Tuesday, March 30, 2010

How to spot bullshit

10 tips for distinguishing between disguised ignorance and insight.

1) ‘Studies show’ – what studies?
Be cautious of claims made with confidence but without evidence. Some writers will try to lend their views credibility by referring vaguely to science or research, or by quoting unreferenced statistics. This disturbing Youtube video is a good example of unreferenced bullshit delivered with fancy graphics and a serious voice. Its first sentence:

According to research, in order for a culture to maintain itself for more than 25 years there must be a fertility rate of 2.11 children per family.

What research? The video is anti-Muslim propaganda, warning that Muslim immigrants are rapidly out-reproducing Europeans. It has well over 11 million views on Youtube alone – but it’s bullshit, full of demonstrably false statistics as well as others with no reference or source. The BBC do a good job in exposing its nonsense.

2) Anecdotal evidence can disprove a generalisation, but cannot prove it
If someone says that all Irish men are alcoholics, and you meet an Irish man who is not an alcoholic, your anecdotal evidence is enough to disprove this claim.

If you meet an Irish man who is an alcoholic, however, it does not prove his claim since there are millions of other Irish men. Be wary of people who use anecdotes as evidence to prove a theory. Anecdotes can disprove theories, and can help add colour and insight to a situation, but are not enough in themselves.
For example, remember this Australian clip depicting ‘stupid Americans’ interviewed on the street? The video shows Americans who cannot answer questions like ‘name a country beginning with U’. (‘Yugoslavia,’ one replied. Another suggested ‘Utah.’) Quite funny stuff, but not indicative of what the other 300 million Americans would have answered.

3) Watch out for overkill
Sometimes writers make claims so outlandish and extreme, so far removed from what most people already believe, and with such confidence, that there is a temptation to say, ‘well, if only half of this is true, then I’m convinced’. This is weak logic, don’t let wild accusations and claims move you half-way to acceptance when none of it is backed up.

4) Cherry-picked statistics are useless
American right-wing commentator Glenn Beck gives us a good example here:

Americans have a better survival rate for 13 of the 16 most common cancers than Europe. Take prostate cancer: 91.9 percent of men live through it, versus 73.7 percent in France and just 51.1 percent in Britain.

Beck was trying to show that 'European' socialised healthcare is worse than the American system. But by cherry-picking France and Britain, he carefully avoids Austria, where 86.1% of cancer victims survive, even with its heavily socialised health system. Shortly after Beck’s rant another report emerged showing that Finnish women have a higher cancer survival rate than American women – Finland also with a highly socialised health system.

Beck picks numbers out of the blue, numbers which sound impressive, but he does not place them in context. This is classic propaganda nonsense.

(Michael Moore’s Sicko goes one step further: cherry-picking anecdotes. He interviews Americans happily living in France, but not French people living in the US.)

Statistics must be placed in context. Supposing a pressure group claims that a certain number of people die of some disease, and uses this as evidence to call for a changed policy. The number of dead is emotive and disturbing, and moves people to action. But the number is worthless without context. How does this mortality number compare with other diseases? How expensive is the treatment – can we save more people suffering from different diseases for the same cost? How many people die in other countries from this disease? What proportion of the total population is affected by it, and is the proportion growing or shrinking?

Another example: campaigners often suggest that ‘world hunger’ is growing. This could be because the global economic system is pulling food from the poor and wasting it on the rich.

…Or it could be simply because the world population is growing, largely because food production has soared over the last century. Perhaps there are more hungry people today because in the past those people would have starved to death and disappeared from the statistics. Growing ‘world hunger’ could be a sign of success rather than failure.

5) Generalisations about ‘Europe’ or ‘The West’, conceal the truth
Europe, remember, is a continent ending, arbitrarily, at the Urals and Caucasus mountains, and including Iceland even though it is geographically closer to North America. Europe includes a socialist autocracy (Belarus), a theocracy (Vatican City), and several traditionally Muslim-majority countries (Albania, Kosovo and Turkey, since a small section of Turkish territory lies inside Europe). Most Russians are also Europeans, living west of the Urals. Most European countries never had colonies, and many of them were colonised by their European neighbours. Some European countries are in the EU but not NATO, some in NATO but not the EU, some in neither.

