Friday, January 20, 2006

Cuba gets to play ball

The Associated Press reports that Cuba will be allowed to participate in the World Baseball Classic:

The Bush administration is letting Cuba play ball.

The Cubans will be allowed to participate in the inaugural World Baseball Classic after the U.S. government reversed course Friday and issued the special license necessary for the communist nation to play in the 16-team tournament.

One slightly bizarre aspect to this was the reasoning the Bush administration gave for rejecting the first application back in December:
"The president wanted to see it resolved in a positive way," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "Our concerns were centered on making sure that no money was going to the Castro regime and that the World Baseball Classic would not be misused by the regime for spying. We believe the concerns have been addressed."

The license was required by 45-year-old American sanctions against Cuba designed to prevent Fidel Castro's government from receiving U.S. currency. At the State Department, spokesman Sean McCormack said the initial rejection was based on concerns Cuban spies might accompany the team.

I understand the concern about profit. But spying? Even if there are Cuban spies, what are they going to find in Puerto Rico?

I, for one, welcome Cuban participation -- because I want to see them get whipped by the capitalist teams. Scanning the team rosters and the schedule of games, I'm fairly confident that if they're very, very lucky, the Cubans will get creamed in the semifinals by the Dominican team.

posted by Dan at 08:46 PM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (0)

Man, the DOJ has some strange lawyers

Mike Hughlett reports in the Chicago Tribune that the Justice Department would like to access Google's records:

Google Inc. is refusing to obey a Justice Department demand that it release information about what people seek when they use the popular search engine, setting up a possible battle with broad implications for Internet privacy rights.

The Justice Department asked a federal court this week to force Google to turn over a trove of information on how people use the Internet. A subpoena, first sought over the summer, seeks activity on Google's search engines for a single week, a request that Google says could lead to identifying millions of people and what they were looking at.

The government, which says its request will not result in identifying individual computer users, wants to use the information to resurrect an online pornography law shot down last year by the U.S. Supreme Court. It wants to search Google queries to see how often users inadvertently run across sexual material.

The Internet's rise has raised issues of whether users would be vulnerable to electronic eavesdropping of all kinds, but Google's stand represents the first big public face-off between the world's leading search engine and the government....

Yahoo, which has the second most popular Internet search engine, acknowledged Thursday it has complied with the government on a "limited basis."

Other Internet search engines also appear to have complied with the request, said Chris Winfield, president of 10e20 LLC, a New York-based search engine marketing firm. "It looks like Google against everyone," he said.

Oddly, Google has issued no official comment. [UPDATE: check out this San Jose Mercury News story, however.]

I'm not competent to comment on the legality of the request, but the thing that struck me is that the DOJ is being unbelievably lazy.

The DOJ wants to show that online searches lead to inadvertent stumbles into porn. It is true that the best way to show this would be to retrieve a sample of searches. However, almost as good would be for the DOJ to commission some social scientist to do the research for them. It would not be hard for a researcher to run an experiment to gather this kind of data, and the results would be just as useful to the Department of Justice.

There's something else that disturbs me about this request. If Yahoo! and other search engines have already complied, then the DOJ doesn't really need Google's data. All of the search algorithms are pretty much identical -- which means that Justice already has a sufficiently large sample. Even if the differences are more important than I think, the companies cooperating with the DOJ already represent a larger combined market share than Google, so it's not clear that their cooperation is really necessary for the DOJ to make its evidentiary argument.

So why continue to press Google?

I see one of two possibilities:

1) The data they have doesn't support the administration's supposition, and they're hoping Google will bail them out;

2) They don't care about the data for this case as much as they do about establishing a legal precedent and/or intimidating Google into compliance.

Readers are encouraged to try and diving what the DOJ is thinking.

UPDATE: One other quick thought -- although I doubt they acted for these reasons, this is brilliant PR for Google. Their spectacular growth and ever-increasing range of activities had threatened to turn cultural perceptions against the firm. By resisting the Bush administration -- in contrast to Yahoo's capitulation -- Google will look very, very good to all the syberlibertarians oiut there.

posted by Dan at 10:01 AM | Comments (14) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Say it's so, Theo!!!

Three an a half months ago Theo Epstein left the Red Sox. And while I haven't been gnashing my teeth as much as other Red Sox fans, I admit I was a bit concerned about the long-term direction of the club.

So it's nice to say that Theo's back, baby!!!

Principal Owner John Henry, Chairman Tom Werner, President/CEO Larry Lucchino and Epstein issued the following joint statement:

"As you know, we have spoken frequently during the last 10 weeks. We have engaged in healthy, spirited debates about what it will take over the long-term for the Red Sox to remain a great organization and, in fact, become a more effective organization in philosophy, approaches and ideals. Ironically, Theo's departure has brought us closer together in many respects, and, thanks to these conversations, we now enjoy the bonds of a shared vision for the organization's future that did not exist on October 31. With this vision in place, Theo will return to the Red Sox in a full-time baseball operations capacity, details of which will be announced next week."

Here's a link to the AP story as well.

David Pinto asks all the right questions:

So is he going to be somewhere between Lucchino and the co-GM's? Will he get a seven-figure salary? Are the differences smoothed over? Join us next week for another episode of As the Sox Turn.
UPDATE: For those of you who know about sabremetrics, this is pretty funny: "You had me at VORP."

posted by Dan at 09:53 PM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)

Is Al Qaeda acting generous or desperate?

