Thursday, June 30, 2005

German election and Airbus coverage

Two very readable articles in Der Spiegel online today.

The first covers
Schroeder's electoral manipulations, and notes that his attempt to engineer a no confidence vote tomorrow may be contravene Article 68 of the German constitution.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is engaging in elaborate tricks and a real abuse of the German consitution in order to force new elections. It would be much easier if he just hung up his hat and stepped aside.

The second article analyzes EADS's (Airbus' corporate parent) chances to win at least a portion of the Air Forces's tanker aircraft. EADS has pulled out all the stops. They even recruited Roger "the dodger" Staubach (Football icon and US Naval Academy grad) as a spokesman. Just recently the view was that EADS had no chance. After reading the article, I remain pessimistic on the Europeans' chances. They have a lot of baggage to overcome with Airbus, and the 1,000 jobs created likely are far fewer than what Boeing would create if it won the contract.

But things seem to be looking up for the Europeans. As of last Wednesday, the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company, or EADS, can actually hold realistic hopes that it just might be the recipient of an initial order from the US military for 100 tanker aircraft. In the long term, the contract for replacement of the entire fleet of around 500 tanker aircraft is up for grabs -- a contract potentially worth up to $100 billion.

Ralph Crosby, EADS' North American Chairman and CEO, announced in Washington that his company would be willing to build a factory in Mobile, Alabama, creating up to 1,000 new jobs, if the Pentagon awards him the contract.

The pledge to create jobs in the United States is the first key condition for securing the deal. The second is to come up with a US company as a partner, and that's where things are looking good for EADS. The Europeans are currently involved in promising negotiations with Northrop Grumman, where Crosby was president. And the third condition -- one with which Crosby is all too familiar -- is to gain political support.

Crosby was joined on the podium by Republican Party leaders from Alabama and by Roger Staubach, whose agency was commissioned by EADS to start looking for a production site. The fact that Staubach is an American football legend already makes him the perfect standard-bearer. But even more important is the fact that he is a friend and supporter of the family of US President George W. Bush.

Swiss take lead role in seeking UN rights reform

The IHT has an article on Swiss efforts to reform the disaster that is the UN Human Rights Commission:

[...] While issues like Security Council enlargement take the spotlight, Switzerland's proposal to replace the Human Rights Commission, a discredited UN body, with a more powerful panel has quietly received support, from officials including Secretary General Annan and such countries as the United States.

Since it joined the UN, Switzerland has made human rights a central plank of a more active foreign policy.

Switzerland waded into the reform debate last year by proposing a human rights council in Geneva to replace the Human Rights Commission, which has become one of the UN's biggest embarrassments.

The commission, based in Geneva, fills its 53 seats by regional rotation, which means nations with poor human rights records like Libya or Zimbabwe often sit in judgment over democratic countries.

Switzerland has won widespread support for its idea to establish a council whose members would meet regularly, be selected by a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly and wield greater powers.

Speaking last week to the General Assembly, Anne Patterson, acting U.S. representative to the UN, said Washington backed the plan. Only China, of the major nations, has yet to lend its support, UN officials say.

In the past few years, Switzerland has begun to throw off its isolation.

Threats like terrorism demanded a more active approach to foreign relations, and were a factor in Switzerland's decision to finally join the UN and to commit armed troops to peacekeeping missions.

But the government still follows its 400-year-old policy of neutrality, which means it has refused to join such military alliances as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The United States favors a smaller rights council of 20 members with solid human rights records. Most developing nations prefer a larger council and oppose strict criteria for membership.

How far Switzerland can go in pushing this more-active foreign policy, though, might be limited by domestic politics, analysts say.

The country is split between people who want a more engaged relationship with the world, including eventual membership in the EU, and conservative voters in the east, the German-speaking part of the country, who think Switzerland should remain isolated.

Although the description of Swiss politics is largely true, momentum is swinging toward greater involvement in European and international affairs.

I share the US wariness regarding Switzerland's proposal. Unless there are safeguards as to who gets on the council, I can envision any number of nations with horrible rights records making it on the council (e.g. China).

Spain's Parliament legalizes gay marriage

Way to go, Spain. The law gives gay married couples the right to intestate inheritance and to adopt children.

Zapatero, not my favorite Spanish politician gets it right (emphasis supplied):

Zapatero said the reform of Spanish legal code simply adds one paragraph but means much, much more.

He called it ‘‘a small change in wording that means an immense change in the lives of thousands of citizens. We are not legislating, ladies and gentlemen, for remote unknown people. We are expanding opportunities for the happiness of our neighbors, our work colleagues, our friends, our relatives.’’

Growing up in northern California, my parents knew many gay couples. It never seemed bizarre that some men and women preferred their own sex. More importantly, I never saw it as the threat to the institution of marriage as many opponents of legalization claim.

Evidence for intelligent design?

I'm convinced. As a boy in northern California, I spent countless eternities waiting to go back in the ocean or pool after eating. My parents' rule was 30 minutes before so much as dipping a toe.

This directly led to my becoming an atheist. After all, no God could possibly be so cruel as to keep innocent children out of paradise only because He couldn't get the physiology right. Ergo, God did not exist.

Now, through God's revelations to his prophets, er, scientists, we discover that
no waiting is needed before hopping back in the drink. The fear was that oxygen was needed for digestion, while swimming in cold water would lead to vasoconstriction, thus leaving even less oxygen to reach the muscles, all leading to cramps, and a horrible death. Turns out we needn't have worried: some intelligent designer was watching out for us.

This evidence that some level of intelligent design has gone into creating us, has restored my faith.

My evidence for ID seems to be as falsifiable as others' evidence and consequently, about as useful (for a general description of the value of falsifiability, see this
entry from Der Kommissar). I recently read on an IDer's blog that his evidence for ID is that since a water fountain requires intelligence to design it, the fountain's designer also required an intelligent designer. QED: God exists. Breath taking logic, and no way to disprove the conclusion.

Double goodness: the specter that was haunting children everywhere is now lifted, and I have my faith back.

UPDATE: I was kidding about the getting my faith back thing.

Happy b-day to my brother

46 today. Poor bastard, although he does have two great kids to make decrepitude easier to take. He is a fine photographer who should do some photo blogging. Here is his website, with contact info if you want to hire him.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Blair peeling Zapatero from old Europe?

Not that it's difficult to get Mr. Bean, er, Zapatero to change course politically if he sniffs an advantage in it. Although John Vinocur's article in the IHT does note that Spain has more to gain economically from a loosening of the service industry, which is being pushed by Britain, than by standing with two apparent political zombies like Chirac and Schroeder.

In any case, Blair looks to be making progress in his aim of leading Europe away from the status quo championed by Chir-oeder. At the moment Blair is the only leader actually offering something resembling a plan; everyone else is scrambling to protect what is theirs and to seem forward looking to the voters.

[...] Since Tony Blair began his charge at European Union leadership and reform, the Spanish Socialist prime minister has started detaching himself - in what looks like a series of inconspicuous little surgeries - from the Gerhard Schröders and Jacques Chiracs that Spain judges no longer hold Europe in their grip.

For a political epiphany bracketing the changes aflicker in Europe, this is a fascinating one.

Roll back a little more than a year. Zapatero was elected in March 2004 through the combination of a murderous Qaeda train bombing in Madrid and its link in the mind of the Spansh voting public to the support of José Maria Aznar's government for the Iraq war.

Fleeing Blair and Bush, Zapatero quite literally threw himself into the arms of the French-German Righteous Brothers. For the next months, he talked of an us-and-them, Europeans vs. Anglo-Saxons world, a rigid construct of political corridors that stop, windows that look out on walls.

Now Zapatero has joined the Finns, Swedes and Dutch in voting no on the budget with the British at the failed EU summit meeting two weeks ago. His Spain has, with Italy, dodged embracing a German candidacy for a United Nations security council seat; or backing a proposal for another EU summit talkathon, favored by the French and Germans, and meant to slow the momentum of the British presidency that begins Friday[.]

Now Zapatero has scheduled, a bit conspicuously, a meeting with Blair in London late in July. Only details, according to Rafael Bardají, an adviser to Aznar, just a domestic political twitch designed to head off the appearance of isolation resulting from the implosion of the French-German axis to which Zapatero's Spain played acolyte. Blair, Bardají said on the phone, was too smart to have anything but the lowest expectations from Zapatero.

