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10 Sep 12:33

Iraq: The Outlaw State by Max Rodenbeck

Frankenstein fi Baghdad [Frankenstein in Baghdad]

by Ahmed Saadawi

Cologne: Manshurat al-Jamal, 352 pp., $32.00

The Corpse Washer

by Sinan Antoon, translated from the Arabic by the author

Yale University Press, 185 pp., $22.00; $13.00 (paper)

The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq

by Hassan Blasim, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright

Penguin, 196 pp., $15.00 (paper)

The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy

by Zaid al-Ali

Yale University Press, 295 pp., $35.00

rodenbeck_1-092514.jpg An image from Clanking of the Swords IV, a recent film by the Sunni jihadist guerrilla group that now calls itself the State of the Islamic Caliphate, on the border of Iraq and Syria
Show them death and they will accept a fever.
—Iraqi proverb

The title Clanking of the Swords IV brings to mind a cheap costume drama. Yet the horrors depicted in this hour-long film, a recent product of the media arm of a Sunni jihadist guerrilla group that now calls itself the State of the Islamic Caliphate ( SIC ), are no medieval fantasy. The snuff action is all too real.

As we watch the film, peering along the barrel of a machine gun poking out the rear window of an SUV , it is real live rounds we see spattering into the side of the white BMW we are overtaking, shredding its windows, presumably riddling its passengers with holes, and certainly sending it careening into the ditch beside this bland stretch of Iraqi highway. We accompany an actual hit squad on a nighttime raid to the home of a “collaborator.” We witness them capture, blindfold, and humiliate a portly middle-aged man in a light brown robe. They then cut off his head, an act which requires the knife-wielding killer to jump on the victim and ride him piggy-back, with the cameraman following this ungainly pair as they stagger around the bedroom. The film spares us the final gory moments; we cut to the man’s mustachioed head, successfully detached, parked on the bed.

There are scenes of mass executions: of a row of bound, kneeling men killed with single shots to the back of the head, or of others machine-gunned where they lie, already stretched out in their own shallow graves. Some of this is set in slow motion. In one of the most chilling sequences we follow another team of killers manning a false roadblock. They are in full US-style combat gear, mimicking a crack unit of the Iraqi army. Cars are pulled over, their occupants’ names checked against a database on a laptop computer. Some are then waved on. Other drivers, not so lucky, are politely asked to get out of their cars for a further check. With the camera following they are led into a field next to the roadside and shot dead.

The State of the Islamic Caliphate was known until June as ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). It has gained notoriety not only as a particularly ruthless and efficient operator among Iraq’s motley militias, a reputation it has extended to Syria since intruding into the neighboring country’s civil war in 2012. It is also the most media-savvy power in either theater. Advertisements such as the Clanking of the Swords series have helped it recruit an unmatched number of jihadist wannabes from around the world. Unlike the others, too, SIC ’s ambition is not merely to defend some cause but to seize territory, hold it, and build a full-fledged state of its own.

The SIC has been on a roll of late. In June it captured Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, bagging an immense hoard of arms and loot and launching a drive, joined by other Sunni insurgents, toward the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. The group has since expanded its presence across both northern Iraq and eastern Syria, swallowing up rival rebel gangs and local militias along the way or strong-arming them into submission. It has challenged and in some cases routed the highly rated but thinly spread peshmerga forces of Iraqi Kurdistan. The SIC ’s estimated 10,000–20,000 armed adherents currently control a region with about the size and population of Indiana. Its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a former theology student, now styles himself a caliph.

The title, meaning literally the “successor” to the Prophet Muhammad, implies a claim to commanding all 1.6 billion Muslim faithful. Yet Baghdadi’s is a very particular, uncompromising brand of Sunni Islam. The SIC has “cleansed” the territories it controls of Shia Muslims and other supposed infidels, chasing out the last of Mosul’s once large and prosperous Christian community. It has hounded the Yazidis, members of an ancient syncretic faith, still more cruelly. The SIC ’s capture of their remote redoubt of Sinjar on August 3 prompted thousands of terrified Yazidis to flee into barren mountains. Reports of the mass execution of male villagers and the enslavement of Yazidi “devil worshipers,” as well as of starvation among refugees, raised an international outcry and spurred deepening America involvement in the Iraq crisis, including now-regular air strikes against SIC forces.

The SIC has also systematically destroyed tombs, temples, shrines, statues, and monuments that might hint at exalting anything other than the one true God. Some of the world’s most significant archaeological sites, including the great pre-Islamic Arab city of Hatra, with its magnificent temples to pagan gods, are at risk of destruction or plunder: aside from protection rackets and kidnap ransom, the SIC has developed a lucrative sideline in antiquities smuggling.

Sad to say, Baghdadi’s fusion of the homicidal and messianic is not without precedent in Iraq. The use of seemingly gratuitous cruelty as a form of display—as a talisman of godlike power and an advertisement of worldly success—has old roots here. Some can be traced just outside of Mosul in the fields of dusty ruins that mark the sites of Nineveh and Nimrud, great cities of the ancient Assyrian empire.

For centuries before its collapse in 612 BC , Assyria controlled the upper plains between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, a span of flat, semiarid, and hard-to-defend terrain that is possibly the most often fought-over patch of real estate on the planet, and that happens to be remarkably similar to the SIC ’s present domain. Assyria’s perpetual rival and eventual nemesis was Babylon, a kingdom that, rather like the rump Iraq now held by the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, centered on the lower reaches of the two rivers. Just as today the area around Baghdad (the city was not founded until the eighth century AD ) formed an uneasy border between them.

What stands out in the iconography of the Assyrian kingdom is its unusually frequent and detailed depiction of extreme violence. Again and again we find muscle-bound Assyrians doing terrible things to captives: slitting throats, lopping off limbs and heads, impaling, flaying alive, dis- playing corpses and body parts atop city walls. Just as in the SIC ’s propaganda, too, the smashing of enemy idols provides another common theme.

The British Museum, which houses a spectacular collection of Assyrian art, devotes an entire gallery to reliefs from the palace of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh. The image that draws most comment is a small domestic scene showing the king relaxing with his queen in a garden as a musician strums on a harp. They sit in the shade of a tree decorated with an eye-catching ornament: the severed head of a troublesome neighboring king.

In short, the country that is now Iraq—although alas not, perhaps, for much longer in its current shape—is no stranger to the ghoulish and macabre. The Mongols, famously, built pyramids of skulls when they pillaged and razed Baghdad in 1258 and again in 1401. It was in Iraq in the 1920s that Britain introduced newer, cheaper methods for keeping unruly natives under control, such as chemical weapons and aerial “terror” bombings. Saddam Hussein’s three-decade-long Republic of Fear, with its gassing of Kurdish villagers, grotesque tortures, and mass slaughter of dissidents, made the later American jailers of Abu Ghraib look downright amateur.

The SIC captures the headlines, but the group is hardly alone in its viciousness. In recent years Shia gangs have proved no less cruel than such Sunni rivals, one small example being the puritan vigilantes who have regularly and murderously attacked sex workers in Baghdad. The carnage from a raid on a brothel in the district of Zayuna on July 12 included twenty-eight prostitutes and six of their clients. In another incident on July 30, Shia militias in the town of Baaquba, northeast of Baghdad, executed fifteen Sunni men they had earlier kidnapped, strung their corpses on electricity poles, and for several days refused to let medical teams remove them.

Such atrocities represent average daily tolls for violent death in Iraq, where the total of civilian dead since the American invasion of 2003 has almost certainly mounted well beyond 100,000—no one really knows. The postwar sectarian bloodletting reached a flood in 2006–2007, as Shia death squads sought revenge for the bombing of a revered Shia shrine by one of the SIC ’s Sunni precursors. Under the impact of ceaseless bombings and tit-for-tat assassinations, Baghdad, once a pixelation of faiths, forcibly rearranged itself into monochrome sectarian blocs divided by grim concrete walls. Following a merciful lowering of the tempo of violence that lingered into 2013, the awful daily drumbeat has again quickened. Instead of wobbling slowly to recovery, a wounded Iraq has found itself staggering into new and possibly worse dangers.

Against this background it is not surprising to find contemporary Iraqi writers responding, like others before them in countries fated to prolonged periods of extreme stress, with a mix of black humor and gloomily whimsical fantasy. The winner of this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction (sometimes referred to as the Arabic Booker Prize), the Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi, is a case in point. His novel Frankenstein in Baghdad recounts the tale of a ragpicker who, angered by the lack of respect paid to the corpses accumulating from repeated suicide bombings and massacres, begins to collect unwanted body parts and sew them together. His nameless creation comes to life and becomes a sort of superhero, wreaking vengeance on behalf of its component victims. But then, disturbingly, this “Shismu,” or Whatsit, discovers that it requires fresh flesh for its own survival.

Not much of such work—and none of Saadawi’s—has come into English. One fine exception is The Corpse Washer, ably translated by the author himself, Sinan Antoon, a New York–based Iraqi poet. His novel relies more on poetic allusion than magic realism. Antoon strains to capture Iraq’s tragedy in the person of his central character, a talented young artist who abandons his vocation to carry on his father’s trade preparing Shia cadavers for burial. Departures of family and friends through death or exile leave him increasingly hopeless and alone. A single pomegranate tree that stands in the courtyard of the washhouse, watered by the runoff from washing corpses, becomes a metaphor for Iraq.

Grim ironies permeate the short stories of Hassan Blasim, another Iraqi exile, but he shows a lighter touch. Although the ones chosen for The Corpse Exhibition, a selection from two earlier collections superbly translated by Jonathan Wright, are of uneven quality, Blasim, who has lived in Finland since 2004, can at his best be subtly and powerfully evocative. Revealed from a shifting array of perspectives, his characters are without exception flawed and often deeply scarred. In one story Blasim tangentially notes the impatience felt by a group of street kids for another public execution: they want a proper pair of goals for their soccer field but have only three posts, so they need the firing squad to leave behind one last bloodied wooden stake for them to steal.

rodenbeck_2-092514.jpg Magnum Photos A US soldier riding a donkey belonging to inhabitants of an isolated village in Nineveh, Iraq, where they had never seen an American patrol, 2006; photograph by Peter van Agtmael from his book Disco Night Sept. 11, published by Red Hook Editions

The setting for “The Song of the Goats” is a Baghdad radio contest for the most poignant real-life stories, which draws a ferociously competitive crowd. Pushing and shoving, they deride each other’s tales as not sufficiently grotesque or heartbreaking, making for an obliquely dark parody of the story-within-a-story narrative device of the Thousand and One Nights.

One of these brief, barely sketched would-be entries may serve to give a flavor of Blasim’s bleak humor:

The man with the beard was a teacher who went to the police one day to report on a neighbor who was trading in antiquities stolen from the National Museum. The police thanked him for his cooperation. The teacher, his conscience relieved, went back to his school. The police submitted a report to the Ministry of Defense that the teacher’s house was an al Qaeda hideout. The police were in partnership with the antiquities smuggler. The Ministry of Defense sent the report to the US Army, who bombed the teacher’s house by helicopter. His wife, his four children, and his elderly mother were killed. The teacher escaped with his life, but he suffered brain damage and lost his arms.

In another country such a story might be thought fantastical. In Iraq it could well be true; fiction here seems merely to be more concise than fact.

So one might conclude from a very different kind of book, Zaid al-Ali’s well-researched study of how Iraq has gotten into its current, worsening, and possibly terminal mess. The Struggle for Iraq’s Future is not a pretty story. Indeed it seems to be populated entirely by villains, from Saddam Hussein to criminally stupid or negligent American occupiers to the rapacious, self-serving, bloody-minded, and frequently murderous group of Iraqi politicians who have insinuated themselves into power in the Americans’ wake.

Born to an exiled Iraqi diplomat in 1977 and trained as a lawyer, Ali arrived in Baghdad, like many other hopeful Iraqi returnees following the 2003 invasion, with the idea of doing something for his country. After six years working both inside the government and with foreign aid projects, he concluded that it was a waste of time “trying to assist a state that was led by the worst elements in society.” It was not a total waste: Ali’s analytical clarity and his inside knowledge fill the gap in understanding Iraq that, for non-Iraqis at least, has widened markedly since America pulled out of its misadventure, abruptly withdrawing its last occupation troops in December 2011.

Ali proves his case with lawyerly aplomb. What he shows is that while history may have dealt Iraq a hard hand, and perhaps also subtly inculcated destructive pathologies of power and violence, the terrible failure of post-invasion Iraq is mostly a product of specific policy choices made by particular individuals. He devotes early chapters to a brief résumé of the modern country’s sad history. In this telling the 2003 occupation represents less a starting point than a punctuation mark in a slow but wretchedly steady decline.

Even by the standards of Iraq’s turbulent history, its past few decades have been unusually relentless. Just since 1980 Iraqis have experienced three major wars that wrecked the country’s physical infrastructure and left perhaps half a million dead; an attempt at genocide that permanently alienated Iraq’s five million Kurds; a ten-year siege under the UN’s “Oil-for-Food” program that devastated the economy, ruined the middle class, and forced the most talented into exile; an American invasion that shattered national pride and stoked bitter divisions; and a civil war that displaced as many as 4.7 million Iraqis from their homes and has driven a deep, perhaps irreparable chasm of mistrust between Iraq’s 60 percent Shia Arab majority and the once-dominant 20 percent Sunni Arab minority. Excepting perhaps the Russians from 1914 to 1953, few modern nations have been so cursed by ill luck for such an extended period.

Ali quickly dispenses with the blinding folly of Iraq’s post-invasion American administrators, a matter already devastatingly explored by authors such as Rajiv Chandrasekaran in his incomparable Imperial Life in the Emerald City. The occupation’s biggest mistakes are well known. Among them were its disbanding of the Iraqi army (which left a giant security vacuum and swelled the ranks of the unemployed with hundreds of thousands of trained soldiers and disgruntled officers), the institution of sweeping “de-Baathification” (which gutted the government’s administrative apparatus and became a tool for petty vindictiveness), and the application of sectarian and party quotas for public office (which aggravated tensions and turned government bureaus into party fiefdoms).

A more original contribution is Ali’s dissection of the Iraqi political class, who by his reckoning bear an equal if not bigger share of blame. The original sin by this account was the indulgence by the Americans of a select group of exiles based not on competence or on their popularity within Iraq but rather on subjective criteria. The anointed few were either those “most willing to engage in moral compromise” with “unrepentant and ideologically driven US officials” or those who happened to enjoy the backing of other foreign powers, including Iran.

Many among this new elect had not only scant understanding of their own wounded country but no experience of management, let alone of governance. “What was he doing all those years in Damascus?” asked a rival Iraqi politician in an interview with me last year, describing the decades spent in the Syrian capital by Nouri al-Maliki, the long-serving prime minister who on August 14 at last relinquished power to a party colleague and fellow Shiite Islamist, Haider al-Abadi. Maliki, sniffed his rival, “was nothing but a party hack sitting in Sayeda Zeinab [a poor district that houses an important Shia shrine] scribbling reports for Syrian intelligence.”

The skills at which such exiles excelled were not administrative, but of personal survival and party intrigue. The effects of this were soon felt. The American-initiated expedient of dividing responsibilities among parties became increasingly consecrated by practice. Yet not only did each political player attempt to carve out a part of the government pie. For the sake of “national unity” each administrative office had to reflect unspoken quotas: a Shia minister, for instance, was required to have both Sunni and Kurdish deputies, with all three ostensibly able to veto policy. The result was a legislative and administrative logjam, a “frozen republic” in which vital laws were never debated or issued, and policies neither coherently articulated nor executed.

Ali devotes an illuminating chapter to the rushed effort to draft and ratify the new constitution that was promulgated in 2005. By his telling a fatal mix of influences guaranteed a skewed outcome: American haste to show some positive achievement; the Republican administration’s zeal to shrink the role of the state; deal-making between Iraqi politicians who saw the exercise as chiefly a division of spoils; the eagerness of the Kurds to weaken the central government in favor of federal regions; and the disgruntled obstinacy of the newly disempowered Sunni Arab minority, which largely boycotted the process.

Among numerous constitutional flaws was a clause that vaguely designated the prime minister commander in chief of the army: “Though the drafters did not even realize it, the constitution’s lack of clarity turned the keys of the kingdom over to whoever occupied that particular position,” says Ali. Not surprisingly, Maliki, who was widely considered a weak compromise candidate when he was brought into power in 2005, subsequently exploited this loophole to the full. Fearing plots, he simply filled the crucial posts of interior and defense minister himself, running them as fiefdoms for his family, cronies, and associates of his masterfully misnamed State of Law coalition.

On paper most powers were meant to devolve to provinces rather than the central government. Yet it was to Baghdad that Iraq’s income from oil, representing 97 percent of government revenue, flowed and from where it was disbursed. This gave Maliki and his allies immense power to give or withhold favors. Iraq’s agenda for development thus became almost completely subservient to political interests, with catastrophic effects for the crumpled infrastructure. More than a decade after America’s invasion, despite billions spent to restore the country’s battered electricity grid, the only part of Iraq with anything close to a regular power supply was the Kurdish autonomous region. On more than one occasion, reports Ali, Iraqis have shown their appreciation of the absurd, protesting with mock funeral processions behind the “coffin” of electricity.

Corruption has naturally flourished in such conditions, but so have other ills. While Maliki, in a fashion reminiscent of Saddam Hussein, rewarded loyal Shia tribal chiefs with gold-plated revolvers, foes of the prime minister found their followers cut out of government jobs and contracts in a country where the state employs 60 percent of the formal workforce.

