Monday, January 31, 2005

An independent Kurdistan?

This is interesting:
OF all the remarkable things that happened at the Iraqi polls on Sunday, perhaps the most striking was pulled off by the Kurdish independence movement. With almost no advance notice, hundreds of Kurds erected tents at official polling places in Iraq's Kurdish areas and asked those emerging from the ballot booths to take part in an informal referendum on whether Kurdistan should be independent or part of Iraq. From what I saw, almost everyone stopped to vote in the referendum, and the tally was running 11 to 1 in favor of independence.
Iraq's new Assembly will face the task of preparing a constitution for a country where a sizable part of the population almost unanimously does not want to be part of the whole. The representatives of the Kurdish areas will most likely be the second-largest bloc in the Parliament. They will not press for independence any time soon, but they will be mindful of the referendum vote...The Kurdish region today functions as if it were an independent state. The Kurdistan Regional Government carries out virtually all government functions, and Baghdad law applies only to the extent the Kurdish Parliament chooses to apply it. Kurdistan is responsible for its own security (which is the main reason it has been free of the violence wracking the rest of Iraq) and maintains its own armed forces.

For the people of Kurdistan, the issue is not simply a matter of keeping what they have. What drives the move for independence is not just the love of Kurdistan but also a widespread antipathy toward Iraq.
America doesn't appear to be in favour of an independent Kurdistan, but will they be able to apply sufficient pressure on the Kurds? Turkey and Iran fear that their own sizable Kurdish minorities might wish to secede and join a new Kurdish state.

Also from the same editorial
The United States would do well to learn the lessons of the former Yugoslavia, where policymakers denied the reality of breakup until it was too late to contain the accompanying violence. Just four days before Yugoslavia's wars began in June 1991, the American Secretary of State, James Baker, was in Belgrade focused on the impossible task of stopping Slovenian and Croatian secession when he should have been trying to prevent the shooting.
Read the whole thing; the author (Peter Galbraith), as a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia, probably knows what he's talking about.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

A Historic Day for Iraq?

Good news from Iraq! Attacks on voters and polling stations have claimed 36 lives (so far), but the violence is less than expected. Much more important, turnout is higher than expected; the current official guesstimate is 60%. Unfortunately, Sunni turnout may not be very good. There are reports of a station where only 7 people voted in 7 hours, and another where the 15 people who cast their votes were the security forces assigned to protect the booth. Still, there are some encouraging signs; we'll probably do much better than Senator McCain's prediction of a 5% Sunni turnout.

So why the question-mark in the title? Partly because I'm an inveterate pessimist, but more because I read again today something we often forget: In fledgling democracies, the second elections are often more important than the first. Africa provides several examples of countries where the second post-colonial elections were never held; the winners of the first essentially became dictators. I don't seriously expect that to happen in Iraq, but like I said, I'm a pessimist.

Today, though, the world has reason to celebrate - to celebrate and honour the courage of millions of Iraqis who braved threats, bullets and bombs to help create a free Iraq.

Friday, January 28, 2005

A Numbers Game

One of my pet peeves is the way people abuse statistics (or numbers, in general). When it's done deliberately, for economic or political gain, mild irritation gives way to extreme contempt. A good example would be President Bush's oft-repeated assertion that 14 out of the 18 Iraqi provinces are safe. This number was widely reported in the media, but very few reports mentioned the fact that the other 4 provinces hold half the population of Iraq.

Paull Krugman reports on another in an editorial for the Times today.
This week, in a closed meeting with African-Americans, Mr. Bush asserted that Social Security was a bad deal for their race, repeating his earlier claim that "African-American males die sooner than other males do, which means the system is inherently unfair to a certain group of people." In other words, blacks don't live long enough to collect their fair share of benefits.
First, Mr. Bush's remarks on African-Americans perpetuate a crude misunderstanding about what life expectancy means. It's true that the current life expectancy for black males at birth is only 68.8 years - but that doesn't mean that a black man who has worked all his life can expect to die after collecting only a few years' worth of Social Security benefits. Blacks' low life expectancy is largely due to high death rates in childhood and young adulthood. African-American men who make it to age 65 can expect to live, and collect benefits, for an additional 14.6 years - not that far short of the 16.6-year figure for white men.

Second, the formula determining Social Security benefits is progressive: it provides more benefits, as a percentage of earnings, to low-income workers than to high-income workers. Since African-Americans are paid much less, on average, than whites, this works to their advantage.

Finally, Social Security isn't just a retirement program; it's also a disability insurance program. And blacks are much more likely than whites to receive disability benefits.

Put it all together, and the deal African-Americans get from Social Security turns out, according to various calculations, to be either about the same as that for whites or somewhat better.
Of course, this form of intellectual dishonesty is hardly unique to the current administration; pretty much every group with an agenda to push is guilty.

The BBC runs a weekly programme on the subject called More or Less. From the website:
The programme was an idea born of the sense that numbers were the principal language of public argument. And yet there were few places where it was thought necessary to step back and think in the way we often step back to think about language, about the way we use figures.
What do they really measure? What kind of truth, if any, do they capture?

