Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Holiday Break

I'll be taking a break from blogging in order to travel and unwind. Please stop back by around the first of the year.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 11, 2006

Ten Favorites

Before I take a break from blogging--and from just about everything else--for the holidays, I thought I might post a list of my favorite books from this past year. Just to be clear, not all of the books on this list were published in 2006. They just happened to be among the books I read over the course of the past twelve months.

  1. James Carroll, House of War
  2. George Packer, The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq
  3. Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism
  4. Chris Hedges, War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning
  5. Moisés Naím, Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers, and Copycats are Hijacking the Global Economy
  6. Philippe Sands, Lawless World
  7. Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism
  8. Ron Suskind, The One Percent Doctrine
  9. Richard T. Hughes, Myths America Lives By
  10. Stephen Walt, Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy

There's not a lot of pleasure reading on this list. Two books that ranked high in my "just for fun" category were a brief and very readable work by historian Paul Johnson, The Renaissance, and a trip back to Charlottesville via the words of Garry Wills, Mr. Jefferson's University.

I think I'll need to work a little more fiction into my reading diet in 2007.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Parking and Corruption

The New York Times Magazine today published its "Ideas" issue--a fascinating compendium of studies and cultural observations from the past year. An interesting entry in this issue reviewed a study published during the summer by two economists, Raymond Fisman of Columbia and Edward Miguel of UC-Berkeley.

Fisman and Miguel decided to see if there was a correlation between the behavior of diplomats at the United Nations in New York and the level of corruption in the countries they represent. More specifically, they asked whether diplomats from countries ranking high on indices of official corruption were more likely to exploit their diplomatic immunity by parking illegally on New York's crowded streets. Here's an extended excerpt of the Magazine's summary:

The two scholars studied parking tickets that were racked up in Manhattan by diplomats from 146 countries who were posted to the United Nations. In a situation in which every diplomat essentially received an invitation to be corrupt, diplomats from nations with "clean" governments said, "No, thanks."

The study began with the observation that, until late 2002, there was essentially zero enforcement of parking rules where diplomats were concerned. Diplomats were ticketed, but few if any cars were towed, and no one demanded payment. Using public records stretching back to 1997, Fisman and Miguel identified which diplomats had delinquent tickets, and how many --150,000 in all, representing more than $18 million in fines.

If incentives trumped culture, you would suppose that diplomats from every nation would cheat. But in fact, attachés from Canada, Ireland, Scandinavian nations and Japan evidently drove around the block till they found a spot. (Diplomats with few or no unpaid tickets also tended to get few tickets, period.) The worst offenders, meanwhile, came from Kuwait (246 unpaid tickets per diplomat), Egypt, Chad, Sudan, Bulgaria, Mozambique, Albania, Angola and Senegal. This behavior correlated strongly with the scores of diplomats' home countries on a measure of public corruption compiled by World Bank researchers.

I'm hoping to conduct a similar study of the correlates of students who park illegally in the faculty lot at Pepperdine next semester.

Human Rights Day 2006

Augusto Pinochet has died--on Human Rights Day.

Pinochet, who ruled Chile for seventeen years after ousting democratically elected president Salvador Allende, voiced the aspirations of authoritarian dictators everywhere when he said, "Not a leaf moves in this country if I'm not moving it."

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Killer Smog

With smoke from brush fires clouding the skies over much of southeastern Australia, it's worth recalling the Great Smog of 1952. It was on December 9, 1952, that the Great Smog finally lifted in London. An educational site maintained by the Met Office in London states:

The smoke-laden fog that shrouded the capital from Friday 5 December to Tuesday 9 December 1952 brought premature death to thousands and inconvenience to millions. An estimated 4,000 people died because of it, and cattle at Smithfield, were, the press reported, asphyxiated. Road, rail and air transport were almost brought to a standstill and a performance at the Sadler's Wells Theatre had to be suspended when fog in the auditorium made conditions intolerable for the audience and performers.

The spike in deaths due to the Great Smog was noticed only three weeks later when official mortality figures were published. The awareness that several thousand people had died for reasons directly related to air pollution, however, made a difference in public policy. Eric Nagourney of the New York Times writes,

The Great Smog is considered a turning point in environmental history. Although there had been other episodes where air pollution was held responsible for a spike in deaths--notably in the Meuse Valley in Belgium in 1930, and in Donora, Pa., in 1948--the numbers were much lower than those in London. In the aftermath, British officials passed laws banning the emission of black smoke and requiring industry to switch to cleaner-burning fuels.