Maliki repeatedly dispatched loyalist security thugs to harass Sunni political opponents, or had them prosecuted as “terrorists” by a compliant judiciary. The sense of being not only denied a fair share but punished for complaining has fueled growing Sunni despair, to the point that when a long-smoldering Sunni rebellion erupted into war in June many Sunnis were willing to suspend their horror of the SIC as long as it advanced their cause.

As Ali points out, the flawed constitutional arrangement and its abuse by those in power helped to institutionalize sectarian differences:

Previously, sectarianism had been the principle on which the country’s new political order was established, and the mechanism that political parties had used to place their members in senior ministerial positions. But by 2011, sectarianism had acquired two different functions. First, it was used by politicians to deflect attention from their own dire performance.
Second, in the absence of genuine progress on the standard of living, government officials and their associates sometimes suggested that at least sectarian “interests” were being protected and promoted. Sectarianism had thus become the only line of defence in the face of state failure and the only objective worth pursuing: the achievement that excused all the failures of the past.

Ali wisely avoids placing blame on Maliki alone. Not only was Iraq’s strongman held in place by a peculiar ability to persuade two major but ostensibly deeply antagonistic foreign powers, America and Iran, of his indispensability. Despite their noisy opposition and often heartfelt disgust, Iraq’s other politicians were too lazy, too divisive, and too eager to capture a share of spoils to contest his domination effectively. For all Maliki’s incompetence as an administrator or as a military leader—the initial collapse of Iraq’s costly and overmanned military in the face of the SIC being all the proof needed—he proved masterful at the art of divide-and-rule.

Constant and fearsome violence has obviously added hugely to Iraq’s woes. Much of Iraq’s managerial class has by now, like Ali himself, simply abandoned ship. He describes a frustrating meeting in 2007 between European donors and a top official in the Ministry of Planning, who ends by confessing that he has no personnel left who might qualify for the professional training the Europeans offer. Yet it is shocking how feebly Iraq’s government has confronted the challenge from terrorists.

Following the American withdrawal in 2011, for instance, Maliki quickly reneged on a promise to maintain funding for local Sunni militias that had by 2008 largely succeeded in checking jihadist violence. The move not only set off protests in Sunni-majority areas where the vigilantes’ government salaries had become a mainstay of the local economy, but prepared the way for a return of Sunni extremist terror. Another example: despite enormous funding and manpower, and a crippling proliferation of checkpoints, Iraq’s multiple security agencies have failed to address the devastating menace of car bombings in Baghdad by the simple expedient of monitoring automotive workshops around the city.

Ali devotes his opening pages to one notorious example of such incompetence, the Iraqi government’s lavishing of some $85 million on the import and deployment of wand-like “bomb-detection” equipment. Even after a BBC investigation determined conclusively that the British-made devices were bogus; even after British and Iraqi courts sentenced both the manufacturer’s owner and the Iraqi official who had ordered them to stiff prison terms, Maliki continued publicly to insist that the $50,000 gadgets were effective. It was more important to save face, to sustain the illusion of mastery, than to admit reality.

The departure of Maliki, whose overstay of his welcome made him a sponge for dissent, could offer a window for reconciliation. Mainstream Sunni and Kurdish leaders, as well as some Shiites, had long demanded his exit. Yet the litany of failure that Ali describes is simply too long and wide-reaching to leave much room for optimism. Ali’s own concluding suggestions for how to right things seem sadly perfunctory. He also betrays, in occasional oversweeping judgments and in a peculiar lack of sympathy with the Kurdish yearning for independence (which seems only more justified by the ugly facts he himself reveals), an impractical wistfulness for an imaginary, whole, and complete Iraq.

What came to mind as I closed the book was the damning remark of a distinguished Iraqi exile I met in Kuwait shortly before the 2003 invasion. His father had served as prime minister under the monarchy whose overthrow in the bloody coup of 1958 had led to Iraq’s long era of turbulence. Still, he took a dim view of the looming ouster of Saddam Hussein, and held no dreams of return. “Of course the Americans will get rid of Saddam,” he said. “But what will we have then? A thousand little Saddams.”

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11 Sep 20:20

Mental Health Break

by Andrew Sullivan

A hypnotic lesson in physics:

11 Sep 20:33

Woman in her twenties discovers that she was born without a cerebellum

A woman living in China’s Shandong Province got a bit of a surprise recently when doctors at the Chinese PLA General Hospital told her that her brain was missing one of the most important centers for motor control: the cerebellum. She had initially checked herself into the hospital because of a bad case of dizziness and nausea, New Scientist reports.

Only nine other such cases in the world, and most died early on

The cerebellum is a small portion of the brain located at the back of the skull. But don’t be fooled by its size; it actually contains half of the brain’s neurons. And, unsurprisingly, having a missing cerebellum — cerebrospinal fluid was found in its place — caused quite a few problems for this woman over the course of her life. For one thing, her speech was slurred until age six, and she only began to walk at age seven. Moreover, she has had trouble maintaining her balance her entire life.

There have only been nine other such cases in the world and most died early on, so the fact that this woman has made it to adulthood – and is doing reasonably well — is pretty astounding. Doctors will undoubtedly want to study her further to find out how her brain adapted to the exclusion so quickly (it’s likely that the cortex took over for the missing mass). The results of her initial examination, however, are already available in the journal Brain.


ICYMI:Detours, Episode 2 - Boston Children's Hospital and 3-D Printed Brains
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12 Sep 00:00

Watches

Adam Victor Brandizzi

Nah, acredito que o meu vai ficar livre ainda por um tempo.

Old people used to write obnoxious thinkpieces about how people these days always wear watches and are slaves to the clock, but now they've switched to writing thinkpieces about how kids these days don't appreciate the benefits of an old-fashioned watch. My position is: The word 'thinkpiece' sounds like a word made up by someone who didn't know about the word 'brain'.
12 Sep 07:01

How To Cheat Death

by Doug
09 Sep 18:32

Can You Have a Career In Solving Big World Problems?

by Scott

I regularly take the the top voted question from readers and answer them in a post. With 62 votes, today’s winner was:

How would you start a career tackling big world problems?

It’s certainly a wonderful ambition. What’s concerning is much like the saying “I want to change the world” it’s more about ego than the world itself. Why does the world need changing exactly? Why are you wise enough or worthy of the power required to change the world? Once you scratch the surface of the sentiment and think, just for a minute, about history of people who wanted to solve big problems, much less succeeded, you’ll discover how narrow your focus needs to be.

The obvious answer is: Go solve some small world problems and work your way up. No one wants to hear this of course, but if you’re serious about the above question this has to be one of the strongest answers. To cure a disease takes a lifetime of study. To invent a new technology that saves energy, or write a novel that inspires people to be less mean to each other, or a thousand other world changing ideas can only happen if you’re committed to one path, at least for a time. Do you really think someone solved a big world problem in an afternoon? By accident? Do some homework and see what you find.

The real question then is how much work are you willing to invest in your dream? The dream is free, the work is not. Before you can solve big problems you need to learn how to solve many small ones and that will require patience and time. The bigger the problem you want to solve, the more of a commitment you’ll need to make. For fun look at the list of unsolved problems: there are plenty to pick from, and a small contribution to a big problem can have tremendous impact.

1. It Doesn’t Matter Where You Start

When doing something big where you start does not matter. In our minds ideas are perfect and we imagine the world can turn in such a way that manifesting that idea in the world becomes easy. This prevents many people from starting. Like waiting for an ideal moment to cross a very busy street, a moment that never comes, many smart people stand on the sidewalk forever. They wait and wait, expecting a perfectly shaped path between the present and the dream, and in the waiting nothing ever happens.

We all know from life experience you can’t see much of anything from the outside. It’s only once you step inside the forest that you can begin to find your way through the trees. If you get lost you might need to step out and start again elsewhere, but it’s in the getting lost you learn insight into what you’re truly looking for. Even Elon Musk was involved in several companies before he created SpaceX and Tesla, two companies ambitious about the big problems of space exploration and transportation. But had he tried to start SpaceX first, he likely

Few people earn the grand reputation in their field of being the go to person for big problems and the ones who do earned it over time. Winston the Wolf from the film Pulp Fiction didn’t start his career as The Wolf.  Queen Elizabeth wasn’t simply granted control over her country because she was born. It can take a career of dedication to earn needed trust from other important people. It may require specializing in a field, and narrowing your focus.

Firemen, SWAT teams and special operations military like Navy Seals are professional emergency problem solvers, but notice they don’t get to pick the problems they solve. They’re called in as the rescue squad, in service to people who perhaps weren’t careful enough to avoid creating the problem in the first place. Being a “big problem solver” might just mean you spend most of your time solving the same problems again and again. Every field has its set of consultants who get paid very well to repeat the same loop with client after client.

This is why it doesn’t matter where you start: no matter what you choose to do first you’ll have a long road of choices ahead.

To get the most out of every choice you make, ask the people you find yourself working with three questions:

  • What is the biggest problem you’ve tried to solve?
  • What did you learn from the experience?
  • What will you do differently the next time you take on a big problem?

2. Study People Who Solved Big World Problems

The second best way to learn how to live a certain kind of life is to read biographies of people who have already done it (the first best way is to know people who are already living that life, but that’s more effort than reading a book). Who do you think has changed the world? How did they achieve it? What sacrifices did they make? Where does the reality of their life not fit the fantasy you’ve seen in the movies? In any field there are legendary heroes, but the legends are always filled with myths. You need to do some hard work to uncover what their lives were really like and put into your own memory the benefits of their experience.

I’ve read about heroes like Buckminster Fuller, Gandhi, Michelangelo, Marie CurieVan Gogh, Alexander The Great, and Bertrand Russell, and try to read about a new hero at least every year. Films like Malcolm X, Walk The Line  (Johnny Cash) or Frida do provide some of what you need to understand, but films are dramas. They skip over the boring, daily work demanded to achieve anything interesting. It’s only by understanding the details of real lives that you can compare and contrast what your ambitions are, what you’re willing to do to achieve your goals and what you’re not willing to sacrifice.

Biographies are stereotyped as superficial, but that’s only the bad ones. A good biography explores the interior life of high achievers, and the internal, personal struggles they faced. If you want to follow in their footsteps you have to read about how they chose to take those strides and what it cost them. To your surprise you might discover that every big world problem was born from the previous big world solution.

3. Build Something You Control

Any big world problem demands the ability to make things, whether it’s robots, manifestos or political policies. The sooner you experience the psychological challenges of making an entire thing, end to end, where you are accountable for every part, the better. You will have no one to blame for the feedback you receive, forcing you to learn how to maturely seek feedback that can help you. Rarely in life do we get to put our name on something we make, but when we do it changes our relationship to the work and to ourselves. It is one of the few ways to discover our weakest skills, a discovery that’s good to make early (and more than once, as our weaknesses and strengths change over time). To the surprise of many dreamers, a common weakness is a lack of dedication to their own dreams.

Many people see books, films and the arts as the most leveraged place for a person with world changing ideas to work. It’s in these mediums they can make things unencumbered by anyone else and have a chance for thousands or millions of people to see their work. The writer or filmmaker chooses every word and every shot that makes it into their work, something most people in most organizations can never say. Getting people to care about what you make is another matter, but craft should come before marketing, and craft comes only from making things. In building things yourself, even as a novice, you may discover insights that experts in the field have long overlooked.

You may discover, in the actual doing of the work, that you enjoy solving small problems more than big ones. Or that it’s not the size of the problem that matters, but how much you care about the people who have the problem. For a young child in trouble, the lack of a friendly adult in their lives might be the biggest problem they have, and solving it for a specific person might be more meaningful than any number of inventions or awards. Our biggest liability as a species might just be we underestimate the big impact that solving small problems can have.

4. Build Something You Don’t Control

I’ve been spoiled by the freedom of software startups, so taking on the bureaucracy of government, cities and law turned me off.

The oldest and most important systems are the hardest to change, yet that’s where most of the big problems in the world are. World peace? World hunger? Space exploration? Crime? Health care? These are all grand problems that mostly involve forces you can never entirely control.  Any big world problem hinges on collaboration, and working with people who have resources you need and can’t get on your own. Read about Susan B. Anthony, FDR, Margaret Mead or Marie Curie. How did they use power that wasn’t their own to achieve big things? The sooner you try to build something that depends on other people, the sooner you’ll learn that social and political changes are often far harder than technological and creative ones. The big discovery for would be world changers is how central persuasion is to success, and how big a factor your reputation is in persuading people.

5. Think in Systems 

Americans often forget that the President of the United States is not a dictator: his powers are muted, in the design of the U.S. Constitution, by the other two branches of government. This means to be successful a president must not only have ideas, but understand how to navigate those ideas through the complex politics of Congress. Systems thinking is a field of study that identifies the system, meaning the rules and the patterns, as having primary importance. Learning to think in systems gives an alternative view of why a problem exists, and helps separate causes from symptoms. To ask questions like  “Why does this problem even exist?” or “What patterns does this problem follow compared to big problems in other fields?” is to look at the broader system view, where solutions to the hardest problems are often found.

  • Who benefits from the Status Quo?
  • When was the last time this problem changed dramatically for the better or worse?
  • Who has proposed good solutions in the past and was rejected? Why?
  • What are the assets and liabilities of the group that has power over this problem?
  • Who is the most powerful person interested in change?
  • What coalition can be built and what will unite them?

The Systems Bible by Gall is a comical introduction to systems thinking, particularly how a failure to think in system terms is a common cause of failure in trying to solve problems. The Logic of Failure by Dorner, explores how systems of decision making in organizations leads to avoidable failures. Learning to ask good questions is central to problem solving and systems thinking, and the best book on asking questions for problem solving is Are Your Lights On? By Weinberg. But sadly I don’t know of a single good book that explains how to use systems thinking to solve big problems. Perhaps that’s the first big problem one of you readers can solve.

—————-

What advice would you give to someone who wanted a career in solving big problems? Leave a comment.

10 Aug 01:49

Why Arabs Lose Wars :: Middle East Quarterly

Adam Victor Brandizzi

I can't recall who recommended this piece. For you, unknown sharer, my many thanks!

Norvell De Atkine, a U.S. Army retired colonel with eight years residence in Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt, and a graduate degree in Arab studies from the American University of Beirut, is currently instructing U.S. Army personnel assigned to Middle Eastern areas. The opinions expressed here are strictly his own.

Arabic-speaking armies have been generally ineffective in the modern era. Egyptian regular forces did poorly against Yemeni irregulars in the 1960s.1 Syrians could only impose their will in Lebanon during the mid-1970s by the use of overwhelming weaponry and numbers.2 Iraqis showed ineptness against an Iranian military ripped apart by revolutionary turmoil in the 1980s and could not win a three-decades-long war against the Kurds.3 The Arab military performance on both sides of the 1990 Kuwait war was mediocre.4 And the Arabs have done poorly in nearly all the military confrontations with Israel. Why this unimpressive record? There are many factors—economic, ideological, technical—but perhaps the most important has to do with culture and certain societal attributes which inhibit Arabs from producing an effective military force.

It is a truism of military life that an army fights as it trains, and so I draw on my many years of firsthand observation of Arabs in training to draw conclusions about the ways in which they go into combat. The following impressions derive from personal experience with Arab military establishments in the capacity of U.S. military attaché and security assistance officer, observer officer with the British-officer Trucial Oman Scouts (the security force in the emirates prior to the establishment of the United Arab Emirates), as well as some thirty year's study of the Middle East.

False Starts

Including culture in strategic assessments has a poor legacy, for it has often been spun from an ugly brew of ignorance, wishful thinking, and mythology. Thus, the U.S. army in the 1930s evaluated the Japanese national character as lacking originality and drew the unwarranted conclusion that the country would be permanently disadvantaged in technology.5 Hitler dismissed the United States as a mongrel society6 and consequently underestimated the impact of America's entry into the war. As these examples suggest, when culture is considered in calculating the relative strengths and weaknesses of opposing forces, it tends to lead to wild distortions, especially when it is a matter of understanding why states unprepared for war enter into combat flushed with confidence. The temptation is to impute cultural attributes to the enemy state that negate its superior numbers or weaponry. Or the opposite: to view the potential enemy through the prism of one's own cultural norms. American strategists assumed that the pain threshold of the North Vietnamese approximated their own and that the air bombardment of the North would bring it to its knees.7 Three days of aerial attacks were thought to be all the Serbs could withstand; in fact, seventy-eight days were needed.

It is particularly dangerous to make facile assumptions about abilities in warfare based on past performance, for societies evolve and so does the military subculture with it. The dismal French performance in the 1870 Franco-Prussian war led the German high command to an overly optimistic assessment prior to World War I.8 The tenacity and courage of French soldiers in World War I led everyone from Winston Churchill to the German high command vastly to overestimate the French army's fighting abilities.9 Israeli generals underestimated the Egyptian army of 1973 based on Egypt's hapless performance in the 1967 war.10

Culture is difficult to pin down. It is not synonymous with an individual's race nor ethnic identity. The history of warfare makes a mockery of attempts to assign rigid cultural attributes to individuals—as the military histories of the Ottoman and Roman empires illustrate. In both cases it was training, discipline, esprit, and élan which made the difference, not the individual soldiers' origin.11 The highly disciplined, effective Roman legions, for example, were recruited from throughout the Roman empire, and the elite Ottoman Janissaries (slave soldiers) were Christians forcibly recruited as boys from the Balkans.