Is it my imagination or does this AP report by Lee Keath suggest that Osama bin Laden is getting desparate?:

Al-Jazeera on Thursday broadcast portions of an audiotape purportedly from Osama bin Laden, saying al Qaeda is making preparations for attacks in the United States but offering a possible truce to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan.

The voice on the tape said heightened security in the United States is not the reason there have been no attacks there since the Sept. 11, 2001, suicide hijackings.

"The delay in similar operations happening in America has not been because of failure to break through your security measures. But the operations are happening in Baghdad and you will see them here at home the minute they are through (with preparations), with God's permission," he said.

"We do not mind offering you a long-term truce with fair conditions that we adhere to," he said. "We are a nation that God has forbidden to lie and cheat. So both sides can enjoy security and stability under this truce so we can build Iraq and Afghanistan, which have been destroyed in this war. There is no shame in this solution, which prevents the wasting of billions of dollars that have gone to those with influence and merchants of war in America."

The speaker did not give conditions for a truce in the excerpts aired by Al-Jazeera.

Now, if you click over to the Al Jazeera version of the story -- which has longer excerpts from the tape -- bin Laden says he's making this offer out of the goodness of his heart:
"This message is about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and how to end those wars," it began.

"It was not my intention to talk to you about this, because those wars are definitely going our way.

"But what triggered my desire to talk to you is the continuous deliberate misinformation given by your President [George] Bush, when it comes to polls made in your home country which reveal that the majority of your people are willing to withdraw US forces from Iraq.

"We know that the majority of your people want this war to end and opinion polls show the Americans don't want to fight the Muslims on Muslim land, nor do they want Muslims to fight them on their (US) land.

"But Bush does not want this and claims that it's better to fight his enemies on their land rather than on American land.

"Bush tried to ignore the polls that demanded that he end the war in Iraq.

"We are getting increasingly stronger while your situation is getting from bad to worse," he told the US, referring to poor US troop morale and the huge economic losses inflicted by the war.

"The war in Iraq is raging and the operations in Afghanistan are increasing."

"In response to the substance of the polls in the US, which indicate that Americans do not want to fight Muslims on Muslim land, nor do they want Muslims to fight them on their land, we do not mind offering a long-term truce based on just conditions that we will stick to.

"We are a nation that Allah banned from lying and stabbing others in the back, hence both parties of the truce will enjoy stability and security to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan, which were destroyed by war."

....Addressing Americans again, he said: "If your desire for peace, stability and reconciliation was true, here we have given you the answer to your call."

That is just so generous of Al Qaeda.

I'm very wary of sounding triumphalist, but this sounds much more like bad spin control and concern about losing the war than an act of benevolence.

I'll trust the readers to judge for themselves.

UPDATE: Fox News has a partial transcipt.

The BBC obseves that taped Al Qaeda messages are receiving less coverage from the Arab media -- and what coverage there is has become decidedly more negative.

Meanwhile, Time's Tony Karon thinks bin Laden has surfaced because he's worried about his own standing among the jihadists:

The message — relatively "moderate" by Jihadist standards, in that it appeared to stake out a hypothetical negotiating position and the prospect of coexistence with the U.S. at the same time as warning of new violence — was notable less for its content than for the fact that it was released at all. Despite directly addressing Americans, its primary purpose may nonetheless be to remind Arab and Muslim audiences of his existence, and to reiterate his claim to primacy among the Jihadists.... in the year of Bin Laden's silence, he has begun to be supplanted as the media face of global jihad by Musab al-Zarqawi, whose grisly exploits in Iraq grab headlines week after week.
Idunno... this sounds like international relations analysis using the mindset of a Hollywood publicist.

LAST UPDATE: Greg Djerejian articulates a few points that had been knocking around in my head as well: [W]hen I hear the word "truce" emit from UBL's lips (or, perhaps, whatever impersonator is doing a stand-in on his behalf), I conclude that we are winning the battle against al-Qaeda....

[A] U.S. attack would be a plus for al-Qaeda strategically, no doubt, if for no other reason than it would re-assert its ability to shed blood on American shores. Fine, no argument there. But now UBL has raised the ante, again, and he risks becoming the Boy Who Cried Wolf one time to often. If he can't execute a major attack in the relatively near future, even despite his explications regarding long operational cycles (it has now been over four years and counting since 9/11), his credibility continues to erode. If he pulls it off, yes his credibility is enhanced in terms of his showcasing continuing operational capability far from his current base, but still, however, he will not achieve his desired goal of dividing the U.S. public so as to precipitate a US withdrawal from Mesopotamia....

Ultimately, however, one is left thinking what a sad life bin Laden leads trafficking in human misery, or, of late, reduced to threatening mass carnage via episodic videotapes basically dumped in front of Al-Jazeera's offices. So I guess I disagree somewhat with Muhammad Salah, Cairo bureau chief for the pan-Arab daily Al Hayat, who says to the NYT: "The fact that he was able to record the message, deliver it and broadcast is in itself a victory for him". Well, yeah, maybe. But that's really defining victory down quite a damn lot, isn't it? It increasingly smells of desperation, of a man espying a tightening noose.

posted by Dan at 12:02 PM | Comments (20) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The reorganization of foreign aid, continued

Last month I posted on subterranean rumblings about a reorganization of foreign aid.

