Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Omar bin Laden, son of Osama, interviewed on ABC, wants to broker peace.

Omar bin Laden, one of the many sons of Osama bin Laden, wants to play the role of peacemaker, an ABC "Good Morning America" story reported this morning. The report is by Nick Watt, and is titled "Bin Laden's Son Wants to Make Up for Father's 'Mistake':
Omar bin Laden Left Afghanistan After Six Years' Training as al Qaeda Fighter," link here.

Omar is 26 and owns a construction company in Saudi Arabia. He has taken a 52 year old woman as his wife and will move to London, where he worries about "getting a job" given the family's "reputation." Omar says that his father believed that his moral ends justified the means, but Omar does not agree. Omar believes it is possible to arrange some sort of protected "surrender" of OBL. It is dubious that the West would go along with something like this.

Omar seems to share the belief that Osama bin Laden is still tucked away in a tribal area of Pakistan, where the government has no reach, the military having retreated from these areas and the government in disarray after Bhutto's assassination and Musharraf's martial law. Some people feel that OBL could have fled via the Indian Ocean through connections in Karachi.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Local VA church has interfaith event, sever Noah's Pudding for Ashura

On Sunday, Jan. 20, 2008, the Clarendon Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA had two interfaith guests from Turkey, from an organization called the Rumi Forum at 1150 17th St NW Suite 408 Washington DC 20036. The two young men served for the after-service social dishes of "Noah's Pudding," which is based on ingredients common in the Middle East in ancient times. Noah, of course, preceded Abraham, the common point of the three monotheistic "Abrahamaic" faiths.

Muslims believe that Ashura is a day of great significance. It is a fast day on the tenth day of the month of Muharram and is said to be derived from the Jewish Day of Atonement. According to Muslims, on this day, God (Allah, Jehovah) accepted repentance of Adam, saved Noah in the ark, gave Moses the Ten Commandments, restored Job to health, and performed the Ascension of Jesus.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Muslim countries have divorce by text message

A number of Muslim countries are dealing with the possible social consequences of allowing husbands to divorce their wives by simply sending text messages on cell phones saying "Inti talaq" -- "I divorce you." (The verb has a direct object.) In some cases it has to happen three times, which means that the wife could avoid divorce by not answering cell phone calls. Countries are struggling with how to apply Sixth Century religious law to 21st Century technology. Malaysia tried to ban divorce this way, and then allowed it with the sanction of religious authorities. Right now, there is a major legal case in Egypt.

The story is by Ellen Knickmeyer on p A01 of the Saturday, January 19, 2008, The Washington Post, "A New Text in Islamic Law: Egypt to Rule on Phone-Message Divorce," link here.

The issue seems to show a paradox: given the patriarchal society in many Muslim countries, it seems as though wives are being treated as chattel and that western ideas of marriage as a socially stabilizing institution may not really exist, which makes the religious homophobia even harder to explain.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Remembering Bobby Fischer: 1 P-K4 (and the Cold War)

Bobby Fischer (1943-2008) passed away this week in Iceland (where he had emigrated) from End Stage Renal Disease. He was the same age as me, and in a sense a “role model” when I came of age and got started playing chess around 1964.

Fischer took the World Championship away from Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky in 1972. That was the year that Nixon visited Red China, and the year of the Watergate break-in. This would be a difficult time for the economy, with the international Arab oil embargo and shocks, followed by stagflation, as I started my work life, relatively insulated from this as a computer programmer. In retrospect, many people feel that Fischer helped contribute to a psychological environment that Ronald Reagan would use to totally defeat Communism during his term.

