Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Sad Customs


"Boujemaa Razgui, a flute virtuoso who lives in New York and works with many US ensembles, was returning to base over the holiday when Customs officials at Kennedy Airport asked to see his instruments. Bourjemaa carries a variety of flutes of varying ethnicity, each made by himself over years for specific types of ancient and modern performance.  
. . .  
At JFK, the officials removed and smashed each and every one of his instruments. "

(Via dailykos.com )

Syria - worth noting

We didn't go to war in Syria, but this is nevertheless worth noting.

"...buried on page 8, below the fold, 18 paragraphs into a story under the not-so-eye-catching title, “New Study Refines View Of Sarin Attack in Syria.”.... the Times’ “vector analysis” – showing the reverse flight paths of two missiles intersecting at a Syrian military base – has collapsed..."
"....few Americans knew about these challenges to the Official Story because the mainstream U.S. news media had essentially blacked them out. When renowned investigative reporter Seymour Hersh composed a major article  citing skepticism within the U.S. intelligence community regarding the Syrian government’s guilt, he had to go to the London Review of Books to get the story published."

Magnificent Delusions

If you don't have the time to read Pakistan's former Ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani's "Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding", then this cartoon
conveys a great deal. It, of course, needs updates, with drones, and so on, to reflect the current situation.  

One could go into an excursion of how American leaders were charmed by Pakistani dictators in uniform - notably, Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan.

Or one can go to the very beginning, where the perceptive Margaret Bourke-White wrote the following, reporting on her interview with Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of the nation of Pakistan:

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Straw, Camel, Back

The Hindustan Times reports:
Officials here concede that given New Delhi's past track record, it was never conceived by the American foreign policy makers that India would react to the arrest of its diplomat the manner it did after the December 12 incident.

After all, there had been precedent of Indian envoys and top past and present officials being subject to humiliating and disrespectful treatment during their US visits, mostly at the airports, and there was hardly any protest, they said.

Aam Admi Party and Arvind Kejriwal

One of the phenomena of 2013, that may mark a new beginning for India is the rise of the Aam Admi Party (Ordinary People's Party).   The Times of India had this reflection as Arvind Kejriwal was sworn in as the Chief Minister of Delhi:

No one could have imagined at the beginning of 2013, or even six months ago, that Arvind Kejriwal would return to the Ramlila Maidan, two and a half years after Anna's big anti-corruption fast, to take oath as chief minister before the year was out. This has been a peaceful political revolution of epic proportions - and we, as a nation, should feel proud. Kejriwal may be the man of the moment, but this not about him - or any one person. This is about the idea of India. We have been called a flawed democracy, and indeed there are times when a sense of hopelessness takes over; but it's also the flaws that help us appreciate beauty when it shines through. There is no greater beauty on earth than to behold the will of the people be given voice without having to resort to violence. So let us pause for a moment to cherish the precious, and yes imperfect, beauty of our democracy.

For Kejriwal, the real challenge - of governance - begins now. He has changed the rules of the game, playing the role of an outsider with consummate political savvy. Whether his 'movement' can go national will depend on how wisely he runs Delhi. It will also depend on whether the Congress, having extended support, is willing to give him a fair chance. Its decision to boycott the swearing-in ceremony does not bode well for the future. The party that helped give us this beauty we call democracy should know that it has diminished itself by its churlishness. It should also know that a little grace never hurt, even in politics. 

Face of the Year 2013

The Indian Express newspaper has named the Indian voter the Face of the Year 2013.

In a year of political chaos and administrative drift, India fought back in Delhi and the heartland states which went to polls in the first week of  December. The Angry Young Voter became the Face of the Year, seething with anger, upsetting political fortunes by turning out to cast ballots in record numbers. Who constitutes this new phenomenon that has stunned the establishment? Young, idealist, activist, wired, tech savvy, free-thinker, impatient, energetic, aggressive, alienated and angry— meet the new voters. Aged between 18 and 25, they are students, some employed, many unemployed, women and men, desperately in search of jobs and predominantly from middle class families.
The dominant issues that sent them in droves to booths were inflation, unemployment and women’s safety. Corruption by the ruling elite had been the theme of 2013, leading to massive protests in Delhi, Mumbai and other cities. Inability of the state to protect women was behind the anger that propelled large-scale participation of women voters everywhere.