Guy Dinmore reports in the Financial Times that the first public step in this reorganization starts tomorrow:

The Bush administration is expected to announce on Thursday a controversial restructuring of its foreign aid system under Randall Tobias, a retired pharmaceuticals executive who currently heads the US global Aids programme.

Mr Tobias will be named the new head of USAID, the state aid agency with a $14bn (£8bn) budget, replacing Andrew Natsios, who resigned last week. Mr Tobias will also be appointed to the newly created position of deputy secretary for development as Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, pursues what she calls her assertive strategy of “transformational diplomacy”.

The Bush administration wants its multibillion-dollar aid programmes to serve its foreign policy goals better. Critics are worried that by in effect merging USAID into the State Department, the agency will lose some of its independence, and development will become purely politicised.

I'll hold off on commenting until I see more of the proposal. What interests me about Dinmore's story is what comes next:
Ms Rice was expected to announce the changes on Thursday, officials said, following a keynote speech to George­town University on Wednesday in which she sketched out a “sweeping and difficult” transformation of US diplomacy and its institutions.

As part of those changes, 100 US diplomats will be transferred this year from Europe and Washington to countries including China, India, Nigeria and Lebanon. Hundreds more will follow over five years. A senior official compared the shift to the Pentagon’s drawdown of forces from Europe after the cold war.

“In the 21st century, emerging nations like India and China, and Brazil and Egypt, and Indonesia and South Africa are increasingly shaping the course of history,” Ms Rice said.

The US global posture did not reflect these changes, she said, noting that the US had nearly the same number of diplomats in Germany, with a population of 82m, as in India, with 1bn people....

She defined diplomacy as seeking “to change the world itself”, not simply reporting on it. Drawing on the lesson of Afghanistan and how it provided a haven for al-Qaeda, Ms Rice said she had an “expansive vision” for the State Department’s new office of reconstruction and stabilisation, mandated to deal with post-conflict situations.

“Should a state fail in the future, we want the men and women of this office to be able to spring into action quickly,” she said....

Diplomats had to get into the field, she said, noting that there were 200 cities with more than 1m inhabitants but no US diplomatic presence. “This is where the action is today, and this is where we must be,” she said.

Here's a link to Rice's speech. I still need to digest all of it, but I do like the reallocation of diplomatic personnel towards the large developing countries.

posted by Dan at 11:47 PM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (0)

Drezner's Third Law of Blog Motion

Every vituperative blogger will generate a blog reaction of equal and opposite rhetorical strength.

[With profuse apologies to Sir Isaac Newton--ed.]

UPDATE: In the interest of preventing a similar kind of reaction to this blog, do check out this post as well.

posted by Dan at 11:37 PM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)

Will the Pakistani airstrike be worth it?

So there was an airstrike in Pakistan over the weekend that was intended to kill Al Qaeda #2 Ayman Al-Zawahiri -- but the strike missed the target. This caused thousands of Pakistanis to protest the airstrike the next day. The Pakistani press has also been up in arms.

With goodwill earned in-country from the earthquake relief, it seems as though a single airstrike could vitiate the shift in public opinion. The Council on Foreign Relations has a web page declaring, "MISSILE STRIKE PUTS U.S. ON DEFENSIVE."

Which leads us to this tidbit of information from ABC News:

ABC News has learned that Pakistani officials now believe that al Qaeda's master bomb maker and chemical weapons expert was one of the men killed in last week's U.S. missile attack in eastern Pakistan.

Midhat Mursi, 52, also known as Abu Khabab al-Masri, was identified by Pakistani authorities as one of four known major al Qaeda leaders present at an apparent terror summit in the village of Damadola early last Friday morning....

"He wants to cause mayhem, major death, and he puts his expertise on the line. So the fact that we took him out is significant," said former FBI agent Jack Cloonan, an ABC News consultant, who was the senior agent on the FBI's al Qaeda squad. "He's the man who trained the shoe bomber Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui, as well as hundreds of others."

Pakistani officials also said that Khalid Habib, the al Qaeda operations chief for Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Abdul Rehman al Magrabi, a senior operations commander for al Qaeda, were killed in the Damadola attack. Authorities tell ABC News that the terror summit was called to funnel new money into attacks against U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

"Pakistani intelligence says this was a very important planning session involving the very top levels of al Qaeda as they get ready for a new spring offensive," explained Alexis Debat, a former official in the French Defense Ministry and now an ABC News consultant.

There is no word on whether Mursi was also Al Qaeda's number three official.

Question for readers -- assuming this information is accurate and becomes common knowledge in Pakistan, will it blunt the downturn in public opinion?

[What do you care? The bad guys are dead!!--ed. Yeah, but I want the whole megillah.]

posted by Dan at 08:35 PM | Comments (14) | Trackbacks (0)

The Bush administration wants to be like France

Marc Perelman has a piece on Foreign Policy's web site comparing and contrasting the American and French approaches to homeland security. One big difference is how the problem was viewed prior to 9/11:

In 1988, the FBI invited Alain Marsaud, then France’s top antiterrorist magistrate, to speak about terrorism to the bureau’s new recruits at its academy in Quantico, Virginia.

Marsaud, now a conservative lawmaker, told the audience of would-be feds of the deadly threat that radical Islamist terrorist networks posed to Western societies. His talk was an unmitigated flop. “They thought we were Martians,” recalls Marsaud, who chairs the French Parliament’s domestic security commission. “They were interested in neo-Nazis and green activists, and that was it.”