Taking all this into account, it is senseless to talk of ‘European policies’ or ‘European culture’, yet serious commentators do this all the time. This can be deeply misleading, for the same reasons given for Glenn Beck’s speech. There is wide variation between European countries. Thus there is no European policy or European culture that is not also shared with non-European countries.

Commentators and politicians blur the edges to hide the truth. It is not difficult to be specific. Say ‘EU’, or ‘France and Germany,’ or ‘NATO’ when you mean those things, not Europe.

Europe is just one example, but this kind of generalisation is common for many groups, not least ‘the West’, ‘the East’, Africa, ‘the Muslim World’ and so on. Don’t take for granted that such collections of diverse nations are really accurate or useful, that there is really such a thing as a ‘Western worldview’ or an ‘Islamic policy’. It’s lazy, and deceptive.

6) Data, not celebrity, should rule
Trust no commentators, however likeable or well-respected: always expect data to back up their claims. Journalists sometimes introduce a commentator by referencing his achievements to give credibility.

'IRELAND MUST “suffer” through at least five years of economic weakness before recovering to match average euro-zone growth, according Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman,' reads one Irish Times article from 2009. Yet another Nobel Prize-winning economist is Friedrich von Hayek, whose views radically differ from Krugman’s. So which Nobel Prize-winning economist are we meant to trust?

Neither, perhaps, without looking at the evidence they offer.

The same goes for people or organisations one usually disagrees with. Sometimes inconvenient arguments are dismissed because of the person they come from: ‘typical right-wing propaganda’, ‘known Communist-apologist’, etc. Arguments should not be dismissed because of the person who makes them, but rather because of their weak evidence or logic.

In practice, to be fair, we don’t have time to listen to every argument going, so we filter out those arguments coming from people with a long-standing lack of credibility. But just be cautious about it – sometimes the wrong people believe the right thing.

7) ‘Yeah but…’
One common technique for escaping legitimate blame for some abuse or atrocity is to confuse the issue by pointing at the accuser. For example, the Chinese government released a Human Rights Record of the US in 2004. American governments have for years criticised China for its human rights abuses. Chinese government’s reply: ‘yeah but…’

Yeah but, ‘The United States should take its own human rights problems seriously, reflect on its erroneous position and behavior on human rights, and stop its unpopular interference with other countries' internal affairs under the pretext of promoting human rights.’ So does that mean there are no human rights abuses in China? Not at all. In fact it is irrelevant to the discussion of Chinese government human rights abuses. This sleight of hand flips the debate away from sensitive topics by focusing on irrelevant external issues: a useful way to bullshit people.

8) Don't take my word for it
These are useful ways to detect deception, but don't take my word for it. Access data directly, skipping the middle men of media and politics. The internet makes this ever more convenient with amazing sites like Gapminder. Go forth and research yourself.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Ireland means nothing now

Successful integration of ethnic minorities in the Americas and Australia doesn’t imply it will be this easy in Europe.

When Spain and Portugal began their colonial expansion in the 16th century they found resistance among natives in the Americas weaker than resistance in Africa, because European diseases decimated the native American populations. Over the next few centuries the native populations collapsed from disease, environmental change caused by imported Old World animal and plant species, and war.

When the Europeans settled in the Americas, they were able to begin society again from scratch – the drastically shrunk native populations unable to prevent the emergence of a new culture and polity.

All the first inhabitants of this new culture were immigrants, often from several European and African regions. The New World was to be a mixed-nationality nation, right from the start. There is no American, Brazilian or Australian race today, since these populations are already highly mixed in ancestry. Even in the 18th century when the American Founding Fathers wrote their Declaration of Independence they made no ethnic claim to the colonies, framing their claim to independence only on the tyranny of the British government.
The Irish Proclamation of Independence is quite different.

We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people.

The land of Ireland lies naturally with the Irish people, they said. It acknowledges help given to the independence movement from Ireland’s ‘exiled children in America’, suggesting that what they are talking about is ethnicity. Even American citizens are Irish by ethnicity and therefore ‘exiled children’ of Ireland. The land of Ireland belongs to the Irish ethnicity.