Elections are held in India every five years. The turn-out for the state assembly elections in the last three cycles is as follows:

State 2003 2008 2013
Delhi 47% 58% 67%
Rajasthan 68% 67% 75%
Madhya Pradesh 67% 69% 72%
Chhatisgarh 71% 71% 75%

It is sometimes good to take a break from American cynicism and apathy.  The 2012 Presidential elections had a turn-out of 53.6%. The 2010 elections, which gave us our much beloved do-nothing Republican Congress had a turn-out of 37.8% (source).  The 63.1% turnout in 1960 has not been surpassed in five decades.  Despite having in many ways a lot worse government than the US, Indians haven't given up on government in the way Americans have.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Hoisted from the comments: MJ Akbar on The Blood Telegram, etc.


The best books I read this year were both from America. The Blood Telegram: India's Secret War in East Pakistan by Gary Bass, is less on the secret war conducted by Delhi and far more on Washington's secret policy of indifference towards the Pakistan Army's genocide in what was then East Pakistan during the fateful year of 1971, which ended in a war that created a new nation, Bangladesh. The second great read was The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War by Stephen Kinzer, which graphs the lives of the two brothers, one a secretary of state and the other a CIA chief. They controlled American foreign policy during the Eisenhower administration between 1952 and 1960.

If you think there are too many secrets on the cover, rest assured this is no exaggeration judging by what is revealed between the covers. If you want to revel in America-bashing, go ahead. There is enough to fuel a lifetime of fulminations. But I also marvelled at the unwritten sub-text, which neither author chose to stress: how focused and unrelenting America, with its many leaderships, is when it comes to national interest.

One wonders when India's foreign policy will be injected with a little more steel of self-interest, instead of being a charity shop of good intentions. It is good that Indian diplomats have stood up for one of their own in America. But this is only evidence of what they can do, individually and collectively, if they are given the freedom to stand up for their country with equal backbone.

Do Elephants have Souls?

For a Hindu, the answer is easy.   For everyone else, this essay (via David Brooks' column in the NYT).

Carol Buckley, co-founder of the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, a retirement ranch for maltreated veterans of circuses and zoos, describes the arrival of a newcomer to the facility. The fifty-one-year-old Shirley was first introduced to an especially warm resident of long standing named Tarra: “Everyone watched in joy and amazement as Tarra and Shirley intertwined trunks and made ‘purring’ noises at each other. Shirley very deliberately showed Tarra each injury she had sustained at the circus, and Tarra then gently moved her trunk over each injured part.” Later in the evening, an elephant named Jenny entered the barn — one who, as it turned out, had as a calf briefly been in the same circus as Shirley, twenty-two years before:
There was an immediate urgency in Jenny’s behavior. She wanted to get close to Shirley who was divided by two stalls. Once Shirley was allowed into the adjacent stall the interaction between her and Jenny became quite intense. Jenny wanted to get into the stall with Shirley desperately. She became agitated, banging on the gate and trying to climb through and over.
After several minutes of touching and exploring each other, Shirley started to ROAR and I mean ROAR — Jenny joined in immediately. The interaction was dramatic, to say the least, with both elephants trying to climb in with each other and frantically touching each other through the bars. I have never experienced anything even close to this depth of emotion.
We opened the gate and let them in together.... they are as one bonded physically together. One moves, and the other shows in unison. It is a miracle and joy to behold. All day ... they moved side by side and when Jenny lay down, Shirley straddled her in the most obvious protective manner and shaded her body from the sun and harm.
They were inseparable until Jenny died a few years later.

