Saturday, 15 December 2012

Do the means justify the ends for the right to bear arms?

Joker (Batman)
Photo by Joe Fakih Gomez
Given the recent tragedy in Connecticut, where 20 children were brutally murdered, and given that it followed so soon after the theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado, and the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting (32 dead), the 2009 immigration services shooting in Binghamton, New York (13 dead), the 2012 Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting (6 dead), and so on, the debate about gun control once again comes to the fore.

Some argue that we should not discuss this while mourning, but if this keeps happening, will we ever not be in mourning? A better viewpoint, in my opinion, is wondering how many people have to die before we start asking if there's something we can do about it. If people are dying from salmonella or E.Coli, we immediately demand better food safety, but we're curiously silent about gun safety. The issue is so politically explosive that neither Romney nor Obama were willing to discuss it in the recent presidential election, despite there being multiple high profile assaults with guns during the campaign.

Sadly, the conversation gets derailed over whether or not we should have this right rather than asking what the right itself means. I've written elsewhere about why Americans demand their right to bear arms, but aside from explaining this right to those who are unaware of the cultural background, there's not much I can contribute to this debate. In fact, I won't even try. "And ne'er the twain shall meet" pretty much sums up the problem.

So rather than ask "what should we do", I'll follow along the path of my wife, the political advisor, and ask "what can we do".

When discussing politics, there's a fair amount of debate regarding whether the ends justify the means. It's a fair debate, too. Would it be acceptable to disenfranchise a few people if we had a demonstrably better country for it? Some might reasonably say "yes". Would it be acceptable to disenfranchise everyone if we had a demonstrably better country for it? Some would still say "yes", but most, I suspect, would not. The right to vote is sacred.

However, let's invert the question. Do the means justify the ends? At first this seems non-sensical,  but it makes perfect sense. Even if the vast majority of Americans voted for a constitutional amendment to overturn the second amendment and we had the necessary states ratify the amendment, people still argue strenuously that taking away guns would lead to civil war. Mind you, it's not just the NRA and like-minded folks who argue this; Americans who would love to ban all guns in the United States often admit that this could lead to widespread violence when the government shows up to take people's guns. Even if you feel that guns should be taken away, how many people would have to die before you agreed that it's not feasible? Do your means justify the ends?

So here's an interesting graph, courtesy of the Washington Post:

Image courtesy Washington Post. Claimed under Fair Use laws.

Note that while the overwhelming majority of Americans reject the "No guns, period" option, most Americans support various laws to try to manage this right. Before you cry "you can't take my guns", I have a question to ask: do you think our Founding Fathers, when asserting our right to bear arms (and the legally savvy know that there's a boatload of issues with the 2nd Amendment), would have included nuclear weapons? No? I should be reasonable? Well, how about sarin or anthrax? Those are arms.

Heck, even the "no guns" crowd agrees that exceptions could be made for hunters or for farmers protecting their livestock from wolves or other predators, so on both sides, we have reasonable room for backing away from the most extreme positions.

So in looking at the chart above, we find that the majority of Americans demand their right to bear arms and would not limit individual gun owner but would support:
  • Background checks
  • Banning semi-automatics
  • Banning high-capacity clips
  • No guns for felons, mentally ill
  • Require gun registration
I'm not arguing for or against any of those positions above, but we need to start talking about the problem and looking for solutions. The United States is far and away the most violent of the major industrialized nations and our gun crime is out of control. There are those who argue that this is the price we pay for a free society and I can only respond: voting rights. If enough people vote in support of the notion of balancing responsibilities and freedom, then managing this right becomes "the price to pay for a free society".

Frankly, I think that's a price I'm willing to pay.

I don't claim to have the answers, but entrenched positions on either side aren't helping America. It's like being an alcoholic: first you have to admit you have a problem.

Update: to those who respond that none of the items in the above list would stop the mass killings, I ask: "what would you suggest, then?" If you say there's nothing we can do about it, then  you're suggesting America is helpless. Is that really what you meant to say? If you don't think the US is helpless, then give some damned suggestions and start participating in the discussion rather than trying to shut it down before it even starts.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

How the war on terror was lost

Originally written in 2010 for my old blog, but still relevant.

Eventually, the United States is going to pull out of both Iraq and Afghanistan. The former has a chance of survival as a viable state. The latter does not. Afghanistan lacks roads, schools, hospitals, manufacturing, etc. Hamid Karzai's power base does not appear to extend significantly beyond Kabul. When the US leaves, Afghanistan has a good chance of falling to the Taliban. Even if the Taliban do not succeed, Afghanistan does not have a good chance of prospering. Decades of war with the Soviets and US have removed any hope of this. Even without the Taliban, Afghanistan will still continue to produce and harbor anti-Western terrorists. As will Pakistan. As will Saudi Arabia. As will Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Oman, UAE, and so on.

How did we get here? What led the situation in the Middle East deteriorate so powerfully that the Western world is under a constant threat from terrorism? What can we do to end this threat?
Contrary to popular opinion, I believe our political leaders know how to end this threat. Unfortunately, the price to be paid is too high for either them or the Western public to accept.

History Matters — To A Point

In 1066, William the Conqueror attacked England and won decisively at the Battle of Hastings. The British, despite their traditional dislike of the French (William was actually a Norman), don't visit significant reprisals against the French (or Normans) for this, though there was a significant amount of resistance at the time. Of course, we know why the British don't throw stones at Normans today: the Battle of Hastings is ancient history. Who cares?

