Remaking Blog Powered Webzines

5 Nov

“Eight percent of internet users, or about 12 million American adults, keep a blog. Thirty-nine percent of internet users, or about 57 million American adults, read blogs,” according to a study (pdf) conducted by Pew Internet & American Life Project.
The astounding number of people who maintain blogs, nearly all of whom have joined the bandwagon in the past couple of years, has been driven by the fact that blogs have finally delivered the promise of Internet – they have given an average user the ability to self-publish. Of course, the self-publishing revolution has not been limited to blogs but extends to places like myspace.com, flickr.com, and youtube.com- that have lowered the bar to “publish” content to the world.

From blogs to better content

The popularity of blogs has led to the creation of enormous amount of content. This, in turn, has spawned a home industry devoted to finding ways to sift through the content that has led to the evolution of things like tagging, “digging”, RSS, blog aggregators, and edited multiple contributor driven sites like huffingtonpost.com and blogcritics.org. Among all the above innovations, it is the last innovation I am particularly excited about for it has the capability of creating robust well written independent online magazines. For these sites to be able to compete with the ‘establishment magazines’ like Newsweek, they need to rethink their business and creative plan. Most importantly, they need to focus on the following issues –

  1. Redesign and repackage. For sites like blogcritics.org to move to the next level, they need to pay more attention to web design and packaging of their stories. To accomplish this, they may want to assign “producers” for the home page and beyond. “Producers” would be in charge of creating a layout for the home page, choosing the news stories and the multimedia elements displayed there. By assigning more resources on design and slotting multimedia elements, the sites can add to the user experience.

    There are twin problems with implementing this feature – labor and coming up with graphics. Blogcritics.org portrays itself as a destination for top writers and hence fails to attract talent in other areas critical to developing an online news business including web and multimedia design and development.

    Blogcritics.org and other sites similar to it should try to reach out to other segments of professionals (like graphic designers, photo editors) needed to produce a quality magazine. They may also want to invest programming resources in creating templates to display photo galleries and other multimedia features. In addition, these sites may want to tap into the user base of sites like Flickr and Youtube so as to expand the magazine to newer vistas like news delivered via audio or video.

  2. Most read stories/ emailed stories list and relevant stories– Provide features on the site that make the reader stay longer on the site including providing a list of most read or emailed stories. Another feature that can prove to be useful is providing a list of other relevant stories from history and even link to general information sites like Wikipedia. This adds value to the user experience by providing them access to more in-depth information on the topic.
  3. Comments – Comments are integral to sites like blogcritics.org but they have not been implemented well. Comments sections tend to be overrun by repeated entries, pointless entries, grammatical and spelling errors, spamming and running far too long. To solve this, they should create a comment rating mechanism, and think about assigning a writer to incorporate all the relevant points from comments and put it in a post. A Gmail like innovation that breaks up comments into discussions on a topic can also come in handy.
  4. Most successful webzines have been ones that have focused on a particular sector or a product like webzines devoted to Apple computers. The market for news, ideas, and reviews is much more challenging and the recent move by Gannet to use blog content will make it much harder to retain quality content producers. Hence, one must start investigating revenue sharing mechanisms for writers and producers and tie their earnings to the number of hits their articles get.
  5. Start deliberating about an ethics policy for reviewing items including guidelines on conflict of interest, usage of copyrighted content, plagiarism etc. and publish those guidelines and set up appropriate redressal mechanisms for settling the disputes.
  6. Create technical solutions for hosting other media including audio, images, and video.
  7. Come up with a clear privacy and copyright policy for writers, users who comment, and content buyers. In a related point, as the organization grows, it will become important to keep content producers and other affiliates informed of any deals the publishers negotiate.
  8. Allow a transparent and simple way for writers/editors to issue corrections to published articles.

Playing with Numbers: Coming up with Objective Ratings of a Subjective Reality

1 Nov

Statistics are only meaningful to the extent that people can identify the phenomenon being measured, come up with a sensible measurement scales to measure primary or secondary observable phenomena and then interpret the results and display them in a lucid fashion. Often times that’s too much to ask and our world is now crumbling under the load of heaps of pointless incomprehensible statistics.