The Role of Culture

These problems notwithstanding, culture does need to be taken into account. Indeed, awareness of prior mistakes should make it possible to assess the role of cultural factors in warfare. John Keegan, the eminent historian of warfare, argues that culture is a prime determinant of the nature of warfare. In contrast to the usual manner of European warfare which he terms "face to face," Keegan depicts the early Arab armies in the Islamic era as masters of evasion, delay, and indirection.12 Examining Arab warfare in this century leads to the conclusion that Arabs remain more successful in insurgent, or political warfare13—what T. E. Lawrence termed "winning wars without battles."14 Even the much-lauded Egyptian crossing of the Suez in 1973 at its core entailed a masterful deception plan. It may well be that these seemingly permanent attributes result from a culture that engenders subtlety, indirection, and dissimulation in personal relationships.15

Along these lines, Kenneth Pollack concludes his exhaustive study of Arab military effectiveness by noting that "certain patterns of behavior fostered by the dominant Arab culture were the most important factors contributing to the limited military effectiveness of Arab armies and air forces from 1945 to 1991."16 These attributes included over-centralization, discouraging initiative, lack of flexibility, manipulation of information, and the discouragement of leadership at the junior officer level.

The barrage of criticism leveled at Samuel Huntington's notion of a "clash of civilizations"17 in no way lessens the vital point he made—that however much the grouping of peoples by religion and culture rather than political or economic divisions offends academics who propound a world defined by class, race, and gender, it is a reality, one not diminished by modern communications.

But how does one integrate the study of culture into military training? At present, it has hardly any role. Paul M. Belbutowski, a scholar and former member of the U.S. Delta Force, succinctly stated a deficiency in our own military education system: "Culture, comprised of all that is vague and intangible, is not generally integrated into strategic planning except at the most superficial level."18 And yet it is precisely "all that is vague and intangible" which defines low-intensity conflicts. The Vietnamese communists did not fight the war the United States had trained for, nor did the Chechens and Afghans fight the war the Russians prepared for. This entails far more than simply retooling weaponry and retraining soldiers. It requires an understanding of the enemy's cultural mythology, history, attitude toward time, etc.—demanding a more substantial investment in time and money than a bureaucratic organization is likely to authorize.

Mindful of walking through a minefield of past errors and present cultural sensibilities, I offer some assessments of the role of culture in the military training of Arabic-speaking officers. I confine myself principally to training for two reasons. First, I observed much training but only one combat campaign (the Jordanian Army against the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1970). Secondly, armies fight as they train. Troops are conditioned by peacetime habits, policies, and procedures; they do not undergo a sudden metamorphosis that transforms civilians in uniform into warriors. General George Patton was fond of relating the story about Julius Caesar, who "In the winter time ... so trained his legions in all that became soldiers and so habituated them to the proper performance of their duties, that when in the spring he committed them to battle against the Gauls, it was not necessary to give them orders, for they knew what to do and how to do it."19

Information as Power

In every society information is a means of making a living or wielding power, but Arabs husband information and hold it especially tightly. U.S. trainers have often been surprised over the years by the fact that information provided to key personnel does not get much further than them. Having learned to perform some complicated procedure, an Arab technician knows that he is invaluable so long as he is the only one in a unit to have that knowledge; once he dispenses it to others he no longer is the only font of knowledge and his power dissipates. This explains the commonplace hoarding of manuals, books, training pamphlets, and other training or logistics literature. On one occasion, an American mobile training team working with armor in Egypt at long last received the operators' manuals that had laboriously been translated into Arabic. The American trainers took the newly-minted manuals straight to the tank park and distributed them to the tank crews. Right behind them, the company commander, a graduate of the armor school at Fort Knox and specialized courses at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds ordnance school, collected the manuals from the crews. Questioned why he did this, the commander said that there was no point in giving them to the drivers because enlisted men could not read. In point of fact, he did not want enlisted men to have an independent source of knowledge. Being the only person who can explain the fire control instrumentation or boresight artillery weapons brings prestige and attention. In military terms this means that very little cross-training is accomplished and that, for instance in a tank crew, the gunners, loaders, and drivers might be proficient in their jobs but are not prepared to fill in for a casualty. Not understanding one another's jobs also inhibits a smoothly functioning crew. At a higher level it means there is no depth in technical proficiency.

Education Problems

Training tends to be unimaginative, cut and dried, and not challenging. Because the Arab educational system is predicated on rote memorization, officers have a phenomenal ability to commit vast amounts of knowledge to memory. The learning system tends to consist of on-high lectures, with students taking voluminous notes and being examined on what they were told. (It also has interesting implications for foreign instructors; for example, his credibility is diminished if he must resort to a book.) The emphasis on memorization has a price, and that is in diminished ability to reason or engage in analysis based upon general principles. Thinking outside the box is not encouraged; doing so in public can damage a career. Instructors are not challenged and neither, in the end, are students.

Head-to-head competition among individuals is generally avoided, at least openly, for it means that someone wins and someone else loses, with the loser humiliated. This taboo has particular import when a class contains mixed ranks. Education is in good part sought as a matter of personal prestige, so Arabs in U.S. military schools take pains to ensure that the ranking member, according to military position or social class, scores the highest marks in the class. Often this leads to "sharing answers" in class—often in a rather overt manner or junior officers concealing scores higher than their superior's.

American military instructors dealing with Middle Eastern students learn to ensure that, before directing any question to a student in a classroom situation, particularly if he is an officer, the student does possess the correct answer. If this is not assured, the officer will feel he has been set up for public humiliation. Furthermore, in the often-paranoid environment of Arab political culture, he will believe this setup to have been purposeful. This student will then become an enemy of the instructor and his classmates will become apprehensive about their also being singled out for humiliation—and learning becomes impossible.

Officers vs. Soldiers

Arab junior officers are well trained on the technical aspects of their weapons and tactical know-how, but not in leadership, a subject given little attention. For example, as General Sa‘d ash-Shazli, the Egyptian chief of staff, noted in his assessment of the army he inherited prior to the 1973 war, they were not trained to seize the initiative or volunteer original concepts or new ideas.20 Indeed, leadership may be the greatest weakness of Arab training systems. This problem results from two main factors: a highly accentuated class system bordering on a caste system, and lack of a non-commissioned-officer development program.

Most Arab officers treat enlisted soldiers like sub-humans. When the winds in Egypt one day carried biting sand particles from the desert during a demonstration for visiting U.S. dignitaries, I watched as a contingent of soldiers marched in and formed a single rank to shield the Americans; Egyptian soldiers, in other words, are used on occasion as nothing more than a windbreak. The idea of taking care of one's men is found only among the most elite units in the Egyptian military. On a typical weekend, officers in units stationed outside Cairo will get in their cars and drive off to their homes, leaving the enlisted men to fend for themselves by trekking across the desert to a highway and flagging down busses or trucks to get to the Cairo rail system. Garrison cantonments have no amenities for soldiers. The same situation, in various degrees, exists elsewhere in the Arabic-speaking countries—less so in Jordan, even more so in Iraq and Syria.

The young draftees who make up the bulk of the Egyptian army hate military service for good reason and will do almost anything, including self-mutilation, to avoid it. In Syria the wealthy buy exemptions or, failing that, are assigned to noncombatant organizations. As a young Syrian told me, his musical skills came from his assignment to a Syrian army band where he learned to play an instrument. In general, the militaries of the Fertile Crescent enforce discipline by fear; in countries where a tribal system still is in force, such as Saudi Arabia, the innate egalitarianism of the society mitigates against fear as the prime motivator, so a general lack of discipline pervades.21

The social and professional gap between officers and enlisted men is present in all armies, but in the United States and other Western forces, the noncommissioned officer (NCO) corps bridges it. Indeed, a professional NCO corps has been critical for the American military to work at its best; as the primary trainers in a professional army, NCOs are critical to training programs and to the enlisted men's sense of unit esprit. Most of the Arab world either has no NCO corps or it is non-functional, severely handicapping the military's effectiveness. With some exceptions, NCOs are considered in the same low category as enlisted men and so do not serve as a bridge between enlisted men and officers. Officers instruct but the wide social gap between enlisted man and officer tends to make the learning process perfunctory, formalized, and ineffective. The show-and-tell aspects of training are frequently missing because officers refuse to get their hands dirty and prefer to ignore the more practical aspects of their subject matter, believing this below their social station. A dramatic example of this occurred during the Gulf war when a severe windstorm blew down the tents of Iraqi officer prisoners of war. For three days they stayed in the wind and rain rather than be observed by enlisted prisoners in a nearby camp working with their hands.

The military price for this is very high. Without the cohesion supplied by NCOs, units tend to disintegrate in the stress of combat. This is primarily a function of the fact that the enlisted soldiers simply do not trust their officers. Once officers depart the training areas, training begins to fall apart as soldiers begin drifting off. An Egyptian officer once explained to me that the Egyptian army's catastrophic defeat in 1967 resulted from a lack of cohesion within units. The situation, he said, had only marginally improved in 1973. Iraqi prisoners in 1991 showed a remarkable fear and enmity toward their officers.

Decision-making and Responsibility

Decisions are made and delivered from on high, with very little lateral communication. This leads to a highly centralized system, with authority hardly ever delegated. Rarely does an officer make a critical decision on his own; instead, he prefers the safe course of being identified as industrious, intelligent, loyal—and compliant. Bringing attention to oneself as an innovator or someone prone to make unilateral decisions is a recipe for trouble. As in civilian life, conformism is the overwhelming societal norm; the nail that stands up gets hammered down. Orders and information flow from top to bottom; they are not to be reinterpreted, amended, or modified in any way.

U.S. trainers often experience frustration obtaining a decision from a counterpart, not realizing that the Arab officer lacks the authority to make the decision—a frustration amplified by the Arab's understandable reluctance to admit that he lacks that authority. This author has several times seen decisions that could have been made at the battalion level concerning such matters as class meeting times and locations requiring approval from the ministry of defense. All of which has led American trainers to develop a rule of thumb: a sergeant first class in the U.S. Army has as much authority as a colonel in an Arab army. Methods of instruction and subject matter are dictated from higher authorities. Unit commanders have very little to say about these affairs. The politicized nature of the Arab militaries means that political factors weigh heavily and frequently override military considerations. Officers with initiative and a predilection for unilateral action pose a threat to the regime. This can be seen not just at the level of national strategy but in every aspect of military operations and training. If Arab militaries became less politicized and more professional in preparation for the 1973 war with Israel,22 once the fighting ended, old habits returned. Now, an increasingly bureaucratized military establishment weighs in as well. A veteran of the Pentagon turf wars will feel like a kindergartner when he encounters the rivalries that exist in the Arab military headquarters.

Taking responsibility for a policy, operation, status, or training program rarely occurs. U.S. trainers can find it very frustrating when they repeatedly encounter Arab officers placing blame for unsuccessful operations or programs on the U.S. equipment or some other outside source. A high rate of non-operational U.S. equipment is blamed on a "lack of spare parts"—pointing a finger at an unresponsive U.S. supply system despite the fact that American trainers can document ample supplies arriving in country and disappearing in a malfunctioning supply system. (Such criticism was never caustic or personal and often so indirect and politely delivered that it wasn't until after a meeting that oblique references were understood.) This imperative works even at the most exalted levels. During the Kuwait war, Iraqi forces took over the town of Khafji in northeast Saudi Arabia after the Saudis had evacuated the place. General Khalid bin Sultan, the Saudi ground forces commander, requested a letter from General Norman Schwarzkopf, stating it was the U.S. general who ordered an evacuation from the Saudi town.23 And in his account of the Khafji battle, General Bin Sultan predictably blames the Americans for the Iraqi occupation of the town.24 In reality the problem was that the light Saudi forces in the area left the battlefield.25 The Saudis were in fact outgunned and outnumbered by the Iraqi unit approaching Khafji but Saudi pride required that foreigners be blamed.

As for equipment, a vast cultural gap exists between the U.S. and Arab maintenance and logistics systems. The Arab difficulties with U.S. equipment are not, as sometimes simplistically believed, a matter of "Arabs don't do maintenance," but something much deeper. The American concept of a weapons system does not convey easily. A weapons system brings with it specific maintenance and logistics procedures, policies, and even a philosophy, all of them based on U.S. culture, with its expectations of a certain educational level, sense of small unit responsibility, tool allocation, and doctrine. Tools that would be allocated to a U.S. battalion (a unit of some 600-800 personnel) would most likely be found at a much higher level—probably two or three echelons higher—in an Arab army. The expertise, initiative and, most importantly, the trust indicated by delegation of responsibility to a lower level are rare. The U.S. equipment and its maintenance are predicated on a concept of repair at the lowest level and therefore require delegation of authority. Without the needed tools, spare parts, or expertise available to keep equipment running, and loathe to report bad news to his superiors, the unit commander looks for scapegoats. All this explains why I many times heard in Egypt that U.S. weaponry is "too delicate."

I have observed many in-country U.S. survey teams: invariably, hosts make the case for acquiring the most modern of military hardware and do everything to avoid issues of maintenance, logistics, and training. They obfuscate and mislead to such an extent that U.S. teams, no matter how earnest their sense of mission, find it nearly impossible to help. More generally, Arab reluctance to be candid about training deficiencies makes it extremely difficult for foreign advisors properly to support instruction or assess training needs.

Combined Arms Operations

A lack of cooperation is most apparent in the failure of all Arab armies to succeed at combined arms operations. A regular Jordanian army infantry company, for example, is man-for-man as good as a comparable Israeli company; at battalion level, however, the coordination required for combined arms operations, with artillery, air, and logistics support, is simply absent. Indeed, the higher the echelon, the greater the disparity. This results from infrequent combined arms training; when it does take place, it is intended to impress visitors (which it does—the dog-and-pony show is usually done with uncommon gusto and theatrical talent) rather than provide real training.

This problem results from three main factors. First, the well-known lack of trust among Arabs for anyone outside their own family adversely affects offensive operations.26 Exceptions to this pattern are limited to elite units (which throughout the Arab world have the same duty—to protect the regime, rather than the country). In a culture in which almost every sphere of human endeavor, including business and social relationships, is based on a family structure, this orientation is also present in the military, particularly in the stress of battle. Offensive action, basically, consists of fire and maneuver. The maneuver element must be confident that supporting units or arms are providing covering fire. If there is a lack of trust in that support, getting troops moving forward against dug-in defenders is possible only by officers getting out front and leading, something that has not been a characteristic of Arab leadership.

Second, the complex mosaic system of peoples creates additional problems for training, as rulers in the Middle East make use of the sectarian and tribal loyalties to maintain power. The ‘Alawi minority controls Syria, East Bankers control Jordan, Sunnis control Iraq, and Nejdis control Saudi Arabia. This has direct implications for the military, where sectarian considerations affect assignments and promotions. Some minorities (such the Circassians in Jordan or the Druze in Syria) tie their well-being to the ruling elite and perform critical protection roles; others (such as the Shi‘a of Iraq) are excluded from the officer corps. In any case, the assignment of officers based on sectarian considerations works against assignments based on merit.

The same lack of trust operates at the interstate level, where Arab armies exhibit very little trust of each other, and with good reason. The blatant lie Gamal Abdel Nasser told King Husayn in June 1967 to get him into the war against Israel—that the Egyptian air force was over Tel Aviv (when most of its planes had been destroyed)—was a classic example of deceit.27 Sadat's disingenuous approach to the Syrians to entice them to enter the war in October 1973 was another (he told them that the Egyptians were planning total war, a deception which included using a second set of operational plans intended only for Syrian eyes).28 With this sort of history, it is no wonder that there is very little cross or joint training among Arab armies and very few command exercises. During the 1967 war, for example, not a single Jordanian liaison officer was stationed in Egypt, nor were the Jordanians forthcoming with the Egyptian command.29

Third, Middle Eastern rulers routinely rely on balance-of-power techniques to maintain their authority.30 They use competing organizations, duplicate agencies, and coercive structures dependent upon the ruler's whim. This makes building any form of personal power base difficult, if not impossible, and keeps the leadership apprehensive and off-balance, never secure in its careers or social position. The same applies within the military; a powerful chairman of the joint chiefs is inconceivable.

Joint commands are paper constructs that have little actual function. Leaders look at joint commands, joint exercises, combined arms, and integrated staffs very cautiously for all Arab armies are a double-edged sword. One edge points toward the external enemy and the other toward the capital. The land forces are at once a regime-maintenance force and threat at the same time. No Arab ruler will allow combined operations or training to become routine; the usual excuse is financial expense, but that is unconvincing given their frequent purchase of hardware whose maintenance costs they cannot afford. In fact, combined arms exercises and joint staffs create familiarity, soften rivalries, erase suspicions, and eliminate the fragmented, competing organizations that enable rulers to play off rivals against one another. This situation is most clearly seen in Saudi Arabia, where the land forces and aviation are under the minister of defense, Prince Sultan, while the National Guard is under Prince Abdullah, the deputy prime minister and crown prince. In Egypt, the Central Security Forces balance the army. In Iraq and Syria, the Republican Guard does the balancing.

Politicians actually create obstacles to maintain fragmentation. For example, obtaining aircraft from the air force for army airborne training, whether it is a joint exercise or a simple administrative request for support of training, must generally be coordinated by the heads of services at the ministry of defense; if a large number of aircraft are involved, this probably requires presidential approval. Military coups may be out of style, but the fear of them remains strong. Any large-scale exercise of land forces is a matter of concern to the government and is closely observed, particularly if live ammunition is being used. In Saudi Arabia a complex system of clearances required from area military commanders and provincial governors, all of whom have differing command channels to secure road convoy permission, obtaining ammunition, and conducting exercises, means that in order for a coup to work, it would require a massive amount of loyal conspirators. Arab regimes have learned how to be coup-proof.

