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September 21, 2006

Hanging Our Soldiers Out to Dry

I saw an excerpt (via Andrew Sullivan) of President Bush's press conference from earlier this week, and it has been bothering me mightily ever since. Here's a question by David Gregory and the relevant section of his subsequent exchange with the President:

Q Mr. President, critics of your proposed bill on interrogation rules say there's another important test -- these critics include John McCain, who you've mentioned several times this morning -- and that test is this: If a CIA officer, paramilitary or special operations soldier from the United States were captured in Iran or North Korea, and they were roughed up, and those governments said, well, they were interrogated in accordance with our interpretation of the Geneva Conventions, and then they were put on trial and they were convicted based on secret evidence that they were not able to see, how would you react to that, as Commander-in-Chief?

THE PRESIDENT: David, my reaction is, is that if the nations such as those you named, adopted the standards within the Detainee Detention Act, the world would be better. That's my reaction. We're trying to clarify law. We're trying to set high standards, not ambiguous standards...

Q Sir, with respect, if other countries interpret the Geneva Conventions as they see fit -- as they see fit -- you're saying that you'd be okay with that?

THE PRESIDENT: I am saying that I would hope that they would adopt the same standards we adopt; and that by clarifying Article III, we make it stronger, we make it clearer, we make it definite.

Let me see if I can't rewrite and expand on this exchange to be clearer and more explicit while preserving the facts:

Q Mr. President, if a CIA officer, paramilitary or special operations soldier from the United States were captured in Iran or North Korea, and they were subjected to procedures some people would consider to be torture, such as waterboarding, and those governments said, well, they were interrogated in accordance with our interpretation of the Geneva Conventions, and then they were put on trial and they were convicted based on secret evidence that they were not able to see, as well as on evidence obtained using waterboarding and other similar techniques, and if based on this evidence, and in accordance with the laws of the country in question, they were subsequently executed, how would you react to that, as Commander-in-Chief?

THE PRESIDENT: David, my reaction is, is that if the nations such as those you named, adopted the standards within the Detainee Detention Act, the world would be better. I would hope that they would adopt the same standards we adopt.

Can you even begin to imagine the uproar if a Democratic president expressed approval of the use of torture, secret evidence, evidence derived from torture, and execution based on such evidence by any other country against US personnel? Republicans would be outraged -- and rightly so. And I'm outraged by this. The president who has fought harder than any other against the right of any other nation to try US soldiers is now willing to hang them out to dry in the Iranian and North Korean equivalents of Camp X-Ray in order to preserve his own desire for state-sanctioned torture and military kangaroo courts. It's astonishing.

Baghdad's Murder Rate Revised

Back in June, I used reports from Baghdad's morgues and available statistics to take a guess at Baghdad's murder rate:

According to Wikipedia, Baghdad's estimated population as of 2005 is 7,400,000. That makes Baghdad's murder rate 195.41 per 100,000 residents.

According to this page, the murder rate for the US in 2004 was 5.5 per 100,000 residents. That means you're 35.53 times more likely to be murdered in Baghdad as you are in the US. But perhaps it isn't fair to compare an urban area to an entire nation. Fine. According to this page, the highest murder rate of any US city in 2002 was that of Washington, DC, at 45.8 per 100,000 inhabitants. That means you're 4.27 times more likely to be murdered in Baghdad as you are in the most dangerous city in the US.

This wasn't shocking enough for some people, who made comments like:

I think it is quite amazing that it is only 4X more likely to be murdered in Baghdad in the middle of an emerging civil war than in Washington D.C.
Perhaps the latest news will make such people sit up and take notice:
A United Nations report released Wednesday says that 5,106 people in Baghdad died violent deaths during July and August, a number far higher than reports that have relied on figures from the city’s morgue...

The report also describes evidence of torture on many of the bodies found in Baghdad, including gouged-out eyeballs and wounds from nails, power drills and acid. “Hundreds of bodies have continued to appear throughout the country bearing signs of severe torture and execution-style killing,” the report found.

