Saturday, December 30, 2006

Who Was Winston Churchill's Wife?

Driving to Ali Baba and Rural America's wedding rehearsal tonight, I sparked conversational fireworks.
[Someone:] "...and who you marry is the most important decision of your life..."
[Me:] "I hope I get to make decisions in my life more important than who I marry."
I had no intention of setting off so explosive a debate, but with young married friends in the car, I should have known better. We all engaged in friendly fracas, throwing out Scripture and invoking everyone from Jesus Christ to Hitler.

This may seem like a triviality or a debate over definitions, but I believe something of substance is at issue. Clearly, one's choice of spouse is a weighty and ticklish matter, and all the more important in a liberated society, one where neither women nor men are firmly wedded to societal norms. But what could be more important? Deciding to pursue a career that leads to a cure for cancer? Deciding to take a nation to war? No less a dignitary than Mrs. Hill agreed that for truly remarkable, influential people, their choice of spouse could be a decision of less import than other decisions they must make. As I asked a few times, Who was Winston Churchill's wife?

Most of my friends, however, seem to believe that for ordinary folks, a marriage is the most vital decision one can make (outside of choosing to follow Christ). Taking as given that we as Christians seek to glorify God above all, and that we generally do so in human life through relationships, it follows (they argue) that this most intimate of all human crucibles is thereby the most important; the more so because it greatly affects every subsequent relationship.

Furthermore, one friend argued, ambition is dangerous. To desire a decision of more import than marriage is to desire greatness, that unmeasurable but undeniable quality of but few of our race. This desire, I am told, leads to pride, running counter to the attitude of a Christian.

I concede this point to the degree that said ambition becomes the driving force in a man's life. But why does marriage get off so lightly? Is not the desire for a noble spouse just as selfish as the desire to be the best athlete or most successful CEO? Is it not a more godly attitude in any area of life to hope that one has the opportunity to make important decisions - and that one makes them well - than to avoid responsibility to the wider world?

When did Christianity cease to have as a central interest the state of the world around it? When did the family become the sole sphere of godly action and selflessness? Is not a man who delays marriage to care for his parents - my Moroccan friend Driss, a reader of this blog, comes to mind - more noble than one who marries wisely but neglects his aging parents? Jesus, speaking in Mark 7:11, certainly suggests so. Or does Mr. Churchill's choice of Clementine Hozier (after, Wikipedia notes, being turned down by Ethel Barrymore) loom larger in God's economy than his decision to go to war with Nazi Germany? And cannot the same be said for many people in many fields: that their decision for good or ill in some area of their life had a far greater impact - on people's lives, on world history, or on the advancement of God's peace on earth - than their decision of whom to marry.

Marriage is a God-given institution and dear to many hearts, married and single. To speak personally, I find in myself many oft-conflicting desires, impulses, appetites, and goals. Among these is the desire to marry and become a father. But these are not somehow more sanctified nor more important than, say, my desire to help my fellow man or my impulse to compete and excel. This perspective is borrowed from C.S. Lewis, who notes in The Screwtape Letters that even as 'good' an impulse as patriotism or mother-love can be wrong if not controlled by the will. Scripture is not silent on this issue:
Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband. The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband...But this I say by way of concession, not of command...

But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I.
-I Corinthians 7:1-8, exerpted
To Paul, the fetishism of marriage in the American church would be a humorous reversal of first-century norms. Enshrinement of temporal relationships is as foolish as their denial.

Thus, it is rather in the manner I carry out the business of my life than in the content therof that God is chiefly glorified. Thus, the decisions of what career to pursue, where to live, or whom to marry are of import - but not of as great import as my friends suggest. Decisions of significantly greater magnitude are, I believe, a rare privilege, and one to be desired. As the Lord said,
"His master said to him, 'Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.'"
-Matthew 25:21

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Mog Falls

The NYTimes just reported that Mogadishu has fallen to Somali Transitional National Government (TNG) and Ethiopian forces after being abandoned last night by the Islamic Courts. The Times' quick-and-dirty rundown of the backstory up to today is an echo of what Global Review predicted two nights ago:
The Islamists started out as a grass-roots movement of clan elders and religious leaders who banded together earlier this year to rid Mogadishu of its notorious warlords, earning them a lot of public support. But much of that good will seems to have been sapped by their decision to go to war against the transitional government and the Ethiopian forces protecting it.

