Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The FCC rolled their much ballyhooed National Broadband Plan last week, and it is noticably lacking in one important area, Net Neutrality:
But let’s face some ugly facts: Everyone has their own definition of what it truly means. No blocked content, equal access to bandwidth available, regardless of origination of the content, no throttling of provider service connectivity to where a user goes, privacy of where the user has been, the list is endless. Does the FCC come out and state net neutrality goals and regulations it wants? No. Is it mentioned in the executive summary? Not once. Is it mentioned in the NBB official plan? Zilch.

Make no mistake, this is a significant win as far as it goes. That doesn't mean the NBP is all win, it is a typical mid-level bureaucrat's grab bag of policies, regulations and taxes, with little in it that is truly revolutionary. There's some good in it, more wireless spectrum is generally a good thing. But, there isn't an issue that we can't demagogue, and the plan goes to great lengths to argue that the current state of ISP competition is "surely fragile". FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski unrolls the plan with an Op-Ed in the Washington Post decrying the "tens of millions" of Americans who have decided not to pay for something that they can get for free at their local library. Ars Technica posts the graphic at left from the report with the snarky caption "Look at all the competition". I don't know about you, but 82% of households having multiple providers to choose from looks kinda like competition to me. Nevermind competition provided through mobility, i.e. those desiring or needing different broadband options moving to a location that has them. I guess we just can't let a good crisis go to waste.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Monday, March 29, 2010

The benefit of government provided computer vouchers (a must read).
A good rundown of the truth behind Bush's lies.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Three quarters of the House of Representatives chastise the administration's attitude toward Israel:
The letter had only circulated for three days last week before garnering 327 signatures, probably the most bipartisan effort seen on Capitol Hill in this session of Congress. It provides a measure of just how far out of the mainstream the Obama administration has gotten on relations with Israel.

Moreover, they’re entirely correct. Thanks to what amounts to a reversal of 20 years of American policy on settlements in Jerusalem, Obama has given the Palestinians a reason to refuse to come to the table that Israel simply can’t address. Obama has made peace a lot less likely than it was fifteen months ago by throwing his tantrum in such a public manner.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Chris Blattman on the lack of real justice systems, and Western support for building formal justice systems in Africa:
To borrow a phrase from Tyler Cowen: “Views I toy with but do not (yet?) hold”:
  • State weakness in Africa may be exacerbated by attempting to graft the West’s idea of a 20th century developmental state onto structures not fully capable of providing the basic bits of law and order.
  • The international system and aid can exacerbate the problem by pushing the state to build a public education and health system ahead of more core state functions.
  • Conspicuously, there is no Millennium Development Goal for access to a court system, or freedom from crime and violence. Everyone has heard of UNICEF, few have heard of UNPOL.
  • I would bet that more donors and non-profit organizations focus on microfinance than justice, by a factor of five to ten.

Having spent significant time in Liberia working primarily on observing the state of law and order in addition to observing more traditional aid programs, I can tell you that there is a complete lack of any foreign support for state building, outside of the rather corrupted UN peacekeeping system. The only non-UNMIL/UNPOL programs focusing even remotely on justice involved concentrating on violence against women. There was an inordinate focus on ex-combatants, but no concern for supporting routine law and order enforcement.

NGOs feel a need, rightly or wrongly, to maintain an air of impartiality in local politics. There is an understandable desire to keep a significant distance from the inevitable corruption of much of the developing world. Politics and local policing are inherently messy, even in the West, and it is much easier to deliver a truckload of supplies, or to simply erect a school building. The only times when western governments feel a need to get involved in local politics, and local governance, is in the cases of Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A self inflicted wound:
That the option of detaining suspects captured outside Afghanistan at Bagram is being contemplated reflects a recognition by the Obama administration that it has few other places to hold and interrogate foreign prisoners without giving them access to the U.S. court system, the officials said.

Without a location outside the United States for sending prisoners, the administration must resort to turning the suspects over to foreign governments, bringing them to the U.S. or even killing them.

In one case last year, U.S. special operations forces killed an Al Qaeda-linked suspect named Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan in a helicopter attack in southern Somalia rather than trying to capture him, a U.S. official said. Officials had debated trying to take him alive but decided against doing so in part because of uncertainty over where to hold him, the official added.

U.S. officials find such options unappealing for handling suspects they want to question but lack the evidence to prosecute. For such suspects, a facility such as Bagram, north of Kabul, remains necessary, officials said, even as they acknowledged that having it in Afghanistan could complicate McCrystal's mission.