Then there are the differences in approach now. It turns out the Bush administration wishes the U.S. system was more like the French:
In the French system, an investigating judge is the equivalent of an empowered U.S. prosecutor. The judge is in charge of a secret probe, through which he or she can file charges, order wiretaps, and issue warrants and subpoenas. The conclusions of the judge are then transmitted to the prosecutor’s office, which decides whether to send the case to trial. The antiterrorist magistrates have even broader powers than their peers. For instance, they can request the assistance of the police and intelligence services, order the preventive detention of suspects for six days without charge, and justify keeping someone behind bars for several years pending an investigation. In addition, they have an international mandate when a French national is involved in a terrorist act, be it as a perpetrator or as a victim. As a result, France today has a pool of specialized judges and investigators adept at dismantling and prosecuting terrorist networks.

By contrast, in the U.S. judicial system, the evidence gathered by prosecutors is laid out during the trial, in what in effect amounts to a make-or-break gamble. A single court, the “secret” panel of 11 judges, established by the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) more than two decades ago, is charged with reviewing wiretap requests by U.S. authorities. If suspects are spied on without permission in the interest of urgency, the authorities have 72 hours to file for retroactive authorization. The Bush administration’s recourse to extrajudicial means—military trials, enemy combatants—partly stems from an assessment that the judicial system is unfit to prosecute the shadowy world of terrorism. The disclosures that the Bush administration skirted the rules to eavesdrop on terrorism suspects at home is apparently the latest instance of the government’s deciding that rules protecting civil liberties are hampering the war on terror. French police and intelligence services, in contrast, operate in a permissive wiretapping system. In addition to judicially ordered taps, there are also “administrative wiretaps” decided by security agencies under the control of the government. Although the French have had their own cases of abuse—evidence has exposed illegal spying by the François Mitterrand government in the 1980s—the intrusive police powers are for the most part well known by the public and thus largely accepted, especially when it comes to national security....

Bush administration officials argue that the FISA law in its current form does not effectively counter the terrorist challenge. Yet, the administration has not made serious efforts to amend the law or push for broader reform of domestic counterterrorism. Doing so would no doubt be difficult politically and may require regular tweaking, as the French experience shows. But such an effort could pay dividends, for both law enforcement and the American people’s trust in their government.

In recent years, French authorities claim they have thwarted a number of terrorist plots by using their forward-leaning arsenal, from a series of alleged chemical attacks planned by Chechen operatives against Russian interests in Paris to a recently reported ploy by French Muslims linked to a radical Islamist group in Algeria to target one of the capital’s airports. “The French have a very aggressive system but one that fits into their traditions,” says Jeremy Shapiro, the director of research at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “They seem to be doing the best job in Europe.”

The problem is that the French system doesn't fit very well with American traditions -- so I don't think grafting this system onto the American Constiution is going to work all that well.

posted by Dan at 12:15 PM | Comments (9) | Trackbacks (0)

Assisted suicide and the war on terrorism

Orin Kerr has a good post up explaining why the Supreme Court's 6-3 ruling in Gonzales v. Oregon favor of Oregon's assisted suicide law could be a harbinger for how the Court will rule on NSA surveillance or other executive-legislative disputes.

UPDATE: Stephen Bainbridge has a good post up on what the ruling reveals about Scalia's jurisprudence.

posted by Dan at 12:03 PM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Trade law and cyber-realism

My future colleague Joel Trachtman has a new blog on international trade law that is worth checking out.

[What could possibly be interesting about an international trade law blog?--ed.] Well, Joel was smart enoough to link to this Christopher Shea piece in the Boston Globe about Jack Goldsmith and Timothy Wu's forthcoming book on national regulation of the Internet:

[F]orget all that talk about a borderless utopia and about blogs dissolving dictatorships-or at least tamp it down. When it comes to the Internet, ''The story of the next 10 years will be one of rising government power," says Tim Wu, a former marketing executive for a Silicon Valley company who now teaches law at Columbia. While some countries are committed to a fundamentally ''closed" Internet, others want it open. Since technology permits both approaches, Wu adds, ''I wouldn't be surprised if we saw an Internet version of the Cold War."

Wu is coauthor, with Harvard law professor Jack L. Goldsmith, of the iconoclastic forthcoming book, ''Who Controls the Internet?" (an excerpt of which appears this month in Legal Affairs magazine). The book, to be published in March, could be called an example of ''cyberrealism" in two ways. It grafts the hard-nosed ''realist" school of foreign policy-states and state interests are what matters-onto an analysis of what's going on with the Web today. It also tries to deflate hype by arguing that most of the supposedly unprecedented issues raised by the Internet can be handled by existing concepts in international law.

Go check it all out.

posted by Dan at 01:07 PM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

Liberal absurdities on Iran

Perusing the liberal blogosphere over the past week, I see a lot of skepticism regarding U.S. policy towards Iran.

Atrios seems convinced the Bushies are planning a reply of how Iraq played in the 2002 elections. (UPDATE: See Atrios' comment below.)

Josh Marshall -- with strong endorsements from Brad DeLong and Matthew Yglesias -- believes the Bush administration is too incompetent to handle Iran:

The prospect of a nuclearized Iran seems far more perilous to me than anything we faced or seemed likely to face with Iraq. But for those of us trying to think through how to deal with this situation, we have to start from the premise that there is no Iran Question, or whatever you want to call it. There's only how to deal with Iran with this administration in place.