The Islamists attacked Baidoa, the seat of the transitional government, on Dec. 20; a few days later, they announced that Somalia was open to Muslim fighters around the world who wanted to wage a holy war against Christian-led Ethiopia. That provoked a crushing counter-attack by the Ethiopians, who command the strongest military in East Africa. For the past week, the Islamists have lost one battle after another, their adolescent soldiers no match for a professional army.
But that doesn't mean the war is over. In fact, with the Islamists out of the way, Somali clans are taking up their favorite hobby again: wasting each other.
Mogadishu's new powers immediately had to deal with a rising level of chaos, as armed bandits swept the city and fragmented clan militia began to battle each other for the spoils of war. Witnesses said an intense gun battle raged around a former Islamist ammunition dump and that clan warlords had instantly reverted back to setting up roadside checkpoints and shaking down motorists for money. Many terrified residents stayed in their homes behind bolted doors and the few that ventured into the streets carried guns. "No one is really in command," said one adviser to Western diplomats who has close contacts with both the Islamists and the transitional government. "Chaos is in command."
The next 48 hours may be the most crucial in the war. If the Ethiopian-backed TNG can pacify Mog, peace may actually come. Otherwise, we're back in 1992.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Now if only he could tell us what birds are thinking...

The BBC notes an astoundingly intelligent parrot, who appears to speak English as well as a young child.
The bird, a captive African grey called N'kisi, has a vocabulary of 950 words, and shows signs of a sense of humour. He invents his own words and phrases if he is confronted with novel ideas with which his existing repertoire cannot cope - just as a human child would do...

He uses words in context, with past, present and future tenses, and is often inventive. One N'kisi-ism was "flied" for "flew", and another "pretty smell medicine" to describe the aromatherapy oils used by his owner, an artist based in New York. When he first met Dr Jane Goodall, the renowned chimpanzee expert, after seeing her in a picture with apes, N'kisi said: "Got a chimp?"

He appears to fancy himself as a humourist. When another parrot hung upside down from its perch, he commented: "You got to put this bird on the camera."
Yes, indeed.

Seeing Somalia

U.S. papers are following the experts closely in their 'reporting' on the war between Ethiopia and Somalia's Islamic Courts Union the past few days, in no small part because there are only a handful of reporters in the region. For their part, the experts are following Iraq's example to predict what will happen in Somalia.

The Washington Post quotes David Shinn, a former ambassador to Ethiopia:
"Over the long term, I don't see where this gets them. And one wonders how long they can hang on in this situation, because eventually it's going to turn into a nasty guerrilla war, and I don't think the Ethiopians have the stomach to carry on with that kind of campaign."
It was unclear where the Islamic fighters went. Some were spotted with their battle gear around Mogadishu; analysts said it was likely that most headed into the bush to prepare for a war on their own terms.
And in another article:
"Hasn't anyone heard of Iraq?" said John Prendergast, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group in Washington. "A military strategy of 'countering terrorism' never works and will likely blow up in their faces."
This is precisely what the Islamic Courts want their enemies to think. If true, it makes them dangerous; if false, it amounts to a good bluff.

So what's a civilization to do? Western secular democracy is threatened by a violent world force - militant Islam - which has proven to be as deadly to eradicate as to ignore. Prendergast, Shinn, and others would have Ethiopia leave Somalia to the Islamic Courts. What would result? Taliban-like laws have already been enacted, and conceivably the Courts could reconquer autonomous Puntland and independent Somaliland (sidenote: it's better late than never for the U.S. to recognize Somaliland). A government relying on theocratic fear and uniting its people using militant anger towards outsiders is bound to go to war; else it loses its legitimacy.

For Ethiopia, a third war with Somalia was inevitable under the Courts. Ethiopia had the luxury of being able to choose the time. They chose wisely.

The Courts are not yet deeply rooted, and if there is any hope for a peaceful, secular Somalia, it is to abort this government before it takes full form. The people can still withdraw their support, and the Courts have almost no bureaucratic infrastructure. A swift punitive thrust by a powerful neighbor may be sufficient to turn Somalis away from the Courts.