"The Blood Telegram" : Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide

Dexter Filkins reviewed in the NYT "The Blood Telegram" by Gary Bass back in September:
In “The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide,” Gary J. Bass, a professor of politics at Princeton, has revived the terrible and little-known story of the birth of Bangladesh in 1971, and of the sordid and disgraceful White House diplomacy that attended it.
Bass lays out his indictment of the White House: Nixon and Kissinger spurned the cables, written by their own diplomats in Dacca (the capital of East Pakistan), that said West Pakistan was guilty of carrying out widespread massacres. Archer Blood, the counsel general in Dacca, sent an angry cable that detailed the atrocities and used the word “genocide.” The men in the White House, however, not only refused to condemn Yahya — in public or private — but they also declined to withhold American arms, ammunition and spare parts that kept Pakistan’s military machine humming.
The voices of Kissinger and Nixon are the book’s most shocking aspects. Bass has unearthed a series of conversations, most of them from the White House’s secret tapes, that reveal Nixon and Kissinger as breathtakingly vulgar and hateful, especially in their attitudes toward the Indians, whom they regarded as repulsive, shifty and, anyway, pro-Soviet — and especially in their opinion of Indira Gandhi. “The old bitch,” Nixon called her. “I don’t know why the hell anybody would reproduce in that damn country but they do,” he said. 
These sorts of statements will probably not surprise the experts, but what is most telling is what they reveal about Nixon’s and Kissinger’s strategic intelligence. At every step of the crisis, the two men appear to have been driven as much by their loathing of India — West Pakistan’s rival — as by any cool calculations of power. 
When India and Pakistan went to war:
At this point, the recklessness of Nixon and Kissinger only got worse. They dispatched ships from the Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal, and even encouraged China to move troops to the Indian border, possibly for an attack — a maneuver that could have provoked the Soviet Union. Fortunately, the leaders of the two Communist countries proved more sober than those in the White House. The war ended quickly, when India crushed the Pakistani Army and East Pakistan declared independence. 
Back in 1943, Winston Churchill ("I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion") let his dislike of Indians get the better of him, and refused to let relief be sent for the Bengal famine; and somewhere between 1.5 million and 4 million people died.

Such death tolls are the price of not being independent and not being strong - your fate is determined in far-away London or Washington.

Friday, December 27, 2013


(via digby) Matt Taibbi on the outrageous settlement the US DOJ made with the HSBC bank.
Despite the fact that HSBC admitted to laundering billions of dollars for Colombian and Mexican drug cartels (among others) and violating a host of important banking laws (from the Bank Secrecy Act to the Trading With the Enemy Act), {Assistant Attorney General & Clintonista} Breuer and his Justice Department elected not to pursue criminal prosecutions of the bank, opting instead for a "record" financial settlement of $1.9 billion, which as one analyst noted is about five weeks of income for the bank.

The banks' laundering transactions were so brazen that the NSA probably could have spotted them from space. Breuer admitted that drug dealers would sometimes come to HSBC's Mexican branches and "deposit hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, in a single day, into a single account, using boxes designed to fit the precise dimensions of the teller windows."
"...and justice for all" applies only to the suckers who actually recite the pledge of allegiance. Corporations are persons who don't recite the pledge of allegiance, whose money talks, and who are scoff-laws.

On a more serious note, the Clintons are as pro-Corporation as any Republican - somehow the Democratic Party has to come up with a more progressive candidate for the Presidency in 2016.   The only condition in which I vote for Hilary Clinton is if the alternative is seriously worse.
So you might ask, what's the appropriate financial penalty for a bank in HSBC's position? Exactly how much money should one extract from a firm that has been shamelessly profiting from business with criminals for years and years? Remember, we're talking about a company that has admitted to a smorgasbord of serious banking crimes. If you're the prosecutor, you've got this bank by the balls. So how much money should you take?

How about all of it? How about every last dollar the bank has made since it started its illegal activity? How about you dive into every bank account of every single executive involved in this mess and take every last bonus dollar they've ever earned? Then take their houses, their cars, the paintings they bought at Sotheby's auctions, the clothes in their closets, the loose change in the jars on their kitchen counters, every last freaking thing. Take it all and don't think twice. And then throw them in jail.

Sound harsh? It does, doesn't it? The only problem is, that's exactly what the government does just about every day to ordinary people involved in ordinary drug cases.
Seriously, don' t try selling to me the idea that third world countries are more corrupt than the US.   US Attorney Preet Bharara's statement below sounds just like so much propaganda:
Finally, this Office’s sole motivation in this case, as in all cases, is to uphold the rule of law, protect victims, and hold accountable anyone who breaks the law – no matter what their societal status and no matter how powerful, rich or connected they are.
The only time the powerful, rich and connected are taken down is when they offend the even more powerful, rich and connected. 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

A sad day....

