Saturday, May 10, 2008

Late Night Boléro

A surreal interpretation of evolution as depicted in the 1977 animated film Allegro non troppo by Bruno Bozzetto (purportedly a “challenge” of sorts to Disney’s Fantasia) set quite appropriately to the incessant marching beat of Ravel’s Boléro.

Idiot’s Village

In view of all the low-key attention (an oxymoron, I know) surrounding today’s wedding of America’s first daughter, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at Crawford, Texas — home of the so-called “Western White House” (in terms of being “west” it’s on the same longitude as Winnipeg) and the real “Bush derangement syndrome” if you ask me. That Bush actually chose to make his home (the “ranch”) in this parochial little shithole almost a decade ago and has spent a considerable proportion of his presidency there clearing brush and what not, says… well, something, I guess.

What a Muttonhead

Old news by now I guess, but still… Bah,ha,ha,ha,ha!

Not much of a “scandal” as these things go, to be sure, but it certainly doesn’t speak very highly for circumspection, common sense or judgment of our hapless foreign affairs minister. When’s the next cabinet shuffle, by the way? June... July, maybe?

Today’s Secret Word: “GRRRRR” err, “Great”

I haven’t really been reading the papers all that much or watching the news over the past several days, although I’m sure there’s plenty of dire and depressing things going on in the world, but before getting caught up on all the misery and “Conservative” malfeasance that doubtless abounds, why not start off the weekend with some more lighthearted fare courtesy of the greatest Saturday morning “kid’s show”… ever.


Well, the last few days were certainly an “interesting” break from the routine grind (a little orthopaedic humour there). It feels great to be home and the opposite of worse for wear. Sure, a little bruised, perforated and sore, but sporting some spiffy new skeletal hardware! And though for the time being I may not be fit for anything remotely useful, that’s never been an impediment to blogging, now has it?

The highlight of the whole event had to be the spinal anesthetic — I can’t enthusiastically extol the marvelous virtues of this part of the procedure enough. Despite the injections being a tad painful (they’re frighteningly large needles — glad I didn’t look beforehand), it was an absolute relief to lay down flat on the operating table and not feel any pain whatsoever for the first time in… what seems like practically forever. Silly as it may sound, that was a few short minutes of pure, unadulterated joy. The happiness was short-lived of course, as the exotic cocktail of sedatives administered beforehand kicked in shortly afterwards and then it was lights out… (Although I did wake up towards the end of the procedure, long enough to hear the tapping and hammering... which was kind of weird because it all seemed quite abstract, not feeling anything and all.)

Getting a catheter later that night was the definite low point of the affair. Oh, how I struggled mightily to pee for several tedious hours just in order to avoid that horrid little procedure, but eventually had to reluctantly concede that, yes, some invasive prompting was indeed required to “get the waterworks going” as my nurse put it in her obscure technical jargon. An unfortunate, but entirely predictable downside of the epidural, I guess.

Running a distant second to that was having my hemovac drain removed in the middle of the night; well, to be more precise, not the drain itself, but ripping off the large, sticky elastoplast bandage affixing it to my thigh. It actually made me laugh because the nurse felt so bad waking me up to do it (she kept apologizing profusely with each depilatory yank), but wow… that sure did smart! Oh well, I was glad to be finally rid of the bloody thing and maybe it was better it hadn’t been done earlier in the evening when had actually been scheduled to be removed.

Aside from that, it was a pretty routine stay filled with all the usual boredom, petty annoyances (like having your vitals checked every four hours and being frowned upon disapprovingly whenever blood pressure levels dipped below a hundred — like I had some control over it), and of course, the bizarre, denatured “food” one normally associates with hospitals or perhaps the space program. Speaking of food, why is it they can make a pretty decent apple crumble, but something as straightforward as oatmeal appears to completely mystify your average hospital kitchen? And don’t get me started on the putative “vegetables”… someone should tell them that wax beans aren’t actually meant to taste/feel like, you know... real wax.