The Obama administration has really backed itself into a corner here. It committed to closing Guantanamo without really thinking though the options, as highlighted by Holder's ridiculous comments last week. The Bagram option pointedly identifies Gitmo's true advantage--a complete lack of local considerations restricting US options. Obama's position will probably increase the use of rendition, and decrease in the intelligence gathered due to the apparent assassination policy.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Temporary marriage in Iran.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Military improvisation on finding sources of information has stepped on the toes of many at the CIA, leading to a sensational story about supposed private intelligence operations in Afghanistan. David Ignatius, however, makes this sound a little bit more like an old fashioned turf war:
The CIA, meanwhile, was flummoxed by Clarridge's freelancing. The new chief of station in Kabul protested last summer, and lawyers drew up new rules. Clarridge's mission was described as "force protection," a normal military activity in a war zone. His unclassified reports were fed into the J-3 operations center in Kabul, and then often classified and disseminated though intelligence channels.

Clarridge's reports carried the rubric "Force Protection Atmospherics." His sources were described as "cooperators" and his effort was termed "commercially gathered" data, rather than intelligence collection.

But these semantics didn't resolve the tension between military activities, which fall under Title 10 of the U.S. Code, and CIA covert action, which is authorized under Title 50. This gray area has led Adm. Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, to argue privately that the country may need what could be described as a new "Title 60," that blends the two in a coherent framework with proper controls.

The most notable part of the original article is that the only on the record sources seem to be Eason Jordon and Robert Young Pelton, two journalists who had started a company partly at the behest of Michael Furlong, the Air Force employee in question. Which means the real kicker is here:
But Mr. Jordan said that the help from Mr. Furlong ended up being extremely limited. He said he was paid twice — once to help the company with start-up costs and another time for a report his group had written. Mr. Jordan declined to talk about exact figures, but said the amount of money was a “small fraction” of what he had proposed — and what it took to run his news gathering operation.

Something tells me the earlier leaks are probably a little sensationalized, but the details remain fascinating regardless:
The outsourced intelligence operation described by the Times began in 2008 with a push from the Pentagon's Strategic Command, which oversees information operations. A Stratcom civilian named Michael D. Furlong began funding former journalists to provide "ground truth," with a planned budget of $22 million.

Another private intelligence effort was launched in November 2008, when a Boston firm called American International Security Corp. (AISC) was hired by the New York Times to free its reporter David Rohde, who had been kidnapped by the Taliban that month. The firm turned to Duane "Dewey" Clarridge, a former CIA officer who launched the agency's counterterrorism center in 1986 and was an important figure in the Iran-contra affair. He set about building a network of informants who could help free Rohde.

Rohde escaped in June 2009, but Clarridge's network continued to function. It currently has about 10 operatives who act as case officers, drawn from the United States, Britain, South Africa and other countries. These officers, in turn, run about 20 "principal agents" who are in contact with roughly 40 sources in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Friday, March 19, 2010

This administration is pushing hard for a fundamental realignment in Mid-East politics. After Biden's harsh, but somewhat understandable rebuke for Israel's announcement of construction in Jerusalem, the Obama administration just wouldn't let go, with Clinton and even David Axelrod piling on after Israel's public apology. This incident is strange, not just because of the surprising strong language coming from the Obama administration, because East Jerusalem was explicitly excluded from a significant agreement the had been widely praised by this White House just a couple of months ago. Unfortunately for Israel, the Obama administration continues to raise the stakes:
In 2008, the United States approved an Israeli request for bunker-busters capable of destroying underground facilities, including Iranian nuclear weapons sites. Officials said delivery of the weapons was held up by the administration of President Barack Obama.

Since taking office, Obama has refused to approve any major Israeli requests for U.S. weapons platforms or advanced systems. Officials said this included proposed Israeli procurement of AH-64D Apache attack helicopters, refueling systems, advanced munitions and data on a stealth variant of the F-15E.

"All signs indicate that this will continue in 2010," a congressional source familiar with the Israeli military requests said. "This is really an embargo, but nobody talks about it publicly."

Not quite enough, Washington announces that the previous concessions from Israel are now insufficient by demanding an end to building in Jerusalem. As Max Boot pointed out even before the latest developments:
Two press leaks may illuminate administration thinking. First, in July 2009, President Obama reportedly told Jewish leaders at the White House that it was important to put some "space" between the U.S. and Israel to "change the way the Arabs see us." Then an Israeli newspaper claimed that in a private meeting, Biden told Netanyahu that Israeli settlements were "dangerous for us": "What you're doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and it endangers regional peace."