As Baghdad has become the main stage for intensified sectarian fighting, the counting of the dead has become a contentious issue. Some American officials say figures released by the Baghdad morgue are inflated. The United Nations report includes the morgue’s figures of 1,855 killed in July and 1,536 killed in August. But it also counts bodies received at other hospitals in the city.

5,106 deaths over a two-month period equals a yearly rate of 30,636. Using the statistics from my original post, this equals a murder rate of 414.0 per 100,000 residents. That makes one 75.27 times as likely to be murdered in Baghdad as in the US as a whole, and 9.04 times as likely to be murdered in Baghdad as in the most dangerous city in the US, Washington, DC.

September 19, 2006

Sullivan on Torture and the Christian Right

Andrew Sullivan on torture and the Christian Right:

Torture is not a hard issue for any Christian. It is an unmitigated moral evil. There is no theology on earth which can make it a less grave moral matter than, say, gay marriage. And yet it has been enforced by this president for five years and where is the outrage? You would imagine that James Dobson would have organized a massive phone-in or email blitz to Capitol Hill on the detainee legislation. You would imagine that every theocon from Ponnuru to Neuhaus would be writing about this every day and night. But nah. Gays getting married in one state out of 49? Massive, coordinated outrage, sermon after sermon, direct mail blitz after direct mail blitz, and a threatened constitutional amendment. The president authorizing torture? You can hear a pin drop on the religious right. Tells you something, no?
Yes it does. And it's not good.

"Head-in-the-Sand" Liberals and Conservatives

I've seen this referenced on a variety of blogs: an editorial yesterday for the Los Angeles Times by self-described liberal Sam Harris, the author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. The editorial's title? "Head-in-the-sand liberals: Western civilization really is at risk from Muslim extremists":

On questions of national security, I am now as wary of my fellow liberals as I am of the religious demagogues on the Christian right.

This may seem like frank acquiescence to the charge that "liberals are soft on terrorism." It is, and they are.

A cult of death is forming in the Muslim world -- for reasons that are perfectly explicable in terms of the Islamic doctrines of martyrdom and jihad. The truth is that we are not fighting a "war on terror." We are fighting a pestilential theology and a longing for paradise.

This is not to say that we are at war with all Muslims. But we are absolutely at war with those who believe that death in defense of the faith is the highest possible good, that cartoonists should be killed for caricaturing the prophet and that any Muslim who loses his faith should be butchered for apostasy.

Unfortunately, such religious extremism is not as fringe a phenomenon as we might hope. Numerous studies have found that the most radicalized Muslims tend to have better-than-average educations and economic opportunities.

Given the degree to which religious ideas are still sheltered from criticism in every society, it is actually possible for a person to have the economic and intellectual resources to build a nuclear bomb -- and to believe that he will get 72 virgins in paradise. And yet, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, liberals continue to imagine that Muslim terrorism springs from economic despair, lack of education and American militarism.

I don't disagree with Harris' points here. Radical Islamism is a serious threat to the Western way of life. But let's not delude ourselves that liberals have a monopoly on head-in-the-sandedness. The last sentence above would be just as accurate if it read:

And yet, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, conservatives continue to imagine that Muslim terrorism springs from a lack of democracy.
Iran is a democracy and its leader wants to wipe Israel off the map. Palestine is a democracy and elected Hamas as its government. Lebanon is a democracy and openly tolerated a rocket-armed Hezbollah militia within its borders. But conservatives would have us believe that Iraq will be different, that somehow, democracy there will lead to something other than extremism. Where is the evidence for this belief?

I've come to believe that Islamic terrorism springs not from economic despair, nor lack of education, nor American militarism, nor the absence of democracy (though some or all of these issues might aggravate the problem). I have my thoughts on what it does spring from, but I'll keep them to myself until I'm better able to articulate them.

"Kirk... Embodied an American Idea"

In yesterday's New York Times, Ronald Moore, the creator of the revamped Battlestar Galactica -- to me, the best show on television -- wrote about how Star Trek influenced him from his childhood years on:

[Star Trek] was a morality play, with Capt. James T. Kirk as a futuristic John F. Kennedy piloting a warp-driven PT-109 through the far reaches of the galaxy.