Increasingly, we are trying to understand the world around us via numbers. To this end, a host of research centers and organizations now annually release rankings on issues ranging from corruption to democracy to freedom of press. These rankings are then featured on prime real estate across media and used in homilies, laudatory notes and everything in-between; to buttress indefensible claims; and to bring a sense of “objectivity” to a media-saturated with rants of crazed morons.

“Lost in translation” are subtleties of data, methods of data collection and of analysis, and the caveats. What remains, often times, are savaged numbers that peddle whatever theory that you want them to hawk.

Understanding with numbers

The field of social science has been revolutionized in the recent decades with “positivist” approaches using statistics dominating the field. The rise in importance of “numbers” in research is not incidental for numbers provide powerful new ways, particularly statistics, to analyze concepts. Today numbers are used to understand everything from democracy to emotions. But how do we go about measuring things and assigning number to thing which we haven’t yet even been able to define, much less explain?

Let me narrow my focus to creation, interpretation and usage of rankings to substantiate the problems with using statistics.

More Specifically, Rankings

Reporters Sans Frontiers (Reporters without Borders and henceforth called RSF) came out with its annual “Worldwide Press Freedom Rankings”. The latest rankings place USA at 53, along with Botswana and Tonga, India at 105 while Jamaica and Liberia are ranked 26 and 83 respectively. The top-ranked South Asian country in the rankings is Bhutan at 98. Intuitively, the rankings don’t make any sense and a little digging into RSF’s methodology for compiling these rankings explains why.

Media’s fascination with rankings

The rankings received wide attention and made it to the front pages of countless newspapers. There is a reason why rankings are the choice nourishment of media starved of any “real information”. Numbers capture, or so is thought, a piece of “objective” information about the “reality”. Their usage is buoyed by the fact that rankings are seductively simple and easy to interpret. Everyone seems to intuitively know the difference between first and second. All that needs to be done is present the fluff, the requisite shock and horror and the article is written.

On to the problems with rankings or the “rank smell”

How can you measure objectively when you need a subjective criterion to come up with a scale?

This is something I raise earlier when I talk about how we can understand concepts like democracy or say emotions using numbers. Researchers do it by assigning number or related phenomenon – in the case of emotions it may be checking the heart rate or doing a brain scan or counting the number of times you use certain words, while in the case of democracy it can be how frequently the elites change, or how many people vote in the elections. But still numerous problems remain especially when we try to order these relatively hazily defined concepts. Say for example the elite turnover in US Congress has of late been fairly close to 2% and that doesn’t seem fairly democratic to me and how does it compare with somewhere like India, where elite turnover may be higher but where members of one family have held key positions in India politics since inception.

Relativity
To rank something means to determine the relative position of something. Rankings NEVER tell one about absolute position of something unless of course they are an incidental result of a score on a shared scale. For instance – RSF’s ranking of USA at 53 in the worldwide press freedom rankings doesn’t tell one whether USA’s press enjoys freedom over say a particular bare threshold below which a functioning press can’t be legitimately said to exist. A lot of people have misinterpreted India’s slide from 80, in 2002, to 105. They believe that it is a slide in absolute terms but the rankings only tell us of a slide in relative terms. There may be an argument to made that India is doing better than it is doing in 2002 in absolute terms but not in relative terms to say other countries. In other words, the press freedom in India may have improved since 2002 but as compared to other countries, India’s press is less free today.

The scale of things

To rank something, one has to use a common scale. Generally a scale, especially one measuring a complex concept like democracy, would be a composite scale of a variety of variables. One now needs to think of a couple of things. How does one weight the variables in the scale between time periods and between countries? For example how do you account for higher usage rates of media in one country (and possibly associated higher level of censorship) to say a country with low media usage and possibly lower total censorship? One may also argue that the media penetration is lower by deliberate action (as in limitation for foreign content owners to broadcast) or other factors (poverty). One must also tackle the problem of assigning “weight” to each facet.

Methodology

RSF ranking are based on a non-representative survey of pre-chosen experts. Hence it is more of a poorly conducted opinion poll rather than a scientific survey. Statistics gets its power of generalizability from the concept of randomization. RSF methodology is more akin to conducting a poll of television pundits on who will win the elections and I am fairly sure that the results would be more often wrong than right.

