Saturday, December 30, 2006

BBC NEWS | Saddam Hussein executed in Iraq

Hmmm. I guess there'll be a load of gloating round the warbloggers today. Obviously I'm not in favour of the death penalty : no humans have the right to kill others. So I'll line up with the British government on this.

Pragmatically it seems a pretty stupid move - it's the Shi'ite government playing to it's own people and further alienating the Sunnis. OTOH, it probably won't make things dramatically worse at this point. There's already a civil war going on in Iraq.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

I'm in São Paulo. Gisel is launching her book here tonight.

Amazing food ...

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Climate insurance urged for poor

Could you use insurance for this kind of crisis? It's nice in theory, and maybe for a few high-profile, feel-good early experiments. But once the insurers set their actuarial scientists to sit down and do some serious analysis, the premiums will go way up. (Although maybe still cheaper than

Also, aren't some of the disasters we're talking about, actually the kind of acts of God that insurers wouldn't touch?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Thought for the day : I wonder if refrigerators breed bacteria which can survive at lower temperatures.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Surreal spam of the day :

We're used to spending a lot of money on power-adders, but do they really add power? One way to find out is to strap your ride onto a dyno at a dynamometer facility and see how quickly the Do you have to visit the mansion?

The software is compatible with Nology's PDA Dyno software, which enables users to download data from their PDAs and view it on their laptops with the Laptop software. But if they had bad breath it would be a real turn-off.

What turns you on? What turns you on about a guy?

Therefore, dynos taken at the beach and the mountains cannot be compared without applying a What kind of music are you into? I love unicorns and Ligers In addition, friction-reducing measures were taken throughout the engine to further increase ...

We did another location for that shoot

Monday, October 16, 2006

Q : Where's Phil?

A : Seems to be working around 12 hours a day, doing nothing but having various meetings, scheduling things for other people to do, and jetting backwards and forwards to Sao Paulo for yet more meetings. Then falling asleep.

At least, that's how it was last week. Normal services will be resumed ...

... we hope.

Sunday, October 01, 2006


Tories get a decent communication strategy complete with screaming kids and ums and errs.

The telling moment comes at the beginning, when Cameron warns that he's in competition with the BBC and ITV. Of course he is : the most profound and fundamental shift in democratic politics over the last 100 years is the shift of power from political parties to the media in determining who will get into government and what they will do when they get there.

Political parties must learn to route around mainstream media if they want to regain control of elected governments.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

But the evidence that the human species is in a whole heap of trouble keeps piling up, like the research work in Amazonia (referenced in the Lovelock article) that suggests the world's largest rain forest is extremely sensitive to drought, and that many of its tree species probably can't survive more than three years of it. (Most of eastern Amazonia is currently in the second year of the worst drought on record.) If trees start to die en masse, the ground will be exposed to direct sunlight, which will dry out the soil, which will cause the understory to die, which will, within a very short period of time, create either an African-style savanna or a moon-like desert, depending on the amount of aluminum silicate in the soil.

If Amazonia dies, the enormous carbon reserves currently trapped in its biomass will be released -- adding, perhaps, to the enormous quantities of methane being untrapped in the arctic as the permafrost melts and vast, prehistoric peat bogs start to decay at an accelerated rate.

This, in turn, could accelerate the melting of the north polar ice cap, allowing darker water and rock to absorb more of the sunlight that snow and ice reflect back into space, warming the permafrost even more, releasing more methane, heating the earth even more, causing cause more tropical rain forests to dry up and/or burn, releasing more Co2.

We're talking, in other words, about a cascade effect, in which various natural processes all feed into each other in a series of massive positive feedback loops, quickly driving the global mean temperature higher -- much more quickly and far higher than most existing
ecosystems can tolerate or adapt to.

Whiskey Bar: And People Call Me a Pessimist

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Billmon :

But I personally don't think the record of the past half decade (or the current condition of Ground Zero) really justifies that kind of self-serving, self-justifying pablum.

Do you?

Friday, September 08, 2006

That's still a bit too complicated. Let me try and make it even simpler. Globalization creates wealth at the cost of the social, the cultural, and the human. 2.0 creates wealth by amplifying the social, the cultural, and the human. For the next wave of entrepreneurs, this will be the market gap where profits are to be discovered.


Friday, September 01, 2006

Anyone missing me? For some reason I don't have an internet connection at home any more, so posting / answering emails / skype will be sporadic until this is fixed.


Monday, August 28, 2006

A great, must-read article on the effect of demographic factors on the economic success of countries and companies.

Monday, August 21, 2006


I threw out my somewhat convoluted "functional" experiments (see yesterday's posts) and went back to a more pythonic OO style. Why? When things aren't working, it's bloody difficult to put in a bunch of print statements to find out where and why.

This difficulty of debugging more than compensated for any benefits I could see.

I'm still using higher-order functions (ie. ones that take other functions as arguments) where it makes obvious sense. Eg. the tree copying routine is generic and accepts both its copy and filter criteria as arguments. But the other stuff is gone.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

I'm writing my new Python program in a much more "functional" style than I used to.

I'm using a lot of closures and whatever it is you'd call it that's like a closure but you return an "inner class" from a function, holding on to some of the context. As the contextual things I'm passing in tend to be constructors and basic toString routines, I'm not really sure if this is winning me anything over using inheritance. But it's an interesting exercise. It feels a little bit "wholesome" or cool. Although it's probably deeply unpythonic.

What I am starting to discover is some of the downsides.

Here's the basic situation. I define a TreeMaker function which accepts two arguments. A constructor function and a str.

Inside it, I define a Tree class, which calls the constructor and initializes some infrastructure management stuff (like a list of children, the parent etc). Then there's a bunch of other methods.

Finally I return the Tree class from the TreeMaker function.

def TreeMaker(construct, str) :

class Tree :

def __init__(self,*args) :
self.children = []
self.parent = None

... more functions

return Tree

I can now create new Tree classes by defining their constructors and toString routines and calling TreeMaker :

MyTree = TreeMaker(myConstructor, myStr)

mt = MyTree(blah, blah2, blah3)

MyTree is a new class. mt is a new instance of the class.

It's not clear yet if this buys me much over simply defining Tree as a base-class (or mixin) which would call a "construct" defined in the subclass. Or even using a traditional sub-class that would just call the super-class's constructor explicitly. But I'm going to persevere for a while to see.

There are some issues. Most obviously, the name "MyTree" is just a variable name. If you do mt.__class__ it returns "Tree", knowing nothing about MyTrees as types within the system. All these parameterized versions of Tree really *are* nothing but Trees so you won't be able to tell them apart.

Another issue is how the code is more distributed and diffuse than using classes. If I'm debugging the behaviour of a traditional MyTree subclass of Tree, then it's pretty clear where to look for that behaviour being defined : a) in the MyTree class, and b) in the Tree class. In my system that behaviour could be in the Tree or the constructor or the toString function. Or one of several other free-floating function-factories I'm using to run around the trees.

Here I've seen some more interesting wins. This function takes a copy-function as an argument, and runs around a tree, building a second, isomorphic tree, who's every node is some transformation of the equivalent node in the first.

def TreeProcessor(copyFunc) :

def copier(otherTree, parent=None, filter=lambda x : True) :

if filter(otherTree) :
this = copyFunc(otherTree)
if parent != None :
parent.addChild( this )
for x in otherTree.children :
copier(x, this, filter)
return this
return None

return copier

But is this an improvement on having TreeProcessor be a class, and copier be a method which takes copyFunc as argument?
37 !!??!!??!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Hey! Dr. Chadblog links two new online currencies.
If you haven't read yet : John Robb, being pessimistic.

Read the comments too.
Billmon : ... since it was a political war (much to the genocidal dismay of Right Blogistan) it's inevitable everybody involved would end up spinning like dervishes to make the senseless slaughter of human beings look like "victory."