Ancient history matters in that it impacts us today. However, most people don't take up arms for historical reasons, they take up arms for real issues they feel today. They might use those historical reasons for justification, but you're not going to find them acting en masse against others for grievances they don't even remember. For example, if a foreign country dispatched troops to the US and managed to burn down the White House, the Americans would certainly be up in arms. Yet the British burned the White House in 1814 and no one cares. Individuals might start a fight based on old grievances (happens all the time), but for the most part, you don't have long, drawn-out conflicts without some real "here and now" issue being addressed.[1] So what are some of those "here and now" issues?

Syria

Even if we accept the premise that people fight for current reasons and not historical ones, it doesn't render history moot as that can describe the chain of events that led us to where we are now, particularly in matters of territorial disputes. For example, many condemn Syria's long-standing claims on Lebanon, yet many Ottoman Empire maps show Syria, but not Lebanon.[2] Why?

It was the French Mandate of Lebanon which created Lebanon in 1920, by carving up Syria. Lebanon was not granted full independence until 1943. Syria wants Lebanon back. Not only is it a potential invasion route into Syria, but it also has seaports. It would provide both military and economic benefits to Syria and they have a stronger historical claim than many other territorial disputes.

Ottoman Empire (1798 - 1923) Ottoman Empire (1798 - 1923)
Note the lack of Lebanon on this map. (No credit given as I'm finding this all over the Web and cannot determine whom to credit, but this one was downloaded from http://iranpoliticsclub.net/maps/maps08/index.htm).

Like Lebanon, the Golan Heights is a serious issue for Syria. Syria would like Israel to return Golan. They lost it to Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War and though Syria has tried repeatedly to resolve this dispute — including offering formal recognition of Israel — Syria views US support of Israel as one of the primary reasons why the Golan Heights have not been returned. Not only are the Heights important militarily, but they cut Syria off from the Sea of Galilee, an important source of fresh water, a critical resource in the Middle East.[3]

Golan Heights Golan Heights
Released into public domain in 2007 by "Dp roberson" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Golan_heights_rel89B.jpg)

So at the end, Syria views the Western world as having supported the removal of large parts of Syrian territory. Regardless of whether or not we agree with the Syrian description and interpretation of these events, we cannot deny Syrian opinion of these events, part of which is driven by differing value systems and the fact that, unlike most Westerners, they experience the repercussions directly.

This is the most important point to take out of all of this: the opinions and beliefs of Westerners are largely irrelevant to the opinions and beliefs of local people. Westerners would do well to remember that they rarely live in war-torn parts of the world and they're rarely exposed to the points of view of people who are directly experiencing these difficulties.

Other Middle Eastern States

Many other states in the Middle East are upset with the Western world. In the 1950s, Iran wanted the British to share Iranian oil revenue with Iran. Many other countries in the Middle East had worked out similar terms with their current or former colonial occupiers, but the British refused. When the democratically elected prime minister Mohammed Mosaddegh nationalised the oil fields, the British approached the US about removing Mosaddegh and this led to the 1953 coup in Iran, the first acknowledged CIA covert action. The monarch, Shah Pahlevi, then assumed control of the country and his increasingly autocratic (and western) rule so alienated the population that he was finally overthrown in 1979. Iranians well remembered that it was a US-sponsored coup that gave the Shah his power.

Shortly after the 1979 revolution in Iran, Iraq invaded, with US military and financial support. Again, the Iranians could see the hand of the US behind their misery.

Meanwhile, the Iraqis saw a brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein, supported by the US. Hussein was quite willing to kill Iraqis he viewed as a threat, even allegedly using chemical weapons against them.[4] The long US history of supporting this dictator and the US's subsequent invasion of Iraq have convinced many Iraqis that the US cannot be trusted. In fact, it's possible that the US not only supported Saddam Hussein, but also had a hand in putting him to power. The CIA FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) archives are remarkably open and easy to search. However, while there is extensive information about Iraq, there appears to be little information about the 1963 Ba'ath Party coup in Iraq. Perhaps not coincidentally, many argue that the CIA was involved in the assassination and coup which allowed Hussein's Ba'ath party to take over Iraq. This would not be particularly out of character for US actions in the Middle East.

Israel and Palestine

Of course, no description of Western involvement in the Middle East would be complete without mentioning the biggest issue: Israel and Palestine.

The history of Israel is long and complicated, but suffice it to say that Israeli Jews have very valid concerns about their safety and that the Holocaust, while being the catalyst for the creation of Israel, is far from being the cause. For anyone interested, reading about Theodor Herzl is a good start. The history of the Jews has been one of persecution, robbery and murder. The rest of the world has treated Jews abominably and this has continued for millennia. It is far from a recent phenomenon and if the Jews are paranoid, history shows they have good cause.

Unfortunately, when the Zionists decided to find a home to settle, they chose a home which, like most of the planet, was already occupied. Though there is tremendous debate about whether Palestine was heavily populated or whether people even identified themselves as Palestinian, there is little doubt that the Zionists displaced many local inhabitants of Palestine, often seizing their property. In fact, the practice of seizing Palestinian property continues to this day.

Palestine (Filistin) during the middle ages, an 1890 map Palestine (Filistin) during the middle ages, an 1890 map
Public domain (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Medieval_Arab_Palestine.jpg)

Today the Palestinians, like Jews prior to Israel, find themselves stateless and persecuted. Further, they view the US as being largely responsible for this. For fiscal year 2010, the Obama Administration requested $2.775 billion in military aid for Israel (PDF). This is consistent with US military and economic aid to Israel of billions of dollars a year. The Palestinians see the Israelis killing them with bullets paid for by the US government. They see the strong support of the US government for virtually any action the Israelis take. In fact, the US even opposed an independent investigation of the recent aid flotilla killings carried out by the Israeli Defence Force in international waters. This just further confirms to the Palestinians and the rest of the Middle East that the US is not interested in seeing peace in the Middle East, but in maintaining their support for the Israelis.