Open the pages of any newspaper and you will see risks of this, targets for that, new spending and new cuts, arguments about productivity, performance indicators, measurements, statistics and quantification of every kind.

We all use numbers in so many ways to argue about, understand, help make sense of the world around us. More or Less hopes to make that task easier, more entertaining, more surprising.
More or Less often reports on figures that have featured prominently in recent news; this week's programme describes why a recent survey claiming that a quarter of English boys had committed criminal acts was seriously flawed (Listen here). For example, teenage boys who once pushed a sibling hard enough to leave a bruise or scratch were guilty of 'serious assault.' In fact, merely pushing someone six times a year (even if the victim never suffered injury) makes you a prolific offender!

Here's an amusing example: STATS, an American organization (apparently based at George Mason university) that seeks to"hold U.S. journalists to the highest standards of reporting accuracy, while providing them with concrete assistance to help them better understand the complexities and limitations of scientific and statistical material", annually presents Dubious Data awards to media stories with particularly egregious statistical or logical errors. One of the winners in 2000 was a report on a survey which claimed that 70% of people surveyed had tried to quit smoking, and precisely 0 had succeeded. What wasn't quite so clear was that only smokers were surveyed, and only current smokers. People who had successfully quit were automatically disqualified!

I got this gem from the STATS site: "It is a cardinal rule of social science research that the plural of anecdote is not data."

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Thank God for Sundays!

Saturdays are all very well, but there's something special about Sundays. Actually, make that several things: talking to my parents, a wonderful church service, a lazy afternoon, dinner in CampusTown and dessert at Moonstruck Chocolate Cafe. But perhaps best of all are the Sunday editorials.

The Times has two pieces on genetic behavioural/intellectual differences between men and women; both well written, and both referring to Lawrence Summer's recent remarks.

Thomas Friedman writes about Iraq, elections, and the global 'war on terror'. He makes the point that however satisfying it may be to say "I told you so" if the elections aren't a success, the consequences of failed elections will not be good. In the event that the insurgents keep people away from the polls (which Friedman thinks unlikely), the world needs a Plan B. Unfortunately, nobody seems to have one.
This war also can't be won with troops - only with turnout. This is a war between Iraqi voters and insurgents - ballots versus bullets. And the people who understand that best are the fascist insurgents. That is why they are not focusing their attacks on U.S. troops, but on Iraqi election workers, candidates, local officials and police. The insurgents have one credo: "Iraqis must not vote - there must be no authentic expression of the people's will for a modern, decent Iraq. Because, if there is, the world will see that this is not a war between Muslims and infidel occupiers, but between Muslims with bad ideas and Muslims with progressive ideas."

This war also can't be won with troops - only with turnout. This is a war between Iraqi voters and insurgents - ballots versus bullets. And the people who understand that best are the fascist insurgents. That is why they are not focusing their attacks on U.S. troops, but on Iraqi election workers, candidates, local officials and police. The insurgents have one credo: "Iraqis must not vote - there must be no authentic expression of the people's will for a modern, decent Iraq. Because, if there is, the world will see that this is not a war between Muslims and infidel occupiers, but between Muslims with bad ideas and Muslims with progressive ideas."
I spent Friday morning interviewing two 18-year-old French Muslim girls in the Paris immigrant district of St.-Ouen. (It is about a mile from the school where in March 2003 a French Muslim girl, who had refused the veil and rebuffed the advances of a Muslim boy, was thrown into a garbage can by three Muslim teenagers, who then tossed lighted cigarette butts into the can and closed the lid.)

Both girls I interviewed wore veils and one also wore a full Afghan-like head-to-toe covering; one was of Egyptian parents, the other of Tunisian parents, but both were born and raised in France. What did I learn from them? That they got all their news from Al Jazeera TV, because they did not believe French TV, that the person they admired most in the world was Osama bin Laden, because he was defending Islam, that suicide "martyrdom" was justified because there was no greater glory than dying in defense of Islam, that they saw themselves as Muslims first and French citizens last, and that all their friends felt pretty much the same.

We were not in Kabul. We were standing outside their French public high school - a short ride from the Eiffel Tower.
Senator John McCain has these predictions for the turnout: Kurds - 80%, Shiites - 60%, Sunnis - 5%. Will that be sufficient? I hope so, but I think not, unless the newly formed government is extremely magnanimous to the Sunnis.

While I'm on the subject, I'm currently reading Tom Clancy's Battle Ready, written with (Marine) General Anthony Zinni. Gen Zinni commanded CENTCOM from 1997 to 2000 (during which time he directed strikes against Iraq and Al Qaeda) and later served as Colin Powell's envoy to the Middle East until he resigned in 2003 over disagreements about the probable aftermath of the Iraq War. I've only just begun, but here's an interesting snippet from the first 20 pages.
Gen. Zinni describes how, as CENTCOM Commander-in-Chief, he realised that his plans for defeating Saddam's military did not address the problems of reconstruction. He organised a "war-game" called 'Desert Crossing' that presented several post-Saddam Iraq scenarios and gave experts from several branches of government a feel for the extent of the problems they would face. Unfortunately, no government agency was willing to do anything about it; none of them had a charter to develop a plan for rebuilding Iraq. The CENTCOM planning staff began to work on it, but after Zinni left, nothing came of it. He later testified on the subject before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after it became clear that State and Defense Department officials had neglected such planning.

