Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Mardi Maigre

Spare a thought for the residents of New Orleans today. Life is hard in the Big Easy.

And parts of Mississippi are much worse off. The death toll in Biloxi alone may run into the hundreds.

Update: Wed, Aug 31. 2:50pm.

"We know there is a significant number of dead bodies in the water ... and others dead in attics." New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said. Asked how many, he said: "Minimum, hundreds. Most likely, thousands." From an AP story

Monday, August 29, 2005

Slabs of Marvel

For those of you who can see the right-hand column of my blog* there is a section of links under the heading Military Blogs. These are blogs that are either authored by members of the military or by writers embedded with the military in either Iraq or Afghanistan. The contents of this list will change from time to time as new blogs catch my attention. Occasionally I will mention some of these new blogs in a posting such as this one.

* One regular reader has told me he has trouble with his browser such that my blog doesn't have a right-hand column.

Today's MilBlog of interest is Life in X Minor written by a young man in Afghanistan. He is on the right in the photo above which I found in his flikr gallery. His most recent posting as I write this -- Michaelangelo -- offers his philosophy about how we are shaped by adversity and created by our enemies. It contains, among other things, one of my all-time favorite typos.
Only through conflict of the self versus everyone and everything do we learn anything about ourselves. Your strength of will against the whole fucking world. Like a slab of marvel in the hands of Michaelangelo.
[In fairness I should point out that the word marble appears several times in the piece correctly spelled and he was clearly betrayed by a missed mouse-click in his spell checker.]

Xavier (as I believe his name to be) is a good writer with interesting things to say about his experiences. When he is in a serious mood -- as in Michaelangelo -- he can be a bit overmatched by his topic, but when he writes a funny piece he is really good. As examples, consider The Afghan Sauna or Full Body Massage [Caution: indelicate language and subject matter... but funny.]

Life in X Minor is fairly typical of military blogs written by deployed soldiers. The stop-and-go nature of military in-theater life -- occasional actions interspersed by long periods of boredom -- are an ideal environment for blogging and many of the blogs are well worth reading.

This same stop-and-go pace often means that they can't post on a regular schedule and I worry about them during these hiatuses. In most cases they have just been busy, or deployed somewhere without an internet connection, but in some cases the reason for the interruption are more serious -- sometimes tragic. I was a a regular reader of Steven Vincent's blog -- In the Red Zone -- and his articles in the New York Times and National Review Online and I was deeply saddened to hear that he had been killed -- murdered by gunmen who were most likely linked to the corrupt Shiite police forces he had recently criticised in the Times.

I think everyone who feels the need to have an opinion about the War on Terror should read the occasional military blog. It is terribly difficult to get a clear view of what is going on in Iraq or Afghanistan (or London for that matter) when the media pundits on both sides are spinning the story so strongly this way or that. Of course the soldiers in the field also have their opinions -- their slant on things -- but I think their first-hand experience and having their butts on the line should buy them some credibility. They have earned the right to a little torque of their own in spin city.

A good place to start with military blogs is The Mudville Gazette -- the uberblog of the MilBlogs which is both a decent blog in itself and a great source of links to what other MilBloggers are writing. It is through the Mudville Gazette that I found many of my favorite blogs -- things like 365 and a Wake Up that I read regularly and include among the links on the elusive right-hand-side of my page.

If you are like me, reading some of the blogs I have mentioned here will leave you impressed with the intellegence, talent, bravery and thoughtfullness of the men and women who serve in our military. They are slabs of marvel to be sure -- each and every one.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Please find a way to spend money...

... on The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (or some other Larry Blamire work.) Buying the DVD would be easiest since the film got limited release and is hard to find in a theater to spend money on tickets. Blamire also wrote "Robin Hood" -- a comic take on Robin and his band, written primarily for performance by troops of young actors -- which seems to be everywhere (it's fun and the royalties are quite reasonable). Spending money to see that would help, too.

You can read a bit about Blamire in an interview on Joe Mammy's site and on the notes page of the Steam Wars site.

The reason you must spend money on his work is that I am desperate to see Steam Wars actually get made and a bit more money associated with his projects might help him get a bit more traction.

