29 January 2006

NEWS FLASH! Cell Phones don't cause cancer!

Michael Fumento, a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute, has a fascinating story on the development and debunking of the Cell Phones Cause Cancer myth. "Now the largest study ever on the issue has been released and it finds .... cell phones have no link to brain cancer." Phew, that's a relief - I was convinced SUV driving soccer mom's were an endangered species.

The cell phone industry has commissioned numerous studies of this problem and as Fumento puts it:

Overwhelmingly they have found no correlation with cancer, although the phones do increase the risk of automobile accidents and often enough seem to turn users into obnoxious cretins.

So if you are going to chat and drive, buckle up and make sure your auto insurance is paid up.

28 January 2006

Thomas Edison and Palestinian Democracy

Thomas Edison once said: 'Just because something doesn't do what you want it to do doesn't mean it's useless.'

It's well to keep this in mind when looking at the results of the recent election in Palestine. It didn't do what we wanted. In fact, most commentators seem to be running around saying that the sky has fallen in, and this is what comes from George Bush's intemperate support for democracy NOW in the Middle East.

It was, by all accounts, a reasonably honest election. The results were overwhelming and undisputed - unlike those of, say, Iraq under our tutelage. Yet the results seem horrifying. An organization with its own little army, a terrorist past, and the destruction of Israel as one of its dearest goals could hardly be a good thing. But is it possible that the received wisdom is wrong?

Israel and the United States had been committed to a 'roadmap to peace' with Arafat and Fatah. What did that ever lead to? Ariel Sharon had decided on a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and founded his new party to continue with the rest of the West Bank. Sharon, at one time regarded as the hardest of the hardliners against the Palestinians and a war monger, ended up being the only Israeli who could carry out the dismantle of settlements without tearing Israel apart. His uncompromising toughness against the Palestinians meant that Israelis could trust him not to leave them defenseless.

So what are we faced with now? I am not sure, but it seems that the Hamas election may give cause for the Israelis to continue with their unilateral withdrawal and their wall of separation. Or it could scare the voters into supporting Likud as the best way of dealing with a Hamas led Palestine. It's hard to tell if the latter would be a good move, but the Israelis will be able to take care of themselves for the foreseeable future in either case. The wall may be seen as the only possible solution.

On the Palestinian side, it is murkier still. There are some points I would like time to think about.

1. It seems to be a genuine electoral victory. I am still naive enough to see good in this in its own right while understanding the extreme danger.

2. Hamas may be enjoying a 'catastrophic success' - one it had not looked for. Now that it has to govern it will have to change. It now has all the responsibilities of governing. If it does not give the Palestinians what they were looking for when they ditched Fatah, it will simply lose legitimacy. The glamour of Hamas will rapidly fade and it will become a spent force.

3. Fatah's corruption and incompetence were creating a fiasco and had never been able to work towards peace. It was leading to a failed state torn by factional violence and simple lawlessness that was a danger to all concerned. Such a state could never have been a partner for peace. It never would have been able to make agreements the people would accept, and never would have been able to keep its commitments. Never.

4. Hamas must first govern Gaza. This means allowing Palestinians there an acceptable life. This requires things as basic as garbage service and repaired streets, but it also means not getting involved in a shooting war with the Israelis anytime soon. If Hamas can do this, and it must to stay in power (the armed forces of Fatah aren't going anywhere soon), then it may emerge as a Palestinian government that has the clout to do something daring, something Arafat never could do, something against the grain, if its leadership ever decides that it most do so. They might realize that creating a nation is a better option than dreaming of destroying one.

5. Fatah must change. Its younger members are already taking to the street in anger about the electoral loss. News reports indicate that their anger is directed at the older generation of leaders who failed them so badly. Now they are demanding an end to corruption themselves. If Fatah can reform, it will be a democratic counterbalance to Hamas, which would always have to look over its shoulder for the next election.

Is this too rosey? Perhaps. But who five years ago would have thought that Sharon might end up being the politician most Israelis thought might bring them peace? Each one of the points above indicate change, and each change at least in theory could lead to an improvement. It is now a matter of watching to see which way the changes break.

After all, the elections might not have been useless.

20 January 2006

More from Gibbon

For those of you who may have wondered if Dr Pangloss in Candide could be real, here is Gibbon at the end of vol 3, p 516 while he ruminates on the awful revolution of Rome's fall:
'We may therefore acquiesce in the pleasing conclusion, that every age of the world has increased, and still increases, the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge, and perhaps the virtue, of the human race.'
A very American sentiment. But notice how subtly Gibbon undermines his very words so that it becomes slightly acidic.

Here is something that as an historian and a writer I should have pasted above my desk, right next to the "GET IT DONE!" sign:
In these, and in a thousand examples, the shades of distinction are often minute; and I can feel, where I cannot explain, the motives of my choice.
He wrote this in the intro to vol 4, trying to explain something of the complexity of his craft.

16 January 2006

My View on Iraq

As I once said, Andrew Sullivan is one of my favorite commentators. He has an article for The Sunday Times that pretty much sums up my view of the Bush administration's bungling in Iraq. I am less certain about the initial rightness of the war but I am not uncertain at all about this: having decided to go to war, the only intelligent (and moral) course was to use every resource available. Instead the Bush White House decided that the war could be fought on the cheap, without its full attention. I believe the administration thought of it simply as another political problem, one susceptible to spin and obfuscation until the next election was over. Something like painting Kerry, the veteran of a real war, as a non-hero, and Bush, a veteran of nothing more serious than partying in New Orleans, as a jet-flying hero. If the immediate perception of the American public is what it is all about, no problem. But, "the enemy has a vote" as any real military man might have told them.

Under the circumstances, when Bush was willing to risk his personal credit, his place in the history books, the security of his nation, and the lives of millions, the decision to cheap out was pathological. This is especially true if you believe that the reasons for going after Saddam justified the war. The better Bush's reasons, the greater his failing.

Nota Bene! If the above link doesn't get you anything try Andrew Sullivan's link under Sunday, Jan 15 "Bremer's Bomb-shell".