The best-case scenario is that support for the Courts dries up quickly, and the recognized government can imitate the Courts in public works, and accomplish calm, but without the violent rhetoric and daily executions.

This is unlikely, but in any event it is difficult to imagine Somalis waging any kind of war - terrorist or otherwise - against the Ethiopian homeland. If the Courts survive, Ethiopia will quickly and convincingly respond to any attack. If the Courts collapse, their potential recruits will be swallowed up by whatever configuration of the ongoing Somali civil war follows this one. Either way, Ethiopia won't dawdle in Somalia, so they won't be there to kill.

So Somalia isn't Iraq; or, perhaps more insightfully, Ethiopia isn't America.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

VR-Day: Victory in Rochester

The Giants win the pennant. The war in Europe is over. Sic semper tyrranis. I will resign the presidency effective noon tomorrow. I got an A- in Macro.

Monday, December 18, 2006

This Is Why Democracies Don't Fight

Generally, democracies don't go to war. There are, of course, exceptions, like Israel's assault on Lebanon this summer. But generally, democracies don't go to war because they don't want to.

Two democratic countries, considered enemies by all and potential combatants by some, have been pulled back from potential conflict - not by the UN, not by international mediation, but by their own indigenous democratic processes.

I'm referring, of course, to the U.S. and Iran. While neither country saw its warlike leader up for reelection, midterms in both countries have repudiated nationalist policies. The results of the U.S. elections are well known. Iran's election returns are coming in today, with victories for moderate conservatives.

Iran is not a full democracy by any stretch of the imagination. Parties and candidates must be approved by a central council, civil society is constrained, sometimes brutally. And Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is a brute. But it should be apparent that even this severely limited version of democracy is preferable to the alternative - even if the "alternative" (the Shah, for instance) is U.S.-friendly.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Free-for-All 2008

I did not expect this month's rankings to be much more helpful than last month's. Candidates who are announcing that they will (or won't!) run generate more news than they should. However, things actually look remarkably stable, and not only at the extremes. On the Republican side, the results are almost astounding: two non-contenders who were big newsmakers in the 2006 cycle have dropped off the map, Sam Brownback has leapt to 'contender' level, but everyone else has held their relative places, despite newly announced candidacies and publicity stunts.

Likewise, while Obamania has propelled Illinois' junior senator to the two-hole, Hillary still reigns supreme. After the elections, the Democrats have a clear advantage, with Nancy Pelosi taking center-stage as a combative Washington insider, enabling her compatriots to rack up frequent-flyer miles to Manchester and Des Moines. Their electoral success probably helped "new" Democrats (Obama, of course, but also Clinton and Richardson) and hurt establishment warriors Kerry, Edwards, and Gore. Pelosi and co. proved that Democrats can win nationally, suggesting that the problem in 2000 and 2004 wasn't the message, it was the messengers.

The monthly prediction...
Dec '06: Clinton & Obama over McCain & Giuliani
Nov '06: McCain & Giuliani over Clinton & Warner
Oct '06: McCain & Giuliani over Clinton & Warner
Sep '06: McCain & Giuliani over Clinton & Warner
Aug '06: McCain & Giuliani over Clinton & Warner
Jul '06: Clinton & Warner over Allen & Romney
Jun '06: Clinton & Warner over Allen & Romney
May '06: Clinton & Warner over Allen & Romney
Apr '06: Clinton & Warner over Allen & Romney
Mar '06: Clinton & Warner over Allen & Rice
Feb '06: Clinton & Warner over Allen & Rice

