Saturday, November 23, 2002

There is an even clearer piece on the Turkey/Europe situation by Fareed Zakaria in the Washington Post.

Next month the European Union is likely once again to dissemble, delay and deceive Turkey about its prospects for membership. Ever since December 1999, when the EU announced that Turkey was a candidate to join, becoming part of Europe has been Turkey's national obsession. Despite the worst economic recession in a generation, despite divided and weak governments, despite a recent battle with its Kurdish minority, Turkey has undergone large-scale economic liberalization and passed three sets of path-breaking constitutional reforms along lines suggested by the European Commission. The last set, approved in August, abolished the death penalty, gave linguistic and educational rights to the Kurdish minority, and expanded the rule of law and political and press freedoms. "All the things that Turkey has been unwilling to do for decades it enacted in one day last August," says Soli Ozel, a Turkish political scientist.

And what was Europe's reaction to these historic measures? It found fault with all of them.

And that fundamentally is the issue. It is time to stop dissembling, delaying and deceiving. What is needed is good faith.

Watching Lawrence of Arabia recently, I found myself wondering why the British and French took the side of the Arabs against the Turks then, and the simplistic thought is that they have been on the wrong side every since. (Yes, I know that the Ottomans were historically the enemy of Christian Europe, but there was a point at which this ceased to be so. Certainly the Americans have done a better job of realising this than the Europeans).

Friday, November 22, 2002

There's an interesting piece in Partisan Review on the gap between Islamic and non-Islamic populations in Europe

For all the racial and ethnic hatreds that fill the pages of American history, Americans, even bigoted Americans, tend to be better at this than northern Europeans are; we are accustomed to the idea that a person from anywhere can become an American. This is, to be sure, not a virtue on our part, but simply an idea we are used to. For many northern Europeans, it is not: it just doesn’t come naturally. More than half a century after the fall of Nazi Germany, the notion of ethnic purity still lives, unarticulated, often even unconscious, in the minds of people who think of themselves as good Social Democrats. For almost all northern Europeans, national identity continues to be wrapped up in, and equated with, ethnic background.

For this reason, large-scale immigration–of the right kind–could be a very positive thing for northern Europe. Certainly there are some immigrants from Muslim countries, people who have nothing of the fundamentalist about them, who have proven to be excellent entrepreneurs and model individualists in a part of the world where individualism has been traditionally discouraged. (Why? Because it’s viewed as a threat to social democracy.)

As an Australian, my first reaction to the mixing of ethnicity and nationality in Europe was one of puzzlement. The concept of nationality is a different one. It is possible for an outsider to become an American or an Australian in a way it isn't possible for an outsider to become a Norwegian. Europeans are puzzled by my puzzlement.
Robert Greene has a piece in The New Republic arguing that Turkey should be allowed to enter the EU. Well, not so much that as that the EU needs to change its attitude to Turkey's application. At the moment, Turkey clearly doesn't qualify for membership, as it is not democratic enough, doesn't respect human rights well enough, and doesn't have enough of a functioning market economy. The trouble is, the EU doesn't respond to Turkey's application by saying this. Instead, Valery Giscard d'Estaing remarks that Turkish membership would "destroy" the Union. (German ministers say similar things). Rather than being treated like other countries that don't presently qualify for membership, Turkey is shunted to one side rather than being treated as part of a group.

The Turks themselves are pretty realistic. They realise that their country is lacking in democracy, human rights and a modern economy, and I doubt they would complain especially if it was clear that they were genuinely being kept out of the EU for this reason. They smell hypocrisy, and that the subtext of all this is that Turkey is Islamic and that the EU does not want an Islamic member. And when d'Estaing makes remarks like that, it is hard to disagree with them. The fact is that here is a large, strategically important Islamic country that wants to join the west and wants to modernise its institutions. The EU can either help this happen or not, but whatever it does Turkey and its strategic importance will not go away. If all the Islamic world was like Turkey, we would not be fighting a war. It is time to express some appreciation for this fact, and it is time to get rid of the hypocrisy. By all means set fairly rigorous conditions on Turkish EU membership, but apply them in good faith. If Turkey is shunned merely because it is Islamic, then what is being said those in the Middle East who claims that the west is fighting a war on Islam in general are closer to the truth. The position of moderates in Islamic countries is weakened. And accordingly, the position of extremists is strengthened.

