Saturday, December 28, 2013

Google bait in Beirut

The photo above shows on the ground a Lebanese teenager, Mohammed Al-Chaar, who was injured and later died in the car bomb attack -- likely instigated by Syria -- on the convoy of  the politician Mohammed Chatah.

There appears to be a consensus in online news sites to run headlines and references to the teenager and his friends having taken a "selfie" photo immediately before the attack e.g. headline picked up by numerous outlets: Teenager in Beirut bombing 'selfie' dies.

Is there a mandate from editors to use the buzzwords of 2013 in all articles to drive up hitcounts? Leaving aside that Mohammed al-Chaar (a) did not take the selfie (it was a group photo) and (b) is dead in (c) from an attack with major regional implications, how is the selfie meme at all relevant?

Photo: Al Arabiya.

Bear arms but not names

From the Hartford Courant article on the Connecticut state's final report on the Sandy Spring atrocity --

Records show that the four guns he carried to the Sandy Hook school that day were all legally purchased by Nancy between March 2010 and January 2012. The report redacts the locations where the guns were purchased. The Bushmaster used in the shootings was bought in March 2010.

Why do the gun stores get anonymity? 

Friday, December 27, 2013

Impunity kills

With the bomb attack in Beirut today, the current Syria policy of urging the opposition to go to Geneva and talk to that nice man Mr Assad is surely beyond any viability. If Syria and Hezbollah got away before with car bombs outside the Phoenicia hotel -- the one that killed Rafik Hariri -- why should do they do any differently now given the lack of will to confront them? Maybe Russia will offer to investigate the Chatah killing and Barack Obama will eagerly accept.

Photo: Reuters.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Roots of Turkish corruption scandal revealed!

Bertie Ahern meets Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2003 and assures him he's read the Turkish government's national program line by line.

Actually there's a broader point here, prompted by this New York Times article about the frustration in Bulgaria that EU membership hasn't changed politics or corruption after 6 years. The Irish case shows that it could take nearly 40 years.

Happy Christmas!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Great milestones in cultural change

Steely Dan, "Deacon Blues," 1977 --

I'll learn to work the saxophone
I'll play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whisky all night long
And die behind the wheel

Pajama Boy, 2013 --

Wear pajamas
Drink hot chocolate. 
Talk about getting health insurance. 

Our man in Damascus

It hardly needs pointing out, but the Bashar al-Assad use of barrel bombs seems to have increased just as his chemical weapons were taken away. Same terror, different delivery. No word of any Seymour Hersh investigation of who's dropping the barrel bombs. But Bashar seems to have found ever-gullible securocrats who think he's the bulwark against the real terrorists.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Is the Pope Catholic?

National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru writes in Bloomberg News opinion --

Much of Francis’s economic thought, though, seems to rest on the identification of free markets with extreme individualism. A generation ago, the writer Michael Novak and others were instrumental in persuading many American Catholics that markets could instead enable a creative form of community. The pope’s remarks suggest that this type of evangelizing still needs to be done.

It was not so long ago that Novak was being sent to the Vatican to explain why they were wrong about Iraq.

Keeping these turbulent priests in line with Republican theology is a tough business.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Not a selfies crowd

With the VIPs and the unvetted schizophrenic sign language interpreters long gone, Gerry Adams as part of the honour guard for Nelson Mandela's final send off today.

All In

Writing in the Financial Times, historian Roy Foster posits that one reason why Irish protests about austerity have been so muted is that the trades unions are now part of the establishment.


Above is Bertie Ahern regaling an audience in 2007 with his view that doubters on the economy should consider suicide.

The audience was trades union officials.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Over-eager editor

Good New York Times article on Ireland's bailout exit --

The austerity was squeezing most people Mr. [John] Donovan knew. “The government, in a moment of madness, has burdened every man, woman and child with a debt we may never escape,” he said. “We are on our backside.”

Unfortunately the background explanation for his remark appears to have been cut, so to be clear, he's referring specifically to the September 2008 no-bondholder-left-behind bank guarantee, rather than some specific decision on austerity.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

We can remember it for you wholesale

David Brooks writing in the New York Times contemplates a future where technology causes huge income disparities --

Economizers. The bottom 85 percent is likely to be made up of people with less marketable workplace skills. Some of these people may struggle financially but not socially or intellectually. That is, they may not make much running a food truck, but they can lead rich lives, using the free bounty of the Internet. They could use a class of advisers on how to preserve rich lives on a small income.

Serious question: is this a vision informed by actual analysis or simply an extrapolation of dystopian sci-fi films that he's seen?

Monday, December 09, 2013

Everyone has their blinkers on

Seymour Hersh has an extensive article in the London Review of Books alleging that Barack Obama lied to set up a war that he never wanted in the first place. It all makes sense to Seymour Hersh and his numerous unnamed sources. Just one example of the contentious style of argument in the article. There's a discussion of how the USA has secret sensors all over Syria near chemical weapons sites and --

The sensors detected no movement in the months and days before 21 August, the former official said. It is of course possible that sarin had been supplied to the Syrian army by other means, but the lack of warning meant that Washington was unable to monitor the events in Eastern Ghouta as they unfolded.

On the other hand, regarding the casualty counts --

The strikingly precise US total was later reported by the Wall Street Journal to have been based not on an actual body count, but on an extrapolation by CIA analysts, who scanned more than a hundred YouTube videos from Eastern Ghouta into a computer system and looked for images of the dead. In other words, it was little more than a guess.)  