On February 28, 2002, ex-Parliamentarian Ehsan Jafri was killed by a mob - here are the circumstances of his death, as per Wiki
On February 28, 2002, when riots broke out in Gujarat, he was killed by a rampaging extremist Hindu mob. By early morning, a large mob gathered at the Gulbarg Society in the Chamanpura suburb of Ahmedabad. This was an almost entirely Muslim housing society where the septuagenarian Ahsan Jafri lived. According to First Information Report of the incident filed by police inspector K.G. Erda, the violent extremist Hindu mob started attacking Muslim owned establishments in the morning and were dispersed by the police. However, they reassembled around 1 PM armed with swords, sticks, pipe and kerosene. had blown up gas cylinders to blast through walls in the Gulbarga society. The report also mentions that the rioters were guided by voter lists and computer printouts with the addresses of Muslim-owned properties, information obtained from the local municipal administration. This claim was repeated by at least five Muslim witnesses presented before the Nanavati Commission.
Chamanpura is in central Ahmedabad and barely a kilometer from the police station, and less than 2 km from the Police Commissioner's office. Believing the area to be safe given Jafri's presence, many Muslims in the area had gathered in his compound. Around 10:30 in the morning, the Ahmedabad Commissioner of Police, P.C. Pandey, personally visited Jafri and apparently assured him that police reinforcement would be coming. In the next five hours, Jafri and top Congress officials of the state repeatedly kept calling the police and other government officials requesting safe transport for the residents, but no help arrived. The FIR by Erda further stated that the police station had 130 policemen on duty that day, and were well armed with teargas shells. However, no one was deployed to disperse the crowd, despite Ehsan Jafri and top Congress politicians repeatedly contacting the Director General of Police, Police Commissioner, the Mayor, Leader of Opposition in the State parliament, and other top government officials.
Today the Indian judicial system once again pronounced that there is no case for prosecuting the then- and current- Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi and a slew of top officials of Gujarat.

Fine, maybe they are not involved. But clearly, somewhere between the top officials and the policemen on duty, a decision was made not to try to disperse the mob, or to ignore the calls for help or to be incommunicado from taking orders from the top for no good reason.

What is sad is that the Indian judicial system has failed to nail down the responsibility for this failure to act. 

For the widow Zakia Jafri, who has been fighting for justice for the past decade it must be an extremely sad day, and my heart goes out to her.

Diplomatic Immunity - 2

Newspapers in India pointed out this out, and it is easy enough to verify.  As per the United Nations Blue Book "Permanent Missions to the United Nations", No. 303, March 2013 available here:
http://www.un.int/protocol/bluebook/bb303.pdf, Ms Devyani Uttam Khobragade is an accredited member of the Indian Permanent Mission to the UN - well before her arrest - and per Article 4, Section 11 and Section 16 of "Convention of the Immunities and Privileges of the United Nations", adopted in February 1946, seemingly has immunity from arrest.  (The Indian officials may have already pointed this out to the American officials in private.)

Section 14 of the Convention says that Member States have the duty to waive immunity when "in the opinion of the Member immunity would impede justice". 

Therefore, the proper procedure would have been for the US Departments of Justice and State to take their complaint to the appropriate person (probably either the Indian Ambassador to the UN or to the US) and ask for immunity to be waived.  In any case, the normal courtesy to to tell the highest ranking officials of impending action - a courtesy which was not extended in this case.

Whatever the US DOJ may think of the immunity of consular officers, there is no question about the immunity of the aforemention UN delegations.

Radha Krishna as Santas

Via Tarek Fateh (on twitter) Radha-Krishna:

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Human trafficking and T-visas statistics

T visas are issued by the US for victims of human trafficking found in the US.   Please note that while "human trafficking" is a term commonly used for the illegal transport of people across national borders, in this case something more is meant:
 Human trafficking, also known as trafficking in persons, is a form of modern-day slavery in which traffickers typically lure individuals with false promises of employment and a better life. Victims of severe forms of human trafficking are provided relief under U.S. immigration law by the Victims of Trafficking in Persons (T) nonimmigrant visa. This status allows victims of human trafficking to remain in the United States to assist in investigations or prosecutions of human trafficking violators.
So, for instance, persons smuggled across the US-Mexico border into the US in return for a payment, without any promise of employment or other benefit, and then left free to seek their own destinies, would not fall into the category of human trafficking for which T visas apply.

T visas made the news when Indian diplomat Ms. Devyani Khobragade was arrested for visa fraud and strip-searched; the visa fraud is alleged in relation to her domestic employee (Mrs Sangeeta Richard) 's A-3 visa; T-visas were used to evacuate members of the Richard family from India.

Some information from the US Department of State is displayed below.  The raw numbers are cut-and-paste from a Department of State spreadsheet, and the (%) column is my computation. Any cut-and-paste errors are mine. 

There is a mystery here just in the numbers, namely  how there can be T-2 visas without T-1 visas. 

The big questions are: what are these human trafficking cases, and is there any US-India cooperation on trying to stem this human trafficking? 

Thanks in advance for any useful information left in the comments.

