Friday, August 01, 2003

Does it strike anybody else as odd that Joshua -- as in the Book of Joshua in the Bible, who conquered Canaan -- didn't appear to have any wives or family?
You should go read Matt Welch's Reason article on why felons should be given the vote. I thought it would be a boring non-topic. It's not. Then read my comment on his blog.
I finally got through the nine-screen NYTimes Magazine piece on Iraqi sanctions, which tries to answer the simple question: "Were Sanctions Right?" Every time David Rieff comes perilously close to saying, "No way, definitely not," he backs off, ever so slightly. But that's certainly the impression I came away with. Witness how sanctions became one of the police state's most effective weapons of control:

''First we got used to the idea that the government provided food,'' a young Iraqi journalism student named Aziz told me. (He preferred that I not know his last name.) ''Then we started to see the government as the provider of absolutely everything. For Saddam, it was great. The more he controlled distribution, the more effective the Iraqi police state became. After all, practically the worst thing you could do was to lose your ration card.''

In many ways, Saddam Hussein became a master at manipulating the sanctions system to his own ends. Under the rubric of the oil-for-food program, the United Nations allowed the Iraqis themselves to publish their list of humanitarian requirements and then to select the foreign companies with which it wished to do business. This provision meant that the Iraqi government was able to set up a well-orchestrated system of kickback schemes in which a contract would be signed at far more than the cost of fulfilling it, with the difference deposited secretly by the selected contractors in Iraqi government-controlled accounts all over the world. As a result, Saddam Hussein and the Baath elite got rich off the sanctions, and a great many international businessmen, notably in the Arab world, in France and in Russia, made handsome profits as well.
It's worth reading the whole thing. I'm surprised the cruelty of the sanctions were so rarely used to justify the war itself. After all, there were basically three options: Continue the sanctions as they were; loosen, drop or alter the sanctions; or go to war. The first option, in my view, would have been the most inhumane. I'm not the only one who thinks that, according to the article:

Not that every Iraqi I met preferred sanctions to war. To the contrary, some even insisted that given the choice between being subjected to open-ended sanctions and the bloody resolution of an American invasion, they would opt for the latter. ''I detest the Americans and want them to leave Iraq now, immediately,'' one Shiite notable told me. ''But they got rid of Saddam, and now they have lifted the sanctions. That's good. Otherwise, who knows how long this slow death by water torture, which the sanctions were for us, would have gone on?''
The second option -- lifting or loosening the sanctions -- might have been the best of the three, given the right carrots and sticks. But nobody, to my knowledge, ever came up with a workable fomula that would have alleviated the suffering of the Iraqis and managed to contain Saddam Hussein's military ambitions.

It would be nice if the Iraqi experience led to reconsideration of sanctions as a foreign policy tool -- in, say, Cuba, for instance. It's long been said (speculated, really) that the Castro regime would collapse at the first whiff of free trade with the United States.
For some reasons I found an unusual amount of good reading on The Prague Daily Monitor (formerly Prague Monitor) today. To begin with, there's this Respekt piece posted a few days ago on TOL (Transitions Online), detailing how arms manufactured in a NATO country -- that would be little old Czech Republic -- often end up in rather "dirty" hands. You know, like those of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. This admittedly dubious assertion comes from Roland Jacquard's In the Name of Osama Bin Laden. Respekt does little to back it up, but finds little to disprove it, either.

Respekt has in its possession a document permitting a company called Thomas CZ to export 120 T-55 tanks to Georgia in 1999. It was an extraordinary thing for a small Caucasian republic: It owned just 20 of them at that time.

Moreover, the sum the local army was to pay--just over 100 million crowns [$3.6 million at today’s rate]--was more than its entire budget for military hardware. Put simply, that year the army would not have been able to buy a single round for a submachine gun.
This is actually old news from 2000, but read more. It gets better.

Tracking down imported weapons in Georgia is an experience.... [Czech Ambassador to Georgia] Nekvasil refuses to cooperate with us in any way, even refusing to pass on the names of contacts. Why? Could the explanation be the ambassador’s good relations with arms exporters, a relationship that the owner of Thomas CZ Jiri Tomes likes to boast of?