I did learn how to use a wheelchair, though. Granted, that’s no great accomplishment, but steering can be a bit tricky at first and it requires a fair amount of dexterity when trying to navigate some of the obstacle courses that pass for hallways (laughably plastered with signs advising staff to “keep clear at all times”). Come to think of it, that was probably the best (albeit only) workout I’ve had in ages.

Oh, and I also had the enjoyment of meeting (and hearing the depressing life stories of) a curious assortment of homeless and indigent folks that tend to populate the next floor down (where the only TV in the vicinity was located) who seemed to be “regulars” of sorts from what I could gather. That was kind of an eye-opener. Not a terribly cost-effective use of medical resources one would think. Anyway, that’s a rant for another day.

Finally, a short word of clarification about that “private” room… I don’t know why my lovely wife insists on referring to it as such because in fact it was more like a disused closet. Granted, there were no other patients in it, but it had no windows (well, two actually but the shutters were closed so there was no natural light) and there was no washroom, I had to go across or down the hall for that, plus there was no real “privacy” because the door was always completely wide open and given that it was right next to the nursing station, it was hustle and bustle central most of the time, complete with people yammering away, phones ringing, pagers beeping and call bells buzzing. Oh and an added feature I really loved was that on the far side of the room was a locked door to the staff washroom, so I got to hear the toilet flushing periodically — that was a really perverse touch on the night when I was trying in vain to go pee. Not that I’m complaining, of course… Seriously, I’m not. The treatment was really top-notch and all the staff I came in contact with were really terrific. But it wasn’t a “private” room.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Magic Christian (Excerpts)

Gee, thanks everyone for all the nice comments on the previous thread.

Apropos of absolutely nothing, here’s some excerpts from one of my favourite movies, “The Magic Christian” with Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr. Well, I’m off…

Monday, May 5, 2008

As Promised...

Into the northern region of Canada, at the close of the nineteenth century, rode Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties, lonely defender of justice and fair play: handsome, brave, daring... and hopelessly lost.

So there you go Okhropir, my friend… something “fun” as promised before I go, and a wee bit o’the Scottish Enlightenment too! Never let it be said that I’m not an obliging fellow…

Bright and early tomorrow, I’m off to get my new bionic hip. With a bit of luck, I should be back by the middle of the month.

Here’s the fun that’s in store for me. Yikes! Pretty grisly shit.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

A Little Late Night Paranoia

If you thought RFID credit cards were secure... think again!

This inexpensive hack ($8 on eBay) is really quite astounding. The idea that a passer-by’s ass could be casually “swiped” and their AmEx card info stolen, or better yet, that an entire room full of cardholders could have their information quickly and efficiently gathered by an enterprising identity thief is pretty amazing.

Ain’t the future grand?

p.s. Keep this in mind when the government comes along and tries to sell you on the notion of a universal identity card (that always feature RFID) which, given the way border security and various “anti-TERRA” measures are heading these days, they surely will before too long. This isn’t much of an issue here yet, but it most certainly is in Britain... so it’s just a matter of time. Give it a few years to account for the usual lag.

Dear Wingnuts:

There… Watch all seven parts and read the accompanying text. Go educate yourselves, learn something about Afghanistan, and for chrissake stop being so damn fool ignorant. You have no excuse whatsoever now.

Talking to the Taliban (Part 7)

Via The Globe & Mail:

Suicide bombing used to be a subject of debate among the Taliban, as they struggled to decide whether the tactic was too extreme, but the frightening new reality in Afghanistan is that the radicals appear to be winning that argument within the Taliban ranks. None of the 42 insurgents surveyed by The Globe and Mail were willing to express any reservations about suicide bombings when confronted by a researcher with a video recorder, and many of them boasted that they were ready to volunteer for such missions themselves. Some Taliban have previously argued that it’s cowardly to wear an explosive vest, because it prevents an insurgent from fighting his enemy face-to-face. Others suggested that the carnage among civilian bystanders that often results from a suicide blast alienates ordinary Afghans from the insurgency. A Taliban faction even took out an advertisement in one of Kandahar’s weekly newspapers in 2006, blaming recent suicide bombings on foreign fighters and promising to stop the attacks: “We will punish them,” the advertisement said.