US Human Trafficking T-Visas
Visa Description
T-1 Primary victim, must be already in the US
T-2 Spouse of victim
T-3 Children of victim
T-4 Parents of victim
T-5 Unmarried siblings of victim under age 18
Year (Fiscal Year) T-visas issued to Indians Total world-wide T-visas issued India (%)
T-1 T-2 T-3 T-4 T-5 T-1 T-2 T-3 T-4 T-5 All T visas
1997 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.00
1998 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.00
1999 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.00
2000 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.00
2001 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.00
2002 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.00
2003 0 0 0 0 0 0 20 38 0 0 0.00
2004 0 23 38 0 0 0 74 145 0 0 27.85
2005 0 10 12 1 0 0 35 65 7 5 20.54
2006 0 3 8 1 0 0 11 43 5 1 20.00
2007 0 2 6 0 0 0 20 70 5 3 8.16
2008 0 2 3 0 0 0 34 132 5 8 2.79
2009 0 0 0 0 0 0 8 81 3 3 0.00
2010 0 13 14 1 0 0 64 167 7 8 11.38
2011 0 82 112 0 0 0 127 258 10 14 47.43
2012 0 49 79 0 0 0 151 342 7 17 24.76

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

On Diplomatic Immunity

The case law in US courts on diplomatic immunity is interesting, and perhaps even the right way to interpret the Vienna Conventions.    I'm no lawyer, and the case law I could find on the web deals with civil, not criminal immunity - but the reasoning I found I think applies to criminal immunity as well.  The upshot is that Ms. Devyani Khobragade, even if she gets full diplomatic immunity right now,  would be subject to prosecution once she leaves her post that has diplomatic immunity.  She would also be open to a civil suit.  (The only complication I can think of is if there is a statute of limitations and she can run the clock.)

And that is as it should be.  My "fulminations" in the case are related to how an official representative of India is treated, and not with trying to permanently protect Ms. Khobragade from answering for whatever wrongdoing she may have done.

I think the court correctly states that the purpose of diplomatic immunity is to ensure the efficient performance of the functions of diplomatic missions.  They would have immunity for almost anything (with the exceptions spelled out by the Vienna Convention) during the holding of such office.  Once a person ceases to perform the function, they have only residual diplomatic immunity which covers only official acts.  Hiring of domestic help is not an official act.

You can read the full ruling of Boanan v Baja here.  Briefly, Boanan was the domestic help hired by Baja, who was the Philippines Ambassador to the UN in New York City.   Boanan brought a civil suit against Baja (after he left his post) with allegations much like that of Sangeeta Richard.  Baja claimed diplomatic immunity, and the judge took arguments from both sides on this issue and made a ruling.

Monday, December 23, 2013

One outcome of the diplomatic flap

India is expected to deliver new identity cards to US consular officials, which will ensure that they have only consular, and not diplomatic, immunity. The US sought to draw a distinction between consular and diplomatic immunity in the Khobragade case saying that she was entitled to only consular immunity in her capacity as deputy consul general. Until now, India had not differentiated between consular and diplomatic privileges for US officials and had given diplomatic immunity to all of them.
Times of India 

Ex-Pakistani Ambassador on the Khobragade case

Husain Haqqani:

The recent diplomatic tiff over mistreatment of an Indian diplomat by U.S. law enforcement authorities is neither about rule of law nor about diplomatic immunity. It involves the issue of courtesy for representatives of foreign governments, which is essential for the conduct of international relations.
American diplomats are extended considerations over and beyond the law in most countries.
Almost every U.S. diplomatic facility abroad is surrounded by barriers often erected on public property that violate municipal ordinances. American diplomats are allowed to board flights and exit airports through different exits than other passengers. These facilities protect U.S. government representatives in an era of terrorist threats.

American law enforcers need to be mindful of these global realities before setting off another storm while arresting a foreign diplomat or consular agent.

Human trafficking in the US

It is not always what it seems, per former diplomat Prabhu Dayal.

Stereotypes about India, often promoted by Indian-Americans who have not lived in India in thirty years, do not help.  The American "do-good" brigades participate in these scams and feel smugly virtuous about it.

The latest Indian diplomat caught in this trap is Devyani Khobragade.  Since she is both a woman and a Dalit, (both of India's "oppressed" classes)  the do-good brigade is at a bit of a loss about what rhetorical line to take.