Also at the Times, the public editor discusses the way numbers are used and abused by the media. This is something I've been meaning to blog about; more coming soon.

Sadly, today's Post Opinion page doesn't seem as good as usual. They're carrying a story on Viktor Yushchenko's inauguration (as President of Ukraine) which reads more like a regular article than an editorial. There is, though, one remarkable column: Samuel Pisar's Will We 'Never Forget'? A survivor of Majdanek and Auschwitz, he writes of his experiences, the cruelty and heroism he witnessed. He writes, too, of the lessons the Holocaust can teach us.
We the survivors are now disappearing one by one. Soon history will speak of Auschwitz at best with the impersonal voice of researchers and novelists, at worst with the malevolence of demagogues and falsifiers. This week the last of us, with a multitude of heads of state and other dignitaries, are gathering at that cursed site to remind the world that past can be prologue, that the mountains of human ashes dispersed there are a warning to humanity of what may still lie ahead.

The genocides in Armenia, Cambodia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda and the recent massacres of innocents in the United States, Spain, Israel, Indonesia and so many other countries have demonstrated our inability to learn from the blood-soaked past. Auschwitz, the symbol of absolute evil, is not only about that past, it is about the present and the future of our newly enflamed world, where a coupling of murderous ideologues and means of mass destruction can trigger new catastrophes.
In the autumn of their lives, the survivors of Auschwitz feel a visceral need to transmit what we have endured, to warn younger generations that today's intolerance, fanaticism and hatred can destroy their world as they once destroyed ours, that powerful alert systems must be built not only against the fury of nature -- a tsunami or storm or eruption -- but above all against the folly of man. Because we know from bitter experience that the human animal is capable of the worst, as well as the best -- of madness as of genius -- and that the unthinkable remains possible.
If you read nothing else today, read his whole column.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Why Kerry Lost

Much has been said and written on why Senator Kerry lost the election: we've heard everything from Karl Rove's genius (or underhanded tactics, depending on who you ask) to right-wing evangelical voters turning out en masse to oppose gay marriage, to allegations of fraud. Perhaps there isn't a simple answer, but this is one I like:
Mr. Kerry failed because of his inability to tell his own story.
Errol Morris has an op/ed piece in the Times that I think is very well-written.
My guess is that Mr. Kerry and his campaign believed that certain things could not be mentioned. Foremost among these was Mr. Kerry's opposition to the war in Vietnam, which was largely erased from the candidate's life. That was a mistake. People think in narratives - in beginnings, middles and ends. The danger when you edit something too severely is that it no longer makes sense; worse still, it leaves people with the disquieting impression that something is being hidden.

Muting Mr. Kerry's opposition to the Vietnam War had precisely this effect. Remember, this is the man who in 1971 made the following statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

"Each day to facilitate the process by which the United States washes her hands of Vietnam someone has to give up his life so that the United States doesn't have to admit something that the entire world already knows, so that we can't say they we have made a mistake. ... We are asking Americans to think about that, because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
After the 2004 conventions, a New York Times poll asked people whether they felt that the candidates were not being candid about their war records. Many of Mr. Kerry's supporters were mystified that almost as large a percentage of Americans felt that he was holding something back as felt that Mr. Bush was doing the same.

But the polls made perfect sense. Mr. Kerry was holding something back - his real story about Vietnam. And in the end the questions about his service in Vietnam became questions about how he would deal with the war in Iraq. Was Mr. Kerry for it or against it? Questions about Iraq became questions about his candor, and vice versa.

What's disconcerting here is that Mr. Kerry had an out. He could have explained why he went to Vietnam and then opposed the war, and then he could have used this explanation to help people understand why he voted for the Iraq war and then voted against it. His experience with the changing nature of a war could have shifted those critical swing voters, convincing them that he was just the person to lead them at this juncture in our history.
His thesis may or may not be correct, but it's one that I hadn't seen before, and sufficiently interesting to be worthy of consideration. (Admit it, another reason you liked it was because "People think in narratives" made you think of Terry Pratchett - ed. Yes, well, that too, of course.)

On Social Security

This is one subject I never wrote about; I always figured I didn't know enough. (Or perhaps you instinctively thought of it as the 'third rail of blogging'; post about it and die? - ed.) I've been reading a lot about it, though, and today I found this superb report by Roger Lowenstein in the New York Times magazine. (Warning: 9 pages! What is it with you and multi-page articles from the Times lately? Are you being paid to increase their advertising revenue? -ed.)

Lowenstein, like many other writers for the Times, believes that President Bush is exaggerating when he claims an impending Social Security crisis. One way to use the market, he suggests, is to invest in equities directly; this would provide economies of scale, keep the Social Security Trust Fund out of the government's hands, and have the effect of decreasing risks for individual investors. Another option is to tweak the current system modestly to keep it solvent for 75 years or so; after all, long-term forecasts are notoriously inaccurate.