Officially, the Foreign Ministry offers a truism to explain its position: that it's an error for anyone to think that Germany and France are going to disappear from major European roles. But a second truism, this time unstated, trumps the first. Angela Merkel and the Christian Democrats are likely to be in power in Germany by mid-September.

From here, it looks like Zapatero's Spain, with the luxury of time for maneuvering and pondering the long haul, sees a European leadership vacuum, and regards Blair as the only leader now equipped to go after it. Executive summary: With Tony and friends probably running Britain, Germany and France in a matter of months or a year or two, it's a better play for Zapatero to be called an opportunist than a loser.

Navarro [Spain's Minister for Europe] stressed that Britain and Spain were economic success stories. More explicitly, according to Navarro, Spain would be "completely relaxed" about a British effort to revive the EU's dormant services directive that would have stopped protectionism in the services sector (70 percent of the EU economy and Spain's future), but was blocked by Schröder and Chirac.

Blair and Zapatero have other basics in common. Both can afford to make compromises on the EU's budget (involving eventual rollbacks of Britain's rebate and the Common Agricultural Policy), but are not necessarily under pressure to do so this year.

Now, like Aznar before him, Zapatero is suggesting that Spain, as the world's eighth biggest economy, merits a place in the G-8 grouping of the world's wealthiest nations. (To defend the downtrodden, of course). If you consider Spanish interests and Zapatero's desire to be a re-electable man of the world, staying too visibly attached to Chirac and Schröder in a changing Europe would make G8 membership an incoherent wish.

Zapatero seems to be adept at navigating EU politics. However, he must know that too many course corrections will label him forever a lightweight who blows with the prevailing wind.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Tour de France begins next week

The Tour de France has to be one of my favorite sporting events. Taking place over three weeks, it circles France either clockwise or counterclockwise depending on the year. Bike riders--nearly all doped, in my opinion--race and suffer like in no other sport.

Today's IHT has two articles by my favorite cycling journalist, Sam Abt. One is an a story on this year's tour, and his
analysis of Armstrong's challengers, the other reviews a couple of books about Lance Armstrong.

Abt feels, rightly, that Armstrong, even with a spotty spring, remains the one to beat. Although he identifies many contenders, among them Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich, and Iban Mayo, he notes that all have some sort of shortcoming. Interestingly, he quotes an anonymous coach from a competing team saying that Ullrich, a man known for finishing second to Armstrong, as being played out. At this stage I have Ullrich placing second or third to Armstrong, so I'll pay close attention to rumors of riders' condition and fitness.

Abt finishes his analysis:

The odds are against him, and so is his age. But both were unfavorable also last year, when he was a dominating victor.

In judging Armstrong's chances in his last race, the head says no, the heart says yes. Go with the heart.

Two books were recently released in the US; Abt reviews them here. By far the most interesting is the first. As a confirmed member of the "Lance is a doper" crowd, I enjoyed reading that his relations with a shady Italian doctor--recently convicted of sporting fraud and unlawful distribution of medicine--were much more extensive than he ever let on.

The other book seems more hagiographic, but must still be a good read for Lance worshippers.

Armstrong's story, even if he dopes, is astonishing. barring a positive doping test, he'll go down as a great champion. I look forward to all the articles, already largely written, which will see publication once the TdF is over and Lance is retired, that seek to position him among the pantheon of great riders (my view: he places behind Merckx, and Hinault).

Until then, I look forward to fantastic racing and drama in the peloton.

First RINO sightings posted

Say Uncle did a fabulous job with the first RINO sightings (Republicans/Independants Not Overdosed on the party kool-aid).

He's got everyrthing from humping rhinos to the recent SC Kelo decision to make private property easily alienable, even if you don't want to sell.

Quote of the day

More an action not words type of quote. Brought to us today by everyone's favorite emerging Orwellian nightmare: Zimbabwe.
The Mugabe government said Tuesday that besides knocking down shacks and the kiosks of street vendors, police are intensifying efforts to destroy vegetable gardens the urban poor plant in vacant lots around Harare, saying the plots threatened the environment.

Alert Orwell, Koestler and Conquest: it's starting again.

African Union giving Mugabe a free pass

Robert Mugabe becomes more autocratic as the years go on. From a celebrated national hero, he has now sunk to endlessly persecuting his political opponents. For the past month his troops and followers have been razing huge swathes of homes in Zimbabwe.

Even the EU, always slow to protest injustice in the world (notable exceptions:Israel and the US), has spoken up.

European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso has said he is "disappointed" by the African Union's response to Zimbabwe's demolitions campaign.

Speaking in South Africa, Mr Barroso said he was "gravely concerned" about events in Zimbabwe.

The AU said on Friday that it had many more serious problems to consider.

This is a dishonest dodge on the AU's part. What Mugabe has done to his country is criminal. He appears to want to destroy his enemies (and enrich his supporters) so badly that he is willing to bring his nation to its knees.

The UN says 275,000 people have been made homeless as a result of an operation which Zimbabwe says is aimed at removing illegal structures.

"I am disappointed with the reaction of the African Union to the latest crisis," Mr Barroso said after a two-hour meeting with South African President Thabo Mbeki, who has also refused to condemn the evictions.

Jose Manuel Barroso said the evictions were a 'human rights crisis'"This is a human rights crisis and human rights are not an internal matter. They should be the concern of all people, African, Asian and European.

The US and the UK have urged African leaders to speak out against what she described as "tragic" events.

But AU spokesman Desmond Orjiako told the BBC that if the Zimbabwe government said it was restoring order, then it would not be "proper for us to go interfering in their internal legislation".

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe said on Friday that the removal of illegal homes and market stalls was part of a bid to fight crime and clean up cities.

But the opposition says the demolitions - codenamed Operation Restore Order - are meant to punish urban residents, who rejected him in recent elections.

Mugabe has clearly crossed the line and now treats those opposing him as if they lacked basic civil and human rights protections.

Barroso is right to bring this up. The AU, traditionally reluctant to interfere in its members internal affairs, ought to shake itself out of its lethargy and hold Mugabe to account. At the very least they can manage a general condemnation of the situation.

I looked at Mugabe's party's website for good propaganda. They don't even bother anymore, it was last updated on 24 Sept 2004.

UPDATE: This article in the Weekly Standard gives a rundown on Mugabe's recent actions.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Swiss trains disrupted, in other news, Hell freezes solid

A real man bites dog story. Switzerland is known for its punctual trains, synonomous with precision for most of the world. However, two days ago nearly every train in Switzerland stopped during rush hour (only steam and deisel powered trains were able to run), due to a series of failures in the power grid.

Swissinfo and the BBC have articles.

Lucky Blair, redux

Yesterday I posted on Blair's chances to reform the EU budget. Today's IHT has an article noting that Blair's call for EU budget reform is gaining support, especially among the newest members. Of course, these nations are agreeing in principle only; once the bargaining gets down to brass tacks, they will extract some concessions to enlargement, and money. This from the Polish Foreign Minister:

Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld of Poland said in Warsaw that he agreed with Blair.
"I really like this vision because Europe today needs to take a fresh look at itself and to adapt better to the challenges of the contemporary world," Rotfeld said. He warned, however, "Poland must not lose out."
Another portion has this howler from the French Foreign Minister defending the oodles of euros it gets for its farmers, soon after calling for the ending of Britain's annual rebate (a political commitment enshrined in a treaty, I believe):

"We have a package for the years 2007-2013," he said. "Political commitments must always be respected."

German chancellor Schroeder (second worst chancellor in German history) is in full campaign mode for his upcoming battle with the Christian Democrats:

Writing in the mass circulation Bild newspaper, Schröder said differences in recent days and weeks "have shown clearly that Europe faces a choice in the coming months between two poles. The first wants to strip out the core of the European Union and reduce it to a kind of free-trade zone. The other wants to preserve a politically active, vital European Union. This is the vision I support."