Fischer was known for his straightforward, open, sometimes dogmatic style of play, particularly with the opening and early middle game. For the early part of his career, he nearly always opened with the King’s Pawn (1 e4 or 1 P-K4), and played the openings as if they could be resolved to some kind of verdict in absolute truth. He made kingside attacks with minor pieces, especially against Sicilian defenses, look simpler than they were. Young players of high school and college age were influenced by his style. This was the pre-Internet era when chess players collected books on individual openings, international bulletins, annual game compendiums, and flagged magazine and newspaper articles for individual analyses. Fischer’s style seemed to challenge the “Soviet” style of play that in those days preferred positional maneuvering, queen-side openings, and placing pawns ahead of attacking pieces. (Tigran Petrosian was said to be “ultra-positional”; later the Soviet chess establishment would have notorious breaks over the privileged position within the Soviet Communist Party. Karpov would tend to remain team player, whereas Kasparov rebelled (leading to the latter’s battle with Putin today), a conflict that would parallel their matches. (See this review of Kasparov’s book "How Life Imitates Chess": also this. With Black, he particularly liked the Nadjorf Sicilian and the Kings Indian. For the 1972 match with Spassky, however, he sometimes switched to Queen Pawn openings (transposing from the English) as in a famous game where he found an innovation against the Tartakower Queen’s Gambit Declined. In those days, the “European” school of chess was also dogmatic, with beliefs (articulated by Hans Berliner) that something like the Exchange Variation of the Queens Gambit Declined could be a forced win for White. Over the years, such dogmatic thinking became discredited as practice showed that the choice of opening mattered less than the quality of middle game play. Fischer would repeat his performance against Spassky in 1992.

Fischer was physically a vigorous man in “youth,” but became disheveled and disgruntled in middle life, finally renouncing his United States citizenship in 2005 after an ongoing battle over his travel to blacklisted countries. Obviously, his health failed prematurely.

I played in tournaments a lot in certain periods, such as the late 60s, and then again in the early 80s. While in the Army, I played in the Armed Forces Championship at Fort Meade, MD (near the NSA) in 1969. I remember winning a game (and an endgame race) with Black where White played 7 Qg4 against the Winawer French, a controversial variation but the only time I ever got to play it with Black in a tournament. I also believe that every time anyone played the Exchange variation against the French, I won with Black. (Hint: don’t bother to occupy the one open file with rooks; there are no points of penetration.) In December 1969, just before getting out of the Army (from Fort Eustis – Fort Useless) I won, in Hampton, Va., a game with White (a classical King’s Indian – while actually wins these when forcing the exchange of light bishops, and it’s amazing how often Black players allow it) against the reigning Armed Forces champion Robert Powell.

Visitors may want to check out the Paramount film “Searching for Bobby Fischer” (1993, dir. Steven Zaillian).

The chess playing days, I do miss them. I could hardly be competitive now. It's important to note that chess can be a good way to bring intellectual skills to the inner city. The First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC sponsored a metro-area chess tournament in 2005.

By the way, just the afternoon, AOL posted a story by Steve Gutterman, "Russia Says Nuke Strikes Possible," here.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Do the latest numbers make global warming real enough?

Juliet Eilperin has an important story in today’s (Sat. Jan 12, 2008) Washington Post, page A03, “Last Year Among the Hottest on Record, Say Experts,” here.
This was the hottest year on record except for 1998, with an average sea-land temperature for the planet just over 50 o F. (about 14.5 o C), about one degree over the average from 1951 to 1980. Anecdotally, many people started noticing warmer temperatures back in the 1980s. The “average” for the US is likely to be about 54 o F. (Calculating it is a good integral calculus and numerical analysis problem).

A related Post story appears by Mira Kamdar, on p B03, “It’s Costs just $2500. It’s cute as a bug. And it could mean global disaster.” The link is here.
This is about the tiny little scareb-like car called the Nano, from the Tata Group in India. If everyone in the developing world can afford a fossil fuel burning car, or even a car burning biofuels, there could be an incalculable effect on global warming, raising new ethical questions that we are hardly ready for.

I drive a 1997 car with 100,000 miles and could savor the idea of a new car under $3000.

Update: Jan. 14, 2007

See the stories on the rapid melting of part of the Antarctic ice cap, and effect on sea levels. A typical story is by Marc Kaufman "Escalating Ice Loss Found in Antarctica: Sheets Melting in an Area Once Thought to Be Unaffected by Global Warming", link here.

Marc Kaufman and Eric Rignot has a Q&A session on the Washington Post website today Jan. 14, "Science: Climate Change Impact on Antarctica", transcript link (with all the reader questions and answers) here. There is a lot of discussion of the specific geography of Antarctica.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

EU: European paternalism: no bargains allowed

The Jan. 5-11 2008 edition of The Economist featured a telling column on p 42, “Charlemagne: Shop-worn arguments: What strict national rules on shopping hours and sales reveal about European views of competition.” The URL is this: (may become archived and require subscription). Charlemagne, remember, was the ‘father or Europe.”