Personally, I'm inclined to believe that the administration may be manufacturing a crisis like they did with the WMD in Iraq, but I'm not really qualified to comment. If you, like me, are interested in the origins and history of Social Security, Lowenstein's article is well worth the read, regardless of your opinion on the best way to fix it.

Monday, January 17, 2005

In Defence of Lawrence Summers

Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard University, suggested at an Economics conference on Friday that one reason there are relatively few women in science- and math-related careers could be an innate difference between the sexes. Half a dozen of the conference participants were offended; Nancy Hopkins, an MIT biologist, walked out in protest, saying that she was upset that all the brilliant young women at Harvard were being led by a man who "views them this way." From another New York Times article:
"When he started talking about innate differences in aptitude between men and women, I just couldn't breathe because this kind of bias makes me physically ill," Dr. Hopkins said. "Let's not forget that people used to say that women couldn't drive an automobile."

This sort of thing (the objections, not Summer's comments) drives me nuts: to begin with, Summers was requested by the conference organisers to be provocative, and he stressed that fact repeatedly in his talks. Much more important, the comments did not show a bias. Is it biased to say that most men are taller than most women because of biological differences between the sexes? Research has consistently shown that men tend to score higher than women on mathematical tests; I even blogged about an extensive study last month. On the other hand, women tend to have better language skills. Some of these differences may be (as certain feminists like Dr. Hopkins claim) entirely due to sociological differences, but is it so inconceivable that there is an innate difference in talents? Even if there were such a difference, what does it matter? People like Dr. Summers are not claiming that men are intrinsically 'better' than women; math skills (or intelligence tests in general, for that matter) do not measure a person's worth any more than height does. All Summers did was advance it as one possible reason for the under-representation of women in scientific careers.

Unfortunately, it appears that at least to a few people, political correctness is more important than a genuine understanding of the problem being considered. I'm glad to see that Dr. Summers is standing by his remarks.

Update: Tall, Dark, & Mysterious makes some good points. This is getting more publicity than I thought it would; there's even a Slashdot article.

Revelations from Ukraine

The New York Times is carrying a sensational 6-page article on the role of the army and security service during the recent presidential elections in Ukraine. It's a remarkable story; the S.B.U. (Security Service of Ukraine, the local successor to the KGB), led by its chairman General Ihor P. Smeshko, and other intelligence organisations decided 'to save their country' when it became apparent that Yanukovich would be declared the victor through the use of widespread fraud. It is believed that the S.B.U. bugged the Yanukovich campaign and made available recordings which showed that the results had been manipulated. The security services also refused to co-operate when Yanukovich wished to declare a state of emergency; they insisted on a peaceful resolution of the crisis. Further, when troops of the Ministry of the Interior (M.V.D.) were on their way to begin a crackdown on demonstrators in the capital, General Oleksander Petruk (the army chief of staff) warned the Interior Ministry that the army was on the side of the people, and that M.V.D. troops would face the army and special forces, not the unarmed protesters they were expecting.

Read the whole fascinating account of the post-election crisis. (I blogged about this subject previously here, and linked to these three posts by Dan Drezner.)

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Graner Found Guilty

Two stories; will comment further soon.

Considering he had Womack, I'm not surprised. Though in all fairness, it would have been a miracle if any lawyer had managed to get him acquitted.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Anti-Torture Legislation Scrapped

I noticed this Post article a couple of days ago and meant to blog about it, but it somehow slipped my mind. The Post is enlightened enough to keep articles publically available for a couple of weeks after they're published (instead of moving them quickly to a pay-per-view archive), so the link should be good for a while.

The Senate had overwhelmingly (96 to 2) approved restrictions on 'extreme interrogation measures' by American intelligence officers as part of intelligence reform legislation. After pressure from the White House, these restrictions were removed from the bill. One reason given was that the question was 'too complex' to be included in the bill.

I must say I'm not surprised that the current administration would oppose curbs on extreme interrogation, but given that I'm unsure where to draw the line myself, this may not necessarily be a bad thing. Acceptable measures may depend to some extent on the circumstances, which would make legislation on the subject complex. What irked me, though, was the letter opposing the bill written by Ms. Rice.
In a letter to members of Congress, sent in October and made available by the White House on Wednesday in response to inquiries, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice expressed opposition to the measure on the grounds it "provides legal protections to foreign prisoners to which they are not now entitled under applicable law and policy."

Of course it 'provides legal protections to prisoners to which they are not now entitled'; that was the purpose of the legislation. Does the administration think that this is by definition a bad thing? Imagine that Congress was working on a law on the rights of domestic prisoners. Would the White House object on the grounds that it provides legal protections that go beyond those to which the prisoners are entitled now under law? For a more ridiculous example, consider funding for any government program. Should a bill proposing an increase in funding be stopped because it goes further than the current amount allocated?

I suppose it's useless to expect logic from any government, though. :-)

Forget Graner, Can We Try His Lawyer?