A year later, in the same province, all insurgents surveyed said they disagree. Suicide attacks are endorsed by religious authorities, they said, and they represent the Taliban’s equivalent of air power, a devastating weapon capable of carefully aimed strikes. Few of them blamed foreign jihadists for the attacks. The researcher asked them if the suicide bombers “are only Afghans or are they foreigners?” “They are sons of Afghanistan, and they are Afghans through and through,” a fighter said. “They sacrifice their lives for their country.”

A few of the Taliban seemed to acknowledge that it’s a controversial means of fighting, but they claimed that such tactics are necessary against the overwhelming technological superiority of the foreign troops. “Some people say that it is not good,” an insurgent said. “But they don’t know that against non-Muslims, it is very good, because they can stop any kind of attack but not these kinds of attacks.” Another gave a similar explanation: “It is good to be used against the non-Muslims, because they are not afraid of fighting for five days against us but they are afraid of one bomber,” he said. “I pray to God to make me able to do this.” The result of this shift in Taliban thinking has already become obvious in the number of suicide blasts. Afghanistan had never seen a suicide bombing before 2001, and the first such attack in the country -- on Sept. 9, 2001, targeting Ahmad Shah Massoud, the famed rebel leader who was fighting the Taliban -- was blamed on Arab extremists, not Afghans...

Talking to the Taliban (Part 6)

Via The Globe & Mail:

The typical Taliban foot soldier battling Canadian troops and their allies in Kandahar is not a global jihadist who dreams of some day waging war on Canadian soil. In fact, he would have trouble finding Canada on a map.

A survey of 42 insurgents in Kandahar province posed a series of questions about the fighters’ view of the world, and the results contradicted the oft-repeated perception of the Taliban as sophisticated terrorists who pose a direct threat to Western countries.

Faced with a multiple-choice question about Canada’s location, only one of 42 fighters correctly guessed that Canada is located to the north of the United States, meaning the insurgents performed worse than randomly.

None of them could identify Stephen Harper as the Prime Minister of Canada, and they often repeated the syllables of his name -- “Stepheh Napper,” “Sehn Hahn,” “Steng Peng Beng,” “Gra Pla Pla” -- that reflected their puzzlement over a name they had never heard.

Nor did they seem to associate the word “Canada” with anything except, in some cases, the soldiers now serving in Afghanistan. Most could not distinguish between the French- and English-speaking rotations of troops.

One of The Globe and Mail’s questions offered the Taliban a chance to volunteer any information about Canada: “Do you know about this country? What kind of people are there? Is it a big country or a small country? Poor country, rich country? Cold or warm? Do Muslims live there?” None offered any meaningful responses, and most of them simply declined to answer. One of the few who guessed, a 21-year-old farmer, seemed to think the word “Canada” indicated a faraway city.

It might be an old and destroyed city,” he said.

The results show the depth of ignorance among front-line insurgents in Kandahar. In a previous visit to the tribal areas of Pakistan, a reporter for The Globe and Mail personally met with more sophisticated Taliban who demonstrated a keen grasp of politics and appeared to know the latest news of the war. But those politically astute Taliban were hundreds of kilometres away from the battlefields, and it remains unclear how much control such organizers exert over the day-to-day operations of the insurgency.

The Taliban became synonymous with ignorance during their years in government, banning media such as television that might bring foreign ideas into the country. As insurgents, however, they’ve shown a newfound flair for technology, distributing video propaganda and sending press statements via text message to reporters’ mobile phones.

