Wednesday, March 31, 2010

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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Living in the future, Egyptian politics section

Steven A. Cook writing in Foreign Policy [thanks to]:

Perhaps more important was the return to Egypt in February of Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), after a 12-year absence. ...Foreign news outlets estimated that as many as one thousand Egyptians turned out to welcome him home at Cairo’s airport -- and to implore him to run for president in Egypt’s 2011 elections (a significant number given the government’s record of intimidation and violence).

He coyly told the Egyptian and foreign press that he would consider running if the Egyptian government enacted electoral and party reforms to ensure truly free and fair elections. At the same time, he formed a new political organization called the National Front for Change, which encompasses a broad swath of Egypt’s fractious but largely ineffective opposition movement.... The creation of the Front, along with his tantalizing public statements, only amplified the ElBaradei phenomenon. By late February, Egyptian bloggers and journalists were reporting that one thousand people were joining ElBaradei’s Facebook page every ten minutes. This story is surely apocryphal, but it is nonetheless worth noting that ElBaradei currently has 82,069 Facebook supporters, compared to [Egyptian President] Gamal Mubarak’s 6,583.

Image:ElBaradei's Facebook fan page.

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Friday, March 26, 2010

A remarkable story about one of the United States and Iran

Every once in a while a news story shakes up your comfortable view of what the world is like. I have my cliché views of Mississippi, backward and conservative, and though I am not nearly so paranoid about Iran as most people in North America, it is a place with a repressive government, tremendous economic problems, which poses certain dangers to people in countries that its government disapproves of.

Before you read this, I would not have expected to hear that people in the state of Mississippi and the Islamic Republic of Iran were cooperating on a project to bring Iranian public health techniques to Mississippi. Since I think that a serious commitment to public health is practically synonymous with "civilization," this article in the Times Online both flabbergasted and pleased me.

An excerpt:

...with Congress acrimoniously debating the reform of healthcare, it is to Iran that one of America’s poorest communities is turning to try to resolve its own health crisis.

A US doctor and a development consultant visited Iran in May to study a primary healthcare system that has cut infant mortality by more than two-thirds since the Islamic revolution in 1979.

Then, in October, five top Iranian doctors, including a senior official at the health ministry in Tehran, were quietly brought to Mississippi to advise on how the system could be implemented there.

The Mississippi Delta has some of the worst health statistics in the country, including infant mortality rates for non-whites at Third World levels.

“It’s time to look for a new model,” said Dr Aaron Shirley, one of the state’s leading health campaigners.

“Forty years ago, when I was a resident at Jackson hospital, I was in charge of admitting sick babies and was astonished at all the children coming in from the delta with diarrhoea, meningitis, pneumonia.

“After years of health research and expenditure of millions of dollars, nothing much has changed.”
Facing shortages of money and trained doctors at the start of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, the new government launched a system based on community “health houses”, each serving about 1,500 people.

Locals were trained as health workers known as behvarz, who would travel their area, dispensing advice about healthy eating, sanitation and contraception as well as monitoring blood pressure and conditions such as diabetes.

It was a stunning success, reducing child mortality rates by 69% and maternal mortality in rural areas from 300 per 100,000 births to 30. There are now 17,000 health houses in Iran, covering more than 90% of its rural population of 23m.

Miller contacted Shirley, who is seen as a community health pioneer in Mississippi and had recently converted a deserted shopping centre in Jackson into a “medical mall” for the poor.

“I thought if the Iranians could do it with a fraction of resources we have, then why shouldn’t we?” said Shirley.
Shirley and Miller visited Iran in May and were astonished to be welcomed with open arms. When they went to remote villages to see the health houses, the Iranians were equally amazed.

“They told us this is a miracle,” said Miller. “Not only were Americans coming here, but also they were learning from us rather than telling us what to do.”

One villager exclaimed: “We always knew rain fell down but never knew it could fall up.”

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Magical thinking -- a scary survey of the present crisis

Allan Gregg talks to Chris Hedges on his book Empire of Illusion. Thanks to for drawing my attention to this TVOntario interview.

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

NGC 2442: A distorted galaxy

Click on the pic, or read about it here.

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Benefactors of humanity

More than once in the past I have said that Roger Pearse is a benefactor of humanity. It still seems to be true. Why is he our benefactor? He has taken it upon himself translate or commission translations of a great many early Christian works which have until now been available only to people who could read the original languages. Some people think that's fine -- if you don't know ancient Greek you would not understand these sources anyway -- but that's not my attitude, nor is it Roger's. As someone who has studied late antiquity and read a lot of obscure Christian literature from that era, I am in awe of Roger's generosity. The translations that he posts and otherwise gives away are not a complete substitute for the originals, but they make available part of the cultural and religious legacy of early Christianity to many new people.