I don't know quite how we will tell when we have won this war, but if the Hagia Sophia ever returns to being a mosque, we will have lost it.

Thursday, November 21, 2002

While watching the Bond movie yesterday, my cellphone fell out of my pocket onto the floor of the cinema. I didn't attempt to find it then and then. I didn't want to make too much noise, and although I had a little LED flashlight on my keyring that could have lit up the floor so that I could have seen it, I didn't use this because as a matter of courtesy I didn't want to disturb nearby people watching the film. At the end of the film, I searched on the floor and couldn't find it, despite searching for it for fifteen minutes. I can only conclude that the person sitting next to me (who left quickly when the credits started) picked it up off the floor at some point and stole it. So much for courtesy.
While on the Bond movie, the villain in the movie apparently does not sleep. This is a fairly typical foible of Bond villains, but it is never explained precisely how or why he doesn't sleep. He plugs himself into a "dream machine" once in a while to stay sane or something, however. If the producers had been really cool, they could have added some product placement for Provigil amongst that for the Omega watches, but no.
Yahoo has a piece (via the almighty Instapundit ) on space elevators. Basically, feasibility seems not to be an issue at this point: it is a case of getting the logistics and funding right. This is actually very exciting. We are really not in an environment to raise money for such a thing at the moment, however. Large sums have been lost on unviable space projects like Iridium and Globalstar recently, so I cannot imagine the private sector looking at something like this soon. But in ten or twenty years, who knows. (I have given a quick summary of how space elevators theoretically work at the end of this posting, which you may want to jump to if you are not familiar with the idea).

In the medium term, I cannot see this not happening. Although the fixed costs of such an elevator would be enormous, once it was there the marginal cost of taking a kilogram of payload into space would drop by several orders of magnitude, and suddenly space would be accessible for normal rather than astronomical sums of money. Middle class space tourism might become possible, and a huge number of applications we haven't yet thought of will suddenly be affordable. The infrastructure will be in place, and people will then be able to find their own applications for it. Space travel has been limited at this point because the cost of lifting payloads is simply too immense. The dreams of the science fiction writers of the 1940s and 1950s appeared to suddenly come true in the 1960s, and then it all stopped, I think largely due to this one factor. There was no Moore's Law. The cost of chemical rockets remained immense.

However, on the sadder side of today's climate, we need to think about the other question, which is how vulnerable such a construction would be. Kim Stanley Robinson's three novels about the future colonization of Mars seem to have quite a lot of relevance to the present crisis, and they have some here, too. Towards the end of Red Mars the colonists of Mars fight a war in which they attempt to obtain independence from Earth. A space elevator (which is much easier to build on a small planet like Mars) has been built earlier in the novel, and one of the first things the colonists do in their war is to disconnect the cable of the elevator from its anchor, in order to prevent large numbers of troops from being landed on Mars. The cable then falls to Mars. As it does so, Mars rotates, and so the cable heats up and wraps itself around the planet as it falls, eventually burning a groove all the way around the equator of the planet.

