Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Ructions in Riyadh

Saudi Press Agency --

A royal order announced here today that Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz was relieved of his post as Chief of General Intelligence upon his request and that General Staff Yousif bin Ali Al-Idreesi was assigned to act as Chief of General Intelligence. The royal order will be carried out by the concerned authorities with immediate effect.

It's not clear how to interpret this. General Al-Idreesi was Bandar's deputy so it looks like an orderly succession but for a man carrying the nickname Bandar Bush, not to mention being in charge of the botched support to the Syrian rebels, nothing is likely to be orderly.

Shutting up about deflation: Priceless

Paul Krugman notes some bizarre statements from former ECB board member Jurgen Stark. But the line of thought: deflation is fine as long as people don't talk about it  -- is embedded in the Eurozone elite. Here's Dutch minister of finance and Eurogroup chief Jeroen Djesselboem last week, courtesy of the Wall Strret Journal  --

“What I’m worried about is that if all of us keep talking about and warning about the risk of deflation, it will become a self-fulfilling prophesy,” Mr. Dijsselbloem said. “Because if you keep telling people and investors and companies that there will be a long-term low inflation or even deflation, that could influence their behavior.”

Algiers isn't expanding

John Vinocur writing in the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal --

There's an area of French society bleak beyond any let's-pretend action-plan or incantatory chorus about brotherhood. The country's existential problem of coming to terms with more than five million Muslims in its midst—and how these immigrants and citizens accommodate (or flout) French law and custom—is deepening into a new phase of what is described as intolerance, seeming incompatibility, and political polarization.

Right now, there's a European country of mixed Catholic and Orthodox Christian composition (not to mention tens of thousands resilient Jewish citizens) being broken up by the fully Orthodox Christian country next door. That would be Ukraine and Russia. Let's have some priorities on where we think Europe's existential threats are.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Outside the narrative

Wall Street Journal news report on Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in Saudi Arabia --

On Friday, in place of the cleric giving the weekly sermon, a medical official spoke at one of Jeddah's main mosques to brief listeners about how to avoid transmitting MERS.

Public health trumping religious practice, at least for a day. Not the standard expectation for Saudi Arabia.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

I left my trolling in San Francisco

Andrew Sullivan, 2001 --

EASTER IN SAN FRANCISCO: Attended mass at Old Saint Mary’s yesterday .. I went with one of my oldest and dearest friends, Doug Robson, a journalist whose father, John, has been nominated to head up the Ex-Im Bank in Washington. The Robsons, like the Cheneys, are Republicans with gay children, and, as such, are surely a deep reason for that party’s slow progress toward treating homosexuals with respect. Later, Doug dropped me off in the Castro, a neighborhood that never fails to amuse. It being Easter, the streets were dotted with the usual hairy-backed homos – this time in large, floral Easter bonnets. I saw one hirsute fellow dressed from head to toe in flamingo motifs. And they say it’s not a culture. The afternoon beer-bust at the Eagle, a San Francisco ritual, was, however, a bust. Rarely have I seen such a scary crowd – and in the full glare of the afternoon sun. At times, it seems that San Francisco is almost frozen in time – roughly 1977. Gay life in the rest of the U.S. is increasingly suburban, mainstream, assimilable. Here in the belly of the beast, Village People look-alikes predominate; and sex is still central to the culture. This can be fun for a tourist, but I’d go nuts if I had to live here full-time.

Andrew Sullivan, 2014 --

The reason [why more gay men aren't on Truvada], it appears, is that being free from the fear of HIV infection could lead gay men to have lots of sex again with lots of partners. (One study we have examining this did not bear this out.) But here’s some breaking news: for vast numbers of gay men, lots of sex is already the case. Now that HIV is not a death sentence but a chronic disease like diabetes, the terror is long gone. But the virus isn’t. And rates of infection remain stubbornly high, especially in this demographic. Because, well, men are men. Betting against their testosterone in a sub-population without women is a mug’s game.

