About Me

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Armchair theorist, poet, and occasional IT manager, Sascha B. is equipped with a Master's Degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Texas, and is not afraid to use it. His work has been published by the University Press of America, Edwin Mellen Press, University of Texas Press, and a variety of small journals nationwide. He is also the proprietor and baker for 3141 Pie, of which you should eat many.

The Deal

I stopped blogging in 2013, when life overtook me. My father became ill and died shortly thereafter, and my mother was left with increasing dementia. I became the primary caregiver, and now orchestrate my mother's care and our family estate.

Now, I am coming up for air again.

Looking for the next book to read. All suggestions welcome.

My reading list is over here.







Thursday, December 04, 2008

From Fart Joke To Power Generation



This is sort of cool --- and long overdue. The methane capture for power generation from livestock is an obvious if overlooked win. What's more amazing to me is the graphic showing the C02 production per pound of product: beef is woefully expensive in carbon emissions.

If that isn't a good talking point for cutting back on burgers, I don't know what is. I do notice though, that the tradeoff between much vegetable, dairy and grain production and that of chicken, pork, and fish, is pretty minimal.

Sorry vegetarians: no love for you there.

But really: if the dutch can harness pig farts to heat their homes and light their lights, then we can too.

Upbeat


In a huge win for conservationists here in CA, the Jenner Headlands --- more than 5,600 acres of pristine coastal land --- has been purchased complete and entire for preservation, rather than development. It's really a great coup; the land overlooking the Russian River delta is spectacular, and is little changed over the last few centuries. The opportunity to keep (and share!) it with future generations is wonderful.

Change We Can Believe In



The big three tell congress:

This time, it'll be different. Really.

Mumbai

It is looking more and more like the work of a Pakistani terrorist group, with backing from al-Qaeda, training from ISI, and a blueprint for action all too similar in scope to the "Landmarks" attack plan that was foiled in New York. Even more disconcerting is the evidence that the victims in the Jewish Cultural Center were brutalized before their murders: abused, throttled, tortured.

Nothing good can come of this.

More Layoffs

12,000 from AT&T.

5,300 out from Credit Suisse.

600 canned at Adobe.

Where are all these people going to find work?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

250,000


Ouch. That's a lot of jobs to vaporize:
The US services sector contracted by the most on record in November, while the private sector as a whole lost 250,000 jobs, data on Wednesday showed.
It's going to be a long, cold winter.

Round 1: India. Round 2: Terrorists.

Mumbai rallied and the Indian forces did a fine job shutting down the siege this last week. It was a tragedy, but could have been far worse (consider the abandoned explosives found today in the railway station). But now, the rift between Pakistan and India is rapidly widening again, and tensions are rising. And as the Stratfor essay shows, this is likely just what was hoped for. In classic form,
Indian officials are convinced that the terrorists communicated with Yusuf Muzammil, a top aide to Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakvhi, the operational commander of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba. The militant group is thought to have had extensive links with Pakistan's security services in the past, but the organization is now banned and it's unclear to what extent those ties still exist.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, however, has not even accepted that the lone surviving attacker came from his country. "We have not been given any tangible proof to say that he is definitely a Pakistani. I very much doubt ... that he's a Pakistani," he told CNN's Larry King Tuesday.

Potato. Potahto. I keep flashing on the interaction (some would say altercation) between the representatives from India and Pakistan in 2003 at a conference on terrorism and defense, where the question of "what is a terrorist" was answered by the Indian ambassador essentially as "a Pakistani with a gun."

He was, of course, far more eloquent than that. But still. All I'm thinking now, is "here we go again...."

And Another Thing

This story pisses me off. It is a perfect example of why we should as a nation look at wresting the control of our health care away from an insurance model, and move toward universal care. Say what you will, but the lede is pretty accurate:
Slain At Work, Insurance Denied
Insurer says woman's racial killing wasn't related to work as it denies death benefits to her son.
I'm disgusted. But that's the point: insurance companies are in the business of determining how to avoid payment. That's how they stay in business. And it is antithetical to the needs of the individual in cases like this one, and in every medical decision made. Actuarial tables should not inform decisions on wellness, or quality of life.