Security and Paranoia

Arab regimes classify virtually everything vaguely military. Information the U.S. military routinely publishes (about promotions, transfers, names of unit commanders, and unit designations) is top secret in Arabic-speaking countries. To be sure, this does make it more difficult for the enemy to construct an accurate order of battle, but it also feeds the divisive and compartmentalized nature of the military forces. The obsession with security
can reach ludicrous lengths. Prior to the 1973 war, Sadat was surprised to find that within two weeks of the date he had ordered the armed forces be ready for war, his minister of war, General Muhammad Sadiq, had failed to inform his immediate staff of the order. Should a war, Sadat wondered, be kept secret from the very people expected to fight it?31 One can expect to have an Arab counterpart or key contact to be changed without warning and with no explanation as to his sudden absence. This might well be simply a transfer a few doors down the way, but the vagueness of it all leaves foreigners with dire scenarios—scenarios that might be true. And it is best not to inquire too much; advisors or trainers who seem overly inquisitive may find their access to host military information or facilities limited.

The presumed close U.S.-Israel relationship, thought to be operative at all levels, aggravates and complicates this penchant for secrecy. Arabs believe that the most mundane details about them are somehow transmitted to the Mossad via a secret hotline.This explains why a U.S. advisor with Arab forces is likely to be asked early and often about his opinion of the "Palestine problem," then subjected to monologues on the presumed Jewish domination of the United States.

Indifference to Safety

In terms of safety measures, there is a general laxness, a seeming carelessness and indifference to training accidents, many of which could have been prevented by minimal efforts. To the (perhaps overly) safety-conscious Americans, Arab societies appear indifferent to casualties and show a seemingly lackadaisical approach to training safety. There are a number of explanations for this. Some would point to the inherent fatalism within Islam,32 and certainly anyone who has spent considerable time in Arab taxis would lend credence to that theory, but perhaps the reason is less religiously based and more a result of political culture. As any military veteran knows, the ethos of a unit is set at the top; or, as the old saying has it, units do those things well that the boss cares about. When the top political leadership displays a complete lack of concern for the welfare of its soldiers, such attitudes percolate down through the ranks. Exhibit A was the betrayal of Syrian troops fighting Israel in the Golan in 1967: having withdrawn its elite units, the Syrian government knowingly broadcast the falsehood that Israeli troops had captured the town of Kuneitra, which would have put them behind the largely conscript Syrian army still in position. The leadership took this step to pressure the great powers to impose a truce, though it led to a panic by the Syrian troops and the loss of the Golan Heights.33

Conclusion

It would be difficult to exaggerate the cultural gulf separating American and Arab military cultures. In every significant area, American military advisors find students who enthusiastically take in their lessons and then resolutely fail to apply them. The culture they return to—the culture of their own armies in their own countries—defeats the intentions with which they took leave of their American instructors.

When they had an influence on certain Arab military establishments, the Soviets reinforced their clients' cultural traits far more than, in more recent years, Americans were able to. Like the Arabs', the Soviets' military culture was driven by political fears bordering on paranoia. The steps taken to control the sources (real or imagined) of these fears, such as a rigidly centralized command structure, were readily understood by Arab political and military elites. The Arabs, too, felt an affinity for the Soviet officer class's contempt for ordinary soldiers and the Soviet military hierarchy's distrust of a well-developed, well-appreciated, well-rewarded NCO corps.

Arab political culture is based on a high degree of social stratification, very much like that of the defunct Soviet Union and very much unlike the upwardly mobile, meritocratic, democratic United States. Arab officers do not see any value in sharing information among themselves, let alone with their men. In this they follow the example of their political leaders, who not only withhold information from their own allies, but routinely deceive them. Training in Arab armies reflects this: rather than prepare as much as possible for the multitude of improvised responsibilities that are thrown up in the chaos of battle, Arab soldiers, and their officers, are bound in the narrow functions assigned them by their hierarchy. That this renders them less effective on the battlefield, let alone places their lives at greater risk, is scarcely of concern, whereas, of course, these two issues are dominant in the American military culture, and are reflected in American military training.

Change is unlikely to come until it occurs in the larger Arab political culture, although the experience of other societies (including our own) suggests that the military can have a democratizing influence on the larger political culture, as officers bring the lessons of their training first into their professional environment, then into the larger society. It obviously makes a big difference, however, when the surrounding political culture is not only avowedly democratic (as are many Middle Eastern states), but functionally so. Until Arab politics begin to change at fundamental levels, Arab armies, whatever the courage or proficiency of individual officers and men, are unlikely to acquire the range of qualities which modern fighting forces require for success on the battlefield. For these qualities depend on inculcating respect, trust, and openness among the members of the armed forces at all levels, and this is the marching music of modern warfare that Arab armies, no matter how much they emulate the corresponding steps, do not want to hear.


1 Saeed M. Badeeb, The Saudi-Egyptian Conflict over North Yemen 1962-1970, (Boulder, Westview Press: 1986), pp. 33-42.
2 R. D. McLaurin, The Battle of Zahle (Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Md.: Human Engineering Laboratory, Sept. 1986), pp. 26-27.
3 Anthony Cordesman and Abraham Wagner, The Lessons of Modern War, Volume II: The Iran-Iraq War, (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1990), pp. 89-98; Phebe Marr, The Modern History of Iraq (Boulder Colo.: Westview Press, 1985), pp. 22-223, 233- 234.
4 Kenneth M. Pollack, "The Influence of Arab Culture on Arab Military Effectiveness" (Ph.d. diss., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1996), pp. 259-261 (Egypt); pp. 533-536 (Saudi Arabia); pp. 350-355 (Iraq). Syrians did not see significant combat in the 1991 Gulf war but my conversations with U.S. personnel in liaison with them indicated a high degree of paranoia and distrust toward Americans and other Arabs.
5 David Kahn, "United States Views of Germany and Japan," Knowing One's Enemies: Intelligence Before the Two World Wars, ed., Ernest R. May (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), pp. 476-503.
6 Gerhard L. Weinberg, The Foreign Policy of Hitler's Germany: Diplomatic Revolution in Europe, 1933-1936 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1970), p. 21.
7 Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: Penguin Books, 1984), p. 18.
8 Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (New York: Random House, 1987), pp. 186-187. The German assessment from T. Dodson Stamps and Vincent J. Esposito, eds., A Short History of World War I (West Point, N.Y.: United States Military Academy, 1955), p. 8.
9 William Manchester, Winston Spencer Churchilll: The Last Lion Alone, 1932-1940 (New York: Dell Publishing, 1988), p. 613; Ernest R. May "Conclusions," Knowing One's Enemies, pp. 513-514. Hitler thought otherwise, however.
10 Avraham (Bren) Adan, On the Banks of the Suez (San Francisco: Presideo Press, 1980), pp. 73-86. "Thus the prevailing feeling of security, based on the assumption that the Arabs were incapable of mounting an overall war against us, distorted our view of the situation," Moshe Dayan stated."As for the fighting standard of the Arab soldiers, I can sum it up in one sentence: they did not run away." Moshe Dayan: Story of My Life (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1976), p. 510.
11 John Keegan, A History of Warfare (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), p. 18.
12 Ibid., p. 387
13 John Walter Jandora, Militarism in Arab Society: A Historiographical and Bibliographical Sourcebook (Westport, Ct.: Greenwood Press, 1997), p. 128.
14 T. E. Lawrence, The Evolution of a Revolt (Ft. Leavenworth Kans.: CSI, 1990), p. 21.( A reprint of article originally published in the British Army Quarterly and Defense Journal, Oct. 1920.)
15 Author's observations buttressed by such scholarly works as Eli Shouby, "The Influence of the Arabic Language on the Psychology of the Arabs," Readings in Arab Middle Eastern Societies and Culture, ed. Abdullah M. Lutfiyya and Charles Churchill (The Hague: Mouton Co., 1970), pp. 688-703; Hisham Shirabi and Muktar Ani, "Impact of Class and Culture on Social Behavior: The Feudal-Bourgeois Family in Arab Society," Psychological Dimensions of Near Eastern Studies, ed. L. Carl Brown and Norman Itzkowitz (Princeton: The Darwin Press, 1977), pp. 240-256; Sania Hamady, Temperament and Character of the Arabs (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1960), pp. 28-85; Raphael Patai, The Arab Mind (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973), pp. 20-85.
16 Pollack, "The Influence of Arab Culture," p. 759.
17 Samuel P. Huntington, "The Clash of Civilizations," Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993, pp. 21-49.
18 Paul M. Belbutowski, "Strategic Implications of Cultures in Conflict," Parameters, Spring 1996, pp. 32-42.
19 Carlo D'Este, Patton: A Genius for War (New York: Harper-Collins, 1996), p. 383.
20 Saad el-Shazly, The Crossing of the Suez (San Francisco: American Mideast Research, 1980), p. 47.
21 Jordan may be an exception here; however, most observers agree that its effectiveness has declined in the past twenty years.
22 Pollack, "The Influence of Arab Culture," pp. 256-257.
23 H. Norman Schwarzkopf, It Doesn't Take A Hero (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), p. 494.
24 Khaled bin Sultan, Desert Warrior: A Personal View of the War by the Joint Forces Commander (New York: Harper-Collins, 1995), pp. 368-69.
25 Based on discussions with U.S. personnel in the area and familiar with the battle.
26 Yesoshat Harkabi, "Basic Factors in the Arab Collapse During the Six Day War," Orbis, Fall 1967, pp. 678-679.
27 James Lunt, Hussein of Jordan, Searching for a Just and Lasting Peace: A Political Biography (New York: William Morrow, 1989), p. 99.
28 Patrick Seale, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), pp. 197-99; Shazly, Crossing of the Suez, pp. 21, 37.
29 Samir A. Mutawi, Jordan in the 1967 War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 161.
30 James A. Bill and Robert Springborg, Politics in the Middle East, 3rd Ed. (New York: Harper-Collins, 1990), p. 262.
31 Anwar el-Sadat, In Search of Identity (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), p. 235.
32 Hamady, Temperament and Character of the Arabs, pp. 184-193; Patai, The Arab Mind, pp.147-150.
33 Joseph Malone, "Syria and the Six-Day War," Current Affairs Bulletin, Jan. 26, 1968, p. 80.

Related Topics:  Norvell B. De Atkine  |  December 1999 MEQ receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free mef mailing list This text may be reposted or forwarded so long as it is presented as an integral whole with complete and accurate information provided about its author, date, place of publication, and original URL.

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09 Sep 16:45

Infographic: Results after legalizing pot in Colorado

10 Sep 23:35

Quote For The Day II

by Andrew Sullivan

“[It is] easy for us to provoke and bait this administration. All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaeda, in order to make the generals race there and cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses. … This is in addition to our having experience in using guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers, as we, alongside the mujahidin, bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat,” – Osama bin Laden, 2004.

11 Sep 04:36

Ferguson é aqui: auto de resistência e licença para matar

by Valdenor Júnior

Por Valdenor Júnior

Em Ferguson, no estado americano do Missouri, o adolescente desarmado Michael Brown levou seis tiros da polícia local. Uma onda de protestos tomou a cidade, reivindicando justiça e exigindo o fim da militarização e dos abusos policiais.

Mas e a Ferguson brasileira?

No Brasil, a polícia é rotineiramente abusiva, especialmente contra jovens pobres das periferias de grandes cidades. Extorsões policiais de comerciantes e transeuntes são comuns e a tortura é disseminada. Mortes por atuação desproporcional ou execução por parte da polícia não são investigadas nem punidas.

Há alguns meses, Cláudia Silva Ferreira, cujo único “crime” foi o de estar com um copo de café na mão, foi baleada, carregada até a viatura policial para ser levada para o hospital e colocada no porta-malas. Quando o porta-malas abriu, seu corpo ficou preso no para-choque e foi arrastado por cerca de 350 metros pelo asfalto até ser empurrada de volta para dentro do carro.

Não é um caso isolado: no Estado de São Paulo, por exemplo, em 2012, 95% dos feridos em confrontos policiais transportados pela polícia morreram no trajeto até o hospital. Após a proibição desse transporte e a obrigação de contatar socorro especializado, o número de mortes nesses casos diminuiu em 39%.

Todo brasileiro deve estar mais ou menos familiarizado com fatos do tipo. Mas poucos conhecem o instrumento legal que dá aos policiais licença para matar: o auto de resistência.

Segundo Juliana Farias, pesquisadora da ONG de direitos humanos Justiça Global:

“É importante lembrar que esta denominação [auto de resistência] foi criada durante a ditadura [militar], e é um termo que, assim como naquela época, vem sendo utilizado para encobrir ações da policia que deveriam ser registradas como homicídio.”

O auto de resistência funciona como uma licença para matar porque o registro da “resistência seguida de morte” cria uma presunção em favor do policial. Não se trata de uma mera presunção de inocência, mas de um privilégio da polícia de que sua versão é verdadeira. No caso de Cláudia Silva Ferreira, os PMs responsáveis por sua morte já haviam sido envolvidos em 62 autos de resistência e 69 mortes.

A presunção de inocência não significa que possíveis crimes cometidos por um indivíduo não devam ser investigados, mas os autos de resistência são usados exatamente para evitar investigações. O arquivamento de inquéritos policiais envolvendo autos de resistência é recorrente.

O deputado Paulo Teixeira acrescenta:

“Isso é um entulho da ditadura e continua existindo. No Rio de Janeiro foram analisados 12 mil autos de resistência e 60% deles foram execução pura e simples, muitas com tiro na nuca. Queremos que essas pessoas respondam por homicídio.”

Negros e pobres são ainda mais afetados por esse privilégio policial. Em evento pela abolição do auto de resistência, Vinícius Romão, ator que ficou preso por 16 dias supostamente confundido pela vítima de um assalto, relatou:

“O policial apontou a arma para minha cabeça por causa da minha cor de pele. E só não fui mais um ‘auto de resistência’ porque em nenhum momento pensei em correr. Fiquei tranquilo porque sou formado em psicologia e acreditei que em poucos minutos o erro fosse solucionado. Mas fui levado como flagrante e 157 (assalto a mão armada). Eu não fui parado na mesma rua da ocorrência nem estava com arma nenhuma. Fui parado porque tinha o cabelo black power. Só o que chamou a atenção da mídia foi quando anunciaram que um ator de novela havia sido confundido. ‘Ator de novela’ vende mais jornal do que ‘negro’.”

Grupos de direitos humanos defendem a substituição do registro do “auto de resistência” ou “resistência seguida de morte” pelo registro da “lesão corporal decorrente de intervenção policial” ou “homicídio decorrente de intervenção policial”, com investigação dos fatos garantida.

O auto de resistência é emblemático do caráter do estado brasileiro.  A força policial não apenas monopoliza a prevenção e a investigação de crimes, mas também possui um instrumento facilmente conversível em licença para matar. Não à toa os extermínios, execuções extrajudiciais e “desaparecimentos” são epidêmicos nas cidades brasileiras. É difícil imaginar sistemas alternativos que pudessem ser mais facilmente explorados.

Como afirmou Robert Nozick, todo indivíduo tem direito a um sistema confiável e imparcial e tem o direito de resistir a procedimentos percebidos como pouco confiáveis ou injustos. No Brasil, porém, a resistência é fútil e já não causa qualquer comoção.

Em um cenário onde os direitos do indivíduo são reconhecidos e onde a liberdade humana para escolher seu provedor do direito fosse reconhecida, os autos de resistência sancionados pelo estado brasileiro seriam ilegais.

Nos Estados Unidos, a morte de Michael Brown causou revolta e a população de Ferguson exigiu justiça. Se Michael Brown fosse brasileiro, seria estatística de auto de resistência.

Com esse instrumento, o Brasil legalizou a violência policial. Por isso, ao ver os protestos nos EUA, lembre-se: Ferguson é aqui.

___________________________________________________________________________

Publicado originalmente no Centro por uma Sociedade sem Estado – C4SS

junior

Valdenor Júnior é advogado. Editor no site Mercado Popular. Escreve também para o site internacional Centro por uma Sociedade sem Estado (C4SS), escreveu para o site brasileiro Liberzone, e mantém o blog pessoal Tabula (não) Rasa & Libertarianismo Bleeding Heart. Seus principais interesses são filosofia política liberal, economia mainstream e institucional, ciência evolucionária, naturalismo filosófico, teoria naturalizada do Direito, direito internacional dos direitos humanos e psicologia cognitiva.

10 Sep 21:20

Final Chapter of Cash Seizure Series a Repulsive Accounting of Police Misbehavior

by Scott Shackford

"I sense a 50 percent increase in overtime claims coming."On Monday I noted The Washington Post had put together a series of stories offering a deep look at the abuse by law enforcement agencies across the country of civil asset forfeiture laws and how they’ve been able to line their pockets with citizens’ money without ever actually proving said citizens had committed any crime.

The final chapter is, as teased, a collection of terrible stories of American citizens who happen to be transporting cash being stopped by law enforcement officers for relatively minor reasons and conclude with these people having said cash taken away from them. Here’s just one of several stories highlighted:

Matt Lee of Clare, Mich., got snared in an interdiction net in 2011 on Interstate 80 in Humboldt County, Nev. Lee was a 31-year-old college graduate who had struggled to find work and had moved back in with his parents to save money. When a friend promised him an entry-level job as a sales rep at a photo studio in California, Lee’s father, a postal employee, loaned him $2,500 in cash and Lee drove west in a decade-old Pontiac Bonneville.