UPDATE: Bonus points for comparing Sully's logic in explaining gay promiscuity above (testosterone!) with his take on the Chait-Coates debate --

But it seems to me that in this debate, TNC (Coates) is almost willfully blind to the truth that historical legacies can create self-sustaining cultures of poverty that have a life of their own. And I think Chait is equally too pessimistic about the ability of people to transcend the circumstances into which they were born. There comes a point at which any community, which has been historically suppressed and vilified, simply has to believe that the future has potential. That’s certainly how I see the gay community in my lifetime. You can acknowledge the psychic toll of homophobia and heterosexual supremacy all you want, but it won’t help people overcome it. In fact, you run the risk of so emphasizing the crushing burden of the past you entrench the very sense of helplessness that perpetuates the problem. 

So for blacks, it's culture and a failure to transcend it. For behaviour among gay men that also features in stylized typologies of black men, it's just biology!

Musical Interlude

It was 1992. The Clintons hadn't yet murdered anyone* and the music truly rocked. Soundgarden, Birth Ritual, not an actual video but from the Singles soundtrack.

*in vast right-wing conspiracy land.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Dartboard geography

With American journalism now under the rule of the wonks, the above map is getting a lot of attention. It was featured on a post on The Monkey Cage blog at the Washington Post and later written up on the Klein-Yglesias supergroup vehicle Vox. The dots represent the responses of each of around 2000 survey participants to a graphical challenge to pick out Ukraine on a map, and the roars of laughter come from wonks everywhere with the accompanying finding that the people worse at picking out Ukraine on the map were more likely to favour US military intervention in it.

Fine. Leave aside the fact that there's little evidence that the people who can't pick out foreign countries on maps are the ones who are influential. Billy Kristol could pick Iraq out on a map in 2003. What's remarkable about the map responses is how widely distributed they are once you take out the eastern Europe and Central Asia clusters. Just about every African country got a guess, most of Latin America, a few US states, lots of Canada including its Arctic territories, quite a few who thought it was in Greenland, a fascinating straight line of dots down the middle of Russia.

In short, there's circumstantial evidence that many survey respondents did not meaningfully participate in this survey at all. So the conclusion is not that people less likely to know where Ukraine is more likely to favour military intervention. It's that people who didn't put much thought into this survey were more likely to favor such intervention. This sounds like a ripe scenario  for presentational anomalies. 

Monday, April 07, 2014

It's always an undisclosed location with that family

Liz Cheney on Fox News Sunday --

But I just come back myself from the Middle East about ten days ago. And across the region you have got real unanimity, frankly, among the Israelis and the Arab governments in terms of saying where is America? Why aren't you helping us in the battle against the extremists? Against the al Qaeda? Why are you choosing now to push on this particular issue when in fact the Iranians are on the verge of obtaining a nuclear weapon? And when al Qaeda's resurging across the region?

Liz Cheney was just back on Fox News Sunday after an enforced sabbatical due to her failed campaign running for the US Senate from Wyoming, a state in which she hasn't lived for years. That's another Cheney thing. But anyway, the point here is there's no public account of any Liz Cheney trip to the Middle East recently. This is most definitely not a Tom Friedman trip to the Middle East where he finds taxi drivers and Kings that agree with him, and writes it all up. She was there and back again without a trace.

So why does she get to go on Sunday TV without naming countries, let alone sources, where he heard criticism of Barack Obama's foreign policy?

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Get the ref a jersey

International Business Times --

Kuwait's justice and Islamic affairs minister Nayef al-Ajmi, accused of fundraising for terrorist groups in Syria, has resigned citing health reasons. Al-Ajmi strongly denies having any links to jihadi groups fighting in Syria and rejected the claims against him as "baseless and groundless". .. The US Treasury Undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence David Cohen had previously said that al-Ajmi has "a history for promoting jihad in Syria", and that images of his face had been used on fundraising material for the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra militia. Cohen described al-Ajmi's appointment to the Kuwaiti cabinet as a "step in the wrong direction".