Ms. Khobragade's case would likely not have made the news, but for the fact that the US Marshals strip-searched her.   Per the US Marshal Service, this is routine procedure.  (Per Indian law, this disrobement is punishable by three to seven years of imprisonment.).  The 2010 USMS directives say that a strip search is legally allowed only if there is reasonable suspicion that the person is carrying contraband or weapons, or is a security, escape or suicide risk.  But in 2012, the US Supreme Court made strip searches without reasonable cause the law of the land.

As Ramana on BRF put it, the Supreme Court has made the Abu Ghraib practices routine in the US.

PS: for anyone in doubt about the heavyhandedness of New York law, see this.  When the real culprit confessed, he was not arrested.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

A Dulles Moment

Harold A Gould in "Failure of a Mission: America's South Asian Debacle", prepared for the Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph Festschrift volume (findable on the web)

The depths of cultural ignorance was vividly apparent in a conversation which Walter Lippman claimed to have had with Dulles at a Washington dinner party shortly after the 1954 Geneva Accords. “Look Walter,” Dulles said, blinking behind his thick glasses, “I’ve got some real fighting men into the south of Asia. The only Asians who can really fight are the Pakistanis. That’s why we need them in the alliance. We could never get along without the Gurkhas.” When Lippman reminded him that the Gurkhas are Indian, not Pakistani, Dulles replied, “Well, they may not be Pakistanis, but they’re Moslems.” Lippmann once more corrected Dulles, saying, “No, I’m afraid they’re not Moslems either, they’re Hindus.” Dulles merely replied, “No matter,” and proceeded to lecture Lippman for half an hour on how SEATO would plug the dike against communism in Asia.(17)

(17) This conversation was originally reported by Richard J. Barnet, The Alliance: America, Europe, Japan, Makers of the Postwar World. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983, p. 34.


Friday, December 20, 2013

More on Pope Francis

Pope Francis's emphasis on the spirit rather than the doctrine of Catholicism should not obscure the fact that he still stands at the head of a supremacist organization.

Charlie Stross on Libertarianism

From an blogpost on BitCoin by Charlie Stross:

...I tend to take the stance that Libertarianism is like Leninism: a fascinating, internally consistent political theory with some good underlying points that, regrettably, makes prescriptions about how to run human society that can only work if we replace real messy human beings with frictionless spherical humanoids of uniform density (because it relies on simplifying assumptions about human behaviour which are unfortunately wrong).
(via digsby).

Thursday, December 19, 2013

What Prof. Juan Cole said

I had tweeted thusly: "America has gone from land of the free to land where govt listens to your phone calls and probes your body orifices at will."   But Prof. Juan Cole says it much better.

Americans think of themselves as brave rugged individualists who enjoy the liberties of an Enlightenment constitution. In fact, they most often are timid and cowed in the face of the world’s most powerful government, which increasingly acts like a medieval tyrant. Americans don’t seem outraged that the government is spying on them. The government has put 6 million Americans either in prison or under correctional supervision, and has the highest per capita rate of incarceration in the world– more than Cuba, nearly twice that of Russia, and more than 4 times that of Communist China! Only 8 percent of inmates in Federal penitentiaries are there for violent crimes. In many states, former prisoners are stripped of the right to vote. These extreme penal practices of course primarily target minorities and function as a racial control mechanism. (Famously, penalties in the US for using cocaine powder, a favorite in the white suburbs, are much less than for crack cocaine, mostly used by poor minorities.)

Not only does the US have an enormous number of people in jail but they subject arrestees (people not convicted of a crime) to routine strip and cavity searches. Women are often forced to be naked in front of the other inmates and to spread their labia for a policewoman.

These practices have been challenged. The ninth district federal appeals court in California decades ago found LAPD routine body cavity searches unconstitutional. But last year, our Supreme Court– the same one that thinks corporations are people, that doesn’t think big money campaign donors should have to identify themselves, and thinks it is all right for traditionally discriminatory states to pass voter suppression laws against minorities– weighed in. It found constitutional routine strip searches even in minor traffic violations cases. A guy got a ticket. He paid it off, but it mistakenly stayed on his record. He bought a new house and went out with family to celebrate. He got stopped by police, who ran his registration and found the ticket. They handcuffed him in front of his family and hauled him off to six days in jail during which he was subjected to cavity searches. John Roberts thinks the whole thing perfectly reasonable.
Prof. Cole also notes something that seems to be along the lines of my thinking - that the English/American genius is to make bad behavior legal.
While police in India sometimes mistreat prisoners, they are behaving illegally when they do so. To have the official policy be to humiliate people routinely is outrageous to people outside the United States, especially where it concerns a woman diplomat who functions as a symbol of the nation. 