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Huh? Why?

Skype Help:

Your Skype Credit balance remains active for 180 days after your last successfully-connected PSTN phone call.

Skype Credit balances on accounts with no activity during a 180 day period will be lost.
From the horse's mouth : As Israel's leaders once understood, the Washington-Jerusalem strategic partnership has always been nurtured by a steady stream of Israeli successes, both in defending its own security and in advancing American interests.


Meanwhile, Blair and co. demonstrate that they are no longer on this planet by bigging up a ceasefire that was negotiated without one side in actual conflict being involved. Having decided among themselves that Hezbollah will stop fighting and disarm (surprise, surprise), they now intend for a UN peacekeeping force to monitor it. Except Hezbollah have said they'll do no such thing, so I guess the expectation is that the UN peacekeepers are going to go in and make them do this by, presumably, not-so peaceful means.

Yeah, right!

Meanwhile, events in Britain and Pakistan confirm what you could call "Fighting Terrorism in One Lesson" :

Police : Yes! Soldiers. No!.

If you're in the business of creating a connected, stable, world where crazy groups don't go round slaughtering thousands of innocent people, then you do that by investing in, nurturing and trying to build collaborative and co-operative relations with others, not by throwing as much random destruction around as possible in the hope that you make them more disconnected than you.

The reason the latter doesn't actually work is because humans are connected animals. We're social by nature. To be human is to be enmeshed in language, wrapped in a cocoon of family and friendships and alliances and collaborative projects mediated by whatever circulating object link comes to hand.

The problem with naive Barnettism is that it thinks that our rule-sets are the only wones that matter. But people will make links of whatever they can. If not transport and trade and legitimized political connections, then religion and ethnicity and shared suffering. By attempting to spread disconnection among its enemies, Israel only succeeds in cutting itself off from them. By spreading disconnection within Lebanon and Hezbollah, it burns its bridges to them, making then rely more heavily on, and strengthen, their connections with Syria and Iran.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Saturday, August 05, 2006

I guess, on the bright side, if there is going to be a third world war, South America is probably the best place to sit it out. :-(
Gideon Lichfield : When I discuss such questions with Israelis, as we peel off the layers of reasoning and approach the core, what I most often meet is a kind of crude Pavlovian determinism. The Palestinians, the Lebanese, the Arabs in general—they understand only the language of force. Not showing force is a mistake. Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister, summed up the thinking well this week in his speech to the Knesset: 'Our enemies misinterpreted our willingness to exercise restraint as a sign of weakness.'

Wrestling with the logic of force
Must Read from Billmon.

Of course, it might not actually come to this -- or if it did it might not come quickly. But the fact remains that the U.S. Army is the only significant force standing between Iran and it's closest allies, and thus between Iran and Israel. If, as it now seems, Washington and Jerusalem both perceive Iran as the primary threat (and/or target for aggression) in the region, then there is no real distinction between America's occupation of Iraq and Israel's intended re-occupation of southern Lebanon. They are, in essence, both part of the next war.

It seems increasingly probable that that war will come soon -- perhaps as early as November or December, although more likely next year. Israel's failure to knock out Hizbullah with a rapid first strike has left the neocons even deeper in the hole, enormously ratcheting up the pressure to try to recoup all losses by taking the war to Damascus and Tehran.

In other words, it's almost time for the ultimate "flight forward" -- the one that finally pushes the Middle East into World War III.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Big news! Wikipedia are upgrading their "talk" pages. LiquidThreads

That's what's missing from traditional wiki, a way to organize dialogue. You can have dialogue around wiki. But the "tyrany of structurelessness" of it all loses some of the value of structured conversation.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Web 2.0 or Star Wars? :-)
What does "Synaesmedia" really mean?

A Portmanteau word made from Synaesthesia and "Media".

More tightly bound, more intertwingled than mere "multimedia". A single thing that encompasses the dimensions of sound and colour and movement. Like, say, Gbloink! :-)

But now there's Master Foo to tell us about the true way of mashups.

Which is, incidently, the best defintion of Synaesmedia I never wrote.
In southern Iraq, a British soldier was killed in a mortar attack on a base in Basra during the early hours of the morning.

He is the first soldier to be killed in an attack on a UK military base in Iraq.


Monday, July 31, 2006

So there's some rumour going round that Cuba has oil.

Let's see if the US suddenly finds some urgent reason to send the troops in.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Exchange vs. gift economies : Las Vegas is thought to be the first to explicitly make it an offence to feed the poor, says the New York Times.

BBC NEWS |Vegas puts lid on soup kitchens

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Pat Lang explains Israel's air-power strategy :
which holds that crushing the "Will of the People" is the correct objective in compelling the acceptance of one's own "will" by an adversary or neutral. With that objective in mind, all of the target country is considered to be one, giant target set. Industry, ports, bridges, hospitals, roads, you name it. It is all "fair game." In this case the notion is to force the Lebanese government and army to accept a role as the northern jaw in a vise that will crush Hizballah and subsequently to hold south Lebanon against Hizballah.

John Robb calls it a mashup.
Explanation and justification of Israeli attack on Lebanon.

Meanwhile, I'm buying shares in the prediction that the attack will re-open civil war which will be running until at least 2008.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Wow! This has gotta be one of the most beautiful video-games I've ever seen.
Christopher Allbritton : Why, oh, why do people with access to really big bombs continue to think they can change people’s loyalties by dropping those big bombs on their homes and families?

That is the question.

Meanwhile, sensible commentary from Chet Richards.
He he! As I'm now into prediction markets, I started playing the Yahoo / O'Reilly mashup Buzz Game

I just created an account, went through buying up all the stuff I think is cool. And had the salutory experience of having already lost about 11 virtual dollars. (Within the first minute.) The guilty underperfomers : RSS, OPML, SocialText and Laszlo.


So what's up? Bloody noise-traders? O'Reilly subtly biasing the system against Dave? People who just don't get the big picture dumping their RSS stock in favour of fashionable nonsense like ... erm ...

Update : No I just bought some more, and I now seem to be 1 dollar 46 cents up. Thanks, I suspect, to Eclipse.

Anyway, let's actually see how my predictions are.

A couple of thoughts.

I'd like to predict categories rather than particular products. I think wiki is just going up and up, but I don't necessarily have an opinion of JotSpot vs. SocialText. (Actually, maybe I do. If SocialText were smart to bring in WikiCalc, I should be buying them.)

Obvious missing categories / products :

  • Ning (and similar)

  • Thingamy (and similar)

  • Voted news (Digg / new Netscape)

  • Prediction markets :-)

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Zby asked a pointed question in the comments to something I wrote bigging up Ning

The question here is how does it differ from the core concept of Open Source.

To which the answer is, it doesn't differ. But it automates it.

And this prompted me to another flight of fancy about the programmers' Cockaigne.

Even with something like Rails or TurboGears you still have to "manage" them in an old-fashioned way. You download the language, download the libraries, run scripts, find the newly generated files on your file system, open them and edit them in the editor etc. Once you are working on your application, managing it is your responsibility. If it's a web-app you have to worry about managing the web-server, making sure it finds the application, making sure the paths are right, the configuration info is right etc. etc.

Now imagine that you could develop an application on something like Ning : simply start by cloning an existing prototype, change only those bits that need changing, and then "compile" it (ie. export as a stand-alone package to the server of your choice) Even compile it down to run on clients like phones or set-top boxes.

I think we could be less than a decade away from a world where something like that is the norm. Where the current situation of programmers having to do their own sys-admin of their development environment, looks as outdated and inefficient as them having to do their own memory management using malloc and free.
Lind says something strange in his analysis of Hezbollah's attack on Israel and the consequent Israeli reaction against Lebanon.