Secondly, questionnaire includes questions about topics like Internet censorship. No explicit mechanism has been detailed where we know that these scores are weighted based on say Internet penetration in each country. If no cases of Internet censorship was reported in Ghana, and it consequently gets a higher ranking as compared to a country Y whose press is freer but did report one case of Internet censorship – it implies the system is flawed. Let me give you another example. India has the largest number of newspapers in the world and there is a good chance that the total number of journalists harassed may well exceed that of Eritrea. It doesn’t automatically flow that Eritrean press is freer. One may need to account for not only the number of journalists (for more journalists per capita may mean a freer press) but also crime against journalists per capita. In the same vein we may need to account for countries which in general have a high crime rate and where journalists by pure chance, rather than say a government witch hunt, may have a higher chance of dying.

One also need to account for the fact that statistics on these crimes are hard to come by especially in poor countries with barebones media and there is a good chance that they are under-reported there.

On the positive side
Rankings do give one some estimate about the relative freedom of a country. Proximity to Saudi Arabia in the ranking does give us an idea about the relative media freedom.

A lot of the criticism lobbed against India’s low placement in the RSF rankings has been prompted by people’s perception of India as a functioning democracy with a relatively free press. What goes unmentioned are episodes like Tehelka and the one faced by Rajdeep Sardesai of recently. India’s press, especially in small towns, is constantly under pressure from the local politicians who monitor aggressively.

What can RSF do?
I would like to see a more detailed report on each country especially marking areas where India is lagging behind. Release more data. Aside from protecting sources, there should be no concerns regarding release of more data. Release it to the world so policymakers and citizens can better understand where improvements need be made.

Release a composite score index that is comparable across time rather than countries. There are far too many problems comparing countries. Controlling for major variables like economic growth etc., we can get a fairly good estimate of how things changed in the course of a set of years.

Conclusion

Whenever we do use numbers to understand concepts, we sacrifice something in what we understand or our conceptual understanding. Some numbers like demographics are relatively non-debatable. Even there debates have arisen in defining who are say Caucasians etc? More debatable are how numbers are used in say the realm of content analysis. What does it mean when a person says a particular word in a sentence? Does it mean that somebody who uses the word “evil” twice in describing Bush hates him twice as much as the person who only uses it once? The understanding and “counting” of words has largely been limited to simple linear additions. We haven’t yet tried understanding strength of words as an equation of countless variables or more importantly learned how to work with that much data so we use shortcuts in our understanding.

Numbers can give one a sense of false objectivity. The ways numbers are trimmed and chopped to support a particular point of view leave them meaningless, yet powerful.

The problems that I describe above are twin fold – errors in coming up with rankings and errors in reporting the rankings. In all, we need to be careful about the numbers we see and use. It doesn’t mean that we need to distrust all the statistics that we see and burrow our nose but we can do well by being careful and honest.

Closing Thought

According to UNECA, Ethiopia “counted 75 000 computers in 2001 and 367 000 television sets in 2000. Only 2.8 % of the total number of households in the country had access to television and approximately 18.4 % of people had a radio station in 1999 and 2000.” These numbers do inform. They talk about poverty. For the West, obsessed with issues of liberty and running from its own increasingly authoritarian regimes, press freedom is “the” issue. In the hustle, they miss some of the more important numbers coming from other countries that tell different stories.

Debunking Nuclear Peace, Deterrence, and Associated Posits

23 Oct

Social scientists and casual analysts have for long understood the importance of nuclear weapons as a direct correlate to their destructive power. Given that we live in a world where some of the lowest technology weapons take the most number of lives and are the most effective in waging war, and where “low-intensity war” is the new buzz word, the exaggerated importance of nuclear weapons and the consequent paranoia of nuclear-armed countries rife in literature seems utterly baseless.

I posit that possession of nuclear weapons imbue no special properties to a nation and no special protection against attack and doesn’t protect it from retribution if it is found to have erred. Superiority in conventional and not-so-conventional weapons, including Phosphorus and Depleted Uranium bombs, remains the primary criterion in military supremacy and ability to initiate action and respond to aggravation.