On his third day, Lee was passing through the Nevada desert, wearing aviator sunglasses. A sheriff’s deputy raced up alongside the Bonneville, stared at Lee and then pulled him over.

Humboldt County Sheriff’s Deputy L.A. Dove, a member of the K-9 drug interdiction unit, has received instruction from the 4:20 Group, a contractor for the DEA and one of the leading interdiction trainers in the country.

Dove asked whether Lee was carrying any currency and summoned a K-9 officer. Dove told Lee, who is white, to get out of the car and stand at the edge of the desert, while a dog sniffed for drugs. The deputy told Lee that he didn’t believe his story that he was moving to California, because he was carrying so little baggage, Lee told The Post. Lee has no criminal record.

When a search turned up Lee’s remaining $2,400 in cash, Dove and his colleague exchanged high-fives, Lee said. Dove said he was taking the money under state law because he was convinced that Lee was involved in a drug run. Lee was left with only the $151 in his pocket.

Lee got an attorney and eventually they agreed to give him his money back. But his attorney ended up taking half in fees.

For other cases, when challenged, officials offer to give the citizen half the money they’ve taken back if their victim will shut up and go away. Another victim, despite winning his battle and getting all his money back (and forcing the government to pay his legal fees) still ended up screwed over. The seized cash was to be used for costs of operating his small Virginia restaurant. Without the money, he ended up having to shut it down during the course of fighting for his property back.

Read the full story here. That at least nobody got beaten or shot is about the best you can say about the tales.

10 Sep 19:00

“The Wife’s Resentment”: On Security in Marriage

by Madison Brewer

Hogarth_marriagealamodedetailThis post, and several others to appear in due course, are generously sponsored by a gentleman-scholar from County San Francisco, supportive of the production and assessment of nasty novels, dealing familiarly with gamblers, misandrists and flashy reprobates. Said gentleman-scholar has re-upped his donation, so keep pitching me, academics longing for freedom.

When I came across recent debates about marriage and the security supposedly felt by married women versus her unmarried peers on my newsfeed, the oddest thought crept into my mind: how would the many literary married femme fatales I’ve read about this past year react to these discussions? After all, early narratives about these married women often depict the husband as a man who seems perfect at first but will later prove to be unfaithful or utterly useless in fulfilling his responsibility to his wife. What makes these narratives a comfort to read alongside my newsfeed has nothing to do with the husband getting what the femme fatale believed to be his just desserts. I think there is something to be said about fiction that may be centuries old, but can still offer incredible insight into current events, and these diabolical women and their stories are no exception. I began to recall lectures about early femme fatales and noticed that motive and cultural influence were almost always underlined as important factors to consider, whether in reading a piece of fiction or a real court case (1). Centuries later, this rule of thumb still applies. 

It dawned on me that humanity has been both fascinated and appalled by violence for centuries—and if the countless shows like Criminal Minds and True Detective have anything to say about it—our thirst has only increased.  While these shows are addicting, this past year my curiosity has been held hostage by the titillating history and bodily narratives of Murderesses in British prose—specifically, women who are victims of unspeakable crimes without a prayer for justice. For the better part of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, servants of Divine law and civic duty demarcated the rare Murderess, denying her social representation and condemning her as inconceivably genderless and virtueless. As a budding Murderess scholar, I know these historic jezebels were hardly silenced by the foolish decision of the British courts to regard them as less than human. Like every story murder requires a narrative and emerging prose writers in the eighteenth century rose to the occasion. Among these authors was political satirist and rogue female spy Delariviere Manley, whose political endeavors and taste for scandal informed her biting critiques of sovereign rule during her lifetime. 

What fascinates me is Manley’s particular portrayal of sexual political scandal of the discarded woman, which revealed the innate complexity of the femme fatale criminal mind. In one such allegorical short story, “The Wife’s Resentment,” (1720) Manley readapts a fifteenth century tale of a virtuous maiden she names Violenta and a virtueless knight, Seignior Roderigo. Because England forbade any artist from criticizing her majesty’s rule, Manley had to pen this 12-page manuscript as a pseudo deposition set in another country to avoid accusations of libel. In this limited space, Violenta’s narrative weaves in graphic detail a series of horrific events that indicts the public’s compassion towards the knight/play-boy as opposed to emphasizing the condemnation of the murderess. What also separates Manley’s piece from murderess court cases is her inclusion of a public confession that is all too hard to ignore by the Duke and the public:

“Think not, most noble Duke,” added she, “that I have given you this plain relation to move your pity and prolong my life; I could for ever have escaped your justice, if I had so intended! my purpose was to have my honor as publicly cleared as it was aspersed (emphasis mine); for a terror to all young virgins, how they receive the addresses of persons so greatly above them; and to warn them how they consent to a clandestine marriage, as I have done, by which I am this day brought to ruin. I hold myself unworthy to live, after being stained with blood; though that blood was shed to wash away my stain. So far am I from desiring life that I cannot endure to live. I beg death of your justice…”(2) 

One could argue that Violenta’s crime doesn’t just represent the righteous, passionate anger of a God-fearing woman. Two sentences into her confession, Violenta holds the public partially accountable for Roderigo’s murder because of their tolerance of his debauchery and their monotonous gossip over her lost honor. In essence, her crime served as proportional response to her loss of public value and introduced a central problem with society: that value is ascribed to the wealthy play-boy because his appearance suggests eminent quality rather than ascribed to the virtuous woman because her appearance suggests poor stock. A problem, I’d like to add, that still exists today. 

To emphasize this point, Violenta’s tale doesn’t begin with the virtuous maid but with a hyperbolic depiction of Valencia and their virtueless knight. On the one hand, Valencia prides itself on being the esteemed seat for justice, faith and humanity. But on the other hand, the public doesn’t reprimand Roderigo for his unseemly behavior. On the contrary, “he was [just] so handsome, so rich, and of such eminent quality, that he still found a favorable reception amongst the ladies; each one imagining that her charms were sufficient to make a convert of him.” Use to a welcoming invitation into any woman’s embrace, Roderigo is disarmed by Violenta and her unyielding withdraw from his pursuit. His violent passion for her that can only be characterized as stalking, even forces Violenta to alter the place and hour of prayer every day and cause her to threaten to enter into the cloister if he won’t give it a rest. Meanwhile, outside of the one agent who warns Roderigo from the very beginning that Violenta is “not for his Lordship’s turn […]; her wit was more commended than her beauty, for she could both read and write, in which she took extreme delight,” no one in this reclusive province comes to Violenta’s aid or condemns Roderigo and his attempts to secure her chastity.   

Read more “The Wife’s Resentment”: On Security in Marriage at The Toast.

10 Sep 20:35

Why can't we use technology to solve social problems?

Not long after the Apollo landing, a prevalent cliche for a few years was "If we can put humans on the moon, why can't we....[insert prominent social problem such as starvation, epidemic, radical inequalities, etc.]? In 1980, in his book "Critical Path," Buckminster Fuller wrote:

"We are blessed with technology that would be indescribable to our forefathers. We have the wherewithal, the know-it-all to feed everybody, clothe everybody, and give every human on Earth a chance. We know now what we could never have known before-that we now have the option for all humanity to "make it" successfully on this planet in this lifetime."

In the contemporary zeitgeist, Fuller's claims seem naively utopian. The past century saw too much misery resulting from the attempts to build utopias. But without the belief that human civilization can improve, how could we have arrived at the point where we can formulate questions like these and exchange them around the world at the speed of light?

There are several obvious choices for answers to the question of why this question isn't asked any more:

1. We might have been able to put humans on the moon in 1969, but not today. Good point. And the reason for this circumstance — lack of political will, and the community of know-how it took NASA a decade to assemble, not lack of technical capabilities — is instructive.

2. Technology actually has solved enormous social problems — antibiotics, hygienic plumbing, immunization, the green revolution. I agree with this, and see it as evidence that it is possible to relieve twice as much, a thousand times as much human misery as previous inventions.

3. Human use of technologies have created even greater social problems — antibiotics are misused and supergerms evolved; nuclear wastes and weapons are threats, not enhancements; the green revolution swelled the slums of the world as agricultural productivity rose and global agribiz emerged.

4. There is no market for solving social problems, and it isn't the business of government to get into the technology or any other kind of business. This is the fallacy of the excluded middle. Some technologies such as the digital computer and the Internet were jump-started by governments, evolved through grassroots enthusiasms, and later become industries and "new economies."

5. Throwing technology at problems can be helpful, but the fundamental problems are political and economic and rooted in human nature. This answer should not be ignored. A tool is not the task, and often the invisible, social, non-physical aspects of a technological regime make all the difference.

There's some truth to each of these answers, yet they all fall short because all assume that we know how to think about technology. Just because we know how to make things doesn't guarantee that we know what those things will do to us. Or what kind of things we ought to make.

What if we don't know how to think about the tools we are so skilled at creating? What if we could learn?

Perhaps knowing how to think about technology is a skill we will have to teach ourselves the way we taught ourselves previous new ways of thinking such as mathematics, logic, and science.

A few centuries ago, a few people began questioning the assumption that people knew how to think about the physical world. Neither philosophy nor religion seemed to be able to stave off famine and epidemic. The enlightenment was about a new method for thinking.

Part of that new method was the way of asking and testing questions known as science, which provided the knowledge needed to create new medicines, new tools, new weapons, new economic systems.

We learned how to think very well about the physical world, and how to unleash the power in that knowledge. But perhaps we have yet to learn how to think about what to do with our tools.

HOWARD RHEINGOLD is author of The Virtual Community, Virtual Reality, Tools for Thought. Founder of Electric Minds, named by Time magazine one of the ten best web sites of 1996. Editor of The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog.

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10 Sep 16:08

Markets in everything: High-tech, sensor-based trash collection saves up to 50% compared to the traditional system

by Mark J. Perry

Here’s a good example of both creative destruction and the invisible hand – Enevo ONe, a Finnish startup, is disrupting the waste management industry with a new, innovative sensor-based trash management system. Here’s how it works (from the company’s website):

Enevo ONe is a comprehensive logistics solution that saves time, money and the environment. It uses wireless sensors to measure and forecast the fill-level of waste containers and generates smart collection plans using the most efficient schedules and routes. The solution provides up to 50% in direct cost savings.

Until now collecting waste has been done using static routes and schedules where containers are collected every day or every week regardless if they are full or not. Enevo ONe changes all this by using smart wireless sensors to gather fill-level data from waste containers. The service then automatically generates schedules and optimized routes which take into account an extensive set of parameters (future fill-level projections, truck availability, traffic information, road restrictions etc.). New schedules and routes are planned not only looking at the current situation, but considering the future outlook as well.

Here’s a Forbes article with some background on how the company got started — the same way most successful companies get started — when Finnish entrepreneur Fredrik Kekalainen had a “eureka moment.”  And most of those “eureka moments” are perfect examples of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” concept, because entrepreneurs only become successful and rich in the marketplace by figuring out ways to make other people better off through better products or services, cheaper products or services, or new products and services that improve the lives of others. If things work out, entrepreneurs like Fredrik Kekalainen get rich, but their personal wealth is usually only a fraction of the social benefits that they generate collectively for the rest of society. By pursuing their own self-interest (and their desire to become wealthy) entrepreneurs like Fredrik are led by an “invisible hand” to make the rest of us better off. And that’s the miracle of the marketplace that Steven Landsburg described Armchair Economist - the amazing phenomenon that individually selfish behavior leads to collectively efficient outcomes.

HT: Jon Murphy

10 Sep 12:27

Michael Schumacher deixa hospital depois de 254 dias internado - Esportes - Estadão

O Estado de S. Paulo

09 Setembro 2014 | 10h 52

Segundo a empresária do ex-piloto, fato está ligado à evolução do quadro clínico nas últimas semanas; tratamento continuará em casa 

Pouco mais de dois meses depois de conseguir se comunicar com os olhos, Michael Schumacher deu outra grande notícias ao fãs nesta terça-feira. O heptacampeão mundial de Fórmula 1 deixou o hospital em que estava internado, em Lausanne, na Suíça. Segundo Sabine Khem, empresária do alemão, o fato está ligado à evolução do quadro clínico nas últimas semanas.

"Daqui em diante, a reabilitação de Michael vai ser feita em sua casa. Considerando as graves lesões sofridas por ele, houve algum progresso nas últimas semanas e meses", afirmou a assessora, em comunicado.

De acordo com ela, porém, a recuperação ainda será longa e difícil. No total, o ex-piloto, que se acidentou no dia 29 de dezembro do ano passado, ficou 254 dias internado - foram 189 dias em coma, no hospital de Grenoble, na França. 

Caren Firouz/Reuters - 11/03/2006 Schumacher continuará tratamento em casa oito meses depois do acidente

"Queremos mostrar nossa gratidão a todo o time do CHUV Lausanne pelo competente trabalho. Nós pedimos que a privacidade da família de Michael continue a ser respeitada e que as especulações sobre seu estado de saúde sejam evitadas", disse Sabine.

Schumacher teve graves lesões na cabeça poucas horas depois do acidente que sofreu nos Alpes franceses, na estação de esqui de Meribel, onde o capacete que usava chegou a rachar por causa do forte impacto que teve com uma rocha no momento da queda. Com o alemão em estado grave, os médicos optaram por colocá-lo em coma induzido, para que seu cérebro pudesse repousar e que a inflamação e inchaço no local fossem reduzidas.

O heptacampeão também foi operado para eliminação de coágulos de sangue, mas alguns deles estavam muito profundos. Por isso, ainda é uma incógnita a sua situação neurológica. Aposentado pela segunda e última vez em 2012, Schumacher ostenta um recorde 91 vitórias na Fórmula 1. O ex-piloto, sua esposa e o filho de 14 anos, que estava presente na hora do acidente, moram na Suíça.

CONFIRA A NOTA NA ÍNTEGRA

Daqui em diante, a recuperação de Michael Schumacher acontecerá em sua casa. Considerando as graves lesões sofridas no acidente, houve progresso nas últimas semanas. Contudo, ainda há um longo e difícil caminho pela frente.

Gostaríamos de estender nossa gratidão a toda a equipe do Centro Hospitalar Universitário de Vaud, por seu trabalho minucioso e competente.

Pedimos que a privacidade da família de Michael continue a ser respeitada, e que as especulações sobre seu estado de saúde sejam evitadas.

As informações a seguir devem ser consideradas como complementares:

- Não se deve presumir que grandes mudanças em seu estado de saúde foram as razões para a mudança no local do tratamento.

- Não houve qualquer obra em sua residência para tornar esta mudança possível.

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10 Sep 13:39

A guerra ideológica de Haddad

by Tiago de Thuin
Adam Victor Brandizzi

Faz muito sentido.

O texto não é meu, tirei de um tópico no Skyscrapercity, mas curti. Sobre as críticas ao jeito improvisado e muitas vezes falho das ciclovias sendo construídas em São Paulo:

http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showthread.php?p=117241922#post117241922




O improviso era esperado, e ele existe porque na verdade a prefeitura está numa corrida contra o tempo. Uma corrida ideológica. 


E nessa corrida, o resultado só pode ser assim nas coxas mesmo.


Explico:

1 - Existe uma ideologia cultural forte em São Paulo completamente anti-bicicleta, anti-pedestre, anti-tudo que não seja colocar o automóvel em um pedestal. 

2 - Qualquer outro político de São Paulo que não seja da esquerda petista ou pior, não vai fazer belas ciclovias permanentes, bem projetadas, tirando para sempre o espaço dos carros. Na verdade NÃO-VAI-FAZER-CICLOVIA-NENHUMA.

No máximo, como era a política até então, ciclofaixas DE LAZER, pois "bicicleta é somente lazer excêntrico de fim de semana. Dia-dia é carro, pois faz calor, tem ladeira e blablabla".


3 - Então a corrida contra o tempo é DAR O DIREITO A LOCOMOÇÃO POR BICICLETAS NA MAIOR EXTENSÃO POSSÍVEL, para que uma parte da população SE APOSSE DESSE DIREITO, de forma que depois ninguém consiga tirar dela.


A meta é entregar logo esses 400 km de ciclovias para que a próxima gestão seja obrigada a cuidar delas (apesar dos protestos dos super-coxinhas que vão querer a remoção da maioria). 

Se a meta fosse fazer bem feito apenas 20 km de ciclovia, podem ter certeza que em 2020, ao final da gestão seguinte (que não será a do Haddad), sabem quantos km de ciclovia existiram? OS MESMOS 20 KM, APENAS. 

(Salvo uma ou outra ciclovia criada por IMPOSIÇÃO contrária ao velho interesse ideológico, por compensação ambiental, como a ciclovia sob os monotrilhos. Imposição, não iniciativa)


Eu aprovo essa medida pois é uma guerra contra a ideologia atrasada dominante. E entendendo isso, acho até que a maior parte da crítica é muita frescura e exigência demais.

Andei nas ciclovias do centro e achei elas o suficiente, o suficiente para eu me locomover sem ser atropelado. É isso o que importa.

--------------------------------------------------


Obviamente essa guerra não será vencida por completo, afinal, a ideologia "only-carro" de São Paulo é defendida por grande parte da população, pela imprensa, por políticos tradicionais.

