News summary, May 2012

This is a summary of various news which caught my attention during the last month.

Games

  • Valve’s Steam, Left 4 Dead 2 and probably some of their other games will be ported to Linux. This is great news, I love you Valve!
  • CD Projekt RED released a free upgrade to the Enhanced Edition of The Witcher 2 which provides 10 GB (!) of new content. Other developers such as Electronic Arts are run by people who care most about making money, but this developer is run by true artists who want to deliver a great game besides making money.
  • The long-awaited Black Mesa: Source mod is still alive. I was disappointed in the lack of news but recently they have started communicating again. According to an interview (part one and two) the reason for the delay is that they have very high standards for their work and weren’t satisfied with the game yet. I’m looking so much forward to the final product.
  • Another free game made by volunteers is Wing Commander Saga. It has been released recently and looks quite impressive, I haven’t tried it yet.

Hardware

Dell is working on Project Sputnik which aims to produce a laptop for developers. It’s based on Dell’s XPS 13 ultrabook and Ubuntu 12.04. This is great news, because the two companies that I know of which ship notebooks with Linux – System76 and ZaReason – don’t offer ultrabooks. The smallest they have to offer are 14 inch models weighing two kilos. Also, I appreciate the design of the XPS 13 more, the only disadvantages are the glossy screen and the lack of an Ethernet port.

As I wrote on this weblog earlier, under Linux my Acer TravelMate Timeline 8371 initially didn’t have suspend working. It still consumes more power and its fan turns noisy much more frequently than if Windows were used. It would be great if Dell’s laptop would have everything working out of the box. However, I have one important requirement: it should work just as well with other Linux distributions as it does with Ubuntu. That means there should be no special software or drivers tailored to make everything work with the Ubuntu version shipped with the laptop. If they can realize that, count me in.

Software

We have a choice of two open source Linux-based operating systems for smartphones, Android and more recently Tizen (which has not been shipped with any smartphone yet). Fortunately Mozilla has introduced a new contender: Boot to Gecko (B2G). While Android is open source in name, I feel that Google exercises too much control over Android and has become too powerful. I don’t trust them with the personal data they gather from me.

Mozilla on the contrary is a party which I do trust. B2G has more credit for openness and has a great vision behind it which distinguishes it from the competition. Additionally, B2G is far less demanding on the hardware, so it could run on much cheaper smartphones. I can’t wait to get my hands on a smartphone which uses B2G.

Additionally, if you buy an Android phone you contribute to Microsoft’s profit because they are extorting manufacturers of Android smartphones with patent threats. I don’t want to pay for a smartphone if even one cent of the manufacturers income is spent on royalty payments to that immoral company. Motorola, which has been acquired by Google recently, is fighting back. In May Microsoft won a legal case against Motorola because Motorola infringed on one of Microsoft’s patents on generating meeting requests from a mobile phone. Read the parent’s description to see how ridiculous and trivial this patent is. Once again I’m glad we don’t have software patents in the EU.

Politics

  • The Netherlands is the second country in the world to adopt net neutrality. I consider this very important for freedom on the Internet and I praise our politicians who decided to impose it.
  • As I wrote in my second to last post, I was worried that the Dutch People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy isn’t protective enough of freedom and privacy, especially on the net. Thankfully I’ve been proven wrong now that they voted in favor (article in Dutch) of canning ACTA.

Everything is a Remix and politics

Today I watched the fourth and last part of Everything is a Remix. It is a brilliant video series which explains the problems of intellectual property and much more. It is very well made and effective in communicating its message. The fourth part explains how the rules of intellectual property no longer protect the inventions of artists and inventors, but harm the common good. With that statement made, the fourth part ends, without any suggestions on how we could solve the problem. Maybe the creator of the series, Kirby Ferguson, didn’t have a desire to comment on solutions.

Recently we have witnessed the death of SOPA and ACTA being the subject of much criticism. I have already written a post about it on my Dutch weblog. I observed in that post that there are politicians who are willing to take action against these corporate attacks on the public domain. But even then, it seems we are merely defending ourselves and stopping the attack, but we don’t counterattack. While stricter intellectual property legislation may have been averted for now, it is still possible for film studios to cash in for eternity on films under their copyright, even if they are more than half a century old.

But we do have the power to make change happen with our vote. We have the Pirate Parties for example. I have not studied the political program of the Dutch Pirate Party, but if my own party the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy continues to tread on privacy and other parties don’t do enough I might be tempted to vote for them in protest.

By the way, a much longer documentary film on intellectual property I’d recommend is RiP!: A Remix Manifesto which can be watched here.