All these divergant national interests will make any meaningful reform difficult. Certainly full German participation will have to await the outcome of the election.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Economist smells a deal on EU funding

The Economist, the only news magazine still worth reading, smells a typical EU backroom deal. Britain and France nearly came to blows during the recent EU budget row; now they need to find a way out of the extreme positions each took.

[...] Whatever their differences, Europe's leaders agreed, after the summit collapsed at midnight on June 17th, that the EU is in a mess. Jean-Claude Juncker, prime minister of Luxembourg, who chaired the meeting, declared that Europe was in “deep crisis”. Mr Chirac echoed these words and placed the blame squarely on Mr Blair, whom he accused of “egoism”. A visibly angry Mr Blair shot back at French accusations that Britain lacked a European spirit, saying pointedly that “Europe isn't owned by anybody.” He demanded a fundamental debate on the EU's future priorities.

Will Mr Blair use his presidency to pursue this debate? Probably not. The British position on the budget is a mixture of genuine principle and tactical manoeuvring. There is no doubting Mr Blair's sincerity when he argues that it is absurd of the EU to devote almost half its annual budget of €110 billion ($130 billion) to subsidising farmers, who make up less than 5% of the population. The British have long detested the common agricultural policy (CAP). They know there is support for switching the budget to more “modern” priorities. At the end of the summit five countries—Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland and Spain—rejected the compromise put forward by Mr Juncker. Encouragingly for Mr Blair, the German opposition, which should win elections in September, is sympathetic to the idea of EU budget reform.

Yet the British ratcheted up the pressure for further reform of the CAP only when it became clear that Mr Chirac was determined to assault the rebate that returns to Britain some two-thirds of its net contributions to the EU budget. It seems that, if the French point a gun at the rebate, the British will do the same to the CAP. If Mr Chirac dropped his objections to the rebate, Mr Blair's demands for a review of farm subsidies would subside. In fact, because both France and Britain have made such a fuss, neither can now back down completely.

The outlines of a deal are clear. The British will keep most of their rebate; in return, they will get a commitment to a review of the CAP, perhaps in 2009 or so. Fans of Mr Blair will be disappointed if he accepts such a business-as-usual deal, which he denounced in the House of Commons as the usual EU fudge “cobbled together in the early hours of the morning”. But Mr Blair knows the central Europeans are upset that a budget promising them billions has been delayed—and that they hate seeming to pay towards the rebate. He knows too that if a budget deal for 2007-13 is to be done in the next 12 months, the present proposal, which still devotes 40% of spending to agriculture, cannot be totally recast. [....]

As it stands, some sort of deal needs to get done. The newest members will long remember who diddled them out of their share of the EU monies. Reformist countries will have to hold their noses and accept whatever is worked out.

Lucky Blair?

"Lucky Blair" begins the Real Clear Politics headline of this TIMES opinion piece (I don't think it references Amis' Lucky Jim) which analyzes recent EU follies. Can't say I give Blair much chance to accomplish all too much in his six month term as EU president, but the article does note the potential for Britain making a lasting impact on the EU.

[...] To put the matter at its grandest, Mr Blair now has an opportunity to turn European politics in a new, pro-British, Atlanticist direction and to emerge as Europe’s dominant political leader, stamping the label “Blairism” on EU economic and foreign policy for the next decade.

How could a flawed political trickster, until recently despised and derided by many of his own country’s voters (myself included), hope to turn into a statesman worthy of comparison to Churchill, Roosevelt, Thatcher or De Gaulle? This is where we must consider the role of Lady Luck.

When Mr Blair returned from Brussels on Sunday after his confrontation over the EU budget, the initial view was that Britain had, as usual, overplayed its hand and been outmanoeuvred by France. President Chirac had achieved his main objectives: he managed to isolate Mr Blair and forced him to use his veto. President Chirac thus successfully distracted attention from his own referendum fiasco and proved that the main obstacle to the European project remained the treachery and selfishness of the British. As a bonus, the cunning ambush sabotaged Britain’s EU presidency, and has driven a wedge between Mr Blair and his incipient allies in Eastern Europe by forcing Britain to block an increase in funding for the East which was added at the last moment to the vetoed budget deal.

But this defeatist analysis has turned out to be completely wrong. President Chirac, far from returning to Paris in triumph, has been almost universally ridiculed for trying to distract attention from his own political failures by an irrelevant struggle with Mr Blair. The Prime Minister, far from being isolated in Brussels, was explicitly supported by Sweden and the Netherlands in the budget vote in Brussels and was quietly encouraged by the other Scandinavian countries, Italy and Ireland and, most importantly, by the conservative leadership which is likely to take control of Germany within the next few months. In fact, it now looks like France, rather than Britain, will become the odd man out in Europe, with President Chirac’s isolation only underlined by the insignificance of the only two allies he can still depend on — Belgium and Luxembourg.

Meanwhile, Eastern Europe, far from being alienated by the British veto, appreciated Blair’s proposal that Britain may give up the part of its budget rebate that is financed by Europe’s poorest member states. And the budget deadlock, far from sabotaging Mr Blair’s presidency, will actually help him, since he has now broken the taboo in British domestic politics over renegotiating the totemic rebate which Margaret Thatcher famously called “my money”. With the rebate now up for discussion, Mr Blair should be able to score an easy diplomatic “triumph” by making small further concessions in the next budget summit.

Beyond these tactical considerations, three more important messages have been sent to the whole of Europe. First, with France and Germany economically moribund and destined for a long period of introspection, the Franco-German alliance can no longer lead Europe, even if it could agree on the way forward, which it no longer can. Secondly, the EU founding fathers’ vision of a forced march to “ever-closer union”, driven by the Brussels bureaucracy and the French political elite, is no longer democratically acceptable. Thirdly, Europe’s need for strong but pragmatic leadership is greater than ever because the present course points straight to economic ruin.

The obvious candidate to fill this leadership vacuum is Britain under Tony Blair. Mr Blair’s Third Way rhetoric may seem half-baked and self-contradictory in the context of British or American politics, but trying to find a compromise between capitalism and social democracy is what mainstream politics in every European country is about. Moreover, Mr Blair, while he may be no great economic or political theorist, has a track record unique among the major European leaders, of running a Third Way model with a modicum of success.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Europe’s dominant parties from across the political spectrum — from the Right in Germany, Italy and the Netherlands to the Left in Sweden, Poland and Portugal — are converging on Mr Blair as the potential standard-bearer for a new vision of Europe which is less politically ambitious but more economically dynamic, a Europe in which many different “social models” can operate, and thrive.

I have been enormously surprised by Blair's transformation over the years. He started out as glib Clinton clone, but has matured into a statesman (something Clinton notabley failed at). Aside from enjoying the political theater to come, I hold out real hope that Blair can organize some sort of coalition of the willing to begin a much needed EU budgetary overhaul. I should note that this is the 200th anniversary of the naval battle off Trafalger, where the Brits routed the French. It would be nice if Blair were to reprise Nelson's role.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Conventional wisdom, corrected

Conventional wisdom when playing tennis is that the most important game to win in any set is the pivotal 7th game.

This was popularized in the 80's, when tennis experts on TV would mention it every freakin' 7th game of every bloody set. It then became widely repeated on the courts. I can't recall the number of times my doubles partner would say something like: "It's the 7th game, let's really bear down".

In this case the CW is wrong. Here is the truth: The most important game to win is the one you're currently playing.

You're welcome

FIrst RINO Carnival

Say Uncle is hosting the first carnival for RINO members, called RINO Sightings. Send him your submissions, with links.

Note to the ACLU hating religious right

Please add this bit of info to your calculus (not that it will change any opinions, but it might cause a sputter or two):

The American Civil Liberties Union intends to appeal a federal judge's dismissal of a challenge to a Clark County School District dress code.

"We said from the very beginning this is a decision that would be made at the Court of Appeals," Nevada ACLU lawyer Allen Lichtenstein said Thursday.

Lichtenstein said he will appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

U.S. District Court Judge Roger Hunt ruled Friday in Las Vegas that a dress code in effect at 25 of the district's 301 campuses does not violate constitutional freedoms of religion or expression.

"Students may continue to express themselves through other and traditional methods of communication throughout the school day," the judge said. "Only their ability to communicate through their choice of clothing is incidentally restricted."