The enormous destructive power of nuclear weapons and the stigma associated with their usage has proven to be their undoing in the “real world” as opposed to the “realist world”. A slew of “realists” have argued that nuclear weapons guarantee peace between states. Aside from the “hot” cold-war era that led to the deaths of millions, the 1999 Kargil War between two nuclear-tipped nations, India and Pakistan, provides an easy rebuttal to the argument.

Others have posited that possession of Nuclear weapons by a regime limits the options of other countries in dealing it. “Chaste” in his article presents the 1999 Kargil invasion by Pakistan as an example where Pakistan’s nuclear capability limited India’s options in the field. The scenario that he mentions is not particularly true for India did respond back with a fairly robust counter-attack, successfully repulsing Pakistan’s attack and only held back at the personal assurances of Clinton. Even if we discount this particular example, concerns remain as to whether states will genuinely have fewer options in dealing with a nuclear-tipped rogue state. I believe that the answer is no and will try to corroborate my point my examining two possible scenarios– a rogue state conducts a terrorist attack against a much more powerful nation, and an event where it conducts a terrorist attack against say an equally or less powerful nation.

If a rogue state were to sponsor a terrorist attack against say the US, the US will respond militarily much in the same way as it has done in the past. If the rogue state were to choose a nuclear-tipped response at that juncture, it would be annihilated fairly quickly given the overwhelming nuclear superiority of the US. One may reasonably argue from the above that unless a regime is self-destructive, and then there would be repercussions even in a non-nuclear scenario, it would not use any nuclear weapons. And if the regime doesn’t choose to use nuclear weapons then we can take nuclear weapons out of the equation and see the conflagration as a “conventional” war.

Let’s consider now if a “rogue state” were to conduct a terrorist attack against an equally or less powerful nation. This is akin to the example of Pakistan sponsoring terrorist attacks against India. The choices that India has are already limited because, though India has conventional superiority against Pakistan, a conflagration with Pakistan will inevitably cost a lot, cause a fair amount of lives and create the threat of communal discord. If Pakistan were to use a nuclear weapon against India, as a response to a conventional attack by India, it would be stigmatized at the world stage and would swiftly result in a host of powers joining hands with India to at least affect a regime change. Here again, given the stigma of using nuclear weapons and given the repercussions of using one, the chances that Pakistani regime will ever use nuclear weapons against India are very limited. Even if India were to pro-actively launch strikes against “terrorist hideouts” in “Azad Kashmir”, there would be little that Pakistan could do to affect it except reply back with conventional firepower or via sponsorship of more terrorism.

Hence, one can safely assume that for most purposes, the possession of nuclear weapons is immaterial. This framework leverages the universal stigma against using nuclear weapons and hence will hold only until the stigma continues to be powerful and the will of the international community to be punish the errant strong.

Strategic perspectives on dealing with a nuclear North Korea and Iran

22 Oct

The following commentary is Chaste and can be seen as a follow-up to my article on the topic.

“I agree with most of your points. And I do understand the strategic value of combating naivete with naivete. After all, there is no strategic value in calling your opponent out on his underlying reasoning. He will deny the underlying motive and simply brand you a conspiracy theorist. On the other hand, one could argue that your opponent adopts naivete self-consciously is simply a front, and as a delaying tactic. Once a particular naive position is exposed, he will adopt another slightly less naive one and thus prolong his contention endlessly. For this, it may be useful to clearly address all underlying reasons up front. As mentioned, I am unable to evaluate the relative strategic merits of the two positions.

So, with that caveat clearly stated, here is what I believe to be the crux of the issue. I do not think that anyone seriously believes that the leaders of DPR Korea or of Iran will use nuclear weapons against another country. What the west objects to, is precisely the acquisition of deterrents by these target regimes. Such deterrents could embolden these target regimes to engage in non-nuclear anti-western activities. Recall for example that Pakistan started openly funding and training groups dedicated to fomenting violence in Indian Kashmir around the same time that it is thought to have acquired nuclear capability. This surely was no coincidence. Such Pakistani activity in the past was followed by Indian invasions. But with a nuclear Pakistan, India has been forced to accept the deaths of thousands of its security forces, an actual invasion in Kargil, and the deaths and displacement of tens of thousands of Kashmiri civilians with little more than a lot of sound and fury. Thus, what the west worries about is not that Iran may bomb Israel, but that it might be emboldened to be a more active supporter of groups like Hezbollah or Hamas.