“I know Mr. Tomes, but that has nothing to do with it. I simply think that you are not capable of providing objective information.”
Respekt has a habit, with in-depth reports such as this, of casting its net a bit too wide. Especially by the end of the story, I found myself getting a bit skeptical about some of its claims and insinuations. Still, the utter lack of transparency involved in such deals is pretty serious stuff, and the article is worth reading.

In unrelated news, here is today's press review from Czech press agency CTK, with yet more comments about the Klaus-Bush flap. The recent report that George Bush recently told Vaclav Havel he is not interested in meeting Havel's successor, President Vaclav Klaus, has received loads of attention here.

Lidove noviny's Frantisek Sulc writes (probably a bad CTK translation):

The reason for the row is not because the [Klaus] rejected the war in Iraq, but his insinuation that in the worst case scenario the Americans will alter evidence of weapons of mass destruction and his attempt to wriggle out of alliance.

The same as the problem is not that Vaclav Klaus does not want American bases in the Czech Republic, but his undiplomatic statement in this matter recalling historical experiences. In other words he is comparing Americans to Soviet troops.
In short, this writer thinks Klaus is one of the world's worst diplomats -- not to mention a real schmuck -- two things most of us have known for some time.

It appears Klaus knows by now that he'll never be a universally respected president, either inside or outside the country. His comments are designed to impress people like Milena Varadinkova, a commentator for Mlada fronta Dnes:

"Havel can easily recommend to Bush that [Prime Minister Vladimir] Spidla [(one of Klaus's many arch-rivals)] is America's best friend. That cannot damage our country. But he would certainly do so by making unfriendly remarks about the Czech President," Varadinkova writes.

She goes on to say that Havel might not make these remarks, but others, such as political scientist Jiri Pehe do and this creates the idea that Klaus is not well liked abroad.
Now where would that idea come from? When in doubt, blame Jiri Pehe!

"Vaclav Klaus for years now has been a respected guest at many public and expert discussion abroad and sometimes he is a tough debator because he defends our interests and stances. Or is a good president one who is universally liked abroad because he sells our skin cheap?" Varadinkova adds.
Radio Prague's Rob Cameron gives his take on Klaus's "bad week at work," which included a trip to the hospital. The Prague Post, meanwhile, opines on Klaus's oh-so-dignified response to an 81-year-old former political prisoner who politely questioned Klaus's apparent acceptance of his erstwhile enemies, the Communist Party.

Under Havel, the Czech (and before that, Czechoslovak) presidency was viewed as a sign of the Republic's democratic stability. Under Klaus, the institution is becoming virtually irrelevant, as most everyone inside and outside the country -- apart from Klaus's die-hard supporters -- have learned to ignore that petulant noise coming from the Castle.

Thursday, July 31, 2003

Hey you. Read this. Now. To the end. (Submitted in the comments section.)
Almost as soon as the Pentagon's "terror market" idea started causing hissy fits, contrarian pieces began appearing saying that the idea wasn't nearly as awful as it sounded. A piece in The New York Times -- no friend to the Bush administration, at least not on its editorial page -- called it "a good idea with bad press." Most of the pieces I read stated the obvious: that markets are better predictors of events than any single expert. Maybe, but...

The best and most balanced piece I saw was yesterday's cover piece on Slate. Daniel Gross, the magazine's business and finance writer, was overall bullish on the project, but suggested some potential drawbacks. To begin with, "a havoc market wouldn't benefit from the rationality that regular financial markets require" because "in the Middle East, many of the figures ... are not what international relations types refer to as 'rational actors.'" So what? I don't buy this argument at all, because I don't think most human beings are rational actors, either. Just because you're not rational doesn't mean you're not predictable.

There's another huge drawback, though. Once you get over the "gee whiz" aspect of the idea, you start to realize the whole thing is sort of self-defeating. For instance, if the Pentagon saw "that people were betting heavily on the assassination of Iraq's interim president, the Defense Department would start searching for some assassination plot in the hopes of rooting it out. But preventing the assassination would cause all the people who bet on it to lose their money." The Pentagon, see, is not trying to make money off future events; nor, one would hope, is their ultimate goal to facilitate others in making money. Instead, the Pentagon's business is trying to influence future events -- the very events that people on the market are betting on. So the most successful the market is, the less successful the market is, and vice versa. (The Slate piece ended on an overall positive note for such a market's potential, but it never really answered its own counter-argument.)

