17 April 2015

Republican Twitter Account Goofs Anniversary Of Lincoln's Death

The post and discussion of it are here.

Honestly, it reads like a Freudian slip, because while Lincoln was the first Republican President, the Republican and Democratic parties have completely reversed their ideological roles in the meantime, and Lincoln wouldn't even make it to the top ten in a Republican straw poll today.

Imitation The Sincerest Form Of Flattery?

No, I was not crazy in thinking that Robert DeLong's new hit, "Long Way Down" would be a dead ringer for a theme song for the upcoming 24th James Bond movie.

Other people thought the same thing.  One ambitious fan even superimposed it on the Skyfall movie opening sequence (without any timing adjustment) to show just how perfect a fit it is to the model.

Clearly, in this case, the imitation is conscious and not merely accidental.  And, unsurprisingly, this well proven formula executed well by Robert DeLong has worked well to produce a hit.  It probably doesn't quite cross the line into being a copyright or trademark violation, but it coasts close to that line.

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Boing Boing meanwhile describes how two sets of video game designers came up with almost identical new games designed for play on an iPhone.  The story is a helpful analysis of why seeming coincidences, even when they flow from uncoordinated events can be less miraculous than they seem due to hidden structure in what one might call "idea space".

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The same notion, that randomness can be an unjustified assumption was key to the solution of the German ENIGMA code in World War II, as portrayed in the movie "The Imitation Game", where the key to breaking the code turned out to be the insight that the encoded messages were much less random than the protocol used to solve them had assumed.

14 April 2015

Yemen and Beyond

A very large share of the Islamic world is in turmoil at the moment.  It is all very Game of Thrones.  There are many contenders for supremacy, each with their own very tribal base of control. It is hard to know who to back.  Everything is in flux, and the end game isn't clear.  Basic assumptions about the ability of secure nation-state regimes to rule their territory, human rights, and the sovereign sanctity of nation-state boundaries, seem to have fallen apart entirely in the last five years.

My intuition is that mass failure of the Western style state model is almost inevitable when superimposed on a broad Islamic culture that comes to questions of political economy with fundamentally different values and assumptions and ways of doing things.  These nations need homegrown institutions that are better suited to their needs and outlook, dramatic cultural change, or both, and the Islamic world will remain unstable until this is accomplished.  Perhaps the only way to really forge cultural change of the magnitude required is with immense bloodshed, although I'd like to think otherwise.

To some extent, in the Middle East, at least, a lot of this conflict is the still ongoing saga of succession to the fallen Ottoman Empire that was carved up by outsiders after World War I in ways that made no sense.  The end of de jure colonialism in the 1960s, which dismally failed to live up to the liberal ideas that fueled this transition also play a part.  For a brief historical moment during the Arab Spring of 2010, it looked that this liberal vision of Islamic nations with Western style institutions might be on the verge of widespread realization.  But, like the anti-monarchist revolutions of 1848 in Europe, this wave of revolutions turned sour and failed to achieve this goal, although they may have, as in 1848, sowed the seeds for more lasting change in another generation or so.

The urge to intervene to prevent atrocity and to help the rare clear good guys in these conflicts is great.  But, the end game of intervention of any kind is increasingly hard to discern.  Good intentions seem to inevitably produce blow back.  On the up side, despite all of this, oil is still cheap.

The civil war in Yemen is pretty ugly.  Some useful background from a lecture on the topic is available in pdf form via Geocurrents.  Shorter version: The merger of North Yemen and South Yemen in 1990 was, in retrospect, a horrible idea which has produced a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.  It is really hard to know who the good guys are in this fight, and it is not at all obvious that we should be providing logistical assistance to Saudi Arabia in this as opposed to staying out all together.  The Sunni President (since 2012) was utterly ineffectual and unable to secure the loyalty of his military or the large Shi'ite areas of the populous former North Yemen's highlands where Houthi rebels have taken control with popular backing.  But, given that "death to America, death to Israel, kill the Jews" is one of their main slogans, it is hard to fell warm and fuzzy about them either.