Again, many Americans might disagree with Palestinian interpretation of events, but that does not change the fact that Palestinians have an opinion and, unlike most Americans, have to live day-to-day with the consequences of US and Israeli actions.

What Does This Have to Do With Terrorism?

The above merely gives one the briefest taste of how the Middle East views the West: constantly interfering in the Middle East for the benefit of the West. This has been going on for centuries. This would likely not be a significant issue today were it not continuing and were the Middle East better off. Unfortunately, neither is the case and this history is used as the justification for much of the terrorism arising there.

Defining Terrorism

Terrorism is a word which is, to put it mildly, abused. Perhaps one of the most unintentionally hilarious abuses is the use of the term intimate terrorism (pdf) to describe partner abuse. A husband who beats his wife is a criminal and a threat to society, but hardly a terrorist. The motivations are different, the goals are different, the appropriate response is different. However, it's easy to misapply the term if it's not defined.

Words do not intrinsically have meaning. We have to assign it. We could, for example, define terrorism as "non-consensual tickling". We don't because that would not be a useful definition. If we want to "defeat" terrorism, have to know what it is. First, however, let's define "defeat".
"Defeat" cannot mean "eliminate" because that's simply not going to happen. Some of the earliest know terrorists were the Sicarii, existing almost 2000 years ago and attempting to liberate Jews from Roman rule. The Hashashin, from where the modern word "assassin" probably derives, were another ancient group of terrorists. Whenever you have a disaffected group which cannot obtain their goals through normal political channels, terrorism is a possibility. It cannot be simply eradicated. Thus, "defeat", in this context, should be read as meaning "minimize to acceptable levels".


Which brings us back to the word "terrorism". Rather than belabour the term at length, I'll just state that for the purposes of this essay, I'll adopt the definition used by Louise Richardson in her excellent book "What Terrorists Want". In short, she defines terrorism as the use or threat of violence against non-combatants for the purpose of bringing about political change. That definition is short and to the point.[5] By having such a simple and clear definition, we can start to concretely tackle the problem.

Note that this definition does not contain any value judgment. Regardless of one's opinions of the Nicaraguan Contras, the 1989 Human Rights Watch Report on Nicaragua, amongst others, clearly states that the Contras murdered civilians in their attempt to overthrow the Sandanista government. If true, the Contras are terrorists by this definition. Or what about the Karen rebels in Burma? They are alleged to have detonated bombs in public markets and Phil Rees, in his book Dining with Terrorists, describes a May 2002 attack where Karen "guerillas" (who forcibly recruit child soldiers), attacked a school bus and killed two Thai teenagers and wounded fifteen. Yet the US State Department does not list the Karen rebels on their list of terrorist organisations, presumably because the US does not like the Burmese government. In short, you cannot decide that someone is not a terrorist simply because you agree with their goals. This makes the entire issue both subjective and futile.

The Dividing Line in Terrorism

To better understand how to deal with terrorism, let's group them into two categories: "significant" and "insignificant". By "significant" we simply mean "both long-lasting and strong societal impact". Here's a rough sample:

SignificantInsignificant
Al-QaedaAum Shinrikyo
Sendero LuminosoNovember 17
Irish Republican ArmyBaader-Meinhof

It's probably fair to say that victims of terrorist organisations in the "insignificant" column may disagree with the term, but none of the groups in that column had a strong impact (in terms of change) on the political structure of their societies, though some, like the Baader-Meinhof Gang, existed for a long time.

Those terrorist groups were just some I thought of off the top of my head. Now pick a few more and figure out whether you would put them in the "significant" or "insignificant" column: the Weather Underground, Hamas, Tamil Tigers, Basque separatists, various US militias, and so on. While there will be disagreement over which group belongs in which column (and even disagreement over my list), there is one common attribute that "significant" groups tend to have: public support.

We're not arguing that Muslims support Al-Qaeda. The vast majority do not support Al-Qaeda's behaviour, but some (particularly in the Middle East) are at least sympathetic with its motivations. This leads to a ready-made recruiting pool. Further, attempts to investigate groups with a modicum of public support means the group can hide amongst people without fear of being turned in. It's also easier for the groups to raise funding.

The various incarnations of the Irish Republican Army had the same advantage: easy to fund, plenty of recruits and a sympathetic populace. In fact, many Irish who disapproved of the IRA's tactics also strongly disapproved the British Government's tactics. There would not be a strong motivation to turn a criminal over to another group you viewed as criminal.

The Weather Underground, by contrast, simply did not have enough public support to continue. They were responsible for arson attacks, bombings, and riots, but when the US pulled out of Vietnam in 1973, the Weatherman gradually stopped activities. Support from the populace, whether tacit or not, is the key to a long-lasting terrorist group which can make an impact.