Also fun was the related piece that pointed to places on the Internet where you can already buy and sell weird futures. On Long Bets, you can bet on where -- not whether -- we'll first discover extraterrestrial life.

Meanwhile, Josh Marshall reveals his ignorance of financial markets on Talking Points Memo by asking, mockingly, "Will there be derivatives?" A future is a derivative, ya goof.

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

The teeming masses have demanded my account of the Rolling Stones show Sunday on the Letna Plain. (OK, so it was just one reader.)

I should start by pointing out that historically, I've not been a Rolling Stones fan. That bluesy swagger was definitely never my cup of tea. But my friend Arlo called attention to the odd mid-to-late 20s Stones conversion phenomenon that's so common to many in my generation. (I can call him my friend, even though I only met him last week, because he's been living with us since then. He's Alex's cousin.) It's really true: As they approach the age of 30, legions of one-time dyed-in-the-wool teenage punk and alt-rock fanatics, from the ex-DIY hardcore set to early-1990s indie rockers, start settling into the Rolling Stones and Johnny Cash. It happened to me about a year ago when I was in New York City shopping at the Virgin Megastore with my old pal from high school, Chris Radtke. I somehow decided I needed to become more Stones-literate, and I knew Chris, whose bread and butter was once AC/DC, was the one to ask for advice. He'd already converted and preached Stones with missionary zeal. A dozen years ago (I believe that would be 1991, The Year Punk Broke) I would have told you the Rolling Stones represented everything that was loathsome and decrepit about rock music. Radtke aided my apostasy -- call it maturity if you insist -- by recommending Let It Bleed.

So Arlo came to town last week and discovered Prague had been swept by Jaggermania, as Sir Mick had chosen to celebrate his 60th here in Prague with Vaclav Havel. It sort of reminded me of when I moved to Prague in 1996, only to be greeted by a huge fiberglass statue of Michael Jackson standing where the Stalin statue used to be. (I had no idea at the time how bizarre that was.) Arlo pointed out that to see the Stones in the U.S. these days costs at least $100. That's totally crazy, I thought; and I should really cross that off the "gotta-do-it-once-in-my-life" list. (Last year I jumped out of an airplane. This year I saw the Rolling Stones.) So off we went out to Letna Sunday afternoon. The tickets cost Kc 895, or about $32. (Actually, Arlo paid for it; thanks Arlo.)

The show itself was actually pretty unremarkable, plagued by all the problems common to large outdoor rock concerts, like rain and crowds and not being able to see the stage. We arrived at Letna about 4:30 and tried to keep our little spot on the dirt for as long as we could, just sitting around in the sun drinking beer. As showtime approached, the PA played Johnny Cash's version of U2's "One," which was pretty funny for two reasons: A) What I said before about people settling into the Stones and Cash in their, um, old age. B) A huge group of people, including silly old me, were singing along at the top of their lungs, but they were clearly singing the U2 version.

The second openers (I'm skipping those Celtic dudes, Brainstorm) were perfect for the occasion -- Czech dinosaur rockers Olympic. Unlike the Mick Jagger, singer Petr Janda is ridiculously and unashamedly bald. And I found I knew a few of their songs just from cultural osmosis. Notable, though hardly surprising, was the range of ages in the audience. There really were some truly old people out there. And lots and lots of Germans -- possibly more than a quarter of the 80,000-strong audience -- obviously there for the cheap tickets. I almost got into a fight with the one behind me who kept shoving me. I called him an asshole and another thing which I'm not allowed to say ever again. He replied, "Hey, play it cool, man!" (When was the last time you heard that expression?)

The problem with drinking beer, I discovered, is that after you drink a certain amount, it becomes necessary to relieve oneself. (Actually, I've known this for a long time, but it really hit home standing in line at that PortaPotty.) So shortly before the main act started, Alex and I had to abandon our spots, and found ourselves unable to make it back to our group. But no matter. We were never that close to the stage to begin with, and you couldn't see diddly-squat, except for those giant screens, from anywhere.

