Saturday, February 10, 2007

It's easy to get old in the blogosphere

In the past few days, both Henry Farrell and Eugene Volokh have observed that the old, gray blogosphere ain't what it used to be.

Henry first:

I was somewhat bemused to see a whopping big advertisement on the back of the bus in front of me for The Hill’s Pundit Blog... It made me feel pretty weird; it’s a very different blogosphere to the one that I started off in (I suspect the disconnect for the real old-timers is even bigger).
As for a real old-timer, there's Eugene "My Finger Is Well Off the Pulse of the Blogosphere" Volokh, who observes the lack of reaction to an op-ed he had penned:
I had expected there'd be more attention from various blogs and radio programs that often cover radical Islam and the law. I figured the case that my story had uncovered had it all: The First Amendment; jihadism; parental rights; child welfare. Yet I've had much less original posts yield much more interest among blogs and radio programs, especially conservative ones.

.... I wonder: Did I misjudge the likely interest? Did I just not publicize the story enough? Should I have taken heroic measures to keep Anna Nicole Smith alive for several more days? What can I do in the future to try to draw more attention to such matters?

My example of wondering whether the blogosphere has passed me by has been the kerfuffle involving two bloggers for John Edwards that was reported in the New York Times and Time this week.

For the record, my take is pretty much in accord wth this Obsidian Wings post, but that's not the point -- the point is that, as much as I used to care about these intersections between the blogosphere and the real world, I can't get worked up about this kind of thing anymore. Who cares about campaign bloggers? They are little more than good PR stylists.

If you don't believe me, check out this Amanda Marcotte post on Edwards' health plan -- turns out she's happy that Paul Krugman likes it. Well, blow me down!

Perhaps the old fogies in the blogosphere get that way because, well, we stop taking the whole megillah so seriously. And we can't take it seriously because, well, this isn't our primary means of employment and never will be.

Once the blogosphere is run by sufficient numbers of people who are paid to blog, us enlightened amateurs just look semi-pro.

UPDATE: Just when I think the blogosphere has passed me by, I get this e-mail:

On Jewcy's blog, the Daily Shvitz, we run a periodic feature called Movable Snipe, wherein two writers spend a week reading and tweaking or adulating five blogs of our choosing. The good news is, we've chosen your blog for this week... This means either valentines or vivisections, depending on how our Snipers react to your content and, well, general demeanor.

Your Snipers will be Michael Helke, the book editor of Stop Smiling magazine, and Fiona Maazel, formerly the managing editor of the Paris Review.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Hmmm.... maybe this is really a "lump of creativity" problem. Or it's a "hatred of phones" issue.

posted by Dan at 09:30 PM | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (2)

Gideon Rachman's last detail

Gideon Rachman blogs about his travels to Singapore and Beijing. You should read the whole thing, but I can't resist excerpting how he closes this post:

The question of how peaceful China’s rise will be was... the subject of our seminar in Singapore, organised by the Brookings Institution and the Lee Kuan Yew school of public policy. Generally speaking, the Americans were pretty wary, the Asians pretty sanguine and the Europeans faintly bemused....

Certainly history suggests that the rise of a big new power is often a fairly fraught affair. I was indirectly reminded of this, when I went to have lunch in Beijing with Richard McGregor and Mure Dickie of the FT. Richard had thoughtfully bought me a present: a pirated DVD of Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will”, which he had picked up for a dollar in a local market. It’s good to know that the Chinese are so interested in European history.

posted by Dan at 05:24 PM | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

Victory is mine!!

Opportunity cost of being in the Red Sox virtual waiting room to get single-game tickets: occasional looks of irritation from my extended family as I repeatedly check my laptop screen.

Monetary cost of four tickets: well over $100.

The knowledge that I was able to get four tickets for a Sunday game against the Yankees: priceless.

posted by Dan at 05:05 PM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Your inequality readings for today

Brad DeLong posts a preliminary bibliography of what he thinks are salient readings about economic inequality in the United States.

