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Monthly Archives: April 2009

Predator versus prey

April 26th, 2009 - 2:40 am

One of the questions raised by the Craigslist Murder was why the suspect might have done it. Silly question, says Kate Harding of Salon, who argues that the suspect currently in custody fits the profile of a sociopathic serial killer perfectly. It’s just that we’re too biased to notice.

one very good reason why a young woman might not be able to believe such a thing of her clean-cut, middle-class, white boyfriend is that every time something like this happens, everybody acts like it’s about the most shocking thing in the world. We somehow forget not only “preppie murderer” Robert Chambers but Ted Bundy, who was famously handsome and charming. We forget that most serial killers are average-looking white dudes no one suspected.

The Salon article’s observation is narrow in its own way. It loses its meaning in societies where the words “clean-cut”, “middle-class”, “white” and even “boyfriend” are undefined, or defined differently. The role bias plays is important but maybe not in the way that Harding thinks. Consider the problem of why we don’t recognize sociopaths more often. A search for terms “sociopath” and “profile” brings up a multitude of articles which attempt to characterize the warning signs of a sociopathic behavior. But if it’s so easy to spot trouble, why do people keep getting into it? How was it, for example, that people didn’t see trouble when they saw Charles Manson?



April 25th, 2009 - 10:41 pm

The character of Bill the Butcher in the movie Gangs of New York explained the secret of power of terrorism. It is the ability to command obedience through fear. Bill explained, “I’m forty-seven. Forty-seven years old. You know how I stayed alive this long? All these years? Fear. The spectacle of fearsome acts. Somebody steals from me, I cut off his hands. He offends me, I cut out his tongue. He rises against me, I cut off his head, stick it on a pike, raise it high up so all on the streets can see. That’s what preserves the order of things. Fear.”

The Taliban understand this principle well. Mohammed Hanif of the BBC has watched his country, Pakistan, simply avert its eyes from the reign of terror. He writes in a Washington Post editorial entitled, My Country, Caving to the Taliban:

The day after Pakistan’s government signed a peace deal with the Taliban allowing them to implement their own version of sharia in the Swat Valley, there was a traffic jam at a square in downtown Mingora, the main town in the region. The square, Green Chowk, has acquired the nickname Khooni Chowk, or Bloody Square, because the Taliban used to string up their victims there. “Look at this.” A shopkeeper pointed to the hubbub. “This is what people wanted, to get out and do business. Take the security forces away, take the Taliban away, and we can get on with our lives.” He, like many Pakistanis, believed that the deal with the Taliban was the only way to stop bullet-riddled bodies from turning up at Khooni Chowk.

Mingora is not a backwater, not part of the Wild West that foreign journalists invoke whenever they talk about the Taliban. It’s bursting with aspiration; it has law schools, a medical college, a nurses’ training institute. There is even a heritage museum. Yet when peace arrived on Feb. 16, all the women vanished. They were not in the streets or in the offices, not even in the bazaar, which sells nothing but fabric, bags, shoes and fashion accessories.

The music market vanished, too. All 400 shops. The owner of one had converted it into a kebab joint. “This is sharia,” he spat at his grill, which hissed with more smoke than fire. Across from his stand, a barber had hung the obligatory “No un-Islamic haircuts, no shaves” sign and was taking an early morning nap, his face covered with a newspaper.

This, I was told, was the price of peace.

What does peace look like? The Guardian obtained a copy of cell phone video being circulated by the Taliban showing what was in store for women who defied sharia, or at least, their understanding of sharia. Video shown below is an example of what Hanif is talking about. But what puzzled Hanif was how things could come to this pass.  “Over the past two years, Pakistani civil society has driven a military dictator from power and managed to force an elected government to restore our top judges to the bench. But when it comes to the Taliban, it seems incapable of speaking with one voice. There is little sense of an impending crisis, just the blithe belief that the Taliban are not as bad as they seem, and that in any case, Pakistan’s fractious government and security services are no match for these men with beards and guns. I hear vague comparisons with the days before the Iranian revolution; the only problem is that we don’t seem to have a Khomeini, at least not yet.”