Note the logic: when his unnamed source tells him that super-duper technology didn't detect preparations for an attack, that's taken as part of his case that there was no government attack. But when photo/video analysis technology is applied to the actual images of the attack and comes up with an awkward number, that's dismissed as a "guess." Consider also the levels of insinuation in this method: Assad didn't do it, and if he did, it didn't kill that many people. Hersh's fans no doubt see heroic debunking, but that style of argument is the plain old multi-step denial program.

In terms of who Hersh and his sources think did it, he's weirdly obsessed with the Al Nusra front, which is just one of numerous Islamist groups, albeit one of the most effective against the Assad forces. The cui bono question should apply to everybody running around with unnamed sources and leaks, shouldn't it?

UPDATE: One of Hersh's insinuations relies on an apparent non-update of a New York Times story about the range of the rockets used in the attack. The story has since been updated. It doesn't change the expert assessment that the attack was most likely carried out by Assad forces.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Obama's ears were burning

How long before we hear "leaked" complaints about US foreign policy coming from this meeting on 4 December in Riyadh of John McCain with Saudi interior minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef?

Photo: Saudi Press Agency

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

We have no opinion on your border dispute with Turkey

New York Times on American reaction to the rising strength of militant Islamist groups in Syria -- to which American inaction on Syria has contributed:

“We need to start talking to the Assad regime again” about counterterrorism and other issues of shared concern, said Ryan C. Crocker, a veteran diplomat who has served in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. “It will have to be done very, very quietly. But bad as Assad is, he is not as bad as the jihadis who would take over in his absence.”

Doing deals with a Baathist dictator who has used chemical weapons against his own people ... what could possibly go wrong?

Denial by association

The Smithwick Tribunal has found that there was a mole in the Irish police in the 1980s whose information led to at least 2 murders and probably more. The specific incident being investigated happened in 1989, but unfortunately that's about the time lag involved in finding the truth about anything in Ireland. Among the issues discussed by the judge is the culture of denial at the top levels of Irish politics. One example cited followed a 1987 case where again there was circumstantial evidence of a mole. The government's policy was to say that anyone making such an allegation was trying to disrupt cooperation between the police forces north and south of the border (page 46):

In regard to the allegations of moles for political advantage, on 28 April 1987, the late Mr Brian Lenihan T.D. standing in for the then Minister for Justice in reply to a question on the Gibson murders said in the Dáil;

“Allegations of a leak to the IRA from within the ranks of the Garda Síochána by those who could have no evidence to support them are regrettable for several reasons, one of them being that they play directly into the hands of those, like the IRA, who would wish to reduce the level of security co-operation between the two forces.”

Nobody, of course, can fully disprove an allegation of this kind unless the people actually responsible are detected. What is quite clear, as I have said, is that the allegations were made without a shred of evidence. Accordingly, the least that can be said about them is that they reflect seriously on the judgment of those who made them.

That last sentence could be applied to all of Official Ireland, and not just about mole-hunts, but on the broader diseases of insiderism and corruption.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

No true Catholic

Conservative Catholic intellectual George Weigel rushes to the Wall Street Journal op-ed page to package Pope Francis as People Like Us despite the Pope's obvious critique of conservative capitalism --

The pope is passionately concerned about the poor, and he knows that poverty in the 21st century takes many forms. It can be found in the grinding material poverty of his native Buenos Aires, caused by decades of corruption, indifference, and the church's failures to catechize Argentina's economic and political leaders.

So if Argentina's leaders had gotten proper religious uplift, the bad economic outcomes in Argentina would not have happened.

But it looks cool from the top of the Burj Khalifa

Tom Friedman is in the Gulf. He writes about it in his Sunday New York Times column. The first part is not bad, noting the expanding space for social media in the Gulf, but not mentioning the limits for criticism of the ruler or perceived blasphemy. He goes astray in the 2nd part, apparently lost in the haze of presentations by government officials and an eagerness to say something nice about his hosts. Hence ..

in Dubai, the government has set a strategy for 2021,

There is no particular Dubai strategy for 2021. That's for the federal government. Now it's an understandable mistake because the same Sheikh Mohammed that he writes about favourably as ruler of Dubai is also PM and VP of the UAE, but of course if you start asking why one man has all those titles, you're getting more into the politics of the UAE than he might want.

and each of the 46 ministries and regulatory agencies has three-year Key Performance Indicators, or K.P.I.’s, they have to fulfill to get there, ranging from improving the success of Dubai 15-year-olds in global science, math and reading exams to making it even easier to start a new business. All 3,600 K.P.I.’s are loaded on an iPad dashboard that the ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, follows each week.

You might note here that somewhere along the way, the meaning of the word "Key" has been lost, since a city-state of around 2 million people somehow needs 3600 of them. The most likely explanation is that whatever consulting firm came up with them was being paid by the indicator.

Again, this is not about democracy. It’s about leaders feeling the need to earn their legitimacy. But when one leader does it, others feel the pressure to copy. 

Which of course raises the question of what they would copy.

There is also a mistake which reveals the perils of pop-in journalism. He attributes a cartoon to the "Saudi newspaper" Al Sharq al Awsat. That pan-Arab paper is in London. The online version correctly attributes the cartoon to al Sharq.