31 May 2005

Oh yeah, this'll work

The Japanese government is trying to promote casual summers. With office thermostats set as high as 82F (so says the article — I'm guessing that's actually 28C), coat and tie just isn't comfortable.

This will probably have the same fate as the famous attempt to cut working hours in Japan, where death from overwork — karoshi — is fairly common. A committee was formed, and they set about the task of convincing businesses to shorten the work day. Alas, as working long hours is seen as a sign of dedication to the company, this proved a difficult task, and the committee soon found itself working large amounts of overtime — and their efforts were commended by their political masters.

It's just not so easy to change a culture, even Japan's, by diktat.

Fantasy and reality

I first played Dungeons & Dragons in 1978 or so, when a friend organized a group at work. Most of us had a good time with it, due to an excellent dungeonmaster, but one member, a Mormon, quickly became the bane of our (virtual) existence. He insisted on always playing a paladin, of course. Eventually we tired of taking him for walks when, for example, a captive who was slowing our progress had to be killed. So we all ganged up and killed the paladin. The Mormon came back as a monster, but we quickly dispatched him as well — the game is heavily weighted against the monsters.

The Mormon quit his job the next morning.

I've always used that story as an example of why it's important to keep fantasy and reality separate. But now I have a much more horrific tale:
Ronald Ribeiro Rodrigues, a 22-year-old glass worker, and Mayderson Vargas Mendes, an unemployed 21-year-old, confessed to the murder of 21-year-old physics student Tiago Guedes and his parents, Douglas and Heloisa, in Guarapari, a seaside city of 230 miles northeast of Rio de Janeiro.

They said the killings were part of a role-playing game whose rules required the loser to let the winners kill him and his family.
If this really was part of a game — there seems to be some doubt — it's a symptom of the continuing breakdown of the distinction between fantasy and reality. Constructing fantasies is well and good, but they should not be confused with actual experiences involving real people. I've seen many relationships break up because the attraction was based on a fantasy, not on the living breathing person. We went to war in Iraq based on many fantasies, among them that the Hussein regime was a threat to the US, and that the Iraqis would welcome us with flowers. Unfortunately, confusing those fantasies with reality has led to the real deaths of tens of thousands.

That's what happens when you're not reality-based.

Our incredible universe

If it's not on your "Check daily" list, the Astronomy Picture of the Day from NASA needs to be. Go and have a look — if the pictures there don't inspire awe and wonder, you're beyond hope.

And in other news

An AP story titled Plane Carrying 4 Americans Crashes in Iraq leads off this way:
The U.S. military nearly set off a sectarian crisis Monday by mistakenly arresting the leader of Iraq's top Sunni Muslim political party, while two suicide bombers killed about 30 police.
While the article goes on to mention the plane crash, it seems that the arrest of the Sunni leader (a mistake, yes, but "mistakenly" — I have my doubts) might have made a more appropriate headline. After all, it may well lead to the deaths of many more than four people. Better yet, why not write two articles?

Update: The lead has now been changed to:
Four American and four Italian military personnel were killed in separate aircraft crashes, military officials said Tuesday, and Iraq's prime minister condemned the U.S. arrest of a top Sunni political leader.

The Anti-Idiotarian Sir George and I agree that this is bad...

...but for somewhat different reasons:
John Conyers [is] bending over for Islam. He introduced a resolution forbidding disrespect of the Qu'ran, this in a country where it's ok to burn the flag.
Sir George seems to object to this mostly on tactical grounds; forcing legislators to vote on this will either result in an abridgement of free speech (in which case it should get struck down on First Amendment grounds), or it'll enable Muslim demagogues to paint the House as being anti-Islam.

While I think he's right about that, my major objection is ideological, in that speech should remain as free as possible. I have no desire to burn anyone's flag, but I don't think flag-burning should be banned any more than I think that hate speech should be banned. I say let the bigots stand up and be seen for what they are.

It would guarantee a female president

From Yahoo:
Laura Bush would defeat U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton if the two were to face each other in the 2008 presidential contest, Vice President Dick Cheney said on Monday.
This would seem absurd in light of recent poll results. But I suppose if our voting systems don't become any more transparent between now and then, he may well be right.

30 May 2005


One Good thing takes apart an article in O magazine, in a post entitled "Only Women Are Allowed to Read This Post".

In my fearless, unceasing search for The Truth, I went ahead and read it anyway. The thrill of forbidden fruit might have made it seemer better and funnier than it really was, but I doubt it. One of the best posts ever.

But it turns out that maybe it wasn't as forbidden as all that. The article in O had a list of things that all men like:

The Godfather movies

I still haven't seen even the first one all the way through, and none at all of the others. I haven't been overly enamored of what I've seen so far. Maybe if I tried watching when I wasn't also reading.


Poker's OK. I'd rather do pub trivia.


Although I still own a car (a '64 Corvair convertible), it's halfway around the world, and I have not driven a vehicle of any kind in more than two years.


Every now and again I can enjoy watching a game, but I have never been able to make myself care about the outcome of any game played by strangers. There is, however, a lot of good sports writing out there.

Steven Seagal movies

If I'm flipping through the channels and see him, I'll make a mental note not to return to that channel.

Swimsuit models

OK, yes, unabashedly, I like swimsuit models. But overall, it seems I'm not really a man.