This is of course a dramatic shift which borders on outright hostility to our erstwhile ally. One that may result in the US losing its leadership position in much of the Middle East:
The White House's response, they argue, sends a strong message that Washington won't be bullied. In the Middle East, however, there is nothing that reeks so much of weakness as beating up on an ally in public. Moreover, this tongue-lashing comes shortly after the White House swallowed the open taunts of its adversaries...

Of course, really effective deterrence would require us to make sure that our Israeli allies were perceived as highly volatile and unpredictable actors who might just take matters into their own hands and bomb Iran's nuclear sites. That scenario would have a better chance of cornering Iran and its allies, compelling them to seek relief from us, the rational senior partner. Instead, we've just pulled off the strategic equivalent of beating our pit bull on a street corner to show the neighborhood tough guys that we mean business.

President Obama is not intentionally trying to sacrifice our position in the energy-rich and strategically vital Middle East, but his policies may well lead to that. Strategic realignment doesn't just mean that Washington gets to trade in one set of allies for another. It means that the American order of the region will be superseded by a new order in which we will play a secondary role at best.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Science News on statistics:
A common misinterpretation of the statistician’s P value is that it measures how likely it is that a null (or “no effect”) hypothesis is correct. Actually, the P value gives the probability of observing a result if the null hypothesis is true, and there is no real effect of a treatment or difference between groups being tested. A P value of .05, for instance, means that there is only a 5 percent chance of getting the observed results if the null hypothesis is correct.

It is incorrect, however, to transpose that finding into a 95 percent probability that the null hypothesis is false. “The P value is calculated under the assumption that the null hypothesis is true,” writes biostatistician Steven Goodman. “It therefore cannot simultaneously be a probability that the null hypothesis is false.”

Consider this simplified example. Suppose a certain dog is known to bark constantly when hungry. But when well-fed, the dog barks less than 5 percent of the time. So if you assume for the null hypothesis that the dog is not hungry, the probability of observing the dog barking (given that hypothesis) is less than 5 percent. If you then actually do observe the dog barking, what is the likelihood that the null hypothesis is incorrect and the dog is in fact hungry?

Answer: That probability cannot be computed with the information given. The dog barks 100 percent of the time when hungry, and less than 5 percent of the time when not hungry. To compute the likelihood of hunger, you need to know how often the dog is fed, information not provided by the mere observation of barking.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Is NAFTA hurting?
[Rep Gene] Taylor blames the agreement with Canada and Mexico for the loss of 5 million manufacturing jobs since it was enacted in 1994. This is a popular but false charge...

Overall output at U.S. factories was actually 37 percent higher in 2009 compared to 1993, the year before NAFTA took effect, according to Table B-51 in the latest Economic Report of the President. We are producing a higher volume of stuff with fewer workers because individual workers are so much more productive than they were in the early 1990s.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

From Ars Technica:
China is now the largest emitter of CO2 on the planet, as it powers a large industrial base primarily through the use of coal-fired power plants. However, many of those goods are immediately shipped overseas, often to the US and EU, which generate and use power far more efficiently. A new paper, which will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, now takes a look at the impact of outsourcing these carbon emissions by tracking CO2 based on a product's point of use. For some Western European economies, the result is enormous: anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of their emissions come in the form of imported goods.

I for one, am shocked, shocked, to find out that environmental regulations in the West actually cost us jobs, and perversely enough, increase the level of CO2 emissions because goods are now manufactured in areas will less efficient power generation, and now have to account for emissions from transportation.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Is China over-inflated?
As most of the world bets on China to help lift the global economy out of recession, Mr. Chanos is warning that China’s hyperstimulated economy is headed for a crash, rather than the sustained boom that most economists predict. Its surging real estate sector, buoyed by a flood of speculative capital, looks like “Dubai times 1,000 — or worse,” he frets. He even suspects that Beijing is cooking its books, faking, among other things, its eye-popping growth rates of more than 8 percent.

“Bubbles are best identified by credit excesses, not valuation excesses,” he said in a recent appearance on CNBC. “And there’s no bigger credit excess than in China.”