Why Obama should not be reelected

It was a bit hard to figure out what Obama did most recently because two articles on my favorite Dutch news website (but other Dutch news outlets are also guilty of this) merely mention that Obama signed ‘a law’. Because the stupid Dutch news didn’t bother to mention which law it concerns I had to do a bit of searching myself, and I figured out that it is the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) (you have to love these cool names they give to their laws in the USA, we should have that in the Netherlands too). We already knew that Obama wasn’t living up to his promise to close Guantanamo Bay, but this is the nail in the coffin for the promise, which has been reneged on by Obama completely now. Maybe Obama felt himself cornered by the Republicans when he signed the NDAA, but the idea that he can use discretion in applying the Act to prevent the harm to civil liberties is not at all convincing because the damage has already been done. Sure, the NDAA was necessary because the defense forces need funding, but when these highly objectionable provisions for which you threatened to veto the Act are still in and you sign it ‘with reservations’ you lack spine.

According to the article in The Washington Post funding was going to expire on Monday 2 January, so Obama signed it on Saturday 31 December after last-minute modifications were made by Congress at the request of the White House. Seems to me like they had better done it a few months in advance instead of waiting for the last minute if you ask me, procrastinating is supposed to be something what university students like me do, not presidents. So Obama had his hands tied because the funding was about to expire, but in that case why did you wait so long? Did (Obama allow) the House of Representatives with its Republican majority stonewall the process so they could force Obama’s hand when the deadline for new funding came?

If Obama has so much difficulty with closing Guantanamo, maybe the Cubans can kick the USA off their territory? They would have good reasons to do so. At least Ron Paul (among others, of course) has a mind of his own and realizes the value of civil liberties with his opposition to the NDAA  Unfortunately I find many of his other ideas such as those on abortion, climate change and higher taxes objectionable, so I wouldn’t want him to be the next president.

Yes, of course Obama has also achieved change for the better, such as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA). But then again, it doesn’t make up for this unforgivable mistake he made with the NDAA. But there’s more. There’s the upcoming Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) which is another great danger to freedom, but it’s unlikely Obama would veto it. While Bradley Manning rots in jail, he thinks the treatment he gets is appropriate. He might have the intention to raise taxes for the rich with the Republicans preventing him from doing so, but as I wrote earlier his government is still too friendly towards Wall Street.

Concluding, I think the Democrats and Republicans which have been controlling the government in the USA for such a long time are what we would call “regent’s parties” in the Netherlands. Meaning, they have become so used to governing that they don’t represent the people of the USA properly anymore and care more about their own position. But in the USA it’s much worse than in the Netherlands where some of the parties who were accused of being regent’s parties have been punished by the electorate. Almost half of Congress consists of millionaires who are in the pocket of the special interests. I hope Americans Elect would have the power to break this duopoly of the Democrats and Republicans.

The Royal Wedding and the cost of a monarchy

I realise this post comes quite late after the Royal Wedding has taken place at 29 April, but I was lazy with blogging and I’m clearing my backlog now. When I was in Nepal at the time the event happened I kept in touch with the news and read a lot about the subject. Obviously, prince William and Catherine Middleton do not know the meaning of the word humility. What makes them even more despicable persons is that they expended a lavish amount of money on their wedding at a time when the average Briton has to cope with budget cuts. Many sources give wildly different figures of the cost of the wedding depending on which kinds of expenditure and income are taken into account, for examples see MSNBC,  ABC News, CNN and the Daily Mail.

What is more interesting is that I learned about the British republican organisation Republic when I read the news on the subject. Their website is very convincing, the website of the Dutch Nieuw Republikeins Genootschap looks unimpressive by comparison. The website of Republic gives an interesting rebuttal of common arguments in favour of a monarchy, but most interesting is the section on Royal Finances. One of the most common arguments against a republic is that ‘a president would be just as expensive as a monarchy’. In the past I’ve been trying to find statistics to disprove this argument, but didn’t succeed as that data is difficult to find. Their report does supply this information. It turns out that the Dutch monarchy is one of the most expensive monarchies, even if they’re far behind the United Kingdom. And Ireland has a president which costs them £1,8 million. I do wonder though what their source is for the costs of the Dutch monarchy. I couldn’t find the data in a primary source, but RTL Nieuws reports that our monarchy cost us € 119 million in 2008, which translates to more than £104 million. That’s more than the figure of £88,3 Republic mentions in their report.

The morale of the story is that it doesn’t matter if government is a constitutional monarchy or a republic, both can be as expensive or as cheap as you want. From a Dutch viewpoint, I’d say that while our monarchy isn’t going away any time soon, we could take an example from our Scandinavian and Belgian neighbours. Given that they spend far less on their monarchies, we could subject our monarchy to serious budget cut. But it’s not just about money, even if a republic were more expensive I’d gladly choose it over a monarchy because of democratic principles.