29 May 2005

The party's over. Maybe.

I've been hearing a lot of complaints from my moto-taxi drivers over the cost of petrol, which is roughly the same here as in the US. I'm not telling them that things may get very much worse soon.

Some petroleum experts are saying that sometime in the next year or two, oil production will peak and it'll all be downhill from there. The oil industry has another view:
"This is just silly," said Michael Lynch, president of Strategic Energy and Economic Research in Winchester, Mass. "It's not like industrial civilization is going to come crashing down."
The geologists I know take "peak oil" seriously. If they're right, what we're doing in the US with energy is insane. There seems to be very little effort on the part of the government to encourage people to use less oil, which seems hardly surprising considering the people running this administration.

Let's hope that some other energy source — sonofusion, say — becomes available soon. If not, things could get really ugly.

Something to discuss with the ex-king the next time I see him

Apparently I'm not the only blogger in Cambodia.

No politics in our music, thanks very much

I've had a fondness for Nine Inch Nails ever since co-hosting a series of great parties which had "Head Like A Hole" as their theme song. If I were in the US, I would have been looking forward to seeing their performance at the MTV Awards show.

Now, they're not playing — MTV apparently became "uncomfortable" with their intention to display a picture of Bush while singing
What if this whole crusade's a charade
And behind it all there's a price to be paid
For the blood on which we dine
Justified in the name of the holy and the divine.
I'm glad that NIN dropped out. I would hate to think that the band that sang "I'd rather die than give you control" would knuckle under.

I wonder what MTV would have made of, say, Crosby, Stills, and Nash singing about "four dead in Ohio"?

Executions are too final

There's a bill on its way to the Texas governor which would allow criminals to be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. It's a good thing, I think, and I hope that Rick "Goodhair" Perry signs it.

Part of my approval comes from the reason cited in the story linked above:
Death penalty opponents hope the proposal reduces the number of executions in Texas. They have argued that prosecutors use the prospect that a killer will someday be back out on the streets to scare juries into issuing more death sentences.
And not executing criminals means that the inevitable mistaken convictions can be somewhat rectified.

But the strongest reason this is a good bill is simply that states should not be executing their citizens. Removing the most heinous offendors from society is necessary, and life without parole accomplishes that. Executions legitimize killing as a means of settling disputes, or of exacting revenge. This world would be much better off if killing were deligitimized.

Mekong dolphin

Mekong dolphin
Originally uploaded by thephnompenh.
The Rising Hegemon showed us a picture of the extremely endangered Yangtze River dolphin; I just thought I should put up a picture (shamelessly stolen from The Mekong Dolphin Conservation Project), of Cambodia's very own, slightly less-endangered, freshwater dolphin.

28 May 2005

Offensive to their culture, maybe

AP: "An exhibit showing Chinese bodies and organs is drawing protests from Chinese-Americans who say the display of corpses is offensive to their culture."

The exhibit is "The Universe Within", which shows plastinated bodies, letting us all see what lies under the skin.

Now, on one of my visits to China, in either 1990 or 1993, I visited the Natural History Museum which, if I remember correctly, was on Qianmen Dajie, the big street running south from Tiananmen Square.

Downstairs was pretty standard old-school museum stuff — cases of insects on pins, and moth-eaten stuffed animals.

But upstairs there was an extensive exhibit of human bodies in, I believe, formaldehyde. It focused on human oddities, especially deformed babies, but also included two bisected bodies, one male, and one a woman who died in childbirth, her unborn child still in the birth canal. Most interesting, I thought, was the body that had been flayed, exposing the musculature beneath.

The people I saw there didn't seem offended — they were instead rather gleefully pointing out the most freakish exhibits to one another.

Now, that may be a reflection of the Chinese government's attempts to change Chinese culture. And the people who would have gone to such an exhibit might be the Chinese version of uncultured louts. But from what I saw, I wouldn't have concluded that it was offensive to the culture.

Friday Random Ten

OK, it's Saturday now (at least here in Phnom Penh it is), but it was Friday when iTunes gave me these, I swear. I just can't always get to a Net connection:

You'll Come Around — Marcia Ball
Got My Mind Back — Smokin' Joe Kubek
Pata Pata — Manu Dibango
Kindhearted Woman Blues — Keb' Mo'
Workin' At The Car Wash Blues — Jim Croce
El-Bo — Elvin Bishop
Master & Slave — Cherry Poppin' Daddies
A Yid Is Geboren Inz Oklahoma — Bad Livers
29 Ways — Willie Dixon
Moan All Night Long — Junior Brown

No Khmer music, you'll note — I have yet to find any I like.

