Thursday, September 30, 2004

Imploding Iraq: Email as News

This personal mail has been doing rounds on the net, and now Wall Street Journal correspondent Farnaz Fassihi also confirmed that his was written by her.

What I found interesting in the mail - was not so much the content - which is pretty well-known, but the fact that a personal mail can be a news item.

For those who don't know that Iraq has become a quagmire, the complete text is available on this blog; here are a few excerpts:

"Being a foreign correspondent in Baghdad these days is like being under virtual house arrest.... I leave when I have a very good reason to and a scheduled interview. I avoid going to people's homes and never walk in the streets. I can't go grocery shopping any more, can't eat in restaurants, can't strike a conversation with strangers, can't look for stories, can't drive in any thing but a full armored car, can't go to scenes of breaking news stories, can't be stuck in traffic, can't speak English outside, can't take a road trip, can't say I'm an American, can't linger at checkpoints, can't be curious about what people are saying, doing, feeling. And can't and can't..

...In Baghdad I am a security personnel first, a reporter second.

...Despite President Bush's rosy assessments, Iraq remains a disaster. If under Saddam it was a 'potential' threat, under the Americans it has been transformed to 'imminent and active threat,' a foreign policy failure bound to haunt the United States for decades to come.

Iraqis like to call this mess 'the situation.' When asked 'how are thing?' they reply: 'the situation is very bad."

What they mean by situation is this: the Iraqi government doesn't control most Iraqi cities, there are several car bombs going off each day around the country killing and injuring scores of innocent people, the country's roads are becoming impassable and littered by hundreds of landmines and explosive devices aimed to kill American soldiers, there are assassinations, kidnappings and beheadings. The situation, basically, means a raging barbaric guerilla war.

In four days, 110 people died and over 300 got injured in Baghdad alone.... Insurgents now attack Americans 87 times a day.

A friend drove thru the Shiite slum of Sadr City yesterday. He said young men... melt a shallow hole into the asphalt, dig the explosive, cover it with dirt and put an old tire or plastic can over it to signal to the locals this is booby-trapped... there were a dozen landmines per every ten yards... This is in Shiite land, the population that was supposed to love America for liberating Iraq.

...The insurgency, we are told, is rampant with no signs of calming down. If any thing, it is growing stronger, organized and more sophisticated every day.... I went to an emergency meeting for foreign correspondents with the military and embassy to discuss the kidnappings. We were somberly told our fate would largely depend on where we were in the kidnapping chain once it was determined we were missing. Here is how it goes: criminal gangs grab you and sell you up to...

America's last hope for a quick exit?... The cops are being murdered by the dozens every day-over 700 to date-- and the insurgents are infiltrating their ranks. The problem is so serious that the U.S. military has allocated $6 million dollars to buy out 30,000 cops they just trained to get rid of them quietly.

As for reconstruction: firstly it's so unsafe [that]... after two years, of the $18 billion Congress appropriated for Iraq reconstruction only about $1 billion or so has been spent and a chuck has now been reallocated for improving security, a sign of just how bad things are going here.

Oil dreams?... Who did this war exactly benefit? Was it worth it? Are we safer...

Iraqis say that thanks to America they got freedom in exchange for insecurity. Guess what? They say they'd take security over freedom any day, even if it means having a dictator ruler.

I heard an educated Iraqi say today that if Saddam Hussein were allowed to run for elections he would get the majority of the vote. This is truly sad.

Then I went to see an Iraqi scholar this week to talk to him about elections here. He has been trying to educate the public on the importance of voting. He said, "President Bush wanted to turn Iraq into a democracy that would be an example for the Middle East. Forget about democracy, forget about being a model for the region, we have to salvage Iraq before all is lost."

...The Iraqi government is talking about having elections in three months while half of the country remains a 'no go zone'-out of the hands of the government and the Americans and out of reach of journalists. In the other half, the disenchanted population is too terrified to show up at polling stations...

I asked a 28-year-old engineer if he and his family would participate in the Iraqi elections since it was the first time Iraqis could to some degree elect a leadership. His response summed it all: "Go and vote and risk being blown into pieces or followed by the insurgents and murdered for cooperating with the Americans? For what? To practice democracy? Are you joking?"

Friday, September 24, 2004

Paranoid Survives?