So who has the US put pressure on to resign over support to Assad regime?

Friday, April 04, 2014

Inflation has died, risen, and will come again

European Central Bank President Mario Draghi explains why the recent fall in Eurozone inflation is hard to interpret --

Draghi: On the first point: there are a couple of factors that somehow clouded the analysis of whether this latest inflation data would actually be a material change in our medium-term outlook or not. One has to do with the volatility of services prices and the fact that Easter time this year comes remarkably later than last year. The explanation is that, around Easter time, services expenditure usually goes up – demand for services goes up – especially travel, and this affected last year’s prices and it’s going to affect this year’s prices. So you have a base effect which produced much lower inflation data in March and may well produce higher inflation data next month.

The solution is not to be so fixated on the 12 month change in headline prices, but consider the implication: if the ECB turns out to have reacted too late to deflation because of when Easter happened, we're back to blaming the Moon for things we didn't understand. Silly ancient people did that!

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Bogeyman or men

BBC -- Prime Minister David Cameron has commissioned a review of the Muslim Brotherhood's UK activity, No 10 says. The Muslim Brotherhood is an Islamist movement which has been declared a terrorist group by Egypt's government. Recent press reports have suggested members have moved to London to escape a crackdown in Cairo, where the group backs ousted president Mohammed Morsi. Number 10 said the review would examine the group's philosophy and activities, and the government's policy towards it.

They must be splitting their sides laughing in Cairo and Riyadh at how they've gotten the British Prime Minister -- too busy to phone the Turkish PM after a big election win -- to crack down on the movement that less than a year ago formed the democratically elected government of Egypt.

Anyway, that investigation into political Islam's presence in the UK may want to look into that noted radical sheikh, Prince Andrew, seen above presenting the 2012 Chatham House award to Rashid Ghannouchi (on his right), the intellectual force behind Tunisia's Muslim Brotherhood equivalent, Ennahda. Ghannouchi spent his exile in London.

Patrick Stewart would have joined the call

Downing Street press briefing, 31 March --

When asked whether the Prime Minister had had a chance to congratulate Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on local election results the PMS [spokesman] responded that the Turkish election was a local election and it was not usual precedent to congratulate national leaders except following victories in national elections.

Kremlin website, 31 March --

At Russia’s initiative, Vladimir Putin had a telephone conversation with Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The President congratulated Mr Erdogan on the convincing victory of his Justice and Development Party in the municipal elections held in Turkey on March 30.

Vladimir Putin looks at a map and notices that Turkey is a critical player on Black Sea issues, e.g. Crimea, and Syria. So even though he and Turkey are in disagreement on both, he picks up the phone and congratulates Mr Erdogan, on what everyone -- especially his opponents -- had billed on a referendum on his rule.

But David Cameron had something more important than coalition-sustaining on Crimea and Syria to attend to.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The note got lost

But not apparently, the TPM/PHRMA advertorial buy.

Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber lays out some concerns with Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo adding a section containing pharmaceutical lobby sponsored content. It's worth looking at the continuing discussion in comments.

It may be that Josh Marshall has forgotten the above tweet the same way he's forgotten his recent claim that Russia will only ever be a minor irritant on the margins.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The expression oft proclaim the man

New York Times analysis of the difficult US-Saudi relations in the context of Barack Obama's visit to Riyadh --

Now the Obama administration is hoping to persuade Saudi Arabia to use its greater clout with Cairo to convince the government there to rein in its repression of the opposition and begin to overhaul its economy — the Western formula for restoring stability. “The Saudis realize that the interim Egyptian government is overshooting the runway with regards to their crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood,” an administration official said on the condition of anonymity to discuss Mr. Obama’s coming visit. “The Saudis realize that the Egyptians have crossed the line with the massive crackdown on journalists, secular opposition, foreign embassy employees, etc.”

As it happens, the New York Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, is running a worthy feature called AnonyWatch where she encourages readers to challenge the rationale for anonymous quotes on a case by case basis. Now with this one, the issue is simply that it's contradicted by much of the rest of the story which notes Saudi encouragement of a regional crackdown on the Brotherhood, not to mention (which it doesn't) that the Saudis haven't taken any action to discourage the Egyptians and their loony judges from their current course.

But anyway, as for our anonymous White House official. He should probably avoid analogies to out-of-control planes when discussing Saudi Arabia, and he should probably avoid using a telltale phrase.

Because "overshooting the runway" is a breadcrumb trail to White House Senior Adviser, Dan Pfeiffer!

He bowed again!

Barack Obama meeting Saudi King Abdullah this evening at the latter's retreat outside Riyadh. Analysis may already be ongoing to determine if that head tilt is another bow.

Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Shall we tell the Minister?

Dail Eireann (Irish lower house), 3 October 2006, written answers to questions --

Garda Communications. 224. Mr. Gregory asked the Tanaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform his views on the introduction of the recording of all telephone calls to Garda stations and the replies given in the interests of greater efficiency and public confidence in the Garda; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30575/06] 

Tanaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell): An Garda Siochana currently records Garda radio traffic and emergency 112/999 calls. An Garda Siochana depends on the public to provide information to assist in preventing and detecting crime and such information is provided on a confidential basis, often by telephone. Prisoners detained in custody in Garda Stations are entitled to telephone their family and their legal representatives and such calls are made in private. I am not aware of any plans to record all telephone calls to Garda stations.

This matters because of current revelations in Ireland about recording of telephone calls to and from police stations.

Who told Michael McDowell, former Minister for Justice, in 2006 that calls to police stations were private? Anyone calling for the head of the current minister, Alan Shatter, over the affair might want to extend their curiosity to his predecessors.

UPDATE: The Irish Times has a similar story and a reputable paper like that would give the credit if they read it here first, right?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The world is not online

Good BBC article recounting how the search for MH370 went from trigonometry to the Doppler Effect calculations of Immarsat, concludes:

And Simon Boxall, an oceanographer at the University of Southampton, added: "We don't have very good maps of this region. It hasn't been surveyed much in the past. "It doesn't have a strong interest in terms of the resources on the seabed. We've probably got better maps of the Moon's surface than this part of the seabed."

Hopefully that will be the end of the idiotic NSA-can-read-my-texts-but-they-can't-find-a-777 meme. Geography and electronic communications are fundamentally different things. 

What happens in Dagestan stays in Dagestan

US Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes --

MR. RHODES: Well, if you look at the Syria chemical weapons issue, that's actually moving in very good pace, and we're about at the 50-percent milestone in terms of Syrian chemical weapons being removed from the country, taken into the custody of the international community. So on the chemical weapons issue we've seen continued cooperation. Russia has invested a lot in that project. Frankly, they have nothing to gain from seeing that project go off the rails, in large part because there are extremists in Syria that Russia doesn’t want to have -- gain access to chemical weapons who might pose a risk to them.  

Under Russia's theory of the August 2013 chemical weapons attack, the Syrian rebels already have access to chemical weapons, since the Russian theory is that the rebels did it.

If the White House knows of an undisclosed internal Russian view that Bashar al-Assad did it, now would be a good time to say so.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Sometimes a trade deal is just a trade deal

Barack Obama, 10 November 2011 --

Russia’s World Trade Organization (WTO) accession would be yet another important step forward in our reset of relations with Russia, which has been based upon the belief that the United States and Russia share many common interests, even as we disagree on some issues. Whether cooperating to supply our forces in Afghanistan, securing nuclear materials, or achieving the New START Treaty, the United States and Russia have demonstrated the ability to produce “win-win” outcomes on security issues. Russia’s dramatic step today towards joining the WTO underscores our ability to cooperate also on economic issues of mutual interest.