So unlike the US, Ireland’s claim to independence was, from the start, based on the presumption of natural ethnic ownership and collective ethnic freedom from foreign domination, not individual freedom from tyrannical government.

There is a hint here at why some of the New World countries have absorbed massive numbers of immigrants while there are problems with integration in several European countries. Here in Europe (as well as in Africa and Asia), the natives stubbornly refuse to die out, so when migrants arrive they are not able to build a new mixed-race society from scratch. Instead their appearance immediately marks them out as foreigners, people who do not share that common ethnicity which had defined the native sense of nationality. In Ireland Vikings, Normans and English could integrate and vanish into the Irish population because they look the same – something not true for Asian and African immigrants; if “Irish” used to mean someone of Irish ethnicity, anyone with dark skin was clearly not Irish.

(In Britain the BNP have taken to calling white people the ‘indigenous’ natives of the UK. For them, Britishness is clearly defined by ethnicity.)

Americaness could be defined by adherence to a general set of values, usually related to an idea of individual freedom, - but not ethno-nationalism when so many people are a mixture of historical nationalities.

Hence Asians and Africans in the US or Brazil tend to integrate fairly well, while Britain gets terrorist attacks, France gets rioting ghettos, Netherlands gets murdered film directors and so on. The New World was mixed race to start with so it was able to build societies indifferent to race, but in much of the Old World the dominant ethnicities still live in their traditional homelands, and many are loth to move over to let outsiders in.

To conclude: being Irish used to emphasise ethnicity, not adherence to culture or law.

...At least so I thought until I was in Dublin shortly after the Saint Patrick’s Day parade finished. The city centre was full of non-Europeans, waving Irish flags, donning wacky Irish top hats and shamrocks painted on their faces.

So Irishness is no longer defined by ethnicity? What, then? Most Irish people have long ago abandoned almost all traditional Irish culture. We dress like British people dress. Speak English. Watch American TV shows. The traditional Irish Brehon laws collapsed centuries ago, now our legal and political systems are similar to Britain. Even Catholicism, the one religio-cultural tradition that seperated Ireland from Britain for centuries, is now in rapid decline.

So what are people celebrating on Saint Patrick’s Day? Being Irish, but not because their ancestors were Irish. And not because Ireland has a particularly unique culture anymore, speaks a unique language or has a unique political system.

Irish nationalism – pride in being Irish – continues while the definition of Irishness becomes fuzzier. It is not about ethnicity. Nor is it about culture to those commentators who boast of Ireland's new multiculturalism.

Being Irish can mean anything at all now, it is up for grabs. Still people profess pride in it, but perhaps this pride is little more than the pride of a football supporter in an arbitrarily picked team – and goes no further than adherence to a particular flag and jersey. It will be interesting to see if immigrants in the long run do integrate and become Irish – whatever that means – or if the obvious ethnic foreignness of some will leave them permanently isolated.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Saint Patrick, victim of Irish imperialism

Interesting that Ireland has embraced a secularised Saint Patrick's Day to celebrate Irish national identity.

...Considering Patrick was snatched by Irish slavers from Britain and forced into slavery here, an early example of Irish imperialism against Britain. Proud to be wearing the green, begorrah!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

China's Cultural Revolution was Western Cultural Imperialism

Sometimes the cultural expansion of the US around the world is called cultural imperialism. American cinema and popular music introduce American traditions and values to foreign cultures, often to the detriment of native traditions. In Japan, for example, 60-70% of weddings are now Western-style white weddings instead of traditional Shinto weddings, with European actors pretending to be priests to people with no Christian tradition.

Japanese people choose this kind of ceremony, of course, it is not forced on them. During the colonial era some European powers tried to replace native cultures with their own, not least here in Ireland; this was a more direct and aggressive cultural imperialism.

"Western cultural imperialism" is used to describe both the popular spread of Hollywood throughout the world and the violent imposition of culture by colonists. But perhaps the single most destructive example of Western cultural imperialism was perpetrated not by Europeans, but by the Chinese.