27 May 2005

Cambodia Crime Compendium

Every fortnight, the Phnom Penh Post runs the Police Blotter, which lists crimes reported in the Khmer newspapers. For those of you not lucky enough to subscribe to the PPP, here are a few selections:
May 7: Meas Chhem, 22, was sent to a hospital...after...ten assailants attacked him with a knife during a nighttime dancing argument...
Ten attackers, but only one knife? Did they pass it around?
May 8: Police arrested five people trying to escape after committing a robbery at midnight... Police said the suspects...stopped a moto-taxi driver...and demanded his key. ...they tried to run away after he shouted for help.
The moto-taxi drivers here drive 125cc motorbikes at best. These five guys were probably all expecting to escape on the motorbike, in which case they likely could have been caught by a slowish jogger. And there's something missing from this story. At midnight, the streets here are pretty well deserted. How on earth did these guys get caught? I mean, the driver yells, and then what happened? He didn't detain them single-handed.
May 9: A crowd of people arrested one of two men trying to steal a motorbike... [The motorbike owner] said they asked to buy his bike, but one of them tested his bike and rode away. The other man was detained and later handed over to police.
This crime doesn't seem to have been very well thought through. Careful criminals don't leave their partners at the scene. And I'm a little surprised that the accomplice survived his "arrest" by the crowd.
May 11: ...a poor farmer was shot dead while sitting and talking with his neighbors... Police said [he] was shot once in the stomach with an AK-47 by an unidentified man who escaped on foot. Police suspect revenge was the motive of the killing because some people were not happy with [the victim], as he was a sorcerer.
See, this is the kind of crime that you just don't hear about in Seattle. Though I suppose if the religious wackos continue to gain power in the US, it might become common there, too.
May 12: A farmer...had five buffaloes stolen... The man told police that two gunmen entered his house and aimed at him before esacping with his buffaloes.
Another instance of poor planning. Buffaloes are hard to pocket and run away with, especially given that it's difficult to get them to do much more than slowly amble. This farmer must have been pretty isolated, and likely had no way to call anyone else. But how far could the thieves have gotten by daybreak?
May 13: [The victim]...was sent to...hospital...after being axed during a nighttime dancing argument at a neighbor's wedding party... Police said [he] was struck six times by four people who escaped after the assault. Police said the man probably died quickly because he had massive head injuries.
Again with the "nighttime dancing argument". Clearly people should be encouraged to have their dancing arguments during daylight hours. And axings are pretty common in the police blotter.
May 14: ...an 18-year old monk...confessed to police that he raped a 10-year-old girl while she was playing in the pagoda where he lived.
May 16: Police arrested a 19-year old man after he tried to steal money from a Khmer noodle seller... The woman told police the man had bought a bowl of noodles for 500 riel, but after[wards] he picked up her knife and stabbed her once in the arm, before attempting to steal her money. He was caught after the seller shouted for help.
Yet another stupid, or possibly desperate, criminal. 500 riel is about $.125, and the noodle seller, at best, sells 100 bowls a day. So she likely had no more than about $10. Besides, noodle sellers tend to go where the customers are, and there would be people around to "arrest" the would-be thief.
May 17: Police are looking for a woman...who escaped with her 12-year-old daughter after killing her husband... Police said [she] was probably angry as she learned that her husband...had been extra-loved by another woman...
Oh yeah, baby, give me some of that extra-loving.

And that's it for this edition of the Cambodia Crime Compendium! See you next time.

No drought, say the astrologers

Yesterday was the annual Royal Plowing Ceremony here in Phnom Penh. Part of this ceremony involves offering the royal oxen several bowls filled with different items. The royal astrologers then predict the harvest based on the oxen's selections.

This year, they ate nearly all of the rice, beans, and corn, but avoided the grass, sesame, and water. This was interpreted to mean that the harvest of the former would be good.

The big controversy was over the water. The astrologers said it meant that it meant plenty of rain; if the oxen had drunk the water, it would have meant flooding.

Problem is, this is not how it's been interpreted in times past. And last year, the oxen also refused to drink, and a drought has followed.

The astrologers stopped short of saying that a corner had been turned on the drought, but you just know they were thinking it.

Female orgasms

Mark Morford writes today about female orgasms. Sez that since they're evolutionarily unnecessary, they just might constitute proof of the existence of God.

It's an interesting point of view. And I hope it won't diminish the sense of mystery he creates in his article to offer another explanation from Stephen Jay Gould (I hope I get this right — I can't find this online, and my copy of the book is back in Seattle). In an essay titled "Male Nipples and Clitoral Ripples", he argues that the female orgasm exists for the same reason that male nipples do. That is, they're required in one sex, and it would be developmentally too difficult to delete them from the other.

Update: Heretical ideas weighs in on this hot issue.

25 May 2005

Deep in the heart of...

When I mention to people that I spent much of my life living in Texas, they often say something along the lines of "bet you're glad to be out of there, huh?"

Well, yes and no. Certainly, Texas has a lot of things I didn't like much, like the stifling heat in Houston (ok, it's not that different here in Cambodia), giant cockroaches, muddy Gulf water, and a lot of ignorant yahoos.

But it's also home to Alvin Ailey, the Texas Medical Center, Janis Joplin, limited liability partnerships, Larry McMurtry, integrated circuits, the Marfa Lights, Renee O'Connor, Dr Pepper, Sissy Spacek, barbed wire, nachos, ZZ Top, open heart surgery, Sam Houston, chili, Tommy Lee Jones, margaritas, and, of course, Babe Didrikson Zaharias.

And today, one of Texas's treasures, Molly Ivins, writes about another, Senfronia Thompson, who makes me proud to say I once shared a state with her. Go. Read. It'll make you wish there were more like her in the US Congress.

And these are our allies...

In at least one area, the Bush administration has done what it said it would do — run the government like a business. That area is public relations, in which few businesses ever tell the truth. Failures, mistakes, and crimes are spun, denied, and minimized; successes are overhyped. When was the last time anyone believed an earnings projection? For the most part, businesses try to avoid transparency and honesty.

