How Is A Priori Synthetic Journalism Possible? – Ask IraqSlogger!

It’s Christmas morning and the house is empty – the boys are all gone for the holiday this year, and TG is still asleep, so I’m surfing a bit.

I really want to start finding things I agree with and can support out there, and will make a stronger effort to do that – that’s my Christmas wish right now.

But even on this morning, there’s a backlog of idiocy that I feel compelled to comment on.

I was hopeful when Eason Jordan started Iraqslogger – I really do think we need a better pipeline into news from and about Iraq, and I believed that this venture had a lot of potential. Maybe it still does.

Maybe not so much.
First, Omar, over at Iraq the Model, tears up a detail- (and error-) rich article about Iraqi media. The clear point of the IraqSlogger article was that the Iraqi media are too intimidated or politically connected to report on the (horrible) truth that is being reported in media abroad.

A few of Omar’s points:

First of all “Babil” was not the official paper of Saddam’s regime. The official papers were basically al-Thawra, al-Jumhoriya and al-Qadisiya while Babil was founded only in the 90’s and it was owned by Uday who presented the paper as an independent paper. Yes of course it was never independent but it was not official either.

Now if you know Arabic and opened the website of Azzaman you will first find yourself in the homepage from which one can navigate to either the Iraqi or International version, and guess what? The top story at the top-middle portion of the page is occupied by the rape and murder story.

The stories do not contradict each other in any way; al-Ya’qubi controls only 15 or so of the 130 seats of the UIA and his opinions frequently conflict with those of other bigger factions of the UIA; in this particular case, al-Ya’qubi thinks no solution can be reached while other members are trying to show-or hope for-otherwise.

…there’s a lot more.

I know, I know, the array of wrong facts doesn’t mean the story is wrong. And in fact, Omar makes on point that may be somewhat supportive of the story.

But is it too much to ask that news ‘analysis’ be analytic, and proceed from fact and observation to conclusion, rather than the other way around?

Reading the level of detail in this story, a typical reader – even someone skeptical like me – will nod and see the accretion of fact as supporting the writer’s conclusions. That is, of course, until the facts are shown to be a tissue of error and falsehood.

Then I go over and read the Iraqslogger feeds, and we get this gem:

Zainab may be one of the 655,000 Iraqis who would be alive today if the Bush administration hadn’t launched its criminally conceived and executed war. Violence caused most of the excess deaths. But 54,000 people died from non-violent causes, such as heart disease, cancer and chronic illness. They were victims of a health care system eviscerated by mismanagement, ill-placed priorities, corruption and civil war.

[empasis added…]

Well, we know where they are coming from, no doubt. One small thing niggled at me…the deaths from non-violent causes were 54,000? If Iraq’s population is 26.7 million (World Factbook) that gives a mortality rate of .5/1000 if the 54,000 is for the four years of the war, or 2/1,000 if it’s just for last year.

For reference’s sake, the mortality rate in Iran, where there is no war, and presumably only a few deaths from violence, is 5.55/1,000.

So I’ll call bullshit on this number, as well as on the choice of adjectives.

If this is what Eason Jordan is hoping to rebuild his reputation on – a tired rehash of Democratic Underground – I’ll predict a failure. But since there’s an inexhaustible demand for facts and stories – made up or real – that prove the dominant narrative about Iraq, he may well get a lot of traffic while he’s doing it.

I’ll be offline for much of the next few days, so if I don’t reply to your comments, please don’t think I’m deliberately ignoring you. Well, I am, but…you know what I mean.

Why Are You At The Computer??

It’s Christmas Eve!! Go be with your family and friends. Go do something nice for someone whose worse off than you are. Go walk your neighborhood and admire all the decorations…

Have a merry, happy, sweet holiday. Please don’t kill anyone or blow anything up.

This Was Funny Even Before I Read That He Was A Congressional Aide

From NetworkWorld:

Congressional aide admits trying to hire hackers — to boost his college GPA
By Paul McNamara on Thu, 12/21/2006 – 6:59pm

The communications director for Montana’s lone congressman solicited the services of two men he falsely believed to be criminally minded hackers-for-hire — with the expressed goal of jacking up his college GPA — during an exchange that spanned 22 e-mails over two weeks this past summer.