Policy Implications

Louise Richardson, in "What Terrorists Want" describes an public relations campaign waged by the US government. Information was distributed throughout the Middle East to educate people about America's freedom of speech and religion. In the US, it was explained, you can vote for whom you want and set about making your fortune. As the campaign was winding down, polls showed that public opinion about the US had not improved. Invariably respondents stated that they already knew that information and that's not why they hated the US.[6]

The actual issue, of course, is largely that the Middle East sees the Western world as constantly interfering with the Middle East for the benefit of the West. In fact, US-led military action in Iraq led to an increase in terrorism by reinforcing the negative stereotype of Western behaviour. However, military action per se is not necessarily a problem. The Arabic world was largely silent about the US invasion of Afghanistan. It was the invasion of Iraq, against world opposition and clearly another Western effort to install a "friendly" government in the Middle East which reinforced negative opinion.

A PR campaign will not allow the West to "defeat" terrorism. Military action merely reinforces the problem. Instead, the only long-term way to deal with the issue to to address the underlying concerns. However, if people in the Middle East have legitimate concerns about Western behaviour, terrorists share this concern. This leads us to the crux of the problem: even if Western politicians admit their mistakes and try to redress these grievances, they will be accused of "appeasing" the terrorists, no matter how legitimate the grievances are. Fox News, in particular, has long rallied against "appeasement" and welcomed many guests who accuse the Obama administration of said offense. As a result, the best way of addressing the issue of terrorism has effectively become off limits in the minds of many.

The Conundrum

From the dust jacket of the book "Dining with Terrorists", Phil Rees writes:
When George W. Bush screamed, 'You're either with us or against us' in the 'war on terror', he eradicated the right of anyone to question his logic or challenge his new list of 'terrorist' organizations.
Though Bush did not scream and the quote is slightly off, the basic sentiment is correct. Not only has the US laid down the law regarding how people must respond to terrorism, it has also effectively walled off the only favourable route for dealing with the issue. There is not only no conceivable way bring about "defeat", but the US no longer has the financial resources or public support to try to install friendly governments abroad. Those who oppose Western policy in the Middle East now know it's only a matter of time before the US admits that their actions in Iraq and Afghanistan have failed. The US will remove her troops and with them, the rest of the world will remove theirs. Afghanistan will fall and Iraq might do the same, particularly if aided by Iran — a country with good reason to fear a strong Iraq.

While the Bush administration worsened an already bad situation by invading Iraq, it is hardly their fault. The people of the Middle East have seen the Western world colonize the Middle East, tear apart nations, repeatedly and violently install pro-Western governments, prop up corrupt regimes, support an almost constant state of war and unilaterally support Israel's attacks on Palestinians. Given that worldview, is it any wonder that the US invading Iraq merely made the problem of terrorism worse? Until the West starts leaving people in the Middle East to their own devices, anti-Western terrorism will continue. The "war on terror" was lost a long time ago.

1. Territorial conflicts are sometimes an exception, but they engender a sense of lasting injustice which creates a "here and now" feeling.
2. Many of those maps also show a territory named Kurdistan.
3. Syria and Israel have come close to agreeing to a return of the Golan Heights before, but disagreements over the Sea of Galilee (PDF) have scuttled the issue. Though not brought up in the analysis, I've noted that Israel's insistence upon control of the Sea of Galilee would ensure that they have control of much of the fresh water that the Golan Heights relies on. Thus, returning the Heights to Syria without giving them control over the fresh water would effectively give Israel control over the water supply to the heights (in addition to denying Syrians fishing and leisure access). As a result, Israel could presumably exert financial control over a large sector of the Syrian economy, something Syria cannot accept. This gives Israel the apparent moral high ground of offering a return of the Heights without worry that said offer can be accepted. Of course, it should also be noted that offering Syria access to Galilee offers another potential route to threaten Israel.
4. Whether Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against his own people is in question.
5. For amplification and some counter-arguments to Richardson's definition, see Terrorism: The New World Disorder. It points out that many of the terms are difficult to assess. For example, are police "non-combatants"? What about military doctors? Firemen?
6. The Christian Science Monitor describes the beginnings of the PR campaign. However, an in-depth Christian Science Monitor article entitled Why do they hate us? should make it very clear that people in the Middle East understand very well the American way of life and Bush's "they hate freedom" has nothing to do with reality.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Romney continues his political free fall

Cross-posted at Daily Kos.

Many are already betting on Obama winning reelection, regardless of whether or not they like him.

Mitt Romney
Photo by Gage Skidmore
The only interesting Republican aspirant was John Huntsman, Jr. The former US ambassador to China, Huntsman was vilified by fellow Republicans for cooperating with the enemy — Obama, not China. Something's gone really wrong when people view our president as more of a threat than China. Huntsman sealed his fate by admitting that he trusted scientists on evolution and global warming.

So we got left with Romney. Really, the Republicans didn't have a choice. Despite the fanaticism of his supporters there was no way Ron Paul was going to win the nomination. Gingrich is too volatile, Santorum too offensive even for Republicans, Bachman is batshit crazy and everyone else was pretty much a sideshow. By rejecting the only viable candidate, the Republicans had to make do with what they had and they didn't have much. They're still pretty pissed off about it.