Thursday, September 23, 2004
San Francisco Chronicle

"The bearded musician once called Cat Stevens -- who was plucked from a United Airlines jet in Bangor, Maine, on Tuesday by federal officials because he's on the Department of Homeland Security's "no-fly'' list -- has nothing to do with terrorists, his brother said Wednesday.

"His only work, his only mind-set, is humanitarian causes,'' David Gordon, the singer's brother and manager, told the Associated Press. "He just wants to be an ambassador for peace.''

The former pop star, who changed his name to Yusuf Islam in 1977 after converting to Islam, was flying from London to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday when the plane was diverted to Bangor. He was detained and "denied admission to the United States on national security grounds,'' said Homeland Security Department spokesman Dennis Murphy. Government officials said the musician has given money to groups suspected of ties to terrorism.

....Before he converted to Islam, changed his name and spurned the music business, Stevens was one of the most successful pop performers of the 1970s. He made a string of hit records whose sweetly naive folk-rock sensibility helped usher in the era of the introspective singer-songwriter. Songs like "Tea for the Tillerman,'' "Morning Has Broken'' and "Peace Train'' topped the charts and made Stevens rich. He sold more than 25 million albums.

But after becoming a Muslim, he sold off material possessions, including his Ovation acoustic guitar (he was the guy who put Ovation on the map) and quit recording for nearly two decades. He dedicated himself to establishing Muslim schools and other charities in England.

....Islam began making mostly spoken-word, Muslim-themed records in 1995 and performed in Sarajevo in 1997. A major Muslim voice in Britain, he widely condemned the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, writing on his official Web site that "no right-thinking follower of Islam could possibly condone such an action.''

He contributed some of the royalties from the sale of a boxed set of his music to the September 11 Fund, and last year re-recorded his 1971 hit "Peace Train'' -- his first English-language music disc in 25 years -- for a star- studded CD to benefit children in war-torn Iraq."

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Blogs and Mainstream Media

Wednesday September 22, 2004
The Guardian

CBS's admission that its story of George Bush's special treatment when with the Texas air national guard was deeply flawed is being seen as a key victory for the new "blogging" community of the internet against old media.

...the retraction would not have happened when it did but for the efforts of an army of bloggers - writers of online journals - in exposing the documents as fraudulent, including some who authoritatively questioned the authenticity of the documents almost as they were released.

CBS was doubly at fault. It failed to appreciate the force of the thousands of voluntary fact-checkers out there on the web (let alone trying to harness their power in advance), while also failing to interview bloggers after the event as part of an ongoing story.

Newspapers often claim superiority because their stories go through a time-established filtration plant - professional writers, skilled subeditors, revise subs and expensive lawyers. This compares with the web's more anarchic processes, where brews of unfiltered stories, some highly speculative, are put into circulation, and cream sometimes rises to the top.

In fact, bloggers are often people very expert in their own fields who attract other experts when issues in their domain are newsworthy. Stories in old media can be fact-checked instantaneously and the journalists and their newspapers held to account.

....There is no doubt that the tectonic plates of journalism are moving. There is awesome potential in the internet as a gatherer, distributor and checker of news - not least through instant delivery channels such as mobile phones. This does not mean old media will die. But it will have to adapt quickly to what has so far been an asymmetrical relationship.

Blogs have battened off newspapers and many newspapers, including the Guardian, have launched their own blogs. But most newspapers, let alone TV stations, have not embraced the blogging revolution as an essential part of the future rather than an irritant in the background. The CBS saga may prove to be the wake-up call they needed.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Next Destination: Iran

A couple of days after International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) - and Mohamed ElBaradei - made the statement that they have found no sign of nuclear-related activity at a site in Iran called Parchin that several U.S. officials said may be linked to secret atom bomb research, UN passed a resolution asking Iran to stop Uranium enrichment, and the US says that ""the clock is ticking"...

... It seems that the clock is ticking... we don't know for whom...

...of course, a couple of years later - much too late - UN may realise again, as in the case of Iraq, that this war was also illegal!!!

Friday, September 17, 2004

The Ultimate Privatization

The website of this organisation reads:

"CCA has approximately 66,000 beds in 65 facilities, including 38 owned facilities, under contract for management in 20 states and the District of Columbia."

NO! this is not a healthcare corporation!