Porém é certo que na próxima gestão, dos 400 km de ciclovia, a maior parte vai permanecer. Isso é muito. São literalmente "50 anos em 5" para o mundo ciclístico em São Paulo, coisa que jamais iria acontecer em décadas de outras gestões.



10 Sep 05:00

O anti-Marcos Valério

Paulo Roberto Costa decidiu não ser o novo Marcos Valério. Decidiu também proteger a liberdade dos familiares que envolveu em seus negócios. Aos 53 anos, Valério, o publicitário mineiro celebrizado com o mensalão, foi condenado a 40 anos de cadeia. Desde o dia 29 de agosto, Costa depõe para o Ministério Público, com vídeo e áudio, em longas sessões diárias. Durante oito anos, ele dirigiu o setor de abastecimento e refino da Petrobras e a doutora Dilma disse ser "estarrecedor" que as denúncias e a confissão partam de um "quadro de carreira" da empresa. É verdade, pois ele entrou para a Petrobras em 1978. Contudo só ascendeu à diretoria porque foi indicado pelo deputado José Janene. Depois de uma militância no malufismo, Janene aliou-se ao PT do Paraná, tornando-se um dos pilares do mensalão. Isso a doutora sabia. Bastava ler jornal. Leia mais (09/10/2014 - 02h00)
10 Sep 10:00

40 dias sem casa: a vida após a queda do viaduto em BH

PAULO PEIXOTO, DE BELO HORIZONTE

“Estou apreensiva, meus móveis estão todos lá. Não voltei até hoje por medo. Meu filho ficou abalado, ele pergunta o tempo todo.”

É assim que a professora Alexandra Pereira, 35, descreve os sentimentos da família que, há cerca de 40 dias, vive em um hotel de Belo Horizonte após a queda de um viaduto na zona norte da cidade em plena Copa.

Alexandra, o marido e o filho Mateus, de 10 anos, moravam em um dos três prédios próximos à estrutura. Desde 27 de julho, eles e mais 25 famílias não podem mais preparar as refeições nem cuidar das próprias roupas –para tudo tem hora no hotel.

Em 3 de julho, quando o viaduto em obras desabou, ela e o filho Mateus assistiram o drama dos ocupantes do micro-ônibus esmagado pelo cimento e o longo resgate dos dois mortos e 23 sobreviventes.

Agora, a agonia dessas famílias tem data para acabar: após idas e vindas, a demolição da alça que ficou de pé foi marcada para este domingo (14). A expectativa é que no dia 22 todos possam voltar para suas casas.

O viaduto, inacabado, deveria ter ficado pronto para o Mundial, mas atrasou e terminou no chão.

Nenhum imóvel apresentou problemas estruturais com a queda da alça, segundo a Defesa Civil, mas os moradores temem o impacto da implosão que se avizinha.

O representante comercial Natanael Arley, 37, que está com a mulher e o filho de três meses no hotel, disse que “a preocupação continua a mesma”. “O transtorno existe, queremos voltar sem nenhum abalo [nos imóveis].”

Para a dona de casa Juscilane Alves Martins, 33, as lembranças nunca vão se apagar. “O viaduto nos marcou psicologicamente e financeiramente”, afirmou, referindo-se à desvalorização dos imóveis após o desabamento.

Veja as fotos

VIDA NO HOTEL

Ninguém se queixa do hotel, mas os hóspedes lamentam estar fora de casa.

Exceto para as famílias com filhos pequenos, os casais têm um quarto só para eles, enquanto crianças e adolescentes ficam em outro.

A situação de Natanael, por exemplo, é mais complicada –ele e a mulher dividem espaço com o berço do bebê.

As mulheres não têm afazeres domésticos, já que o hotel oferece serviço de arrumação dos quartos. E a lavanderia está incluída nas despesas da construtora.

SEGURANÇA

Das 27 famílias que foram para o hotel, apenas uma já voltou —a Defesa Civil não vetou acesso aos apartamentos.

A maioria ficou, preocupada com a segurança. “Aqui está tudo muito bem”, disse Isabela Machado Aguiar, 15, que está no hotel com a mãe.

Desde 27 de julho, ela voltou duas vezes ao apartamento onde viviam, mas não dormiu lá. A mãe dela, Ana Lúcia Aguiar, 42, disse que só volta “com segurança”.

Enquanto isso, uma van paga pela construtora leva as crianças para as escolas. Essa rotina deve acabar a partir do dia 22. Após a implosão, será necessário uma semana para retirar os escombros.

A partir de então, os moradores pretendem lutar para que a prefeitura desista de reerguer outro viaduto.

“Queremos uma pracinha”, disse o segurança Servilho Mesquita, 47.

RESPONSABILIDADES

A Polícia Civil ainda não concluiu o inquérito que vai apontar responsabilidades e causas do acidente.

Enquanto a polícia analisa o laudo da perícia técnica, as duas empresas de engenharia envolvidas na obra tentam atribuir uma à outra a responsabilidade pelo desabamento da estrutura.

A Cowan contratou uma equipe de engenheiros e calculistas para analisar as causas da queda e concluiu que houve um erro no projeto elaborado pela Consol.

A Consol, por sua vez, afirma que o viaduto não foi executado conforme o projeto.

A prefeitura diz que “agirá com firmeza e cobrará a punição e o ressarcimento por falhas em quaisquer etapas das obras”.

 

Siga o blog Brasil no Twitter: @Folha_Brasil

14 Aug 18:37

Blaming Lead, Not Hormones

by Dish Staff
Adam Victor Brandizzi

"Gasolina com chumbo causa gravidez na adolescência". Que teoria esquisitíssima!

by Dish Staff

Yglesias flags a study that links declining teen pregnancy rates to the decline of leaded gasoline:

What [researcher Jessica Wolpow Reyes] does is take advantage of the fact that leaded gasoline was phased out unevenly across states in the late-1970s and early-1980s to generate some not-quite-experimental data. You can see the results here:

Screen_shot_2014-08-11_at_4.35.03_pm

(Source: Jessica Wolpow Reyes)

Similar results are found for related “risky” behaviors such as the odds of having sex and drinking at an early age.

It’s worth reflecting on the ways in which the political system is rigged to congenitally under-regulate these kind of health hazards. If you, as a politician, take a stand that goes against the financial interests of some group of incumbent industries your reward is that significant social ills are alleviated … Fifteen to 20 years after your proposal is phased into place. No governor or president – and very few senior legislators – sticks around long enough to claim credit for these things.

Kevin Drum, anti-lead advocate, is far from surprised:

This is not a brand-new finding. Rick Nevin’s very first paper about lead and crime was actually about both crime and teen pregnancy, and he found strong correlations for both at the national level. Reyes, however, goes a step further. It turns out that different states adopted unleaded gasoline at different rates, which allows Reyes to conduct a natural experiment. If lead exposure really does cause higher rates of teen pregnancy, then you’d expect states with the lowest levels of leaded gasoline to also have the lowest levels of teen pregnancy 15 years later. And guess what? They do. …

The neurological basis for the lead-crime theory suggests that childhood lead exposure affects parts of the brain that have to do with judgment, impulse control, and executive functions. This means that lead exposure is likely to be associated not just with violent crime, but with juvenile misbehavior, drug use, teen pregnancy, and other risky behaviors. And that turns out to be the case. Reyes finds correlations with behavioral problems starting at a young age; teen pregnancy; and violent crime rates among older children.

08 Sep 18:47

Não existem racistas na torcida do Grêmio

by Pedro Menezes

Por Pedro Menezes

Já conversei com defensores de ideias absurdas, bizarras, que fariam o leitor ter nojo, mas não lembro de um brasileiro sequer que tenha defendido abertamente a inferioridade genética dos negros e pardos. Da mesma forma, conto nos dedos quem negue que o Brasil seja um país racista. Nenhum brasileiro se reconhece como racista, mas todos sabem que a discriminação racial existe. Quando colocado dessa forma, o racismo soa como uma especial de espirito do tempo, uma ideia que ronda o ar e a todos afeta com sua metafísica, mas que não parte de ninguém. Este é mesmo um país diferente, o primeiro país racista sem racistas.

No jogo entre Grêmio e Santos, em Porto Alegre, uma torcedora gremista foi flagrada pelas câmeras chamando o goleiro adversário de macaco. Não se trata apenas de uma ofensa aleatória. O macaco traz a simbologia do primata atrasado, rude, fruto de defeito evolutivo, etc. Na época da banana jogada contra o brasileiro Daniel Alves, na Espanha, todo mundo sabia disso e a comparação entre um jogador negro e um macaco simbolizava o racismo incontestável do torcedor espanhol. #somostodosmacacos. Por aqui, ainda há quem ache exagerado dizer que a torcedora gremista foi racista, afinal, ela até tem amigos negros.

O Grêmio foi eliminado da Copa do Brasil por causa das ofensas dirigidas ao goleiro Aranha, do Santos. Alguns viram na decisão o fim do futebol brasileiro. “O futebol perdeu a graça quando se tornou politicamente correto”, é o que dizem. Sempre fui dos mais fanáticos pelo esporte, sou um tarado que acompanha uns 10 campeonatos simultaneamente, e talvez por isso não entendo que “a graça do futebol” esteja em chamar negros de macaco. E também não entendo por que insistem em enquadrar o xingamento como expressão do “politicamente incorreto”. Racismo não é politicamente incorreto. Racismo é só incorreto.

A torcedora do Grêmio talvez não seja uma pessoa ruim, e digo isso com sinceridade e até algum afeto, dado o drama vivido nestes dias de exposição nacional constante. Tudo o que ela fez foi ir ao estádio, assistir ao seu time e xingar – ao lado de milhares de pessoas – o goleiro adversário. Nada mais comum. Acho até que ela não se considera racista e seria incapaz, por exemplo, de comandar um grupo de extermínio como a Ku Klux Kan.

Mas o racismo não está apenas na criação de grupos de extermínio. O racismo está, principalmente, na naturalização de absurdos. Comparar negros e macacos, dado o histórico tenso das relações raciais no país, é cruel. Durante o jogo entre Grêmio e Santos, 20 mil pessoas assistiram a alguns torcedores racistas e nada fizeram contra eles. A torcedora do Grêmio apenas deu o azar de ter sido flagrada em close pela câmera da ESPN Brasil, numa cena de leitura labial incontestável. “Não é nada demais, é só um jogo e eu não sou racista”, ela deve ter pensado enquanto gritava. Mas os problemas decorrentes do racismo não estão apenas nos gritos de “macaco”. Eles estão na desculpa coletiva de que “não é nada demais”.

Nem todos os habitantes do Sul dos Estados Unidos participavam da Ku Klux Klan durante os anos 1920. É bastante provável que a maior parte deles tenha nascido e morrido sem jamais matar um negro. A KKK só foi um problema porque seus integrantes jamais foram reprimidos pelo que faziam. Pregar a expulsão de todos os negros dos EUA era visto como atividade política legítima, ocupação de alguns pais de família respeitáveis. Quando se diz que o Sul dos EUA é racista, a culpa não é apenas dos ex-integrantes da KKK, mas também da maioria passiva que nada fez para mudar a situação.

Em um mundo ideal, após meia dúzia de torcedores do Grêmio começarem os gritos de macaco, vinte mil torcedores ao seu redor começariam as vaias e em pouco tempo o silêncio envergonhado tomaria o estádio. Foi exatamente o que aconteceu no jogo seguinte do Grêmio. Agora que o clube foi eliminado da Copa do Brasil pelo racismo de seus torcedores, coisas do tipo não acontecerão tão cedo e manifestações racistas não serão mais acompanhadas por silêncio, mas por xingamentos – e detsa vez, os alvos serão os racistas.

Amigos, anotem o que aconteceu durante este ultimo mês. A eliminação do Grêmio é um evento digno de nota: pela primeira vez na sua história, a CBF agiu de forma exemplar.

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Pedro Menezes

Pedro Menezes é estudante, editor deste site e um dos co-fundadores da rede Estudantes Pela Liberdade no Brasil. Nascido na Bahia e radicado em São Paulo, ele diz que se interessa por teoria política, história, economia e cinema, mas divide o seu tempo livre entre o Vasco e literatura de qualidade duvidosa.

09 Sep 14:54

Could The Alibaba Model Undo The Wal-Mart Model?

by Tyler Durden

Submitted by Charles Hugh-Smith of OfTwoMinds blog,

These are questions that arise as a consequence of the digitization of the global/local supply chain in the peer-to-peer model.

Longtime correspondent Bill M. reckoned I missed the longer-term story in my piece on the Alibaba IPO: namely, that the Alibaba Model of makers selling directly to buyers could undo the Wal-Mart Model of super-stores dependent on massive inventory. My essay The China Boom Story: Alibaba and the 40 Thieves addressed the China Boom rather than the Alibaba model, so let's compare and contrast the Alibaba model and the Wal-Mart model.

We all know the Wal-Mart Model: squeeze suppliers until they're gasping for air ("sure, you're losing money on every unit you sell us, but you'll make it up on volume") and then transport all this stuff across the Pacific to a vast warehousing and shipping operation that must keep hundreds of sprawling (and costly) superstores stocked with hundreds of different items.
 
This model gained supremacy because it lowered costs to consumers by outsourcing the production of most of the inventory. Generally built outside of towns, the superstores thrived in an era of low gasoline costs and cheap credit, i.e. the past few decades.
 
Competition was held at bay by the sheer size of the superstores' purchasing might: nobody ordering small lots could buy stuff at the same price as someone ordering a million units.
 
The Alibaba Model is a peer-to-peer system that enables makers/suppliers and buyers to link up supply and demand in real time. Let's say I want 100 bicycle wheels of various sizes for my bicycle repair shop, to replace all the wheels stolen from unsecured bikes with quick-release hubs.
 
In the peer-to-peer market (the Alibaba Model), my bid for the 100 bicycle wheels is visible to a universe of makers/suppliers. Maybe some supplier has an overstock, or a manufacturer has piled up some extras or has a slack day to fill on the production line. There are any number of reasons why a maker/supplier might be able to get close to Wal-Mart's price for a small batch order.
 
Depending on my own distribution network, the 100 wheels might not even be inventoried in a warehouse: the day they arrive, I might ship them to others who already ordered wheels from me--from individuals to institutions to other repair shops.
 
The digital overhead of the transaction is near-zero, and managing the logistical supply chain is low-cost as well. There is very little overhead compared to the vast hierarchy of corporate controls and management of the superstore model.
 
This enables both the maker and the buyer to offer better prices with higher margins than either could get in the Superstore Model. In essence, the profit and overhead skimmed by the Superstore Corporation can be split between buyer and seller.
 
The Alibaba Model is not limited to China. After reading Shenzhen trip report - visiting the world's manufacturing ecosystem, Correspondent Mark G. observed: The injection mold making they discuss as a strength in Shenzhen is precisely what Phil Kerner teaches at hisThe Tool And Die Guy website. Resurrecting that supporting skill community ecology is why I regard such teaching materials from Kerner and Tubal Cain on Youtube as so vital: Index of Tubal Cain "Machine Shop Tips" videos on YouTube.
 
Toss in the ongoing revolution in affordable desktop 3-D fabrication machines, and it's not too hard to discern the price advantages of the Superstore Model eroding fast, especially if consumers wise up that "low prices" are not low if the quality is so poor the product must soon be replaced.
 
How much would I pay to avoid the weeks-long shipping delay from Asia? Does that premium enable local shops to compete with Asian workshops, despite the lower wages paid in China, Vietnam, and other emerging economies?
 
How much would I pay to have the item I want delivered to me rather than have to drive miles to the Superstore? if I add up the maintenance costs, fuel and other expenses of operating my car, and the time wasted in traffic, standing in line, etc., how much cheaper is the Superstore price?
 
How much would I pay to direct my money went to a local worker/shop owner I know and trust rather than to some supplier in a distant city?
 

These are questions that arise as a consequence of the digitization of the global/local supply chain in the peer-to-peer model. Just as we have reached Peak Central Planning and Peak Central Banking, we may have reached Peak Centralization not just in government and finance but in the corporate-cartel model of "low quality at high margins."

09 Sep 16:02

I understand why Westerners are joining jihadi movements like ISIS. I was almost one of them.


Iraqi Shiite militia fighters hold the Islamic State flag as they celebrate after breaking the siege of Amerli by Islamic State militants. (Youssef Boudlal/Reuters)

The Islamic State just released a gruesome new beheading video, again helmed by a western-bred Jihadist. As often happens, I received messages asking for explanation.

You see, I’m the jihadi who never was.

Twenty years ago, I ditched my Catholic high school in upstate New York to study at a Saudi-funded madrassa in Pakistan. A fresh convert, I jumped at the chance to live at a mosque and study Qur’an all day.

This was in the mid-1990s, during an escalation of the Chechen resistance against Russian rule. After class, we’d turn on the television and watch feeds of destruction and suffering. The videos were upsetting. So upsetting that soon I found myself thinking about abandoning my religious education to pick up a gun and fight for Chechen freedom.

It wasn’t a verse I’d read in our Qur’an study circles that made me want to fight, but rather my American values. I had grown up in the Reagan ’80s. I learned from G.I. Joe cartoons to (in the words of the theme song) “fight for freedom, wherever there’s trouble.” I assumed that individuals had the right — and the duty — to intervene anywhere on the planet where they perceived threats to freedom, justice and equality.