Of course, if Romney had even an ounce of personal charisma,  he might have overcome some of the issues, but he doesn't, so he has to fall back on the issues. Turns out he can't do that, either. For example, his record is pretty much off limits. When he was governor of Massachusetts, here are a few of his accomplishments:
  • Same sex marriages began in the state.
  • Signed "Romneycare" into law. It's not much different from Obama's health care reform.
  • He hired illegal immigrants to do yard work.
  • Was pro-abortion, changed his mind, then stated he would uphold Massachusetts' abortion laws, and is now anti-abortion again.
  • Endorsed legalization of abortion pill RU-486.
  • Actively supported gay rights, including non-discrimination laws and civil union laws.
  • Backed the Brady bill (limits access to some firearms).
  • Signed a permanent statewide ban on assault weapons.
  • Massachusetts fared worse economically than rest of the nation.
  • Raised state fees and taxes.
  • Dramatic increase in state spending.
  • Refused to endorse Bush tax cuts.
  • Supported amnesty for illegal immigrants.
  • Supported government action against global warming.
  • Described himself as a social progressive.
  • Business career was largely based on ending jobs.
  • No foreign policy experience.
Well, I could go on and on, but aside from a few obvious problems, Romney is clearly a man that Democrats could have lined up behind. No wonder the Republicans don't like him. What's worse, now that it's clear Romney will be the nominee, they're beating the hell out of him. The Democrats could practically keep their mouths shut and let the Republicans do the dirty work. You know that you're struggling as a Republican candidate when Rupert Murdoch is publicly badmouthing you.

Unsurprisingly, he's been labeled an opportunist and, given the huge amount of money he's made and the fact that he's had millions of dollars in Swiss and Cayman Island accounts, he's been taking a lot of heat for refusing to release more than two years of tax returns (one is still not released and the other one is apparently lacking his FATCA declaration). There's also a fair amount of speculation that he won't release because he claimed the 2009 amnesty for having a non-disclosed Swiss account. And it's not just Democrats tearing into him. Republicans left and right have lined up and said that Romney needs to release his returns to avoid the perception of hiding something:
Note that is not an exhaustive list, but Romney has boxed himself in here. From a Huffington Post report (emphasis mine):
In fact, according to people close to the situation, Romney would drop out of the presidential race before ever releasing further tax returns. It does seem a bit ironic, that a man whose father was one of the champions of transparency with regards to a candidate's finances is now the most blatant offender in modern presidential politics. Even more ironic, is that in general any member of Romney's potential Cabinet (or political appointee confirmed by the Senate) would be required to submit at least three years of tax returns. 
It doesn't help that when Romney was running against Kennedy in 1994, he demanded Kennedy release his tax returns to prove he "has nothing to hide." (Romney has since stated that he was wrong to do so).

So the Republicans don't trust Romney, he can't run on his record, and he is angering everyone by refusing to release his tax returns. Think things can't get any worse? Oh, yes they can. His wife stepped into the fray and said "we've given all you people need to know."

Holy. Shit. Is it possible to have a more arrogant statement?

Romney needs to do something and do it fast. Most polls show him losing the upcoming election, so Romney needs a game changer. With everything about his campaign stumbling, he needs a bit of downtime to reset and hopefully regain some momentum. Until he announces his vice presidential candidate, what better way to reset than a lovely sideshow outside the United States> Having no foreign policy experience, Romney stepped onto the world stage to appear Presidential. He headed to the UK for the start of the 2012 Olympics and plenty of UK politicians were on hand to meet with him. This is a cake walk, right?

It's been an unmitigated disaster.

He forgot Labour Leader Ed Milliband's name, referring to him as "Mr. Leader". He was openly mocked by both Prime Minister David Cameron and the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson (they're both Tories and, in theory, strong Republican allies). The British press have been ripping Romney to shreds and given that the Republicans are having a hard time attacking Obama's foreign policy experience, Romney has nothing to call on here. His UK trip has been nothing short of a humiliation.

So his only hope at this point is to have a wildly unexpected political event happen (say, aliens visiting Earth and endorsing Romney) or to choose such a stunningly brilliant vice presidential candidate that that everyone will be in awe. Unfortunately for Romney, VP candidates historically only help in close elections and this ain't one — but they can sink a campaign.

Right now, it really doesn't look like there are any VP contenders who will really help. Rubio might help deliver Florida, but he's very inexperienced. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana has strong conservative credentials, but aside from having the charisma of a dead puppy, Jindal admitting that he's participated in exorcisms doesn't help.

There are other candidates, but I doubt there's anyone who's really going to make a difference. It's Romney running for the presidency, not his VP pick. Anyone who runs with him as VP is setting themselves up for the national stage; they know they won't win.

I almost feel sorry for Romney at this point. Watching various candidates such as Mondale, Dole and McCain, late in the election cycle, knowing they were going to lose, was always a bit sad. Even if I didn't agree with them, it wasn't fun watching them soldier on for a lost cause. Romney might be feeling that way already and he's not even the official nominee.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Proofs!

The proofs for my book are starting to come back. They look great. I can't wait for this damned thing to be finished. I'm bloody exhausted. I've written the entire thing and now am now finishing the editing process.

I really should write a post explaining how a book like this gets written.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Doesn't Matter. Got Laid.

Female silk spider eating her mate after sex
Doesn't matter. Got laid.
Photo courtesy Flickr user Kumon

The great thing about my personal blog is that I don't have to pretend to be nice.

As for the photo, I assume most of you know this, but yes, many female spiders eat the males after sex.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Only the poor go to jail

Albert V Bryan Federal District Courthouse - Alexandria Va - 0016 - 2012-03-10
Blind Justice
Photo by dctim1
Read this: Woman Who Couldn’t Be Intimidated by Citigroup Wins $31 Million. Basically, it's widespread fraud documented at Citigroup. They admitted wrongdoing and paid $158.3 million to settle the claims. From the article:
Citigroup isn’t the only bank that’s been held accountable for processing bad mortgages. In February, Charlotte, North Carolina-based Bank of America Corp. settled a false-claims case with the government for $1 billion, without admitting wrongdoing. 
In May, Frankfurt-based Deutsche Bank AG agreed to pay $202.3 million for endorsing unqualified mortgages for FHA insurance, and admitted wrongdoing.
Nobody went to jail. They're part of the problem that caused the financial collapse in America. Nobody went to jail.