Kirk, for me, embodied an American idea: His mission was to explore the final frontier, not to conquer it. He was moral without moralizing. Week after week, he confronted the specters of intolerance and injustice, and week after week found a way to defeat them without ever becoming them. Jim Kirk may have beat up his share of bad guys, but you could never imagine him torturing them.

September 17, 2006

From Supporting the IRA to Torturing Al Qaida

During the heyday of the Irish Republican Army, Representative Peter King (R-NY) was a vocal supporter of it here in the US:

The politician once called the IRA "the legitimate voice of occupied Ireland," he was banned from the BBC by British censors for his pro-IRA views, and he refused to denounce the IRA when one of its mortar bombs killed nine Northern Irish police officers...

He forged links with leaders of the IRA and Sinn Fein in Ireland, and in America he hooked up with Irish Northern Aid, known as Noraid, a New York based group that the American, British, and Irish governments often accused of funneling guns and money to the IRA. At a time when the IRA's murder of Lord Mountbatten and its fierce bombing campaign in Britain and Ireland persuaded most American politicians to shun IRA-support groups, Mr. King displayed no such inhibitions. He spoke regularly at Noraid protests and became close to the group's publicity director, the Bronx lawyer Martin Galvin, a figure reviled by the British.

Mr. King's support for the IRA was unequivocal. In 1982, for instance, he told a pro-IRA rally in Nassau County: "We must pledge ourselves to support those brave men and women who this very moment are carrying forth the struggle against British imperialism in the streets of Belfast and Derry."

By the mid-1980s, the authorities on both sides of the Atlantic were openly hostile to Mr. King. On one occasion, a judge threw him out of a Belfast courtroom during the murder trial of IRA men because, in the judge's view, "he was an obvious collaborator with the IRA." When he attended other trials, the police singled him out for thorough body searches.

Now times have changed. Not only is Representative King anti-terror, he's all for torture:

Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York and chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said: "I just think John McCain is wrong on this [requiring all US government agencies, including the CIA, to fully respect Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions]. If we capture bin Laden tomorrow and we have to hold his head under water to find out when the next attack is going to happen, we ought to be able to do it."
The problem, Mr. King, is that the legitimization of torture is a very slippery slope. If it's okay to torture bin Laden, surely it's okay to torture his lieutenants? If it's okay to torture his lieutenants, surely it's okay to torture his operatives? Pretty soon you're picking up people far from the battlefield, people with no proven connection to terrorism, based solely on testimony supplied under torture, by people willing to say anything to make it stop, and then you're torturing these newly-captured people as well. And that, it would seem, is exactly what the US has been doing. And that is what Senators Warner, McCain, and Graham are trying to stop.

On reflection, I suppose it's not surprising that Mr. King is a supporter of torture. Clearly he's from the ends-justify-the-means camp. If you think that the UK rule of Northern Ireland is wrong (a reasonable position on its own), then anything that might make it stop is justified: murdering Lord Mountbatten, mortaring police officers, attempting the assassination of Prime Minister Thatcher, whatever it takes. If you think that Al Qaida is a threat to the US (which it obviously is), then again, anything to stop them is justified, including torture such as waterboarding:

The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner's face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.

According to the sources [former and current intelligence officers and supervisors], CIA officers who subjected themselves to the water boarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in. They said al Qaeda's toughest prisoner, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, won the admiration of interrogators when he was able to last between two and two-and-a-half minutes before begging to confess.

"The person believes they are being killed, and as such, it really amounts to a mock execution, which is illegal under international law," said John Sifton of Human Rights Watch.

September 16, 2006

The Blizzard Entertainment of Movies

For those of you who are fans of Halo, this interview with Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, executive producer of the forthcoming Halo feature film, is encouraging to say the least:

Peter Jackson: Fran [Walsh], Philippa [Boyens] and I are not writing the script, but, in a sense, one of the things we're contributing with our involvement in the project is being the police, the script cops! So, nothing is going to end up on the screen that doesn't get our stamp of approval. We're going to be pretty tough with the script. We're not going to spare people's feelings...