YouTube Preview Image



April 25th, 2009 - 5:47 pm

The BBC asks whether Iraq is sliding into possible civil war again. “The sudden upsurge of violence in Iraq has set the alarm bells ringing and raised many disturbing questions. Does it mean the situation is sliding back out of control, as US troops prepare to leave Iraqi cities by the end of June and quit Iraq as a whole by 2011?” In order to answer that question there are two pieces of information that would be nice to have.

The most important question is whether enemy morale, after having been broken or severely degraded by the Surge, is now back up again because they feel that victory will eventually be theirs because they calculate that new administration can be hustled out. In other words, have the signals sent by the Obama administration breathed new life into enemy calculations? This possibility was indirectly given credence by the statements of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The BBC says, “During her visit to Iraq on Saturday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the US troop drawdown would be carried out “responsibly and carefully”, and that Washington would ensure that the Iraqis had the tools they needed to ensure they had a secure country.” Then having taken care of that problem, Clinton turned around and sent another signal. “But she made it clear that the US remained committed to having its troops out of the country altogether in the next two years. In other words, the strategic goal remains the same, but withdrawal tactics might be flexible to ensure no dangerous vacuums were left and that Iraqi forces were up to the task.”

Even without the realistic expectation that they could reverse events, it would be natural for the enemy, like a boxer who has been beaten to a pulp, to finish with a flurry near the closing bell to plausibly claim victory. After all, if the US is certain to leave in 2 years there would be every incentive to chain up suicide attacks on innocent civilians to the limit of their capabilities. That would have no military significance, but it would enable al-Qaeda in Iraq to claim that they “drove out” the hated Americans.



April 25th, 2009 - 3:23 pm

Jacob Zuma won the Presidency of South Africa, but neither as narrowly as the opposition predicted nor by as large as a margin as the ANC formerly enjoyed. All Africa focused on the setbacks inside of Zuma’s victory.

Cape Town — The ruling African National Congress (ANC) has won South Africa’s national election with a slightly reduced majority, narrowly failing to achieve the two-thirds majority that would enable it to change the country’s Constitution unilaterally. Although the party lost votes across the board in most provinces, the losses were largely offset by a dramatic leap in support in KwaZulu-Natal, home province of the ANC’s leader, Jacob Zuma – at the expense of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).

But in the Western Cape, centred on Cape Town, the ANC suffered as calamitous a setback as did the IFP in KwaZulu-Natal, losing control of the province to the official opposition, the Democratic Party.

The Online Times noted however, that opposition scenarios predicting an ANC meltdown did not eventuate. “The ANC’s victory was never in doubt, but most pundits expected widespread voter disgruntlement to result in a sharply reduced majority. In the event, the share of the vote was down – from 69.7% in 2004 to 65.9%, just short of a two-thirds majority – but the lead was decisive.”

The South African Times, in a post election editorial, articulated the concerns on both sides. “We hope he will quickly stamp out the nascent personality cult building around him … For the third of South Africa that did not elect the ANC, the challenge is to put aside past resentments and judge the Zuma government on its actions, and accord his high office the respect it demands. As the new executive begins to submit policy proposals, the opposition must assess them fairly, criticise as necessary and support as appropriate. This newspaper denies none of its concerns about Zuma’s ascent, but respects the will and judgment of the majority. We will monitor the new government with the same rigorous scrutiny that has underpinned all our reporting and analysis.”

And: is Jacob Zuma Mr. X?

Spam settings

April 25th, 2009 - 3:08 pm

The spam filter has been filtering out a number of regular commenters. I am looking at the issue now.

While other monsters roamed the earth

April 24th, 2009 - 4:20 pm

Meanwhile, who cares about the security of Pakistani nukes, the Taliban or al-Qaeda. Global Warming is the greatest threat facing mankind today! The UK’s chief scientific adviser, David King, said that ‘climate change’ was a far greater threat to the world than international terrorism. Meghan Cox Gurdon, writing in the Wall Street Journal, says that today’s well educated child has nightmares about her father ordering seared tuna in a restaurant, not experiencing a dirty bomb in New York City.

Susceptible children are left in no doubt that we’re all headed for a despoiled, immiserated future unless they start planting pansies in their old shoes, using dryer lint as mulch, and practicing periodic vegetarianism. Not surprisingly, many young people are anxious. The more impressionable among them are coming to believe that their smallest decisions could have catastrophic effects on the globe. This, of course, is nonsense, unless their smallest decision involves tipping vats of mercury into forest streams. But they’re children, for goodness’ sake: They tend to believe what adults tell them — minus the nuance.

