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February 27, 2006

third-country nationals in Iraq

From corpwatch, an excellent piece on the (mis)treatment of foreign workers employed by US contractors. The usual nastiness - people working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for $1.56 per hour, workers left without protection or even protective clothing, recruiters lying about which country people would be taken to.

But unlike with, say, mistretment in sweatshops, here the Filipino workers are working next to highly-paid US contractors. I wonder what impact this has on the Americans - I’d imagine it being pretty hard to avoid at least some uneasiness at being treated so much better than your colleagues.

Also, these Third Country Nationals are presumably being brought in because Americans don’t trust Iraqis. That is, any Iraqis working on a base are suspected suicide bombers in the making. So you give jobs to outsiders who won’t be trying to get the USA out of Iraq, and you leave Iraqis unemployed.

February 23, 2006

riot patterns

How do you guess how bad the rioting is going to get after the Samarra bombing? I find myself doing mental calculations along the lines of ‘x killed on day one, double that, add in some reprisals over the next week….’. B of course I don’t have any real reason to double rather than triple, and in the end I’m just making up a number that feels about the right size.

But it wouldn’t be all that hard to make more serious estimates about the likely progression of unrest. There are any number of riots around the world triggered by some event or other, and the newspapers don’t do a bad job of reporting casualty numbers as they change. So you could get a good, quantitative, idea of how these things develop just by totalling up the figures. And shiny charts and graphs would be equally easy.

I suspect that if you did this, you’d find that certain types of unrest are very predictable. I also suspect that somebody, somewhere, has already done this; I just don’t know where you’d look to find their results.

Meanwhile, back home…

Good that somebody is paying attention to human rights abuses in the UK - America is too much of an easy target. The report from Amnesty is here, and here is the annual human rights report from the Foreign Affairs Select Committee (which says sane and anti-government things about Guantanamo and extraordinary rendition).

No, I haven’t yet read either. I’ll be doing that at work tonight.


You start reading about Iraq, and suddenly there’s a massive catastrophe sitting in front of you. The question is whether the destruction of the Askariya mosque is going to be catastrophic (Juan Cole says apocalyptic) or just very, very bad.

Naturally enough, people are calling for extra security at mosques. But the attack was carried out by men in police uniforms. Having police outside mosques isn’t going to reassure Shiites, when they suspect those ‘police’ could be about to blow the thing up.

If the police aren’t trusted enough to protect the mosques, then (yet again) the sectarian or party-based militias will step in. Al-Sadr is already on his way back to Iraq (he’d been touring the Middle East), and no doubt he’ll be taking the lead in this.

Rejecting the occupiers

Local governments in Iraq are taking stands against the coalition: in Basra authorities have refused to work with the British, because of a video which shows Iraqis being beaten up by British troops. Then the governor of Karbala has “suspended all cooperation with US forces because of police dogs being used to search buildings.

What’s interesting is that this doesn’t look like a protest against the idea of the occupation, so much as a reaction to specific - and avoidable - abuses. There continues to be a democratic deficit, in that there is little way for Iraqis to feed their concerns to the US and UK governments and military commands. So you end up with this kind of fairly dramatic approach. It gets the job done, at least; even if they don’t change their behaviour, the coalition can’t claim not to know that certain things are unpopular.

I’ve not been paying much attention to Iraq lately, so perhaps I’ve missed similar cases.

February 22, 2006

His ribcage was found in Washington…

With the latest installment of torture by US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, things are moving beyond the point where you can have a sane discussion. There’s yet another report on it, this one saying that at least 98 people have been killed in US-run jails in Iraq and Afghanistan, 34 because of homicide, 8-12 tortured to death. In several cases the people doing the killing were following orders from above.

And what does the US government say? They had an ex-white house lawyer onNewsnight, saying that it’s all OK, because torturing 10 people to death out of 100,000 prisoners isn’t all that bad a percentage, really.