Guy Womack, attorney for Specialist Charles Graner, leaves me speechless. (See here for an earlier post on his incompetence.)
"Sometimes, when you make an omelet, you have to break some eggs," Mr. Womack told the jury, adding, "You had to use approaches that we would not want to do with our own children."
Because 'our children' are completely different from those heathen Iraqi kids dying from hunger and disease, right?
"They were just taking pictures of what they did at work all day," he said of Specialist Graner and his friends.
Yeah, this is just like taking pictures of a regular day at the office, isn't it? It gets better:
"The crime is that somebody leaked the photographs."
So that's what was wrong; torturing the detainees (many of whom weren't accused of any specific crime) was completely ok. But those criminal whistle-blowers deserve to be strung up.

Graner apparently even sent graphic photographs home to his young children, among others. In reply to a message about 'Take Your Children to Work Day', he said, "How about send a bastard to hell day?"

To be fair, Womack did make one good point: the mistreatment of prisoners was common knowledge.
Specialist Graner, he said, was taking the fall for higher-up officers who he said knew the harsh treatment was routine... "The tragedy here is that because of this embarrassment, now those pictures are orphans, and the United States government and the chain of command and the M.I.'s say, 'We didn't know about that,' " he said, referring to military Intelligence. "You know that was a lie."
I guess I have to agree... the 'few bad apples' theory isn't really tenable. Testimony from other witnesses indicates that even if abuse wasn't widespread, knowledge of it was. Several soldiers have said they witnessed treatment they weren't comfortable with, but they were reassured about these being interrogation techniques.

A Question of Ethics

As President/Prime Minister of your country, you have to make a choice: either a million of your citizens die, or an innocent person from another country must be brutally tortured. Which do you choose?

I understand that's not a reasonable question; it's completely unlikely to arise in real life, and there are usually other alternatives. But just think about it; I want to use it as a lead-in to other questions.

Does your answer change if the innocent person is from your own country? If the number of your citizens who will die goes down from a million to ten thousand? One thousand? If the person to be tortured is not innocent, but has planned the attack which will kill your citizens?

And in the real world, there are more shades of grey... what if the person to be tortured is only suspected of having planned the attack? Should he/she not be presumed innocent until proved guilty? What if you are not sure that your citizens will die, but have reason to believe that it may happen?

Seriously, ask yourself these questions. I'm not happy with my own answers; perhaps there isn't a set of 'right' answers. Comments are invited.

I have to get up early tomorrow, so more on this subject later.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Making the Best of a Bad Job

It appears that the administration realizes that the elections in Iraq aren't going to bring a whole lot of good news, so the damage control is already beginning. The Washington Post has a good article on how expectations from the vote have lowered.
[The U.S. is] increasingly emphasizing other steps over the next year as more important to Iraq's political transformation.

The Bush administration played down voter turnout yesterday in determining the elections' legitimacy and urged Americans not to get bogged in a numbers game in judging the balloting, a reflection of the growing concern over how much the escalating insurgency and the problem of Sunni participation may affect the vote.

"I would . . . really encourage people not to focus on numbers, which in themselves don't have any meaning, but to look on the outcome and to look at the government that will be the product of these elections," a senior administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity at a White House briefing yesterday. The official highlighted the low voter turnout in U.S. elections as evidence that polling numbers are not essential to legitimacy.
If there is a better measure than voter turnout to measure a country's faith in democracy, or if a government truly represents a people, I have no idea what it is. And comparing it to the U.S. voter turnout is just plain idiotic: if the turnout in Iraq is in the same ballpark as for the presidential elections here, the elections will probably be deemed a success. Further, his (or her) statement is based on the implicit assumption that the U.S. government is legitimate. Not that I disagree, but if I had been a hostile reporter and present when the statement was made, I would have asked if the low voter turnout did not indicate that the government is illegitimate. At the least, one can infer that a large section of the population:
a) does not support the present form of government
b) is disillusioned with democracy
c) doesn't really care.
(No, I don't really believe this is true, but such a statement made by a senior government official always brings out the worst in me; it begs for this kind of response.)
At this late date, the United States also has no viable options or alternatives other than trying to go forward with the Jan. 30 elections, analysts say.

"I don't think they're thinking of a Plan B. What they have is permutations of Plan A: You go for elections, hope for the best and if it doesn't materialize, you go with whatever emerges -- probably a heavily Shiite government," said Henri J. Barkey, a former State Department Iraq specialist who is now head of Leheigh University's International Relations Department. "Then you hope that this new government will be smart enough and enlightened enough to make an outreach to the Sunnis."
So the fate of Iraq rests on the hope that the largely Shiite government will be magnanimous? Before I respond to that, I should mention this op/ed piece in the Times by Thomas Friedman, whose opinion I respect more than that of pretty much anyone in the current administration. He strongly supports elections at the end of the month.
I totally disagree with those who argue that the Jan. 30 Iraqi elections should be postponed. Their main argument is that an Iraqi election that ensconces the Shiite majority in power, without any participation of the Sunni minority, will sow the seeds of civil war.

That is probably true - but we are already in a civil war in Iraq. That civil war was started by the Sunni Baathists, and their Islamist fascist allies from around the region, the minute the U.S. toppled Saddam. And they started that war not because they felt the Iraqi elections were going to be rigged, but because they knew they weren't going to be rigged.