Rank Candidate ChatterRank Change
R.1 Sen. John McCain 8,9700
R.2 Gov. Mitt Romney 4,170+1
R.3 Rudy Giuliani 3,810+1
R.4 Sen. Bill Frist 2,450+1
R.5 Sen. Sam Brownback 2,170+7
R.6 Secy. Condoleezza Rice 1,940+1
R.7 Gov. Mike Huckabee 1,640+1
R.8 Rep. Duncan Hunter 1,520+1
R.9 Newt Gingrich 1,110+1
R.10 Gov. George Pataki 1,100+1
R.11 Sen. Chuck Hagel 863+2
R.12 Sen. George Allen 718-10
R.13 Tommy Thompson 658+1
R.14 Gov. Jeb Bush 308-8
D.1 Sen. Hillary Clinton 6,9700
D.2 Sen. Barack Obama 5,780+1
D.3 Sen. John Kerry 4,440-1
D.4 Sen. John Edwards 3,710+2
D.5 Gov. Tom Vilsack 3,3500
D.6 Sen. Harry Reid 2,970-2
D.7 Sen. Joseph Biden 2,5800
D.8 Sen. Evan Bayh 2,260+6
D.9 Gov. Bill Richardson 1,760+2
D.10 Sen. Christopher Dodd 1,220+3
D.11 Al Gore 1,210-3
D.12 Howard Dean 917-2
D.13 Sen. Russ Feingold 726-1
D.14 Gov. Mark Warner 684-6
D.15 Wesley Clark 4470

Notes: The Chatter Rankings are created by searching each candidate's name plus "2008" in the Google News database. Last month's rankings had errant counting on the GOP side; that has been fixed.

See graphs of the past Chatter Rankings plus Chatter Rankings from November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, December, August, July, June, and May.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Iraq II or World War III?

The NYTimes reports on the coming war between Ethiopia and the newly unified Somali Islamists. After fifteen years of chaos, Somalis are united around a common - and old - enemy. Shades of Mohamed Siad Barre. Shades of the Taliban. Shades of the Crusades.
"I am ready to die," said Osama Abdi Rahim, dressed head to toe in camouflage and marching around with a loaded rifle. He is 7 years old.
Ethiopia is the West's 'agent' in the region (as it has been since 1500), shoring up the pitiful, internationally recognized government in Baidoa (map here). The Islamists control Mogadishu and enjoy the support of most Somalis.
Their troops, which United Nations officials say are secretly getting weapons from several Arab countries and Eritrea, have encircled Baidoa and are vowing to wage war against the Ethiopian forces unless they leave. Ethiopian convoys have been attacked, and the Islamists recently skirmished with soldiers from Baidoa, with dozens reported killed. That taste of war seems to have whetted the appetite for more.
America has an ugly history in this region. You've all seen Black Hawk Down, and you should read it, so you know how swimmingly the 1993 UN intervention went. More recently, the U.S. covertly supported the warlords against the Islamists. That backfired.

Ethiopia's history isn't much better. It's been a holdout against Islam in East Africa for centuries, and is a 'Christian' country where 60% of the citizens are Muslims, and treated as an unpopular minority. Many of these live in the Ogaden desert and identify as Somalis; Ethiopia fought off Somalia in 1977-1978 for control of the Ogaden.

Using Ethiopia as a proxy to fight the Islamists could lead to a spreading war. Chad is already in civil war, as is Eastern Sudan. The Sudanese might be able to end the Darfur crisis by following the Somali model: unite against a common - Christian - enemy. If Ethiopia is attacking a fellow Islamist government, Sudan could force a two-front war by attacking from the north. Likewise, Eritrea, always scrappy with its former lords, could engage from the east. Uganda's civil war has seen a break in the clouds of late, but Joseph Kony couldn't resist finding a new role for his LRA in a general East African war. That could link up the East African conflicts with the Central African conflicts, which the UN has been damping for ten years in the Congo and all its neighbors.

Admittedly, that's a doomsday scenario. More realistically, Ethiopia could quickly annihilate the pathetic Somalian military. But then what? The Times reports that the Ethiopians have already seen the first Iraq-style roadside bombs and suicide bombs ever used in Somalia. Pacifying Somalia is out of the question.

The other option is to negotiate with the Islamists. The Times presents that option:
"The Islamists aren’t going away, so the sooner we talk to them, the better," said Representative Donald M. Payne, the New Jersey Democrat who is expected to become the chairman of the House subcommittee on Africa when his party takes control of Congress in January.

In Mogadishu the Islamists are continuing their hearts-and-minds campaign, organizing neighborhood cleanups, delivering food to the needy and resuscitating old national institutions like the Supreme Court, which was given a fresh coat of paint and reopened in October.

Streets that were clogged with years of debris are now clear and bureaucracy is budding, with more rules and more paperwork, including forms at the airport that ask name, age, nationality and religion — Muslim or non-Muslim being the only choices.