It turns into nastily black comedy with an NGO person explaining how hard the medical examiners are making it to investigate what’s happening - “his ribcage was found in washington DC and part of his larynx in germany”. But the time I want to give up on life is when you hear people saying, almost casually, that somebody forced a detainee to jump to his death in the Tigris.

And I don’t know how to stop this - it’s already been reduced to the point where I can’t understand how anyone can defend it. If you tell somebody “they’re torturing people to death” and they don’t care, then where’s left for you to go?

Bonus from later in the programme: a montage to show the social change of the 60s - consisting entirely of shots of short-skirted legs. Miniskirts - that’s what social revolution is all about!

February 21, 2006

Too much choice

IT Conversations, which is one of my favourite ways of keeping myself awake at work, has a fascinating talk(hour-long mp3) by Barry Schwartz.

He thinks that the amount of choice we have makes us unhappy. Not much of what he says is very rigorously argued - there’s a lot of picking odd little examples, and not much trying to find overall data.

Nonetheless it’s an interesting line to take, and no doubt there is an element of truth in it. As far as I can boil down his arguments, excessive choice can be bad because of :

  1. Transaction costs The more choices you have to examine, the longer you have to spend checking through every one of them
  2. Extra choices give diminishing returns. Having two options is massively better than having one. Having 274,922 options instead of 274,921 is not much better - but you still have to look at that extra option before you can make an informed decision. The cost of evaluating choices increases linearly, but the benefit from each extra choice tapers off.
  3. Psychology. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. If you have many choices, then whatever you choose you will give up on most of the things you could have done - and this isn’t pleasant. As a teacher, he finds that many of his multi-talented students suffer when they leave college, and for the first time have to shut out some of the options in their lives. If you only have one choice, you won’t feel so much regret - your life might be bad, but you’ll blame it on the system, not on yourself making a stupid decision.

I’m disappointed he didn’t offer any solutions. Reducing choice is really not a viable option (notwithstanding the apocalyptic climate-change predictions I’ve been hearing a lot of lately) - what else can we do?

There’s an obvious technological angle in all the rating and comparision-shopping systems on the web - ebay, amazon, froogle and so on. Equally there are the lower-tech equivalents: Which and the like. Given a set of personal values and some choices, it’s not all that hard to automate most of the work of choosing between them.

I guess there are also some social and psychological lessons out there. I know I’d benefit from learning to accept that my choices will often be the wrong ones. Perhaps we’d also benefit from thinking that “if you don’t know what to choose, it’s OK to pick something at random”. We could have Dice Man lite being taught in finishing schools.

Another thing the talk didn’t address is the link between choice and homogeneity. I love the way that we can live in subcultures within subcultures, that you can meet people who are so very different. If you eliminate choice, you eliminate all that beauty.

But it’s all OK, because even Schwartz doesn’t want to eliminate choice. And if you’re talking about how to deal with it, then I am unashamedly enthusiastic.

According to Amazon, there’s no shortage of books by Schwartz to follow this up in more detail.

February 13, 2006

Worldchanging recently pointed out that

Worldchanging recently pointed out that underground coal fires release as much Carbon Dioxide as US road vehicles. Like (it seems) a lot of the other readers, I was surprised, keen to find out more, and interested in what solutions people had come up with.

There aren’t any. Or at least, none that I can find. I spent a fair while in the British Library last week, looking through the few references I could find. There’s some work on using satellites to identify and monitor fires - Anupma Prakash, for example, has written quite a few articles on this, and there is a small organisation investigating coal fires in China. And there are the old techniques that have been used for decades (centuries?) with limited success. The book Unseen Danger, which is a history of the Centralia mine fire, is a readable account of some of these, and how they failed.

It seems that much of the research is tucked away in technical papers within mining-related organisations. I kept on seeing references to reports from the US Bureau of Mining. But that bureau was closed a decade ago, their reports are presumably locked away in a library in Washington, and the best we have online ins the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

As Prakash says, “till recently, such a major environmental hazard was overlooked or largely undermined by the international community”. I’m not sure where to look for ways of changing that, but I do think it’s worth doing.