What the west worries about is the removal of the threat of overwhelming force as a factor in their dealing with target nations like Iran or DPR Korea, and the possibility of having to rely primarily on diplomacy. Successful diplomatic outcomes generally require either diplomatic pressure which can deliver total victory in a zero-sum game, or normal diplomacy which delivers a compromise settlement. Diplomatic pressure requires the building of a multi-national near consensus, which in turn can dramatically alter the stakes consequent on the different choices made by the target nation.

The west faces problems in exerting diplomatic pressure on both counts. The first problem is the building up of a multi-national near consensus. No one outside the area cares much about DPR Korea (this may actually make a consensus more possible), and a majority of nations oppose the western agenda in the middle-east. The second problem lies in the difficulty of dramatically altering the stakes for the target nations. This will be inherently difficult in the case of an isolationist country like DPR Korea. In the case of the broader middle-east, this is difficult because of the middle east’s reserves of precious oil.

The West’s best shot with DPR Korea is that of an aggressive investment in the “sunshine” policy. This will make DPR Korea less isolationist, and allow multi-national players to dramatically alter the stakes consequent on its different choices. There is no appetite for such a policy in large part because DPR Korea does not appear to be particularly interested in anything beyond self-preservation. Therefore, the west can substantively ignore DPR Korea’s nuclear deterrent, beyond its opportunities for political posturing.

Iran is a different case since it does have interests beyond mere self-preservation: subversion of Israeli policy at least concerning Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and its aspirations to being a regional power in an oil-rich region. With the difficulty in forging a multi-national consensus against Iran on these issues and the difficulty of dramatically altering the stakes for an oil-rich nation, the west will have no choice but to use normal diplomacy, which can only deliver a compromise settlement. But the west has no interest in compromising either on Israeli policies or in arriving at an agreement that respects Iran’s aspirations to be a regional power. Because of the West’s refusal of any diplomatic compromises and the difficulty of building up diplomatic pressure, the west is very keen on retaining overwhelming force as a factor in its dealings with Iran. As I have mentioned before, the last option will be neutralized if Iran acquires a nuclear deterrent.”

Why North Korea wants nukes? and How to live in a nuclear world?

21 Oct

The testing of a nuclear device by North Korea has drawn the ire of US, South Korea, and Japan, among others. Countless penny-a-quote pundits have come forth with their opinions as to why North Korea developed nuclear weapons, with most “analysis” limited to understanding North Korea’s development of nukes as an act of villainy by the autocratic “thug” ruling the “hermetic” kingdom. That the puerile minds of non-analysts bloated on clichéd Hollywood fare will offer such trash is expected but the relative lack of other explanations is stunning.

Why does North Korea want nuclear weapons? I argue that North Korea wants nuclear weapons for the same reason India and Pakistan wanted them, and that is as a deterrent against hostile action from other states. Walter Pincus, of The Washington Post, traces North Korea’s initial interest in nuclear weapons to the threats made by US presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower to use nuclear weapons against North Korea during the Korean War.

"In 1950, when a reporter asked Truman whether he would use atomic bombs at a time when the war was going badly, the president said, " That includes every weapon we have."

Three years later, Eisenhower made a veiled threat, saying he would "remove all restraints in our use of weapons" if the North Korean government did not negotiate in good faith an ending to that bloody war.

In 1957, the United States placed nuclear-tipped Matador missiles in South Korea, to be followed in later years, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, by nuclear artillery, most of which was placed within miles of the demilitarized zone." N. Korean Nuclear Conflict Has Deep Roots (N. Korean Nuclear Conflict Has Deep Roots (WP) )

Aside from the initial nuclear threats, today over forty thousand American troops man the Korean peninsula and another thirty thousand stay on a base in Japan. Stack on to this the fact that Japan is widely acknowledged to have the capability to produce nuclear weapons at a short notice, and we can begin to understand North Korea’s motivations for developing nuclear weapons as a response to its threat perception.

One may argue that understanding the motivations behind North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear capability does not fundamentally change anything for either U.S.; South Korea or Japan, all of whom still see a nuclear-tipped North Korea as a threat. I believe differently – understanding North Korea’s actions in terms of its threat perception can inform our policy in multiple ways. Firstly, if you look at North Korea’s actions as a primarily defensive measure then one may argue that North Korea will probably only use nuclear weapons if attacked. This posit is most likely to hold true because U.S. owns an arsenal of over 10,000 nukes and any usage of nuclear weapons by North Korea will evoke a swift, debilitating response.

Secondly, the lessons learned should inform US diplomacy in the future – especially towards Iran, Cuba, and Iran. Threats from the US will only hasten these countries attempts to develop a nuclear arsenal.

Lastly, we all need to adjust to the idea of a nuclear-capable world. Nuclear weapons, as recent past has shown, are not particularly hard to develop or acquire – this is I say given three third-world countries, namely Pakistan, India, and North Korea, have been able to develop them. Aside from this, a slew of countries, including Israel and Japan already have nuclear weapons or can easily make them. In short, nuclear weapons technology will continue to proliferate, and there is very little we can do to stop this process.

This brings us to question of the repercussions of such a world. The fact remains that the probability that anyone will use a nuclear weapon is remote given that it will bring universal international castigation and a swift response from other powers. Secondly, given the rapid rise in ability of non-nuclear weapons like say MOAB or cluster bombs to afflict harm and destruction, and the comparatively less vocal condemnation on their use will bias countries towards using these “conventional” weapons. Thirdly, possession of nuclear weapons doesn’t equate to the capacity of reliably delivering them and even if one possesses the technology for delivery, the threat of universal condemnation and a swift response limits the probability of their use to nearly zero.

There are a few legitimate concerns about a nuclear-tipped world, and they have been dealt with below. Possession of nuclear weapons by a nation does limit U.S. choices against that nation, but the concern is largely theoretical for any use of nuclear weapons will result in a very strong response from the US. The second concern is about the ability of nuclear weapons to annihilate civilization. This concern stems from our understanding of the severity of the nuclear threat from cold war days when a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union could have produced complete annihilation.

The scenario today is a bit different, and war between the U.S. and Russia, the only other power capable of delivering a similar nuclear response, is remote. Of course, conditions can change, but it still seems unlikely that we will reach such a scenario. Another facet that has garnered a lot of attention is the threat of terrorists using dirty nuclear bombs. There are two parts to the issue – one is state-sponsored terrorism which will be dealt in much the same way as response to conventional attack, and the second is threat of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons from stockpiles of nations. This second threat must be dealt with the US trying to provide infrastructure and monetary assistance to countries to help them secure their stockpiles of nuclear material.

In all, we can take two things away from this discussion – the threat emanating from nuclear proliferation is greatly exaggerated, and that clichéd panic button responses of putting blanket sanctions against nations are unlikely to work.

Rhetoric in Iraq Catches up to Reality

19 Oct

This is second in the series of three articles on US policy in Iraq. The first was posted about a week ago and focused on the bankruptcy of policy suggestions in play in Iraq. This article analyzes how the consensus on Iraq has shifted, in the light of recent news reports, and how this change can inform our future policy direction.

While Blair’s and Bush’s views on Iraq remain unchanged much like the catastrophic news from Iraq, views of technocrats and other politicians on Iraq have shown a metamorphism of sorts of recently.

Over the past few weeks, starting with the release of the study of mortality in Iraq by School of Public Health (SPH) at John Hopkins University, there have been a spate of news reports that have shed light on the failed policies in Iraq.

On October 11th, a study by Bloomberg School of public health at John Hopkins University, a university whose professors ironically were the primary flag bearers of the invasion, estimated that mortality rate in Iraq doubled post US invasion leading to the deaths of an additional 655,000 Iraqi civilians.

Two days later British Army Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, much to the chagrin of Mr. Blair, in an interview with BBC said that the continued presence of British troops on Iraqi soil “exacerbates the security problems”. The statement was remarkable not for its content, for it has been long obvious that the continued presence of foreign troops “without a timeline” and amidst reports of torture and usage of heavy-handed tactics by foreign troops has only inflamed opinion in the Muslim world, but for who said it. The British general was joined yesterday by a US counterpart in the push to state the obvious. Military spokesman Maj Gen William Caldwell said that the US military strategy in Baghdad has been a failure. He pointed to the “disheartening” 22% rise in attacks in Baghdad since the end of last month” (BBC). President Bush went even further when he acknowledged that the “escalation of violence “could be” comparable to the 1968 Tet Offensive against US troops, which helped turn public opinion against the Vietnam War.” (BBC)

If this wasn’t enough, Jalal Talabani, president of Iraq, stated three days ago that violence in Iraq could end “within months” if Iran and Syria joined efforts to stabilize the country. (BBC) Talabani’s statement came against the backdrop of repeated assertions by the US that it would not work with either of the countries.

The fount of statements mentioning what has long been obvious to lay observers should be taken in context. For more than three years the news on Iraq has been stage-managed allowing for little dissent, especially from the top echelon. Of course generals, diplomats and politicians – all have alluded to the catastrophic failure of the US policy in Iraq at varying times but the “wisdom” has never been allowed to snowball into an extended skewering of the administration. With mid-term elections on the anvil and with Democrats poised for major gains – the rose-tint of Republicans view on Iraq may finally be seen as blood.

There are two valuable lessons that emerge from these recent proclamations of the obvious. US troops have shown themselves to be single-handedly incapable of assuring security for Iraqis. Hence a timeline must be set for withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq or at the very least they should be moved to the fringes of security regime– responsible primarily for either manning borders or providing tactical support.

Secondly, Iran and Syria are critical for stability in Iraq. The US, or better yet, Iraqi government led by Talabani should negotiate with Iran to recruit their help in managing the security scenario in Iraq.

Social Science, Epistemology, and Future Directions in Research

4 Oct

There is a schism that runs right in the middle of social science divvying up the field between the critical theorists and the positivists. Positivists aspire to model the success in natural science and hence tend to focus on the causality and statistical proof, according to Dr. Tang at the National Taiwan University. Critical school, on the other hand, starts from some starts from some philosophical axioms, for example, “social good” or “justice for all” or “maximizing social good.”

The approach by critical theorists is riven with difficulties due to the multiplicity of the philosophical starting points around which one can build theories. As one would expect, critical theory today has myriad “schools,” each based on different philosophical assumptions and each with, if one may say, their own geometry and calculus which works only in their own universe. Positivists circumvent the epistemological and other philosophical issues that dog the critical theorists by relying on the natural science model of doing research that stresses on coming up with a falsifiable hypothesis that can then tested either via experimentation or observation (within a representative randomized sample). Given the difficulty of defining and measuring useful variables in social science, positivists rely upon their own methodological axioms though a lot of research is currently underway to help refine the methodology.

The dichotomy in the field brings one to question how social science should ideally be conducted. The answer depends on what one expects from social science. One may argue that social science has ceded its primary responsibility of trying to resolve the dispute between different philosophical paradigms and wrestling with issues pertaining to the nature and future of society. Without the moral or philosophical grounding, a lot of research may seem like monkey work – repetitive and commercial applications aside utterly aimless. On the other hand, one may argue that quantitative work often illuminates how humans and society works and it is first important to understand both of them before we move on to the task of circumscribing their behavior in philosophy. I would argue that social science’s aims need to be a hybrid of both of the strands. Social science needs to continue to grasp with the important epistemological and philosophical questions that underpin our existence and provide direction in a way to where research is headed. At the same time, social science needs to be more pro-active in understanding humans and society.

Uncivil Rights Leader

18 Aug

Andrew Young, respected civil rights leader, was hired expressly to improve Walmart’s public image.

“In the Sentinel interview, Young was asked about whether he was concerned Walmart causes smaller, mom-and-pop stores to close.

“Well, I think they should; they ran the `mom and pop’ stores out of my neighborhood,” the paper quoted Young as saying. “But you see, those are the people who have been overcharging us, selling us stale bread and bad meat and wilted vegetables. And they sold out and moved to Florida. I think they’ve ripped off our communities enough. First, it was Jews, then it was Koreans and now it’s Arabs; very few black people own these stores.”