They started the war not to get their fair share of Iraqi power, but in hopes of retaining their unfair share. Under Saddam, Iraq's Sunni minority, with only 20 percent of the population, ruled everyone.
Despite my seventh rule, we have a much greater chance of producing a decent outcome in Iraq by appealing to the self-interest of the Kurds and the Shiites to be magnanimous in victory, than we do of getting the fascist insurgents to be magnanimous in defeat.
He makes a good point - that Iraq is already in a civil war - but I think it could get worse. I agree that a significant portion of the Sunnis want a return to the good old days, with a disproportionate amount of power. On the other hand, if the Sunnis have practically no power after the elections, almost the entire Sunni population will become hostile to the new government.

The 'seventh rule' he mentions is: In Middle East politics there is rarely a happy medium. When one side is weak, it will tell you, "How can I compromise?" And the minute it becomes strong, it will tell you, "Why should I compromise?". Friedman is optimistic, but I doubt that the Shiites will be generous after the elections, particularly since they've been repressed by the Sunni minority for so long. Again, I'm praying I'm wrong; stories like this are reason for optimism.

And in other good news from the Iraq, it has apparently been decided that American troops should not be present in force around polling booths. This is to reassure Iraqis who fear America may intervene/interfere with the results. Has the lack of security been deemed unimportant? Perhaps I'm just sniping needlessly at the government; I trust the commanders on the ground will provide security without a needlessly overt presence at the booths.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

More Bad News from Iraq

The New York Times is carrying two pieces on the forthcoming elections in Iraq.
There are mysterious knocks on his door at night. His friends ask him not to visit. He declines to allow even his first name to be published. This shadowy figure, a young Sunni Muslim from Baghdad, is neither spy nor criminal.
The young man being described is an election worker. Faced with death threats, violent attacks, often murder, Iraqi election workers are "functioning like a political underground", according to an official of the Electoral Council. Many of them believe in democracy, but are resigning now that their families have become targets.

Prime Minister Allawi acknowledges publically that there are provinces which are unsafe for voting, but all the authorities can do is hope that the situation improves by the end of the month. President Bush says that 14 out of 18 provinces are safe, but does not admit that the other 4 (Baghdad, Nineveh, Anbar and Salahadin) contain over half the population of Iraq. Lt. Gen. Metz., the commander of American ground troops, says that he is "not in good shape to hold elections today." Given the length of the American occupation, what reason is there to believe that coalition forces will achieve in two weeks what they have not been able to do in over a year?

The Times editorial is advocating a postponement of elections, and this may not be a bad idea. It may feel like giving in to the terrorists, but reasonably fair elections six months from now are infinitely preferable to a bungled job in seventeen days. The authorities are not even sure whether all the polling stations in the 'Sunni heartland' will be open! Considering that poll booth capturing by armed attackers occurs in India (with a history of over fifty years of democracy, an army deployed during elections, and no popular support for terrorists/naxalites), it's only reasonable to expect the same sort of thing on a much larger scale in Iraq. If the elections are held at the end of this month, it is probable that the Sunnis will feel disenfranchised en masse. The consequences of that are frightening; a civil war becomes a very real possibility. American forces may begin leaving Iraq some time after the elections; if they cut-and-run, Iraq could descend into chaos.

I hate to be a prophet of doom, but I'm profoundly depressed at what's happening in Iraq. I would love to be proved wrong, but I doubt I will be. I can only hope that something remarkable happens in the next fortnight, though I fear that nothing short of divine intervention will make a difference.

In other news, I found this Reuters article about a propaganda video made by Iraqi insurgents, via American Leftist. The makers of the video portray themselves (and they may be justified) as nationalist freedom fighters, not foreign terrorists. The true Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, they allege, were the sanctions and the Oil-for-Food program. Unlike many other videos that have been released, this does not show soldiers being brutally murdered. Instead, a single voice explains calmly (and in English) why 'the resistance' is fighting, their beliefs and their goals. As a result, it is far more effective propaganda than anything I've seen from Iraq. Parts of their message:
We have not crossed the oceans and seas to occupy Britain or the U.S. nor are we responsible for 9/11... We thank all those, including those in Britain and the US, who took to the streets in protest against this war... We also thank France, Germany and other states for their positions, which we need to say are considered wise and valid until now... We ask you to form a world-wide front against war... Know that by helping the Iraqi people, you are helping yourselves, for tomorrow may bring the same destruction to you... To the American soldiers, we say, "Go back to your homes, families and your loved ones. This is not your war, nor are you fighting for a true cause in Iraq."

Of course, parts of it are needlessly jingoistic and Anti-American, but it's fairly well done, overall; at the very least, it makes 'the enemy' seem more human. I do not condone the action of the Iraqi guerrillas, but I do hope more people realise that most of the fighters in Iraq today are not hardened terrorists with an unreasoning hatred for all things American; they were once people just like you and me.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Good luck to Palestine

Since I'm awake and blogging, I figured I should mention the recent Palestinian elections. I'm very glad Mahmoud Abbas won with a significant mandate; his moderate message and desire for peace lead me to hope the conflict will begin to diminish. (I'm too much of a pessimist to hope it will end, at least in the near future.)