Today "Western" is usually meant to imply social democratic/capitalist mixed states, with strong emphasis on secularism, individualism and free speech. Why? Nazism arose in Germany. Fascism started in Italy. Karl Marx and Frierich Engels were both German - Communism first took root in Russia; collectivism, Communism, hyper-nationalism and censorship all fit comfortably within "Western" values when we include the radical 20th century ideologies that also developed in Europe.

If Communism is Western, the Communist devestation of Chinese cultural artefacts during the Cultural Revolution must be one of the worst cases of Western cultural imperialism of all time.

The Communists turned on all other ideologies, including native Chinese belief systems like Taoism and Confucianism.

The Red Guard and supporters of the Cultural Revolution also destroyed temples and historical buildings. Between 1970 and 1974 an army unit stationed at Gubeikou tore down two miles of the Great Wall and used the stone blocks to construct army barracks. In Tibet the Red Guard turned thousand-year-old monasteries into factories and pigsties.... They ripped crosses from church steeples, forced Catholic priests into labor camps, tortured Buddhist monks in Tibet and turned Muslim schools into pig slaughterhouses. Taoists, Buddhists and Confucians were singled out as vestiges of the Old China that needed to be changed.

A secular, European ideology destroying Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism? Sounds like Western cultural imperialism, albeit perpetrated by anti-European Chinese.

Odd, then, that today China is sometimes depicted as an alternative to, or rival of "the West", while Japan (where no such violent destruction of indigenous culture took place) is seen as an ally. Communism is as Western an idea as Japan's social democracy, and radical Communism of 1960s China attempted to replace traditional Chinese culture with a radical ideal from 19th century Germany. The Cold War was never about West and East, but rather the West and the Other West.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Bubble is the disease, recession is the cure

By 2010 it was clear that Ireland had far too many houses. A frantic housing bubble had been pushing up prices for years and, as we now know, it had to pop eventually. Now Ireland has 345,000 empty houses and disastrous levels of unpaid debt. The housing bubble was the problem, and if it had subsided years earlier then the country would be in better shape today.

Useful to remember, then, how many high-profile journalists and politicians thought the bubble should expand forever. This is an article in the Irish Independent by Fine Gael TD Brian Hayes in late 2006, criticising then Progressive Democrats leader Michael McDowell for the first signs of what later became economic collapse:
Their influence on economic policy is marginal. This was cruelly exposed this autumn when Michael McDowell huffed and puffed about stamp duty. The effect of his loose talk was to destabilise the Dublin housing market. He is directly responsible for many of his own constituents being unable to sell their houses this autumn.

Hayes, and many other politcians and journalists, blamed McDowell for a blip in the expanding house market because McDowell had suggested reforming the stamp duty - supposedly encouraging potential house-buyers to wait for the next Budget before buying a house. They were disappointed by this because they seemed to assume that permanently rising prices were sustainable and desirable; this kind of ludicrous thinking caused the collapse.

So let's not forget that as Ireland was driving towards its own destruction, some of the dominant voices in media and the Opposition were egging it on, faster and faster over the cliff.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Seeing racism where none exists: Avatar

A remarkable review of Avatar by Slavoj Zizek claims the film is racist... against non-whites.
It is easy to discover, beneath the politically correct themes (an honest white guy siding with ecologically sound aborigines against the "military-industrial complex" of the imperialist invaders), an array of brutal racist motifs...
What brutal racist motifs does Slavoj Zizek discover? For starters he is offended that "a paraplegic outcast from earth is good enough to get the hand of a beautiful local princess, and to help the natives win the decisive battle". But the outcast does this in an alien body, therefore he is no longer crippled. It's a baffling complaint.

The film teaches us that the only choice the aborigines have is to be saved by the human beings or to be destroyed by them. In other words, they can choose either to be the victim of imperialist reality, or to play their allotted role in the white man's fantasy.

I can only imagine that Zizek went into the cinema furiously angry, determined to be offended. What a bizarre response he had. The message of the film is that the humans (or modern, Western civilisation) are expansionary, violent and arrogant, while the natives are in harmony with nature and one another. It is an anti-modern message. The hero comes from this modern culture, but he rejects it. He leads the audience from modern culture to the pleasures of tribal Utopia.