The story discussed the limitations on time when retail stores can have sales, and even limitations on hours. There seems to be particular concerns about clearance sales or sales at a loss. Sales must be “seasonal”; items may not be brought in for them, and sometimes 2-for-1’s etc, are prohibited. Most of the article focused on Belgium, which I visited just once, in May 2001, long enough to see an entertaining clown show in the train station. In 1999, however, in Germany I arrived on a Saturday (in Berlin) of a “long holiday weekend” and found almost no shops open, even Monday when I made a day train trip to Dresden. What was open was nightlife, and some bookshops near the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie.

I recall the early days of record collecting, when I took pride in finding $4.98 mono records (stereo hadn’t been around too long) at 2 for $3 or something. It seems as though Europeans do want to keep a lot of protectionism, maybe to prevent Wal-Mart or McDonalds racing through (although I’ve seen Golden Arches in French films).

There is something unsettling about trying to keep business owners from advancing their long term prospects by regulating their short term ability to charge less for certain things. (Actually, his happens in the United States with gasoline stations, possibly increasing prices for everyone more.) Imagine doing this with the Internet, where there is so much “free content,” because the establishment needs to pay its big salaries. When I see things like the WGA strike, with which I have some actual sympathy, or contemplate all the arcane provisions of the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) I wonder if this could be the next issue.

The last section of the article was called “The power of vested interests.” Indeed. It is a curious story, given the power of European banks and companies (like ING) in a world of globalization.

Of course, I don't know how the individual countries within the EU (besides Belgium) compare on this. Maybe the Netherlands (the Dutch supposedly invented the modern stock market) is better about this.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Samuel Brittan and the gold standard

There's a debate going on today about inflation and the previous gold standard on some message boards on the Net. I gumshoed around and found some of the papers by British financial guru Samuel Brittan.

His main web page is this. His work appears to address mainly British monetary policy, and right now British currency, as well as the Euro, are strong relative to the US Dollar, so it is the US, with the unmet spending for the War in Iraq and unconvincing oil policy, that is really having problems. But, for the record, one paper of particular interest is "The Old Stagflation Dilemma Again," from July 2007, here. For example, about Britain he writes: "In the UK the cost of living was highly stable from 1846 to 1914. Yet this long-term stability masked very sharp year-to-year movements. The cost of living fell by more than 12 per cent in 1846 and rose by a similar amount in 1853. In 1900, the last full year of Queen Victoria’s reign, prices rose by 8 per cent; and they fell by more than 2 per cent in 1908. These fluctuations provided a safety valve against short-term pressures..." In supporting the idea of the gold standard, he also says "US wholesale prices, for instance, increased by an annual average of only 0.1 per cent from 1879 to 1913."

Most of us have taken US History, and wondered how previous societies dealt with economic cycles. There have always been financial panics. Yet, the overall standard of prices seems to have been much more stable in the past, even if investments (like bank deposits) were at one time much less secure, before the New Deal. This always seems murky when presented to high school and college students today (even when writing exam question answers).

Also check "it's time to jettison the forecasts" here and "Business growth is not an end in itself" here. The dates on these articles seem to be in the wrong format.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

China will have government regulate user-generated video content

There have been multiple media reports about the fact that China, around January 31, 2008, will implement new rules regarding user-generated video content. They must not be designed to foment social instability. ISP's or software vendors that facilitate posting them must be state owned or state controlled. It was not immediately clear how this would affect YouTube or facilities like Blogger or Wordpress when used in China.

China, coming from its communist past, has a much more "collectivized" notion about the effect of speech than do western countries.

A typical story appeared in The Washington Post Jan. 4, p D08, by Min Lee and Michael Liedtke, "China Plans to Crack Down on Online Videos: Showings to Be Restricted to Sites Owned or Controlled by the Government," link here.

Several American companies, including Microsoft, have been criticized for cooperating with China's government in implementing censorship within China, in order to be able to continue doing business in China.

Feb. 8, 2008

The Washington Times
has a story Thurs. Feb 7 by Edward Lanfranco, "Chinese hackers crack Net censorship: but politics boring to most," here. One "entrepreneur" was auctioning betting points from computer games. The government fears that the Olympics will attract dissent on the web that international journalists will report this summer.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Kenya: unrest over elections not related to religion

At a time when elections and opposition in Pakistan are drawing so much attention, all the sudden the east coastal African country of Kenya is on the map, with violence following the Dec. 27, 2007 elections. As of this writing, the latest headline seems to be “Peacemaker Tutu Slams Kenya Elite.” The CNN link is here:
And a related link about mwai-kibaki is here.