Obama compared to Bush

Andrew Sullivan on occasion can write something worth remembering.

All these critical, central facts for the last five years do not fit anywhere in Fournier’s analysis. And the truth is: nothing this president has done compares even faintly with the damage wrought by his predecessor. Bush exploded the deficit in a time of growth; Obama has cut it dramatically in a time of near-depression. Bush gave us two disastrous wars; Obama has largely ended both, and set in process diplomatic initiatives in Syria, Iran and Israel-Palestine that, if successful, can defuse potential new ones. Obama has tackled a huge domestic problem – the accessibility and cost of healthcare – which Bush allowed to fester and on which the current GOP has no policies except a return to the disastrous status quo ante. Bush initiated the first ever American-run program of torture of prisoners. Obama ended it. Bush presided over the worst breach of national security since Pearl Harbor. Obama killed Osama bin Laden and decimated his forces on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Bush presided over the total collapse of the free market system in the US; Obama has painstakingly rebuilt it.

If you exclude all this context and focus on superficial Washington games and tropes, you can maybe concoct a theory of the past five years that makes Fournier’s analysis seem plausible. It’s just that you have to erase the actual events from your brain and your memory.

It tells you a lot about Washington that doing that will make you the editor of National Journal.

Revised evolutionary tree

Our knowledge of the human evolutionary tree has greatly improved, as DNA from fossils is decoded.   The New York Times reports that a complete Neanderthal genome was extracted from a 130,000 year old fossil toe.  That, along with other recent finds, gives this picture (picture and caption from Nature, via the NY Times):

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

More 23 and Me

The US Federal Drug Administration has greatly restricted the activities of the genetic testing corporation, 23andMe. Via CIP,  what Scott Aaronson said:

Among medical experts, a common attitude seems to be something like this: sure, getting access to your own genetic data is harmless fun, as long as you’re an overeducated nerd who just wants to satisfy his or her intellectual curiosity (or perhaps narcissism).  But 23andMe crossed a crucial line when it started marketing its service to the hoi polloi, as something that could genuinely tell them about health risks.  Most people don’t understand probability, and are incapable of parsing “based on certain gene variants we found, your chances of developing diabetes are about 6 times higher than the baseline” as anything other than “you will develop diabetes.”  Nor, just as worryingly, are they able to parse “your chances are lower than the baseline” as anything other than “you won’t develop diabetes.”
I understand this argument.  Nevertheless, I find it completely inconsistent with a free society.

Read the comments too.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Pope Francis on Marxism

Via dailykos.com:
Pope Francis:  (emphasis added)
"The Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended."

"The only specific quote I used was the one regarding the “trickle-down theories” which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and social inclusiveness in the world. The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefiting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger nothing ever comes out for the poor. This was the only reference to a specific theory. I was not, I repeat, speaking from a technical point of view but according to the Church’s social doctrine. This does not mean being a Marxist."

Sunday, December 15, 2013


One day, the secretary to the Famous Professor gave a couple of us students some letters that had come to the Professor.  Letters - you know, those things written on paper, stuffed into envelopes and mailed with stamps.  She said, read them, and answer them if you want to.  It is OK if you don't, the Professor gets too many of these to answer.

I never replied to any of them, it didn't seem worth the time.  I do remember one of the letters, in outline, if not in detail.  It was from the foreman of a machine shop, and he felt that a younger worker was undermining him.  He had sketched out some shapes, and he wanted the Professor to help him.

What I gathered from beyond the particulars of the letter, was that the the younger worker had some knowledge of elementary geometry and trigonometry, enabling him to calculate dimensions of shapes that his foreman could not.  I did not know how to advise the letter writer that he ought to learn some mathematics, and that was one reason I did not reply.

This memory came back to me when I read Bee's essay on mathematics.  One thing Bee wrote was:
I think that most people are also lying when they say they were always bad at math. They most likely weren’t bad, they were just lazy, never made an effort and got away with it, just as I did with my spotty Latin.
which provoked a CIP reaction:
I think she is a bit delusional on this point. Math, unlike language, is an unnatural activity in the sense that our remote ancestors almost never needed it. 
I think the question to be answered is:- can we improve people's math. skills enough to make a positive difference in their lives?  For both the practical applications, as well as an improved understanding of the world? As Bee put it:
If you work in a profession that uses math productively or creatively, you need to speak math. But for the sake of understanding, being able to read math is sufficient. It’s the difference between knowing the meaning of a differential equation, and being able to derive and solve it. It’s the difference between understanding the relevance of a theorem, and leading the proof. I believe that the ability to ‘read’ math alone would enrich almost everybody’s life and it would also benefit scientific literacy generally.  
 There is also an understanding of the power of abstraction that people need to appreciate.