Washington Post

Muslim Issues, Humanitarian Issues

4 Aug

The latest Lebanese crisis—I cringe at using the word crisis for it seems news organizations use it all too frequently to condense all human suffering and all other news into this pointless pithy—has been covered in the Arab media as a predominantly Muslim affair where a Jewish state is attacking Muslims. While the thrust of the statement remains true, the fact of the matter is that what is happening in Lebanon is a humanitarian crisis, a human tragedy if you will and has little or nothing to do with people there being Muslims or non-Muslims. The portrayal is all the more bankrupt given the fact that Lebanon has about 40% Christian population. Kashmir, Chechnya, Palestine, Lebanon or Bosnia are and should be treated as a humanitarian crisis and not as Muslim crisis by the Arab media. There is a subtext in all the coverage in the Arab media that a Saudi resident or an Arab should feel more about the Lebanese than say someone sitting in EU. There is subtle and not too subtle racism that accentuates the us vs. them schism that has opened up between the world and Islam as a whole. There are mitigating reasons that are offered including the fact that Arab press is deliberately framing it as a Muslim issue to demand action from their ostensibly Muslim governments but then again I think it is giving too much credit to the Arab media for this deep-rooted problem that finds its face in all major Muslim media from Indonesia to Pakistan.

Of course, the Western media can’t go scot-free either. Western media outlets eager to portray Hezbollah as a Shiite militia backed by Iran and eager to portray Lebanese as a bunch of ‘enemy terrorists’ have overlooked the fact that “Hezbollah is principally neither a political party nor an Islamist militia. It is a broad movement that evolved in reaction to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in June 1982” NY Times

Roger Pape, in his NY Times op-ed piece, adds,

“Evidence of the broad nature of Hezbollah’s resistance to Israeli occupation can be seen in the identity of its suicide attackers. Hezbollah conducted a broad campaign of suicide bombings against American, French and Israeli targets from 1982 to 1986. Altogether, these attacks, which included the infamous bombing of the Marine barracks in 1983, involved 41 suicide terrorists.

In writing my book on suicide attackers, I had researchers scour Lebanese sources to collect martyr videos, pictures, and testimonials and the biographies of the Hezbollah bombers. Of the 41, we identified the names, birthplaces and other personal data for 38. Shockingly, only eight were Islamic fundamentalists. Twenty-seven were from leftist political groups like the Lebanese Communist Party and the Arab Socialist Union. Three were Christians, including a female high-school teacher with a college degree. All were born in Lebanon.”

Reforming the College Application Process

1 Aug

College application process in the US is overrun by blatant self-serving marketing and cronyism. We must reform the application process to change the way students look at education.

The Graduate Application Process

While US-based schools uniformly ask for a “Statement of Purpose” and occasionally a personal biography to mention things which “may not have been covered otherwise,” UK based schools like LSE only ask for a formal thesis proposal from their Ph.D. applicants. The subjectivity introduced by essays like the “Statement of Purpose” gives the admissions committee enough elbow room to fit in candidates whose backgrounds may otherwise be suspect. LSE’s demands only a formal thesis proposal, which includes research design and bibliography, and gives a better understanding of a student’s intellectual ability to handle research than say 3-4 pages of carefully crafted spiel to please the head honcho of the department or to whoever holds the key to your admission.

On to undergraduate application process

Today an application to a top-echelon school passes through many rounds of editing before it reaches the desk of the admissions officer. There are numerous websites and books dedicated to the craft of writing a successful admissions essay. The key to a successful admissions essay is to have “an angle” around which you weave your life story and tell the admissions officer why your life has led you to ‘this’ particular program at this college. Of course, the logic and events are sham or nip-tucked to give them the exaggerated appearance that is needed for the storyline. The sham stories give admissions officers a poor idea of student’s interests and capabilities especially because they can so easily be spun around to sound and say what is wanted. In writing dishonest essays, students also fail to analyze if they really want to join a particular school or a program. Still, by far the more insidious effect of the growing importance of the extra-curricular activities in the college application process is that today high-school students are hustling to get into multiple extracurricular activities at the expense of studying. It may also be argued that the admissions essays unfairly favor the rich students who can carefully tend to the admissions essay with the help of online services. It is this thing, which is, in fact, unique to the US, that it rewards entrepreneurship and salesmanship over scholarship.

Cure?

The application process at undergraduate level should highlight the importance of academic achievement in schools and pay little or scant attention to frivolities like admission essays.