prices and wages in the Western world.

In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if, one day, Chinese exports were to make up 25-30% of the world's total exports, up from around 12% currently, and if research facilities in India were to account for a huge chunk of global R&D spending and any imaginable tradable services. But therein lies precisely the threat to higher global inflation rates, for two reasons. If both India and China are so successful at gaining global market share in export markets and in tradable services, their demand for natural resources - especially energy - could increase possibly far more than even the commodity bulls anticipate and pressure prices to far higher levels than we expect.

Moreover, if both China and India - not to mention a host of other countries such as Russia, other former Soviet Union states, and Vietnam - are so successful at hollowing out the economies of the Western world and especially the US, what will the governments of these "economically threatened" countries do? They will try to force these new competitors on the block to revalue their currencies in order to make them less competitive. Should this fail, however, or succeed only partially, the central bankers of the Western world will print money and debase their own currencies (competitive devaluation).

Fed Rate Hikes: The Temptation of Mr. Bernanke

This will be particularly tempting for Mr. Bernanke, who believes that budget and current account deficits don't matter, as well as for US policymakers, since 90% of Americans don't have a passport and so wouldn't even notice that the dollar was losing value against foreign currencies.

Moreover, since the foreign indebtedness of the US is denominated in US dollars, at first sight the easy monetary policies by the Fed which are designed to lower the value of the dollar against its principal economic competitor and geopolitical arch-rival, China, which owns a big chunk of the American debt in the form of foreign exchange reserves, would seem to punish China most. (The Japanese would also be punished, but, feeling threatened by China, they would go along with any economic policy that could hurt China.)

As we have seen above in our roadmap to the next severe recession, the Fed will, in phase one, continue to increase short-term rates in baby steps. In phase two, when the Fed realizes that the economy is weaker than expected, it will reverse its tightening bias, cut rates, and ease massively. Along the way, it will blame the undervalued Chinese currency, which gives China an unfair competitive advantage for the soft patch in the US economy.

However, as I have tried to explain above, a policy where the Fed eases in the upward phase of the long-term commodity cycle, and with the US recording such large current account deficits and a staggering negative net asset balance that requires foreigners to acquire at least US$2 billion of US debts every day, could backfire very badly.

For one, it is far from certain that the coming soft patch in the economy - whenever it comes and however severe it turns out to be - will be accompanied by moderating upward pressures on consumer prices and wages. Commodity prices may possibly remain firm or ease only moderately, or some import price inflation may become visible. It is also conceivable that wages for employees in the service sector whose services are not tradable will rise more rapidly than in the past in order not to let wage increases fall behind the rate of consumer price inflation. (The vast majority of service jobs, such as those in the hospitality industry, retail, fast food, health and beauty care, government, and so on, are not tradable and, therefore, are immune from being outsourced to foreign countries.)

Moreover, since Mr. Bernanke's main concern will be deflation of asset prices - in particular, homes - it is likely that the money-printing press will be turned on at full throttle. In any event, I suspect that once monetary policies reverse from a modest tightening bias, such as we have had over the past year or so, to an easing bias, the dollar and the bond market will begin to weaken in earnest. In fact, the weakening bond market may have already begun to discount this coming easing bias and its inflationary implications.

Fed Rate Hikes: Crisis of Confidence

In addition, I simply cannot believe that foreign creditors will forever accumulate US dollars when they realize that there is no will at all among US policy-makers to redress what are, in the long run, unsustainable external imbalances. Whether it is at that point of phase two of our roadmap to the next serious recession that the dollar will collapse against gold or foreign currencies is debatable,

but some crisis of confidence in the dollar is almost a certainty. The weakness of the dollar, even at a time of a soft economy, will likely lead to some upward pressure on US interest rates. This could force the Fed to ease more than it originally intended in order to support the asset markets.
At this stage, dollar weakness, rising commodity prices, and rising import prices could lift the rate of consumer price increases and the yield on long-term bonds above the rate of asset and wage inflation (declining asset prices and wages in real terms). If that were to occur, the economy wouldn't benefit from the easier monetary policies at all. Moderate stagflation would follow. In this situation of poor or no economic growth but modest inflation, the Fed will likely opt for an all-out assault to revitalize growth with its monetary tools and massively monetize with "extraordinary measures".

This would occur in phase three of our roadmap to ruin. Asset prices would then rise in dollar terms, but decline in terms of gold or - if there still existed any - hard currencies. In phase three, I wouldn't rule out that the Dow Jones could rise to 36,000 (see James Glassman, Dow 36,000, New York, 1999) or 40,000 (see David Elias, Dow 40,000, New York, 1999), or 100,000 (see Charles W. Kadlec, Dow 100,000: Fact or Fiction, New York, 1999).

As an aside, I bought all three of these books to add to my "financial curiosities" collection. Note that they were all published in 1999. However, in gold terms, the Dow - no matter how high it will rise in dollar terms (even to 100 million) - will most likely decline to a Dow/ gold ratio of around 10. See the chart below, which shows how many ounces of gold are required to buy one Dow Jones Industrial.)