For the first time, a non-state entity has gone to war with a state not by waging an insurgency against a state invader, but across an international boundary.

Isn't that exactly what Al Qaeda did to the US?

Lind goes on ...

In response, Israel has had to hit not Hezbollah but the state of Lebanon. Israel’s Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, referring to the initial Hezbollah raid, said, “I want to make clear that the event this morning is not a terror act but the act of a sovereign state that attacked Israel without reason.” This is an obvious fiction, as the state of Lebanon had nothing to do with the raid and cannot control Hezbollah. But it is a necessary fiction for Israel, because otherwise who can it respond against? Again we see the power 4GW entities obtain by hiding within states but not being a state.

(My emphasis)

And isn't that mutatis mutandis the same as the response to 9/11 from the US? Attacking the states of Afghanistan and Iraq in lieu of having real state enemies to go to conventional war with?

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

I'm still enthralled by the StrategyPage prediction market.

As of writing, there are 950 points of investment piling on behind my bet that Afghanistan is going to get worse. And no contrarians claiming an improvement. OTOH most people think the US casualty rate will fall in Iraq. Are they expecting things to get better? Or the US to pull out? Or maybe Iraqi factions to be too busy killing each other to bother with Brits and Americans?

The majority also think that the Israeli push into Lebanon is going to hurt Hezbollah. Yeah, right!

I'm struck by a couple of other things too.

It's clear that we can't expect the market itself to ajudicate a disagreement.

Or can we? If the market is shown, statistically, to be reliable, does that mean that you can actually appeal to its opinion to "prove" things? Erm ...

Another question of ajudication is "who decides if a prediction comes true?" Some bets are fairly concrete : casualty rates are either up or down. But what do you make of "America will succeed in creating a stable democratic Iraq." which I'm betting against (at least by the close-date of end of 2007) How will "stable and democratic" be defined? Is there currently a civil war in Iraq or not? Is it currently stable and democratic? In the case of StrategyPage it will be the site's owners who have to make the judgement call.

I'm not saying that this detracts from the value of the market. The point is not to win, but to take part (admittedly with a rational, self-aggrandizing behaviour) and see what comes out of the collective intelligence. But it's an interesting question.

Meanwhile, while we're on the subject of accountability of predictions ...

Monday, July 17, 2006

This is a genius political advertisement.
So just when you thought it couldn't get worse, there's a full scale disaster going on. :-(

And I'm kind of tired of arguing with all these kids with their enthusiasm for total war in the Middle East.

The more shocked and hurt and confused they get, the more they call for a cathartic release that will just burn the enemy off the planet for once and for all. "Make it go away. We don't care how! We just don't want to have to deal with it any more."

How do you start a conversation there? With no shared world-view and no shared moral convictions?

Well. There is one thing : to appeal to facts. What does the evidence actually show us? Do much trumpeted military operations have the expected effect?

The problem is that the evidence can always be spun. Can always be reinterpreted. There is no pure experience data that isn't shaped by our conceptual framework.

So how do you find common ground for communication?

Well maybe markets can help. Markets simplify communication to minimal binary oppositions : profit / loss, buy / sell. Surely there is a basic world-view so simple that some kind of common understanding can be reached, a shared channel through which some kind of signal can be squeezed.

The simplification of communication in markets is the source of both their great good and their great evil. The good is that the simplified communication protocol lets the market scale. Only markets succesfully incorporate and co-ordinate the work of billions of humans. And those co-ordinated billions achieve great things together.

At the same time, the simplicity strips those interactions of almost everything that is worthwhile about being human. There's no room for empathy or rich experience or tenderness or laughter or recognition of the other as a full person. That narrow bandwidth is filled with nothing more than simple : worthwhile / not worthwhile signals.

Markets are usually praised by their supporters for the first. And damned by their detractors for the second. But we can surely recognise that both claims are true, and that markets can, but should, be used pragmatically.

I'm suddenly very excited by prediction markets and particularly this StrategyPage one.

Prediction markets are traditionally celebrated for their power to integrate information from many sources. Now I wonder if their simplification might also help break through the barriers of communication. Disagree with someone's opinion? Why waste time arguing past each other when you could both just buy shares on opposite sides of a prediction? After a set amount of time, you'll know who was right.

It's very easy to write a blog post ranting about how X is going to happen or Y won't. And next year, who's gonna remember? Not you. Probably not your fans. Nor your opponents who gave up reading you because you were obviously wrong the one time they bothered to look at your blog.

But in a prediction market, things are different. It creates a fairly cheap and straightforward sort of accountability for the opinions you express. It keeps track of your predictions and how they actually turned out.

Your bets are open for everyone to see. Even though there's no real money, there's a reputation reward for being right. In fact, statistics could be produced showing all sorts of interesting things about your positions. How closely does your behaviour tended to follow particular trends or social clusters? Are you easily led astray by certain kinds of claim? You, and everyone else, can see whether biases are leading you to make many erroneous predictions. And, if so, what those biases are. The market won't let you hide this from yourself or others.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Friday, July 07, 2006

Monday, July 03, 2006

SdiServer screenshot

SdiServer screengrab
Originally uploaded by interstar.
Don't get too excited. This is just eye-candy at the moment. :-)

But it is what you think it is ... a page from an SdiDesk PageStore served by a web-server (I'm using, and viewed in Firefox with some cute graphic tabs.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Just a note. As I get to grips with new job and interviewing. Don't lose sight of SdiDesk too. :-)

Thursday, June 29, 2006

New Phil!

OK, so it's been quiet in all my usual haunts. But I've been totally busy over the last few weeks. I started a new job (which is meant to be part time until the term and my teaching finishes at the university) but in fact I'm already being asked to work days which I'm not scheduled.

The new job is probably the most corporate place I've ever been : a small Brazilian company selling an e-procurement solution, that's been swallowed by a larger international company which does supply-chain management stuff. And who are now selling, customizing and supporting it on Brazil. This could be dull as ditchwater, but long-time Phil-watchers probably know I have an interest in this kind of activity.

It's also an alien world of proprietory software, specialist programming languages, formal documents, waterfalls, VPNs and Microsofty stuff. Let's see what I can do to subvert things a bit ;-) At least I can start a new blog. (After all, three blogs ain't enough, not even if you add in the wikis. And notice I've experimenting with WordPress.)

The other new project I'm starting, is the fruition of a month or so of mailing complete strangers, asking if I can interview them over Skype. The result will (hopefully) be a series of political interviews with people I've discovered who have interesting world views. The emphasis is on getting them to explain themselves rather than for me to try to argue them out of their opinions. And I've been looking for a range of very different perspectives.

Hopefully, this is going to create a space for people to listen to, and understand, each other's opinions. And to create a rich composite picture of how the world works. That project involves further free accounts for podcast hosting, blogging and wiki. Best place to start is probably the accompanying blog. (After all, four blogs ain't enough ... )

Right. Now this is all public, let's go get some sleep ... :-)

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

US designing new nukes.

Proponents of the project say the U.S. would lose its so-called "strategic deterrent" unless it replaces its aging arsenal of about 6,000 bombs, which will become potentially unreliable within 15 years. A new, more reliable weapon, they say, would help the nation reduce its stockpile.

I wonder what's going to happen to all those old, unreliable nukes in 15 years time? Can you recycle the uranium? Landfill?
Brazil is about to start playing its first match of the World Cup ... the world is going crazy, with people driving around the area doing wheel-spins, blasting air-horns and letting off firecrackers ...

Thursday, June 08, 2006

BBC NEWS : Zarqawi killed in Iraq air raid

This is the crucial test of the Global Guerrillas theory vs. some of the sceptics.