Over at Cato Unbound, Alan Reynolds tangles with his critics over his assertion that inequality has not increased substantially since 1988.

Go forth and read.

posted by Dan at 09:23 AM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Everyone plays hard-to-get before the Six-Party Talks

The last post of the day by the Temporary Turkmenbashi of the Blogosphere completes his tour of totalitarian states by taking a glimpse at North Korea's tango with the United States over its nuclear weapons program.

As the six-party talks get underway, there's always the pre-meeting vacillations that resemble nothing so much as a small high school, when all parties fluctuate between flirting with agreement and denying that they were ever interested in an agreement.

For example, on Tuesday Glenn Kessler reported in the Washington Post that the North Koreans ratcheted up their demands at the last minute:

North Korea has set tough terms for a freeze of one of its nuclear facilities, demanding that the United States exceed commitments made under a Clinton-era deal that the Bush administration previously derided as inadequate.

North Korea's top nuclear negotiator, Kim Gye Gwan, and other officials outlined Pyongyang's position in meetings last week with two American nuclear experts, saying they would be presented when six-nation disarmament talks resume in Beijing on Thursday. In exchange for a freeze of the Yongbyon facility and a return of international inspectors, Pyongyang wants a substantial supply of heavy fuel oil, an end to a Treasury Department action that froze North Korean accounts at a Macau bank, an international commitment to build civilian nuclear reactors in North Korea and, most important, normalization of relations with Washington....

The freeze would only cover the increasingly decrepit Yongbyon facility, not other North Korean nuclear sites.

The North Korean officials also maintained that no freeze will take place until the U.S. side resolves the Treasury action against Banco Delta Asia, a Macau bank that allegedly served as a conduit for counterfeit U.S. currency. The case has resulted in the freezing of about $24 million in North Korean accounts and led other banks around the world to curtail dealings with North Korea. In recent talks with Treasury, North Korea identified a portion of the accounts that could be deemed legitimate in an effort to resolve the case.

"BDA is the tip of the iceberg," said Michael J. Green, a former White House official in charge of Asia policy and now at Georgetown University and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He said ending the case would unleash tens of millions of dollars in commercial transactions that had been curtailed since Treasury moved against the bank.

Green said the North Koreans were asking for "basically the Agreed Framework," which he said would be a "hard sell back in Washington." Bush for four years has called for a "complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement," so U.S. negotiators have sought to disable the Yongbyon facility in such a way that it could not be quickly restarted.

Oddly enough, the Financial Times' Demetri Sevastopulo reports that the United States is acting all flirty this time:
The US would be prepared to start normalising relations with North Korea before it completes nuclear disarmament if that would persuade Pyongyang to move forward on a previous agreement to denuclearise the Korean peninsula.

A senior Bush administration official told the Financial Times that Washington would consider starting the process of removing Pyong­yang from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and easing restrictions on US companies dealing with the state if North Korea moved forward on its previous commitment to dismantle its nuclear programmes.

Washington hopes to make progress on implementing a stalemated 2005 deal when US officials sit down with their North Korean counterparts at six party talks in Beijing on Thursday. Under that deal, which was agreed among the US, North Korea, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia, Pyongyang pledged to abandon its nuclear weapons programmes and rejoin the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in return for energy assistance and security guarantees....

The senior official said the combination of financial pressures on the regime, a poor harvest in 2006, and increased pressure from the Chinese, who are angry about the North Korean nuclear test last October, have forced Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, to rethink his strategy.

In particular, current and former officials say, Pyongyang may be motivated to reach a compromise to alleviate financial pressures caused partly by the US move to freeze North Korean assets at Banco Delta Asia in Macao. The administration believes North Korea may act to prevent US action against other banks – the Bush administration has identified at least a dozen – where it could freeze North Korean funds.

“That is what the North Koreans are after here,” said Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Mr Green was senior Asia director at the White House national security council until December 2005.