Doing It Right

However grudgingly, here is Stanford University reducing costs in the face of hardship the right way---compared to how the State Universities are dealing with it.
"President (John) Hennessy and I have decided that in light of the extraordinary pressure on the university budget, we both will take an immediate 10 percent reduction in our salaries," wrote Provost John Etchemendy
And voluntary cuts in pay for a chunk of the other administrators as well. No firings of faculty or student support staff. No reductions in teaching. Hiring freezes, sure, and reductions in hours. But where CSU and UC will raid the teaching staff first, they should take a leaf from Stanford's book, and cut from the top --- voluntarily --- before any other measure is taken.

Hump Day Morning

So, it's Chambliss in Georgia, and Richardson at Commerce; Norway is hosting a gathering where nearly every nation is signing a long-overdue treaty banning the use and stockpiling of cluster bombs; unfortunately, as always, a few key faces are missing: US, Russia, China, India, Israel, Pakistan. I'd call it less a landmark than a small (if significant and necessary) bump in the road.

Oh, and there is a call for more troops in Afghanistan.

The good news? My maple-apple tart tatin came out pretty well last night, and morning coffee is tasting good.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

One Answer.

I asked earlier about the strategic goals of the Mumbai attacks; another answer to that question has been provided by George Friedman over at Stratfor. It's long, but worth reading in full:


STRATEGIC MOTIVATIONS FOR THE MUMBAI ATTACK

By George Friedman

Last Wednesday evening, a group of Islamist operatives carried out a complex terror operation in the Indian city of Mumbai. The attack was not complex because of the weapons used or its size, but in the apparent training, multiple methods of approaching the city and excellent operational security and discipline in the final phases of the operation, when the last remaining attackers held out in the Taj Mahal hotel for several days. The operational goal of the attack clearly was to cause as many casualties as possible, particularly among Jews and well-to-do guests of five-star hotels. But attacks on various other targets, from railroad stations to hospitals, indicate that the more general purpose was to spread terror in a major Indian city.

While it is not clear precisely who carried out the Mumbai attack, two separate units apparently were involved. One group, possibly consisting of Indian Muslims, was established in Mumbai ahead of the attacks. The second group appears to have just arrived. It traveled via ship from Karachi, Pakistan, later hijacked a small Indian vessel to get past Indian coastal patrols, and ultimately landed near Mumbai.

Extensive preparations apparently had been made, including surveillance of the targets. So while the precise number of attackers remains unclear, the attack clearly was well-planned and well-executed.

Evidence and logic suggest that radical Pakistani Islamists carried out the attack. These groups have a highly complex and deliberately amorphous structure. Rather than being centrally controlled, ad hoc teams are created with links to one or more groups. Conceivably, they might have lacked links to any group, but this is hard to believe. Too much planning and training were involved in this attack for it to have been conceived by a bunch of guys in a garage. While precisely which radical Pakistani Islamist group or groups were involved is unknown, the Mumbai attack appears to have originated in Pakistan. It could have been linked to al Qaeda prime or its various franchises and/or to Kashmiri insurgents.

More important than the question of the exact group that carried out the attack, however, is the attackers' strategic end. There is a tendency to regard terror attacks as ends in themselves, carried out simply for the sake of spreading terror. In the highly politicized atmosphere of Pakistan's radical Islamist factions, however, terror frequently has a more sophisticated and strategic purpose. Whoever invested the time and took the risk in organizing this attack had a reason to do so. Let's work backward to that reason by examining the logical outcomes following this attack.