In the end, though, the bottom line will betray them. Businesses know that eventually there will be an accounting, and this alone keeps their flights from being too fanciful.

This administration, on the other, seems to think that the accounting will never come, that if they deny and spin, and classify enough documents, that their misdeeds will forever remain plausibly deniable.

Unfortunately, as there is no objective measure of their performance, it's impressions that matter. And this administration has earned its reputation for opacity and lack of accountability. And so it's no wonder that the Pakistani article linked above says that America's overseas prisons are "in close league with the concentration camps of the Second World War Nazi thugs".

If this administration had all along been open and honest, they could have expected to be believed when they said that the abuse has been rare and committed by a few "bad apples" who have been delivered to justice. Instead, from the secret energy hearings, to the hiding of the warnings they received about 9/11, to the firing of those who spoke the truth, to the big lies that got the US into Iraq, they have made clear their contempt for the truth, and for us all.

Have you backed up recently?

There's a new PC threat out there. This thing goes onto your PC, looks around for, say, all of your Microsoft Office documents, and then encrypts them. leaving only the encrypted version on your disk. You then get an e-mail asking for payment to get them decrypted.

It's an interesting approach. They're targeting individuals, who are less likely to have their stuff backed up, and asking for smallish amounts of money.

Yet another reason I love my Mac.

$1 trillion

Via Dedurkheim at Rising Hegemon , the Pentagon can't account for $1 trillion.

$1 trillion! And the Pentagon can't say where it all went.

But gee, wouldn't it have been nice to spend it on body armor? And armored Humvees? Or even paying off the national debt? Oh, wait — it would only pay off less than half of the debt that Dubya alone has incurred on our behalf. So, judging by their actions, not an amount worth worrying about.


Via Skeptic News, Salman Rushdie talks about Dylan Evans's ideas on atheism.

Evans's position is fairly close to mine, although I think he's failing rhetorically when he calls religion an "art". I prefer to think of different kinds of truth. Traditionally, these are referred to as "logos" and "mythos", but I call them "historical truth" and "emotional truth".

Science concerns itself with historical truth, but emotional truths may flow from that. "I sing the body electric!" Similarly, historical truths are often the consequences of emotional truths, as Father Damien's caring for the lepers on Molokai resulted from his sense of mission.

But really, the two are irrelevant to one another. When Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan, was he recounting an actual event? Could a time-traveler videotape the man, broken and bleeding by the side of the road, the rule-followers ignoring him because it's the Sabbath, and the wacko Samaritan helping him? I think the answer is that it fundamentally doesn't matter if it really happened or not; the emotional truth is the point of the story, not the historical truth.

And Mary Oliver's sense of place in the world:
Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

flows as easily from a belief in evolution as it does from a belief in "intelligent design".

Turning it around, it's entirely irrelevant whether I believe that the behavior of an electron is under the control of a conscious god, or if I believe the electron to be a god, or if I believe there is no god; in either case I will measure its charge to be the same.

I think that when Augustine said that if scripture conflicted with observation, then scripture had to change (if I remember rightly), he wasn't suggesting actually changing the written words, but rather saying we should revalue them as emotional truth rather than historical truth. The Bible clearly contains both. Fundamentalist Christians are making a category error when they insist that it all be understood as historical truth. But scientists should understand that emotional truths are, in fact, truths, and have great power. As with the power flowing from historical truth, this power can be used for good, as in Father Damien's case, or for evil:
It is said that science will dehumanise people and turn them into numbers. That is false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

from The Ascent of Man, by Jacob Bronowski

Both kinds of truth are human, and valuable, and in fact no one can survive on one alone. The scientist who never has hunches, who feels no need to succeed, no drive to understand, will never do good science; the mystic who thinks that nothing but spirit exists had still better step off the tracks when a train approaches.

24 May 2005

Drought in Cambodia

The Cambodia Daily reports that an 11th-century tree trunk, more than 100 feet long, was discovered buried in the bed of a lake which recently dried up for the first time in memory. The memory of this tree had been kept alive in legend all of this time. A local fortuneteller said that if the tree were moved to a nearby pagoda, it would encourage more rainfall.

Here's hoping. Cambodian farmers in several provinces have been hit hard by drought, and it's not like they were even a little prosperous to begin with.

The biggest danger facing them, however, is out of Cambodia's control. The World Bank recently approved a project that would dam a river in Laos that feeds the Mekong, and China is said to be planning dams that would stop the annual rise and fall of the Mekong.

This rise and fall alternately fills and empties the Tonle Sap lake. (The river that connects the lake and the Mekong changes direction twice a year.) As used to be true of the Nile, the varying water levels result in rich farmland and good breeding areas for fish. I've heard that as much as 40% of Cambodia's economy depends on the Tonle Sap.

The long-term climatic effects of this are hard to predict, but seem unlikely to help with Cambodia's water problems.

China's insatiable thirst, and Laos's dreams of selling power to the Thais, may doom Cambodia's farmers.

Is this smart?

The Republicans in Washington State are asking for a new gubernatorial election, which Christine Gregoire won by 129 votes, or .0044%.
"This is a case of election fraud," GOP attorney Dale Foreman said in his opening statement in the trial, which is being heard by a Superior Court judge without a jury. "This election was stolen from the legal voters of this state by a bizarre combination of illegal voters and bungling bureaucrats."
I'm not sure that the Republicans really want to put the idea that recent elections were stolen into people's heads.