Thus we have the spectacle of a 12-year-old becoming distraught when her father orders seared tuna at a restaurant (this happened to a friend of mine), on account of over-fishing, or a 6-year-old (son of an acquaintance) panicking at the prospect of even a yogurt container going into the trash: “But I can use it as a toy!”

Gurdon reviews the burgeoning industry in Green-themed children’s books where “young readers are asked to sympathize with environmentalists who thwart businessmen, even when the good guys take destructive measures such as sinking boats or torching billboards. … yet there is something culturally impoverished about insisting that children join in the adult preoccupation with reducing, reusing and recycling. Can they not have a precious decade or so to soar in imaginative literature before we drag them back down to earth?” It’s under the earth Ms. Gurdon. A crucial difference.


April 24th, 2009 - 3:43 pm

The Times Online says the administration is now pressing Islamabad to fight after its disastrous peace agreement with the Taliban in the NWFP inaugurated a pell-mell retreat. Secretary of State Clinton and senior diplomat Richard Holbrooke urged Pakistan not to abdicate to the Islamic extremists as they moved closer to the capital itself. Meanwhile, Bill Roggio, who has been warning against the peace deal with the Taliban from the beginning, notes that Pakistani Rangers have been deployed on the outskirts of Islamabad.

Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, accused Pakistan this week of “abdicating to the Taleban”, which “poses a mortal threat to the security and safety of our country and the world”. … Mrs Clinton’s remarks followed a recent deal between Mr Zardari and the Taleban in the Swat Valley, allowing them to establish a fundamentalist enclave in the former tourist area in exchange for laying down their arms.

The Taleban have not disarmed, and this week its fighters poured out of Swat into the neighbouring district of Buner, taking control of government buildings and digging in at strategic positions around the major towns.

However, the administration itself has been talking about negotiating with the moderate Taliban for some time. Carlotta Gall, writing in the New York Times, said last month that preliminary talks had already begun. “Even as President Obama floated the idea of negotiating with moderate elements of the Taliban, Afghan and foreign officials here said that preliminary discussions with the Taliban leadership were already under way and could be developed into more formal talks with the support of the United States.” While it is difficult to equate the Pakistani agreement with any that Washington is contemplating, the Pakistani experience underscores how badly wrong ‘peace deals’ can go.

Bill Roggio says that military sources are astounded at the speed with which Pakistani resistance has collapsed. Some of his sources suggested that Pakistan lost an opportunity to defeat the Taliban and by turning to a policy of appeasement snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. While things could still be turned around, it meant the road back would be longer and harder than ever.

A senior intelligence official said the lack of response by the Pakistani government and military ensures a bloody fight. “The longer the state has deferred taking the Taliban head on, the stronger the Taliban has gotten,” the official said. “Any attempt to put the Taliban genie back in the bottle will result a major bloodbath. Assuming the Pakistanis make an effort to defend themselves, that is.”

The rout began with an ill-conceived peace agreement with the Taliban. The collapse of the Pakistani efforts to contain them unfolded with shocking speed. Roggio writes:


The Twelve Monkeys

April 24th, 2009 - 12:47 pm

Barney Frank’s oscillating views on housing (shown in video after the Read More) underscore the question of whether anyone saw the housing bubble and the subprime mortgage crisis coming. After all, if the primary purpose of additional proposed regulatory oversight, the control, the ‘accountability’ of the new managed capitalism is to ‘prevent’ a similar occurence, then events like the subprime crisis have to be detectable in principle while they are still in the offing.  Legal researchers are trying to settle the question of whether the meltdown was predictable because the success of class-action suits depends to a large extent on it. If events like the meltdown are not predictable then no bureaucracy is going to be able to prevent it.