CCA (Correction Corporation of America) is the largest privately-run prison system in USA (and perhaps also in the world).

A news item in the NewStandard reports:

Private Prison Operator Expects Business to Grow

Sep 14 - Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison firm in the country, said severe overcrowding in the United States federal prison system is likely to help fatten the bottom line of corporate prison operators. Federal prisons are running at more than 130 percent of capacity, the company told investors. The majority of people incarcerated are male and between the ages of 18 and 24. With the overall population of this demographic increasing, the company assumes more people will be thrown into prison, also helping business.

"Successfully exploiting these opportunities should result in strong earnings and cash flow growth," CCA bragged to investors, according to the Associated Press.

The company said the Bush administration's post-9/11 immigration policy of mass roundups and increased police presence in urban areas over the last four years has led to higher incarceration rates. That, combined with the historic trend of increased incarceration, will likely promote increased use of private prisons in the US. CCA also noted that the national turn toward private prisons has been greatly helped by the Bush administration, which has reduced the construction of prisons in favor of contracting private companies and local governments.

Ken Kopczynski, who works with the Private Corrections Institute Inc., a group that opposes private prisons, told the AP, "These people are making money off the hope we keep locking people up and there's more crime, which is a sorry state of affairs to say something like that."

Since 1975, the lockup rate has climbed to 400 out of every 100,000 citizens, compared with 100 out of 100,000 in the 50 years prior.

In fact, prisons seem to be good for economy and business. Excerpts from anther article:

"...other states, such as California, Tennessee, Kansas, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, Nevada and Iowa, which have incorporated prisoners into the labor force, placing artificial downward pressure on wages. Thousands of state and federal prisoners are currently generating more than $1 billion per year in sales for private businesses, often competing directly with the private sector labor force. The Correctional Industries Association predicts that by the year 2000, 30 percent of America's inmate population will labor to create nearly $9 billion in sales for private business interests.

Oregon has even started advertising its prison labor force and factories, claiming that businesses who utilize incarcerated workers would otherwise go overseas for cheap labor (thanks, GATT and NAFTA!). In 1995, an overwhelming majority of Oregon voters passed a constitutional amendment that will put 100 percent of its state inmates to work.

And they'll be making a lot more than license plates and road signs. One product of Oregon's inmate factories are uniforms for McDonald's. Tennessee inmates stitch together jeans for Kmart and JC Penney, as well as $80 wooden rocking ponies for Eddie Bauer. Mattresses and furniture are perennial favorites in prison factories, and Ohio inmates even produced car parts for Honda, until the United Auto Workers intervened. Prisoners have been employed doing data entry, assembling computer circuit boards and even taking credit card ticket orders for TWA.

....Although prison manufacturing facilities do offer short-term benefits at a time when budgets are strained to the breaking point, the system is ripe for exploitation and abuse by government and corporate entities seeking to cut financial corners.

....So why do they do it? In California, prisoners who refuse to work are moved to discliplinary housing and lose canteen priveleges, as well as "good time" credit that slices hard time off their sentences."

Sunday, September 12, 2004

The Accidental Terrorist

Yesterday in my other blog, I had mentioned why the War on Terror canot be won - because terror is a tactics, and not the enemy.

Today I found this interesting news article in The Guardian, which provides a proof for the above thesis:

Early one morning this week, when the police have yet to set up too many checkpoints, Abu Mujahed will strap a mortar underneath a car, drive to a friend's in central Baghdad and bury the weapon in his garden. In the evening he will return with the rest of his group, sleep for a few hours and then take the weapon from its hiding place. He will calculate the range using the American military's own maps and satellite pictures - bought in a bazaar - and fire a few rounds at a military base or the US Embassy or at the Iraqi Prime Minister's office. Then Abu Mujahed will shower, change and, by 10am, be at his desk in one of the major ministries.

Last week he sat in a Baghdad hotel speaking to The Observer. A chubby man in his thirties with a shaven head, a brown sports shirt, slacks and a belt with a cheap fake-branded buckle, he... talked for more than three hours and revealed:

· How his resistance group, comprising self-taught Sunni Muslim Iraqis, is almost completely independent, choosing targets and timings themselves, but occasionally receiving broad strategic directions from a religious 'sheikh' most of them have never met.