Update: The All Spin Zone has more details.

The nuclear option

The deal has been struck on Bush's judicial nominees and the filibuster. It seems that the Democrats have agreed to let some nominees they find objectionable go to the Senate floor for a simple majority vote. In return, the filibuster stays.

The problem is, there is nothing to keep the Republicans from exercising the nuclear option at any point in the future. So the Democrats have kept the filibuster, but can never, ever use it. Sorta like having nuclear weapons, except that the now-toothless filibuster will have no power to restrain the worst excesses of the majority.

It's a black day for the Senate, and for all Americans.

Voting is not enough

My companions at lunch the other day were several Khmers and a Greek woman who is now a naturalized American. Without much preamble, she turned to me and asked if I could tell everyone there what democracy was.

I wasn't very articulate, but said that the essence of democracy was that no one was inherently more important than anyone else. Making that happen, I said, involved majority rule, while preserving the basic rights of everyone, including all minorities. I also said that those rights included free speech, peaceful assembly, exercise of religion, and equal treatment under the law. (Sorry, Second Amendment folks — I just don't see an armed populace as being essential to democracy, or a guarantor of freedom. Compare and contrast the UK and Iraq under Saddam Hussein.)

"That's it?" they asked. I said there was lots more, like an independent judiciary, civilian control of the military, etc., but that they derived from the basics I'd already mentioned.

And then the Greek-American asked me, "What about speaking English? Is it essential to democracy?" I said of course it isn't, thinking how odd it was that she, of all people, asked that. After all, her ancestors started us towards democracy long before English existed.

It turned out that she asked so that a Khmer at the table could hear my answer. The Khmer teaches "democracy" in the provinces, and had been teaching them that you had to speak English to have a democracy.

Cambodia has many of the external forms of a democracy. There's a representative body and prime minister, chosen in fairly regular elections. The English-language papers, at least, are fairly free from prior restraint. In theory, at least, all the other elements I mentioned above also exist here.

But in practice things are very different. Opposition leaders die under mysterious circumstances, as did the labor leader Chea Vichea, who was assassinated. Some suspects were promptly arrested and convicted. But no one really believes that they did it, and all are sure that the ruling party was behind it. Other opponents are dealt with in other ways, like the leadership of the Sam Rainsy party, who had their parliamentary immunity from prosecution stripped from them and had to flee the country to avoid arrest.

If the newspapers step a little out of line, armed thugs show up at their offices. Most of the misdeeds of the rich and powerful get ignored, as in most places, but really egregious crimes, as when a close relative of the prime minister sprayed bullets into a crowd, are prosecuted. Said relative, though, is said to have served his time in a comfortable cell, with caterers, cell phones, and all the visitors he wanted.

Rural populations are bribed and threatened into voting for the ruling party.

There is freedom of religion at least, but that's a result of the big donors' insistence, combined with Buddhist tolerance. The missionaries here are notably unsuccessful at converting anyone.

So is this a democracy? No. It's a quintessential Asian "big man" form of government, with some democratic paint slapped on. And no amount of English classes is going to change that.

Just something to think about when told that the Iraq elections mean "Mission Accomplished".

23 May 2005

Sacrilege is no crime, but do we have to be idiots about it?

Does anyone really believe that Korans were not thrown into toilets? Given the abuse that has been documented, and the anti-Islamic vitriol thrown about by the American right wing, is it possible that the Koran was not the target of abuse?

Certainly, several former detainees have attested to abuses like that alleged in the Newsweek article. But the entire right-wing blogosphere seems to think that anything that wasn't photographed didn't occur. And the reports did not come from Al Qaeda operatives supposedly trained in the fine art of making the US look bad. Remember, these were former detainees — people the US picked up and then released, presumably because they were found to be innocent.

Still, I find the reaction of some Muslims to the Newsweek article to be insane. Abuse of a book is not remotely in the same league as abuse of a person, no matter how holy the book's contents. (If the book is of particular historical or artistic value, I think it's more worthy of protection than it otherwise would be; but no one has alleged that any of the books abused were, say, the work of a master 10th-century calligrapher.) It was bone-stupid of the troops to desecrate the Koran; it's also bone-stupid of Muslims to get so upset about it.

It's the abuse of people that we all should be getting upset about.

21 May 2005

Can we talk?

I recently ran across DebateSpace, which consists of a conversation between a liberal pacifist atheist (The Liberal Avenger) and a conservative born-again soldier (dadmanly). What struck me was the civil tone the two of them have adopted, even when discussing the issues on which they are most divided.

What struck me then was how terrible it was that this surprised me. Public discourse has become so debased that rhetorical opponents are routinely demonized. For example, some of my more liberal friends have condemned my regular reading of The Economist, dismissing it as "conservative", and therefore beneath contempt.

I prefer not to make enemies of those who merely disagree with me. With The Economist, for example, I view it as the honorable opposition. In general, they work from accurate information, their reasoning is coherent, and their conclusions well-supported. Sometimes they say what I already agree with; sometimes they change my mind. And even when I still disagree with what they say, figuring out why I disagree with them helps me sharpen my own arguments.