Unfortunately, the story focuses more on James Chanos, and less on Chinese macroeconomics, but China is looking down the face of a number of demographic problems, and a round of stimulus spending that borders on the absurd. Its rate of growth is clearly not sustainable. FP's Joshua Keeting rebuts, but China has already earned its status as a significant world power. The question is if China is due for a significant shock, and how well it will handle what is about to come.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Is Turkey leaving the West?
In early October, Turkey disinvited Israel from Anatolian Eagle, an annual Turkish air force exercise that it had held with Israel, NATO, and the United States since the mid-1990s. It marked the first time Turkey's governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) let its increasingly anti-Western rhetoric spill into its foreign policy strategy, and the move may suggest that Turkey's continued cooperation with the West is far from guaranteed.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister and the leader of the AKP, justified the decision by calling Israel a "persecutor." But only a day after it dismissed Israel, Turkey invited Syria -- a known abuser of human rights -- to joint military exercises and announced the creation of a Strategic Cooperation Council with the Syrian regime. A mountain is moving in Turkish foreign policy, and the foundation of Turkey's 60-year-old military and political cooperation with the West may be eroding...

As the cancelled military exercises with Israel show, the AKP's moralistic foreign policy is not without inherent hypocrisies. An earlier example came last January, when, a day after Erdogan harangued Israeli President Shimon Peres, as well as Jews and Israelis, at the World Economic Forum for knowing "well how to kill people," Turkey hosted the Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Taha in Ankara. This is a dangerous position because it suggests -- especially to the generation coming of age under the AKP -- that Islamist regimes alone have the right to attack their own people or even other states. In September, Erdogan defended Iran's nuclear program, arguing that the problem in the Middle East is Israel's nuclear arsenal.

The transformation of Turkish identity under the AKP has potentially massive ramifications. Guided by an Islamist worldview, it will become more and more impossible for Turkey to support Western foreign policy, even when doing so is in its national interest. Turkish-Israeli ties -- long a model for how a Muslim country can pursue a rational, cooperative relationship with the Jewish state -- will continue to unravel. Such a development will be greeted only with approval by the Turkish public, further bolstering the AKP's popularity. Thus, the party will be able to kill two birds with one stone: distancing the country from its former ally and shoring up its own power base.

I'll have more to say on this later.
The Plumbat Affair, available online in full, is a fascinating account of how Israel smuggled Uranium out of Europe in 1968.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Yet another reason why network neutrality is a bad idea:
"Before the ink is dry on net neutrality regulations, we already see corporate lobbyists and 'public decency' advocates pushing for loopholes," said EFF Civil Liberties Director Jennifer Granick.

But that's the whole point of network neutrality, corporate lobbyists and various other advocates are pushing rules that are explicitly aimed at hurting their competition and giving themselves an artificial boost:
In a potentially significant reversal of policy, the Federal Communications Commission could be poised to make the big telecoms share their high-speed Internet fiber networks with smaller companies... That's according to a Bloomberg story published on Friday, which adds that the proposal being considered comes from the Cbeyond broadband/telecom services firm.

"The FCC should require the Bell monopolies to sell—at retail prices—the bandwidth necessary for competitors like Cbeyond to provide next-generation broadband applications to small businesses," [Cbeyond founder Jim] Geiger says.

In other words, one company is petitioning the government to force another company to sell services to the former, so the it doesn't have to invest the capital required to do it themselves. While the FCC open access policies are only tangential to most net neutrality proposals, the effect is entirely the same.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Welcome to the Middle East, China!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Evgeny Morozov in the Prospect on how dictators watch us on the web:
But that isn’t what happened in Belarus. After the first flash mob, the authorities began monitoring By_mob, the LiveJournal community where the activities were announced. The police started to show up at the events, often before the flashmobbers did. Not only did they detain participants, but they too took photos. These—along with the protesters’ own online images—were used to identify troublemakers, many of whom were then interrogated by the KGB, threatened with suspension from university, or worse. This intimidation didn’t go unnoticed. Soon, only hardcore activists would show up. Social media created a digital panopticon that thwarted the revolution: its networks, transmitting public fear, were infiltrated and hopelessly outgunned by the power of the state.

The Belarusian government shows no sign of being embarrassed by the fact it arrested people for eating ice-cream. Despite what digital enthusiasts tell you, the emergence of new digital spaces for dissent also lead to new ways of tracking it... In Iran, dissidents used to be active on Goodreads, an international social networking website for book-lovers. Here they quietly engaged in conversations about politics and culture, unseen by the censors—that is, until the Los Angeles Times helpfully published an article about what was going on, tipping the authorities off.