These laws gradually produced dramatic reductions in some of the more unhealthy components of London's famous fog.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Trouble in Iran

If Iran has a special prosecutor, he may be needed to investigate President Ahmadinejad soon. According to this story from the Guardian earlier this week, Ahmadinejad watched females dancing during the opening ceremonies of the Asian Games in Doha, Qatar last Friday. Conservative religious leaders in Iran are not happy.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Blood Diamonds

Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Connelly, and Djimon Hounsou, opens on Friday. Pepperdine student Christina Tippitt, who has seen an advance screening, recommends the film enthusiastically.

Back on September 18, Amnesty International sponsored a National Day of Action on Conflict Diamonds during which AI members conducted surveys in 246 diamond retailers in eighteen states. Here are some of the results from that survey:

  • Only 27% of shops were able assure us that they had a policy on conflict diamonds.
  • 30% of the shops that said they had a policy were unable to produce a hard copy of or explain it.
  • Only 13% of shops provided warranties to their customers as a standard practice.
  • 37% of the shops we visited claimed to be aware of the conflict diamonds issue. But 54% of them reported an inaccurate definition of the crisis.
  • Only 28% of the shops were aware of the Kimberley Process.
  • 29% of those who were aware of the Kimberley Process had only a minimal or limited understanding of it.
  • When asked whether consumers inquired about conflict diamonds, 83% of respondents answered rarely or never.
  • 110 shops refused outright to take the survey.

If you have a chance to see the movie, come on back here and leave a comment about it.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Million Dollar Trials

According to the Miami Herald, the Pentagon has proposed diverting $75 to $125 million dollars in already appropriated military construction funds to Guantanamo for a courtroom complex where military commissions would conduct trials for 75 to 80 of the 430 or so remaining prisoners at the base. I could be wrong, but that appears to come to roughly $1 million per trial.

Even some Republican members of Congress are asking questions.

[Via Kevin Drum.]

Good Questions

Someone in the White House press corps raised some very good questions at yesterday's press briefing:


Q I have a question about the Rumsfeld memo. At the time when he was saying to the President, in this memo, that things aren't working in Iraq, the President was saying two things publicly: One, that we're winning in Iraq, absolutely; and he was also lashing Democrats, saying that criticism was not a plan for Iraq, and that we -- the administration -- have a plan for victory in Iraq. So why wasn't the President leveling with the American people?

MR. SNOW: Actually, at the time that this came --

Q Why wasn't he saying publicly what top members of this administration who were running the war were saying privately?

MR. SNOW: Well, there are a couple of things. First, at that very time, he was actually saying, things are not getting well enough fast enough. That was a formulation he was using at the time. If you take a look at the Rumsfeld memo that was printed in The New York Times, what you end up having is what the President I think has made it clear that he wants, which are people thinking creatively and exhaustively about ways of getting better results in Iraq.

And this is not -- other than at the very beginning, he says, clearly U.S. forces -- it's not working well enough or fast enough, what they're doing. That is a phrase that the President had adopted and had been using. And I don't know whether it comes from Secretary Rumsfeld or from the President. And then you have a list of options.

So I don't think you've got a case where the President was saying one thing and advisors were saying another. What the President was saying is that you've got a sovereign government with the government of Prime Minister Maliki that is pursuing what it needs to pursue, but obviously needs to be doing so more effectively and more rapidly. And that would include security. It would include reconciliation. It would include economic measures. It would include things like the hydrocarbon law. So certainly we weren't trying to wrap it up into a neat little bundle, because it's a very complex situation.

Q But doesn't it strike you that at the same time that you and others in this administration were accusing the likes of John Murtha of cutting and running by suggesting redeployment of forces to the periphery of Iraq or to nearby Kuwait, that the Secretary of Defense is suggesting similar options?

MR. SNOW: What Mr. Murtha had suggested was -- he was never quite that specific, and I think I'd let him speak for himself, but I believe when he came on "Meet the Press," he was talking about redeploying to Okinawa. What you have in here is a description of possibly having forces --

Q But that's not the -- he talked about redeploying to Kuwait. You say you don't want to talk more, but you're not talking accurately.

MR. SNOW: No, here's what he says, is, "You can withdraw forces from vulnerable positions -- cities, patrolling, et cetera -- and move forces to a quick reaction force status operating from within Iraq and Kuwait." Now, it is one of many options that are described here. What it means is the administration is trying to take a look at every suggestion, as I think would be incumbent.

Q Wait a second. You're not really answering the question. You're trying to parse what Murtha's position was.

MR. SNOW: No, I'm not --

Q Wait a second, let me just finish.