If the "insurgency" / "bazaar" remains as healthy as ever, then it looks like the GG model is corroberated. Otherwise, the optimists may have their day, yet.

Update: John Robb writes an obitury of Zarqawi.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Received a devastating email today : a friend of mine died last week. Apparently she went to have a minor operation for a haematoma after giving birth by cesarian. And it's not clear whether there was a complication no-one forsaw or some kind of error, but she didn't survive.

She was only (what?) 38 years old.

So strange. Ten years ago we were in the same crowd. Doing the same social stuff together. I was perhaps a little in love with her. And yet I don't think we were ever really intimate. And suddenly, I realize, we hadn't even spoken for over five years. It always seemed to me we'd probably get round to meeting up at some point, just as I eventually did with other friends from that time.

Instead, we never will. :-(

The more I think about it, the harder it is to comprehend.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Don't you wish for simpler times, when British savoire faire and ironic detachment could defeat non-state gangs.
Sao Paulo (where I ... erm ... was thinking of moving to) explodes.

The beeb has a quick overview of the gangs. Including the PCC which apparently started as a prisoners' defence movement after (presumably, although not specified by the BBC) the Carandiru massacre. It's worth watching that film to get an idea of Brazilian prisons.

That emphasis on the interaction between political and criminal activity is important. It is the "Global Guerrillas" analysis (which I referenced in my discussion of the Euston Manifesto) You'll misunderstand the whole thing if you see "islamism" as some kind of sui generis unique evil. What we're seeing is the switch in people's loyalties and sense of who they are, to their membership of religious sects, tribes, gangs etc and away from their loyalty to the nation-state. This happens when the state is either a) repressive to this group, b) too weak to provide the group with the security it needs or c) the group are immigrants from another culture who have difficulty assimilating.

That's not new. There have been epochs of warring "gangs of New York" of ethnic Irish, Jewish and Italians. It's not new that such gangs are started with a mixture of community defence vigilantism and other political ideals, but soon extend the violence and adopt crime as tactics for financing themselves, protecting their own integral structure and the positions and lifestyles of their leaders.

What's, maybe, new is the degree of empowerment that new technologies like cell-phones bring. And also, the degree of spontaneous / opportunistic co-operation and information sharing between different groups. Criminal gangs in Haiti have copied the beheading tactic of Iraqi groups. Nigeria has car-bombs. In Rio, gangs pioneered the burning of busses with their passangers on-board. Although, thankfully, this doesn't seem to have been repeated in Sao Paulo (yet).

Thursday, May 11, 2006

OK, back to some geek stuff.

You all know I'm into Lexical Closures, right?

So I've been messing with this kind of stuff for a while in Python.

def f(x) :
def g(y) :
return x * y
return g

h = f(2)
h2 = f(3)

print h(5)
print h2(5)

In the above example, the variables h and h2 are set to two closures. Essentially copies of the function g + a context which binds the value of the variable x. In the first case, x is bound to 2, in the second 3. And so calling h(5) and h2(5) give the results 10 and 15 respectively.

This is the sort of thing that makes Python so cool of course. Although it's been around since Scheme.

But then I saw a reference to lexical closures in C using the Gnu GCC compiler. That didn't sound right, I thought. But the article, although not offering a version of the above, did suggest functions could be defined inside others and inherit the values of variables in the outer function's scope.

Here's the (more or less) direct translation of the above program into C.

typedef int (*FPTR)(int x);

FPTR f(int x) {
int g(int y) {
return x * y;
return &g;

int main(int argc, char *argv[]) {
FPTR h, h2;
h = f(2);
h2 = f(3);
return 0;

To my astonishment, this compiles. And seems willing to do what I hoped it would ... except the answer comes out wrong. Both h(5) and h2(5) produce 25. What's up?

Well, 25 looks suspiciously like 5 * 5, and after testing with a couple of other arguments for h it becomes clear that when the inner-function g is run, both y and x are bound to the argument which is passed as y.

Hmm ... so presumably something rather simple is going on in C. Such as names are really being bound with "the first argument off the stack" or something. A slight modification to f shows that I'm on the right track.

FPTR f(int x) {
int t;
t = x;
int g(int y) {
return t * y;
return &g;

Now I copy the argument for f into a local variable called t. And it works as one would hope : h(5) -> 10 and h2(5) -> 15.

At this point I'm very excited. I know this isn't Ansi C but it's still very cool to have this kind of thing in C.

Unfortunately, the next experiment dashes my hopes.

After having called f for the second time (with the argument 3) does the closure assigned to h (where x was assigned 2) still exist, or will h(5) now also produce 15?

I try it, and the program crashes. Straight away. In fact, whatever I try, I don't seem to be able to call the same closure twice. Which makes the whole thing interesting but next to useless in practice. Ah well.

What does work, as expected, is making the local variable t static :

FPTR f(int x) {
static int t;
t = x;
int g(int y) {
return t * y;
return &g;

Now this :

h = f(2);
h2 = f(3);

produces 10, 15 as you'd expect, even though we're now calling h a second time instead of h2. Remember in h, t is meant to be 2. But the call to f(3) has changed its value.

Fun stuff, anyway.

Update : this suggests that I can't really have the closures like I want :

If you try to call the nested function through its address after the containing function has exited, all hell will break loose. If you try to call it after a containing scope level has exited, and if it refers to some of the variables that are no longer in scope, you may be lucky, but it's not wise to take the risk. If, however, the nested function does not refer to anything that has gone out of scope, you should be safe.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

normblog: Platform seven revises part of the Euston Manifesto :

[Martin Bright is] right: right about what the Eustonians think a left consensus should have 'concentrated' on once the Saddam regime was gone; and also right - unfortunately - that we've given the impression in the manifesto as written that arguments about 'the whys and wherefores of the war' ought to have stopped. We have done, but by a mis-statement of a point meant to be about priorities as if it were about mutually exclusive alternatives. It has not in fact been the position of those blogs which took the initiative leading to the Euston Manifesto that discussion of the origins of the war, or the planning for its aftermath, was somehow out of bounds. ...

The manifesto needs to be amended on this point.

I'd point out though that one of the continuing problems with Eustonian position seems to be that despite this acknowledgement that the question of deceit and malice in the run-up to the war is important, it seems like it's taken to be entirely disconnected from the question of what should happen next : today, tomorrow and in the future. For Norm and co. the liberal-left should still get behind the US-led reconstruction effort because ... well because to the Eustonians it's inconceivable that say anything else, like an Iraqi-led, or Iranian-led reconstruction effort could be better for the Iraqi people. It's axiomatic to them that the US / UK presence doesn't fuel the emerging bazaar of violence and civil war. Axiomatic that political decisions made in Washington aren't still making things worse in Iraq. I don't see we have any guarantees of this.

I stick by my claim that the real problem we face is the global guerrillas analysis. That the nation-state is losing the power and legitimacy to control violence, and instead new networks are spawning, often based on identity groups with a gang mentality. It's interesting to see one of the Eustonian ringleaders, Nick Cohen talking about the recent success of the British National Party in the UK.

I think he makes an excellent point drawing parallels between the white tribal identity of the BNP, the muslim tribal identity of Respect, Irish tribal identity of Sinn Fein and Sicilian tribal identity of the Mafia.

But then his analytic resource runs out of steam. He has no explanation or further ability to understand the rise of these tribes and simply rails against those "lost in identity politics and victimhood" and resorts to name-calling Sinn Fein supporters "doltish".

A robust liberal / left / progressive revival can't come without also being "radical" ie. being willing to drill down and "understand" rather than merely condemn the rise of tribal identity-politics. Eustonian muscular posing and insults are not going to bring it about. It's too easy, as generations of educated, white, middle-class, male progressives have discovered throughout history, to ultimately decide that the best hope of defending the decent moderate progressive values they hold, is an alliance with the tribe of other educated, white, middle-class males. By which time, you're a neocon.
Responses to (not my) criticisms of the Euston Manifesto.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Are you Eustonian?