· How it is funded by Iraqis in Europe, including the UK, and from wealthy sympathisers in Saudi Arabia.

· How it has rejected any alliance with al-Qaeda affiliated 'foreign fighters' and Shia militia.

· How it receives intelligence from 'friends' within the coalition forces.

· How it runs a counter-intelligence operation that has resulted in the execution of two suspected spies in recent weeks.

· How it is learning increasingly sophisticated techniques and plans to detonate big bombs in Baghdad soon.

...Intelligence experts in Iraq talk of three main types of insurgent. There is the Mahdi Army of Shia Muslims who follow the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and have led recent resistance to coalition forces in northern Baghdad, the central shrine city of Najaf, and Basra, the southern port under British control. There is also 'al-Qaeda' - non-Iraqi militants who have come to Iraq to wage jihad. And finally the 'former regime loyalists', who are said to want the return of Saddam Hussein or, if that is impossible, his Baath party.

Abu Mujahed, worryingly for the analysts, fits into none of these easy categories....

Friday, September 10, 2004

Governments as "Enrons"

Apparently, Creative Accounting is not limited to just the corporates - even the governments do it, as this article shows:

"A new report from the Congressional Budget Office explains that the deficit is a virtually meaningless measure of the government’s indebtedness. The main reason for this is that the federal government uses cash accounting rather than accrual accounting. What this means is that the government can acquire massive debts far into the future with virtual impunity. The government can also, in effect, cosign for loans and provide insurance that could potentially cost taxpayers hundreds of billion of dollars without it ever showing up in the budget until a check has to be written.

By the CBO’s reckoning, the federal government’s true debt last year was $8.5 trillion — more than twice the debt held by the public, which we generally think of as the national debt. That figure came to $4 trillion, only slightly more than the $3.9 trillion in future benefits owed to government employees and veterans.

But even the $8.5 trillion figure is much too low because it excludes the really big debts that are owed for Social Security and Medicare. Since these obligations extend far into the future, the only way they can realistically be quantified is by using a statistical method called present value. This takes account of the fact that $1 fifty years from now is worth much less than $1 today. Future debts need to be discounted to put them into today’s dollars.

Even with discounting, however, the figures are massive. The CBO estimates the unfunded liability for Social Security at $7.2 trillion. But this is virtually nothing next to the $37.6 trillion cost of Medicare. In short, we would need to have about $45 trillion in the bank today earning interest in order to pay all the promises that have been made for future Social Security and Medicare benefits — over and above the future taxes and premiums that will be collected to fund these programs....

...Writing in the Nebraska Law Review last year, George Washington University law professor Cheryl Block compared bookkeeping by the federal government to bookkeeping by businesses involved in corporate scandals. She found little difference. Congress, she wrote, “has been guilty of using accounting devices remarkably similar to those used by Enron, WorldCom and others to ‘cook the books’ and to mislead the public with regard to government finances.”

A friend later pointed out that even in India, we have a similar accounting system, though there is a move to change it

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

B-Schools' Role in Creating Enrons

This report is mentioned at the end of this page:

Business Schools share the blame for Enronitis
(Financial Times, July 18th, 2003)

Sumantra Ghoshal, professor of strategy and international management at London Business School, writes that despite the post-Enron rush to teach business ethics and corporate social responsibility to MBA students, business schools "need to own up to their own role in creating Enronitis."

Ghoshal notes that agency theory, created by Michael Jensen at Harvard, taught MBA students that managers could not be trusted to maximize shareholder value and therefore managers' and shareholders' interests had to be aligned through incentives such as stock options.

At Berkeley and Stanford, students were taught transaction cost economics, developed by Oliver Williamson, which argues that the only reason companies exist is because managers can exercise authority to ensure all employees do what they are told. As a result, managers must ensure that staff are tightly monitored and controlled while creating individual performance incentives.

Michael Porter has argued that to be profitable, a company must actively compete not only with its competitors but also with its suppliers, customers, regulators and employees, striving to restrict or distort competition, "bad though this may be for society."

Ghoshal concludes that "by incorporating negative and highly pessimistic assumptions about people and institutions, pseudo-scientific theories of management have done much to reinforce, if not create, pathological behavior on the part of managers and companies. It is time the academics who propose these theories and the business school and universities that employ them acknowledged the consequences."