The CIA fact sheet indicates that Kenya is only about 10% Muslim and is sort of a Christian country. I am aware of a male couple that went over there discretely about three years ago to work on the AIDS issue. The election violence shows that turbulence is really not a religious issue so much as a tribal one; it could happen regardless of the creeds of the people. The slums shown on televised reports look even worse than those often shown in Brazil.

The inland country next door, Uganda, with somewhat similar turbulence, was the site of a children’s music contest that generated the recent film “War Dance,” review link here.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Oil Prices hit $100 a barrel

On the first NYSE trading day of 2008, oil prices topped $100 a dollar, before settling back to $99.62. In early 2007, oil prices had been just over $50 a barrel. Pump prices are around $3 a barrel in most places, and it may seem surprising that they are not even higher.

As a result of rising prices the Dow fell 221 points, or about 1.7 % yesterday. And Exxon-Mobil (XOM) slipped bout 1.5 despite the higher prices, partly over concerns over violence in the producing areas in Nigeria. There is an AP story to the effect that oil inventories fell last week for the seventh straight period, link here.

The falling dollar may help account for some of the rise. One wonders if this economy can stave off 70s style "stagflation" forever without getting a grip on the trend regarding oil prices and supplies, where many warning is about passing "tipping points." The rising living standards in China particularly put enormous pressure on oil prices.

In the face of global warming, they still stay that the U.S. is the "Persian Gulf" of coal. Just fly over southern West Virginia now.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Legal furor in Canada over book and articles about population growth among Muslims v. low western birth rates

There is litigation in Canada (specifically Ontario and British Columbia) over an upcoming book from Regnery publishing, a conservative book publisher in Washington DC well known for some hard-hitting titles. At issue is Mark Steyn ‘s “America Alone: The End of the World as we Know It” which allegedly (and this is confirmed by comments on Amazon) argues that lower birthrates in the West relative to Muslim birthrates threaten political stability in Europe and maybe even in the U.S. The book is scheduled to be published early in 2008 and is available for pre-order from Amazon for less than $12.

According to Barry Brown, of The Washington Times, in a story run New Years Day, Jan. 1 on p A9, “Muslims sue over book’s birthrate warning: Call prediction of population conquest of West hate speeh,” the Canadian Islamist Congress has filed a formal complaint against Maclean’s magazine for running an excerpt from the book, here.

A quick search of the website shows that Steyn contributes regularly on religious and philosophical issues (including fundamentalist Christianity, too).

There is also a provocative book review in Human Events, written by Austin Bay, here.

There is an unfortunate metaphor about “reproducing like mosquitoes” that particularly incurred some wrath. Some Muslims are maintaining that all of this in Canada amounts to “hate speech.”

The litigation does not seek monetary damages in Canada, but wants Maclean's to publish a rebuttal.

Some commentators, like Philip Longman (his 2004 book “The Empty Cradle”) have long been warning about the lower birthrates in the West. These are associated not only with an increasing share of women in the professional (and even military) workplace and delayed pregnancies, but with cultural values, aided by technology, that emphasize adult self-expression over bearing and raising children, in comparison to the values of poorer countries. Even so, technology can assist with fertility. Furthermore, in the United States the birthrate has risen to about the replacement rate; and there are aggressive programs in some countries (France and particularly Russia) to improve birthrates. Many observers claim that mandatory paid maternity and paternity leave would help. However, the United States, without mandating such a benefit, has a higher birthrate than many countries that do. On the other hand, China has tried to reduce its birthrate with its unevenly enforced “one child per family” policy, which some people makes the new generation of Chinese more self-absorbed (“little emperors”).

Furthermore, birthrates in immigrant populations (Muslims in Europe) may well be higher than among native populations in western countries.

Update: Jan 16, 2008

There are many media stories that U.S. birthrates are the highest since the early 1960s. US birthrates are higher than in many European countries because of immigration, and because Americans are more likely to "like kids." However, Hispanics have higher birthrates than European descendants in the United States. The AP story by Mike Stobbe, AP Medical Writer, is "Against the trend, U.S. births way up," link here.