For me, wanting to go to Chechnya wasn’t reducible to my “Muslim rage” or “hatred for the West.” This may be hard to believe, but I thought about the war in terms of compassion. Like so many Americans moved by their love of country to serve in the armed forces, I yearned to fight oppression and protect the safety and dignity of others. I believed that this world was in bad shape. I placed my faith in somewhat magical solutions claiming that the world could be fixed by a renewal of authentic Islam and a truly Islamic system of government. But I also believed that working toward justice was more valuable than my own life.

Eventually, I decided to stay in Islamabad. And the people who eventually convinced me not to fight weren’t the kinds of Muslims propped up in the media as liberal, West-friendly reformers. They were deeply conservative; some would call them “intolerant.” In the same learning environment in which I was told that my non-Muslim mother would burn in eternal hellfire, I was also told that I could achieve more good in the world as a scholar than as a soldier, and that I should strive to be more than a body in a ditch. These traditionalists reminded me of Muhammad’s statement that the ink of scholars was holier than the blood of martyrs.

The media often draw a clear line between our imagined categories of “good” and “bad” Muslims. My brothers in Pakistan would have made that division much more complicated than some could imagine.These men whom I perceived as superheroes of piety, speaking to me as the authorized voice of the tradition itself, said that violence was not the best that I could offer.

Some kids in my situation seem to have received different advice.

It’s easy to assume that religious people, particularly Muslims, simply do things because their religions tell them to. But when I think about my impulse at age 17 to run away and become a fighter for the Chechen rebels, I consider more than religious factors. My imagined scenario of liberating Chechnya and turning it into an Islamic state was a purely American fantasy, grounded in American ideals and values. Whenever I hear of an American who flies across the globe to throw himself into freedom struggles that are not his own, I think, What a very, very American thing to do.

And that’s the problem. We are raised to love violence and view military conquest as a benevolent act. The American kid who wants to intervene in another nation’s civil war owes his worldview as much to American exceptionalism as to jihadist interpretations of scripture. I grew up in a country that glorifies military sacrifice and feels entitled to rebuild other societies according to its own vision. I internalized these values before ever thinking about religion. Before I even knew what a Muslim was, let alone concepts such as “jihad” or an “Islamic state,” my American life had taught me that that’s what brave men do.

Bookmarked at brandizzi Delicious' sharing tag and expanded by Delicious sharing tag expander.
08 Sep 17:59

Relevance

Last week there were a bunch of great posts expounding on the staying power of blogs and RSS. It seems we’re not the only people comparing social media platforms to the open web and we gained a lot of valuable new insight.

All weekend I’ve been thinking about relevance. When Twitter first took off, it delivered. So much of my Twitter feed was filled with timely, interesting material that it became addictive.

But over time Twitter became more of a platform for self-promotion, corporate advertisement, and random, passive-aggressive posts from college roommates. It went from “check out this amazing article I read” to “look at me because I said so.” That’s just not relevant to me.

Facebook never really delivered on relevance, but it was at least new and fresh for a while. Now it feels like an obligation. Happy Birthday. Yes, I like your new hat. Congratulations on your anniversary. Oooh, she’s so cute. And, of course, buy this stuff from Nordstrom.

But blogs and RSS, like email and websites, remain. They are solely focused on delivering relevant information. Could they be better? Heck yes. Check out my queue after I spent several hours reading yesterday:

image

Yikes, that’s a lot of reading left to do. But that’s 2,619 posts with the highest signal to noise ratio I’m going to see all day. We’re hard at work with ideas to make that even better. And we believe that social is going to be the key in improving that ratio.

We’ll have more on that in the future. But for now, let’s all get back to blogging and reading. May your screen be filled with relevance.

09 Sep 18:28

What Conspiracy Theory Research Gets Wrong About the Paranoid

Adam Victor Brandizzi

EU SABIA! EU AVISEI MAS ELES FIZERAM COM QUE NÃO ME DESSEM OUVIDOS!!1!

JFK's funeral. What does believing JFK conspiracies say about you? It's hard to say.

Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images

In the run-up to last year’s Italian elections, the country’s senate did not—I repeat: did not—pass a bill giving legislators 134 billion euros “to find a job in case of defeat.” But a satiric story along those lines spread on social media, and not everyone who passed it along understood that it was a spoof. In just one day, 36,000 people signed a petition against the alleged law. Soon it was being invoked at anti-government protests.

Their confusion caught the eye of a quintet of scholars, who were observing how a large sample of Italian Facebook users engaged with different sorts of stories: articles from the mainstream media, articles from alternative outlets, articles from political activists, and fake news crafted by satirists and trolls. In March, MIT’s Technology Review covered the researchers’ work in a piece headlined “Data Mining Reveals How Conspiracy Theories Emerge on Facebook.” The article began with the tale of that imaginary Italian bill and the people who believed it was real, wrapping up the anecdote with the line, “Welcome to the murky world of conspiracy theories.”

This was an odd way to frame the issue. The rumor involved a bill that had supposedly been passed by the legislature, not a secret plan being hatched by some invisible cabal; it was not in any meaningful sense a story about a conspiracy. The larger study was concerned with the transmission of false stories, whether or not they involve conspiracies; the word conspiracy and its variants appear only four times in the paper. Yet the Technology Review piece brushes past this distinction, then compounds the problem by generalizing rather expansively from the research. “Conspiracy theories,” the writer speculates, “seem to come about by a process in which ordinary satirical commentary or obviously false content somehow jumps the credulity barrier. And that seems to happen through groups of people who deliberately expose themselves to alternative sources of news.” Evidently more than one credulity barrier has been breached.

If Technology Review defined the phrase “conspiracy theory” too broadly, other outlets adopt definitions that are too narrow. In 2013, Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind Poll concluded that 63 percent of America’s registered voters “buy into at least one political conspiracy theory.” The press duly reported that exact-sounding number, though it wasn’t really accurate: What the survey actually found was that 63 percent of voters believed at least one of the four theories featured in the poll. The number who believe in “at least one” conspiracy is surely far higher.

These aren’t the only times researchers or the reporters who cover them have made this sort of mistake. For decades, psychologists and social scientists have been studying conspiracy theories and the people who believe them. They have unearthed a lot of interesting data, and they have sometimes theorized thoughtfully about the results. But they have repeatedly run into a problem: The world they’re studying is not the same size and shape as the world of conspiracy belief.

Conspiracy theories feature a wide range of masterminds. In The United States of Paranoia, my history of paranoid American folklore, I divided those conspirators into five categories. There is the Enemy Outside, an alien force based outside the community’s borders; the Enemy Within, fellow citizens who cannot be easily distinguished from friends; the Enemy Above, plotting at the top of the power structure; the Enemy Below, conspiring in the underclass; and the Benevolent Conspiracy, which isn’t an enemy at all.

Needless to say, this is hardly the only way conspiracy stories can be sorted. And in practice, those five types frequently overlap with one another: The Enemy Outside, for example, might be accused of pulling the Enemy Below’s strings, as when various prominent Americans blamed the Communist bloc for the urban riots of the ’60s. But it’s a useful typology, with plenty of historical examples of each kind.

In these studies, though, Enemy Above stories tend to be overrepresented. And that in turn can skew the results. When researchers draw conclusions about people who are especially prone to seeing conspiracies, they might actually be telling us about people prone to seeing a particular kind of conspiracy.

Sometimes this bias is stated baldly. In 2010, for example, the Rutgers sociologist Ted Goertzel wrote an article for EMBO Reports, a journal of molecular biology, that said conspiracy logic tends to “question everything the ‘establishment’—be it government or scientists—says or does.” He backed this up on the rather thin grounds that a recent pop text, The Rough Guide to Conspiracy Theories, mostly discusses theories about “political, religious, military, diplomatic or economic elites.”

But that “establishment” has conspiracy theories of its own, even if the Rough Guide overlooked them. At moments of moral panic, it is common for the government and the mainstream media to blame a folk devil—frequently cast in conspiratorial terms—for a real or alleged crisis. Examples range from the white slavery panic of a century ago, when a vast international syndicate was believed to be conscripting thousands of girls into sexual service, to the Satanism scare of the 1980s and early ’90s, when politicians, prosecutors, juries, and the press were persuaded that devil-worshipping cabals were molesting and killing children. Often the conspiracy stories believed by relatively powerless people are mirrored by conspiracy stories believed by elites. At the same time that American slaves were afraid that white doctors were plotting to kidnap and dissect them, the planter class was periodically seized by fears of slaves secretly plotting revolution. While the Populist Party was denouncing East Coast banking cabals, many wealthy Easterners were wondering whether a conspiracy was behind Populism.

Apparently it isn’t easy to generalize about a group as large as “people who believe in conspiracies.”

With that in mind, consider the academic literature on conspiracy believers. In 1992 Goertzel surveyed 348 residents of New Jersey about 10 conspiracy theories that were circulating at the time. Seven of the 10 were Enemy Above theories, in which the government was guilty of murdering Martin Luther King, deliberately spreading AIDS, covering up UFO activity, or otherwise injuring the public interest. Two more—one where a conspiracy killed John F. Kennedy, one where Anita Hill was part of a plot against Clarence Thomas—could take either an Enemy Above form or another shape, depending on the version of the story the person surveyed believed. Only one of the 10 was definitely not an Enemy Above theory: “The Japanese are deliberately conspiring to destroy the American economy.” (That one was, interestingly, one of the most popular items in the list, with 46 percent of respondents declaring it either definitely or probably true.)

This does not mean that Goertzel’s data are useless or that he didn’t produce an interesting paper. But when he writes, say, that conspiratorial beliefs are correlated with anomie and insecurity about unemployment, has he really uncovered a couple of conspiracist traits? Or has he simply been asking about conspiracy theories that people experiencing anomie and economic insecurity are more likely to believe?

Goertzel also noted, “People who believed in one conspiracy were more likely to also believe in others.” This idea has become a staple of the literature: As Michael Wood, Karen Douglas, and Robbie Sutton put it in a 2012 paper for Social Psychological and Personality Sciences, “the most consistent finding in the work on the psychology of conspiracy theories is that belief in a particular theory is strongly predicted by belief in others—even ostensibly unrelated ones.” It has become a staple of pop-science coverage too, appearing in venues ranging from Bloomberg to Newsweek.

Anecdotally speaking, it’s a plausible idea: While everyone is capable of conspiracy thinking, some people do seem more prone to it than others. But are they really more likely to embrace conspiracy theories in general, or just conspiracy theories of a certain sort?

Consider a 2013 paper by the British psychologists Robert Brotherton, Christopher French, and Alan Pickering. The participants in the team’s initial investigation gave their views on 59 conspiratorial claims. The list was deliberately composed to reveal a broad, generic interest in conspiracies rather than an interest in specific events (such as Sept. 11) or specific villains (such as the CIA). It was also wide-ranging enough for the researchers to break down the theories by type: stories about government malfeasance, about extraterrestrial cover-ups, about malevolent global forces, about threats to personal health and liberty, and about efforts to control the flow of information. It is, in short, one of the most thorough efforts around. Even so, the vast majority of the items are clear-cut Enemy Above theories, and the remainder are, with one exception, phrased in such a way that the respondent can insert either an Enemy Above or a different sort of conspiracy into the villain role—for example, “Some of the people thought to be responsible for acts of terrorism were actually set up by those responsible.”

Or consider the study that another two British psychologists, Patrick Leman and Marco Cinnirella, published in Frontiers in Psychology last year. In that one, the respondents’ conspiratorial attitudes were determined by their responses to a Belief in Conspiracy Theories scale. Of the six items on the list that affirmed rather than denied the existence of a conspiracy, five were Enemy Above stories. The other—“The European Union is trying to take control of the United Kingdom”—is an Enemy Outside claim, but its adherents typically believe that British elites are complicit in the conspiracy.

The contents of such lists may explain why these studies sometimes come to drastically different conclusions about conspiracy believers. A 1999 paper, for example, included a wider range of theories in its questionnaire, asking its subjects not just about government plots but about Jewish cabals, terrorist infiltrators, and the Mafia. It found an association between conspiracy theories and authoritarian attitudes. Other researchers, using a different list of theories, found that conspiracy theorists tended toward defiance of authority and strong support for democratic values. Apparently it isn’t easy to generalize about a group as large as “people who believe in conspiracies.”

By now some readers are ready to shout, “BUT WHAT ABOUT CONSPIRACIES THAT ARE REAL?” Some of those readers may have abandoned this article already and gone to write something to that effect in the comment thread, capital letters and all. And it’s a fair point. Some conspiracies are real. The word conspire is in the language for a reason. And that adds further complications to the question of just whom we mean when we talk about conspiracy believers.

Many of these papers, to their credit, do raise this issue, noting that real conspiracies exist and that it is not innately irrational to believe in them. Goertzel’s EMBO article discusses the subject in detail, offering some sensible thoughts on how to distinguish a plausible conspiracy claim from an implausible one. Last year, in a special issue of the PSYPAG Quarterly devoted to the psychology of conspiracy believers, Brotherton wrote an entire article on the question of how to define “conspiracy theory,” noting that we do not typically apply the phrase to, say, the idea that a conspiracy of terrorists led by Osama Bin Laden plotted the 9/11 attacks. A conspiracy theory, Brotherton suggests, is not merely a theory that invokes a conspiracy; it is “an unverified claim of conspiracy which is not the most plausible account of an event or situation, and with sensationalistic subject matter or implications. In addition, the claim will typically postulate unusually sinister and competent conspirators. Finally, the claim is based on weak kinds of evidence, and is epistemically self-insulating against disconfirmation.” This is a much more limited definition than I would offer—and it opens a whole new can of worms about which theories should or shouldn’t be included in a study—but it does have the advantage of establishing what exactly the researchers are investigating.

Still, there are drawbacks to excluding conspiracies that are widely acknowledged to exist. Earlier this year, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a paper that surveyed Americans about several medically themed conspiracy theories, from “The CIA deliberately infected large numbers of African Americans with HIV under the guise of a hepatitis inoculation program” to “Health officials know that cell phones cause cancer but are doing nothing to stop it because large corporations won’t let them.” The researchers concluded that “conspiracism correlates with greater use of alternative medicine and the avoidance of traditional medicine.”

It’s a straightforward, respectable piece of research. Yet I can’t help wondering what would have happened if that list of medical plots had also included these items:

  • As part of a series of mind control experiments, the CIA administered LSD to unwitting subjects, a program it continued even after it led to illness and death.
  • In a 40-year ruse, the Public Health Service told hundreds of black sharecroppers that it would give them free health care. Rather than inform the patients that they had syphilis, the doctors deliberately left the disease untreated in order to study whether the illness affects blacks and whites in different ways.
  • For a decade and a half, scientists used students at a New York school for the developmentally disabled as guinea pigs, deliberately infecting them with hepatitis in hopes of finding ways to combat the sickness.

All three of those tales are true. The first was one of the most explosive revelations in the Senate’s mid-1970s investigation of the CIA. The second is the infamous Tuskegee experiment of 1932–1972, which set off an uproar when it was revealed. The third, which took place from 1956 to 1971 at the Willowbrook State School, is brought up frequently in debates about informed consent: The parents agreed to the experiments, but the kids were in no position to understand what they were getting into.

If those items had been included in the JAMA study, what would the results reveal? Would people aware of real medical misbehavior be more likely to buy into the fictional stories, or would they be grounded in the evidence in a way the other believers are not? Would their beliefs also correlate with an interest in alternative medicine, or would there be a noticeable difference between their behavior and that of the original study’s conspiracy believers? How, in short, does an awareness of real conspiracies affect “conspiracist” ideas?

Just as the Facebook paper reminds us that not every false story involves a conspiracy, this alternate version of the JAMA study would remind us that not every conspiracy story is false. It could reveal a lot in the process. But to get there, you have to change your scope.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and SlateFuture Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can alsfollow us on Twitter.


JFK's funeral. What does believing JFK conspiracies say about you? It's hard to say.

Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images

In the run-up to last year’s Italian elections, the country’s senate did not—I repeat: did not—pass a bill giving legislators 134 billion euros “to find a job in case of defeat.” But a satiric story along those lines spread on social media, and not everyone who passed it along understood that it was a spoof. In just one day, 36,000 people signed a petition against the alleged law. Soon it was being invoked at anti-government protests.

Their confusion caught the eye of a quintet of scholars, who were observing how a large sample of Italian Facebook users engaged with different sorts of stories: articles from the mainstream media, articles from alternative outlets, articles from political activists, and fake news crafted by satirists and trolls. In March, MIT’s Technology Review covered the researchers’ work in a piece headlined “Data Mining Reveals How Conspiracy Theories Emerge on Facebook.” The article began with the tale of that imaginary Italian bill and the people who believed it was real, wrapping up the anecdote with the line, “Welcome to the murky world of conspiracy theories.”

This was an odd way to frame the issue. The rumor involved a bill that had supposedly been passed by the legislature, not a secret plan being hatched by some invisible cabal; it was not in any meaningful sense a story about a conspiracy. The larger study was concerned with the transmission of false stories, whether or not they involve conspiracies; the word conspiracy and its variants appear only four times in the paper. Yet the Technology Review piece brushes past this distinction, then compounds the problem by generalizing rather expansively from the research. “Conspiracy theories,” the writer speculates, “seem to come about by a process in which ordinary satirical commentary or obviously false content somehow jumps the credulity barrier. And that seems to happen through groups of people who deliberately expose themselves to alternative sources of news.” Evidently more than one credulity barrier has been breached.

