Thursday, December 02, 2004

Today's New York Times has news of some intriguing pieces of action on Wall Street.

The first concerns dotcom remnants in which the SEC has banned trading because their skeletal staffs haven't filed any quarterly reports in years. (Example:, a medical advice site branded by the former surgeon general, which was briefly valued by the all-knowing market at over $1 billion. So much for The Wisdom of Crowds.) In the middle of this article, we discover that shares of Webvan, another corporate zombie, were worth two hundredths of a cent the day before trading was suspended, on a volume of 165 shares. Apparently, someone actually traded 165 shares for 3.3 cents. Plus commissions. Or were there multiple trades? All of which begs the far more important question: Why?

On the more serious side: it's long been possible for people who want to disguise their holdings to adopt messy hedging arrangements in which they can profit from the rise of a stock to which someone else technically holds title. It seems some corporate raiders are discovering that there's benefit in being on the other side of that arrangement -- they're buying enough shares to give them a large voice in how a company is run, and then setting up a hedge in which someone else assumes all the financial risk associated with ownership. What's left for the raider is pure power, with nothing at risk, no matter how bad they screw it up. So the same impunity that Dubya had in the Texas oilpatch is now available to anyone... with the right connections.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

LWN reports on how free software project politics reflect those in the real world, and how they don't:

This Intent To Package posting was guaranteed to raise a bit of a fuss. The program involved is hot-babe, a graphical CPU utilization monitor. It works by displaying a typical Bruno Bellamy drawing of a minimally-clad, maximally-endowed woman. As the CPU gets busier ("hotter"), the woman undresses to compensate. Your editor, whose journalistic ethics required that he investigate this utility, found it to be an amusing addition to the desktop - for about five minutes, or until the children walk in, whichever comes first.

The Debian developers raised the obvious, predictable objection to the inclusion of this utility: the associated images were covered by a non-free license.

This is in LWN's weekly news summary; as per their usual policy, nonsubscribers will have to wait a week for their reportage on the resolution of this little difficulty...

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

American conservatives like to grouse about the pernicious effects of liberal academe, and its lack of support for Dubya's war in particular. For all that, one of the few academics with real influence on the shape of our government's Iraq policy is Bernard Lewis, an unabashed supporter. As Michael Hirsh notes here, Lewis's picture of Islam was formed in his youth, when he visited Turkey, and decided that he really liked the policies of Kemal Ataturk and his successors, which transformed Turkey from an explicitly Muslim state to a militantly secular one -- not just nonreligious, but overtly anti-religious, in ways (like outright bans of religious clothing and iconography) that would be difficult to imagine here in the States. In part that's because he visited Turkey just when it was having its first real elections -- it looked like secular democracy had triumphed. And the subsequent litany of military coups by the Kemalist military, which refused for decades to acknowledge the supremacy of any civilian government, failed to take the bloom off Lewis's rose.

Lewis sees the current situation in the Arab world as being rather similar to Turkey in the early 20th century -- needing a secularizing kick to get it out of what he sees as a failed and decadent Muslim culture. In a sense, he thinks we're still fighting the Crusades:

Lewis's basic premise, put forward in a series of articles, talks, and bestselling books, is that the West --- what used to be known as Christendom -- is now in the last stages of a centuries-old struggle for dominance and prestige with Islamic civilization. ... Osama bin Laden, Lewis thought, must be viewed in this millennial construct as the last gasp of a losing cause.... And if we Americans, who trace our civilizational lineage back to the Crusaders, flagged now, we would only invite future attacks. Bin Laden was, in this view, less an aberrant extremist than a mainstream expression of Muslim frustration, welling up from the anti-Western nature of Islam. "I have no doubt that September 11 was the opening salvo of the final battle," Lewis told me in an interview last spring. Hence the only real answer to 9/11 was a decisive show of American strength in the Arab world; the only way forward, a Kemalist conquest of hearts and minds. And the most obvious place to seize the offensive and end the age-old struggle was in the heart of the Arab world, in Iraq.

Hirsh mentions a lot of problems with this thesis. For one thing, Arabs are reacting less to battles of the past than to 20th-century European colonialism on their soil. They've already been conquered by Western arms. If conquest were the cure, we'd no longer have a problem. Also, in painting Islam itself as "the problem", Lewis simply ignores the still-living more moderate Muslim traditions of scholarship and science which were crucial to Europe's own rennaissance centuries ago, and which the radicals we're fighting are themselves trying to suppress. And on top of that, Kemal was a Turk, who was clearly following his own agenda -- not an agent of a foreign power, seeking to impose an externally conceived vision on the country. That kind of thing matters.

But there's another irony that Hirsh doesn't discuss. Let's think for a minute about what Ataturk, and the Young Turk movement in which he got his start, were really like. They weren't democrats -- their governments were highly autocratic, and the tradition they and Ataturk spawned was one of frequent military coups whenever a democratically elected government was stepping out of their line. They were rabidly nationalist, and bloody-minded about it. The young Turks were responsible for the Armenian genocide, and the current problems with the Kurds in Turkey (are they allowed to speak their own language yet?) are a continuation of Ataturk's policies. And they were, of course, explicitly, rabidly secular, even anti-religious.

Now, if an indigenous movement like that started within the Arab world, what ever would it look like? It would look quite a bit like -- it would have to look quite a bit like -- the Baath party, a movement which is secular (though not quite as militant about it as the Kemalists), nationalistic, and thoroughly autocratic. And one of the most prominent Baath leaders? The guy we just deposed, Saddam Hussein -- bloody-minded nationalism, oppression of minority ethnic groups, and all.

Now, I happen to think our project of deposing Saddam was ill-conceived. But he was still a bad guy, and it's a different thing entirely to say that the Middle East, or anyone else, needs more of him. If guys like this are our solution to the problem, maybe it's time to go back to the drawing board.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Like most lefties, I'm generally in favor of labor unions. But their history in this country is somewhat checkered, by everything from Stalinist communism in the '30s to overt racism, particularly before, when some unions were formed with an explicit goal being to preserve jobs for whites and keep out the negroes who were starting to migrate from the South.

It seems to some folks on Long Island, those were the good old days:

Immigrants arrived in droves in relatively small communities, making it impossible for residents to ignore their new neighbors. Some 80 percent of Long Islanders own their homes, and there are few rental apartments, so laborers are often crammed into single-family homes.

And thanks to the island's relatively weak labor unions, they can find work by standing on street corners, [Republican County rep Paul] Tonna said.

It's nice to know Republicans finally see the value of labor unions...

In the old days of the Soviet Union, owners of typewriters were required to provide samples of their output to the police, so that the origin of suspect documents could be traced.

That could never happen in modern America. We're more technically advanced. We have our laser printers cleverly encode their serial numbers into every document they print.

via WizBang...

In the old days of the Soviet Union, owners of typewriters were required to provide samples of their output to the police, so that the origin of suspect documents could be traced.

That could never happen in modern America. We're more technically advanced. We have our laser printers cleverly encode their serial numbers into every document they print.

via WizBang...