I guess you could say that the Euston Manifesto is what happens if you're a decent, leftish bloke who takes things a little bit too much at face-value.

Or you could say that the pro-war liberal-left are in trouble : soon nobody is going to love them very much, and so they're clinging together for mutual warmth and comfort.

No-one's going to love them very much because the attack on Afghanistan delivered next-to-nothing, Iraq is a full-scale strategic and humanitarian disaster, and the neocon US government are merrily on their way to nuking Iran.

So there'll be no defence of the war in terms of a pragmatic utilitarianism. No-one will be able to say "it was an ugly business but look what the alternative would have been". With nukes in Iran and a mass-uprising against the US throughout the world, the consequences are going to be way worse than just leaving well alone and fumbling along until Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden had died of old age.

Meanwhile, when the smoke clears, if it's lucky, the US might salvage some self-esteem with a cathartic impeachment of the Bushies (compare Nixon after Vietnam) otherwise they're into post-WW2 Germany territory. Whatever. The US is going to be inherited by the anti-war right : a strange amalgum of isolationist, christian, cultural-conservatives and right-libertarians. No-one in this emerging dichotomy of Tories and Whigs is going to care much for pro-war, one-nation left-liberalism. Nor will the anti-war left, in any of its forms.

In fact, if they're really smart, the anti-war right will probably be able to paint the internationalist interventions of the neocons as a leftist conceit : a trend that started with Clinton's engagement in Kosovo and with Tony Blair and the Eustonians as star-witnesses for the continuity.

OK, so I'm being too cynical. The impulse behind the Euston Manifesto is a good one. To the extent that the world is in motion, and so must our political opinions be. It's good to sit down with a few like-minded people and thrash-out what you believe. And, God knows, the left need to sit down and do some serious thinking about what we believe and how this should be articulated in the 21st century.

Unfortunately, the main characteristic of the result is a bland superficiality. Sure, this is a consensus document, designed to appeal to the mainstream, centrist British (and Europhile American) opinion. But the absence of theoretical analysis here is striking : there's no attempt to dig beneath the surface or look for or deal with patterns or explanations or systems, no recognition of the enormity of change going on around us in the world, a mere rejection and distancing from the anti-war left in Britain but no attempt to refute it's arguments.

OK, I'd be the first to admit that while being both anti-war and left, I don't have much interest in, or read much by, the official "anti-war left". If I did, I too would probably find it urgent to try to distance myself from it. But you don't have to be confrontational, or sloganistic, or loyal to some naive identity politics to be radical. "Radical" is a hacker virtue, it's about wanting to get to the bottom of things, and find out how they really work. Nothing in the Euston manifesto betrays such a curiousity.

At the same time, the list of principles raised by the manifesto are obviously more-or-less important ones. So it's an interesting exercise (for me, at least) to go through them and analyse where and why I disagree, and what I'd be looking for as alternative in something I would sign up for. You can treat the manifesto as a kind of self-analysis tool to help discover your opinions. Here are mine (as of 2006) in the form of annotations to the original. As always, I may be wrong. So constructive criticism is encouraged.

1) For democracy.

We are committed to democratic norms, procedures and structures — freedom of opinion and assembly, free elections, the separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers, and the separation of state and religion. We value the traditions and institutions, the legacy of good governance, of those countries in which liberal, pluralist democracies have taken hold.

Phil : I'm committed to a democratic impulse. What I mean by democracy is something like "egalitarian weighting of opinion" : we should aspire to a situation where everyone has, more or less, equivalent power to shape the world (as it affects them). Certain groups shouldn't have privileged positions. Institutions that exist should exist for the purposes of aiding people to aggregate their powers or for curbing the rise of unfair, excessive power.

Sure, I recognise that many institutions we have : the nation state, national elections, separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers etc aren't at all bad. And I'll defend them against things that are worse. But I'm only committed to them pragmatically. If something comes along that we have reason to believe is better then I'd say we should give it a try.

I'm with the Eustonians on freedom of opinion, assembly and expression.

2) No apology for tyranny.

We decline to make excuses for, to indulgently "understand", reactionary regimes and movements for which democracy is a hated enemy — regimes that oppress their own peoples and movements that aspire to do so. We draw a firm line between ourselves and those left-liberal voices today quick to offer an apologetic explanation for such political forces.

Phil : Yep, no apology for tyranny. But (as will be explored later) responsibility for fixing the world starts (like charity) at home. Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il and Robert Mugabe are very bad people. And I won't really be sorry if any of them receive a good kicking until they stop moving. But ... the number of times I find myself conveniently behind any of them with a heavy object that I could bring crashing down upon their heads, is vanishingly small. I have pretty much zero influence over the government of North Korea.

OTOH I have, in virtue of being a British citizen, having a vote in the UK elections, and cultural membership of the wider Anglosphere, ever-so-slightly more influence on the actions of the UK and US governments. (Nearly none, admitedly, but a bit more than my influence in North Korea) And it's because that is where my power is most able to be applied that that's where my greatest responsibility to address wrongs lies.

Now, in practice, banging-on about how bad the UK and US governments are, doesn't really have much effect, but might help to convince people in these countries to be careful who they vote for in future. And might help educate the next generation of politicians about the kinds of errors they may be led into. Banging on about how bad Ahmadinejad is, can have only one possible effect : to increase the apparent legitimacy of a US / UK military attack on Iran. Now, my opinion is that this would be a far worse than not attacking Iran, just as making wars against Afghanistan and Iraq were worse than not making wars against them. In general, however bad a tyrant that rules a country, the burden of proof required to justify a war is pretty heavy.

Not, of course, infinite. I accept that there can be possible occasions when war is the answer. I just don't think we've seen any in the last 50 years.

But the real problem with a lazy self-indulgence in demonifying tyrants is that, beyond simply banging-the-drum for war, it also obscures a whole network of complex causes and effects that have led to the problem in the first place. Every war that's been made in the current "war on terror" has (paradoxically) both failed to define its objectives and then failed to meet them. (A war on Iran will be the same). And in every case, personifying the problem in the form of a tyrant was / will have been a major contribution to the crappy thinking behind the failure. If you think "bad people" are the problem, then "regime change" (remove the bad people) looks like the solution. But in Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran (and of course the UK and US), "bad people" is a pseudo-problem which obscures the deeper malaise.

I decline to waste my time on empty condemnation of tyrants, when it could be better used to try to "understand" what's really going on and how to try to intervene to fix it. And I'd recommend anyone seriously interested in politics to do the same. (See point 9)

3) Human rights for all.

We hold the fundamental human rights codified in the Universal Declaration to be precisely universal, and binding on all states and political movements, indeed on everyone. Violations of these rights are equally to be condemned whoever is responsible for them and regardless of cultural context. We reject the double standards with which much self-proclaimed progressive opinion now operates, finding lesser (though all too real) violations of human rights which are closer to home, or are the responsibility of certain disfavoured governments, more deplorable than other violations that are flagrantly worse. We reject, also, the cultural relativist view according to which these basic human rights are not appropriate for certain nations or peoples.

Phil : As above. I agree human rights are universal. But my responsibility is greatest where I have the greatest power to act. I happen to believe that smart diplomacy, some opening up via trade and other cultural connections has more positive benefit with fewer bad side effects than dropping bombs. I accept that sometimes bombs are a quick way to get a visible result (eg. women voting in Afghanistan) but that's no compensation for the negative externalities from, and general failure of, our military campaign there.

4) Equality.