We obviously know a lot of the world of HALO that the story's going to take part in. So, there's a lot of very productive work that's underway at the moment while the script takes whatever (amount of time). As far as I'm concerned it should take as long as it needs to take until it's a good script. We are slowly tugging away at it, getting it there...

Peter Jackson: the Blizzard Entertainment of movies. (Or if you prefer, Blizzard Entertainment: the Peter Jackson of games.)

September 15, 2006

Next-Gen Console Market Share Predictions

It seems like this is the week for predictions -- both making and reviewing them.

Over the past few weeks, I've been corresponding with a good friend in the game industry. He's more bullish than I am on the prospects for the PlayStation 3. We traded market share forecasts for next-generation consoles and ended up agreeing to disagree. I suggested posting our respective predictions on my blog. He demurred, saying he wasn't fond of publicizing such exercises. Having no sense of shame in plastering my predictions for the world to see, I suggested that I post our predictions here, his anonymously. He agreed, so here goes. These are predictions for unit market share rankings at the end of the calendar years.

My friend's predictions:

2007

  • Japan: #1 Wii, #2 PS3, #3 (distant) 360
  • Europe: #1 Wii, #2 PS3, #3 360
  • North America: #1 360, #2 Wii, #3 PS3
2008
  • Japan: #1 PS3, #2 Wii, #3 (distant) 360
  • Europe: #1 (tie) Wii / PS3, #3 360
  • North America: #1 (tie) PS3 / 360, #3 Wii
And my predictions:

2007

  • Japan: #1 Wii, #2 PS3, #3 (distant) 360
  • Europe: #1 (tie) Wii / 360, #3 PS3
  • North America: #1 360, #2 Wii, #3 PS3
2008
  • Japan: #1 Wii, #2 PS3, #3 (distant) 360
  • Europe: #1 Wii, #2 360, #3 PS3
  • North America: #1 (tie) 360 / Wii, #3 PS3

September 14, 2006

"They Will Feed Fear. We Will Appeal to Hope"

Who said this, and when?

In this election, they will speak endlessly of risk. We will speak of progress. They will make accusations. We will make proposals. They will feed fear. We will appeal to hope. They will offer more lectures, and legalisms, and carefully worded denials. We offer another way, a better way, and a stiff dose of truth.
The answer can be found here. Found via this blog (I'm not including the blogger's name here so as to make it a bit less obvious).

September 13, 2006

"We Assure You of 100% High Quality..."

This is from an e-mail I received today. I've highlighted the noteworthy passages:

With the best intention, we are writing this letter to see if there is any possibility that we could work together as global partners.

Our Translation Company, a leading translation & interpretation company in China, dedicates itself in providing our clients with highly professional language solutions. Focusing on the electronics, manufacturing, engineering, website &software localization, hi-tech, automation and legal fields, we have defined an important client base.

With over 2000 highly qualified local and international translators and interpreters, we generates revenue from a client list including over 60% of world top 1000 companies. In addition to our large pool of linguists located all over the nation, we are part of a network of more than 100 language firms, which themselves have large pools of linguists scattered all over China and the world.

Please tell us if you need our professional translation services after you go through this letter. Thank you!

The advantages of working with us:

1. The prices we offer are much lower than that of other translation companies. For example, it may cost 200 USD for translating a document in your country, and it costs only 50 USD for translating the same document in my company. (Reduce your cost!)

2. As you know, Chinese is our native language, we assure you of 100% high quality in the mutual translation between Chinese and other languages. Our company specializes in Asian language translation. We can help you better localize your culture in Asian areas. It is always our core competitive edge. Our company has won a good reputation in website & software localization for companies at home and abroad. (Core Competitive Edge)

3. We utilize the latest technological advancements to meet all of your needs in most standard software applications, such as QuarkXpress, Adobe InDesign, Adobe Pagemaker, Adobe FrameMaker, etc. Further more, we can accommodate your needs for both Mac and PC platforms with a variety of fonts for all different languages. (Guaranteed Quality!)