Do you trust this White House's good faith, priorities or competence in dealing with this situation?

Based on everything I've seen in almost five years the answer is pretty clearly 'no' on each count. To my thinking that has to be the starting point of the discussion.

Now, I certainly have had my doubts about this administration's foreign policy competence in the past few years. Gven the administration's policy to date on Iran, however, this line of argument strikes me as pretty much bulls**t.

Consider what the U.S. has done vis-à-vis Iran:

1) Deferring to the EU-3 on negotiations towards Iran;

2) Backing away from having the IAEA refer Iran's noncompliance to the UN Security Council unless and until there was overwhelming international support from key members in that organization for the move;

3) Sharing their intelligence about Iran's nuclear ambitions with all the relevant governments;

4) Endorsing a Russian compromise proposal that would have allowed Iran to continue a nuclear energy program;

5) Securing the support of China and Russia in ratcheting up the rhetoric towards Iran.

The approach the Bush administration has pursued towards Iran -- multilateralism, private and public diplomacy, occasionally deferring to allies -- is besotted with the very tropes that liberals like to see in their American foreign policy. I'm still not sure what the end game will be with regard to Iran, but to date I can't see how a Kerry administration would have played its cards any differently than the Bush team.

Just to annoy Atrios, let's close with something Peter Beinart observed in a TNR essay on the Democrats and national security:

Kos and MoveOn have conveniently convinced themselves that the war on terrorism is a mere subset of the struggle against the GOP. Whatever brings Democrats closer to power, ipso facto, makes the United States safer. That would be nice if it were true--but it's clearly not, because, sometimes, Bush is right, and because, to some degree, our safety depends on his success. National security will never be reducible to the interests of the Democratic Party.
Kevin Drum thinks liberals need to think seriously about what the appropriate policy should be towards a noncompliant Iran. I think he's right.

[But don't the opportunity costs of Iraq show that the Bush administration can't handle Iran?--ed. For this to be true, you'd have to convince me that:

a) If we hadn't invaded Iraq, Iran would not have tried to develop a nuclear weapons program;

b) If we hadn't invaded Iraq, the United States would have been ready, willing and able to invade Iran;

c) The administration's foreign policy apparatus has learned nothing from the mistakes made in Iraq.

I don't buy any of these suppositions.]

UPDATE: To avoid making blanket statements about liberals and Iran, I should point out that Brad Plumer provides an interesting and liberal analysis of Iran. Plumer recommends engagement:

Would security guarantees and real economic incentives from the United States convince the Iranian government to give up its nuclear program—or, at the very least, outsource its uranium enrichment to Russia? Maybe. Maybe not. What I don't understand is why this isn't worth trying. The United States would have to negotiate directly with Iran, which would contradict the Bush administration's longstanding preference not to "appease rogue regimes," true, but a little loss of face is about the worst that would come of trying. If it fails, then move on to step two. But the upsides to a serious attempt at engagement are very high.
There is also this op-ed by Dariush Zahedi and Omid Memarian in last week's New York Times. Zahedi and Memarian think sanctions would hurt Iran more than I do:
[T]he plummeting Iranian economy will only worsen if the United States succeeds in referring Iran's nuclear file to the Security Council, whether or not meaningful sanctions follow. Such a referral would accelerate capital flight, deal a blow to the country's already collapsing stock market, devastate its hitherto booming real estate market, and wipe out the savings of a large part of the middle class. It would also most likely result in galloping inflation, hurting Iran's dispossessed, whom the Ahmadinejad administration claims to represent.
The problem with this logic is that the group most affected by sanctions is also the strata of society with the least amount of influence over the Iranian government.

On the other hand, Zahedi and Memarian suggest an alternative pressure strategy:

Just as Iran can use the Shiite card to create mischief in the region, the United States could manipulate ethnic and sectarian tensions in Iran, which has significant, largely Sunni, minority populations along its borders.

Many of Iran's ethnic and religious minorities see themselves as victims of discrimination, and they have not been effectively integrated into Iranian economic, political or cultural life. Some two million disgruntled Arabs reside mainly in the oil- and gas- rich province of Khuzestan. The United States could make serious trouble for Tehran by providing financial, logistical and moral support to Arab secessionists in that province. Other aggrieved Iranian minorities would be emboldened by the Arabs' example - for example, the Kurds and the Baluchis, or even the Azeris (though the Azeris, being Shiites, are better integrated into Iranian society). A simple spark could suffice to set off centrifugal explosions.


LAST UPATE: Stratfor's George Friedman (subscription required) has an interesting view on both the rationality of Ahmadinejad and a surprising take on how Iran is doing in Iraq:
One of the ways to avoid thinking seriously about foreign policy is to dismiss as a nutcase anyone who does not behave as you yourself would. As such, he is unpredictable and, while scary, cannot be controlled. You are therefore relieved of the burden of doing anything about him. In foreign policy, it is sometimes useful to appear to be insane, as it is in poker: The less predictable you are, the more power you have -- and insanity is a great tool of unpredictability. Some leaders cultivate an aura of insanity.

