Syria: from insurgency to outright intervention?

Today I was pointed to a leaked early 2012 Stratfor email, with minutes from a meeting between people from the US air force strategic studies group and a Stratfor employee, which pretty much sums up my impression of US and allied powers’ conflict timetable in Syria:
1. Grind down the Syrian government’s defence by supporting the emergence and operations of a formidable rebel force:
„I kept pressing on the question of what these [special operation forces] teams would be working toward, and whether this would lead to an eventual air camapign to give a Syrian rebel group cover. They pretty quickly distanced themselves from that idea, saying that the idea ‘hypothetically’ is to commit guerrilla attacks, assassination campaigns, try to break the back of the Alawite forces, elicit collapse from within. There wouldn’t be a need for air cover, and they wouldn’t expect these Syrian rebels to be marching in columns anyway.“
2. Wait for or work towards (I’m agnostic on that) a reason for intervention such as ABC weapons or massacres:
„They dont believe air intervention would happen unless there was enough media attention on a massacre, like the Ghadafi move against Benghazi. They think the US would have a high tolerance for killings as long as it doesn’t reach that very public stage.“

Rainbow zebra crossings in front of Russian embassies

This is viral: In protest against the prohibition of “homosexual propaganda” activist have started to paint zebra crossings in front of Russian embassies in the colours of the rainbow.

Below you can see the rainbow in front of the Russian embassy in Oslo, Norway:

Picture taken from

My digital social science engine

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time optimising my workflow and identifying the right software for each step. As a result I’m indebted to lots of other nerdy knowledge worker blogs on the web.

Let’s go!

An admission: I do love and support Linux. However, since a former employer had Mac OS running, it gave me sort of a rationale for my betrayal. So the setup I’m presenting is for Mac. Some of the software is available for Linux and Windows, too.
Love Linux!

1. Search: I mostly use G**g**-Scholar for search. I do so with the free and open source browser Firefox and two plugins: Zotero and the Zotero-to-BibDesk auto-import utility.


2. Research library: The Zotero-to-BibDesk auto-import utility syncs my Zotero database with my Bibdesk database. The free and open source Bibdesk allows me to save my reference data in a Latex format with uniquely identifiable and portable reference keys. Bibdesk also serves as an iTune-like research library, where I can assign keywords, comments and ratings. I can also tick whether I’ve already read a text or collect texts in a reading list.


3. Annotation: From inside Bibdesk I can start the (once again) free and open source PDF reader Skim. Skim allows me to highlight and comment PDFs. After having done so, I can copy everything highlighted or commented to a text editor, complete with an indication of the relevant page numbers.


4. Page number adjustments: Often the digital PDF page numbers and the nominal page numbers of ebooks and journal articles will not be congruent. This will impinge upon the page numbers indicated after copying from Skim to your favourite text editor. It’s a hassle to adjust the page numbers for each individual entry. For page number adjustments I have only found one solution: Adobe Acrobat Professional, which comes with a rather hefty price tag (particularly considering that you only really need it for this one task). It can save lots of work, though.

5. Database and draft editor: I use Scrivener as a database and for drafts. It’s lightweight, has tons of functions and hardly every crashes. It’s great as a complex outliner (for simpler outlines, I recommend OmniOutliner). Scrivener is proprietary but value for money. You can just copy your highlights and annotations, from Skim, alongside the citation keys from Bibdesk, to Scrivener and then rearrange them according to the structure of your research project. If you do it properly, you will always know what are your own thoughts and what you took from which page of what publication, thus avoiding plagiarism.


6. Compile it all into a beautiful text: I use TexShop for setting the final text in LaTex. TexShop works harmoniously with Bibdesk. Of course, you may often need to exchange documents with people who don’t use Scrivener of LaTex. Then you will need to use OpenOffice or Word for the final draft. Combining that with Bibdesk is a little more of a hassle, though rudimentary Plugins do exist.


7. Get published or die trying.

Post-Democracy. Polemics.

In the “tageszeitung” from 19 August 2013 Andreas Fanizadeh delivers an acrid critique of Jakob Augsteins  book „Sabotage. Warum wir uns zwischen Demokratie und Kapitalismus entscheiden müssen“.
In the beginning he mainly focuses on Jacob Augsteins privileged upbringing as heir to Rudolf Augstein, founder of the major German weekly “Der Spiegel”, and his consequent class position as a millionaire and part of the German media elite.
Hen then goes on to criticize Augstein’s lack of dialectical thinking and claims that he too easily applies the label of “post-democracy” to the German Federal Republic. He even raises the question whether the term “post-democracy” has become a label for non-dialectical thinking.

The review gives the impression that Augstein’s book would be a rather populist and polemic read. I trust the review so far. Both is fine for me: There is plenty of room — and perhaps even a certain need — for populism, for polemic and for acrid reviews, too.
However, I think it was political scientist Colin Crouch’s book “Post Democracy” that first popularised the term. Instead of just being polemic against Augsteins polemic (I trust the review that it is polemic), Fanizadeh missed a good chance for elevating the debate to a level more concerned with structures rather than phenomena. A good chance, indeed, of providing the readers of the “taz” with a glimpse of more dialectical thinking.

For a starter, check out the interview video below:


NSA’s growing distrust of own staff: Advice yes, but please only from a distance!