Do read the links above, even if you are not in a position to spend money on Lost Skeleton right now. Blamire is an interesting guy. He started as a SF and comics illustrator (Steam Wars concept painting image is his work) and has had an interesting and varied career. Who knows what would happen if his limitless creativity were to be enhansed by just a bit more money.

Images are links to the sites for the projects they are taken from.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Blogger Ben on the Iraqi Constitution*

In his posting of September 17th, 1787 proto-blogger Ben Franklin writes:

I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other. I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the Builders of Babel; and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another's throats.

It's interesting to notice the date on his posting: September 1787 is a bit more than eleven years after the Declaration of Independence. This sort of thing takes time.

Since my last posting I have had an opportunity to read excerpts from the proposed draft of the Iraqi constitution. The good news on that front is that there is quite a bit more punch in the punchbowl than I had expected. The wording designed to soothe the sensibilities of the would-be theocrats is there and is very broadly worded -- but the protections against their excesses are also there and are very specific and clear.

* OK, you're right -- he isn't actually writing about the Iraqi constitution -- but he might as well have been. His full text is here.

Monday, August 22, 2005

The Iraqi Constitution

Updates below. Fri, Aug 26

The Iraqis are this close to the first draft of their constitution and nobody is happy about it. The Sunnis are decidedly unhappy (which, come to think of it may be a good thing, on balance.) The Kurds are pretty grumpy about it. The Shiites are dissatisfied although they are the ones closest to getting what they want from it. The Americans are not happy about the wording of several parts, and by all accounts the Iraqi electorate may not go along with it. The situation is a mess.

This, of course, is nothing like we wanted and is also exactly what we wanted. It's called Democracy -- and it's hardly ever pretty. In a country as deeply divided as Iraq you simply must expect that their constitutional punchbowl will have a number of big brown floaters that nobody much wanted. But it is important to remember that the element that is new here is the punch. What they had before, especially from a Shia or Kurdish viewpoint, was a big, all-you-can-eat bowl of crap, so they are moving in a hopeful direction.

From what I have been able to gather the constitution will be worded so it sounds like it grants each faction what they want but doesn't really. That way everybody can declare victory and no one need really accept defeat. The Kurds get some autonomy but not enough to start that border war with the Turks which neither the Sunnis or Shia want. The Shiites also get some autonomy but not enough to play footsie with Iran, which neither the Sunnis or Kurds would enjoy. The Sunnis get a piece of the action on the oil revenue but very limited political power. The clerics get to claim Islam as a primary source of law (but not as the primary source of law.) When it comes time to implement these Islam-based laws the reluctance of the Kurds and the difference between the Sunnis and the Shia or the details will tend to limit what can be done at the federal level and, over time, the differences between the various federal states will tend to liberalize their local laws. In short, as long as everyone keeps one leg in the sack the three-legged race nature of Iraqi politics will tend to limit the damage they can do to one another and their neighbors. Oddly, the Sunnis are our best hope in this regard -- their part of Iraq has no oil to speak of so they have a strong incentive to keep the country together. They may deceive themselves that they are keeping it together so they can take over again but, since that is not likely to happen, we shouldn't mind.

And best of all, in an odd sort of way, is the fact that there will be parts of their constitution that we don't like. What better confidence-builder could there be for Iraqis of all stripes than the realization that they wrote their constitution, not the US, and that there are important parts of it that the US doesn't like. We have the opportunity here to demonstrate the the civic virtue of compromise -- not by rolling over, we should argue our position forcefully and complain loudly about the parts that don't go our way, but by holding our nose and abiding by the result. We don't have to be happy about it -- it would be a mistake to pretend we are. We just need to show them that Democracy means compromise and that we can live with the punch, even if there are a few ingredients that aren't in our recipe for it.

Update: Fri, Aug 26. For an informative guided tour of the proposed constitution, see Mad Canuck: Iraq Constitution - a more complete draft. (Hattip: The Mudville Gazette)

Friday, August 05, 2005

The Problem of Islam

Let me begin by admitting that I am by no means an expert on Islam or the Islamic world and I am sure there are nuances that escape me -- shades of distinction that might make a difference in my arguments, one way or the other. I am just an ordinary, reasonably well-read American who, like many such, has been trying to wrap his head around the problem of Islam. Because the fine distinctions are difficult for me I will stick to a couple of hit-you-over-the-head obvious observations that many people seem to have missed.