The question is, if an elevator was built on Earth, would there be a danger of such a thing happening, either through accident or war or terrorism? Such an elevator would have a cable long enough to wrap itself around the earth once, which could do quite a lot of damage. The cable would be built to withstand somewhat more than its maximum tension, so it seems unlikely that it would actually break in an accident, so the question is what sorts of shocks it could withstand. Its tension would be so great that (say) colliding an aircraft with it would be most unlikely to break it. It would likely slice the aircraft into two like a breadknife, but it probably wouldn't break. In any event, if the cable were to break at an altitude that an aircraft could reach (only about 15km) up, the bulk of the cable (and its anchor) would simply drift slowly up into space. A few kilometres of cable below the break would fall into the ocean, and even if there was some land in its path, it wouldn't be moving fast enough to do much damage at the time it hit. The issue is whether the cable could be broken or disconnected in space. Obviously it would be very necessary to put all sorts of precautions at the point at which the cable is anchored. It seems to me that it would be possible to make this pretty invulnerable. The question then, is how would it be possible to break the cable. The only answer seems to be that you would have to melt it. That is, explode a large bomb at the top of the cable or somewhere along it. It seems possible to build a carbon nanotube that would survive up to in excess of 5000 degrees Celcius . Most chemical explosions achieve a lot less than this. The question is can such a cable withstand a short, sharp, physical shock from such an explosion. I don't know the answer, but given the tensile strength of the substance I am guessing the answer is reasonably good. It is worth bearing in mind that any explosion near the cable is likely to be short lived, as you are in space and there is therefore no oxygen for a fire, so a WTC like affair where the structure is weakened by a prolongued fire is not likely to be possible. This all suggests that the cable is likely to able to withstand most forms of chemical explosion reasonably well. It is going to be very hard for terrorists to bring the thing down without a nuke, and it is fairly easy to prevent terrorists from brinking a nuke onto the elevator. (Just monitor for radiation). So, actually I think it would be pretty safe. I'm reassured.

(If you are not familiar with the concept of a space elevator, the basic point is that an object orbiting at the so called Clarke orbit - 36000 km above the equator - will stay stationary over the same point. (Most communications satellites do this). If you elongate the object so that its centre of mass remains at this altitude, you can have an object in such a stationary orbit even though most of the object is not at this altitude. Extend a very strong cable to the earth's surface from such an orbit and at the some time build a counterweight higher up, and bingo, you have an elevator cable into space. (You have also created a freestanding structure that is held up by the sky). Some proposals involve capturing a small asteroid as a counterweight to anchor the cable to, but this sounds perhaps too hard to me. I suspect we will have to provide our own counterweight. Many of us became familiar with this idea when Arthur C Clarke wrote the novel The Fountains of Paradise about the idea in 1980, although the idea is around 80 years old. The key issue was always that nobody knew how to build a cable strong enough to not break. Well, now we do.)

Wednesday, November 20, 2002

I went and saw Die Another Day , the new Bond movie. I am not really a fan of the series. (I think I find the English public school quality of the concept to be a bit much). When Judi Dench referred to Bond as "a sexist, misogenist dinosaur" in Goldeneye , I was pretty much in agreement. That said, the Bond movies do have their moments. We have a teaser sequence before the opening credits in some exotic location, which has some relation to what is to follow if you watch carefully enough. Then we have Bond being briefed back in London, and a series of set pieces in various exotic locations, in which the same women (which Bond seduces) figure. There will usually be two of these women, at least one of whom is likely to be good but who will initially appear to be working for the bad guys, or who will be bad but initially appear to be working for the good guys, or will be bad but initially appear to be a double agent who is one of the good guys but is working under cover for the bad guys). An evil genius who wants to rule and/or destroy the world will keep showing up too, and Bond and one of the women will end up confronting and defeating the evil genius before one final scene in which Bond and the woman mouth double entendres at each other in some picturesque location.

This film departs from the usual formula more than most: mainly because Bond's pre-credits operation fails, and the film takes two or three non-standard steps to get back to the usual formula. Still, the film moves from North Korea to Hong Kong to Cuba to London, to Iceland, to North Korea again.

Lots and lots of other films have copied the formula over the years, but there has been a rush of it lately. Tom Cruise and Brian De Palma managed to trash the precis of the Mission Impossible TV series in the first 25 minutes of the first movie, before replacing it with a fairly standard Bond like plot. And of course Rob Cohen and Vin Diesel this year made xXx which attempted to copy the formula and give it an extreme sports edge. However, they did so in an extremely feeble way. We had a pre-credits sequence in Prague. And, once the plot got going properly, the further activity took place in, well, Prague. Hey guys. Prague is pretty, but it is boring. It's a pretty normal country full of German tourists. It just isn't plausibly full of dubious business and bad guys who want to take over and/or destroy the world. And bad guys with thick Russian accents who are into car theft, prostitution, and, incidentally, destroying the world with a feeble little boat that sails down the Danube don't really cut it any more. While this genre of movie is to a large extent aimed at 16 year old boys, it shouldn't be the sort of movie that 16 year old boys would make. it shouldn't be set in the place that 16 year old boys would give if you asked them to name an exotic foreign location. It needs some sort if aura of sophistication that the 16 year old boys cannot understand.

Look, to get this sort of movie right, you have to get the locations right. These have to be strategically edgy and important places, places where somewhat dubious things are going on, really cool places, or some combination of the above. The more picturesque the better. Places where actual wars are presently occurring probably leads us a little too close to reality. So, North Korea is good. Cuba is good. Afghanistan was perhaps good a decade ago, but not now. Cyprus is good. Russia remains reasonably good (although overused, although Russia is a big place so you might try somewhere like Kaliningrad, or somewhere in former Soviet central Asia, or something like that). For slightly dubious places, maybe Vienna, or Hamburg, or Zurich, or Hong Kong. (Macau might be better). In the cool category, Iceland is good. Bilbao is good since they let Frank Gehry lose there. Cambodia might be good. (Of course, once you go to one of these places, the events that take place there are generally completely ludicrous for these places, but somehow that's not the point).

This I think is where the Britishness of Bond actually works. The right type of Englishman is comfortable dealing with the underside of places like this. Americans aren't always. For one thing, Americans travel less in the wide world. (When I go backpacking I am eternally running in to English people, but not so much Americans, except in certain places that are particularly popular with Americans. Americans seem less inclined to get off the beaten track and wander. Although there are always exceptions). In such places, the fact that Americans are Americans is more obvious I think, too. The Americans are the global hegemon, and this affects the way that other people respond to them.

As another side of this, compare with another film, Proof of Life starring Russell Crowe, in which Crowe plays an expert in extracting hostages who have been captured by people demanding money. Crowe's character is Australian, but supposedly a former British SAS soldier. When asked about this, he says that the British army sees more action than the Australian army. Disregarding the fact that this is no longer true (the Australian SAS has recently seen action in East Timor and Afghanistan and will shortly be going into Iraq, I suspect) this was a perfectly reasonable career path. Australian, Brits, and New Zealanders have long served in one another's armies, and the type of slightly under the table business described in that movie is run out of London and is full of colonials (South Africans, too). Americans don't do this, because they attract too much lightning, and they don't have the same colonial background. This was an instance where a Hollywood studio allowed an Australian actor was allowed to play an Australian character rather than an American, and this was right, as the character in question was much more plausible as an Australian. (It's a shame the film didn't make any money, as it means they might not do this again. For what it's worth, its quite a decent movie. It's set in a fictional South American country that is in fact Ecuador, and it is a stunning looking film, too).

While James Bond type characters obviously do not exist these days (and never did, really), we do seem to suddenly be in a peculiarly Bondian world, with non-state actors, and peculiar alliances between seemingly unconnected players in odd parts of the world. It is perhaps the special forces troops who play the "highly trained elite" role to deal with this nowadays. These guys are much more democratic, I suppose, but still, the British SAS are amongst the best of them, for much the same reasons, I think.

(And as a final observation, Judi Dench and John Cleese seem to be having much more fun in the Bond movie than do all the famous British actors in the Harry Potter movie, most of whom seem to have turned up largely for the paycheque).
I miss Pauline Kael, as I think do a lot of people.

On "American Beauty": "For some strange reason we don't go to charming, light movies anymore. People expect movies to be heavy and turgid, like 'American Beauty.' They want movies to be about our misery and alienation and what rotters we all are ... we've become a heavy-handed society."

On "High Fidelity": "The ends of the scenes seem lopped off in a way that really worked and gave it a little pulse and added up to a style. 'High Fidelity' isn't a bad little movie, it gets better as it goes along. By the end of it, I really was having a good time."

The whole article is worth reading.