“The Taliban also have a sophisticated media strategy and full grasp of modern technology,” said a report by the European Council on Foreign Relations in January.

Canadian politicians and military officials often make public statements that suggest the Taliban monitor political trends in Ottawa and choose to attack at politically sensitive moments: General Rick Hillier, Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff, raised the possibility that a suicide bombing that killed more than 100 people in Kandahar province in February may have been connected with debates in the House of Commons about the future of the mission.

But a Western expert who reviewed The Globe’s video footage said the kind of worldliness described by Gen. Hillier isn’t the most likely explanation.

“Those [insurgents] making decisions are more sophisticated than those you are interviewing, so there is some chance of this being plausible,” the expert said. “But I think they’re working to their own calendar, not ours.” Three fighters in the survey didn’t recognize the name of U.S. President George W. Bush, and another mispronounced his name as “Bukh,” suggesting he wasn’t familiar with the word.

Those who had heard of the U.S. President often gave responses that revealed more of their parochialism. He was called a “Jew,” and “King of America.” Sometimes, amid the errors, the Taliban showed their simplistic view of world politics.

“He is the son of George W, [and] he is the son of Clinton W, and he is American, and is a serious enemy of Islam,” said one fighter in his description of Mr. Bush.

Talking to the Taliban (Part 5)

Via The Globe & Mail:

Despite a long history of using Pakistan as a safe haven, Taliban on the front lines of the insurgency say they have no loyalty to their neighbouring country. A survey of 42 insurgents in Kandahar found most were critical about Pakistan, where they are reported to have headquarters and supply lines, and most were critical of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, often using the harshest language to describe him.

Some insurgents claimed they want to fight for the seizure of vast swaths of Pakistan’s territory in the name of expanding Afghanistan to include the major cities of Quetta and Peshawar. Every fighter asked said those two cities belong inside Afghanistan, and all of them rejected the existing border as a legitimate boundary between the countries.

The Globe and Mail’s modest sample of Taliban opinion may only reflect an effort by the insurgents to hide their sources of support in Pakistan, analysts say, or it may point to something more troubling: the growing indications that parts of the insurgency are no longer controlled by anybody. “If they are supported by ISI [Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency], why are they attacking Pakistan?” said Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, after reviewing The Globe’s raw video footage. “Why would the ISI want these kinds of activities in Pakistan? It’s out of control. Nobody is able to control it.” “This is Afghan government propaganda, about the Pakistan government controlling the Taliban.”

Few historians dispute that Pakistan’s intelligence services played a decisive role in establishing the Taliban movement in 1994, and Islamabad appeared to retain a strong influence over the regime that seized Kabul two years later. President Musharraf formally cut ties with the Taliban in 2001, but in recent years a growing number of observers have accused Pakistan’s agents, or former agents, of continuing their assistance for the radical movement. “With the collaboration of elements within one of Pakistan’s ... intelligence services, the ISI, the Pashtun borderlands have become a safe haven for the Taliban,” write Thomas Johnson and Chris Mason, of the Naval Postgraduate School in California, in a coming issue of the journal International Security. The Afghan government strongly endorses that view, often helping journalists arrange interviews with captured insurgents who tell stories of training centres in Pakistan.

During one such interview session last year at the Kandahar Governor’s Palace, an Afghan intelligence official paraded out a group of prisoners who described themselves as Pakistanis persuaded to wage jihad against foreign troops in Afghanistan after attending madrassas in Pakistan. They gave details of an informal training camp in Chaman, Pakistan, that suggested the insurgents were making little effort to hide their activities from local authorities. If the Taliban are creatures of Pakistan, however, The Globe and Mail’s survey suggests they are not a particularly obedient creation. Some parts of the Taliban in particular, such as the recently created Pakistani Taliban group led by Baitullah Mehsud, have proven themselves more of a threat within Pakistan than anywhere else.