Discussions like the one those fine gentlemen are having at their blog are the modern versions of debates in the agora, or the talking society on the front porch of the general store in a small town. Why aren't The Liberal Avenger and dadmanly, rather than Ann Coulter, being celebrated on the cover of Time?

20 May 2005

Ignorance in Kansas

The people arguing that Intelligent Design (ID) should be included in their school curricula are either wholly ignorant about science (if they have their way, they'll soon be joined in that by many students), or know what science is and are trying to destroy it. They have put forward the view that all possible explanations are equally scientific, and that only those which disagree with the available evidence should be discarded.

One thing they are ignoring is that scientific theories must be falsifiable. I may believe, say, that the world sprang, full-formed, from the gall bladder of a supernatural, undetectable gryphon on 14 December 1986, and all of our memories of times before that were implanted in us. This is a hypothesis which accounts for all known facts, and thus, by the reasoning of the proponents of ID, is therefore "correct".

I agree, it is a hypothesis; but it is not scientific. The primary reason is that it is not falsifiable. No experiment could be devised, no evidence could be put forward, which would prove it false. This is the reason why science insists on natural explanations. There is no way to disprove the existence of a supernatural being who, by definition, does not interact with the world in the same way as everything else.

Another reason is that the "theory" of ID makes no testable predictions. Once you posit a supernatural being who can do anything, unfettered by natural laws, there is no way to predict what might happen next. Compare this with our ability to predict when the next solar eclipse will occur.

It's not enough to show that current theories have problems. It's not a matter of current evolutionary thinking versus ID. All scientific theories have problems explaining everything — and that's another difference between science and faith. Faith-based explanations, like ID, have no problems, because anything that might seem to contradict them can be explained away as the Devil's work, or as God testing the faith of believers.

Science requires different explanations. If the proponents of ID want it to be accepted as science, they'll have to present better evidence than a feeling that the world is too complex to have resulted from natural processes. It'll have to be evidence that all can see, that can be repeated. And they will have to show how their "theory" could ever be falsified.

Religion has given much to humanity. I often encourage my atheist friends to learn about religion — I once taught Bible Study For Atheists — because without, for instance, an understanding of Christianity, there's no way to make sense of the history of Western art, or of philosophy.

But religion, even cloaked as ID, has no place in science.

19 May 2005

Windows in the developing world

Several years ago, Bill Gates announced Miscrosoft's strategy for China:
Although about three million computers get sold every year in China, people don't pay for the software. Someday they will, though. And as long as they're going to steal it, we want them to steal ours. They'll get sort of addicted, and then we'll somehow figure out how to collect sometime in the next decade.

Leaving aside the issue of how stupid it was to say this in reference to a country that remembers all too well the Opium Wars, what does this mean for poor countries?

The method that Microsoft is intending to use to enforce collection of license fees is likely digital rights management (DRM). The initial push for DRM seems to have come from the entertainment industries, worried about piracy. But it presented a golden opportunity for Microsoft to make sure that the world's Windows habit could never be overcome.

The stated intention is to create a secure computing platform in which no unauthorized changes are made. The rights to a digital item would always inhere in the creator of the item. Thus when you create a document, you could specify who should be able to read it or alter it.

That seems fair enough, huh? It seems likely that there would be a lot of inconvenience as people got used to the system. Imagine, for instance, that you're compiling a large report, and one of the contributors forgets to grant you permission to copy the text from his 30-page section before he leaves for a long vacation in Tibet. You would have no choice but to re-type all of it.

The biggest problem will come, though, when trying to read a document, which is protected by DRM, on a non-DRM machine. It will be impossible. In fact, you may have run into this already, when trying to play a Windows Media file. If you've ever seen the message "Inconsistent hardware license", that's DRM at work.

The end result will be that documents created on a Windows machine will be readable only on Windows machines. And it's easy to imagine that documents created on other platforms, because they're "untrustworthy" (an assessment that Microsoft, not you, will be making), will not be readable under Windows.

Further, any bootleg copy of Windows will likely be deemed "untrustworthy". What does this mean for a place like Cambodia?

Let's start with this basic fact: essentially no one in Cambodia can afford to buy Windows. Current retail price for XP Home is about $200, which is roughly the same as the average Cambodian's annual income. This is an impossible price. (If you make $40K/yr, would you pay $40K for Windows?)

So when Microsoft starts making people pay for Windows, one of two things will happen in Cambodia. Either they will stay with their current bootleg Windows, and forego updates and compatibility, or they will switch to Linux. In either case, they will wind up getting cut off from up-to-date Windows users.

Which way will they go? The experience in Thailand may give some indication. The Thai government started selling complete computer systems — hardware, OS, and an office suite — for $250. They have sold a million of them in a country of 65 million.

It was thought that most people would buy the cheap computer, and then go to the market and pick up a bootleg copy of Windows for $4. But it turns out that most people — about 80% — are keeping Linux and OpenOffice.

This has Microsoft so worried that they are now selling Thai-language Office and Windows (albeit in a somewhat crippled form) bundles for about $40.

Still, the widespread acceptance of Linux, the low likelihood that there will be a Khmer version of Windows anytime soon, and the projected release date in about a year of a Khmer version of Linux make it seem likely that Cambodia will largely shift to Linux.

I would expect most other developing countries to do the same. And when that happens, the computing world will bifurcate into the rich Windows users and the Linux users.