If Technology Review defined the phrase “conspiracy theory” too broadly, other outlets adopt definitions that are too narrow. In 2013, Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind Poll concluded that 63 percent of America’s registered voters “buy into at least one political conspiracy theory.” The press duly reported that exact-sounding number, though it wasn’t really accurate: What the survey actually found was that 63 percent of voters believed at least one of the four theories featured in the poll. The number who believe in “at least one” conspiracy is surely far higher.

These aren’t the only times researchers or the reporters who cover them have made this sort of mistake. For decades, psychologists and social scientists have been studying conspiracy theories and the people who believe them. They have unearthed a lot of interesting data, and they have sometimes theorized thoughtfully about the results. But they have repeatedly run into a problem: The world they’re studying is not the same size and shape as the world of conspiracy belief.

Conspiracy theories feature a wide range of masterminds. In The United States of Paranoia, my history of paranoid American folklore, I divided those conspirators into five categories. There is the Enemy Outside, an alien force based outside the community’s borders; the Enemy Within, fellow citizens who cannot be easily distinguished from friends; the Enemy Above, plotting at the top of the power structure; the Enemy Below, conspiring in the underclass; and the Benevolent Conspiracy, which isn’t an enemy at all.

Needless to say, this is hardly the only way conspiracy stories can be sorted. And in practice, those five types frequently overlap with one another: The Enemy Outside, for example, might be accused of pulling the Enemy Below’s strings, as when various prominent Americans blamed the Communist bloc for the urban riots of the ’60s. But it’s a useful typology, with plenty of historical examples of each kind.

In these studies, though, Enemy Above stories tend to be overrepresented. And that in turn can skew the results. When researchers draw conclusions about people who are especially prone to seeing conspiracies, they might actually be telling us about people prone to seeing a particular kind of conspiracy.

Sometimes this bias is stated baldly. In 2010, for example, the Rutgers sociologist Ted Goertzel wrote an article for EMBO Reports, a journal of molecular biology, that said conspiracy logic tends to “question everything the ‘establishment’—be it government or scientists—says or does.” He backed this up on the rather thin grounds that a recent pop text, The Rough Guide to Conspiracy Theories, mostly discusses theories about “political, religious, military, diplomatic or economic elites.”

But that “establishment” has conspiracy theories of its own, even if the Rough Guide overlooked them. At moments of moral panic, it is common for the government and the mainstream media to blame a folk devil—frequently cast in conspiratorial terms—for a real or alleged crisis. Examples range from the white slavery panic of a century ago, when a vast international syndicate was believed to be conscripting thousands of girls into sexual service, to the Satanism scare of the 1980s and early ’90s, when politicians, prosecutors, juries, and the press were persuaded that devil-worshipping cabals were molesting and killing children. Often the conspiracy stories believed by relatively powerless people are mirrored by conspiracy stories believed by elites. At the same time that American slaves were afraid that white doctors were plotting to kidnap and dissect them, the planter class was periodically seized by fears of slaves secretly plotting revolution. While the Populist Party was denouncing East Coast banking cabals, many wealthy Easterners were wondering whether a conspiracy was behind Populism.

Apparently it isn’t easy to generalize about a group as large as “people who believe in conspiracies.”

With that in mind, consider the academic literature on conspiracy believers. In 1992 Goertzel surveyed 348 residents of New Jersey about 10 conspiracy theories that were circulating at the time. Seven of the 10 were Enemy Above theories, in which the government was guilty of murdering Martin Luther King, deliberately spreading AIDS, covering up UFO activity, or otherwise injuring the public interest. Two more—one where a conspiracy killed John F. Kennedy, one where Anita Hill was part of a plot against Clarence Thomas—could take either an Enemy Above form or another shape, depending on the version of the story the person surveyed believed. Only one of the 10 was definitely not an Enemy Above theory: “The Japanese are deliberately conspiring to destroy the American economy.” (That one was, interestingly, one of the most popular items in the list, with 46 percent of respondents declaring it either definitely or probably true.)

This does not mean that Goertzel’s data are useless or that he didn’t produce an interesting paper. But when he writes, say, that conspiratorial beliefs are correlated with anomie and insecurity about unemployment, has he really uncovered a couple of conspiracist traits? Or has he simply been asking about conspiracy theories that people experiencing anomie and economic insecurity are more likely to believe?

Goertzel also noted, “People who believed in one conspiracy were more likely to also believe in others.” This idea has become a staple of the literature: As Michael Wood, Karen Douglas, and Robbie Sutton put it in a 2012 paper for Social Psychological and Personality Sciences, “the most consistent finding in the work on the psychology of conspiracy theories is that belief in a particular theory is strongly predicted by belief in others—even ostensibly unrelated ones.” It has become a staple of pop-science coverage too, appearing in venues ranging from Bloomberg to Newsweek.

Anecdotally speaking, it’s a plausible idea: While everyone is capable of conspiracy thinking, some people do seem more prone to it than others. But are they really more likely to embrace conspiracy theories in general, or just conspiracy theories of a certain sort?

Consider a 2013 paper by the British psychologists Robert Brotherton, Christopher French, and Alan Pickering. The participants in the team’s initial investigation gave their views on 59 conspiratorial claims. The list was deliberately composed to reveal a broad, generic interest in conspiracies rather than an interest in specific events (such as Sept. 11) or specific villains (such as the CIA). It was also wide-ranging enough for the researchers to break down the theories by type: stories about government malfeasance, about extraterrestrial cover-ups, about malevolent global forces, about threats to personal health and liberty, and about efforts to control the flow of information. It is, in short, one of the most thorough efforts around. Even so, the vast majority of the items are clear-cut Enemy Above theories, and the remainder are, with one exception, phrased in such a way that the respondent can insert either an Enemy Above or a different sort of conspiracy into the villain role—for example, “Some of the people thought to be responsible for acts of terrorism were actually set up by those responsible.”

Or consider the study that another two British psychologists, Patrick Leman and Marco Cinnirella, published in Frontiers in Psychology last year. In that one, the respondents’ conspiratorial attitudes were determined by their responses to a Belief in Conspiracy Theories scale. Of the six items on the list that affirmed rather than denied the existence of a conspiracy, five were Enemy Above stories. The other—“The European Union is trying to take control of the United Kingdom”—is an Enemy Outside claim, but its adherents typically believe that British elites are complicit in the conspiracy.

The contents of such lists may explain why these studies sometimes come to drastically different conclusions about conspiracy believers. A 1999 paper, for example, included a wider range of theories in its questionnaire, asking its subjects not just about government plots but about Jewish cabals, terrorist infiltrators, and the Mafia. It found an association between conspiracy theories and authoritarian attitudes. Other researchers, using a different list of theories, found that conspiracy theorists tended toward defiance of authority and strong support for democratic values. Apparently it isn’t easy to generalize about a group as large as “people who believe in conspiracies.”

By now some readers are ready to shout, “BUT WHAT ABOUT CONSPIRACIES THAT ARE REAL?” Some of those readers may have abandoned this article already and gone to write something to that effect in the comment thread, capital letters and all. And it’s a fair point. Some conspiracies are real. The word conspire is in the language for a reason. And that adds further complications to the question of just whom we mean when we talk about conspiracy believers.

Many of these papers, to their credit, do raise this issue, noting that real conspiracies exist and that it is not innately irrational to believe in them. Goertzel’s EMBO article discusses the subject in detail, offering some sensible thoughts on how to distinguish a plausible conspiracy claim from an implausible one. Last year, in a special issue of the PSYPAG Quarterly devoted to the psychology of conspiracy believers, Brotherton wrote an entire article on the question of how to define “conspiracy theory,” noting that we do not typically apply the phrase to, say, the idea that a conspiracy of terrorists led by Osama Bin Laden plotted the 9/11 attacks. A conspiracy theory, Brotherton suggests, is not merely a theory that invokes a conspiracy; it is “an unverified claim of conspiracy which is not the most plausible account of an event or situation, and with sensationalistic subject matter or implications. In addition, the claim will typically postulate unusually sinister and competent conspirators. Finally, the claim is based on weak kinds of evidence, and is epistemically self-insulating against disconfirmation.” This is a much more limited definition than I would offer—and it opens a whole new can of worms about which theories should or shouldn’t be included in a study—but it does have the advantage of establishing what exactly the researchers are investigating.

Still, there are drawbacks to excluding conspiracies that are widely acknowledged to exist. Earlier this year, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a paper that surveyed Americans about several medically themed conspiracy theories, from “The CIA deliberately infected large numbers of African Americans with HIV under the guise of a hepatitis inoculation program” to “Health officials know that cell phones cause cancer but are doing nothing to stop it because large corporations won’t let them.” The researchers concluded that “conspiracism correlates with greater use of alternative medicine and the avoidance of traditional medicine.”

It’s a straightforward, respectable piece of research. Yet I can’t help wondering what would have happened if that list of medical plots had also included these items:

  • As part of a series of mind control experiments, the CIA administered LSD to unwitting subjects, a program it continued even after it led to illness and death.
  • In a 40-year ruse, the Public Health Service told hundreds of black sharecroppers that it would give them free health care. Rather than inform the patients that they had syphilis, the doctors deliberately left the disease untreated in order to study whether the illness affects blacks and whites in different ways.
  • For a decade and a half, scientists used students at a New York school for the developmentally disabled as guinea pigs, deliberately infecting them with hepatitis in hopes of finding ways to combat the sickness.

All three of those tales are true. The first was one of the most explosive revelations in the Senate’s mid-1970s investigation of the CIA. The second is the infamous Tuskegee experiment of 1932–1972, which set off an uproar when it was revealed. The third, which took place from 1956 to 1971 at the Willowbrook State School, is brought up frequently in debates about informed consent: The parents agreed to the experiments, but the kids were in no position to understand what they were getting into.

If those items had been included in the JAMA study, what would the results reveal? Would people aware of real medical misbehavior be more likely to buy into the fictional stories, or would they be grounded in the evidence in a way the other believers are not? Would their beliefs also correlate with an interest in alternative medicine, or would there be a noticeable difference between their behavior and that of the original study’s conspiracy believers? How, in short, does an awareness of real conspiracies affect “conspiracist” ideas?

Just as the Facebook paper reminds us that not every false story involves a conspiracy, this alternate version of the JAMA study would remind us that not every conspiracy story is false. It could reveal a lot in the process. But to get there, you have to change your scope.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and SlateFuture Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can alsfollow us on Twitter.

Bookmarked at brandizzi Delicious' sharing tag and expanded by Delicious sharing tag expander.
09 Sep 19:21

Google's latest object recognition tech can spot everything in your living room

Google object recognition spots items in a living room

Automatic object recognition in images is currently tricky. Even if a computer has the help of smart algorithms and human assistants, it may not catch everything in a given scene. Google might change that soon, though; it just detailed a new detection system that can easily spot lots of objects in a scene, even if they're partly obscured. The key is a neural network that can rapidly refine the criteria it's looking for without requiring a lot of extra computing power. The result is a far deeper scanning system that can both identify more objects and make better guesses -- it can spot tons of items in a living room, including (according to Google's odd example) a flying cat. The technology is still young, but the internet giant sees its recognition breakthrough helping everything from image searches through to self-driving cars. Don't be surprised if it gets much easier to look for things online using only vaguest of terms.

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08 Sep 22:29

Quote For The Day

by Andrew Sullivan

“Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them. Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is,” – T.E. Lawrence.

06 Sep 23:08

Kingdom Lost

by boulet










































08 Sep 07:00

Invasive Installation

by John

Invasive Installation

05 Sep 14:56

What The Economist should have read before suggesting that US slavery wasn’t always so bad

by Chris Blattman

First, remind me, when I’m writing my first book, to try to get The Economist to write a racially insensitive review. I’m pretty sure Edward Baptist’s sales are pretty terrific right now.

The Economist has withdrawn the offending book review and apologized (the book in question, and the article and apology). Here’s the uncontroversial bit:

Mr Baptist, an historian at Cornell University, is not being especially contentious when he says that America owed much of its early growth to the foreign exchange, cheaper raw materials and expanding markets provided by a slave-produced commodity. But he overstates his case when he dismisses “the traditional explanations” for America’s success: its individualistic culture, Puritanism, the lure of open land and high wages, Yankee ingenuity and government policies.

Nothing in history (least of all the growth of the largest economy humankind has ever known) has a single explanation. Academics like to overstate their case and need to be reined in a little.

Even so, here’s the jawdropping finale:

…Slave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their “hands” ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton. Some of the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment. Unlike Mr Thomas, Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.

What could have shed light on this, had The Economist writer bothered to read the literature (and had the academics bothered to write in comprehensible prose)?

First, when do employers use coercion and how well does it work? There’s a pretty new and exciting literature here:

  • Violence and pain work better in labor markets where people have really poor options, and are easily controlled, like children or the least educated. You see this in child labor during British industrialization, or even in child soldiering in Uganda (my own work). Here’s a graph of how long someone stayed with a rebel army in Uganda based on his age of conscription. The paper argues that ones you can scare and indoctrinate the easiest (in this case, kids) stay longest:

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 10.07.24 AM

  • Adults will tend to escape if you use violence, so slavery and serfdom work best when the overlords control the legal system or can hunt you down. You see this with servants in 19th century Britain or with European feudalism and US slavery
  • When you make it harder for employers to use force, wages go up. You see this in 19th century Puerto Rico coffee growing, or in the Emirates today
  • It’s not unusual to see a mix of rewards and coercion. For instance, in the child soldiering paper, rewards are more likely for the people who can run away, and they’re also useful (with violence) if you’re trying to indoctrinate and brainwash.
  • And when you turn the entire system against them, yes, whipped people work harder. Here’s an unpublished graph from Suresh Naidu from one US plantation and the correlation between the number of whippings a slave received and her productivity at cotton picking:whipping

So a moral of the story is that yes, rewards can be a substitute for violence, but in a coercive labor market, better pay or food is just service to your larger evil plan to enslave more people more profitably.

Then, on the longer term consequences of slavery (again, hat tip to Suresh, who breathes this stuff):

ilo

Is anyone else feeling depressed and hopeless?

More suggestions welcome.

The post What The Economist should have read before suggesting that US slavery wasn’t always so bad appeared first on Chris Blattman.

07 Sep 05:00

Fulanizar antes do conteúdo

A presidente Dilma sugeriu que em um segundo mandato trocará a equipe econômica. Parece que a motivação é acalmar o mercado, preocupado com a persistente piora dos fundamentos econômicos nos últimos anos.

Trata-se de fulanização da saída de um auxiliar antes que saibamos por que, exatamente, a troca será necessária.

O auxiliar em questão, o ministro da Fazenda, Guido Mantega, participa do governo desde 2003. Foi ministro do Planejamento, presidente do BNDES e finalmente ministro da Fazenda. No período que ficou no BNDES não havia os vultosos aportes do Tesouro Nacional ao BNDES.

Qual exatamente é o conteúdo da saída do ministro? Algo saiu errado na política econômica? Afinal, a crise internacional sem precedentes não explica todos os nossos problemas? Ou, de fato, precisamos recuar da nova matriz econômica?

Um caso parecido ocorre com a candidatura de Marina Silva. A candidata tem das mais belas biografias de quantas este país produziu. Tem carga simbólica que, provavelmente, na política brasileira, somente Lula tem.

Mas exatamente o que significa a nova política da candidata? Ela irá criar uma forma diferente de operar a política. O que seria esta nova política? Um governo cesarista ou ela vai melhorar a qualidade da gestão de nosso presidencialismo de coalizão, nos padrões que vigoraram ao longo do governo FHC?

Melhorar a gestão do presidencialismo de coalizão significa, como bem apontado em excelente artigo do cientista político Marcus Melo, construir a base de sustentação partidária com menor heterogeneidade ideológica e, portanto, construir um gabinete de ministros com maior proporcionalidade entre a distribuição de cargos e responsabilidades administrativas e o peso de cada partido na base de sustentação do governo. É a maneira de a gestão da política não se limitar ao varejão cotidiano.

Assim, antes que nós fulanizemos a saída do ministro ou a Presidência da candidata, é importante que estes movimentos sejam dotados de conteúdo político e programático.

Meu colega Mansueto Almeida contabilizou algumas das medidas defendidas pelo programa da candidata Marina e obteve necessidade de aumento da carga tributária de pouco mais de 3% do PIB. Todas as medidas defendidas são meritórias e importantes.

Iremos praticar mais uma rodada de elevação da carga tributária? Não tenho nada contra. Como já me pronunciei mais de uma vez neste espaço, considero que a decisão de elevação da carga tributária não é técnica. Mais ou menos impostos é algo que envolve escolhas que um profissional de economia não foi preparado para fazer. Trata-se de decisão puramente política, sobre a qual cada um se pronuncia na capacidade de cidadão.

Certamente mais impostos é melhor do que inflação. Continuo a achar que somente guerra civil é menos civilizado do que a inflação como maneira de administrarmos o conflito distributivo. Tributar de uns e transferir para outros de forma clara e transparente, como consequência de escolhas do Congresso, é a forma civilizada de gestão do conflito distributivo. Nunca demonizarei o aumento da carga tributária.

A candidatura que defendo, do senador Aécio Neves, descende de um governo que esteve no poder por oito anos. Teve que fazer escolhas difíceis e se haver com a herança de uma década de hiperinflação e de desmonte do Estado em razão das enormes dificuldades que a sociedade enfrentou no período anterior, de redemocratização.

Dentro das circunstâncias e dadas as heranças, avalio que fizemos o melhor possível inclusive na área social, como argumentei na coluna de 17 de agosto. Nosso fulano está repleto de conteúdo.