I was inspired to say something about Roger by a blog post he published today, just one of the interesting posts of his that I've read since I discovered he had a blog. the Post announces a new translation of Hippolytus's Chronicon, one of the very first world chronicles written by Christian, in this case a third century Roman clergyman who eventually was martyred. (He is sometimes considered the first antipope.) In an earlier incarnation I had to know something about Hippolytus; it would have been nice to have this translation then.

But one of the interesting things about this new translation is that it is not, as far as I can tell, one of Roger's projects! There is another benefactor of humanity out there and this person is named T. C. Schmidt. Thank you very much, T.C.!

Image: Hippolytus being martyred, dragged behind a horse, from the Wikipedia entry on him.

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010



Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A curious, moving memoir of an Iranian mother

I have just started following the blog IranWrites, though it has been around for a while. Today a post called A Woman by Her Own Rights showed up. It would be impossible to make a representative excerpt, so I will just recommend it to you.

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Monday, March 08, 2010

It was a big quake

Concepcion, Chile, from The Big Picture. Click to see a larger image.

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Sunday, March 07, 2010

Now the walls say “Long Live Barcelona”.

After extensive travels outside of Baghdad, Nir Rosen reports:

As worldwide attention has returned to Iraq in the run-up to the March 7 elections, a new chorus of worry has emerged, concerned that the corrupt political manoeuvring of some Shiite parties – who have succeeded in banning prominent nationalist and secularist candidates under the thin pretence of de-Baathification – would lead first to a Sunni boycott and then to renewed sectarian violence and war. But just as the dismantling of the Sunni Awakening groups last year failed to produce the disaster many analysts predicted, the results of the election seem unlikely to stoke the embers of a new insurgency.

The continued sectarian exhortations of Iraqi politicians have been met with cynicism by the public, whose support for religious parties has diminished considerably. Iraqis are still “sectarian” to a degree: most Shiites prefer the company of Shiites and Sunnis the company of Sunnis. The vitriol and hatred of the war have faded, but a legacy of bitterness and suspicion remains. What has gone is the fear of the other – and it is this fear that led to the rise of the militias and the sectarian religious parties.

During my travels in Iraq last month – in the capital and, more importantly, in the surrounding provinces of Diyala, Babil, and Salahuddin – I found Sunnis and Shiites alike talking of the civil war as if it were a painful memory from the distant past. Just as the residents of Northern Ireland refer obliquely to “the Troubles”, Iraqis speak of “the Events” or “the Sectarianism” – as in, “my brother was killed in the Sectarianism”. Uneducated Iraqis might even say “when the Sunni and Shiite happened.”
If you are really interested in Iraq, you owe it to yourself to read the whole thing.
On my trips to Iraq in years past, I made a habit of scanning the walls of Baghdad neighbourhoods for bits of sectarian graffiti, spray-painted slogans that were pro-Mahdi Army, pro-Saddam, anti-Shiite or pro-insurgency. This time, however, there were almost none to be found; the exhortations to sectarian struggle had been replaced with the enthusiasms of youthful football fans: now the walls say “Long Live Barcelona”.
Image: Electioneering.

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Thursday, March 04, 2010

Lies, damned lies, and the official version

At the Harper's site is an article by Sam Smith called The revision thing: A history of the Iraq war, told entirely in lies. with a further subtitle, "All text is verbatim from senior Bush Administration officials and advisers. In places, tenses have been changed for clarity."

I have to wonder how many ancient monuments are the exact equivalent of this, except they were meant to be taken seriously. Yes, I'm looking at you, Ramses II.

Thanks to Randall Winn for the tip.

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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Matthew Paris really did not like the papal court

The great English chronicler and illustrator Matthew Paris is famous for his dislike of foreigners. Among the worst of foreigners were the Romans, the term he used primarily to mean members of the papal court, who used their positions to enrich themselves. In the 1250s, King Henry III of England and the Pope made an agreement which obliged Henry to conquer the kingdom of Sicily at his own expense; which would eliminate the Pope's most dangerous enemies. No one in England thought this was a good idea, except perhaps the King and the son that he was going to put on the Sicilian throne. Matthew Paris's reaction is a great example of his scathing anti-foreigner rhetoric.

In consequence of this [agreement], the Pope's messengers vied with one another, as it were, in coming to England to the king, for the purpose of carrying off his rich presents; for they smelled the sweet savor of his money from afar.

A few pages later, Paris illustrates "Roman" greed:
Master Berard de Nympha, native of the suburbs of Rome, died suddenly about the same time. He was a crafty and wealthy man, had been a clerk of Richard Earl of Cornwall, and had extorted money from the Crusaders on various specious pretexts. Amongst his goods was found in a coffer choose one of blank sheets sealed with the bull [the most important papal seal], which might be filled up at pleasure and applied to any misuse, such as fraudulently extorting money from the poor as if by authority of the Pope.