Todd Shriber, 28-year-old press aide to U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., e-mailed the security Web site on Aug. 9, writing: “I need to urgently make contact with a hacker that would be interested in doing a one-time job for me. The pay would be good. I’m not sure what exactly the job would entail with respect to computer jargon, but I can go into rough detail upon making contact with a candidate.”

(Update: Shriber fired.)

You HAVE TO click through and read the email correspondence.

The future leaders of America, you betcha.

‘I’m An Adult Now’

Well, I don’t hate my parents
I don’t get drunk just to spite them
I’ve got my own reasons to drink now
Think I’ll call my dad up and invite him
I can sleep in ’til noon anytime I want
Though there’s not many days that I do
Gotta get up and take on that world
When you’re an adult it’s no cliche, it’s the truth

‘Cause I’m an adult now
I’m an adult now
I’ve got the problems of an adult
On my head and on my shoulders
I’m an adult now

I can’t even look at young girls anymore
People will think I’m some kind of pervert
Adult sex is either boring or dirty
Young people they can get away with murder
I don’t write songs about girls anymore
I have to write songs about women
No more boy meets girl boy loses girl
More like man tries to figure out what the hell went wrong

‘Cause I’m an adult now
I’m an adult now
I’ve got the problems of an adult
On my head and on my shoulders
I’m an adult now

I can’t take any more illicit drugs
I can’t afford any artificial joy
I’d sure look like a fool lying dead in a ditch somewhere
With a mind full of chemicals like some cheese-eating high school boy

‘Cause I’m an adult now
I’m an adult now
I’ve got the problems of an adult
On my head and on my shoulders
I’m an adult now

Sometimes my head hurts and sometimes my stomach hurts
And I guess that it won’t be long
‘Til I’m sitting in a room with a bunch of people whose necks and backs are aching
Whose sight and hearing’s failing who just can’t seem to get it up
Speaking of hearing, I can’t take too much loud music
I mean I like to play it, but I sure don’t like the racket
Noise, but I can’t hear anything
Just guitars screaming, screaming, screaming
Some guy screaming in a leather jacket

‘Cause I’m an adult now
I’m an adult now
I’ve got the problems of an adult
On my head and on my shoulders
I’m an adult now

– ‘I’m An Adult Now,’ by The Pursuit Of Happiness – a band I miss.

This musical interlude is relevant because yesterday, the Governator made the following announcement:

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger today announced the appointment of Mary E. Arand to a judgeship in the Santa Clara County Superior Court.

Mary and I were roomates in college. There’s some kind of rite of passage that you get to go through when your friends – especially friends you thought were kinda hot when you first met – are now judges. Sigh.

She will be an amazing judge; she was born to do this, and I’m incredibly proud of her.

As for me, it’s just guitars, screaming, screaming…

Merry Christmas, Infidels!!

I’m kinda ashamed of laughing at this, but I do believe that one source of power in the West comes from our willingness to mock any and everything. It keeps us from freezing views and opinions – it’s hard to lock in beliefs when people are free to laugh at them.

And besides, it just made me laugh. From Scrappleface, Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Christmas Video:

Can You Lift And Separate In A Braless World?

Eric Martin has a post up at American Footprints that’s definitely worth reading – especially for hawks like me who are looking for a path through the issue of Islamist terror that doesn’t involve a choice between surrender and the mass killing of Muslims.

The post is titled – amusingly – ‘Lift And Separate‘ and it expands on an article by George Packer in the New Yorker.

Now Eric’s post – and it appears the Packer article (I’ve just scanned it tonight – still working!) are interesting, thoughtful suggestions about separating the committed terrorists from the populations they operate within, and about exploiting the fissures between groups of terrorists.

It’s a good read, and food for thought – but I think I disagree. But it’s a damn useful article because it helped me clarify my disagreement, and I want to quickly sketch it out (with the usual promise to try and develop it better soon – I’m still kinda chasing people and mosques in Baghdad).