The big question is, which way will China and India go? If they go the Linux route, expect Microsoft's monopoly to lose much of its power. If that finally forces all of the smart people in Redmond to finally start innovating, it could be a very good thing for all of us. But expect a lot of trouble along the way.

Update: There's at least one developing country that has already decided to go with Linux. It brings up an interesting question — how was Microsoft getting around the embargo?

Update: From WorldChanging, it seems that India has released a CD of Tamil-language open source applications; it plans to release them in all 22 official Indian languages. While these applications run under Windows as well as Linux, as more people use open source software, it will become both better and more accepted.

Aren't we supposed to be, well, better than the terrorists?

I keep reading comments from people saying, in essence, "well, so what if we tortured/raped/murdered/flushed the Koran down a toilet? You think they don't flush Bibles down toilets? And what about all of the people murdered by terrorists? Huh? Huh?"

I think that argument is entirely wrong. Yes, terrorists are murdering non-combatants. Yes, religious fundamentalists are desecrating symbols of other religions. But aren't these actions the reasons why the perpetrators are hateworthy? And if we do those things, aren't we hateworthy, too?

One great virtue of the US was always that we were able to maintain some illusion of at least trying to do the right thing. And despite the bombings of Southeast Asia, the CIA black ops, and the undermining of democratically elected governments, we were, until recently, still at least a little credible when we claimed to be the good guys.

Now we've thrown all that away. Instead of regarding our sins as aberrations, and trying to avoid repeating them, self-proclaimed patriotic Americans are claiming that we're justified in doing anything that the "bad guys" do.

Problem is, it makes us into bad guys. And no amount of flag-waving is going to change that.

Galloway on CNN & BBC

When I was living in London, I often listened to the debates in Parliament which were broadcast on the radio. It made quite a contrast to the US Congress, where "debate" generally consists of stultifyingly dull serial speechifying. The MPs really debated issues, responding to each others' attacks, displaying both learning and wit.

I had always felt that the British MPs would romp all over members of the US Congress. Today I watched Galloway show up my government as a bunch of inarticulate buffoons. I don't know whether there is any truth to the charges against him; but I admire the manner in which he defends himself.

18 May 2005

This wasn't absolutely impossible...

...but it still seemed pretty unlikely: Lion Mutilates 42 Midgets in Cambodian Ring-Fight

Some strange things do happen in Cambodia — cows curing disease, dogs giving birth to kittens, Hun Sen getting re-elected as prime minister — but what made this story too hard to swallow for me was that I knew that Kampong Chhnang could never have afforded a lion, no matter how big a crowd they managed to fit into their arena.

Still, the fact that you regularly see midgets boxing on the street as a way of earning money made this article plausible enough that several long-term expat Phnom Penh residents thought it might just be true.

17 May 2005

English as she is spoke

Questions from Thai secondary school English exams — multiple choice. Choose carefully!

1. When I went to school, they _________________
a. made us worn
b. make us to wear
c. make us wear
d. make us wears

2. "__________ does Momo have? It has 100 kilos."
a. How weight
b. How far
c. How many
d. How long

3. "His house is near __________ river."
a. a
b. the
c. that
d. some

4. I __________ ever been to Chiang Mai.
a. have
b. have to
c. was
d. will

5. A police officer is chasing a robber and wants him to stop. He shouts, "__________".
a. Stand up!
b. Cool!
c. Sit down!
d. Freeze!

That last question has a clear answer, but I included it because it was probably prompted by the fatal shooting of Yoshihiro Hattori, a Japanese exchange student in Louisiana, who went to the wrong address for a Halloween party and failed to understand the armed homeowner's order to "freeze". Sadly, it's essential knowledge for any foreigner who visits the US and doesn't want to get shot.

A convenient, and all too believable, scapegoat

You might not have heard about this - it doesn't seem to have gotten much play in the US - but several bombs went off in Rangoon on 7 May, with an official death toll of 19 (though unofficial reports have it much higher), and at least 160 injured. The Burmese government has been blaming this on the Karen rebels, but the word on the street is that the ruling junta did it themselves, to justify attacking the Karen under the rubric of "fighting terrorism". Handy excuse, isn't it?

Now the Burmese Information Minister is saying that a "world-famous organization of a certain superpower nation" (can you spell CIA?) funded this and supplied the explosives used.

While I do think that the US can support the various Burmese opposition groups in legitimate political and military struggle, these bombings are undoubtedly terrorism. I can only hope that the Information Minister is, once again, spreading falsehoods.

16 May 2005

More on the airport scanners in Bangkok

The Bangkok Post is now reporting that Airports of Thailand is now contracting directly with GE InVision for the scanners. Mysteriously, the price has now dropped to 1.4 bn baht from 2 bn baht. That's a 30% drop! I wonder how much the bribes were on the old contract...

12 May 2005

Monk at Angkor

Monk at Angkor
Originally uploaded by thephnompenh.
The Bangkok Post has taught me a new word: almsround. You've probably seen pictures like this one, but you might not realize that monks here go out every day to beg for their daily sustenance. It's one of the nicer things about living in this part of the world, this centuries-old ritual.