We espouse a generally egalitarian politics. We look towards progress in relations between the sexes (until full gender equality is achieved), between different ethnic communities, between those of various religious affiliations and those of none, and between people of diverse sexual orientations — as well as towards broader social and economic equality all round. We leave open, as something on which there are differences of viewpoint amongst us, the question of the best economic forms of this broader equality, but we support the interests of working people everywhere and their right to organize in defence of those interests. Democratic trade unions are the bedrock organizations for the defence of workers' interests and are one of the most important forces for human rights, democracy-promotion and egalitarian internationalism. Labour rights are human rights. The universal adoption of the International Labour Organization Conventions — now routinely ignored by governments across the globe — is a priority for us. We are committed to the defence of the rights of children, and to protecting people from sexual slavery and all forms of institutionalized abuse.

Phil : Sure, I can sign up for that. But that's pretty much because it's so vague. I'm interested in discussing the actual specifics about best organizational and economic forms.

Where the manifesto is specific, in its promotion of democratic trade unions and against sexual slavery, I'm a 100% behind it. (Although, as always, I'm pragmatic, I believe that trade-unions happen to be the best institutions we have to fight for and protect workers' rights, but that doesn't mean that something better might not come along.)

5) Development for freedom.

We stand for global economic development-as-freedom and against structural economic oppression and environmental degradation. The current expansion of global markets and free trade must not be allowed to serve the narrow interests of a small corporate elite in the developed world and their associates in developing countries. The benefits of large-scale development through the expansion of global trade ought to be distributed as widely as possible in order to serve the social and economic interests of workers, farmers and consumers in all countries. Globalization must mean global social integration and a commitment to social justice. We support radical reform of the major institutions of global economic governance (World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, World Bank) to achieve these goals, and we support fair trade, more aid, debt cancellation and the campaign to Make Poverty History. Development can bring growth in life-expectancy and in the enjoyment of life, easing burdensome labour and shortening the working day. It can bring freedom to youth, possibilities of exploration to those of middle years, and security to old age. It enlarges horizons and the opportunities for travel, and helps make strangers into friends. Global development must be pursued in a manner consistent with environmentally sustainable growth.

Phil : Yep, I agree with all that. Although, again, I'd like to see some intresting thinking about the details. There are endogenous forces within markets that push towards inequality and accelerating the consumption of scarce natural resources. Compatibilism between economic dynamism, ecological sustainability, and egalitarian distribution is uncontroversial in theory, but tricky in practice. If we want it, that's what we actually need to be putting our minds to. Proposing solutions to this problem must be at the heart of any ongoing left-wing project.

6) Opposing anti-Americanism.

We reject without qualification the anti-Americanism now infecting so much left-liberal (and some conservative) thinking. This is not a case of seeing the US as a model society. We are aware of its problems and failings. But these are shared in some degree with all of the developed world. The United States of America is a great country and nation. It is the home of a strong democracy with a noble tradition behind it and lasting constitutional and social achievements to its name. Its peoples have produced a vibrant culture that is the pleasure, the source-book and the envy of millions. That US foreign policy has often opposed progressive movements and governments and supported regressive and authoritarian ones does not justify generalized prejudice against either the country or its people.

Phil : I've described myself as anti-American in the past. For consistency's sake, I'd better do so again, with what I hope is a nuanced enough explanation not to hurt the feelings of my American friends and readers. Although some people are going to take offence anyway, and there's nothing I can do about them.

As the world's only global hyperpower, the US exerts an influence over all other countries. To a certain extent, policies of the UK government are more influenced by the requirements of the American nation-state than they are by me as a British citizen and voter. (Does anyone think UK troops would be in Basra if I wanted it but the US didn't?) And yet, the American nation-state has no formal responsibilities to me. This power without responsibility or representation is unacceptable.

One of two things could modify this situation. The US could decide to consciously restrain itself from trying to influence the rest of the world : "Hey! We think going in to Iraq would be a smart move, but you don't have to be with us if you don't want to. No hard feelings if you choose to sit this one out." Or alternatively, the US nation-state could just decide to give me a vote in its elections.

Both eventualities look unlikely.

Therefore, I conclude that my best interest is served by a balance of power between the US and alternative blocks. Rival hegemons are better than one. I support the European Union (and wish the UK would be more committed to it.) I celebrate the rise of, and increasing co-operation within, the left-wing Bolivarian movement in South America (Chavez, Morales plus Kirschner and Lula as, at least sympathetic, centrists). I generally welcome China and India as economic super-powers - although I think China is, in plenty of ways, a far worse country than the US. In fact, I recognise that none of these rival power-blocks are morally superior to the US. But even so, as a non-US citizen, resident in a developing country, I believe my best interest is served by a plurality of powers which can be played-off against each other. The US, for all its virtues has demonstrated decisively that it can't be trusted as a unipolar hyperpower.

Let me give an example, which I hope shows that this isn't simply a question of Bush and the war, and which illustrates what's wrong with Eustonian unjoined-up thinking. The Eustonians call for the "radical reform of the major institutions of global economic governance (World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, World Bank)" yet don't note that the worst abuses carried out by these organizations occurred exactly when unopposed US political and economic power was at its height under the relatively benign Clinton. The US government is heavily lobbied and driven by its corporations. A world where we naively put our trust in the nobility of the US political tradition is one where we end up screwed by the reality of American sharp-practice. All the fine talk in the world can't disguise the fact that hundreds of thousands of Iraqi workers have lost their livelihoods due to the greed and incompetence of KBR and friends; who've also rooked the American people of billions of dollars.

Contrary to the Eustonians, I think that "that US foreign policy has often opposed progressive movements and governments and supported regressive and authoritarian ones" does indeed justify a systematic scepticism about its self-image as the good-guy. It would be better for the world if fewer people, particularly US citizens, believed that their government was always motivated by the highest goals. The US is by no means unique in its hypocrisy; but of all the self-delusional fantasists, it's the one with the most power to inflict it's delusions on the rest of us.

Personally, I'm always happy when I go to the US. And there are many admirable and inspiring elements of its culture. But so what? That someone is generally charming and has fine ideals doesn't give them a free-license for bad behaviour.

7) For a two-state solution.

We recognize the right of both the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples to self-determination within the framework of a two-state solution. There can be no reasonable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that subordinates or eliminates the legitimate rights and interests of one of the sides to the dispute.

Phil : My basic attitude to the whole Israeli / Palestinian thing is "a plague on both your houses".

One of my problems is that I just don't find it intellectually interesting which particular ethnic tribe gets to call one piece of land "theirs". And attempts to spin the question of Israel as something else, as a resurgence of Nazi anti-semitism or as part of the anti-colonialist struggle, don't do much for me. I don't suppose Israel has any more nor less right to exist than any other nation state. Ditto for a Palestinian state. In fact, I'm not sure nation states (unlike people) really have rights at all. I just wish they'd all stop squabbling over something so meaningless and trivial.

Having said all that, here are some observations. And I'm writing from a position of profound ignorance here, so please feel free to correct me on any facts I've got wrong.

Given the whole dysfunctional relationship that Israel and the Palestinians have fallen into, a two-state solution is probably the best way to go. Israel doesn't want a single nation-state where Palestinians get full citizenship and voting rights - because demographics mean that Israel would end up an arab country with a jewish minority within a fairly short time. (Of course, in an ideal world, this wouldn't have been a problem. The presumption that different races and religions should have to live in separate countries to be safe from one another is a dramatic failure of left-wing idealism. Nevertheless, pragmatically, a two-state solution it will have to be for the forseeable future.)

And, as far as I can tell, the only impediment to there being a fully independent Palestinian state, like, tomorrow, is that the Israelis won't just get out and leave the Palestinians to make one.

Seriously! Stripped of all the spinning and name-calling and hype about whether Arafat was venal or Hamas will or won't sign a piece of paper acknowledging Israel's right to exist, what is actually stopping there being a Palestinian state?