The ACLU argues that federal constitutional issues are at stake. It filed the case in October representing high school junior Kim Jacobs. She was suspended at Liberty High School in Las Vegas in September for wearing shirts bearing religious symbols.

School officials said Jacobs violated a campus dress code that required all students wear khaki pants and a plain red, white or blue shirt.

UPDATE: I should have noted when I posted that this is not intended to support the ACLU's position in this case. I posted this news because the ACLU is often portrayed by the religious right as being a first cousin to the devil. I thought it nice to discomfit them, however slightly.

From the sketchy info available in the article, I happen to agree with the court's holding here. If the school district bans all messages on t-shirts, then I have no complaints. However, if only religious messages are excluded, then I 'm with the ACLU. More examples of the ACLU defending religious freedom.

Time to rethink nuclear power?

Big Cat Chronicles (BCC) has been delving into alternatives to fossil fuels. She has done impressive research into a new technology called pebble bed modular nuclear reactors (PBMR), a type of high temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTR), which is reputed to be more effective and safer than current reactors.

I have been a proponent of nuclear power since the mid 1980s after reading Before It's Too Late: A Scientist's Case for Nuclear Energy. The author focused on how pressure groups and the media were putting out inaccurate information on the risks of nuclear power, and countered their claims with data and opinions from experts.

Without question, safety is the most important consideration for the public. If PBMR proves considerably safer than current second and third generation models, it will have cleared a major public acceptance hurdle. Moreover, the coating on the fuel used in PBMR makes it more difficult to get to the nuclear fule itself, making diversion to terrorist uses less likely. The first PBMR reactor is due to go online in 2010.

BCC's post is lengthy, readable, includes many links to more info/opinions, and is very much worth your effort. She also has many other posts on oil, the Oil industry, and all things energy.

To her extensive list, I would add this
excellent article from Chemical and Engineering News discussing new technologies.

Agricultural subsidy posting--read it, it's good for you

The EU is set to slash sugar subsidies. Painful for the sugar beet industry, but necessary as the WTO upheld complaints from other nations.

In other agriculture news, The Economist digs through a new OECD report on subsidies:

A new report, released by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) on Tuesday June 21st, shows just how little progress has been made on liberalising agriculture over the past two decades.

There is, though, wide variation between OECD members. Producer support is worth less than 5% of farm receipts in New Zealand and Australia, but amounts to roughly 20% throughout North America, 34% in the European Union, and a whopping 60% in Japan.

Europe, in particular, is struggling with its cosseted and deeply entrenched farm lobby. France has historically been the biggest obstacle to reform; almost half its area is farmland, and its farmers defend their subsidies vigorously. Thanks to such obstructionism, the EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP) accounts for nearly half of its overall budget, even though only 4% of its population still works the land. Though there has been some modest progress on reform in recent years, disputes over the CAP are still acrimonious. A row over its funding was the main reason for the collapse of the EU summit in Brussels last week.

America’s agricultural mollycoddling is less egregious, but egregious it still is, and the farm lobby is just as determined to keep the money flowing.

[T]he OECD is looking to the WTO for further progress on subsidies. A hopeful sign is that agricultural protections are beginning to be disputed at the WTO. In 2002, Brazil challenged America’s cotton subsidies, saying they violated the so-called “peace clause” in the Uruguay round, which protected farm subsidies from challenge only provided they were capped at 1992 levels. In a landmark victory, in April 2004, the WTO ruled in Brazil’s favour. The peace clause has now expired, leaving rich-world subsidies vulnerable to further onslaught.

When it comes to political hypocrisy, few things can approach ostensible free-market proponents talking about the need for such protectionist policies. I hope smaller, poorer countries keep the pressure on the EU and US.

EU fails to cut greenhouse gases

Signing the treaty is always the easy part.

Emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide rose in the European Union by 1.5% in 2003 after falling in 2002, the European Environment Agency reports.

Italy, Finland and the UK were named as the worst offenders while cold weather was blamed for a rise in the use of fossil fuels to heat homes and offices.

Ecologists believe the EU is unlikely to be able to meet its promise to cut emissions by 8& of 1990 levels by 2012.

A spokesman for Friends of the Earth called the new figures "shocking".

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Even Joschka Fischer gets it, sort of: EU must reform

Joschka Fischer, one time socialist street brawler turned Green Party leader, and now German Foreign Minister noted that something must be done in Europe. His suggestion: ever closer union in order to combat globalization and to avoid--the recurrent national nightmare for Germans-- a return to nationalism:

Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of Germany warned Monday that Europe could descend into a "conflict-ridden" bloc, unable to compete successfully in the global market place if the member states did not work together.


"Either the Europeans come together or we will stay weak," Fischer told reporters. "A Europe not based on solidarity will be a Europe based mainly on national egotisms. We will immediately enter a situation of a very weak, conflict-ridden Europe."

He gets points for recognizing something must be done, but immediately loses some of them for insisting integration is the answer, rather than loosening labor market controls.

This realization is glacial in coming. At this point, it is important that contemplated actions have a decent chance of mobilizing people or at least raise their level of interest to "indifferent". In this case, the EU should not follow the unwritten Army rule: do something, even if it's wrong.

Doubtless integration is important to Europe's future, but even if more nations approve the constitution through referendum, or straight-arm it through parliament as Poland's president is now suggesting (clearly not trusting the voters), other nations can be expected to vote it down, leaving things in flux.

Quick aside for a quiz: Name the EU bureaucrat with the most time on his hands. Olli Rehn, the enlargement commissioner. His duties have been hugely curtailed in recent weeks.

Before meaningful integration is achieved, a bloody budget battle will play out. Farm subsidies have assumed iconic status in France, while Britain is agitating for a thorough budget overhaul. If Britain can peel Germany away from it's close alliance with France, the EU can make strides, otherwise they'll be stuffed so far in a hole as a pigeon can fly in a week.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Piling on the EU bashing bandwagon

UPDATE: Der Spiegel has a round-up of the the German papers have to say on the EU budget follies.

I was out pretty much all weekend, and therefore missed many blogging opportunities regarding the failed EU summit in Brussels.

Not to worry, though, as each day brings a new nadir for politicians facing economic crunch time; pity they are more interested in blaming one another. To be fair: I can't imagine US politicians doing much better.

If there is political gain to be had from an issue, politicians will go after it, no matter their nationality. Case in point: On Austrian TV last night a member of the far right, and government minister, spoke of the need to begin contemplating the dissolution of the EU itself.

Today brings more fallout, and interpretation of just what the heck the EU elites think is going on.

First up, an IHT editiorial noting the cluelessness at the top:

The loudest message that European voters, including the French and the Dutch, have been sending to their leaders for some time now is that those leaders have done a dismal job of promoting the European Union or explaining why it's good for Europe. If they've heard that message, the EU leaders who gathered in Brussels for a summit last week made a good show of ignoring it as they plunged into a tawdry dispute over the next EU budget and concluded their meeting in a welter of mutual recriminations for failing to agree to one.

The leaders should have realized before they met that trying to tackle the budget at this time was unwise, and unnecessary. Fighting over figures is hardly recommended during a full-scale identity crisis, and the current budget is good through the end of 2006. [...]

It boggles the mind why the current President of the EU allowed the meeting to go forward. Predictably, the tensions boiled over, and the EU lost even more credibility. Further shaming the large EU nations was the offer by several of the new members to refund some of their subsidies.

Next comes a discussion, also in the IHT, of the possibility of the new members espousing the British view of EU economics. For fans of political theater, the battle royale for the hearts and minds of the 10 newest members between Blair and Chirac/Schroeder will be most entertaining:

Given the new members' generally forward-looking economic attitudes, there is some chance that they will eventually migrate to Blair's corner. If he is clever, he will convince them that the changes Chirac opposes - like a free market for services - are worth much more to them than any payments from Brussels. He may even persuade them that a plant making computer chips would be a better use of space than plants making fruits and vegetables.

By coincidence, Blair's impeccable economic arguments square perfectly with a political imperative - defending his country's rebate during a time of rampant Euroskepticism at home.

Chirac presents the opposite conundrum. His high-minded talk of solidarity between former enemies conveniently falls into line with the best strategy for filling his government's coffers. When Chirac speaks, it is difficult to know if he is channeling idealistic giants from Robespierre to de Gaulle, or if he is simply a tight-fisted pragmatist driven by the ultimate maxim: more is better.