So, if the Dow were to rise to 36,000 as a result of massive money printing, the price of gold would rise to $3,600 in order to achieve a Dow/gold ratio of 10. I might add that at present the Dow/ gold ratio is still very high by historical standards and could, in an extreme crisis of confidence, decline to around 1, as was the case in the 1930s and in 1980 . With the Dow at 36,000, this would mean an ounce of gold would sell for $36,000 as well!

In this third phase of our roadmap to economic and financial ruin, consumer price inflation and interest rates will be extremely high (hyperinflation). The economy, however, will slump, as wage increases will badly lag behind the rate of asset and consumer price inflation. In phase three, wealth inequity will reach extremes and lead to a breakdown of American society's social fabric. At the beginning of phase three, foreign exchange controls will be imposed and the ownership of gold will be declared illegal.

Also, oil and gold companies could at this point be appropriated and nationalized. (If not, we can be sure that an excess profit tax will be imposed.) In this phase all dollar bills below $100 in face value will have been retired and will be sought after as curiosities and collectors' items. Phase three will be an age of "penniless billionaires". There are currently more than 300 billionaires in the US, compared to fewer than 10 in 1980. The likelihood of a major war breaking out will be highest during this phase. Religious and racial intolerance will become dangerous, as the government will need to blame a minority for the "Schlamassel" (mess) it has created.

Now, I know that some readers will be questioning my sanity. However, what I am describing is already well under way. I am grateful to Barron's for having published recently a figure that shows the loss of purchasing power of the US dollar in the last 100 years (see the chart below). The figure is actually the reciprocal pattern displayed by the price of gold. As the price of gold rises, the value of the dollar declines.

Barron's explains that the log scale in the chart "of the purchasing power of the dollar begins with an index value of 100 at the passage of the Mint Act of 1792. The solid lines present periods when the dollar was convertible into a quantity of gold, and the fluctuations represent changes in the purchasing power of gold." Note that the purchasing power of gold increased in the deflationary periods, or commodity downward waves, of 1814-1845, 1864-1895, and 1921-1942 - a subject Fred Sheehan discussed in a report entitled "Gold and 'Flations."

Barron's continues: [T]he dotted lines present periods when the dollar was not pegged to gold, during and after the War of 1812, the Civil War, World War I and World War II. There was limited convertibility from 1945 to 1971, but the dollar lost purchasing power during the period. The link between the U.S. currency and gold was cut in 1971 and the loss of purchasing power accelerated. By 2004, the dollar had lost more than 92% of its original purchasing power. (Emphasis added)

What is interesting about the dollar's long-term chart is that for as long as there was no Federal Reserve, the dollar maintained its purchasing power (1800-1913). But once the Federal Reserve Board came into existence, and especially after the link between the US dollar and gold was cut in 1971, the dollar's value began to slide in earnest. My point is simply this: the last time around it took 100 years for the dollar to lose 92% of its purchasing power. But with Mr. Bernanke at the Fed, it won't take another 100 years for the same to happen again! From here on, events will unfold at a rapid pace. This is a high-confidence prediction.

As a commentator recently remarked, Mr. Bernanke was moved from the Board of Governors at the Fed to become the Chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisors four months ago, "bringing him inside the White House for a while so that the President could become comfortable with him before his appointment as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board was made". Correct. The President had to be absolutely sure that Mr. Bernanke was really serious about the Fed's power to print money and, in emergencies, to drop dollar bills from a helicopter in order to finance this administration's ill-fated military follies and alarmingly rising debts which are fuelling asset inflation and financing excessive US consumption. So much for the Fed's independence!

Fed Rate Hikes: Nero's Devaluation of the Denarius

Following Nero's first devaluation of the denarius in AD 54, when he reduced the coin's silver content from 100% to 94%, it took almost 200 years for the denarius to lose around 70% of its value. In AD 244, under Gordian, the denarius still had a silver content of 28%. (Without machines that can print paper money, there are some physical limitations on how fast new coins with a lower and lower silver content can be issued and distributed throughout an empire.

With electronic money, this constraint doesn't exist.) However, during the following 24 years the rate of depreciation of the denarius accelerated, and by AD 268, under Claudius Gothicus, the denarius had a silver content of just 0.02% (a 99.9% loss of value in 24 years)! I might add that the deflationists will tell you that the purchasing power of money will increase.

But if you look at the dollar's long-term chart, how likely is this? In my opinion, at least in this instance, the trend of the dollar's and other paper money's diminishing purchasing power will, for now, remain by far your best friend. At the end of phase three, the system will break down. A major financial reform will become unavoidable. A gold standard will be reintroduced.

A deflationary stabilisation crisis will follow in phase four of our road to financial fiasco. Large segments of the population will be totally impoverished. Smart hedge fund managers will all have sold their businesses to banks and will have left the US to live in the Caribbean, Brazil, Singapore, or Thailand, while members of the Federal Reserve Board will either be in jail or defending themselves from class action suits in costly litigations in courts of law.

In the meantime, as John Law once fled France to settle in England in a luxurious home (which was later burned down), Ben Bernanke will flee the US in a hurry; unlike Mr. Law, however, he won't even be able to afford to buy a shed with his billions of worthless dollars.

Marc Faber