Is it that Israel wants a military buffer-zone against Egypt and Syria? Even after Israel has nukes (which it didn't, I think, at the time of the last attempted invasion by these neighbours.) Does Israel want the water? (As the conspiracy theorists have it.) Surely a wealthy, high-tech economy isn't really putting itself in this expensive and uncomfortable position simply for the orange-groves?

The suspicion that has to be raised is that the main reason there isn't a Palestinian state is that Israel is trying to use state-hood as a bargaining chip with the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world : "No state for the Palestinians until you all promise to behave yourselves and accept our right to exist."

That's what I guess is going on, and it naturally brings the question as to whether this is either morally justifiable or strategically smart.

To deny all Palestinians statehood (and the rights that citizens of an autonomous state would have) because some Palestinians are committing atrocities against Israel looks awfully like collective punishment. And the resentment it stimulates among the Palestinians and arab neighbours seems a high price to pay for a currency that isn't being accepted.

For comparison, this is something that the US would be embarrassed to be caught doing in Iraq. The US never says Iraq will get elections, and an independent government, as a reward only once the insurgency stops and Iraqis behave themselves. Instead it's eager to be seen promoting an independent Iraqi state as quickly as possible, because it follows a belief that once there is a functioning state, the insurgency will die off. I'm not sure why the general consensus around Palestine isn't more or less the same, ie. as soon as the Israelis get out, then the antipathy of the Palestinians will decrease to managable proportions.

8) Against racism.

For liberals and the Left, anti-racism is axiomatic. We oppose every form of racist prejudice and behaviour: the anti-immigrant racism of the far Right; tribal and inter-ethnic racism; racism against people from Muslim countries and those descended from them, particularly under cover of the War on Terror. The recent resurgence of another, very old form of racism, anti-Semitism, is not yet properly acknowledged in left and liberal circles. Some exploit the legitimate grievances of the Palestinian people under occupation by Israel, and conceal prejudice against the Jewish people behind the formula of "anti-Zionism". We oppose this type of racism too, as should go without saying.

Phil : Pretty much agree with this point.

Particularly, I'm against identity politics of all kinds. Identity politics is, incidently, a heavily debated issue in left, "cultural Marxist" circles - rather than a dogma. I happen to think we should be resistent to it. Race is not a useful category to organize around. Even though it's a category that exists within the current political reality, and it's dangerous to ignore it entirely; the best thing we can do is attempt to exorcise it as quickly as possible. Faced with two strategies of political organization, one highlighting or valorizing the concept of race, and one not, I think we should prefer the second.

Aside : As far as I understand, "anti-zionism" means being hostile to the idea of a jewish nation-state. Obviously there's a bit of framing in the Eustonian position to spin this as anti-semitism. I don't buy it.

But I'm happy to accept that too many on the left try to slot Arabic nationalism among legitimate left concerns, and I am against that. To be clear, yeah, people on the left make too much common cause with Arab nationalism and political Islamic groups, and we shouldn't; to the extent the Eustonians are worrying about and critical of this tendency, I'm with them.

9) United against terror.

We are opposed to all forms of terrorism. The deliberate targeting of civilians is a crime under international law and all recognized codes of warfare, and it cannot be justified by the argument that it is done in a cause that is just. Terrorism inspired by Islamist ideology is widespread today. It threatens democratic values and the lives and freedoms of people in many countries. This does not justify prejudice against Muslims, who are its main victims, and amongst whom are to be found some of its most courageous opponents. But, like all terrorism, it is a menace that has to be fought, and not excused.

Phil : Yeah. I'm against terrorism.

It happens that I don't think terrorism inspired by Islamist ideology is a big threat to "democratic values"; nor is it the real threat to "the lives and freedoms of people in many countries." But explaining why not is gonna be another bit of complex thinking rather than simplistic dividing the world into black and white. (Sorry if you came here looking for a quick sound bite.)

The only threats I can imagine to "values" are rival values which have a greater purchase on the mind of the listeners. (Consider this a memetic competition between different value systems.) Now the world is certainly experiencing a general shift towards (often religious) fundamentalisms and against the values shared by all decent liberals and leftists. A recent instance : my aunt, a liberal school-teacher who takes a kindly interest in some of her pupils that are refugees in the UK, was recently invited to church by a boy who was a 7th Day Adventist. There she was shocked and appalled as the warm welcome and friendly community atmosphere devolved into a full fire-and-brimstone homophobic sermon.

Liberal values are under threat in mosques throughout the world. But they are also under threat in churches, and on Christian satelite television channels. And probably in synagogues and Hindu temples and Buddhist meditation centres too. I'm saying this, not to find excuses to pick on the US nor to make a claim for moral equivalence or relativity. I'm saying this because if you're concerned about the erosion of liberal values then you ought, at least, to be interested in trying to understand what's making them go away.

Very few people change their values because someone with a rival value blew up their sister on the bus. Physical threats may change your behaviour, but tend to strengthen your values. Values change when people find themselves in situations, often of stress, where their existing values seem to have let them down. Or where their default background values are confused and inconsistent and no longer give them the guidance they need.

Islamism is now widely recognised to find purchase in two specific types of communities :

a) disaffected members of Islamic immigrant communities in Europe and the West, who are searching for an identity, and

b) disaffected members of denied religious sub-groups in Islamic countries who's governments are oppresive and secular or opressive and hypocritical.

Sayyid Qutb became radicalized in the US and under torture in Egypt. Bin Laden is the product of Saudi Arabia. The Taliban were the reaction to waves of confusion in Afghanistan and Pakistan as the US, Russia and various tribal warlords played out their great game there. OTOH, Islamism is not something that arises in Afghanistan under the Taliban, nor Iran under the Ayatollah. It was not a weapon in the hands of Saddam Hussein (although it may have been formenting in the opposition to him.)

This needs to be made clear. And, once again, the aim isn't to simply shift the blame for the problem of Islamism onto the US or Europe or Russia. But to understand what's really likely to combat it.

Search for identity in uncertain times and places is what makes people fundamentalist. The comfort and security of good jobs in convivial surroundings makes them liberal. That's why the risk-lite groves of academe and boom-time creative cities breed liberal values, while poverty, prejudice and uncertainty drive people into the mosques and churches.

Keep this in mind. But let's continue with the Eustonians beyond values : lives and freedoms are under attack too. It's true, and the bad news is that it's getting worse.

But not because Islamism is especially wicked or powerful. Our safety is diminishing because, as the fourth-generation war people put it, the nation-state has lost the monopoly on violence. All non-state actors, whatever their ideological motivations, are potentially empowered by new technologies and organizational structures, to cause more damage than ever before.

More people allegedly die in gang-warfare in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro than in the Palestinian Intifada. The US confronts a similar rising violence on its Mexican border. These are symptoms of the democratisation of violence, and the shift in loyalties from the nation-state to some other identity-system, whether religious or ethnic or economic.

I don't approve of that thing that the Eustonians label "Islamist terrorism". But I see it for what it is : one among dozens of fundamentalisms, acting as one among dozens of malign networks. You could scour "Islamism" from the earth, and tomorrow the same problems would be with us under another label : an uncertain world where the dispossessed search for identity and self-assertion through membership of gangs and tribes with excessively anti-liberal ideologies. Such gangs must have an anti-liberal ideology, because notions of them-and-us, sinners-and-saved, infidel-and-martyr are the basic principle holding them together in the first place. If your sense of self depends on your membership of a gang. And the main organizing principle of the gang is that members are good and non-members are bad, then inevitably liberal values of tolerance and egalitarianism are out of the window.