This isn't so much a failure of digital forms of organizing, but a mere reflection that a lot of the old rules for operational security still apply.
There are three main strands to the “democracy by tweets” theory. First, despite my caveats, the internet can if used properly give dissidents secure and cheap tools of communication. Russian activists can use hard-to-tap Skype in place of insecure phone lines, for example. Dissidents can encrypt emails, distribute anti-government materials without leaving a paper trail, and use clever tools to bypass internet filters. It’s now easier to be a “one-man NGO”: with Google Docs, you can do your own printing, lowering the risk of leaks. Second, new technology makes bloody crackdowns riskier, as police are surrounded by digital cameras and pictures can quickly be sent to western news agencies. Some governments, like Burma and North Korea, don’t care about looking brutal, but many others do. Third, technology reduces the marginal cost of protest, helping to turn “fence-sitters” into protesters at critical moments. An apolitical Iranian student, for instance, might find that all her Facebook friends are protesting and decide to take part.

All in all, a good counter to the sometimes overly optimistic assessments of the impact of the internet generation on democratization, as it is important to remember that the internet can just as easily be used by authoritarian regimes:
Ultra-loyalist groups supporting Thailand’s monarchy were active during both the September 2006 coup and more recent street protests, finding anti-monarchy material that needed to be censored via a website called In this, they are essentially doing the job usually reserved for the secret police. In much the same way, the Iranian revolutionary guards posted online photos of the most ardent protesters at the June 2009 rallies, asking pro-Ahmadinejad Iranians to identify them...

Government-controlled internet providers in Belarus, for example, run dedicated servers full of pirated digital goodies for their clients to download for free. Under this new social contract, internet users are allowed plenty of autonomy online—just so long as they don’t venture into politics.

But the key graph is this:
Governments usually give cash to a favoured NGO—often based outside the authoritarian state in question—which has the job of creating new social media infrastructure: group blogs, social networks, search engines and other services that we take for granted in the west. The NGOs then hire local talent to work on a Belarusian Twitter or an Egyptian version of the blog-search platform Technorati.

Yet these services work because they are born in entrepreneurial cultures where they can be speedily built and adapted to local needs. The stodgy form-filling process of angling for the next juicy grant, which in truth drives nearly all NGOs, is a world away from a freewheeling Palo Alto start-up. The result is a clumsy arrangement in which NGOs toil away on lengthy, expensive and unnecessary projects instead of ditching them when it becomes apparent they won’t work and moving on to the next idea.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Ethan Zuckerman on internet censorship circumvention:
- Internet circumvention is hard. It’s expensive. It can make it easier for people to send spam and steal identities.
- Circumventing censorship through proxies just gives people access to international content – it doesn’t address domestic censorship, which likely affects the majority of people’s internet behavior.
- Circumventing censorship doesn’t offer a defense against DDoS or other attacks that target a publisher.
James Fallows on how China censors the internet:
Taken together, the components of the control system share several traits. They’re constantly evolving and changing in their emphasis, as new surveillance techniques become practical and as words go on and off the sensitive list. They leave the Chinese Internet public unsure about where the off-limits line will be drawn on any given day. Andrew Lih points out that other countries that also censor Internet content—Singapore, for instance, or the United Arab Emirates—provide explanations whenever they do so. Someone who clicks on a pornographic or “anti-Islamic” site in the U.A.E. gets the following message, in Arabic and English: “We apologize the site you are attempting to visit has been blocked due to its content being inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political, and moral values of the United Arab Emirates.” In China, the connection just times out. Is it your computer’s problem? The firewall? Or maybe your local Internet provider, which has decided to do some filtering on its own? You don’t know. “The unpredictability of the firewall actually makes it more effective,” another Chinese software engineer told me. “It becomes much harder to know what the system is looking for, and you always have to be on guard.”...

Chinese bloggers have learned that if they want to be read in China, they must operate within China, on the same side of the firewall as their potential audience. Sure, they could put up exactly the same information outside the Chinese mainland. But according to Rebecca Mac­Kinnon, a former Beijing correspondent for CNN now at the Journalism and Media Studies Center of the University of Hong Kong, their readers won’t make the effort to cross the [Great Firewall] and find them. “If you want to have traction in China, you have to be in China,” she told me. And being inside China means operating under the sweeping rules that govern all forms of media here: guidance from the authorities; the threat of financial ruin or time in jail; the unavoidable self-censorship as the cost of defiance sinks in.
Copyright © Swing Right Rudie
A notebook to myself