The National Security Agency (NSA) boss Keith Alexander announced on Thursday, 9th August 2013, that the NSA intends to reduce the number of system administrators by 90% in order to lower the risk of further leaks like those released by Edward Snowden. Apparently, the NSA does not only not trust the American population, it also doesn’t trust its own staff.

Those administrators who remain may be more carefully vetted. That vetting may also include more careful and constant “background screening”, which means that someone needs to monitor those who monitor the population at large. Then, someone also needs to (secretly?) monitor those (secretly?) monitoring the population. Why do I put a question mark behind “secretly”? Because thanks to Snowden it’s not secret anymore that large-scale surveillance is installed and its also quite obvious that the NSA itself feels a need to increase its staff surveillance. So it is out in the open that “secret” surveillance is being conducted.
What we are left with is a situation that is dripping with paranoia of a dual sort: The NSA doesn’t trust anybody and nobody can trust to be left alone by the NSA and their corporate allies.

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you”

Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Distrust may, hopefully, not always be the most solid of foundations. For all I can imagine about the role of system administrators in defending IT systems, I doubt that large-scale redundancies are a sustainable way of fortification. There are hordes of smart hackers out there. The NSA will certainly continue enlisting them. But they may only ask for advice from a distance — like consulting an online doctor instead of going to a hospital.


Why the reform of US GDP calculation just announced is not bold enough

According to the Financial Times the US Bureau of Economic Analysis is going to revise the calculation of US GDP. Next to incorporating royalties from creative works the revised GDP measure will also take into account spending on research and development (R&D). This is thought to push a new international standard, with the US being one of the first adopters.

So, what difference does that make?

First of all, let’s have a look at how GDP is calculated: There are three ways of determining GDP – based on production, income and expenditure. In the expenditure approach GDP (Y) is Y = C + I + G + (X − M); a sum of Consumption (C), Investment (I), Government Spending (G) and Net Exports (X – M).

This article by Businessweek makes clear that, until now, government and personal spending on education and “[a]cademic and government spending on research and development … go into the consumption bin”, whereas business R&D spending and worker training expenses mostly go into the intermediate output bin – and the items from the intermediate output bin are not counted towards GDP “because it’s assumed that they’ve been rolled into either consumption or investment”.

Thus, a large part of what could actually be deemed an investment simply disappears from GDP! This is what the US Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) wants to reform now.

However, once the BEA is about to reform GDP calculations, one might also ask whether it is appropriate to count government and personal spending on education and academic and government spending on research and development towards the consumption bin and not also towards the investment bin. Well, of course, at least it is counted towards GDP and doesn’t just vanish somewhere along the calculation. However, the categories of consumption and investment do carry different meanings in  macroeconomic policy discourse. And here it would be highly questionable whether it is justified to privilege private firms’ R&D expenses over academic and government R&D and those incurred for the education of individuals. In a standard economics textbook Samuelson and Nordhaus [zotpressInText item=”{GD4QAZZT,525}” format=”(%d%, %p%)”] state that

saving and investment… play a central role in a nation’s economic performance. Nations that save and invest large fractions of their incomes tend to have rapid growth of output, income, and wages … By contrast, nations that consume most of their incomes … experience low rates of growth of productivity and real wages.

Taking this into consideration, it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to treat spending on education and research and development as “consumption”.

Also, and perhaps most fundamentally, the announced reform of US GDP calculation raises the question whether it would not be about time to also take into account factors relating to the preservation or destruction of the environment into the calculation of economic performance. If this remains excluded, one may well find that today’s economies float atop a string of fragile bubbles whose bursts will be rather unsettling — to put it mildly.

In recent years, there has been quite a lot of debate surrounding either ecological adjustments to the GDP or the establishment of “satellite” indicators [zotpressInText item=”{2PTHW3AE},{DVPSW2US},{SAAZGWMG}”].

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While certainly less flattering than adding investments into creative works and R&D to the GDP, efforts to take the interactions between the economy and the environment into account would provide for a more realistic picture of long-term human development.


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Why travel? Environmental destruction as a marketing device for the tourism industry

Double hulled vaka, Rarotonga 2010

As the chorus of professional environmentalists makes us worry about the ongoing destruction of nature, even this worry serves as a marketing device that makes us cherish seemingly untouched landscapes — far away enough to make resource-intensive travel and commercialised hospitality a necessary prerequisite for savouring it.

There isn’t much time left. Neither personally — it does take labour time to make the dough for travelling — nor, perhaps, will it be possible to enjoy the unspoilt nature in the decades to come.

Let’s better go and see the animals and the forests now. Or someone else will, anyway.

Well, on a more serious note: I think we need to change our work-vacation rhythm, change the way we travel. Look at the Polynesians:

The early Polynesians were an adventurous seafaring people with highly developed navigation skills. They colonised previously unsettled islands by making very long canoe voyages, in some cases against the prevailing winds and tides. Polynesian navigators steered by the sun and the stars, and by careful observations of cloud reflections and bird flight patterns, were able to determine the existence and location of islands. (Wikipedia)


You see, the Polynesians were not only adventurous, they also took their time. If we also did that, we wouldn’t need to hurry up so much to see everything in time.

Why do you travel? How fast? Feel free to share your thoughts.