At first, Matthew's Chronicle struck me as pretty tedious, but it got better as it went along. There's a rhythm to these things, and it eventually caught me. Peres could write almost as well as he could draw.

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A Matthew Paris illustration, mid-13th century

Just for the heck of it -- the French defeat at Gaza.

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Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Some of Matthew Paris's favorite words

Extortions, oppressions, legate.

There's always a bad papal legate practicing extortions and oppressions.

Image: A legate at work, drawn by Matthew Paris.

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Here is a nifty article at the Smart Set, via the League of Ordinary Gentlemen (how appropriate!).

The aesthetic movement Steampunk wants to bring the wonder back into our relationship with machines. Its tack is to fully embrace (and affect) an Edwardian orientation to the world. Though Steampunk has been a growing cultural trend for a few decades, it really came into its own in the aughts and is now a full-fledged phenomenon. Steampunks dress like the Wright Brothers and Arctic explorers. They write alternate history fantasies in which alien clones ride around in dirigibles by the light of gas lamps. Steampunks are fascinated by mechanics, and Steampunk art, jewelry, and fashion often involve gears, wheels, pulleys, and, of course, steam: a laptop computer fused with a rickety typewriter; an arcade game redesigned to look like a mini-submarine. What most defines Steampunk as a culture, however, is attitude. The “punk” in Steampunk confronts technology's alienating qualities with messy DIY defiance. The “steam” (besides its literal connotations) is almost like another word for magic: brute, utilitarian contraptions powered by clouds, and breath — ephemeral energy.

Steampunk tries to capture that Edwardian moment when steam power still ruled and the romance of technology lay precisely in the line it toed between destruction and possibility. Equally fascinated by flying machines and trench warfare, Steampunk is both optimistic and nihilistic. I like to think of this attitude as Gleehilism. It's this Gleehilism that makes Steampunk one of the defining aesthetic movements of the early 21st century.
Image: Extraordinary gentlemen/woman.

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Monday, March 01, 2010

Military ordinances in St. Louis's army in Egypt, 1250

I am currently writing a book about Charny's Questions on War, which are concerned with resolving conflicts between men at arms according to the laws of arms. One thing that I have learned in the process of researching this book is that the law of arms as Charny saw it, and not just him either, was not the same as the rules for disciplining and managing an army. These rules were called ordinances, and they concerned such things as discouraging theft and fights within the army.

Today I was reading Matthew Paris's English History, an abbreviation of his Chronica Majora, and found a perfect example of the scope of ordinances. It also illustrates very nicely the potential for conflicts within armies, especially when high-ranking men from a variety of countries were in the same host.

This example comes from Paris's account of the crusade of St. Louis, King Louis IX of France, and it can be found in Matthew Paris's English History translated by J. A. Giles 2: 354-5. It concerns an English nobleman named William Longuespee who is campaigning with the French crusading force in Egypt, in 1250. He learns that merchants are passing near the crusading force, carrying luxury goods and necessities of life, which the Crusaders are short of. William attacks and successfully brings home the goodies. But the French (whom Matthew Paris famously despised) are not exactly overjoyed.

The French, who had remained inactive, and were in great want, stimulated by feelings of envy and avarice, met him, on his arrival, in a hostile way, and, like daring robbers, forcibly took from him all that he had gained, and imputing it to him as a sufficient fault, that, in his rash presumption, contrary to the King's order, and the ordinances of the chiefs of the army, and also to military discipline, he had proudly and foolishly separated from the whole body of the army.

Later William Longuespee goes to complain to King Louis of France; before they are done speaking the King's brother, the Count of Artois who "was the head and chief of this violent transgression and robbery," came in ranting about the evil actions of William. Among his complaints was this passage:

This man, in contempt of you and the whole army, urged by his own impetuosity, has of his own accord clandestinely carried off booty by night, contrary to our decrees; and owing to this, the fame of him alone, and not of the French King or his people, has spread to all the provinces of the East; he has obscured all our names and titles.

The end of the episode is interesting. King Louis refuses to do anything about the situation, excusing himself to William by saying "thus easily can a quarrel be originated, which God forbid should occur in this army. It is necessary at such a critical time to endure such things with equanimity, and even worse things than these." William, in contempt of Louis's supine (sensible?) attitude, leaves the army and goes off to Acre.

Image: Matthew Paris praying, as drawn by himself.

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"The crisis we are in"

I thought I did not have an hour to listen to Stephen S. Cohen talk about his recent book with Brad DeLong, The End of Influence: What happens when other countries have the money. But I was wrong.

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Friday, February 26, 2010

An amazing view of Kabul

From the Big Picture.

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Is the past another country?

Brad DeLong gave me the opportunity today to put a deeply-felt conviction of mine into words.