However, people who climb to the leadership of nations containing many millions of people must be highly disciplined, with insight into others and the ability to plan carefully. Lunatics rarely have those characteristics. Certainly, there have been sociopaths -- like Hitler -- but at the same time, he was a very able, insightful, meticulous man. He might have been crazy, but dismissing him because he was crazy -- as many did -- was a massive mistake. Moreover, leaders do not rise alone. They are surrounded by other ambitious people. In the case of Ahmadinejad, he is answerable to others above him (in this case, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), alongside him and below him. He did not get to where he is by being nuts -- and even if we think what he says is insane, it clearly doesn't strike the rest of his audience as insane. Thinking of him as insane is neither helpful nor clarifying....

Tehran's position in Iraq is not what the Iranians had hoped it would be. U.S. maneuvers with the Sunnis in Iraq and the behavior of Iraqi Shiite leaders clearly have created a situation in which the outcome will not be the creation of an Iranian satellite state. At best, Iraq will be influenced by Iran or neutral. At worst, it will drift back into opposition to Iran -- which has been Iraq's traditional geopolitical position. This is not satisfactory. Iran's Iraq policy has not failed, but it is not the outcome Tehran dreamt of in 2003.

posted by Dan at 11:41 AM | Comments (129) | Trackbacks (0)

The Chivas Regal of board games?

Major in economics in college, and you'll likely hear the story about Chivas Regal, a brand that was struggling back in the seventies and hired a consultant to diagnose its ills. The consultants came back with two recommendations: change the label, and raise the price of a bottle of whiskey by 20%. The logic was that consumers would take the higher price as a signal of higher quality, and demonstrate a willingness to pay. Sure enough, the strategy worked.

I bring this up because Mary Umberger has a front-page story in the Chicago Tribune about a new board game that makes the Chivas Regal price change look miniscule:

"OK, everybody, grab a rat," announced an organizer who had brought a dozen aspiring property magnates together.

The group, crowded around tables in a Naperville sandwich shop on a recent Saturday morning, reached for their game markers--little plastic rats--to play Cashflow 101, a board game some devotees credit with changing their lives.

The brainchild of investment guru Robert Kiyosaki, author of the extraordinarily popular "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" books, Cashflow 101 has spawned clubs around the world.

Members play regularly, learning the accounting principles Kiyosaki insists are key to shrewd investing, while honing their get-rich-quick fantasies....

"I thought it was the stupidest thing I had ever heard of until I sat down to play it," said Paul Strauss of Naperville, a full-time real estate investor and a founder of the Windy City club, which isn't affiliated with Kiyosaki but whose Web site links to Kiyosaki's. "But the game teaches you how to get out of the rat race, and I did."

The prospect of learning the secret to wealth has unlimited appeal in a culture that has embraced real estate investing as sort of a fiscal sport. Some economists tied novice speculators to as many as one-fourth of real estate transactions in 2004.

This has led to boom times for pitchmen of books, videos, seminars, DVDs and trade shows. Among those at the top of that big heap is Kiyosaki, who preaches that schools fail to teach financial literacy.

His solution was to create Cashflow 101.

Though it has dice, markers and a colorful board, it's not a typical game--it's more Monopoly on steroids. For one thing, it costs $195, as opposed to the industry average of $15 to $39.

Kiyosaki said that when he was developing the game, a consultant told him it was too complex for the public.

"He said, `Raise your price. Make it ridiculous,'" Kiyosaki recalled. "`That would make people perceive it as a value.'"

So, is the game worth the coin? I haven't played it, so I can't say for sure. Snippets from the Tribune story make me skeptical, however:
Cashflow also departs from routine games through the detailed accounting each player must do. The object of the game, like Monopoly, is to make money through investments. But players must keep meticulous financial statements, updating them constantly as they flip apartment buildings, negotiate complicated partnerships and juggle debt....

Financial planners complain that he scorns 401(k) plans, mutual funds and other traditional forms of saving in favor of more risky real estate and franchise endeavors.

Critics say his books are long on platitudes and short on specific investment strategies, beyond developing passive income from real estate and stocks....

Julie Canoura, a Naperville real estate agent, is a believer in the game. She said she's using her individual retirement account to invest in property in Belize and has learned investment strategies from other players. (emphasis added)

For the past five years -- the period of Kiyosaki's fame -- real estate investment was a pretty shrewd move. However, anyone who banks their retirement income on property in Belize is much more comfortable with risk than I am.

To be fair, if you root arounf Kiyosaki's web site, he's quite aware of the real estate bubble. However, this letter suggests to me that his financial success seems based on the Chivas Regal argument:

Presently, although Kim and I are still buying real estate, we are also selling our "junk" real estate. Eight months ago, Kim put on the market a small apartment house valued at $1 million, for $1.4 million. People complained and no one bought it. So four weeks ago, she raised the price to $2.0 million and it sold in one day for full price.
Hmmmm.... maybe my belief in the power of incentives is misplaced, but I just don't buy this. I can accept that the Chivas Regal effect works for... Chivas Regal. Maybe I can accept the idea that it works for an overpriced board game. But the idea that someone was able to sell a piece of real estate only after jacking the price up by $600,000 doesn't pass my smell test.