I think the answer to that question is yes; and what keeps us from doing it is the general anti-mathematics nature of popular culture.

The American Dream

As George Carlin said, “The owners of this country know the truth: It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”
  This Salon.com article fills out the details.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Under our noses

While we dream of grand theories of physics, futures dominated by robots and chimeras, the near and real future is being snatched away from us under our noses.  

 Nobel Economist Joe Stiglitz protests.

As regards the provisions on intellectual property, negotiators should resist text that would, among other things:
  • weaken the 2001 Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health
  • mandate extensions of patents terms
  • mandate lower standards for granting patents on medicines
  • mandate granting patents on surgical procedures,
  • mandate monopolies of 12 years on test data for biologic drugs
  • narrow the grounds for granting compulsory license on patents,
  • increase damages for infringements of patents and copyrights,
  • reduce space for exceptions as regards limits on injunctions, and
  • narrow copyright exceptions
  • requiring life+ 70 years of copyright protection,
  • mandate excessive enforcement measures for digital information, and
  • otherwise restrict access to knowledge.
At this point in time, we do not need a TRIPS plus trade agreement, we need a TRIPS minus agreement. The TPP proposes to freeze into a binding trade agreement many of the worst features of the worst laws in the TPP countries, making needed reforms extremely difficult if not impossible.
The investor state dispute resolution mechanisms should not be shrouded in mystery to the general public, while the same provisions are routinely discussed with advisors to big corporations.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Fierce Urgency of Now

 Via Professor DeLong, this anecdote
...the late Lloyd Bentsen, who liked to tell this story and claimed he'd gotten it from John F. Kennedy when they were freshmen in the House of Representatives together:
If you travel through Lorraine, between Neufchateau, Toul, Epinal, and Nancy you find the Chateau de Thorey-Lyautey, retirement home of the French Marshal Louis Hubert Gonzalve Lyautey. Around 1930 the nearly eighty year-old Marshal had a conversation with his landscaper:
Lyautey asked his landscaper if he would on the next day start planting a row of oaks to line the road up to the chateau.
"But Mon Marechal," said the gardener, looking at the aged Lyautey. "The trees will take more than fifty years to grow."
"Oh," said the Marshal. "In that case, we have no time to lose. Plant them this afternoon!"

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Avoiding a Cognitive Bubble

(via here)
Data Portraits: Connecting People of Opposing Views
Eduardo Graells-Garrido, Mounia Lalmas, Daniele Quercia
(Submitted on 19 Nov 2013)

Social networks allow people to connect with each other and have conversations on a wide variety of topics. However, users tend to connect with like-minded people and read agreeable information, a behavior that leads to group polarization. Motivated by this scenario, we study how to take advantage of partial homophily to suggest agreeable content to users authored by people with opposite views on sensitive issues. We introduce a paradigm to present a data portrait of users, in which their characterizing topics are visualized and their corresponding tweets are displayed using an organic design. Among their tweets we inject recommended tweets from other people considering their views on sensitive issues in addition to topical relevance, indirectly motivating connections between dissimilar people. To evaluate our approach, we present a case study on Twitter about a sensitive topic in Chile, where we estimate user stances for regular people and find intermediary topics. We then evaluated our design in a user study. We found that recommending topically relevant content from authors with opposite views in a baseline interface had a negative emotional effect. We saw that our organic visualization design reverts that effect. We also observed significant individual differences linked to evaluation of recommendations. Our results suggest that organic visualization may revert the negative effects of providing potentially sensitive content.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

DeLong on the MOOC

Berkeley Professor Brad DeLong on MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses)
The fever of the MOOC has broken. As we got to have suspected all along, the students who will benefit enormously from MOOCs and Kahn Academy and so forth are the students with a cognitive skills, energy, and persistence to have been able to learn from the open University on TV, or programmed instruction, or simply picking up a book. For those who do not have the requisite skill, energy and persistence, the coming of the MOOC and of education over the Internet will do little: If they are to learn effectively, they need to be embedded in the social matrix of a university--classes and deadlines and attendance and tests and papers and peers around them all doing the same. And those who do not need this sociological matrix are a small minority, even at Berkeley.
Not that technological change isn't coming: