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Thursday, June 27, 2013


The Economist: [Iran's nuclear] breakout beckons

A typical Western corporate article about Iran from The Economist. The article uses 2900 words to discuss Iran's "nuclear capability" and to conclude that "neither Iran’s election, nor sanctions nor military threats are likely to divert it from the path it is on to getting nuclear weapons." But not one of those words is "fatwa."

After mentioning the results of the recent election, the article notes (correctly) that "the guiding hand behind Iran’s nuclear policy will remain that of the supreme leader." But rather than then going on to note that the supreme leader has declared nuclear weapons "un-Islamic" and issued a fatwa against them, instead it goes on to psychoanalyze him, talking about his "introspective, suspicious view of the world outside Iran." And then, in the usual misleading way, it says: "nothing is likely to stop Iran getting the bomb if and when it decides it wants one." Putting things this way implies that Iran is in the process of making a decision. But that's completely false. Iran has made a decision, a decision that nuclear weapons have no part to play in the defense of their nation. Now yes, any decision can be changed, but that's not the same as saying a decision hasn't been made. It has. It's just that The Economist doesn't want their readers to know what it was, because if they do, they might not be so easily aroused to support war against Iran.


Death counts from Syria: are they believable?

The latest claims from the "Syrian Observatory for Human Rights" are now being trumpeted in the press with their total of 100,000+ dead in Syria. Here are their figures:Let's note a few things. First, the figures do not say who killed the 36,661 civilians. We know that both sides are responsible. The standard media meme is "Assad is killing his own people", but even if none of those civilians were killed by the rebels (a statement we know is false), it would still be the case that according to these figures, 42,718 of the 100,191 total deaths, 43%, were people killed by the rebels. If just 7500 of the alleged 36,661 "civilians" (just 1/5, not an unreasonable estimate) were killed by the rebels, then the death tolls on "both sides" would be essentially equal, which hardly corresponds to the "Assad is killing his own people" line.

Of course these figures are highly suspect, and not just because of the absurd level of precision they show. Of the 36,661 "civilians" who were killed, how many were in fact unacknowledged rebel fighters? We know if the rebels were the Taliban and it was the U.S. government that was doing the counting, it would be every single one of those except for the 8000 women and children.

Note also the relative death tolls. We are told repeatedly how the rebels are "outgunned" and need more weapons from the West. But according to these figures, the rebels have only lost 13,539 fighters (or 15,554 if the "defectors" are included) to 42,718 government fighters - an astonishing 1:3 ratio! Sure sounds like the rebels are doing just fine; it's hard to explain how they were pushed out of Qusair and are said to be on the verge of defeat if they don't get more weapons with those kind of numbers!

We're told that the SOHR relies "on four men inside Syria who help to report and collate information from more than 230 activists on the ground." What is unsaid is that those "230 activists" are almost entirely, if not entirely, anti-government activists, which means they are getting their numbers from the rebels, who will invariably minimize their own losses and exaggerate the government's losses. So in reality, that "1:3 ratio" is unlikely to actually be true; for all we know it may well be the opposite.

In short, the number of grains of salt with which one must take this "data" would make Lot's wife look small.

Monday, June 17, 2013



Some people argue that loss of privacy to Facebook, Google, etc. is the same as the loss of privacy to government, so why complain? But this is a completely fallacious argument. First of all, my loss of privacy on FB, Google etc. is voluntary. Secondly, FB gives me a great tool to keep in touch with friends and family, make new friends, etc., all for free; in return, they sell ads to show me, just like TV only "better" because they are targeted. I accept that trade. Likewise for Google. Safeway uses their "courtesy card" to keep track of everything I buy, but in return gives me coupons and discounts for products. I accept that trade.

And the government? They amass all sorts of information on me, without my permission, and what do I get in return? The potential to be arrested, or have organizations I belong to disrupted COINTELPRO-style, or put on a no-fly list without any chance of appeal, or even, in a worst case scenario, killed by a drone should I be traveling overseas and visiting someone who they have mistaken for a terrorist. No, government invasions of privacy are NOT the same as FB, Google, etc. Not even close.

Saturday, June 15, 2013


The lies on Iran keep on coming

ABC News tonight was a good example of the reporting on the Iran that permeates Western media. After trumpeting the election of the "moderate" candidate in the recent election, they hastened to point out that it wouldn't make much difference because the key decisions are made by Khamenei, who is, in their words, "strongly pro-nuclear." Well, he is strongly pro-nuclear power, but at the same time has issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons. A fact you might think was important since we just finished hearing how he has the final word on such things. And a fact which also casts light on the previous part of the story, which is how much the average Iranian is suffering due to the economic war (called "sanctions") being waged by the West against Iran, all on the pretext that Iran is developing nuclear weapons.

Thursday, June 13, 2013


Why I'm skeptical about Syrian death toll

I've written about this before. Today the U.N. released a report asserting that an average of 5,000 per month had been killed every month for the last year, bringing the total deaths in Syria to 93,000. One reason this report has little credibility is the assertion that "the figure of 92,901 was reached at the end of April." Really? With no one on the ground, the U.N. can confidently state that not 92,000, not even 92,500, but "92,901" was the death toll at the end of April? One part in nearly 100,000 precision? You couldn't come up with a statistic that precise in the United States for the number of people who died last year, and yet we're meant to believe that the U.N. can do so in Syria? No.