If anyone should be offended it is us, inhabitants of modern technological society. Avatar's portrayal of alien tribal life is nothing like human tribal life, which has tended to be extraordinarily violent, more violent by far than modern life. While modern states like Switzerland and Ireland have shifted so far from war that it seems almost unthinkable, Lawrence Keeley's War Before Civilization points to extremely high death rates from intertribal war - most tribes fought wars at least once year, sometimes several times. Premodern tribes used total war: destruction of crops, mass-murder of women and children, enslavement of entire tribes and so on. Genocide was not unknown. Keeley calculates that the total number of deaths from war in the 20th century would have been twenty times higher were we all living in tribal societies.

Avatar cleans all that up and leaves the modern culture looking barbaric.

So Avatar is part of a political narrative, but the opposite one to what Zizek sees. Avatar is part of the Nobel Savage narrative, saying that sophisticated modern life is corrupting, and people in nature are happier and more peaceful. It's not true - modernity has brought peace from the chaos of constant war - but it is a fashionable narrative right now.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Religious rebellion: why the educated believe in God

This from a fascinating article in the New Scientist:

Campbell argues that though the educated are often the first to articulate a new cultural perspective, if that perspective becomes popular, it will spread across the population. As a result, the education levels associated with that perspective naturally average out. So it is that the relationship between intelligence or education and cultural shifts may not be as significant as they first appear.

The author is explaining why long-recognised correlation between higher levels of education and less belief in a god appear to be reversing. Researchers had noticed that there was a slightly lower level of atheism professed by those with third level education than those with only second level education. Another study of white British males showed that "only around 25 per cent of men aged between 25 and 34 claiming "no religion" have degrees, compared with around 40 per cent of those describing themselves as religious."

To me, this is not at all surprising. For years I have watched religiosity being connected with ignorance, even while some of the most intelligent and educated people I know are (slightly) religious. To me, the missing link in this debate is fashion.

Half a century ago in Ireland, Catholicism was all the rage. Non-Catholics, particularly atheists, were outsiders, minorities - people to be frowned upon and ostracised.

Between then and now, Catholicism collapsed, so that by the time I was growing up in the early 1990s, outward signs of religiosity were deeply uncool. No teenager in their right minds would openly pray or bless themselves in my school - because the mob had switched sides and now the religious were the targets. The people most likely to admit respect for religion, and risk the contempt of their peers, tended to be the most academic students.

It was all a bit baffling at the time to hear people talking about the power of the Church while it appeared to be in terminal collapse. The mob, which 50 years earlier was silencing critics of Catholicism, were now gearing up to silence its defenders.

When conservative Catholicism really was powerful, those who opposed it were brave indeed. As Campbell suggests, they may have been the more educated people back then - quite a few of Ireland's poets and writers took pride in irritating the Catholic hierarchy for example - but over time their message spread to everyone else too.

By the 1990s irreligiosity was so common that its adherants were no longer an educated elite who had abandoned religion after a thoughtful, rational inner debate. Instead, irreligiosity became a growing assumption, a non-issue. The altar was replaced by the advertisement, unthinking allegiance switched from priest to public relations. It was not a new Enlightened Ireland, but rather a fuzzy mixture of consumerism and the profitable modern superstition of Irish Psychics Live. Catholicism was uncool, and theism unconsidered.

The people who defend religious conservatism in Ireland today are the ones taking a risk, willing to face public displeasure. It seems unsurprising that some have quite high levels of education, enough to cause them to question the growing consumerist, anti-Catholic consensus - the new religion of modernity.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Is Twitter rubbish?

I was encouraged to join Twitter some weeks ago. Since then I have struggled to come to terms with what I see there: noise, lots and lots of noise.

Twitter gives you 140 characters to say whatever you like on any topic. These two sentences in italics add up to just about 139 characters. So this is what you have to work with when you want to communicate with the world.

140 characters is tiny, so many Twitter posts link to outside web pages and make short comments on them. This is my first quibble, shallow though it is: all these links mean that you are constantly opening new windows, which annoys me. Since space is so tight, many Twitter users shorten the web addresses, so that a link to a BBC News story like this http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/8089508.stm is shortened to something like this http://bit.ly/g5XyL. Handy, but it means that every link is anonymous and unknown until you click on it. So when someone says "Funniest thing I've seen all week" and posts one of those shortened links, you won't know if you've wasted your time until after you click it. Now getting a little peeved with the system...