Tuesday, November 19, 2002

What we really need in The Sims online is a virtual Jose Bove.
Before reading this, you should reduce background noise by a factor of one to the fourth power

So William Shatner is techno-illiterate . I suppose this means I should not ask him what is his favourite Linux distribution.
Gee, if I was back in Australia, I would have been able to watch rock star and Green Peter Garrett debate Bjorn Lomborg. That sounds like it was fun.

Garrett: "Well I don't think the statistics actually back you up, Professor Lomborg. All those experts who study these things in their complexity and their depth basically dissent from your findings. They don't agree with what you say, in respect to just about everything."

Lomborg: "You're wrong. The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation have put out figures on starvation since 1970 and [they have] shown a dramatic decrease – from 35 per cent to 18 per cent [of the world's population], from 947 million, now down to 840 million."

Garrett made no attempt to refute these figures from a respected source, but fell back on the emotional assertion that there were still millions starving,

It is merely worth observing that the claims Lomborg makes are in some ways pretty modest. He doesn't claim that the world doesn't have problems, only that the trends are generally good. If you read his book, he does actually make the point that there are still millions starving, and that this is clearly a very bad thing. He merely also asserts that a trend in which the number is decreasing is much better than one in which the number is increasing. This seems pretty reasonable to me.

Monday, November 18, 2002

Great picture from the student protests in Iran (via Oxblog ). Certainly it would be nice if the first Islamic fundamentalist state were eventually to return to the real world because life under Islamic fundamentalism is simply so ghastly . If this happens, it will obviously be a slow and painful process, but the roots of it may be there.

If this sort of thing does happen, the consequences can be astonishingly good, however. (Whatever the extent of its economic crises, one rather doubts that Argentina will return to military dictatorship any time soon. The people who lived through it last time simply will not allow it).
Blogger messed up my archives again. This is now fixed, but this is annoying. My laptop has developed some problems too, and I am presently blogging from my landlady's computer. I will not complain about blogger on this blog again, but I will seriously move to another service before long. (If I could actually get possession of, this would be nice, too, but I haven't managed it yet).
I popped into a local Turkish restaurant for lunch today. It was a very authentic place: lots of people with moustaches reading Turkish newspapers and ordering meaty things in Turkish. The kebabs were good, but not quite as good as you get in Germany. There was a television in the restaurant, tuned to a satellite channel in Turkish. Between programs, there were lots of ads for Ariel soap powder proving I suppose that Turkey remains a secular society.

The city won for Allah from the Giaour,
The Giaour from Ottoman's race again may wrest;
And the Serai's impenetrable tower
Receive the fiery Frank, her former guest;
Or Wahab's rebel brood,who dared divest
The prophet's tomb of all its pious spoil,
May wind their path of blood along the West ...

-- Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage , 1812,

as pointed out by Christopher Hitchens in the Atlantic.

Weirdly prophetic, or perhaps Byron was a simply a man of extraordinary insight.

Sunday, November 17, 2002

And how much are they losing on Slate?

For the quarter ending September 30, Microsoft's Operating Systems division made operating profits of $2.48 billion on revenues of $2.89 billion. That sure is something.
A few minutes ago I finished writing a lengthy piece on the differences between the way cricket is administered in England and Australia. Blogger ate it. I may write something similar again tomorrow, if I have time, but perhaps my readership shall be spared this. As Glenn Reynolds was just saying, #$^*&$ Blogger! . I think he may even be refering to the exact same outage as me. This is the final straw, and I shall be moving to Moveable Type as soon as I sort out the hosting issues.
Take a look at this picture. It's a composite of lots of nighttime satellite images of the earth from space, so you get a complete picture of the lights of all the cities of the earth. This is cool in itself, but I think the most dramatic thing on it is the difference between South Korea (which is bright) and North Korea (which can hardly be seen). Also, look at the Nile snaking into Africa, and the area around Johannesburg (virtually the only part of sun-Saharan Africa which looks anything like the developed world). Note also the brilliantly bright section around both sides of the Pearl River Estuary in Southern China. (With the version of Internet Explorer I am using, you have to click on a couple of things to get the high magnification version).

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