Last up, an analysis of the rival views. The article notes that Poland is taking up the cause of closer union amid fears of increased nationalism--which is certainly understandable given its history over the last century. I think that once the free-for-all over economic subsidies and economic future begins, Poland will look to its own interests and fall into the Blair open market camp:

[...] Wolfgang Schüssel, chancellor of Austria, who will take over the presidency from Britain in January 2006, was just as explicit in his view over how Europe was becoming divided between two rival camps. "

It's about money. Some wanted to get more out or pay less in," Schüssel said on Germany's ARD public television. "And secondly, it's certainly the question of the concept. The British want a different Europe. They want a more market-oriented Europe, a large market but no deeper union."

Some countries, most notably Poland, are deeply concerned that the spirit of the EU is no longer being driven by solidarity between new and poor member states but by national interests alone. "A deal at the summit was impossible because of theincrease in national egoism," Poland's deputy foreign minister, Jan Truszczynski, said in an interview Sunday.

These pessimistic views over Europe hardly bode well for the British prime minister, Tony Blair, as he takes over the EU presidency. Blair's philosophy of more open and flexible economies had often been lauded in East Europe. But his failure to compromise during the summit meeting is now leading the new member states to reappraise their view of Britain.

By blocking the 2007-2013 budget, Blair has denied the new member states the means of making joining the EU a success even though Britain had been a champion of enlargement. According to East European diplomats, Blair exposed his real intentions over how he sees the European Union.

Poland's media on Sunday were scathing about Britain's role at the negotiations. "Blair torpedoed a summit which would have brought in tens of billions of euros for Eastern Europe," Poland's Rzeczpospolita daily newspaper commented. "London does not want to pay for the expansion of the EU. An accord between the leaders of the 25 came apart over the opposition of Great Britain to bearing the costs of expanding falling upon that country."

Such views suggest that Blair during his time in the EU presidency cannot take it for granted that his view for a more "modern" Europe will find widespread support from the new member states.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Photo blogging from ART Basel

Art Basel is the world's largest fair for 20th and 21st century art. I went there with my family to see what was passing for art these days. While most of action takes place indoors, outdoor art exhibits are scattered around the open spaces in front of the exhibition halls.

This piece of working art was a hit with my daughters. The photos show part of the lower GI tract. The orange "blossom" is the rectum. Enjoy.

Yes, you are looking at the Rectum bar. Much like you would expect, things were very cozy in there.

The Ass bar. My daughter snuck in for the photo.

The rectum. Looks a bit like a pumpkin, but better that than too realistic. My wife and three year old daughter are alongside.

More rectal goodness. My oldest daughter plays the part of the happy turd.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Krauthammer: assimilation is key to immigration

Charles Krauthammer's latest in the WaPo is right on the money. I find his call for assimilation, and then more assimilation the right answer to those who fear immigration, especially Hispanic immigration. Of course, the devil is in the details, but forcing immigrants to become Americans has worked for many generations.

...Being mankind's first-ever universal nation, to use Ben Wattenberg's felicitous phrase for our highly integrated polyglot country, carries enormous advantage. In the shrunken world of the information age, we have significant populations of every ethnicity capable of making instant and deep connections -- economic as well as diplomatic -- with just about every foreign trouble spot, hothouse and economic dynamo on the planet.

That is a priceless and unique asset. It is true that other countries, particularly in Europe, have in the past several decades opened themselves up to immigration. But the real problem is not immigration but assimilation. Anyone can do immigration. But if you don't assimilate the immigrants -- France, for example, has vast, isolated exurban immigrant slums with populations totally alienated from the polity and the general culture -- then immigration becomes not an asset but a liability.

America's genius has always been assimilation, taking immigrants and turning them into Americans. Yet our current debates on immigration focus on only one side of the issue -- the massive waves of illegal immigrants that we seem unable to stop.

In the end, increased law enforcement, guest-worker programs and other incentives that encourage some of the illegals to go back home can go only so far. Which is why we should be devoting far more attention to the other half of the problem: not just how many come in but what happens to them once they're here.

The key to assimilation, of course, is language. The real threat to the United States is not immigration per se but bilingualism and, ultimately, biculturalism. Having grown up in Canada, where a language divide is a recurring source of friction and fracture, I can only wonder at those who want to duplicate that plague in the United States.

The good news, and the reason I am less panicked about illegal immigration than most, is that the vogue for bilingual education is waning. It has been abolished by referendum in California, Arizona and even Massachusetts.

As the results in California have shown, it was a disaster for Hispanic children. It delays assimilation by perhaps a full generation. Those in "English immersion" have more than twice the rate of English proficiency than those in the old bilingual system (being taught other subjects in Spanish while being gradually taught English).

The cure for excessive immigration is successful assimilation. The way to prevent European-like immigration catastrophes is to turn every immigrant -- and most surely his children -- into an American....

My parents immigrated from Holland and Switzerland. While they had the advantage of speaking English from the get-go, they made sure my brother and I were immersed in all things American. This included Scouting, camping, baseball, and speaking English at home.

In a sort of reverse migration, my family moved to Switzerland two years ago, and my eldest daughter began Kindergarten. She received extra German classes, but really picked up the language from hanging out with her classmates (the same way I picked up French as a child when my Father--a banker--was posted to the Belgium Congo for a few years).

Einstein's miracle year celebrations

1905 is rightly called Einstein's miracle year. While working at the Patent Office in Switzerland's federal capital, Bern, he published three groundbreaking papers that changed physics forever, while simultaneously earning his doctorate. Any of the papers likely was enough to win a Nobel prize, but it was his special theory of relativity which earned it for him.

While many people know he was born a German, few realize he gave up his German citizenship and was stateless for several years before acquiring Swiss citizenship (thus showing impeccable taste). He also earned his doctorate at
Switzerland's top university (ranked 27 in the world, and 1 on the European continent).

apartment in Bern recently opened after a major refurbishing, while the city has a whole series of events planned, and an exhibition on his life and works.

A couple of quick quotes:

1. "The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources."

2. "When you sit with a nice girl for two hours, it seems like two minutes. When you sit on a hot stove for two minutes, it seems like two hours, that's relativity."

UPDATE: The BBC notes that Einstein's general theory of relativity may permit time travel, but a new quantum model predicts you can't alter things. Much like Vonnegut wrote in Slaughterhouse Five.

Pope objects to Swiss partnership law

The Pope has criticized aspects of Swiss politics. Although he doesn't specifically mention this month's country-wide referendum giving gay couples increased rights, there is little doubt he had it in mind when penning this (emphasis supplied):
Like the majority of western European countries, Swiss society has undergone a considerable moral evolution and, under the dual pressure of technical progress and the will of part of public opinion, new laws have been proposed in several areas which affect the respect for life and the family. These concern the delicate questions of the transmission of life, illnesses and the end of life... and the role of the family and respect for marriage.

To each his own, but he should acknowledge that "the will of part of public opinion" was a solid majority of Swiss voters. Where we find common ground is opposition to legalized assisted suicide.

On the plus side, he can rap out orders to the Swiss guards in High German.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Raging R(h)INO--c'est moi

N.Z. Bear has shiny new digs, and the Raging RINOs get organized. The Truth Laid Bear has a new less cluttered look to his site, and now offers communities, which are basically sub groups of like minded individuals.

Raging RINO (Republican/Independants Not Overdosed--on the party Kool-Aid) is one such group, made up of conservative bloggers who sometimes find ourselves disagreeing with the Republican party line. As one repulsed by dogma of any sort, I'm a natural RINO, and probably the only expat member.

Der Kommissar, he of the Coalition of the Chillin' and map making, has organized the RINOs (sign up here). Other members are found on the RINO community homepage.

The last time I was a charter member of anything was when I joined the
Banana Splits. Could there be nifty membership cards in the offing?

UPDATE: My RINO logo is up. Thanks to J.D.--the logo's designer--over at Evolution v5.1 for needed technical assistance (he took the time to walk me through the process).