“They have a larger clotting of financial flows because bankers around the world are afraid to deal with them. And they would like to unfreeze all of that through the demonstration of an agreement on Banco Delta Asia [under which the US would unfreeze some assets]”.

To urge Mr Kim toward a deal, the US has signalled it is prepared to be more flexible. Under the 2005 agreement, Washington offered to provide energy assistance, security guarantees, and move towards normalising relations only after Pyongyang had disabled all its nuclear activities.

This time, the US is preparing to accept a partial disablement, which would then trigger the process towards normalising relations. A deal agreed with the other six-party members would also include food assistance, which Pyongyang badly needs after the poor 2006 harvest....

[T]he North Koreans are also resurrecting demands for a light water reactor. But the senior administration official said Pyongyang was probably demanding the reactor as a negotiating tactic and would settle for a deal without one. But he cautioned that any demand for the reactor would be a “non-starter”.

Proponents of the new proposal within the Bush administration argue that China is increasing willing to use its muscle with Pyongyang in a fashion that could produce a deal. Although they caution that the key will be to make sure China and South Korea keep the pressure on North Korea after any initial agreement to make sure Pyongyang does not back track.

The FT goes on to observe that any deal will be a tough domestic sell. This is a major point in this Christian Science Monitor report by Howard LaFranchi as well:
Those kinds of small steps may be about all we can expect out of the Bush administration," says David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. "They may just be looking to settle the situation down so they can focus their last two years on Iraq, Iran, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

Mr. Albright, who met recently with North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator, says the North's ultimate goal is a move toward "meaningful relations" with the US. The North also understands it will have to take clear steps before that could happen, he says, but they also remain skeptical of US intent.

"They want a process," he says, but they are also reluctant to proceed to a freeze on plutonium production that they fear might open them up to bolder US moves against them. "They make it clear they would respond to any aggressive moves," Albright says.

One stumbling block is a lack of clarity from the Bush administration on North Korea, he adds. Does the US accept the regime of Kim Jong Il or not? Might it still try to use military force to end its military nuclear capabilities or not? Is the furnishing of civilian nuclear facilities on the table for the US or not?

"The US is suffering from a lack of clarity on this issue," Albright says, "and it's not at all clear it can be resolved in the next two years."

Clearly, one other common denominator is that all the same experts get quoted.


UPDATE: Reports of an actual agreement are denied by the United States.

posted by Dan at 08:47 PM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

So how's it going in Belarus?

The Temporary Turkmenbashi of the Blogosphere commands all who revere him to look in the direction of Belarus. When we last left things, Russia was putting the screws on the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

According to Lukashenko's interview with Reuters, the screws really hurt -- but he has a plan:

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, stung by big rises in Russian energy prices, vowed on Tuesday to recover $5 billion in losses by making Moscow pay for vital transit traffic and military cooperation.

But despite disappointment over Moscow's price rises and its foreign policy, Lukashenko said close ties with Russia remained the cornerstone of his isolated administration's policy.

The two former Soviet neighbors have long enjoyed warm relations and were negotiating a union with a common currency.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin's sudden doubling of gas prices and cut in oil subsidies at the end of last year threatened a vital prop for the Belarussian economy and prompted Minsk to strike back.

"Now that the Russian president has mentioned a transition to market relations ... we will in return ask Russia to pay in hard currency for services that Russia used to benefit from free of charge," Lukashenko told Reuters in a rare interview at the presidential offices.

The president was speaking the day after Belarus announced big rises in the amounts it charges Russia for the transit of oil across its territory to supply markets in western Europe..

Read the whole thing to get a sense of Lukashenko's foreign policy bind. He's not going to befriend the West anytime soon (and vice versa). This gives Russia something close to carte blanche to put the screws on its smaller, politically isolated neighbor.