4. 5000 English words/day/one translator. (High speed!)

5. We have USD intermediary bank, the foreign exchange can be transmitted directly into our company’s bank. It’s easy and safe. (Less worry!)

So How Did I Do?

Before the Apple announcements, I made the following predictions:

  • Movie viewing service: near-certainty
  • TV video viewing device: near-certainty
  • iPod nano capacity increase: highly probable
  • iPod shuffle replacement: probable
  • Widescreen iPod: possible
  • iPhone: unlikely
So how did I do?
  • Movie viewing service: yes, so correct
  • TV video viewing device: yes, so correct
  • iPod nano capacity increase: yes, so correct
  • iPod shuffle replacement: yes, so correct
  • Widescreen iPod: no, and though I only listed this as "possible", not "probable", I'm nonetheless going to count it as incorrect
  • iPhone: no, so correct
Five out of six? Not bad. That said, I was surprised by a number of aspects of the announcements. Launching with only one movie studio? Showing iTV as a preview instead of as a finished device? Not adding a display to the iPod shuffle? Increasing iPod storage by only 20GB? And though I listed a widescreen iPod as merely "possible", in my heart, I didn't think that Apple would launch a movie service without a good movie-capable iPod -- and the 5G iPod isn't it. Its screen makes it okay for short subjects, especially cartoons, but it's too small for a two-hour movie watching session. So no reason for me personally to upgrade.

One other surprise was the retro design of the new iPod nano. I know lots of people will like it, but it's essentially equivalent to Apple saying, "we got the first generation iPod nano wrong". Not very Apple-like.

September 11, 2006

Apple's Announcements Tomorrow

At the risk of becoming the very last resident of the blogosphere to speculate about Apple's announcements tomorrow, I thought I'd take a few moments to talk about what Apple might do. In rough order from more to less likely:

I suppose it's possible that Apple isn't going to announce some sort of movie viewing service, but if they're not, then they have done an unthinkably bad (for Apple) job of managing expectations. So I expect a movie viewing service.

A movie viewing service implies, to me, some sort of way of watching it on one's television. Steve Jobs is far too smart to believe that anything more than a fraction of consumers would care about watching movies on their computers. This implies some sort of living room device, either a wireless video streaming solution or some sort of computer-based solution. I'd bet on the former.

Many observers believe the iPod nano is due for a capacity increase. I agree. I think we'll see 6 or 8 gigabyte nanos tomorrow. No need to change the design itself -- it's still best-of-class.

I haven't heard much talk about the iPod shuffle, but I have a hunch that it's going away. Unlike the nano, the shuffle is no longer best-of-class. It needs to be updated to compete. Besides, simply adding more capacity would make the display-less shuffle even less usable than it is now. The question is, does Apple create something new to take its place, or simply lower prices on low-end nanos to take over its slot?

Will Apple finally announce a widescreen iPod tomorrow? I'm guessing they will. Their huge advantage in digital media is the iPod itself. If they announce a movie viewing service that isn't compatible with some version of the iPod, they'll be leaving their biggest asset to one side. Put another way, without iPod compatibility, what is Apple's strategic advantage in movie viewing vis-a-vis Amazon?

I'm guessing Apple won't announce the iPhone tomorrow. Every time I think about it, the only way the economics of an iPhone would work would be for Apple to become an MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator, piggybacking on an existing carrier, like Virgin Mobile does). And it's hard to imagine Apple rolling out an MVNO tomorrow while keeping it a complete surprise. I suppose Apple could announce an iPhone for delivery three or four months from now, but I have trouble imagining Steve Jobs doing such a thing.

So, in summary:

  • Movie viewing service: near-certainty
  • TV video viewing device: near-certainty
  • iPod nano capacity increase: highly probable
  • iPod shuffle replacement: probable
  • Widescreen iPod: possible
  • iPhone: unlikely
Tune back in tomorrow afternoon to see how I did.