Meanwhile, Iceland is arresting their bankers who caused their country's economy to collapse.

Meanwhile, a California man is facing life in prison for theft of $21 dollars worth of goods.

Meanwhile, another California man is facing life in prison for allegedly stealing 50 cents worth of donuts.

Is this the criminal "justice" system you want, America?

Update: and I just found this story about a current Senator being allowed to walk away from a bad mortgage and avoid paying a quarter of a million dollars to his troubled bank. No, that doesn't look odd. It doesn't look odd at all. It looks corrupt.

Monday, 21 May 2012

American Hypocricy

So everybody is upset that Eduardo Saverin, who:
  • Was temporarily a US citizen
  • Living in Singapore
  • Paid hundreds of millions of dollars in an "exit tax"
  • Is Brazilian
  • And financed an American company (Facebook) with his Brazilian wealth
... and decided to give up his US citizenship.

People claim it's because he's trying to skip taxes, ignoring the fact that the situation is far, for more complicated than it appears on the surface.

However, I don't see too many people exhibiting righteous anger that multi-billionaire Mark Zuckerberg may never pay taxes again.

Now Boehner is talking about supporting the "expat tax" against people who give up their US citizenship. When the number of Americans renouncing their citizenship is hovering (worst case scenario) around 0.0006% percent, most of those Americans are middle-class (i.e., non-wealthy) and you can probably count on both hands the number of rich people who give up US citizenship, is this really the best use of the resources of the US government?

Know your meme, baby!
Of course it is! The US economy is falling to pieces, China is likely to become the global superpower, and the US can't get it up, so let's use a little class envy to distract the masses! Hell, 48% of America is now classified as poor, so there's an excellent chance that honesty isn't going to help any politician get elected. America has hit the iceberg and now they're rearranging the deck chairs (the US might pull out of this slump, so perhaps a Titanic comparison isn't appropriate, but I'm not sure I like what America is turning into).

Getting back to Saverin: does anyone remember the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the US signed? Look at Article 15 (2): No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

What? Been watching Fox News and deciding that's a little bit too hippy for you? Consider the Expatriation Act of 1868 (remember your history kids: many of our founding fathers were still alive, kicking, and churning out laws). The preamble to that Act reads:
The right of expatriation is a natural and inherent right of all people, indispensable to the enjoyment of the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Ooh! Take that, Boehner!

Well, not that he'll give a damn. After all, this isn't about setting sound policy. It's about flogging the polls for a few points. There is nothing rational about this. If we were rational, we would be crafting laws that don't allow mega-rich Americans to dodge taxes, not punish the one or two wealthy people who decide to trade in their citizenship.

Or you can read this interesting article by Peter Dunn, where he explains the issues in detail.

So whatever your feelings on this topic are, just remember that Saverin has done something completely legal, just as has Zuckerberg. We hate the former not because he may have legally avoided some taxes (he didn't, but we'll skip that for now), but because we think this Brazilian living in Singapore who helped found a US company with his Brazilian fortune is somehow a traitor. No one is going to give a damn about Zuckerberg not because he's following the law (so was Saverin), but because he doesn't appear to be spitting on the flag.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Congress may authorize propaganda against US public

Frederic Guimont
You've probably never heard of the Smith-Mundt Act. This was a law passed in 1948 which basically authorized the US to engage in propaganda efforts around the world. If you've not heard of this act, then you definitely don't know that it prohibits propaganda being directed against Americans.

Of course, if you're politically aware, you know that claiming there is no propaganda inside the US's borders is laughable. Hell, US advertising is not permitted to lie but the US news explicitly is. The US is bombarded with propaganda day and night. For example, if you've heard of the plans to punish the Brazilian Eduardo Saverin for giving up his US citizenship, it's almost guaranteed that you don't know the entire story. It's very complicated and has to do with how America is hunting down and punishing Americans for living outside her borders. Nonetheless, two politicians are using this as a political goldmine for milking poll results by punishing expatriates.

Of course, you probably also don't know about Donald Rumsfeld's plan, with the Pentagon, to allow foreign psychological operations (psy-ops) material to be distributed in the US, so long as it doesn't "target" Americans, thus finessing the language of the Smith-Mundt Act.

Today, Rep. Mac Thornberry from Texas and Rep. Adam Smith of Washing have introduced a bill to lift the domestic propaganda ban. From the article:
The new law would give sweeping powers to the State Department and Pentagon to push television, radio, newspaper, and social media onto the U.S. public. “It removes the protection for Americans,” says a Pentagon official who is concerned about the law. “It removes oversight from the people who want to put out this information. There are no checks and balances. No one knows if the information is accurate, partially accurate, or entirely false.” 
According to this official, “senior public affairs” officers within the Department of Defense want to “get rid” of Smith-Mundt and other restrictions because it prevents information activities designed to prop up unpopular policies—like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
My prediction? If this doesn't pass this time, it will pass in the future. In a world where most Americans don't care that Obama authorized the murder of an American (which was subsequently carried out to great fanfare), when the Bush Administration announced they would spy against Americans, and the Obama administration happily continues to spy against Americans, it should be no surprise that politicians are finally going public with the desire to publicly spread disinformation against Americans.