Perhaps this is more a sign of who I have chosen to follow on Twitter, but when a moderately important news story breaks, lots of people feel they have to tweet about it. Recently, for example, a prominent Irish politician resigned over alleged interference in a police investigation. Twitter that day looked something like this:

- Trevor Sargent resigns.

- Breaking news, Sargent resigns.

- Woah, what's going on? Now Sargent is going!

- Looks like Sargent is stepping down.

- About time! Trevor Sargent resigns.

- Green Party is screwed, Sargent stepping down.

- Check this out, funniest thing ever! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BhImlbL20xQ

- Who's next for Greens? Trevor Sargent resigns.

- First George Lee, now Trevor Sargent!

And so on. I would have learned that this politician had resigned on the news that evening anyway, or on one of the news websites I browse, or in the newspaper the next morning. I didn't need to be told ten or twenty times in a few minutes. I find this wearying and pointless.

Someone told me that the tight character limit of Twitter means that people have to be pithy with their points, but I don't find this. Rather points are forced to be fairly shallow. I come to Twitter after years debating on Orkut, Google's little-known (in Ireland anyway) social networking site where political and cultural discussions go up to thousands of words long. There I have read deeply insightful arguments, I have actually had my mind changed by debates, and I have grown to know people of radically different viewpoints from all over the world: Brazil, Pakistan, India, US, Estonia, Japan, Australia, Norway, Britain and so on. The extended character count leads to extended discussions that, sometimes, become deep and useful.

Twitter limits people to smart alec soundbites, puns and references to unknown web sites; I find this frustrating. Stephen Fry, intelligent and amusing in interviews and his books, uses Twitter too. His latest tweet is:

"Congratulations to my dear @MrsStephenFry for her richly deserved win. #shortyawards (for those who like standard type)"

What? Who is MrsStephenFry? What the hell are shortyawards? Why should I care? This is another frustration about Twitter - it's bloody confusing with all these baffling references, quotes of strangers by strangers by friends, people answering tweets sent hours earlier with updates linking to obscure blogs (like this one) and so on. It's a kind of community, and any community develops in-jokes and a vernacular that I don't get, yet.

Still maybe this is the point: it's a kind of extended in-group and I haven't worked my way in yet, I may need more time. There was once a time when I thought Megadeth and Harry Potter were overrated rubbish - having learned from my terrible mistakes there I will apply the lesson here too. I'll give it more time.

In the meantime, I wonder can anyone tell me if I'm missing the point? What am I doing wrong?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Fair fight suits the powerful

The Taliban aren't fighting fair, according to Afghan general Mohiudin Ghori. General Ghori said a few weeks ago that Taliban fighters were putting women and children onto rooftops as human shields, and shooting from behind them. This must be extremely frustrating for the Afghan and Coaliton forces trying to fight them without killing civilians. If only the Taliban would come out from hiding behind civilians and fight a legal, conventional war...

Of course they would lose that war, very quickly. The US has shown time and time again that it is very effective against conventional armies. In the first Gulf War, the US-led coalition destroyed the vast Iraqi army at the cost of only a few hundred allied troops. The 2003 Iraq invasion took less than two months to overthrow the entire Iraqi state. Some Iraqi soldiers had simply stripped off their uniforms and abandoned the army rather than face certain defeat against the American juggernaut.

Of these deserters, however, there were some who kept their weapons, and fought a guerrilla war in civilian clothing, hiding among the civilian population and taking advantage of American unease at widespread civilian killing to keep an insurgency going. In 2003 the Coalition lost 580 troops. Since then it has lost 4,118: "peace" has been much more violent than war for the Coalition military, because the Iraqi rebels had discovered that where fighting fair (conventional war pitting soldiers against soldiers) had failed, fighting dirty might succeed. Peace has been much more destructive of Coaliton troops too in Afghanistan, compared with the brief war to remove the Taliban: Coalition deaths rose from 12 in 2001 to 519 last year.