The nub of the argument Packer and Martin make is here, and it’s based on the counterinsurgency theory of Australian Captain David Kilcullen:

“After 9/11, when a lot of people were saying, ‘The problem is Islam,’ I was thinking, It’s something deeper than that. It’s about human social networks and the way that they operate.” In West Java, elements of the failed Darul Islam insurgency – a local separatist movement with mystical leanings – had resumed fighting as Jemaah Islamiya, whose outlook was Salafist and global. Kilcullen said, “What that told me about Jemaah Islamiya is that it’s not about theology.” He went on, “There are elements in human psychological and social makeup that drive what’s happening. The Islamic bit is secondary. This is human behavior in an Islamic setting. This is not ‘Islamic behavior.’ ” Paraphrasing the American political scientist Roger D. Petersen, he said, “People don’t get pushed into rebellion by their ideology. They get pulled in by their social networks.” He noted that all fifteen Saudi hijackers in the September 11th plot had trouble with their fathers. Although radical ideas prepare the way for disaffected young men to become violent jihadists, the reasons they convert, Kilcullen said, are more mundane and familiar: family, friends, associates.

The problem here is really an epistic one; if I look at the actions of an individual (and all human actions are done, after all, by individuals) I can understand those actions by – reviewing the psychological background of the individual (as above) – or by looking at economic motivations (vide Marx) – or by looking at their cultural history – or by looking at the political organization of the cultures to which they belong.

Each of these constructions is, in a sense, true.

The question is – are they useful?

Because what we’re trying to do is applied social science – not just to study what people do with and to each other, but how best to effect it.

So the question becomes at what point in the hierarchy from personal psychology to political theory can we have the best and most direct impact – impact that will change the rate at which people become hardened terrorists?

The issue between my beliefs and Eric’s is, in my mind, straightforward.

First, that this model undervalues the role of state actors both in making terrorist groups more effective – in using terrorist groups in service of traditional state interests – and in improving the soil for terrorist recruitment by – for example – steeping the state-supported educational systems with literature that supports terrorist ideologies and beliefs (Jews are evil, the West must be destroyed, death in battle is to be welcomed).

Second, that the modern terrorist groups are more of a network and less isolated pockets of motivated individuals, This network effect is both by virtue of a common and powerful ideology and belief system, because the supporters of terrorism – both within terrorist groups and states that support terrorism publicly or tacitly – see the advantage in a network effect in which IRA trainers improve the skills of Columbian guerrillas or Saudi members of Al Quieda share techniques with Hizbollah fighters.

The validity of those two assertions is in my mind the key to choosing a military or a more ‘law enforcement’ model of counterinsurgency. Having said that, the specific points about understanding the individual groups, looking for fissures and local advantage and exploiting them as a part of a kind of ‘Imperial Grunts’ strategy makes a world of sense to me.

But I’ll bet we’re already doing much of it in places like Columbia.

Lots more to discuss on this, obviously but I wanted to get the party started.

Jamail Hussein and Karen Toshima

In the thread to my first Jamail Hussein post below, commenter Andrew Lazarus says:

A.L., you seem to be seizing on this fire incident as an indication that the MSM coverage of Iraq is way off. But at the same time, neither you nor anyone else is suggesting that the counts of maimed corpses, or dead soldiers, or explosions is in any way exaggerated. The impression of Iraq as some sort of hell on earth really doesn’t depend on this one gruesome story…any more than our perception of the Holocaust depends on the discredited story of Jews turned into soap.

I happen to think that this particular story – and the other stories – coming out of Iraq matter a lot because our policies on the war will be driven by our perceptions which are in turn driven by – the stories we read.

My reply to Andrew started this way (with some amendations):

The problem, Andrew, is [we don’t know] whether [Iraq is] hell on earth or heck (or Beaumont, Texas); that’s the point I keep trying to raise and that keeps getting slapped aside.

I spoke with Greg Sergeant today about all this, and we had a friendly chat in which I tried to explain why it is that one reported tragedy like this matters so much (and why the aggregation of small tragedies matters so much) and I asked if he’d ever heard of Karen Toshima.

He hadn’t so let me explain here.