When planned obsolescence is your business plan

The big scandal in Thai politics at the moment is about bribes allegedly paid over the 2 billion baht (about $50m) contract for baggage scanners at the new Bangkok airport. Bribery scandals are commonplace enough here, but this one is making news because the company which was to supply the scanners, GE InVision, reported their suspicions of bribery to the US DOJ and SEC. (And kudos to them - yes, they're required by law to make such disclosures, but in this part of the world it's not so common for companies to actually do it.)

The Thai government is now threatening to cancel the contracts unless the company issues a statement that there was no bribery of any sort.

The Law Society of Thailand and the editorial page of the Bangkok Post have come out against any such move, and the former has warned the Thai government that filing a defamation suit against GE InVision (!) would be pointless.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra says that he has known about the allegations for several months, and has been conducting a "secret investigation". Uh-huh.

What I wonder is, are these the same kind of scanners that the US spent $4.5 bn on, which now need to be replaced?

Weren't these things supposed to change the world?

It's a very odd thing to be on a Bangkok street and see a group of tourists on Segways glide past. They seem like a good idea for those who are unable or unwilling to walk very far, since seeing very much of what Bangkok has to offer requires a lot of tromping around. I doubt that there will be many Thais doing this, though, as the price - about $85 for a 2-hour tour - is prohibitive for most locals.

11 May 2005

Less humane than a dog

The American Street reports on the disparity between a dog which cared for a human baby which had been discarded in the trash, and the lack of care shown to a poor child by the state of Florida.

It reminded me of a filler from the Seattle Times several years ago (sorry - no link, and my clipping is in Seattle, so I don't even know the date):
Two homeless men, who found the children in an alley...took off their coats and shirts and wrapped them around the children
to keep them warm until medical help arrived.

This story still astounds me. These men, who every day were shunned and denigrated, literally gave the shirts off their backs - what were, I'm sure, among their very few possessions - to help someone in need. I think those of us who are living more comfortably should ask ourselves if we would do the same. And when we tell ourselves that of course we would, then we need to ask, well, why don't we? People are in need all around us.

Not a very comfortable feeling, to recognize our shortcomings in comparison to a couple of homeless men, is it?

02 May 2005

Vietnam and US

Viet Nam just celebrated the anniversary of what they see as the successful reunification of their country, after decades of war against foreigners, primarily the French and Americans.

I'm sure their leadership and veterans thought it was an important event to commemorate, but the impression I've gotten when I visited Viet Nam is that for most people, it's just history. Sure, here and there I've run into veterans who would refuse to talk with me because I am American, but they are the rare exception. Overwhelmingly, the Vietnamese are friendly and welcoming to us Americans.

When talking to people there, I hear that they have emotionally moved on in a way that many Americans have not. I suppose it's always easier for the victors, and even more so if you see yourself as having fought in a clearly noble cause - national independence - rather than the moral ambiguity most Americans seem to feel.

I think the one thing we should all celebrate is that that war is over. I wish I could say the same about Iraq.

The police of Phnom Penh

I was in a minor accident yesterday. I was riding on the back of a motorbike taxi, and we were turning left from the left-hand side of the road. Traffic here nominally drives on the right, but driving down the outside of the left-hand lane is very common. As we come to the corner, about to turn onto a one-way street, my driver spots a policeman coming the wrong way down the one-way street (also very common), with his head turned around so he can chat with the cops on the sidewalk near the corner. By his slightly fancier uniform and Honda Shadow, I could tell he was a higher-ranking cop. Without looking, he changes course to head directly for us, and continues to discuss life with his co-cops. My driver and I yell and honk frantically, to no avail. Luckily, no one is hurt, and the vehicles only slightly scratched.

Here's what amazed me - I wasn't fined. I know, I know - I wasn't driving, and the cop was much more at fault than my driver. But the usual rule in Phnom Penh used to be that the foreigner pays. Instead, he let us off with a long angry lecture. Maybe things are getting better here.

As a side note, if a traffic policeman tries to wave you over here, it's generally best not to see him. He's not going to come after you, and he won't hold it against you the next time he does manage to stop you. It's very much like a little game the two of you play. Sometimes you win, and sometimes he does, but there's no reason for anyone to get unpleasant about it.

One more problem with computers

The Pentagon released its report on the shooting incident involving Giuliana Sgrena, in which Nicola Calipari died. Of course, they completely exonerated the US soldiers. The Italian government isn't so sure - and the Italians I know here in Cambodia are pretty convinced that Sgrena's car was attacked on purpose.

Aside from the tragic aspects of this, what interested me professionally was that the US redaction of their report was done so incompetently. Kevin Drum says that "...anyone with a copy of Acrobat Reader..." can undo the redaction and read the full, unexpurgated report.

I make my living by advising others on how to use computers in their organizations. One thing I have pushed for many years is an organizational preference for simple open standards, rather than complex proprietary ones. Had this report gone out as a simple ASCII file, this mistake could not have happened; in a simple text file, either the text is there, or it isn't. And that format is searchable by any text processor.

In general, the more "features" that get included in file formats - undo levels, user names, change tracking, etc - the more likely it is that secrets will get revealed because users no longer know what information is being included in their files.

Besides, using open standards allows all users, whether on PCs, Macs, Linux, or whatever, to co-exist peacefully. And in a place like Cambodia, where no one can afford to buy proprietary software, non-open standards will, if Microsoft has its Palladium way with us, mean that this population, and many others, will be excluded from the digital world.