Like modern art? Come to Basel

Art Basel is the preemminent art fair for 20th and 21st century art. Collectors come from around the world to snap up works from promising young artists, and famous pieces by well-known artists.

I attended last year and bought my first work of
recognized art--much to my wife's chagrin, as she doesn't share my interest in 20th century German art. The event is a gas to attend, with all sorts of displays and performances. We hope to go back this year.

The show's scandal du jour centers on a
bar of soap purportedly made from Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi's liposuctioned fat.

Swiss army targets tourists

No, that's not another unsubstantiated Eason Jordan claim, it's the headline from a Swissinfo article on the Swiss Army Museum (German, French). And, yes, Swiss army knives are part of the collection, as are displays showing the military as pretty snappy dressers.

I've seen the French (humungous) and Austrian war museums, and will drag the family to this one the next rainy weekend.

Because the army is becoming smaller, there are frequent sales of old equipment. At the last sale I went to I bought a wool blanket (with the Swiss cross woven into the fabric) and canteen I use to carry wine on picnics.

The article also discusses some notable secret bunkers in the area, some of which are open to tourists.

The cantonal road heading southeast from Thun passes old infantry bunkers still disguised as railway buildings, barns and chalets. The gun emplacements in the cliffs above the lake are invisible to the naked eye.

After most of this infrastructure was abandoned in the 1990s, some of the mountain fortifications and bunkers were handed over to civic foundations for safekeeping. They in turn have opened them to the public.

The locals knew that this was a military complex of some kind, since the buildings have disproportionately large doors and there were never any farmers going in or out," recounts Jakob Rieder, who leads me round a cluster of traditional farm buildings in the village of Faulensee. The farmhouses were in fact concrete artillery bunkers, hidden by wooden façades and connected by a series of underground tunnels.

Rieder opens up one of the heavy metal doors painted to look like wood to reveal a gun barrel positioned to fire over nearby houses. He tells me the guns had a range of 21 kilometres – far enough to hit German divisions advancing on Thun.

The Swiss were expert at disguising builings, and went to enormous lengths to protect and care for civilians; the world's largest underground hospital is located in the area, and a whole airbase was hollowed out of a mountain. They were clearly serious about defending the country.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Swiss architects' plans for Hamburg symphony

For such a small nation, Switzerland has many noted architects. Two of the most famous are the duo Herzog and de Meuron. Der Spiegel Online has an article on their plans for a new concert hall in Hamburg (great city, but damned cold).
...[S]tar Swiss architects Jacques Herzog & Pierre de Meuron -- winners of the 2001 Pritzker Prize and hot from their success at building Munich's new Allianz Arena -- are hoping to erect an ephemeral-looking €196 million concert hall called the "Elbe Philharmonic." The hall is to be placed on top of an old warehouse and at night, will be lit up to look like a castle floating on air.
I'd seen pictures of the proposed concert hall, but was less than impressed. Now, however, I've come around and hope it is built.

The strange part about the architects' plan, however, is that they totally circumvented normal channels in order to push it through. Instead of proposing it to the city and undergoing standard competition with other architects, the men got backing from a private investor and went straight to the press. Naturally, the idea became an immediate media darling. The whole scenario has left city officials a bit flummoxed and in a strange grey zone between what is allowed and what is good for the city. And certainly an architectural wonder -- as the 37-meter-tall (120 feet) Elbe Philharmonic promises to be -- would be good for the city's image. Officials are set to vote on the project on July 12, but as it now stands there seems to be little doubt that it will move forward.
Other projects on the board for Hamburg are noted in the article and computer simulations accompanying the article.

World Summit of Evolution

The First World Summit of Evolution took place in the Galapagos Islands this past week. The Scientist magazine had a correspondant blogging the affair, including a Eu vs. Prokaryotic moment of tension, and a wonderful talk on Darwin's finches.

The final day's program looked especially interesting. The morning session had these topics: The history of evolutionary thought; Charles Darwin, the Mystery of Mysteries, and Modern Evolutionary Theory.

I enjoy reading about the history of ideas and the arguments put forward by different sides. I can imagine that these were fantastic talks. I hope that Ernst Mayr got his due.

The Second WSE is already planned, with the focus on explaining evolution to the masses.

I hope the edited proceedings are made available on-line.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Schroeder and Chirac, noted vaudeville act, fiddle while Rome smoulders

John Vinocur in full throat at the IHT:

There is a French maxim saying nothing kills as surely as ridiculousness. It probably goes back to the royal court at Versailles where the wrong ruffle, or faulty flounce, or stocking hue (not peach, you fool, but apricot! ) first meant hilarity, then dead men walking.

Much the same rule seems to pertain to European politics in 2005. Ridiculousness continues to look lethal.

I'm thinking of a separation from reality these days that overwhelms the acceptably contradictory and becomes grotesque - the equivalent of generals ordering their vanquished armies to defend destroyed fortifications to the death.

But after the rejection of the European Union's constitution in referendums in France and the Netherlands, and Gerhard Schröder's mortifying defeat in a regional election in Germany's biggest state, there is a degree of political slippage, a mortal skid, really, whirling Schröder and Jacques Chirac at the heart of Europe in the direction of the absurd.

The two men met twice in six days, and after both acknowledged that Europe was in crisis, they came up with the command-like conclusion that the EU's summit meeting in Brussels on Thursday should be about its budget for the year after next.

That re-creates the exact circumstances that the maelstrom of no-votes say are no longer tolerable: a Europe focusing on its recondite, institutional intricacies, while hiding from existential debate, in this case, about why most of the EU doesn't grow economically, and where the European project lost its soul.

From fear of popular revolt, Chirac and his novice prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, are quixotically saying that no economic reform will be allowed in France that would challenge the 1960s welfare state apparatus they insist on calling the "French social model."

Schröder, in turn, claims he will defend the thin structural reforms he has undertaken. But he bases his argument for new elections in September on his reported confession to the German federal president - who will decide in July if the national vote can go ahead in September - that his own Social Democratic and Green parliamentary majority no longer has confidence in his course!

So, huddled together, proposing nothing like a debate on the widest aspects of Europe's future, are two men who turned their backs on the EU's Lisbon Agenda (which provided a blueprint for the growth-oriented reforms their countries need), and who then trampled on the spending limits of the Stability and Growth Pact (which limited the government money-throwing they now promise to abandon).

Even members of their own parties can't keep from pointing out the obvious.

Not everybody takes this on straight-faced. Elements of Chirac's Gaullist party openly mock his sworn "social model" bottom line. Patrick Devedjian, a right-handman to Nicolas Sarkozy, the party's president, said over the weekend: "The French social model isn't a model, because no one wants to emulate it. It's not social, because it's caused record unemployment."

Franz Müntefering, the Social Democratic Party chairman, acknowledged last week that he was unable to block challenges to turn the party further leftward because his authority over it these days was "limited." And Schröder himself had to appeal to the party's left to halt its "intolerable" attacks on the supposed partiality of Horst Köhler, the federal president, who must still O.K. the legality of the chancellor's planned no-confidence-in-me vote to open the route to new elections.

In the middle of this, the following brainstorm: Villepin, who had toyed publicly with the idea two years ago, said in his first major policy speech that the countries ought to move toward a French-German Union in "specific political areas." Whacked upside the head by this added incongruity, Schröder's government first responded that it "is not on the current agenda."

In fact, if Villepin is talking airily about union, it's a next-to-ridiculous concept in real time. The French have no plans to share their most treasured international lever with their neighbors: Take it on good authority, it was French insistence earlier this month that led Germany to drop its demand for UN Security Council veto-power from its very shaky bid for a council seat.

All this united leadership has blossomed while growth in the euro zone is projected for the current year at something like 1 percent and change. France's foreign trade deficit was €3.2 billion for April, an "abysmal" all-time record, accompanied by a de facto recession in the French industrial sector, according to Marc Touati of Natexis Banques Populaires.

So why an EU summit meeting now in late spring 2005 focused on a 2007 budget that could be theoretically wrapped up on any given weekend over the next year - once the real issues about Europe's miseries were given the indisputably central place on the EU's agenda?

I would not want to leave all the blame to Schröder and Chirac's tactics for keeping away from commitment to change, or to the ludicrous-seeming inconsistencies or incapacities they have brought to German and French politics over the past few years.