Israel's willingness to work with him and President Bush's invitation to Washington are very positive signs. I like the president's remarks on the subject:
"It is essential that Israel keep a vision of two states living side-by-side in peace, and that as the Palestinians begin to develop the institutions of a state, that the Israel government support the development of those institutions," Mr. Bush said at the White House.
Not particularly profound, perhaps, but something worth remembering.

The only thing that bothered me was the turnout. For a surprisingly long time after the results were declared, none of the reports I read gave figures. I wondered why, but the Times reports that "The Palestinian Central Elections Commission declined to give a figure for the percentage of eligible voters who cast ballots." It's not that bad, though; over half the registered voters showed up, though if the unregistered voters (who were still permitted to vote) are included, the turnout drops to less than 50%.

Israel is no longer "the region's only democracy." Palestine may now count itself as one, as one of Mr. Abbas' allies said. I fear the forthcoming elections in Iraq will not add a third democracy, though; reports from there are very discouraging.

Re-implementing life

This is incredibly cool. Tom Knight, Drew Endy and others at MIT are working on Synthetic Biology:"specifying every bit of DNA that goes into an organism to determine its form and function in a controlled, predictable way, like etching a microprocessor or building a bridge."

I kind of like the idea of an engineering approach to Biology: while future applications might include things like the mass production of rare drugs or mineral extraction, students at MIT this year are going to focus on building a simple counter. In true engineering style, Endy and Knight came up with Biobricks, a set of standard building blocks (a library of parts, if you will) with a consistent interface. Instead of voltage or current, they are using the rate at which RNA polymerase (which transcribes DNA) moves along the component.

Of course there are ethical issues that will have to be resolved. Eventually, techniques similar to the ones used here may be used to modify the genomes of plants and animals. On the plus side, complete synthesis of genomes (instead of modifications to existing genomes) could allow us to create organisms fundamentally different from any known today, minimizing the risk that they could interact with the environment in undesirable ways. In any event, the fact that science is capable of such things is profoundly exciting.

Via Slashdot.

Monday, January 10, 2005

If you ever need legal help...

... don't go to Guy Womack. Spc. Charles A. Graner, the first soldier being prosecuted for the atrocities in Abu Ghraib, is unfortunate enough to have Mr. Womack as his lawyer at court martial.
Using naked and hooded detainees to make a human pyramid was much like what cheerleaders "all over America" do at football games, the lawyer, Guy Womack, argued. Putting naked prisoners on leashes was much like what parents in airports and malls do with their toddlers: "They're not being abused," the lawyer told the jury of 10 soldiers, "they're being kept in control."

On the other hand, after what Graner did, he probably deserves this kind of incompetent attorney. I hope that all the guilty soldiers are punished severely. (Note that this is not necessarily the same as the set of soldiers accused of crimes. I'm fairly sure at least some of the senior offenders have managed to escape charges, and it's possible that some of their subordinates are being blamed unfairly.)

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Writing for Children

Part of my New Year's resolution about blogging was that I would try to avoid consecutive negative posts. It's difficult when you read things like this right after blogging about Alberto Gonzales. I'll leave it to people like Democracy for Virginia to write about Virginia's ridiculous proposed bill requiring women who suffer miscarriages to report it to the police within 12 hours, failing which they could be imprisoned for upto a year and fined $2500 for their heinous crime. This ranks as a class 1 misdemeanour, along with statutory rape, arson, stalking, and bomb threats by minors. (Considering that you intend to leave it to other people to tell the story, you managed to write quite a bit! - ed.)

What I am going to blog about, then, is C.S. Lewis' wonderful essay On Three Ways of Writing for Children. I read this in Cleveland; it was appended to a lovely edition of The Chronicles of Narnia. He explains why good writing for children is good writing for adults, which is why we enjoy at fifty the stories we enjoyed at twelve. The essay is such a gem that I went out and bought the book because I had to have it, and couldn't find it anywhere on the Internet. If it weren't copyrighted, I would host it myself. As it is, I've typed in a large part of it to email to friends, but beyond that, I cannot in good conscience call it personal or fair use. What I can do, though, is to reproduce the conclusion:
Once in a hotel dining-room I said, rather too loudly, "I loathe prunes." "So do I," came an unexpected six-year-old voice from another table. Sympathy was instantaneous. Neither of us thought it funnny. We both knew that prunes are far too nasty to be funny. That is the proper meeting between man and child as independent personalities. Of the far higher and more difficult relations between child and parent or child and teacher, I say nothing. An author, as a mere author, is outside all that. He is not even an uncle. He is a freeman and an equal, like the postman, the butcher, and the dog next door.

Readers are invited to name their 3 favourite children's books (or series, or authors) which still appeal greatly to them. Only books written for children count; not books which you happened to enjoy as a child because you were precocious. The 3 I'll list are (not necessarily my favourites, and in no particular order):
1. The Chronicles of Narnia themselves
2. Most (if not all) of Edith Nesbit's work
3. Richmal Crompton's William books

What are yours?

Friday, January 07, 2005

Ashcroft's sucessor

I must confess I was thrilled when John Ashcroft's resignation from the post of Attorney-General was announced. Unfortunately, Alberto Gonzales doesn't seem to be much better. The New York Times has a few editorials on the subject.
The Associated Press headline that came over the wire yesterday said it all: "Gonzales Will Follow Non-Torture Policies."