An End to New Delhi's Restraint

The most striking aspect of the Mumbai attack is the challenge it presents to the Indian government -- a challenge almost impossible for New Delhi to ignore. A December 2001 Islamist attack on the Indian parliament triggered an intense confrontation between India and Pakistan. Since then, New Delhi has not responded in a dramatic fashion to numerous Islamist attacks against India that were traceable to Pakistan. The Mumbai attack, by contrast, aimed to force a response from New Delhi by being so grievous that any Indian government showing only a muted reaction to it would fall.

India's restrained response to Islamist attacks (even those originating in Pakistan) in recent years has come about because New Delhi has understood that, for a host of reasons, Islamabad has been unable to control radical Pakistani Islamist groups. India did not want war with Pakistan; it felt it had more important issues to deal with. New Delhi therefore accepted Islamabad's assurances that Pakistan would do its best to curb terror attacks, and after suitable posturing, allowed tensions originating from Islamist attacks to pass.

This time, however, the attackers struck in such a way that New Delhi couldn't allow the incident to pass. As one might expect, public opinion in India is shifting from stunned to furious. India's Congress party-led government is politically weak and nearing the end of its life span. It lacks the political power to ignore the attack, even if it were inclined to do so. If it ignored the attack, it would fall, and a more intensely nationalist government would take its place. It is therefore very difficult to imagine circumstances under which the Indians could respond to this attack in the same manner they have to recent Islamist attacks.

What the Indians actually will do is not clear. In 2001-2002, New Delhi responded to the attack on the Indian parliament by moving forces close to the Pakistani border and the Line of Control that separates Indian- and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, engaging in artillery duels along the front, and bringing its nuclear forces to a high level of alert. The Pakistanis made a similar response. Whether India ever actually intended to attack Pakistan remains unclear, but either way, New Delhi created an intense crisis in Pakistan.

The U.S. and the Indo-Pakistani Crisis

The United States used this crisis for its own ends. Having just completed the first phase of its campaign in Afghanistan, Washington was intensely pressuring Pakistan's then-Musharraf government to expand cooperation with the United States; purge its intelligence organization, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), of radical Islamists; and crack down on al Qaeda and the Taliban in the Afghan-Pakistani border region. Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf had been reluctant to cooperate with Washington, as doing so inevitably would spark a massive domestic backlash against his government.

The crisis with India produced an opening for the United States. Eager to get India to stand down from the crisis, the Pakistanis looked to the Americans to mediate. And the price for U.S. mediation was increased cooperation from Pakistan with the United States. The Indians, not eager for war, backed down from the crisis after guarantees that Islamabad would impose stronger controls on Islamist groups in Kashmir.

In 2001-2002, the Indo-Pakistani crisis played into American hands. In 2008, the new Indo-Pakistani crisis might play differently. The United States recently has demanded increased Pakistani cooperation along the Afghan border. Meanwhile, President-elect Barack Obama has stated his intention to focus on Afghanistan and pressure the Pakistanis.

Therefore, one of Islamabad's first responses to the new Indo-Pakistani crisis was to announce that if the Indians increased their forces along Pakistan's eastern border, Pakistan would be forced to withdraw 100,000 troops from its western border with Afghanistan. In other words, threats from India would cause Pakistan to dramatically reduce its cooperation with the United States in the Afghan war. The Indian foreign minister is flying to the United States to meet with Obama; obviously, this matter will be discussed among others.

We expect the United States to pressure India not to create a crisis, in order to avoid this outcome. As we have said, the problem is that it is unclear whether politically the Indians can afford restraint. At the very least, New Delhi must demand that the Pakistani government take steps to make the ISI and Pakistan's other internal security apparatus more effective. Even if the Indians concede that there was no ISI involvement in the attack, they will argue that the ISI is incapable of stopping such attacks. They will demand a purge and reform of the ISI as a sign of Pakistani commitment. Barring that, New Delhi will move troops to the Indo-Pakistani frontier to intimidate Pakistan and placate Indian public opinion.

Dilemmas for Islamabad, New Delhi and Washington

At that point, Islamabad will have a serious problem. The Pakistani government is even weaker than the Indian government. Pakistan's civilian regime does not control the Pakistani military, and therefore does not control the ISI. The civilians can't decide to transform Pakistani security, and the military is not inclined to make this transformation. (Pakistan's military has had ample opportunity to do so if it wished.)

Pakistan faces the challenge, just one among many, that its civilian and even military leadership lack the ability to reach deep into the ISI and security services to transform them. In some ways, these agencies operate under their own rules. Add to this the reality that the ISI and security forces -- even if they are acting more assertively, as Islamabad claims -- are demonstrably incapable of controlling radical Islamists in Pakistan. If they were capable, the attack on Mumbai would have been thwarted in Pakistan. The simple reality is that in Pakistan's case, the will to make this transformation does not seem to be present, and even if it were, the ability to suppress terror attacks isn't there.

The United States might well want to limit New Delhi's response. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is on her way to India to discuss just this. But the politics of India's situation make it unlikely that the Indians can do anything more than listen. It is more than simply a political issue for New Delhi; the Indians have no reason to believe that the Mumbai operation was one of a kind. Further operations like the Mumbai attack might well be planned. Unless the Pakistanis shift their posture inside Pakistan, India has no way of knowing whether other such attacks can be stymied. The Indians will be sympathetic to Washington's plight in Afghanistan and the need to keep Pakistani troops at the Afghan border. But New Delhi will need something that the Americans -- and in fact the Pakistanis -- can't deliver: a guarantee that there will be no more attacks like this one.

The Indian government cannot chance inaction. It probably would fall if it did. Moreover, in the event of inactivity and another attack, Indian public opinion probably will swing to an uncontrollable extreme. If an attack takes place but India has moved toward crisis posture with Pakistan, at least no one can argue that the Indian government remained passive in the face of threats to national security. Therefore, India is likely to refuse American requests for restraint.

It is possible that New Delhi will make a radical proposal to Rice, however. Given that the Pakistani government is incapable of exercising control in its own country, and given that Pakistan now represents a threat to both U.S. and Indian national security, the Indians might suggest a joint operation with the Americans against Pakistan.

What that joint operation might entail is uncertain, but regardless, this is something that Rice would reject out of hand and that Obama would reject in January 2009. Pakistan has a huge population and nuclear weapons, and the last thing Bush or Obama wants is to practice nation-building in Pakistan. The Indians, of course, will anticipate this response. The truth is that New Delhi itself does not want to engage deep in Pakistan to strike at militant training camps and other Islamist sites. That would be a nightmare. But if Rice shows up with a request for Indian restraint and no concrete proposal -- or willingness to entertain a proposal -- for solving the Pakistani problem, India will be able to refuse on the grounds that the Americans are asking India to absorb a risk (more Mumbai-style attacks) without the United States' willingness to share in the risk.

Setting the Stage for a New Indo-Pakistani Confrontation

That will set the stage for another Indo-Pakistani confrontation. India will push forces forward all along the Indo-Pakistani frontier, move its nuclear forces to an alert level, begin shelling Pakistan, and perhaps -- given the seriousness of the situation -- attack short distances into Pakistan and even carry out airstrikes deep in Pakistan. India will demand greater transparency for New Delhi in Pakistani intelligence operations. The Indians will not want to occupy Pakistan; they will want to occupy Pakistan's security apparatus.

Naturally, the Pakistanis will refuse that. There is no way they can give India, their main adversary, insight into Pakistani intelligence operations. But without that access, India has no reason to trust Pakistan. This will leave the Indians in an odd position: They will be in a near-war posture, but will have made no demands of Pakistan that Islamabad can reasonably deliver and that would benefit India. In one sense, India will be gesturing. In another sense, India will be trapped by making a gesture on which Pakistan cannot deliver. The situation thus could get out of hand.