The other reason I don't believe it is this: 5,000 people a month is 167 people per day. Average. Now if that's the average, there must be some days when 300, even 400 people are killed. That's how averages work. But just yesterday, there were stories all over the news (well, not so much in the U.S. corporate news, because the "villains" in the piece were the Syrian rebels) about the killing of 60 Shia in the town of Hatla. Now it's true that if one person were being killed per day in 167 different towns and villages, we wouldn't expect that to make the news. But there don't seem to be that many "fronts" in the war that is going on in Syria. And with a supposed average of 167 people being killed per day, there would be a lot more "major" battles in which 100, 200, or even 300 people were killed on a single day. Yet the number of such reports in the news is small.

My conclusion: there is no way that 167 people per day are being killed in Syria.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


I never met a data I didn't like...

One of the "excuses" for the NSA phone-record tracking is that "it's not data, it's only metadata." But this claim is completely wrong. Metadata is data about data. "Americans make an average of 7.8 phone calls per day" is metadata. "Someone in Palo Alto, CA using John Smith's phone called someone in New York City holding Al Kaida's phone at 7:18 this morning and talked for 16 minutes" is a piece of information, otherwise known as data, not "metadata." The actual words the two spoke are additional data, and presumably generally more informative data, but the fact that they spoke, where they were located, and for how long they spoke, is also data.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


Do Americans support tracking phone records?

The Pew poll is being reported by news organizations, and by Pew, in a very misleading manner. Here's Pew's headline, and the way it's being reported: "Majority Views NSA Phone Tracking as Acceptable Anti-terror Tactic"

But the actual poll reads: "NSA getting secret court orders to track millions of Americans to investigate terrorism is acceptable/not acceptable/don't know"

56% of people polled answered acceptable to that question, which has one huge lie and one huge bias. The lie is that NSA is getting secret court orders to track millions of Americans; they are doing no such thing. They are gathering phone records on every Verizon customer (and, presumably, other phone companies as well, although that isn't on the record yet). From what we know (which may itself be a lie), a court order is required only to obtain the content of those calls, not to "track" them (i.e., the metadata). And, additionally, there is the huge bias in that question of the ending phrase "to investigate terrorism."

A simpler question: "Is it acceptable for the NSA to collect data on every single call you make - to whom it was made, where you were when you made it, and how long you spoke," was not asked.

Friday, June 07, 2013


The "Congress knew" defense

President Obama defends his super-snooping program, claiming that "they’re not secret in the sense that when it comes to telephone calls, every member of Congress has been briefed on this program." First of all, I note he also says that "the relevant intelligence committees are fully briefed on these programs," which suggests that "every member of Congress", to whom the word "fully" isn't applied, may or may not know very much at all.

But even if every member of Congress were in fact fully briefed, there's a little problem with that. Because they were briefed in secret and unable to convey that information to their constituents. So if they wanted to, say, campaign for reelection on the grounds of supporting (or opposing) that policy, they couldn't do so. Furthermore, no challenger could campaign against them on a platform of ending these policies, because no challenger would have known about the policies.

On a related issue, talking to FOX's Shep Smith earlier today (actually being grilled by Smith, who was having none of his double-talk and evasions), the former deputy director of the NSA claimed that the program was ipso facto Constitutional because "all three branches of government" were involved with it. But the "FISA Court" is a special, secret court. Not only have they never denied a single government request, but no citizen can challenge a decision they make, because their decisions are all secret. Therefore the Constitutionality of the court itself, or of any decision it has made, is not subject to review by the Supreme Court, the only institution which can actually rule on the Constitutionality of a law.

Thursday, June 06, 2013


If some snooping is good, then...

The White House response to the revelation that the NSA is collecting massive amounts of phone "metadata" from Verizon is that this is a vital "anti-terrorism" tool. But if collecting data from Verizon is a key anti-terrorism tool, then surely collecting it from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and everyone else would be an even better anti-terrorism tool. And if collecting metadata is providing essential anti-terrorism information, think how much more anti-terrorism information could be gleaned by recording the actual "data" (that is, the conversations that are taking place)? Not to mention all the anti-terrorism information that could be found by intercepting, recording, and analyzing every single email message, every single Skype conversation, and every single text message being transmitted.

And, without getting too paranoid, there's little reason to believe this isn't already happening, despite the revelation of what appears to be an outrageous (quoting Al Gore) but still much smaller invasion of privacy.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013


Albert Einstein on Bradley Manning?

Two quotes from Albert Einstein (taken from the book "Einstein on Politics", a compendium of his writings on political subjects), both from 1951, but which could well have been written about Bradley Manning:
"The conscientious objector is a revolutionary. In deciding to disobey the law he sacrifices his personal interests to the most important cause of working for the betterment of society."
"There is a curious inconsistency in a government which punishes aliens for not following their conscience in a given conflict, while penalizing its own citizens for following their conscience in the same kind of conflict. Apparently such a government holds the conscience of its own citizens in lower esteem than that of aliens."

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