For anyone curious about Kiyosaki's current investment strategy:

I am getting rid of my U.S. dollars. As you may know, the U.S. dollar has lost nearly 40% of its value against other currencies in the last four years. That means if you have $10,000 in savings in the year 2000, it is worth about $6,000 in purchasing power. Rather than holding cash in the bank, Kim and I have been holding our excess cash in gold and silver bars. Why? Because you will know that the dollar is falling because the price of gold and especially silver will begin to rise. When silver goes higher than $8.50 an ounce and gold reaches $500 an ounce, you will know the end is near. When the crash comes, the currency of many countries will go down in purchasing power as the price of these two precious metals rise in value.

posted by Dan at 08:36 AM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, January 16, 2006

It's been a busy day for Iran-watchers

Let's see what's been going on with regard to Iran for the past day or so, in order from tragedy to farce:

1) The BBC reports that Britain, France and Germanyt will request an extraordinary session of the IAEA in order to refer Iran to the UN Security Council.

2) In an interview with Newsweek's Christpher Dickey, IAEA head Mohammed El Baradei -- who was quite the skeptic when it came to whether Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons -- makes it clear that he's pissed at the Iranians:

DICKEY: You've said you're running out of patience with Iran. What does that mean?
ELBARADEI: For the last three years we have been doing intensive verification in Iran, and even after three years I am not yet in a position to make a judgment on the peaceful nature of the [nuclear] program. We still need to assure ourselves through access to documents, individuals [and] locations that we have seen all that we ought to see and that there is nothing fishy, if you like, about the program.

At one site called Lavizan, facilities were bulldozed by Iran before you could look at them, and you weren't allowed to run tests in the area.
We clearly need to take environmental samplings from some of the equipment that used to be in Lavizan. We need to interview some of the people who have been engaged in Lavizan. We have [also] gotten some information about some modification of their missiles that could have some relationship to the nuclear program. So, we need to clarify all these things. It is very specific. They know what we want to do, and they just have to go and do it. I'm making it very clear right now that I cannot extend the deadline, which is ... March 6.

With all due respect, the Iranians don't seem to care what you think.
Well, they might not seem to care. But if I say that I am not able to confirm the peaceful nature of that program after three years of intensive work, well, that's a conclusion that's going to reverberate, I think, around the world....

What if the Iranians are just buying time for their bomb building?
That's why I said we are coming to the litmus test in the next few weeks. Diplomacy is not just talking. Diplomacy has to be backed by pressure and, in extreme cases, by force. We have rules. We have to do everything possible to uphold the rules through conviction. If not, then you impose them. Of course, this has to be the last resort, but sometimes you have to do it.

You're angry.
No, I'm not angry, but I'd like to make sure the process will not be abused. There's a difference. I still would like to be able to avoid escalation, but at the same time I do not want the agency to be cheated; I do not want the process to be abused. I think that is clear. I have a responsibility, and I would like to fulfill it with as good a conscience as I can.

This would be more persuasive if ElBaradei didn't make this point every month or so.

3) Iran has expelled CNN from working in Iran because of a slight mistranslation problem, according to the AP's Nasser Karimi:

Iran said Monday it is barring CNN from working in Iran "until further notice" due to its mistranslation of comments made by the president in a recent news conference about the country's nuclear research.

In a speech Saturday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defended Iran's right to continue nuclear research. State media have complained since the speech that CNN used the translation "nuclear weapons" instead of "nuclear technology."

The ban by the Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry was read in a statement on state-run television.

"Due to mistranslation of the words of Ahmadinejad during his press conference, activities of the American CNN in Tehran are banned until further notice," the statement said.

CNN acknowledged that it had screwed up -- but this does strike me as overkill.

4) Finally, in a separate story, the AP's Karimi reports that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has decided to make his contribution to genocide studies:

Iran announced plans yesterday for a conference to examine evidence for the Holocaust, a new step in hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's campaign against Israel -- one that could deepen Tehran's international isolation.

Ahmadinejad already has called the Nazis' World War II slaughter of European Jews a ''myth" and has said the Jewish state should be wiped off the map or moved to Germany or the United States....

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi did not disclose where or when the Holocaust conference would be held, and he would not say who would attend or what had prompted Tehran to sponsor it.

Ahmadinejad, who took office in August, caused an international outcry in October by calling Israel a ''disgraceful blot" that should be ''wiped off the map."

You just know this will be one of those invitation-only kind of conferences where only the cream of the Holocaust-deniers will be asked to attend.
If Iran keeps this up -- making news, kicking out competitors -- they're going to exhaust that poor AP guy based in Tehran.

posted by Dan at 02:42 PM | Comments (7) | Trackbacks (0)

Major league baseball has some bad, bad lawyers

The Associated Press reports that Major League Baseball is about to get into a legal war with fantasy baseball:

A company that runs sports fantasy leagues is asking a federal court to decide whether major leaguers' batting averages and home run counts are historical facts that can be used freely or property that can be sold.

In a lawsuit that could affect the pastime of an estimated 16 million people, CBC Distribution and Marketing wants the judge to stop Major League Baseball from requiring a license to use the statistics.

The company claims baseball statistics become historical facts as soon as the game is over, so it shouldn't have to pay for the right to use them....

CBC, which has run the CDM Fantasy Sports leagues since 1992, sued baseball last year after it took over the rights to the statistics and profiles from the Major League Baseball Players Association and declined to grant the company a new license.

Before the shift, CBC had been paying the players' association 9 percent of gross royalties. But in January 2005, Major League Baseball announced a $50 million agreement with the players' association giving baseball exclusive rights to license statistics....