The situation is clear: rapid collapse of conventional armies against the US, followed by slow, bloody campaigns of attrittion fought among civilians and indifferent to rules of war. These campaigns cause the US much more trouble than the conventional battles.

All this makes me wonder whether rules of war are really meant to protect the powerful, not the innocent. Ireland reached independence after an asymmetric guerrilla war against the British - a war fought by secret bands of soldiers hiding among civilians and killing and intimidating Irish collaborators. Having won its freedom through these grubby means, Ireland was later able to abandon that kind of paramilitary violence and tut-tut when other groups here and abroad carried it on.

My concern is that groups change their outward moral stances depending on how convenient they are. Once a weak rebel force becomes a powerful nation state, it abandons guerrilla fighting and embraces a new concept of a "fair fight". Lawrence Keeley's War Before Civilization shows that primitive tribes often used brutal total war tactics: deliberate targetting of food supplies and property, massacre of "civilian" women and children, enslavement of weaker populations and so on. It was very rare for tribes to capture prisoners of war - anyone unfortunate enough to fall into enemy hands would be killed or enslaved. But there is a simple explanation for this abuse of prisoners: food.

Primitive tribes lived always on the edge of famine, with little surplus food left to feed prisoners. This might also explain why so many countries have replaced capital punishment with life imprisonment as the countries grew wealthier. In the old days they couldn't afford to feed an unproductive prisoner, today there is enough surplus food to keep them going for life. So we in wealthy countries can pontificate about the treatment of prisoners of war in poor countries, because we have plenty surplus food - which they don't have. I wonder if various rules of war arose out of convenience, to be shelved once they had lost their usefulness.

(Keeley also noted that civilised armies only managed to defeat tribal fighters by mimicking their tactics - the old rules went out the window faced with the realities of premodern war.)

It's good that developed nations try to limit their warfare and avoid civilian deaths. But it may be worth remembering that when powerful, wealthy nations demand that much weaker enemies fight fair and obey the same rules, they are demanding that the weak surrender every advantage they have and face certain defeat. They won't do that. Shameful as the use of human shields and behaviour like this is, would developed countries act any differently in the same desperately uneven situation?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Why sleep in beds?

This is what the bed in my new apartment looks like:

Nice enough, but it takes up most of the room. I lived for a year in a small town in the south of Japan, without a bed. Instead I slept in a futon - a kind of thick, fold-away quilt that serves as a mattress, straight on the ground. This is what my futon looked like:

This is the same room with the futon folded away, you can see it to the right of the picture. Folded up like this it can serve as a cushion for sitting on, or it can be tidied away into a cupboard. The space it filled is now freed up.

Unlike our massive, awkward mattresses, the futons can be laundered - which must be more hygenic. They are also surprisingly comfortable: not at all cold and only a little more firm than a normal bed and mattress.

They are, in fact, better than beds. Far more convenient, since they free the entire room up once they're folded away. Portable: you can stick one of these in the boot of your car. Hygenic. Light. I imagine they're probably cheaper too.

So why on earth do we continue bothering with beds?

Beds lift the mattress off the ground to avoid drafts (solved with proper insulation and well-fitted doors) and pests (solved with the occasional hoover and/or mouse traps). But for the most part, futons do what beds do, but much better. The Japanese were on to something here.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Irish Travellers' Youth Bulge

I mentioned on a previous blog post the idea that the proportion of young men in a population may help determine the extent of violence and instability in it.

Just noticed an astonishing population pyramid, comparing the average ages of the Irish population as a whole with the average ages of Ireland's Traveller Community. There is a stark difference between the two. With high mortality rates and high fertility rates, the Travellers have a far higher proportion of children than Irish as a whole.

In Ireland there is a slightly higher number of people from 40-44 years of age than people from 0-4 years of age. For Travellers, there are well over three times as many 0-4 year old infants than adults of 40-44. I wonder if this Youth Bulge may play a role in shaping the perceived behaviour of Travellers? If they have fewer gentle old folk compared with a large, impulsive young population, the "average" Traveller may be more likely to be involved in crime, simply because he is more likely to belong to the age group that tends to dabble in it - in every culture.