The annual Telders Foundation lecture by Deepak Lal

Over two weeks ago on the 30th of November I visited the annual Telders Foundation lecture. The Telders Foundation is the scientific bureau of a Dutch liberal political party, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy. It was conveniently located in the center of Utrecht where it was held in the Nicolaï church, where it started just a moment after my lecture for the course ‘Ideologies in the 19th and 20th century’ I’m following finished. That is a useful coincidence, because the Telders Foundation lecture was given by Deepak Lal, a development economist, who gave a classical liberal perspective on the global economic crisis. Thanks to the course about ideology I’m following I know the details about classical liberalism and social liberalism and other ideologies, so I can place it in perspective.

He explained what the causes, current issues and geopolitical consequences surrounding the global economic crisis are in his opinion. Basically, one of the primary causes were the bailouts of large ‘too big to fail’ companies. Long before the current crisis began LTCM was bailed out in 1998. LTCM was a hedge fund, yet they were still bailed out! He mentions many more examples of privatizing profits and socializing losses such as the Greenspan put. He thinks the promotion of home ownership in the USA was a cause of the crisis, how exactly I don’t remember, but Wikipedia gives an explanation for it too. In general Wikipedia’s article on the global financial crisis of 2007–2010 gives a good impression of what his other ideas are about the causes of the crisis. He argues that all the policy errors created a moral hazard, the bailouts for example created a wrong expectation for the market that the government would intervene in a crisis to save the system. He argues that the financial system has become too complicated and nontransparent, which exacerbated the problems. One of the more interesting causes which I had never heard about before was the abolition of the Glass–Steagall Act, which separated commercial banks from investment banks. Because the latter involves, in his words, ‘gambling’, the undoing of the separation contaminated the part of the financial sector which should not have been prone to the risks of investment banking. According to him the firewall should be maintained so investment banks can be set free.

When discussing the current issues he started introducing a lot of complex economic thought, which I could understand reasonably well but probably dazed others. He introduced Friedrich Hayek and Irving Fisher (I heard of the first economist, but the second was new to me) to give a theoretical perspective. I don’t remember exactly what the line of reasoning was after more than two weeks, but he came to the conclusion that quantitative easing (a complex word which simply means that the supply of money is increased by the government), the policy currently employed by the central banks of the USA the UK and the EU, is right. But quantitative easing needs a timely exit. And the USA has a problem that it’s deficit is rising, Obama’s health care Act is a cause. The UK was right to cut government spending, but wrong to keep it’s VAT rise and it’s 50% income tax rate. The European Central Bank is right to implement quantitative easing whilst demanding to cut government spending. In other words, the welfare state needs to be reduced because it is becoming unsustainable such as in certain places in Europe and the USA which is in denial with it’s expansion of health care insurance.

Regarding the geopolitical consequences of the crisis, it’s interesting he said that China’s share of the USA’s government debt won’t enable them to destroy the USA’s economy at will by selling the debt papers, as many people seem to think. A huge offering of those debt papers would make them worthless because supply would be greater than demand, so China would gain nothing. However, due to the crisis the USA may not be able to keep maintaining global order, which would lead to the erosion of global order which in turn would lead to the erosion of globalization.When Lal finished, Frits Bolkestein (the president of the Telders Foundation and a famous retired VVD-politician both in the Netherlands and Europe) joked that he was sure the audience had understood everything, but that it was now to ask questions. At this point I had to leave to catch my bus.

So what makes this vision on the financial crisis classical liberal? Lal doesn’t think the crisis marks the end of capitalism. The crisis was caused by primarily by wrong government policy. Better regulation is the remedy, if that requirement and others are met the capitalism could work properly without these financial crisis (my assumption he thinks that). There should not be companies which are ‘too big to fail’, and commercial banking and investment banking should be separated  so the latter can’t contaminate the former with it’s risk. But non-interference of the government is also the key, governments shouldn’t bail out failing companies and let the free market take out the rotten apples, the failing companies. Deficits are dangerous and can be solved by cutting government spending, through shrinking the welfare state which is not sustainable at this moment.

Classical liberalism is relative in this age, I doubt anyone calling themselves a classical liberal now would want to return to the night watchman state reminiscent of the first half of the 19th century by the abolition of the welfare state. Back then classical liberals advocated such a minimal state, but nowadays I don’t think they would want to reverse the development completely. I clearly see the distinction with social liberals because Lal didn’t even once mention the unemployment caused by not bailing out certain companies.

While refusing to bail out General Motors would have been right in the sense that GM would have gotten what it deserved – bankruptcy – it would have caused massive unemployment. Social liberals would be far more concerned with preventing unemployment than classical liberals. Also, some of these bailouts are profitable for the government, for example the USA’s government made a profit of 12 billion dollars when it completed the sale of all it’s shares of Citigroup recently. Also, the government imposed strict demands on the companies which were bailed out, such as cuts to bonus payments. If the ridiculous bonus payments have been reduced adequately is different question, but if you can prevent unemployment and can make a profit with bailouts, why would you not do it? I think principles and ideological tunnel vision should not be a barrier.