MR. SNOW: Okay.

Q Isn't it striking that this administration was accusing the likes of John Murtha and other Democrats who suggested course correction, including phased withdrawal, of cutting and running --

MR. SNOW: No, let me --

Q -- at the same time that the Defense Secretary was suggesting just the same option?


Q You don't see hypocrisy there?

MR. SNOW: No, because you're talking about apples and oranges. If you take a look at --

Q Really?

Hit the Road, John

John Bolton has finally resigned. And President Bush has finally accepted the fact that Bolton was never going to be confirmed by the Senate.

Commenting on Bolton's departure, Kofi Annan spoke, well, diplomatically: "As a representative of the U.S. government he pressed ahead with the instructions that he had been given, and tried to work as effectively as he could with the other ambassadors."

The faintest of praise.

For more, see the Bolton Watch, which just might be able to hang it up now.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Spying and Social Learning

Anyone interested in recent developments in intelligence-gathering (and, even more to the point, intelligence-sharing) must read this article by Clive Thompson published in the New York Times Magazine yesterday. While no brief excerpt can capture the full range of points made in the article, these paragraphs describing an idea presented by Calvin Andrus, chief technology officer of the CIA's Center for Mission Innovation, suggest one of the ways that social learning can be (and, in fact, has been) developed within the intelligence community:

Andrus argued that the real power of the Internet comes from the boom in self-publishing: everyday people surging online to impart their thoughts and views. He was particularly intrigued by Wikipedia, the "reader-authored" encyclopedia, where anyone can edit an entry or create a new one without seeking permission from Wikipedia's owners. This open-door policy, as Andrus noted, allows Wikipedia to cover new subjects quickly. The day of the London terrorist bombings, Andrus visited Wikipedia and noticed that barely minutes after the attacks, someone had posted a page describing them. Over the next hour, other contributors--some physically in London, with access to on-the-spot details--began adding more information and correcting inaccurate news reports. "You could just sit there and hit refresh, refresh, refresh, and get a sort of ticker-tape experience," Andrus told me. What most impressed Andrus was Wikipedia's self-governing nature. No central editor decreed what subjects would be covered. Individuals simply wrote pages on subjects that interested them--and then like-minded readers would add new facts or fix errors. Blogs, Andrus noted, had the same effect: they leveraged the wisdom of the crowd. When a blogger finds an interesting tidbit of news, he posts a link to it, along with a bit of commentary. Then other bloggers find that link and, if they agree it's an interesting news item, post their own links pointing to it. This produces a cascade effect. Whatever the first blogger pointed toward can quickly amass so many links pointing in its direction that it rockets to worldwide notoriety in a matter of hours.

Spies, Andrus theorized, could take advantage of these rapid, self-organizing effects. If analysts and agents were encouraged to post personal blogs and wikis on Intelink--linking to their favorite analyst reports or the news bulletins they considered important--then mob intelligence would take over. In the traditional cold-war spy bureaucracy, an analyst's report lived or died by the whims of the hierarchy. If he was in the right place on the totem pole, his report on Soviet missiles could be pushed up higher; if a supervisor chose to ignore it, the report essentially vanished. Blogs and wikis, in contrast, work democratically. Pieces of intel would receive attention merely because other analysts found them interesting. This grass-roots process, Andrus argued, suited the modern intelligence challenge of sifting through thousands of disparate clues: if a fact or observation struck a chord with enough analysts, it would snowball into popularity, no matter what their supervisors thought.

There's much more in the article, including an extensive discussion of some of the problems that wiki- and blog-related information-sharing pose in an organization in which the need to share information (in order to "connect the dots" when trying to unravel complex plots) must be balanced against the need to keep secrets.

Sunday, December 03, 2006


Today's New York Times traces the strange saga of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko from his investigation of a 1994 attempt on the life of Boris Berezovsky to his death by radiation poisoning last week in a London hospital. It's the stuff of spy novels and TV movies.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Port Calls in Mongolia

Most of the world's dry land would have to be covered by rising seas before Mongolia could come close to having an ocean port. (The country's lowest altitude is 532 meters above sea level.) But Mongolia's position astride some of the world's highest mountains is no barrier to registering ships.

Since 2004, the Mongolian flag has been numbered among the world's flags of convenience for ship owners. There's even a photo of a ship with Mongolian registry at Coming Anarchy.

World AIDS Day, 2006

Today is World AIDS Day. To learn a little about the history of AIDS and about its impact in the world, take a look at this interactive feature on the website of the Toronto Globe and Mail.