Havel came out and introduced the band. That was truly special. I didn't understand much of what he said, but I made out the words "freedom," "freedom," "Velvet Revolution" and "freedom." Then lots of lights and the band started. Mick did us all the courtesy of speaking some very bad Czech. "Ahoj Praho, ahoj Cechy" wasn't so bad. But then he said something that sounded like "Mee jsma rad ze mee jsmastady" which is sort of like "Weesma vary gald to beestere."

During "Gimme Shelter" I called my friend David and held up the phone for about five minutes. He was psyched. But then my phone ran out of batteries and we were completely unable to meet up with our group afterwards. We swung by Vladan's place in Holesovice to place a phone call. Luckily he was home. In fact, he'd just been at the concert himself -- seeing and hearing the same show we did, standing outside the gates and watching it through a hole in the fence.

So that's about it. What did I think of the show? It was worth the money, nonewithstanding the fact that I could have heard it for free from outside. They played a slew of songs off Let It Bleed, which was great, because that's the only album I'm familiar with on a level other than background music. The show certainly didn't blow me away or restore my faith in rock and roll, like some concerts do, but I didn't expect it to. Most importantly, when people asked what I made of my life in 2003, I can say I saw Havel introduce the Rolling Stones. And it was much less freaky than jumping out of that airplane.
Look here. Yes, it's George W. Bush defacing the U.S. flag. File under: "He didn't just say what I think he did, did he?" (Via This Modern World.)
Jeff Buehler sends me this link.

WASHINGTON, July 28 — The Pentagon office that proposed spying electronically on Americans to monitor potential terrorists has a new experiment. It is an online futures trading market, disclosed today by critics, in which anonymous speculators would bet on forecasting terrorist attacks, assassinations and coups.

Traders bullish on a biological attack on Israel or bearish on the chances of a North Korean missile strike would have the opportunity to bet on the likelihood of such events on a new Internet site established by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.


The Pentagon, in defending the program, said such futures trading had proven effective in predicting other events like oil prices, elections and movie ticket sales.

"Research indicates that markets are extremely efficient, effective and timely aggregators of dispersed and even hidden information," the Defense Department said in a statement. "Futures markets have proven themselves to be good at predicting such things as elections results; they are often better than expert opinions."
The Onion? No, it's the New York Times. The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, The Economist Intelligence Unit and a company called Net Exchange have teamed up to bring you this project.

Now I have three immediate responses.

1. It is a fascinating and interesting idea. Markets are indeed efficient and timely aggregators of information.

2. It is absolutely the dumbest idea ever to come down the pike. "Say, Horace, you remember the 2004 terrorist attack bubble? Man, we got suckered by that one!"

3. "Two Democratic senators who reported the plan called it morally repugnant and grotesque." I must agree. Whoever thought this one up should take a long walk off a short pier.

4. Reading the "Concept Overview" on the actual site, I notice the subject is not terrorist attacks per se, but general political developments in the Middle East. You can bet, for example, on whether the U.S. will recognize a Palestinian state by 2005. Another example given is the overthrow of the Jordanian monarchy, which might seem like a fun thing to speculate on if you're a day trader in Baltimore, but not if you're in Jordan. I have a hard time seeing how anybody could make a bet that "there will be a terrorist attack" since there's no empirical test (I love that phrase) of what constitutes a terrorist attack, nor even what constitutes a terrorist. Still, if Democrat Senators seize upon this idea to make the Pentagon look like a bunch of craven freaks, I'm afraid the freaks had it coming.

5. The more I look at it, the more it reminds me of SimCity or Dungeons & Dragons. This was something devised by the unsalvagably geeky. You know the ones: You get them drunk in a bar and they start drawing inverted yield curves on the backs of napkins.

Monday, July 28, 2003

From the Washington Post:

"If the national security adviser didn't understand the repeated State Department and CIA warnings about the uranium allegation, that's a frightening level of incompetence," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.), who as the ranking Democrat on the Government Reform Committee has led the charge on the intelligence issue. "It's even more serious if she knew and ignored the intelligence warnings and has deliberately misled our nation. . . . In any case it's hard to see why the president or the public will have confidence in her office."
Funny thing is, while I read a lot of conservative complaints that "the Democrats" just refuse to drop this unintelligent intelligence issue, I've read very few comments from actual Democrats as strong as this one. When conservatives say "Democrats" are they now using the word to mean "the [liberal] media"?

I went to the Rolling Stones concert last night. More on that later.