[previous item in this series]

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Dialectical Materialism and Gulags

New York Times Peter Baker, managing to write an extended article on the new Cold War with Russia without mentioning the Obama-Romney exchange on this possibility in 2012 --

Specialists said this would not be another Cold War, which was a global contest of ideology, pitting capitalism versus communism. Mr. Putin positions himself as leader of anti-American sentiment, but it is rooted in Russian nationalism rather than Marxist philosophy, and his main focus is on his own neighborhood.

The USSR was based on Marxist philosophy?

For you, special price

From the continuing trial in Dublin over Anglo Irish Bank's complicated deals regarding its own shares, the current issue being the astonishing indifference of the head of financial regulation, Patrick Neary, to the Bank's predicament [Irish Times] --

Mr Neary also told the court he could not recall making a phone call in early March [2008] to then chief executive of Anglo David Drumm to discuss how a road show in the Middle East to sell the CFDs had gone. Mr Gageby said the roadshow occurred in the first week in March and Matt Moran, then chief financial officer at Anglo, had given evidence of the call. Mr Neary said he had no recollection of it and was not aware the roadshow had happened. He believed the roadshows took place at the end of March and in April, he said.

The problem was that Anglo had failed to offload the dodgy derivatives (the CFDs) to Gulf investors. Which is revealing. In 2008, Qataris bought into Kaupthing (busted Icelandic bank), Barclays (nearly went bust UK bank) and Credit Suisse (nearly went bust Swiss bank). In addition, Abu Dhabi bought into Citigroup, which turned out to be such a horrible deal they ended up suing them.

But even with all that money sloshing around, the sheikhs smelt a rat with Anglo. It's almost as clear a signal as celebrating when you've outbid the sheikhs on trophy property in London.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Rage Against the Machine

Since everyone else is putting forward their MH370 theories, here is another. Whoever diverted the flight was angry about the way the role of the pilot had been supplanted by cockpit computers. So it was a nice twist from that perspective to have the computer execute the first turn off course and then continue to outwit the plane systems from there.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Bashar was not on the list

It was one of those irresistible stories: Saudi Arabia bans 50 names! Obscure in origin, "viral" on social media, and made true by repetition. Here it is arriving at the Washington Post Worldviews blog. However as of Sunday, it's looking flimsy. The Civil Status Department of the Saudi Ministry of Interior has said it never issued any such list. Instead it says that it has a set of long-standing rules that baby names can't be titles, religiously aggrandizing, compound names, non-Arabic names, or names that are just plain silly ("puppy"). Hospitals appear to have been working off a list in terms of advising parents on names, and that found its way to the media, and the rest is standard made-you-look online media at work.

Incidentally, lots of people died in Syria this weekend, but their names were probably not on any banned list in Damascus. Move along folks, nothing to see here.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Don't ask me about my business

The scene: it's January 2008. The chief Irish financial regulator Patrick Neary has been hearing oul' chat (as they say in rural Ireland) that flamboyant businessman Sean Quinn has amassed a large equity stake in the country's most aggressive bank, Anglo Irish, via unregulated and highly risky derivatives. Sean Quinn just happens to pop into the regulator's office, and ...

Mr Neary said he did not ask him directly as Mr Quinn was entitled, as a private citizen, to have any investments he wished. He said he did not think it would be appropriate to tackle a person about their own investment portfolio.

2 months later, Bear Stearns had to be rescued and banking share prices around the world crashed, including in Ireland. Quinn was effectively ruined at that point, and had at the very least compounded the bank's problems, although it would be another 6 months before that was in the open.

But at the start of the year, when there might still have been a chance to pull the game out of the fire, it was a gentlemen don't talk about stocks situation.

Where did they get that idea?

European Central Bank President Mario Draghi receiving the Joseph "Creative Destruction" Schumpeter Award (it's just as well Paul Krugman is travelling) --

Looking back, there is no doubt that the business models and liability structure of euro area banks had to evolve. Before the crisis, numerous banks funded their activities with too much debt and not enough equity; and that debt involved wholesale financing that was too high relative to deposits. This model was only able to develop because of the perception of an implicit state guarantee for bank debt – a perception that is perhaps the most pervasive component of the link between sovereign and bank risks.