I did a fast experiment – someone with Lexis-Nexis could do better – and searched the LA Times website archive (which has stories searchable since 1/1/1985) and looked for some word combinations…Mentions of ‘gang murder’ in the L.A. Times in 1987: 297
Mentions of ‘gang killing’ in the L.A. Times in 1987: 192

Mentions of ‘gang murder’ in the L.A. Times in 1989: 649
Mentions of ‘gang killing’ in the L.A. Times in 1989: 435

Annual increase (both terms summed) from 1987 to 1989: 121.68%

Mentions of ‘murder’ in 1987: 3,893
Mentions of ‘killing’ in 1987: 3,585

Mentions of ‘murder’ in 1989: 5,686
Mentions of ‘killing’ in 1989: 5,117

Annual increase (terms summed): 44.46%

The underlying numbers look like this:

Overall Homicides in Los Angeles and Los Angeles County in 1987: 975

Overall Homicides in Los Angeles and Los Angeles County in 1989: 1,053

Annual Increase: 4.0%

Gang Homicides in Los Angeles County in 1987: 387

Gang Homicides in Los Angeles County in 1989: 554

Annual Increase: 21.5%

Note that the increase in gang homicides – 167 – is greater than the increase in the number of total homicides – 78. This suggests the possibility that some homicides that would otherwise have been classified as ‘normal’ were instead classified as ‘gang’ – something I’ll take up with my law-enforcement friends.

What changed? Why did the coverage go up so much more than the underlying numbers?

Karen Toshima was murdered, that’s what changed.

In 1988 in Westwood Village, then the ‘Third Street’ of Los Angeles, where young upper middle class people went to dine and catch a movie or listen to some music or dance, two gangs opened fire on each other and Long Beach resident Karen Toshima died.

Suddenly in the consciousness of the upper-middle-class of Los Angeles – the class that produces TV news and newspaper columns – gang murders, which had been confined to streetcorners and alleys in South Central and East Los Angeles were vividly real.

And if you lived in Los Angeles then, you locked your doors and bought guns. I must have taken half a dozen friends to the shooting range and then the gun store that year.

For most of the next decade, as gang crime rose, peaked in 1995, and then fell dramatically, the narrative of life in Los Angeles was the omnipresent fear of gang violence.

That fear was fed by sensational media – first news, then movies and television – and it defined and limited life in Los Angeles.

Was gang violence a real issue in Los Angeles before 1988? Of course. Was it something worth spending significant resources on and attempting to suppress? Yes.

But the monomaniacal focus on Los Angeles as the “Gang Capital of the World” created a false impression that Crips and Bloods ruled the streets. Where did that perception come from? From reporting the, like a hip-hop drumbeat, regularly pounded home the point

In a few small pockets, for a few years, yes. But the vast majority of people in Los Angeles – people like me – drove throughout the city, ate in restaurants throughout the city (three of my favorites are in South Central and two in East LA).

But the perception of the city changed. Policies changed as a result – policies that may or may not have been good ones.

In Iraq the stakes are much higher. But the mechanisms we’re using to sort them out really are no different. Wouldn’t it be nice if they were?

These Are Not The Droids You Are Looking For…

[Update: Malkin is retracting her post..murkier and murkier]

OK, folks, this is what open source is about – you put things out there and the rest of the world improves on them – so here it goes. I think we discovered something, but it turns out probably not to have been useful. Sorry about that, but as they say, there are no failed experiments.

After talking about this on Friday, I used some old contacts to call friends in Baghdad on Saturday. We (friends and I) have contacts there through major local Iraqi news orgs there – specifically Al Sabah. They have the ability/credentials to move around, ask questions where others don’t.

So, after some calls, IMs, and e-mail we get a call back by Sat night (California time)/Sunday morning (Baghdad time); there is no Capt. Jamil Hussein at Yarmouk, but there is a Sergeant by that name, with a somewhat dubious reputation (worked directly under Uday, Baathist remnant, etc.). So, we checked further, because, after all, I want to be certain before I start throwing too many things around, and it takes a different type and level of checking to have anything like confidence there than it does here to have something close to certainty – and be sure that we’ll be talking about that a bit later.
Reporters from Al Sabah agreed to go interview the superior officer at the police station. They were on the phone at 4:30 am PST today, and they had gone to Karrada and established there is no Jamail Hussein there (would have been unlikely since Karrada is mostly Shiite, and in fact is mostly the power zone of SCIRI, Hakeem has his HQ there – and the Sgt at Yarmouk was obviously Sunni). Information then came in that there is a Colonel Jamail Hussein working at Abu Gharib. (Via sources at the Interior Ministry.)