Consider these three statements:

"Islam is the problem."

"Islam is a problem."

"Islam has a problem."

The first statement -- "Islam is the problem" -- is clearly false, at least without additional qualifications. To be defined using the definite article a problem needs to be bigger. "Knowing the mind of God" might well be "The" Problem, if you are religious, or "Deciding how best to use your life," if you are not, or "Where to find 'organic' seaweed to roll your sushi" if you are from California. Whatever you may think of Islam, there are other problems we face, individually and collectively, that are at least as pressing.

On the other hand, the last statement above is clearly true. Islam plainly has a problem. There are elements within Islam who, in the name of Islam, delight in provoking the powerful governments of the West. They seek to polarize relations between the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds and to isolate the Islamic population from what they perceive as corrupting western influences. They plan to use this isolation to establish a sphere of influence in which they can operate and then to work to widen their caliphate to the rest of the world. If you support their objectives then the "problem" is keeping the various factions in Islam in line to present a united front until the Great Satan can be forced to retreat. If you oppose them the "problem" is to isolate them so they can be acted against in a targeted fashion without letting them, in effect, use the rest of the Islamic world as hostages. There is some disagreement as to which of these problems holds but nobody denies that there is a problem.

As to the second statement -- "Islam is a problem" -- it remains to be seen whether it is true or not. The decision is largely up the Islamic community. If they decide to close ranks and present a united Islamic front to the west (as the extremists among them hope they will do) then, from a western point of view, the statement becomes true. If, on the other hand, they decide that the extremists are a liability -- needlessly antagonizing the western powers in an effort to bring about an strict theocracy that few in the Islamic world really want -- then it is unfair to hold all of Islam responsible for the insanity of the few.

One can find writers who support each of the three versions of the problem of Islam. Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci (Wikipedia Bio) is one who comes to mind for the "Islam is the problem" view. She has had a long and interesting career starting in the anti-Mussolini resistance in WWII, becoming a trendy celebrity journalist who got interviews (often exclusive ones) with everybody famous or infamous in the 1960s and 1970s, and more recently writing increasingly cranky books and articles about Islam. She is currently charged with criminal disparagement of a religion in her native Italy and is scheduled to go on trial next year. She lives in the US and doubts that she will return to Italy to stand trial. She doubts it in part because she finds the charges ridiculous, but largely because she has terminal cancer and it is unlikely that her health will permit her to return to Italy, even if she lives that long.

I was reminded of her by a brief posting in Sunbreak City (Oriana's Poisoned Apples) that was critical of her views. I usually agree with Das Anderson (the proprietor of Sunbreak City) but I think he was a bit too hard on Fallaci in describing her writings on Islam as poisonous and hate-filled. I read her articles (parts one, two, three and four) which he was discussing and found them shrill, one-sided, overgeneralized and rather angry but nonetheless within the allowable limits for a really-pissed-off polemicist. She raises a number of issues that are worthy to be considered, even if many can be subsequently rejected on merit.

I worry that we no longer are comfortable discussing foundational issues -- when people point out intractable problems we assume that they have selected those particular problems to complain about because they are intractable. We assume people talking about these problems are not so much interested in seeking solutions as merely spewing hatred. It may well be that Oriana "hates" the Islamic world. But a number of the things she writes about may still be true.

Other, less phlegmatic writers have written about the problem of Islam and the West and have come to similar conclusions, even if their style of presentation is less angry than Oriana's. Wretchard, the proprietor of the Bemlont Club, worries that the West fails to grasp the global scale of the goals of Islamism in "The Provincial West." Victor Davis Hanson has looked at the question of whether Islam is in need of revolution or reformation in "Reformation or Civil War?" in National Review. Salmon Rushdie remains calm in "Muslims unite! A new Reformation will bring your faith into the modern era" from the Times Online when one could forgive him for ranting. Rushdie has at least as much reason to be paranoid about extremist Islam as does Fallaci -- there is an official Fatwah calling for Rushdie's death while the widely-circulated pamphlet calling for Fallaci's death has no official standing.