It's beginning to feel like America has given up. Waging perpetual war against communists, terrorists, Eurasia, disloyal Americans, someone seems to be enough to keep the masses terrified enough of something to ensure that no one questions National Security.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

No, this isn't really funny

Update: It turns out that yes, she is mentally ill.

People have been replaying this for laughs:





Actually, I feel sorry for this woman. She's clearly nuts and the guy behind her is cracking up. She starts off with claiming ABC show Wipeout is “produced in Holland by gays, bis, and orgiers who like to see “people perishing.”

I have to confess that I was laughing at this. Her completely random and ludicrous remarks (by the way: all bisexuals go insane) sent me roaring. But then ugly reality reared its head and I realized that there are some people who would be swayed by her remarks. They're the same people who, back about 40 or so years ago, would have vehemently objected to me marrying my (black) wife. It's painful to see this.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Is Europe's austerity a bad idea?

Kalypso Nikolaidis - EU
Photo by openDemocracy
So CNN has an article entitled European voters revolt against austerity, cuts. Here's a telling sentence from it:
The French turfed out the president who wanted to make them more competitive and less indebted — and voted for a candidate pledged to reversing the recent rise in the retirement age.
Hmm, "turfed out"? Actually, both candidates want to make France more competitive and less indebted, but they have radically different ideas about how to do this and painting Hollande, the new President of France, as simply being about for raising the retirement age, is a grotesque oversimplification. Of course, Hollande hasn't been forthcoming in how he's going to pay for many of his ideas and this has been one of the strongest criticisms against him.

Now think about political campaigns: how often do you find politicians say how they're going to pay for their programs? They generally don't because it turns out that people like when politicians provide services and "turf out" politicians who take away those services. Thus, as soon as a candidate says "I'm going to pay for X by taking money from Y", if Y is insignificant, he's not taken seriously. If Y is significant, he's just lost a huge block of voters! Keep telling people up front on how you plan to pay for things (vague promises of "cutting the pork" or "eliminating inefficiencies" don't count) and you lose an election. Better to take criticism for vague promises than specific threats.

But what is Hollande about? What are many Europeans about when they reject austerity? (Note that austerity, as it's typically preached, focuses on cutting spending and ignores the possibility of raising taxes). On its surface, if you blame the financial crisis on governments run amok and overspending, austerity sound great. Except that it's worth asking what an economic downturn is.

In an economic downturn, people are obviously spending less money. What money? Where did it go? It didn't disappear, but you might be forgiven for thinking that. Instead, the money is still there, but people aren't spending it. Paul Krugman (love him or hate him) actually gives a great explanation of this in his Baby-Sitting the Economy article on Slate.com.

If the money is not gone, why are people spending it less? Because they're afraid that with the downturn, they won't have a chance to earn it back. Small business owners have been skeptical of receiving tax breaks in the US because, as they've pointed out, there's no reason for them to reinvest this money to produce more output that people are not buying. Companies don't hire more employees during a recession. Businesses don't start ordering more raw supplies. Many argue that lower interest rates make borrowing more attractive and will help the economy recover, but the Fed slashed interest rates to an all-time low back in 2009 and the US economy is still struggling badly.

What happens is that when an economy turns down enough, the individual actors in the private sector cannot take the risk to increase spending and it takes aggregate behavior to change this. This aggregate behavior won't come from the private sector any more than the private sector would provide the US interstate highway system (which was a huge financial success, but not in a way that a private company could manage it). Thus, there's a clear role for government to step in and get the economy going again.

Which gets back to why people hate austerity. They hate it because it means they're getting fewer services for their taxes. However, more and more economists hate it because an economic downturn means fewer people are spending money and austerity reinforces the lack of spending. Get that? What needs to happen when the economy is so moribund is to jump-start the spending. You don't want to do this forever, though, because when times are good, you need to stop jump-starting and start cleaning up. When times are good is when it's good to save. When times are bad you rely on those savings. However, when the economy recovers, politicians will again find themselves with the dilemma of cutting services being very unpopular. Intelligently managing an economy is very difficult in the face of a democracy (note: this is not an attack on democracy, it's an observation of one of its problems).

In his new book, End this Depression Now!, Paul Krugman argues forcefully that austerity in an economic downturn only exacerbates the problem. Unfortunately for his critics, he has a host of both current and historical examples to back him up. Sadly, religionomics guarantees that people will sooner follow their beliefs than look at the facts and since Krugman has been labeled a socialist but since many Americans have no idea what socialism is but nonetheless hate it fiercely, getting tarred with that brush means many people simply won't listen to you.

The world is going to have to experience a lot more pain before they get beyond where they are now and, sadly, they're probably going to forget this lesson soon. For now, though, the people have spoken and are looking for growth opportunities instead of mindless and painful austerity programs.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Who the hell is Ovid?

Your author on a ferry to Dublin, Ireland
I live in Les Lilas, a suburb of Paris, France, with my wife and daughter. I'm an American who's lived in five countries, have a fairly popular How to become an expat blog, an incomprehensible programming blog, one book on Perl Hacks and a Beginning Perl book on the way. "Ovid" is a nickname I picked up a long time ago and that's how most people know me online.

What I no longer have, though, is a personal blog. Given that my expat and technical blogs are, for obvious reasons, constrained to expat and technical issues, I have to be careful about what I write there. I'm tired of that. I want to be able to say "fuck" without offending more people than usual. I want to feel free to rant about the idiocies of economics, politics, or ramble on about dreams of being a writer.

My wife and daughter at a park in Paris
And so here we are. My old LiveJournal account is exclusively dedicated today to pointing people to my expat blog and returning there would be awful. Who still uses LJ? I'll probably repost some of my more memorable posts from LJ to this blog, such as how I caught my identity thieves, a story that went viral back in 2005.