Looking more deeply at the background, the fact that 26 million Saudi Arabians are awash in oil money, while 26 million Yemenis live at less than a tenth of the average income of a Saudi living the life that the Saudis would be living, but for their oil wealth, seems profoundly unfair.  Yemenis do get most of Arabia's rain as a consolation prize, but honestly, the best thing that could happen to them would be for them to be conquered by Saudi Arabia, so that they could share in its national wealth.

Vox, meanwhile, has a quality presentation on ISIS.  Highlights: ISIS is tactically wise, the Assad regime in Syria is its frenemy, the U.S. can't win this fight militarily, and ISIS won't collapse of its own accord.  But, the situation is not entirely hopeless.  Neither Syria, nor Iraq are in any position to reclaim their territory from ISIS and nobody has a viable plan for a post-ISIS political arrangement for the Sunni Muslims in the territories that it controls.  A new map from the U.S. Department of Defense shows territorial gains by various anti-ISIS forces.

Also, don't forget that ISIS linked Islamic terrorists went on a rampage against a magazine that was accused of disrespecting Muhammed and Jews, in the Je Suis Charlie affair.  France is one of many European nations with substantial Muslim minorities (mostly Algerians in France, Turks in Germany, and Pakistanis in the U.K., and various populations in Scandinavia), so incidents like these can inject acid into interfaith interactions in daily life and can fuel neo-Nazi anti-immigrant movements.

Meanwhile, Kenya recently experienced a massacre of non-Muslims at a university near the Somalian border orchestrated by al-Sahbab with the son of a major regional governmental leader among the perpetrators.  Somalia itself still hasn't really left a state of anarchy, with al-Sahbab reigning as a first among equals of the many warlords and unrecognized dyfunctional regional states there.

And, let us not forget Boko Haram and its campaign to establish strict Islamic law (which the legitimate state governments of several Northern Nigerian states have done), and to genocidally drive out Christians and animists and all Western influences (and education generally, for that matter, at least for girls).  It is a year now since they kidnapped and realistically then killed and/or sold into slavery, hundreds of girls from a boarding school.  This conflict spans the Sahel from Chad to Mali.

Also, while we haven't been paying attention, the Sudanese military has been up to its usual raping and pillaging in Darfur.  And, while splitting South Sudan from Sudan solved one problem, the South Sudanese don't have their shit together and are in an uneasy state where interfaction violence is still common.

Egypt's latest regime following a sequence of dramatic revolutions rivaling that of the Russian or French Revolutions, is currently in the hands of an authoritarian regime that is consolidating power with mass executions and extreme group imposition of long prison sentences.

Groups in Libya and Tunisa have carried out isolated attacks, slaughtering Coptic Christians and killing large numbers of people at a popular museum that shares space with parliament in Tunisia.  They have sworn themselves to ISIS.

The civil war in Pakistan's tribal areas is ongoing and leads to assassinations and terror attacks in more civilized parts of that nation of more than 100 milllion people.  This civil war is partially related to the ongoing Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, where, at least, they are no longer the most miserable white people in the world, because Yemen has stepped up to the plate and given them (and the Palestinians in Gaza) a break from bearing that title.

Things seem to have calmed down for a while in Israel-Palestine.  Israel is not happy about Iran having any legitimate nuclear program, non-military or otherwise, which is understandable, since "death to America, death to Israel" is a pretty popular slogan there as well.  But, an ugly recent military campaign of Israel in Gaza to reassert control there, partially in response to Gazan rocket attacks on Israel and tunnel systems that were developing, seems to be mostly over for now.

They are seeking out and assassinating atheists in Bangladesh.

Iran looks positively civilized in all of this mayhem.  They've worked to help Iraq fight ISIS.  They are on the verge on negotiating a treaty with the US and others that would allow it access to nuclear power while limiting its nuclear weapons ambitions.  They recently held moderately meaningful elections.  And, the worst of their most recent human rights violations seems to be incarcerating of foreign journalist for "economic espionage" which basically means business journalism.

Thailand's Muslim areas are also in insurgent mode.