One need not be a supporter of the "War on Terror" to worry that accusations of "hate" speech can stifle serious discussion of Islam. Joe Sobran is no fan of the Iraq war or the current administration but still worries about suppression of free speech in "What is this thing called Hate?." [Note: I am a long-time fan of Joe Sobran but disagree with him most of the time since 9/11.]

With the notable exception of Paleocons like Sobran, it is not difficult to imagine that many of the most vocal opponents of the efforts to confront and contain radical Islam have taken their positions simply because a conservative was in the White House when the Twin Towers came down -- and particularly because that conservative was George W Bush. Many conservatives, myself included, are grateful that it was Bush and not Gore who was president on Sept 11, but if it had been Gore I tend to suspect that he too would see that the attack needed more of a response than an Interpol investigation and some unavailing complaints to the UN.

Because they oppose the war and need to explain why, many Liberals will reach for the moral-equivalence argument when pressed. It goes like this: fundamentalist Islam has its dangerous kooks but so do other religions, especially Christianity and Judaism. This is true, to a certain extent, but Christianity has its more-dangerous kooks mostly marginalized. Christian churches may well close ranks to defend the Seventh-Day Banana-Man types (who believe that on the seventh day of creation God pulled the Earth out of his baggy pants, saying Aaahhhhh!) but when you start blowing things up they cut you loose. This may not have always been true but it seems to be true now.

Unfortunately, it is less clear that Islam has decided to marginalize their dangerous "kooks" -- and it is not just the kooks who are dangerous. From a Classical Liberal point of view there is much to dislike about the Islamic "mainstream." For instance, "Honor Killings of young women are quite common in places like Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- if you are a young Jordanian woman and your father or your brother don't like your boyfriend there is a fair chance that you may wind up dead and your death will not be investigated or any charges made against your killers. (See "Death by Sharia: Reviewing Norma Khouri├é’s Honor Lost." from NR, or "The Vanishing Victim: Criminal Law and Gender in Jordan" from Law & Society Review, Jun 2005, by Catherine Warrick.)

I will close with a snippet from al Koran from The University of Michigan's online text. As I write this paragraph the date is August 14th so I will quote the five verses centering on 8.14.

[8.12] When your Lord revealed to the angels: I am with you, therefore make firm those who believe. I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them.
[8.13] This is because they acted adversely to Allah and His Apostle; and whoever acts adversely to Allah and His Apostle-- then surely Allah is severe in requiting (evil).
[8.14] This-- taste it, and (know) that for the unbelievers is the chastisement of fire.
[8.15] O you who believe! when you meet those who disbelieve marching for war, then turn not your backs to them.
[8.16] And whoever shall turn his back to them on that day-- unless he turn aside for the sake of fighting or withdraws to a company-- then he, indeed, becomes deserving of Allah's wrath, and his abode is hell; and an evil destination shall it be.

So there you have it. Today's reading from the Religion of Peace. I am all for the people who are working on a pastoral, live-and-let-live reformation of Islam. I am rooting for them and vaguely hopeful for their success, but you gotta admit based on todays reading: they have their work cut out for them.

More resources for Oriana Fallaci Information

Prophet of Decline: An interview with Oriana Fallaci.
Wall Street Journal Opininon Journal, June 2005, by Tunku Varadarajan

Oriana Fallaci: Biographical Information
from Giselle.com

Oriana in Exile
American Spectator, by Christopher Orlet

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Not a Dog.

This is Snuppy. He is an Afghan Hound and he is a clone -- the first of his kind. (Image is an excerpt from an AP photo here). He seems healthy and normal -- big floppy ears, wet nose, big ole tongue -- but it is important to remember that he is not, really, a dog, at least as far as I can tell from the statements of South Korean scientist Woo-Suk Hwang who made Snuppy.

When discussing the same technique used for therapeutic cloning the Reuters story quoted him as saying that
...he is not cloning human embryos, but using eggs harvested from human females, infusing them with genetic material, to create cells that can never become human beings.

"I firmly reject the term human cloning," Hwang said in an interview with Reuters in May. "This is a scientific activity called somatic nuclear transfer, and in no part does it involve the physiological process of fertilisation of eggs by sperm."

So, there you have it -- no sperm, no human -- and by extension, no dog. Snuppy was made using eggs harvested from a female dog, infused with genetic material and thus he can never become a dog.