Brad was quoting from a blog called The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, whose author, Rufus F., was reflecting on the Odyssey.

[Brad]: Rufus F. on the Homecoming of Odysseus:

Homer “The Odyssey” | The League of Ordinary Gentlemen: I find his homecoming strange though. After winning a test of strength, Odysseus and Telemachus slaughter the suitors. The whole scene is excessive; he claims to kill them for their outrageous violence, but it amounts to boorish behavior and a failed plot to kill Telemachus. It would make more sense to run them off: “Scram, wimps!” Instead, Odysseus kills every last man for having dropped in for a visit and deciding to stay for several years...

[Brad:] It's considerably worse than that: consider the servant-women of Odysseus's palace who had consorted with the suitors:

"I will tell you the truth, my son," answered Euryclea. "There are fifty women in the house whom we teach to do things, such as carding wool, and all kinds of household work. Of these, twelve in all have misbehaved, and have been wanting in respect to me, and also to Penelope....

[T]he women came down in a body, weeping and wailing bitterly.... [T]hey took the women out and hemmed them in the narrow space between the wall of the domed room and that of the yard, so that they could not get away: and Telemachus said to the other two, "I shall not let these women die a clean death, for they were insolent to me and my mother, and used to sleep with the suitors."

So saying he made a ship's cable fast to one of the bearing-posts that supported the roof of the domed room, and secured it all around the building, at a good height, lest any of the women's feet should touch the ground; and as thrushes or doves beat against a net that has been set for them in a thicket just as they were getting to their nest, and a terrible fate awaits them, even so did the women have to put their heads in nooses one after the other and die most miserably. Their feet moved convulsively for a while, but not for very long...

Here's what I said in comments (touched up a little):

I am not so sure that the past is another country... Can't you imagine a similar scene taking place in another neighborhood in our own time, with the woman killers giving a similar justification? Remember that even in his own time that Odysseus was a smalltime pirate; today, unless he got particularly ambitious and inconvenienced the big guys,perhaps by hijacking a ship off the Horn of Africa, he would rate no space in the New York Times. Certainly the killing of the insolent women would get no coverage. Neither would the destruction of their elementary school or women's health clinic.

My point was, that the past is not one country, and our time is not a single country either, and the differences between different countries in any one era are very big sometimes' and broad similarities exist between some past countries and some in the present. Not everything that existed in the past exists in some corner of our own world now, but I believe that many things that existed in the time of, say, the Greek dark ages have rough analogues today. The failure to recognize that, I think, leads to one of the big errors of historical understanding: focusing on one country, one short period, one culture, one imperial court, one literary circle, and saying "this was the human experience on planet Earth at such and such a time."

And another serious mistake is to believe that some phenomenon that you find impressive or repulsive is absolutely unique in human history.

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Photojournalism from the Planet of Slums

Scavenging at a dumpsite near Jakarta, Indonesia. From the Big Picture.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Economics as astrology?

John Emerson over at Trollblog asks a very good question:
How flawed is economics?
And then he continues:
How deep does the problem go? I can’t prove anything, but we need to consider the possibility that the problem goes all the way down. Everyone except Eugene Fama knows that there’s a serious problem, but they’re mostly trying small tweaks and trying to make sure that their faction comes out on top. I’m suggesting that the larger claims of the science of economics are fundamentally unjustified.

One comparison is with alchemy and astrology. There was a great deal of truth in those sciences and they provided the foundations for chemistry and astronomy, but their largest claims were flatly wrong. The link they saw between their data and their empirical predictions and practical claims (the transformation of metals, eternal life, the prediction of the future) was nonexistent. The grand claims were bogus.

The second problem with economics is related to the first. Even within the orthodox schools (after excluding Austrians, Marxists, and other alleged fossils) there’s incredibly wide disagreement about critically important questions. You can always get an economist to say what you want them to say. (No, this is not true of climatologists).


What economics really is is a form of expert advocacy, like law. No one says lawyers don’t know anything. They’re very bright and knowledgeable and, in the context of our society, necessary and powerful. They do know a lot, but no one calls them scientists. If economics isn’t alchemy (or unscience), it’s law. Economists are highly skilled mercenary advocates within an sloppy, open system which is always in the process of redefining itself. And like most mercenaries, economists are most sympathetic to those who can afford them.

There's quite a bit more. And the comment section is very interesting, too.

I would suggest, off the top of my head, that the real problem of economics is that economists, having succeeded in creating a number of simplified models of reality, have forgotten that these are simplified models of reality. Early approximations, not THE ANSWER. I have criticized what I know of Freakonomics and related exhibitionist exercises for exactly that kind of tunnel vision. In that case, smug tunnel vision.

Image: an astrological vision of the universe. Pretty, isn't it?