It's worth keeping this fact in mind when reading about Belarus' recently announced intentions to build its first nuclear reactors.

posted by Dan at 05:58 PM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

We all have our passions... and side-hobbies to those passions

Longtime readers of the Turkmenbashi of the Blogosphere know that your humble omniscient, omnipresent, provider-of-all-that-is-good-and-true blogger is a fan of the Boston Red Sox.

However, that also prompts the occasional side-hobby to fuel that passion. For me, that now includes egging Seth Mnookin on anytime I read something that contradicts Mnookin's excellent reportage in Feeding The Monster.

This is a roundabout way of linking to this Mnookin post to see his response to this Scott Boras interview in the Boston Herald. Let's just say Boras' account of Johnny Damon's departure from the Red Sox conflicts with Mnookin's account.

[Er... does Scott Boras really fit in with the other totalitarian dictators you're blogging about today?--ed] How dare you try to edit the Turkmenbashi of the Blogosphere!!

posted by Dan at 10:33 AM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (2)

There's no partisanship in Turkmenistan!

The hard-working staff here at has demanded that your humble blogger be declared the Turkmenbashi of the Blogosphere by universal assent. I hereby accept that mandate for the day -- which makes it about as legitimate as the last guy to accept this title.

In honor of the old Turkmenbashi, I hereby decree to spend the day posting about the remaining totalitarian dictatorships in the world.

OK, so let's see....Zimbabwe? Yep, got that one. Hey, let's check up on Turkmenistan itself!

Of course, they're hold a presidential election, so they might fall from totalitarian status. However, if this report from Peter Finn of the Washington Post Foreign Service is any indication, it's a presidential election that warms the cockles of the Turkmenbashi's heart:

Six presidential candidates are barnstorming the country and holding public meetings to talk about improving education, reforming health care, ensuring adequate pensions and boosting agriculture.

It could be Iowa -- if it weren't Turkmenistan.

Acting President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, 49, will almost certainly win when the Central Asian country's citizens go to the polls Feb. 11. His opponents, a deputy minister and four regional officials, are willing foils, according to analysts and exiled politicians.

Murad Karyev, the supposedly neutral chairman of the Central Election Commission, has already said Berdymukhammedov is the best man for the job....

The exiled opposition has been prevented from returning to take part in the election. A coalition of exile organizations chose Khudaiberdy Orazov, a former vice premier and head of the Central Bank, to run as their candidate, but he is sitting out the campaign abroad.

"They are trying to create an image of real elections, but of course these are not elections. It's some sort of clownery," said Orazov, who lives in Sweden. "I believe we are entering the second stage of dictatorship."

Agents from Turkmenistan's internal security service, the MNB, are shadowing five of the candidates to ensure they don't stray from their scripts and say things contrary to policies laid out by the leading candidate, according to the Eurasian Transition Group, a nongovernmental organization in Germany that is one of the few with a presence in Turkmenistan.

"The other five candidates have to attend security council meetings, where they receive their orders," said Michael Laubsch, executive director of the German group. "Everything is concentrated on Berdymukhammedov, and the MNB have total control over the other candidates."

The Turkmenbashi of the blogosphere applauds the measures taken to eliminate the petty squabbles that come with partisanship and political competition.

posted by Dan at 08:50 AM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

Things fall apart in Zimbabwe

In the New York Times, Michael Wines chronicles the slow collapse of the state in Zimbabwe:

For close to seven years, Zimbabwe’s economy and quality of life have been in slow, uninterrupted decline. They are still declining this year, people there say, with one notable difference: the pace is no longer so slow.

Indeed, Zimbabwe’s economic descent has picked up so much speed that President Robert G. Mugabe, the nation’s leader for 27 years, is starting to lose support from parts of his own party.

In recent weeks, the national power authority has warned of a collapse of electrical service. A breakdown in water treatment has set off a new outbreak of cholera in the capital, Harare. All public services were cut off in Marondera, a regional capital of 50,000 in eastern Zimbabwe, after the city ran out of money to fix broken equipment. In Chitungwiza, just south of Harare, electricity is supplied only four days a week.