This paper explores the economic and legal causes and consequences of the 2007-2008 credit crisis. We provide basic descriptive statistics and institutional details on the mortgage origination process, mortgage-backed securities (MBS), and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). We examine a number of aspects of these markets, including the identity of MBS and CDO sponsors, CDO trustees, CDO liquidations, MBS insured and registered amounts, the evolution of MBS tranche structure over time, mortgage originations, underwriting quality of mortgage originations, and writedowns of the commercial and investment banks. We discuss the financial difficulties faced by investment and commercial banks. In light of this discussion, the paper then addresses questions as to whether these difficulties might have been foreseen, and some of the main legal issues that will play an important role in the extensive litigation (summarized in the paper) that is underway, including the Rule 10b-5 class-action lawsuits that have already been filed against the banks, pending ERISA litigation, the causes-of-action available to MBS and CDO purchasers, and litigation against the rating agencies. In the course of this discussion, the paper discusses three principles that will likely prove central in the resolution of the securities class-action litigation: (1) “no fraud by hindsight”; (2) “truth on the market”; and (3) “loss causation.”

It is argued that certain events cannot be foreseen. Niall Ferguson observed that  the bond markets did not anticipate the First World War, which he called “a bolt from the blue”. “The main question addressed is why political events appeared to affect the world’s biggest financial market, the London bond market, much less between 1881 and 1914 than they had between 1843 and 1880. In particular, I ask why the outbreak of the First World War, an event traditionally seen as having been heralded by a series of international crises, was not apparently anticipated by investors. … To investors, the First World War truly came as a bolt from the blue.” These events have been called Black Swans.

However Naseem Taleb himself, the author of the Black Swan, believes that subprime crisis was entirely foreseeable: that it was not a Black Swan. Taleb told Bryan Appleyard about his repeated warnings and his Cassandra-like reception. “Bankers and economists scorned and raged at Taleb. He didn’t understand, they said. A few months later, the full global implications of the sub-prime-driven credit crunch became clear. The world banking system still teeters on the edge of meltdown. Taleb had been vindicated. ‘It was my greatest vindication. But to me that wasn’t a black swan; it was a white swan. I knew it would happen and I said so. It was a black swan to Ben Bernanke [the chairman of the Federal Reserve]. I wouldn’t use him to drive my car. These guys are dangerous. They’re not qualified in their own field.’”

So which bureaucrat or bureaucracy is going to be any better? One led by Barney Frank?

Pakistan’s. The Dawn is describing the pell-mell retreat that followed the government’s negotiatated agreement with Islamists. The province of Swat is now doubtful and the retreat continues towards Islamabad. The Dawn asks what happens if “the center cannot hold”.

The instrument of surrender in Swat was more or less unanimously endorsed following a perfunctory parliamentary debate — and even that gesture appeared to spook the Awami National Party and its leader, Asfandyar Wali Khan, who threatened to pull the ANP out of its alliance with Zardari’s PPP in the event of the bill being presented for discussion to the National Assembly. There appears to be a relatively simple explanation for the ANP’s nervousness: it is very, very scared of the Taliban and their allies. Which says a lot about the state of affairs in the NWFP. …

‘The government,’ according to a report in The Guardian at the weekend, ‘is urging foreign embassies to move into a diplomatic enclave that may soon resemble Baghdad’s green zone.’ Almost everyone acknowledges, however, that adequate precautions against suicide bombers are hardly feasible. The vulnerabilities of Lahore and Karachi — to say nothing of Quetta and Peshawar — have already been demonstrated, while the likes of Baitullah Mehsud are free to hold press conferences, evidently with little fear of interception.


Notes from all around

April 23rd, 2009 - 6:29 pm
  • Gunfire exchanged on Georgia-South Ossetia border‏ — “The reported shootings occurred before talks with international monitors Thursday on efforts to diffuse tensions in the region following last year’s war between Georgia and Russia, which backs South Ossetia.”
  • Ray guns: not science fiction any more — First comes the crackle, then the pop. “The technology … uses an ultra-short pulse laser to create an ionized channel through the air; down this channel, you can then send bursts of energy. It’ll conduct electricity. And it can also act as a waveguide for an intense pulse of microwaves. These could be used to destroy the fuze of a roadside bomb, fry the electronics of a missile, or burn out the ignition on any unshielded vehicle.”
  • “Spengler” outs himself. The masked man of the Asia Times tells the world who he is. You would never have guessed what he was. It’s further proof of the power of the Internet to push writers and ideas to the front where they would never have prospered otherwise.