You know how bad the situation is when the president's choice for attorney general has to formally pledge not to support torture anymore.
Unfortunately, that seems to be one of the few direct answers he gave; the rest of his Senate hearing was marked by evasion. This Post editorial describes it further.
At the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearing on his nomination to be attorney general, Mr. Gonzales repeatedly was offered the chance to repudiate a legal judgment that the president is empowered to order torture in violation of U.S. law and immunize torturers from punishment. He declined to do so. He was invited to reject a 2002 ruling made under his direction that the infliction of pain short of serious physical injury, organ failure or death did not constitute torture. He answered: "I don't have a disagreement with the conclusions then reached." Nor did he condemn torture techniques, such as simulated drowning, that were discussed and approved during meetings in his office. "It is not my job," he said, to decide if they were proper.

Also, he claimed to have forgotten his role in the policy on the treatment of prisoners. How can one forget something like that? This is the man who believes "Cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment of prisoners is not necessarily torture." In a Jan. 25, 2002, memo to Bush, Gonzales said the new war on terror "renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners."
This says it all: In response to the question of whether US personnel could legally engage in torture under any circumstances, , Gonzales didn't give an unequivocal "No." Instead, he said, "I don't believe so, but I'd want to get back to you on that."

(Retired) General Wesley Clark had it right in this Hardball interview. "How", he asks, "can the American people have confidence in a man like Gonzales after what he's written for the President of the United States?"

There's no reason to hope he won't be confirmed by the Senate, so there's probably no point my complaining about it. I had hoped the president would select as Attorney General a man known for his integrity, someone who would uphold the law regardless of inconvenience to the adminstration. Instead, we get a man with 'an inspiring life story', a man whose most positive quality is loyalty to the President.

Stuffed Omelettes!

Everything I wanted to blog about is ridiculously depressing; NOT how I wanted to begin the new year. So our first post is on a subject I've never touched before: cooking. Considering I couldn't cook at all before coming to Champaign-Urbana, it's remarkable how much I enjoy it now. I was feeling slightly out-of-sorts, so I decided to try something different for dinner. We've been eating a fair amount of chicken and fish lately, so I decided to try omelettes with a completely vegetarian stuffing: a mushroom persillade. I was improvising, but they came out fairly well; perhaps I'll experiment a little more sometime. For now, though, here's the recipe, meant to serve 3:

6 eggs (2 per omelette. 3 each is entirely reasonable, but my roommates would have none of it!)
4-6 tablespoons of cubed mushrooms
1 clove garlic, chopped fine
1 tablespoon shallots, chopped fine
3 tablespoons of chopped parsley
1 tablespoon butter
a hint of chives (added at the last minute for no discernible reason)
Salt and pepper to taste. (I thought half a teaspoon of salt per omelette would be excessive, but it turned out just right.)

Blend the persillade ingredients: parsley, garlic and shallots. Melt the butter in a skillet, and add the mushrooms and persillade. Saute for a few minutes, stirring well, and take the mix off the fire.
For each omelette, beat the eggs with salt and pepper, and add the chives. The manner of adding the stuffing depends on your skillet and personal preferences. If you have a reasonably large skillet, you probably want to add oil and heat it well; the omelette will cook in seconds. If so, add a third of the mushroom persillade to the beaten eggs and mix well before pouring the eggs onto the pan.
Our omelette skillet is too small for this technique to work well when cooking more than a single egg. What works for me is to add the eggs to the skillet when the oil is not too hot, immediately followed by the mushroom persillade.
The rest is standard omelette mechanics; remember to serve hot!

I'm back...

... in town after a wonderful holiday, and back to serious blogging. This post is merely for updates on my life for everyone who asked.

I was in Seattle for Christmas, where I spent time with my cousins Rohan and Susan. From Seattle, I went to Cleveland, where I celebrated New Year's day with Natasha and Jesse. (Actually, I seem to recall we celebrated every day but New Year's; we got up that morning, a little disgruntled at the lack of a church service, drove around Cleveland until we realized that every place we wanted to go was closed for the holiday, then went back and vegetated on the couch until dinner.) Actually, I seemed to eat and sleep through most of the holiday... exactly what I needed after a hectic semester and the nightmare that was grading the CS 225 final.

One of the highlights of the trip was learning to play golf; another was The Incredibles (and, of course, Bouncin'). Spanglish was nowhere near as good. Still better was the quantity of shopping I got done; I came back to Champaign-Urbana with over 20 books, 2 paintings now on display in my living room, a dart board, and a miniature foosball table, among other things. Best of all was the time spent with family I hadn't been with in a long time.

Two New Year's resolutions
1. To post here more often!
2. To be more grateful for the wonderful people in my life... my family (all of whom came through the Tsunami okay in spite of being in affected areas; a cousin and his wife had a very near escape.) and friends. I'm not going to list all their names and risk leaving someone out by accident; you all know who you are, and you should also know that I love you very much.

I think I'll move on to some serious posts before this gets any more sentimental. Happy New Year, everyone!