Truth is, there's something in the EU's general culture that seems to make its members shy from the real hard stuff.

Ridiculousness still kills, and just as surely. At this juncture, the EU could not get more absurd than by refusing to focus all its intelligence and resources in Brussels on Thursday to deal with its single great subject: how, and with whom, it has gone wrong.

Ditto. It's a crying shame that two great nations are saddled with these politicians.

Charter commits Muslims to Swiss values

A coalition of Muslim groups in Switzerland's largest city has publicly called for its members to adopt Swiss values. Sort of.

Zurich's Muslim organisations have decided to fight prejudice by adopting a groundbreaking charter that underlines their commitment to Swiss values. The document, the first of its kind in Switzerland, aims to improve the integration and image of Muslims.

The charter demands that the association's 15 members defend democracy, peace, human rights, equality, integration, promote dialogue between religions and reject

Amin said that some political parties were using fear of Islam as an electoral tool. He pointed to recent campaigning in the run-up to the nationwide vote on the Schengen/Dublin agreements with the European Union on security and asylum.

The charter says that the association is not attempting to create an Islamic state in Switzerland, nor does it place Islamic law above Swiss law.

Which is a nice example of making a virtue out of necessity since Swiss law is naturally supreme in Switzerland.

The Zurich organisations say they are in favour of the integration of the Muslim community in Switzerland. But they also want respect and tolerance from the Swiss population."We want to keep our religious identity," says the charter.

The mayor of Zurich, Elmar Ledergerber, hailed the charter as an "unmistakable sign" that Muslim associations were committed to Swiss values. He added that the document made it clear there was no other path to follow other than integration.

While I wouldn't read that much into the charter, it is a welcome move. Prejudice against Muslims is on the rise, and this should help lessen it.

For the most part, Switzerland, the paragon of federalism, allows cantons and individual employers to negotiate with employees regarding time off and holidays (some protection for workers to take vacation is built into the system). Switzerland only recognizes Catholicism and Protestantism as national religions.

The enigmatic and controversial Islamic teacher Tariq Ramadan (another view here) lives in Switzerland, where he commands quite a bit of respect.

A short history and background to Muslims in Switzerland is here.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Thanks to all who have blogrolled me

UPDATE: I don't know how I missed it, but Big Cat Chronicles also has me on her blogroll. She has an excellent blog covering many subjects. I read it especially for her energy and Europe posts.

David's Medienkritik--an excellent German-based blog written in English--keeps track of German and European media and politics. They promise a big announcement this week. Well, I can scoop them on this one: They blogrolled me; sorry to steal your thunder guys.

Actually, I need to thank those blogs which have succumbed to my pleas and lowered their otherwise excellent standards:

David's Medienkritik; Patterico's Pontifications; The Politburo Diktat; Xrlq. I'm nearly certain I got all of you--if not, please let me know, I'd be delighted to add you to this list.

These blogs occupy the right side of the political spectrum, but are anything but knee-jerk conservatives.

I am pleased with this result of their temporary lapses of judgment.

Swiss need to open domestic market to imports

Switzerland is a pretty fantastic country. Aside from awesome natural beauty, it boasts many industries in which it competes internationally, most notably pharmaceuticals and timepieces. Switzerland also has high salaries, a high standard of living, and relatively low taxes.

On the other hand, the domestic market is heavily protected, leading to high prices for things like meat (we've been here for some two years, yet we rarely buy beef as it costs several times what it does in neighboring countries, not to mention the US), and many industrial products.
Plans to open the markets are slowly taking shape.

The Swiss are of two minds about these protectionist policies. They feel strongly that local production benefits Switzerland (one sees Swiss regulary choosing Swiss chicken over chickens imported from France, even though they cost 25% more), but they would like a bit more choice.

Swissinfo recently sat down with the
Swiss price administrator and discussed why we often pay
much more than the rest of Europe for goods. Short answer: need to join the
European Economic Area.

BBC survey: Intoxication 'rife among doctors'

That's a pretty breathless headline, but the story does note high levels of drug and alcohol abuse by physicians and OR staff.

All in all, not likely to instill confidence in the public.

The British Medical Association [BMA] has called for action over alcohol and drug abuse among medics after a BBC survey showed the problem was widespread.

The BMA estimates one in 15 doctors could be abusing drugs and alcohol. BMA Ethics Committee chairman Michael Wilks said the profession was in denial and needed help to tackle the problem.

Doctors are known to be at least three times as likely to have cirrhosis of the liver - a sign of alcohol damage - than the rest of the population.

This is second only to publicans and bar staff.

This may be the most open secret around hospitals. Certain fields--anesthesiology--have high levels of drug abuse. Drugs, especially opiates, are extremely easy to come by, and physicians are quick to close ranks to protect their peers.

The article notes that more treatment programs are needed. Well and good, but my suggestion is for physicians to stop protecting their colleagues. A few doctors losing their licensces and facing prosecution will go a long way towards cleaning up this problem.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Tour de Suisse bicycle race

The 69th Tour de Suisse is underway (here for a course map). Its importance lies not so much as a major national tour, but rather as the last tune-up before the Tour de France. As such, it tends to draw a pretty impressive field.

This year sees Jan Ullrich, Lance Armstrong's major challenger for TdF glory, back to defend his title. The TdS goes until the 19th, has a fairly mountainous route and should provide Ullrich and others a way to compare their form.

Armstrong is finishing his public preparation in the Dauphine Libere, where so far I'd give his performance a B-. He is capable of putting out excellent effort, but lacks the stamina to compete over a three week tour (EPO injections will help fix that problem). He rode hard in the Time Trial and on the fearsome Mt. Ventoux climb, finishing well in each, but still looks behind in his preparation. Today's stage over some major climbs will give us our last chance to assess his fitness before the TdF begins in July.

UPDATE: Armstrong finished back in the pack today, but news reports suggest he remained in control on the long climbs. I think that he didn't want to get into a situation where any climbing weaknesses would be exposed.

This year's TdS stays mostly in central and eastern Switzerland. I had hoped for some stages closer to home so I could take my girls to see the hoopla (I saw acouple of TdF stages in 1987, and have been a cycling fan ever since). However the closest they come is a finish in Lenk (great skiing btw). The last day will be especially difficult, as it comprises three major passes.

Bike porn: The Swiss-based team Phonak rides Swiss bikes made by BMC. Although my racing days are long past, I lust after this bike the way booze-sponge Sen. Kennedy lusts after a bottle of Four Roses.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Face analyser goodness

From Der Spiegel online:

A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. As it happens, a picture of your face can also tell you how smart you are, how much ambition you have and even your promiscuity factor. All you have to do is upload you picture onto the Web site Face
, and let the computer do the rest. It will even tell you what celebrity you look like and -- in a rather scarily Mengele-esque fashion -- tell you what racial characteristics your face exhibits.

I think Der Spiegel is a bit breathless on this one. Clicking the methodology link brings up this:

The world's most accurate facial recognition software determines the placement of major facial characteristics (e.g. nose).
Sure thing, that's how I'd start, too. But just how accurate is this software?:
[W]e are able to determine your race and gender with a 87% success rate.
In other words, pretty dismal compared to my three year old daughter.

Those results notwithstanding, I'l upload pictures cut from my high school yearbooks, just to see on whom I should have been concentrating my charms.

A quick check of the website's database comparing promiscuity against income yielded predictably negative results.

Medical studies I'd like to see--part 2

As most people with more than one child know, parents are more diligent with doctor's checkups, going to the doctor with concerns about the child, etc., with the first born than with those born later.

I thought that comparing something like vaccination rates for first born vs. second born (and later) children would be revealing.

The hypothesis: Birth order makes a difference when it comes to vaccination rates.

Turns out, these
comparative studies have been done.

Some results:

1. A
study on vaccination coverage in Buenos Aires noted that "[n]ot being the first child... was associated with incomplete coverage."

2. Another study,
this time in Australia (Tasmania) found "[t]he proportion of infants promptly immunised decreased as birth order increased."

3. Researchers in
Liverpool discovered "Children who had older siblings...were less likely to complete the full set of antigens and individual courses."