The government awarded all civil servants a 300 percent raise two weeks ago. But the increase is only a fraction of the inflation rate, so the nation’s 110,000 teachers are staging a work slowdown for more money. Measured by the black-market value of Zimbabwe’s ragtag currency, even their new salaries total less than 60 American dollars a month.

Doctors and nurses have been on strike for five weeks, seeking a pay increase of nearly 9,000 percent, and health care is all but nonexistent. Harare’s police chief warned in a recently leaked memo that if rank-and-file officers did not get a substantial raise, they might riot....

Mr. Mugabe’s fortunes appear to have dimmed as well. In December, the ruling party that has traditionally bowed to his will, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, balked at supporting a constitutional amendment that would have extended his term of office by two years, to 2010. The rebuff exposed a fissure in the party, known as ZANU-PF, between Mr. Mugabe’s hard-line backers and others who fear he has brought their nation to the brink of collapse.

The trigger of this crisis — hyperinflation — reached an annual rate of 1,281 percent this month, and has been near or over 1,000 percent since last April. Hyperinflation has bankrupted the government, left 8 in 10 citizens destitute and decimated the country’s factories and farms.

In it's darkest hour, however, Mugabe's government has come up with a brilliant plan to deal with the situation:
The central bank’s latest response to these problems, announced this week, was to declare inflation illegal. From March 1 to June 30, anyone who raises prices or wages will be arrested and punished. Only a “firm social contract” to end corruption and restructure the economy will bring an end to the crisis, said the reserve bank governor, Gideon Gono. (emphasis added)
Read the whole thing. I have two questions after reading it:

1) Wines also reports the following: "Foreign journalists remain barred from the country under threat of imprisonment, and harassment of Zimbabwean journalists has sharply increased." OK then, Michael Wines, how did you pull this off then? That was just a big ol' raspberry to the Washington Post's Africa correspondent, wasn't it?!

2) One wonders whether South Africa has any kind of cintingency plan for what happens when the Mugabe government collapses.

posted by Dan at 08:04 AM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Are there limits to Chinese soft power?

China has begun to hit some constraints in its soft power offensive in Africa. According to the Economist, Africans are now treating the Chinese in ways that might strike a chors with Americans:

In Zambia, where China has big copper-mining interests, a candidate in last year’s presidential election promised, if elected, to chase out Chinese investors after lethal riots at a Chinese-controlled mine. In Nigeria, Chinese oil workers and engineers have joined Western counterparts in being kidnapped and ransomed by insurgents in the country’s Niger Delta region. And there have been protests in South Africa and Zimbabwe against cheap clothing imported from China. In Zambia and South Africa, both destinations on this trip, Mr Hu [Jintao] could face some unusually pointed questioning.
China can respond by offering soft loans with no political conditions -- which ameliorates governments but not necessarily citizens. However, even those kind of loans have their limits -- as the Financial Times' Alec Russell points out:
President Hu Jintao of China arrives in South Africa on Tuesday for the most serious and frank exchange of ideas on his 12-day tour of Africa.

Unlike his other seven hosts on the tour, South Africa has little need of the cheap loans and infrastructure projects that Beijing is proferring to Africa to feed its hunger for resources.

While South African officials are confident that today’s meeting will be extremely cordial, President Thabo Mbeki did recently warn that Africa should beware of falling into a “colonial relationship” with China.

“A lot of governments see China as the panacea,” said Lucy Corkin, of the Centre for China Studies at Stellenbosch University. “Thabo has put out cautionary signals.”....

Diplomats say it is no coincidence that the longest visits of his Africa trip are those to South Africa and Zambia, both of which have shown signs of discontent with the Chinese investment drive.


posted by Dan at 10:37 AM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, February 5, 2007

But... but.... but.... centralization should always work!!