In the meantime, the Pakistanis certainly will withdraw forces from western Pakistan and deploy them in eastern Pakistan. That will mean that one leg of the Petraeus and Obama plans would collapse. Washington's expectation of greater Pakistani cooperation along the Afghan border will disappear along with the troops. This will free the Taliban from whatever limits the Pakistani army had placed on it. The Taliban's ability to fight would increase, while the motivation for any of the Taliban to enter talks -- as Afghan President Hamid Karzai has suggested -- would decline. U.S. forces, already stretched to the limit, would face an increasingly difficult situation, while pressure on al Qaeda in the tribal areas would decrease.

Now, step back and consider the situation the Mumbai attackers have created. First, the Indian government faces an internal political crisis driving it toward a confrontation it didn't plan on. Second, the minimum Pakistani response to a renewed Indo-Pakistani crisis will be withdrawing forces from western Pakistan, thereby strengthening the Taliban and securing al Qaeda. Third, sufficient pressure on Pakistan's civilian government could cause it to collapse, opening the door to a military-Islamist government -- or it could see Pakistan collapse into chaos, giving Islamists security in various regions and an opportunity to reshape Pakistan. Finally, the United States' situation in Afghanistan has now become enormously more complex.

By staging an attack the Indian government can't ignore, the Mumbai attackers have set in motion an existential crisis for Pakistan. The reality of Pakistan cannot be transformed, trapped as the country is between the United States and India. Almost every evolution from this point forward benefits Islamists. Strategically, the attack on Mumbai was a precise blow struck to achieve uncertain but favorable political outcomes for the Islamists.

Rice's trip to India now becomes the crucial next step. She wants Indian restraint. She does not want the western Pakistani border to collapse. But she cannot guarantee what India must have: assurance of no further terror attacks on India originating in Pakistan. Without that, India must do something. No Indian government could survive without some kind of action. So it is up to Rice, in one of her last acts as secretary of state, to come up with a miraculous solution to head off a final, catastrophic crisis for the Bush administration -- and a defining first crisis for the new Obama administration. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once said that the enemy gets a vote. The Islamists cast their ballot in Mumbai.

(Copyright 2008 Stratfor.)

We're All Crazy


Headlines like this trouble me; at what point do we stop using diagnostic labels to identify behaviors we dislike, and thereby ostracizing those we label, and start to expand the spectrum of behaviors which we can call "normal?" At some point, someone will note that the vast majority of us have some identifiable disorder from the DSM IV. And if we are all abnormal, then what becomes of our definition of normal, anyway?

diagnostic labeling is both handy and dangerous. If 20% of all young adults are disordered, and have abnormal behavior, then does that say more about the young adults in question, or about the cultural need to isolate, identify, label and discard anyone who acts outside of a totally imaginary slice of behavioral patterns marked as the median of acceptable?

Stuff.

So, the flood waters in Venice have receded significantly, down to a mere 39 inches. And way down in Georgia the senatorial runoff election is in full swing. The auto makers are back in Washington with their begging bowls, but no word in the press on the modes of transportation so far. Despite some small words of contrition, their arrogance is still astonishing, despite their position of leading some of the most poorly managed and poorly performing industry actors of the last 15 years.

And in a show of unsurprising volatility, after yesterday's 7% fall, the market is back up 3.5% today. Like an elevator built to induce vertigo, Wall Street appears unable to decide whether to follow the economic zeitgeist, or lead it.

Resolution?

So it looks like the Thai courts have made a decision on what happens next. Curiously, no word whatsoever on the situation from the King....

Monday, December 01, 2008

Just A Thought

Why does the market tumble on "official" news ---- news that we all knew anyway, and have been talking about for a year?

Not sure there is a lot to add to this headline:

Dow Plunges 680 Points as Recession Is Declared


Oh yeah.

Juxtapositions.

The Dutch are outlawing magic mushrooms, while the Swiss are legalising heroin.

And here in the US, the Feds are still throwing pot smokers in prison --- but they have a more lenient attitude toward bad coffee.