Now, what we know is that there is no Captain by this name, so we presumed that it is likely that it was an alias. The question was whether it someone who’d dissembled about his name or about his rank? And why didn’t anyone else turn up these guys?

Then, today, Michelle Malkin ran a post – prompted by her pushing on CENTCOM – that the real source for the stories is a guy named CPT Jamil Ghdaab, who is being spoken with by CENTCOM and has acknowledged being the source for the stories.

We’ll know more about what he said and why, I’ll guess – but “looking for Captain Hussein” appears to have been the wrong branch to have been barking up – so we’ll stop barking for a bit.

Further investigation is ongoing by grownups, and I’m sure I’ll hear more (and will pass it on) although it’ll be widely available elsewhere, I’d guess. In the meantime two different sources in Hurriyah confirm that at least two of the mosques in question are just fine, are standing strong, a couple of bullet marks on them, but that’s nothing out of the ordinary. We also hear that they are closed for worship from fear of retaliatory attacks. There are two other mosques there that were claimed to have been attacked (the claim was later reduced to one) and we’ll see if we can get some pictures of them all, at which point we’ll have some facts to report. I’m also hoping to get more of a local response to the core story – about the six who were allegedly burned to death.

Yesterday, Baghdad was on high alert after the Red Crescent kidnapping, and thus movement got restricted. People – both at Al Sabah and other media now that this things is opening up – are working on interviewing the commanding officers and also to find out more about exactly what happened in the alleged incident. (There is by law a report filed with the police there anytime there is such an incident, so that will be part of the questioning that is ongoing there when the interview at the police station happens.) That is currently scheduled for tomorrow, however, know that in Baghdad, things are unstable enough for security to shut or slow down things dramatically at any time.

We’ll see what develops by tonight (tomorrow am Baghdad time), and keep you posted, but I think it’s probably time to move back more toward doing commentary about this and let the reporters and others – who should have been poked in the butt by a person in California with some friends being able to find Jamail Hussein – and Jamil Hussein – with five phone calls and some instant messages. The fact that he wasn’t the source is obviously material to the overall story – as is the fact that all of a sudden the real source is found.

Both the press and CENTCOM didn’t cover themselves in glory with this one. CENTCOM should have been all over this story – certainly once it became a cause celebre – and done a week or more ago what they appear to be doing now. Why they didn’t until now is one other question I’d love to get answered.

And the press – both the AP and the competition to the AP – also failed to do some relatively simple homework that would have put the story in a clearer light.

I’d say that what I did – with a lot of help from a number of folks – probably muddied the waters more than cleared them. But I hope it cast a little light into how weak the data we have coming from Iraq via both our government and our media really are. And on one hand, as noted one guy in California with some friends can generate data out of Iraq – but I’ve seen firsthand that it’s still damn hard to take that data and make even journalistic truth out of it.

Slowly Collapsing The Cloud Of Uncertainty


With the help of some friends who have been doing a smidgen of looking, and it appears – appears, but is not certain – that there is in fact a Jamail Hussein in the Yarmouk police station in Baghdad. We’ll know more tomorrow.

Not sure yet what this means in terms of the AP story – but will know more about that tomorrow or Monday as well.

Watch the skies…

War And Fog

Down in the comments to neo’s post on Gen. Sherman, commenter takhallus and I had a small disagreement over the origins of the term ‘fog of war’.

I pulled out the original Clausewitz quote (which I think supported my position), and it seems like such a good thing to remind ourselves of that I thought I’d pull it up into a post. From ‘On War‘:


Lastly, the great uncertainty of all data in War is a peculiar difficulty, because all action must, to a certain extent, be planned in a mere twilight, which in addition not unfrequently–like the effect of a fog or moonshine–gives to things exaggerated dimensions and an unnatural appearance.
What this feeble light leaves indistinct to the sight talent must discover, or must be left to chance. It is therefore again talent, or the favour of fortune, on which reliance must be placed, for want of objective knowledge.

That want of objective knowledge is something we all have to deal with in this matter – the military, the media, the policymakers, and us in the public.