I'd sign a manifesto that recognised this; that recognised that violent terrorism is the hallmark of all repressive fundamentalisms. And that the proper response is to build benign networks of participation and discover new identities based on shared projects and activities : membership of alt.currencies or gifting circles, free-software projects and blogrolls; quilting circles and book-clubs; theatre, music, dance and a million other things humans do together to express who they are. This, and only this, do I consider to be a serious attempt to fight "terror". :-)

Building up our militias to fight Islamist violence with violence of our own, is mere surrender to terrorism. To the extent that "united front against terror" is simply cheerleading this response, it's selling off the liberal birthright to look below the superficial to see the underlying patterns and causes.

10) A new internationalism.

We stand for an internationalist politics and the reform of international law — in the interests of global democratization and global development. Humanitarian intervention, when necessary, is not a matter of disregarding sovereignty, but of lodging this properly within the "common life" of all peoples. If in some minimal sense a state protects the common life of its people (if it does not torture, murder and slaughter its own civilians, and meets their most basic needs of life), then its sovereignty is to be respected. But if the state itself violates this common life in appalling ways, its claim to sovereignty is forfeited and there is a duty upon the international community of intervention and rescue. Once a threshold of inhumanity has been crossed, there is a "responsibility to protect".

Phil : Sure, we should be able to use troops to intervene and prevent genocides. When there's a damned good justification for intervention (which includes competence and reasonable grounds for assuming the intervention will be a success) then by all means send in the troops to protect people.

11) A critical openness.

Drawing the lesson of the disastrous history of left apologetics over the crimes of Stalinism and Maoism, as well as more recent exercises in the same vein (some of the reaction to the crimes of 9/11, the excuse-making for suicide-terrorism, the disgraceful alliances lately set up inside the "anti-war" movement with illiberal theocrats), we reject the notion that there are no opponents on the Left. We reject, similarly, the idea that there can be no opening to ideas and individuals to our right. Leftists who make common cause with, or excuses for, anti-democratic forces should be criticized in clear and forthright terms. Conversely, we pay attention to liberal and conservative voices and ideas if they contribute to strengthening democratic norms and practices and to the battle for human progress.

Phil : +1 to this. Self-criticism is essential for any viable project, including a leftist political one. Always pay attention to criticism. And, as a leftist, you should certainly be aware that the right will tend to notice things that you have blind-spots about. So pay special attention to them.

12) Historical truth.

In connecting to the original humanistic impulses of the movement for human progress, we emphasize the duty which genuine democrats must have to respect for the historical truth. Not only fascists, Holocaust-deniers and the like have tried to obscure the historical record. One of the tragedies of the Left is that its own reputation was massively compromised in this regard by the international Communist movement, and some have still not learned that lesson. Political honesty and straightforwardness are a primary obligation for us.

Phil : Agreed again. Although, we shouldn't be so cowed as to take any old bullshit accusations that rightist populists like to throw around at leftist projects of the past. Sometimes the rightists are just lying. And they need to be called out on that. The left don't have a monopoly on self-serving dishonesty.

13) Freedom of ideas.

We uphold the traditional liberal freedom of ideas. It is more than ever necessary today to affirm that, within the usual constraints against defamation, libel and incitement to violence, people must be at liberty to criticize ideas — even whole bodies of ideas — to which others are committed. This includes the freedom to criticize religion: particular religions and religion in general. Respect for others does not entail remaining silent about their beliefs where these are judged to be wanting.

Phil : Yep. Take it further. I'm not sure we need official constraints against defamation and libel either. Or rather, these are problems associated with an imbalance of power between mass-media producers and a passive, receptive audience. If we can undo that imbalance, and with it, excessive credibility within the audience, there shouldn't be a need for institutions to try to forbid people dissing each other.

14) Open source.

As part of the free exchange of ideas and in the interests of encouraging joint intellectual endeavour, we support the open development of software and other creative works and oppose the patenting of genes, algorithms and facts of nature. We oppose the retrospective extension of intellectual property laws in the financial interests of corporate copyright holders. The open source model is collective and competitive, collaborative and meritocratic. It is not a theoretical ideal, but a tested reality that has created common goods whose power and robustness have been proved over decades. Indeed, the best collegiate ideals of the scientific research community that gave rise to open source collaboration have served human progress for centuries.

Phil : Good. But really this should be given star-billing. The free-software movement is the world's first succesful movement to roll back an attempt at enclosure. Not only that, but as the first well studied and theorized example of "commons based peer production", it's the herald of new thinking about economic relations and the articulation of labour. This has to be at the heart of new left-wing theory. Not simply that "everything should be open source", but that it becomes clear that the market is not always the best solution to the problem. We can look beyond simply asking "market vs. government" to a whole new world of different economic strategies. This is the beginning of the end for one-size-fits-all capitalism.

15) A precious heritage.

We reject fear of modernity, fear of freedom, irrationalism, the subordination of women; and we reaffirm the ideas that inspired the great rallying calls of the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century: liberty, equality and solidarity; human rights; the pursuit of happiness. These inspirational ideas were made the inheritance of us all by the social-democratic, egalitarian, feminist and anti-colonial transformations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries — by the pursuit of social justice, the provision of welfare, the brotherhood and sisterhood of all men and women. None should be left out, none left behind. We are partisans of these values. But we are not zealots. For we embrace also the values of free enquiry, open dialogue and creative doubt, of care in judgement and a sense of the intractabilities of the world. We stand against all claims to a total — unquestionable or unquestioning — truth.

Phil : I think this means that they see themselves as both left-wing, and part of the critical tradition. So do I.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Excellent! My Tribe-friend and fellow wikinaut Zbigniew Lukasiak is blogging at Brudnopis.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Apparently Google are rolling out map info for several European countries.

That means my friends in Granada can now find themselves.
My guess is that Chris Pirillo's Airplane Safety Instructional Video is going to be a massive hit over the next few days.

Tree Blogging

Originally uploaded by interstar.

I went to the Atlantic Forest, but I don't seem to have got many pictures of trees.

Here's something, at least a little bit foresty.

Big spider
Originally uploaded by interstar.
There's a very big spider that lives under the house where the owners and the building workers are living (Serra Bonita is under construction).

Everyone calls her Rosa.

This isn't Rosa, but one of her (slightly) smaller sisters. (About 7 or 8 inches in diameter.)

Humming Birds
Originally uploaded by interstar.
Every afternoon, the humming birds come to be fed. They've got so tame that they'll land on your hand. This, however, is definitely the most dramatic photo I got.

See that grey in the background? This is cloud forest and the clouds roll right up the valley and engulf the research centre.

Moonrise 2
Originally uploaded by interstar.
Just got back from the Serra Bonita eco-reserve - a mountain in the Atlantic Forest, southern Bahia.

Beautiful place, and an ambitious project created by a very impressive couple in their sixties. I want to say a lot about this, but no time now. More pics soon.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Cool! One of my students from last semester did a pretty good, simple Windows drawing program which exports WMF files for his Programação Avancada coursework. Now he's put code up on the net.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

I'm back from travelling. Pics, blog posts, more stuff soon ...

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Cool! An blog from a Brazilian living in Uraguay.

Legal! Um blog de dinheiro alternativo (economia solidária) escrevendo pela um brasiliero morando em Uraguay.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

An interesting comment to a piece by James Kunstler

When folks discuss hybrids, they might as well consider combining the airship with the train somehow. Trains do use a lot of energy (far less than your jalopy, but still) - because they're HEAVY. Subtract some of the weight by adding something blimp-like (if this necessiates putting up guardrails on either side of the track, so be it) - and you'll have the most energy-efficient vehicle in history.
BBC NEWS | Political row hits Brazil shares

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

BBC NEWS | Brazilian finance minister quits

The story going round here is that the guy was sleeping with the wife of one of his underlings and the underling shopped him. Who knows?

Thursday, March 23, 2006