Major League Baseball has claimed that intellectual property law makes it illegal for fantasy league operators to "commercially exploit the identities and statistical profiles" of big league players....

Ben Clark, a St. Louis attorney who specializes in intellectual property rights, said a win by Major League Baseball could "send a shudder through the entire fantasy industry," he said.

On the other hand, he said, it stands to lose the rights to any royalties for use of statistics.

"You just wonder whether it's a fight Major League Baseball wants to have," he said.

I find it hard to believe that MLB could win this in court -- and the PR backlash from going after fantasy baseball operators isn't going to win them any plaudits either.

Over at Baseball Musings, David Pinto has some useful links, including this nugget of information that appears to completely undercut MLB's case:

IP lawyer Kent Goss is quoted as citing an interesting 2001 case in which MLB themselves claimed that player names and statistics were (as far as I can interpret) both in the public domain and free for others to profit from, and the California Court of Appeal upheld MLB's right to use the names and stats of historical players. "A group of former players sued MLB for printing their names and stats in game programs, claiming their rights to publicity were violated," Goss said. "But the court held that they were historical facts, part of baseball history, and MLB had a right to use them. Gionfriddo v. Major League Baseball, 94 Cal. App. 4th 400 (2001)."
In other words, five years ago MLB was making the opposite argument of what it's saying now.

This leads me to a question I can't answer -- what on earth prompted baseball to adopt such a hard-line position on an issue it knows it probably can't win in the courts?

posted by Dan at 09:47 AM | Comments (11) | Trackbacks (0)

Sunday, January 15, 2006

How public corruption and 9/11 are linked

Timothy J. Burger has a short item in Time on why the FBI has had such success in recent years at nailing high-profile public corruption targets, such as Jack Abramoff. Turns out that 9/11 had something to do with it, in a roundabout sort of way:

Since 2002, the FBI has engineered a surge of more than 40% in public-corruption indictments, with 2,233 cases pending nationwide, compared with 1,575 four years ago.

Much of that increase stems, strangely, from 9/11. As the FBI turned more of its attention and manpower to counterterrorism, the bureau handed off most of its drug-related inquiries to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Since only some of the former drug agents were moved to the counterterrorism division, the shift in focus freed up 200 additional agents to combat public corruption, says special agent Chris Swecker, the criminal-division chief. By 2003, senior FBI officials were fanning out to field offices across the U.S. to drive home the point that public corruption was now the criminal division's No. 1 priority.

posted by Dan at 10:34 PM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

Anatomy of an unbelievable scene

The New York Times' Arts section has three articles by three Times movie critics "looking deep inside three of the year's most haunting scenes."

In "Dark Truths of a Killing Love," Manohla Dargis looks at what most critics consider the pivotal scene in David Cronenberg's A History of Violence [WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD]:

Until the staircase sex, Mr. Cronenberg has encouraged us to look at Tom the way Edie sees him, to believe the image she has unquestioningly accepted of the good father, the loving husband, the Everyman and the hero. "You are the best man I have ever known," she whispers to Tom after their first lovemaking. Through her ignorance and slow awakening, Edie has served as our surrogate, but in this scene she becomes something else, something other. In a story of blood and vengeance, Mr. Cronenberg asks us to look at those who pick up guns in our name, protectors who whisper they love us with hands around our throats. And then, with this scene, he goes one better and asks us to look at those who open their hearts and bare themselves to such a killing love.

Edie's transformation from helpmate into a gangster's moll with a taste for a little rough trade is one of the more shocking turns in a film filled with hairpin turns of mood and tone. Throughout the staircase clash, Mr. Mortensen visibly changes from Tom to Joey and back again, his face and caresses alternately gentle and brutal. When Edie unleashes her fury with that slap she's reacting as much to Tom, the husband who has betrayed her, as to Joey, the stranger who has brought havoc into her life. Yet Tom's secret self is no noir-like contrivance; it's a manifestation of all that lies beneath, the ooze and shadows, the desire and dread, one that, in turn, bares Edie's secret self too. Here, in a simple American home, the repressed returns with a vengeance.

Dargis does a lovely job of deconstructing the scene, showing how details like Edie's wardrobe act as a harbinger for what's about to happen. And I suspect that Dargis' interpretation of what Cronenberg is going for are perfectly accurate.

There's just one thing -- that scene completely destroyed my willing sense of disbelief in the movie. Until that point, Maria Bello as Edie acts as our emotional barometer for the events that take place, and I found her responses completely believable -- indeed, they're the best thing in the film.

The idea, however, that at that particular moment on the staircase her character was going to find the violence and identity switches a turn-on was pretty damn ludicrous. Critics might have liked it because it touches on the theme of violence's hidden role in the American heartland, but as a resident of said heartland, the scene looked like pure Hollywood tripe. Edie's first reaction to the discovery of her husband's true identity -- in the hospital room -- was far more convincing.

The staircase moment in the film might have been perfectly staged, brimming with craftsmanship, and well acted -- but without the emotional resonance, it was impossible to be as invested in the characters for the rest of the flick. I think Maria Bello deserves an Oscar nomination -- for everything she did but that scene.

Everyone reacts to movies in different ways, so I'll ask the readers -- particularly the (five or so) women who read this blog and have seen A History of Violence. Did that scene make sense to you?

posted by Dan at 09:31 AM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)