All the talk of slaughtering Ethiopian invaders and their American sponsors, though, seems to have brought out a harsher side of the Islamic administration. Nearly every day, rings of people gather on Mogadishu’s streets to watch lashings, and the crowds cheer as leather whips cut canals into flesh. One Islamic leader in a town north of Mogadishu recently issued an edict threatening that anyone who did not pray five times a day would be beheaded.

"It’s black and white," said the leader, Hussein Barre Rage. "The Koran says people must pray."

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Even Shaughnessy

Even Dan Shaughnessy can't say 'humbug' to this one. His column today (an open letter to Dice-K) is good for a few laughs:
Be wary of a large teammate with a blond mullet wearing No. 38. He will explain that he is a spokesman for all of the other players and instruct you on everything from tipping the clubhouse kids to throwing the splitter. He will show you his copious notes on all major league umpires. He will tell you which media members to trust and which ones are snakes. He will also urge you to vote republican.

You will be impressed with your new catcher. Japanese ballplayers traditionally work harder and put in longer days than American players. You will appreciate the work ethic of Jason Varitek. He will be the best catcher you’ve ever had. Do everything he says. He will not tell you how to vote...

Do not be surprised or insulted when a Spanish-speaking playing wearing No. 24 greets you at spring training with, ‘‘Hey, who are you? When did we get you? Were you in Pawtucket last year? I love playing in Pawtucket.’’ This man will turn out to be the best hitter you have ever seen.

If you don’t want to learn English, we understand. In fact, it might not be a bad strategy. All you really need is one stock answer. Try ‘‘It is what it is.’’ You will be amazed how well that works.

Stalkerbook Item of the Day

With apologies to Sniper and Hutton, here's my 'Stalkerbook' (i.e. Facebook feed) item of the day.
Daisuke Matsuzaka left the group I Hate Scott Boras. 2:57pm
This day is indeed a beautiful one in Boston: the Sox get a top-flight pitcher for six years at $17m a year, much of which in the form of the posting fee, and the possibility of endless Japanese revenues. Assuming even Scott Boras can't derail a deal over the minutia, there's just one question left: Who will start at Kansas City on April 2?

Monday, December 11, 2006

The World According to Grad Students Intelligence Chairmen

World? What world? You mean there's something outside this tomb we call Harkness?

Yes there is, and Brownpau gives us a review of the literature (that's Harknesspeak) of several perspectives on said world. Based on a comparison of the several perspectives, I conclude that a 'world' does not in fact exist; if it did, it would have more consistently observable characteristics.

Update: The incoming House Intelligence Committee chairman is Rep. Silvestre Reyes, whose primary qualification was being Hispanic. He represents Nancy Pelosi's Solomonic compromise between white insider Jane Harman and corrupt black outsider Alcee Hastings. Mr. Reyes had an interview in Congressional Quarterly. It's a puff piece:
His long-term agenda includes determining "what are the emerging threats, what are the challenges we will see in the future that we’re going to have to face and prepare for. In that category would be things like Iran, North Korea, and some of the other areas of the world that we haven’t paid close attention."
A completely different story on CQ's website tells, well, a completely different story:
Reyes stumbled when I asked him a simple question about al Qaeda at the end of a 40-minute interview in his office last week... Al Qaeda is what, I asked, Sunni or Shia?

"Al Qaeda, they have both," Reyes said. "You’re talking about predominately?"
"Sure," I said, not knowing what else to say.
"Predominantly — probably Shiite," he ventured...

And Hezbollah? I asked him. What are they?
"Hezbollah. Uh, Hezbollah...Why do you ask me these questions at five o’clock? Can I answer in Spanish? Do you speak Spanish?"
The world according to Silvestre Reyes.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Love Labor's Last

Today we had our last labor class of the semester (and hopefully the last of my life). We went over a paper that modeled fertility as a jointly dynamic process.

But isn't that obvious?

Mighty Lake Effect

Casey Zak's blog is always mighty, but this week it's also majestic, with some terrific photos of lake effect evaporation off Lake Ontario. Very little of that snow makes it as far south as UR, but Irondequoit gets buried on a regular basis.