The Financial Times' Mark Turner reports the the UN's new fancy-pants response fund to humanitarian crises suffers from -- wait for it -- just a little bit of the old excessive, power hungry bureaucracy:

A flagship UN emergency response fund established last year to speed assistance to people during humanitarian crises has failed to meet its goal, and in some cases even slowed down the flow of life-saving goods, according to aid agencies.

A study by Save the Children UK said the fledgling fund was “inefficient and actually reduces the amount of money going directly to work on the ground”, creating an extra hurdle for aid agencies.

The Central Emergency Response Fund, which was championed by the UK government, was heralded at its launch in March last year as a revolutionary new way to ensure money would be immediately available when crises struck, and to steer funds to otherwise forgotten emergencies. This year countries have given $40m (£20.3m, €30.8m) to the fund, and pledged a further $304m.

But Save the Children said the fund’s rules – which stipulate that the money has to be funnelled through the UN bureaucracy, rather than directly to aid agencies – had created dangerous layers of inefficiency and delay....

A European diplomat also acknowledged CERF’s early problems, noting funds had taken up to seven weeks to reach the field. He said the UN claimed to have reduced the gap to 1½ weeks.

Stephanie Bunker, of the UN’s Humanitarian Affairs arm OCHA, insisted CERF money came on top of other sources of finance. “It’s not like its draining funding out of anything else,” she said.

But Save the Children said: “In many emergencies, staff have been told by donors that they must seek CERF funding instead of traditional bilateral funding.”...

Campaigning groups are now calling for direct access to CERF money. Ms Bunker said the UN “would tend to agree we would like to see the pool [of recipients] made broader” – but that it was stuck with rules set by its members states.

The European diplomat said developing countries had been firmly against giving campaigning groups direct access during the fund’s creation, and that it could overload the system.

Here's a link to the full report from Save the Children UK.

I reckon I enjoy mocking the UN more than the next man -- well, not more than this man -- but in all fairness it should be pointed out that Save the Children UK might have impure motives in making this allegation. As the last two paragraph in the FT story suggest, what this is about is who gets access to the money. As Save the Children said in their press release:

The fundamental flaw of the CERF mechanism is that non-UN aid agencies, like Save the Children, are not allowed to receive direct funding, despite the fact they are usually first on the ground and deliver more than half of all emergency relief.
And developing countries want to restrict this access? Well, blow me down!

posted by Dan at 10:19 PM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Reflections on the Super Bowl

Super Bowl XLI is in the books, and the Colts won. A few thoughts on the game and broadcast:

1) It's déjà vu in reverse. This game was the mirror image of Super Bowl XXXIV (Rams-Titans). That game had a plodding first half and then an exciting ending. The first quarter of this game was blink-or-you'll-miss-it highlights, followed by the slow grinding of the Bears into inferiority.

2) So I'm thinking the summer blockbuster movies this year are gonna stink. Independence Day. Men In Black. Spider-Man. Hell, even Van Helsing had a preview shown at the Super Bowl. I didn't catch every ad, but the only movies I saw previewed were Hannibal Rising (blech) and Pride. Where are the friggin' previews?

3) The wrong man won the MVP trophy. Manning managed the game well, but Colts center Jeff Saturday managed the line of scrimmage even better. I hadn't seen many teams run up the gut of the Bears as well as the Colts did -- plus the pass protection was excellent. This was the perfect game to award an offensive lineman -- and Saturday was the key guy on that line.

4) Was it just me, or did Prudential's admen screw up? OK, I'm a foreign policy wonk, so maybe it was just me, but did anyone else hear the Prudential ad "What Can A Rock Do?" and think the phrase "a rock" sound like a country in the Middle East currently experiencing some turmoil? Watch the ad with that thought, and, well... it's a wee bit off.

On the other hand, I though this ad was the best of the lot:
Most important -- less than two weeks before pitchers and catchers report.

posted by Dan at 11:01 PM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (1)