The Swiss minaret ban and islamic hypocrisy

I agree that the ban on constructing minarets in Switzerland is plain discrimination. Understandably, this has led to indignation in the Islamic world. What I dislike however is the hypocritical holier-than-thou attitude of Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Manouchehr Mottaki and the Egyptian mufti Ali Gomaa. According to Mottaki islamophobia is on the rise in Europe and the ban would have ‘far-reaching implications’. It gets ludicrous when he starts taking the moral high ground when he talks about human rights, an excellent example of the pot calling the kettle black. Switzerland’s ban on constructing minarets is nothing compared to Iran’s reputation with religious freedom.

Same goes for Mufti Ali Gomaa who called the ban an ‘insult’ to Muslims world wide. He should first criticize his own country as religious freedom in Egypt is at a very low level. A Coptic Christian righteously calls Gomaa’s comments an ‘insult to Christians’ living in Egypt.

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Should the Netherlands leave or stay in Afghanistan?

Recently Afghanistan came in the spotlight again after a party of our coalition government voiced their desire to continue Dutch participation in the Afghanistan war. The other coalition partners do not approve of this idea, as the agreement was that the Netherlands would withdraw in 2010. According to a defense specialist in an article of the Algemeen Dagblad newspaper of yesterday (no English or Dutch link here to the article) the Netherlands would abandon it’s great international role if we left Afghanistan, and it would have consequences for our economy. The latter seems quite far-fetched, and he does not produce any arguments to prove why it is true. I can’t imagine how spending enormous amounts of tax money to participate in the ISAF-mission is less damaging to our economy than not participating.

Putting agreements to withdraw in 2010 aside, it’s better to think about how to solve the ‘problem’ Afghanistan. After 9-11 NATO-members claimed pompously that they were collectively at war because their ally, the United States of America, was attacked. But eight years later many NATO-members are more concerned about shifting the problem to others, possibly specifically the U.S.A. The Afghanistan war is unpopular with the electorate, and all the European nations would rather leave Afghanistan sooner than later.

Those who are in favor of withdrawing from Afghanistan merely seem to think about their own political and electoral interests, and dismiss the larger problem. I haven’t heard a solution to the Afghanistan problem from any of them. If the international community simply abandoned Afghanistan it isn’t hard to imagine that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda would take over soon and massacre the new government. Once again it would turn in a breeding ground for terrorists. I’m not sure what the European withdrawal advocates think what would happen if their nation would withdraw, but my guess is that they think the U.S.A. would simply take over. I’m not sure if that would work and the U.S.A. could handle it all alone, but I’m certain that it is not solidary.

The Afghanistan war isn’t just the U.S.A.’s problem. Unlike the Iraq war, which is a perfect example of American unilateralism, it’s the collective problem of the Western world and the Muslim world. The U.S.A. had 9-11, but the Netherlands had the Hofstad Network and the murder of Theo van Gogh by Mohammed Bouyeri. Spain had the 2004 train bombings in Madrid, the United Kingdom had the London bombings in 2005. There are more examples of Islamic terrorist attacks, and detailed lists of terrorist incidents in general. Take notice that Islamic terrorists have also committed terrorist attacks on Muslim targets, like the Casablanca and Sharm el-Sheikh attacks. The War on Terrorism definitely isn’t a war of the West versus the rest, as some seem to think. It seems like the electorate and the politicians have forgotten about these terrorist attacks already. Everyone should realize that the whole world is affected by the threat of Islamic terrorism, and losing the war in Afghanistan is not an option.

According to general McChrystal, the greatest problem the ISAF faces in Afghanistan is an insufficient amount of troops. To solve this problem I think the Netherlands should stay. However, I think that within the ISAF the burden isn’t shared equally. Let’s use Wikipedia articles describing the participants in the ISAF mission and the population statistics on each countries’ article to calculate the percentage of soldiers relative to total population. I realize it’s a comparison which is far from perfect, but it’s better than nothing.

Contributions of ISAF participants
Nation Personnel % of population
Netherlands 1,770 0.0107
U.S.A. 29,950 0.0097
U.K. 9,000 0.0147
Germany 4,050 0.0049
France 3,160 0.0048
Italy 2,795 0.0046
Spain 780 0,0016

As you can see, Germany, France, Italy and Spain contribute a relatively small amount of personnel. They should contribute thousands more. In an effort to win sympathy, I think it would be a great idea to try to get countries from the Muslim world to join the ISAF-mission.