Bombs.

They keep exploding, even when we aren't paying attention:

"What News On The Rialto?"


It appears that Venice is still sinking.

The Why Of It.

Sullivan has this interesting link to an analysis of just why the Mumbai attacks were taken, strategically. It still leaves me with the question, though, of why these particular sites? A Jewish cultural center? In India? I'm not sure it really sends a clear message, even for the ultra-rabid islamist superradicals. Are they against Jews? Then why such a small target? Are they against plutocracy? Then why not businesses? Are they anti-Indian? Then why target foreigners and hotels?

Some of it still doesn't make sense to me. Perhaps it will never make sense. The taking of life so wantonly rarely does.

Aftermath

Despite calming words from the US, I suspect we are heading back to the shaky days of 2002 in Indian-Pakistani relations. Rice is asking for cooperation, Indian officials are resigning, and while Pakistan continues to makes noises of amelioration, I seriously doubt that even with the new government installed, they will have the willpower (or the strength) to follow any leads if they trail off toward the military or the intelligence services---or even the opposition.

Still, the connections to Kashmir are troubling.

Understatement of the Decade


"I think I was unprepared for war," Bush told ABC News' Charlie Gibson in an interview airing today on "World News."

"I wish the intelligence had been different, I guess," Bush added.
He's proud not to have compromised his principles, but sadly still blind to the terribly destructive impacts that uncompromising stand brought to bear on the US, and the world.

On the Other Hand....


The markets are currently tanking amid the shopping defeats of the weekend, crappy reports from the auto makers, and the usual volatile bile of an interregnum Monday. And yesterday a boy was gunned down a few blocks from my home in Golden Gate Park. This is the second murder in my neighborhood this year --- a neighborhood known for its low crime rate. To Brandon Evans family and friends, sympathies and condolences. 20 is far too young an age for a person to be ripped from life in this way.

Requiescat In Pacem.

Clinton. Gates. Napolitano. Holder. Jones.


Reuters has the basics. TPM has more details. The team keeps growing, and the face of the administration becomes more and more clear.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Conservative Review

"This year revealed how almost all the positive arguments in American politics have come from the left."


That's Andrew Sullivan, mulling over the various strains of politics that have shaped American Conservatism -- in particular, McCarthyism. I'd say it's an interesting insight, but misses the critical factor that has been raised by a number of folks, including John Dean, that while everyone is susceptible to "resentment" (as Sullivan puts it---I'd say "fear and hate"), it would appear that those who are drawn to the right, and to conservative political points of view, are significantly more susceptible. And that to me points to a much stronger correlation.

Sunday Sunshine

Happy holidays, everyone.

It would seem that over the long holiday break, a few synchronous events took over our notice: most significantly the rise and fall of the Mumbai massacres, with the attacks at the hotels, the train station, the Jewish cultural center, all intended primarily (it would seem) to do exactly what they did---to spread mayhem, fear, anxiety and death. The grievous deaths of the (so far) nearly 200 victims is allayed somewhat by the knowledge that the efforts of the Indian forces who at last closed down the siege kept the terrorists from reaching their rumored goal of 5,000 dead.

At the same time the protests in Bangkok have begun to turn violent, and still no end in sight for the situation, or for the forcibly extended trips of more than 100,000 travelers.

And while our attention was drawn there, as we sat down to our thanksgiving dinners, riots broke out in Nigeria, killing hundreds more.

On the upside, during all this my parents were visiting; it may not have made the news, but at least it didn't cause any deaths.

After all that, it looks like Monday will be a busy news day, as Obama prepares to announce his national security team---including Hillary Clinton as his Sec. of State pick. Add to all that the decision of OPEC to leave oil production unchanged, and rising unrest & uncertainty in Iraq as we head toward the changing of the guard in January, and who knows what news in the markets, and the holiday interregnum looks to be a potentially very interesting few weeks.