Could those naughty banks have developed the "perception" of a state guarantee for bank debt because, er, the ECB was actually enforcing such a guarantee such as in the case of Ireland, November 2010?

Don't ever take sides against the family, ever

The European Union imposed personal sanctions against the Assad regime in Syria, which is probably as close as we'll ever get to accountability for the Assad killing machine.

Somehow, Bushra al-Assad, Bashar's sister and widow of Assef Shawkat, got around to appealing against the sanctions as regards her. If you're not keeping score, Assef Shawkat was himself a senior figure in the regime and was killed in a 2012 bomb attack by the rebels. Anyway, among her rejected grounds for appeal were --

The General Court rejects Ms al-Assad’s arguments that, as a non-working mother, she does not perform any public or economic function, and that her children are now at school in the United Arab Emirates. The General Court finds that the fact that Ms al-Assad’s children are at school in the United Arab Emirates is not sufficient for her to be regarded as having dissociated herself from the Syrian regime and as having been forced to flee the country. There may be many other reasons for a change in Ms al-Assad’s residence, such as the deterioration of the security situation in Syria.

It's just as well the court ruled this way, because by her logic, any connected figure to any sanctioned regime would have a roadmap to exempt themselves from sanctions.

Since sanctions look to be about all that Europe has in its quiver against Russia, this stuff is important.

Photo: Michael and Connie Corleone/

Thursday, March 13, 2014

You'll never crush the Irish

The Wall Street Journal explains the complicated wherever-I-lay-my-filing-documents-that's-my-home arrangements of the Candy Crush maker --

Its registration in late 2013 in Dublin could give it the ability to adhere to certain "home country" corporate governance practices in lieu of certain NYSE listing requirements, King said in a February filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission disclosing its intention to list shares. For example, under Irish law, there is no requirement for equity compensation plans to be approved by shareholder resolution, and the company won't be subject to U.S. proxy rules, it said. King denied its recent Irish affiliation would reduce its tax burden. "King is a global company and complies with all applicable tax regulations in each country where we operate," a company spokeswoman said. "Like any other company, we pay corporate tax and being an Irish company doesn't affect our tax rate."

Monday, March 10, 2014

Lost at 35000 feet

There are various analogies being drawn between Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 and Air France Flight  AF447, both mysterious over-the-water cruising altitude crashes of modern aircraft with experienced airlines.

There's one outcome of the AF 447 investigation that perhaps needs more highlighting: despite our sense of the capabilities of modern technology, the degree of uncertainty that surrounds the location of these aircraft, especially when they are transitioning through multiple air traffic controls and radios aren't working that well, as often seems to be case.

For a vivid illustration of how the system still works on guesses about where an aircraft should be and misunderstandings about which flights are being talked about, read the Search and Rescue (SAR) appendix to the French inquiry into AF447. Not only did air traffic controllers across 2000 miles have no idea where the flight was, they weren't sure who to tell to look for it.

Friday, March 07, 2014

He's taking it up a notch

Kremlin version of Thursday's Obama-Putin phone call --

Vladimir Putin, in particular, noted that which came as a result of anti-constitutional coup that does not have a national mandate, the current Ukrainian leadership imposes the Eastern and Southeastern regions and Crimea is illegitimate decision.

It's a Google translate from the Russian which for now is the only version available. But the intended meaning is clear. Putin didn't just talk about Crimea having an illegitimate government. He talked about all of eastern and southern Ukraine as such.

The White House staff better not make any big weekend plans.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Ah go on, tell us who it was

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso at University College Cork today --

In this regard, I would like to make one thing clear: the European Commission has always been on the side of Ireland, one could even say, one of your best friends. During the European Union/IMF programme, I personally made the case to other European leaders for lower interest rates and longer maturities on Ireland's loans. I can tell you that sometimes, at least one of the phone calls took about one hour. It was also about Portugal, but I would have done it also just for Ireland.