The studies discuss some reasons why immunization rates differ, but don't touch on what I consider an important reason: First borns are simply more highly valued that later borns. I think this valuation is largely unconscious, but plays a role.

An aside: A provocative book on the role birth order plays in personality is Born to Rebel, by F.J. Sulloway. I've wanted to read it ever since I read a long review years ago in the New Yorker.

If anyone wants to buy it for me, please leave a comment. We'll arrange something.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

EU science budget threatened

A call to restrict the growth of the EU science budget hits close to home as Switzerland has several bilateral treaties with the EU allowing Swiss researchers access to EU funds.

Helga Nowotny, head of the European Research Advisory Board (EURAB), an independent body advising the European Commission, called on scientists to support a push to double the research budget for Framework Programme 7 (FP7), saying it was "an absolute minimum target to accomplish the challenges for European research."

Nowotny's appeal comes after Luxembourg, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, proposed slashing the planned doubling of the European Commission's research budget by between 69% and 45%.Nowotny said the cuts would leave an increase that would be too small to help Europe catch up in science. In a statement on behalf of EURAB, she said that a lack of money already meant that many high-quality proposals cannot be funded.

"This would be a severe blow to the goal of sustainable knowledge-based growth, hamper the desperately needed improvement in employment, and engender dismal consequences for research and innovation in Europe," Nowotny said.

She has a point. European researchers are certainly the equals and often are better than their American counterparts, but better funding opportunities, and a research oriented culture in US universities means that the best and brightest quickly make their way to top US schools.

A quick aside: I once did a quick and dirty check of nobel prizes awarded in the sciences over the years. About half were won by scientists who did their work while in the US. Many were Americans, but just as many were foreigners.

If the EU doesn't improve funding levels--especially in basic research--Europe's plans for research parity will founder:
Antonia Mochan, European Commission science spokesperson, confirmed that the commission was also worried about the research budget. "We are not at all sure that we will get everything we ask for. We have reason to fear that a proposal to significantly increase the budget for research won't be accepted. There is a real concern for research and that countries are not looking to the future," she told The Scientist....

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Troubled Airbus parallels Europe's economies

The Airbus/Boeing rivalry has been in the news lately, providing needed fodder for my posting needs (here and here).

Now Der Spiegel Online has a pessimistic article regarding Airbus' travails and likely future. I find the article overly alarmist. The author clearly has access to sources willing to describe internal disputes--and settle scores, but she offers no real insight into future plans.

UPDATE: The IHT notes that Airbus' controlling shareholders will not sign off on the midsize A350 until September at the earliest.

I've excerpted much of the article as I find it a microcosm of much of what is wrong with Europe at the moment: Nations willing to jeopardize an industry in order to play politics, and the meddling that is part and parcel of such politicizing; grand projects designed to awe rather than grounded in reality; petty protection of perogatives placed before commercial interests; and the inability to wean industry off the public teat.

The intro paragraph sets the tone:

After years of losing market share to its European rival, Boeing is now quickly making up ground. Its new Dreamliner looks to be a hit and Airbus seems to prefer squabbling to strategizing. Delays in manufacturing their super-jumbo A380 could turn the prestige project into the company's biggest-ever flop.

Until recently, it seemed as though Airbus had clearly taken the lead over its competitor from faraway Seattle.


But Boeing's executives have recently made enormous gains -- and not just as a result of a jump in orders for their aircraft. They have also been able to take advantage of the internal quarrels that have preoccupied their main competitor for months. While Boeing is practically fighting off demand for its new 787, which consumes significantly less jet fuel than earlier models, Airbus's managers are seemingly ripping each other apart in internal power struggles and intrigues -- and increasingly neglecting their company's daily business. The internal trench warfare at Airbus reached a high point last Wednesday when, contrary to expectations, the company's sparring executives were unable to come to an agreement, even after a third round of talks, over the composition of the future management team at Airbus and its parent company, EADS.

In the wake of the failed EU referendum, the French, in an effort to bolster the position of fellow Frenchman Forgeard, surprisingly called for the insertion of an additional executive tier between the two companies. Under the French plan, Forgeard would also head the important helicopter division, Eurocopter, in the future, despite the fact that, under the strict German-French distribution of power within the group, this would actually be Enders's job. But the Germans -- once again -- used their veto, and in doing so also blocked the long-overdue appointment of their candidate of choice, Humbert.

The Americans, in turn, cleverly took advantage of the power vacuum among the Europeans to deal their main competitor yet another sensitive blow. To the dismay of Airbus and EADS executives, the US government decided last week to take its case to the court of arbitration at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in the dispute over illegal subsidies for new aircraft that has been smoldering for months. The European Commission, which had only recently been pushing for a compromise, countered by filing a complaint of its own.

Industry insiders were initially puzzled as to why Boeing would even make such a risky move. But the answer could lie in a major Pentagon contract for some 500 tanker aircraft, for which the two companies are competing. The Americans were at first excluded from the bidding process, because a high-ranking government official, hoping to later land a lucrative job at Boeing, had deliberately given the company preferential treatment during earlier public bidding procedures.

In May the United States House of Representatives, responding to pressure from beleaguered Boeing executives, surprisingly decided to give the offending company another chance and, without further ado, enacted legislation to exclude subsidized foreign companies from the bidding process. In the wake of the WTO suit, the Europeans' chances of selling their newly developed A400 M military jet to the US government are rapidly approaching zero. The Airbus executive and their CEO-designate Humbert would be better able to overcome this sharp setback if business were booming elsewhere. But at present, this is far from the case.

Whereas Boeing has raked in 266 orders and purchase commitments for its new 787 -- to be constructed entirely of light, synthetic materials -- the European have thus far managed to come up with only ten orders for their competing model, the A350. Now the Airbus executives are hoping, once again, for major orders from wealthy sheiks. Middle Eastern carriers like Qatar and Emirates supposedly plan to place orders for several dozen A350s in Paris.

But Airbus management faces even bigger worries with its new flagship, the A380 superjet. Last week the company was forced to confirm, for the first time, that delivery of the mega-transporter to initial customers like Singapore Airlines and Qantas will likely be delayed by up to six months. As a result, Airbus may be liable for penalty payments in the tens of millions of euros.

Should customers have to wait too long for final delivery -- a scenario insiders see as likely -- then the prestigious project could quickly turn into the biggest flop in Airbus history. Because development costs are already Â?1.5 billion over budget, the Europeans will likely be forced to substantially raise their prices for the 250 jets originally planned if they hope to turn a profit. And the company only has 154 orders on its books so far. As long as it remains unclear how quickly the Europeans will be able to overcome their timeline problems, additional orders are not likely to flood in.

The confident Airbus CEO Forgeard -- exceedingly effective at shining the spotlight on himself and his pet project in recent years but remiss in making important strategic and business decisions -- is now likely to pay a steep price for his inattentiveness. In recent years, the ambitious Frenchman instructed his engineers to focus their efforts on the company's two showcase models, the A380 and the A400 M. As a result, Airbus now lacks successors for aging models like its short-range and mid-range jets, the A300, A310 and A320. Even the new Airbus A350 is unlikely to be a major seller. Because the Europeans lacked the available personnel for a complete redevelopment and apparently wanted to save money, they simply freshened up their existing model, the A330, to the annoyance of many customers. Moreover, even the new A350 won't come onto the market until two years after the 787's debut.

Boeing, for its part, is already in the process of transferring the innovative features of its super-light jet to the 737. The next generation of the ever-popular model is scheduled to be flying by the end of the decade. Unless Airbus manages to likewise spruce up its aging fleet, arch-rival Boeing could once again pull ahead in the coming years and deprive the Europeans of some of their most loyal customers. For these reasons, a position that Humbert may until recently have perceived as the ultimate dream job could soon turn into a nightmare for Airbus's new chief executive. The man who is in fact responsible for many of the company's problems, current CEO Forgeard, will by then have moved up a level -- into senior management at parent company EADS.

From there, Forgeard will be supervising his former and new subordinate, Humbert, as stipulated under the group's by-laws.

But it could also take a while longer before that happens. Late last week, the French made it known that they will definitely demand more power for Forgeard in his new position.

They also indicated that the newly erupted personnel dispute with the Germans could continue -- until well into the Paris Air Show.