In short, I'm going back to being able to write what I want, when I want. Damn, that feels good.

How the Record Companies Can Survive

If you're here, you've probably heard about me through the Overseas Exile blog about "how to move to a foreign country." Or maybe my tech blog. However, I've repeatedly found that I often want to write without being constrained to expat or technical issues. My LiveJournal account is an awful choice as they're dying. Thus, my new blog where I can write what I will.

For a long time people have struggled with issues with the recording industry's attempts to remain relevant while hunting people down and using bogus RIAA lawsuits against them and ignoring Fair Use claims. The problem, in a nutshell, is that the world economy is transforming into an information economy and the music industry views themselves as a manufacturing industry. But music is ultimately not a physical product; it's a product that is perfectly suited for the information economy.

recording
This is what it's all about.
Photo by Andre Savastano
The music industry has been struggling to figure out how to reinvent itself for the digital age but it turns out this is fairly easy once you understand what's actually going on. Not only will this help to keep the record companies in business, it will make the artists happier, too.

I am currently writing a new book on the Perl Programming language. My publisher paid me a sum of money, they provide editorial support, and I'm currently finishing the writing of the 17th out of 19 chapters. Once that's done, we'll finish some editorial tasks, complete the book's pre-production work and send it off to the printer. Then it will be marketed, distributed to bookstores, pitched to universities as a textbook and hopefully I'll earn more money. I know how to write. The rest of that stuff I don't know how to do. For a band hoping to get their big break, they're more or less in the same situation.

If you want, you can read about how record labels work and while the industry is different, the overall structure is the same. It's important to note that this is not what the music industry was in the past, not is it what it will be in the future. Currently the music industry is using the massive sledgehammer of lawsuits and lobbying politicians for legislation to protect their business model. If there is anything which could be seen as "anti-capitalist", it's industries demanding the government intervene in the market on their behalf, but there you go.

Mozart was an exception.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.
There was a time when being a musician wasn't a viable career opportunity. You might play locally, or, if you were really lucky or good, you might get a patron. Having the success of Mozart was simply unheard of. The recording industry changed that due to their comprehensive coverage of finding talent, producing their work, handling legal issues, distributing their work, marketing their work, developing related merchandise, arranging tours, and so on. So what would be an alternative to that industry?

Louis CK earned over a million dollars by producing his latest comedy album and selling it directly to the public via his Web site. He also did an AMA ("Ask Me Anything") on Reddit where Louis CK explained his Internet experiment.

Think about that: a million dollars. He's stated that he earned more by marketing that directly than by going through a studio. Many other artists have been trying this route, with varying degrees of success. In fact, one author took famed science fiction novelist Charles Stross to task on a post Stross made about the book industry, claiming that the publishing industry isn't necessary and that authors could make more money by publishing their ebooks directly. Stross destroyed him in a very telling response that is the key to how the music (and perhaps book) industries can reinvent themselves in the digital era:
Charles Stross
Charles Stross
Photo by theNerdPatrol
Rubbish. There's this concept called "division of labour" that I'd like to remind you of; if I had to run my own self-publishing op I'd lose half my writing time to what is essentially a peripheral activity (from my point of view).
And that's the key to how the Recording Industry can reinvent itself to survive.

Imagine that your Brave New Band is writing incredible music but stuck playing gigs in cheap pubs, enjoying the aroma of stale beer and the complete lack of groupies. Nobody buys your t-shirts because nobody knows who you are. However, you're good enough that one of your demo tapes has interested a label and they want you to sign. Being rather savvy, you're aware of how record labels can gross a million dollars putting out your work and you can wind up eating rice and beans in a run-down studio flat in London. What do you do? Shoot for fame with a label, risk losing creative control and still being broke? Or go it your own way?

That's where the music industry can reinvent itself. Mass producing a physical copy of the music, shipping it to stores, and suing the hell out of everyone who might "infringe" on their work is very expensive and in many cases, counter-productive. On the other hand, my wife recently paid €12 to download an album rather than pay €70 (!) for a physical copy. She wanted the music, not some daft cover art she could download for free anyway. She is happy to pay for the music, but she doesn't want to pay for all of the rest of the overhead (and she recently lost her entire music collection when her computer crashed and she's rather bitter about the cost of paying for it again).

So let the music industry handle the one area they can do: marketing. Let the musicians handle what they can do: music.

Money
Marketing costs money
Photo by 401K
So what makes this different? Think about how I mentioned my book working. I didn't pay anyone to market my book because my publisher is handling that. Similarly, I see a rise in music marketing companies coming along and telling artists: you produce the music any way you want and we'll handle marketing and sales via the Internet. Forget about music stores, physical copies of the music or even DRM. People are willing to pay for reasonably priced music and DRM hurts sales. If an artist wants to "go it alone", they either handle the marketing themselves (something that few people are really good at), or they're faced with paying exorbitant costs to marketing agencies.

If the music company is willing to back artists and pick up the tab on marketing for a cut of the sales, everyone wins by specializing in what they're good at.

Of course, the music industry isn't willing to reduce themselves to music marketing specialists. They want complete control over every aspect of the music, touring, merchandising, production, distribution and marketing. And they're willing to sue the hell out of anyone who stands in their way. The sooner they realize this, the sooner they can start exploring new possibilities in business. The old music industry is dying and the new music industry is beginning to emerge. The artists win, the music industry can win and the consumers can win.