“The Islamist extremist Frankenstein is no longer confined to the whims of political power games,” wrote Irm Haleem, a South Asian expert who teaches at New York’s Seton Hall University, in an article this month that devoted itself to the comparison between the Taliban and Mary Shelley’s mythical creature. Every insurgent asked by The Globe researcher said huge parts of Pakistan belong to Afghanistan, but they offered varying ideas about how much territory should be claimed and how it is historically justified. One fighter said that only half of Pakistan’s provinces, Sindh and Punjab, rightfully belong in the country. “Those areas of Pakistan were small,” the fighter said. “In the time of Zahir Shah or someone else, then they made this line [the new border]....

Talking to the Taliban (Part 4)

Via The Globe & Mail:

Canadian troops and their allies have been drawn into an ancient tribal feud that simmers beneath the conflict in southern Afghanistan. In a sample of ordinary insurgents, 42 fighters in Kandahar province were asked by The Globe and Mail to identify their own tribe, and the results point to a divide within the Taliban ranks: Only five named themselves as members of the three major tribes most closely associated with the government, suggesting that tribal animosity has become a factor that drives the recruitment of insurgents. “This government is a family business,” said a prominent Afghan aid worker in Kandahar. “The other tribes get angry when a few tribes have all the power.”

Afghan tribes often share the same ethnicity, religion, language and culture, but they’re divided along ancestral lines that resemble the branches of a huge family tree. Little except bloodlines distinguishes most tribes from each other, but struggles for power among the tribes have been a source of bloodshed for centuries in this harsh land.

The small survey did not include enough interviews to draw firm conclusions about the tribal makeup of the Taliban, and the results may be biased by the tribal identity of the researcher who conducted the interviews since it would have been easier for him to find his fellow tribesmen in Taliban-controlled districts.

But the findings appear to support the impression of many analysts that the Kandahar insurgency draws fighters most heavily from the tribes outside of the Zirak Durrani tribal federation, which dominates the local government. The Taliban interviewed claimed origins from 19 different tribes, all of them part of the Pashtun ethnic group that occupies most of southern Afghanistan. The largest numbers came from the Noorzai and Eshaqzai tribes, which accounted for 16 of the 42 surveyed. Many members of those two tribes live in the most dangerous parts of the Panjwai valley, where Canadian troops have been fighting for the past two years, and they often complain about being alienated from Kandahar’s government, with little representation in the administration.

The Popalzai tribe of President Hamid Karzai, by contrast, had relatively few members in the sample of insurgents. Only two Taliban identified themselves as Popalzai, and they appeared to have personal reasons for participating in the insurgency: One said his family had been bombed by foreign troops and the other said the government repeatedly eradicated his opium fields. There was a similar lack of insurgents from other tribes usually aligned with the government. “Currently there is war between the tribes,” said a former Afghan intelligence officer, whose experience in Kandahar spans three decades. But another observer said the friction between tribes still hasn’t reached that point. “We don’t have a true tribal war here, yet,” said Neamat Arghandabi, head of the National Islamic Society of Afghan Youth, who said he remembers such feuding during the period of chaos in the early 1990s that followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces. “It’s the worst,” he said. “It has no borders, everybody fights each other and you have to hide your roots. But for now, it’s like competition among political parties.”

The fact that certain tribes are more heavily represented than others within the Taliban appears to be a touchy point with the insurgent leadership, which prefers to describe religion as the group’s unifying force. The Globe and Mail’s researcher was sharply criticized by Taliban when they learned he had been surveying the tribal background of insurgents. Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, scoffed at the idea of a tribally motivated insurgency as he watched The Globe’s videos at his home in Kabul. “Among the Taliban, there is no difference between the tribes,” Mr. Zaeef said. “The tribe issue among Taliban is not important.” But academics who monitor Afghanistan are paying increasing attention to the issue....

Talking to the Taliban (Part 3)

Via Globe & Mail:

Air strikes and drug eradication are feeding the insurgency in southern Afghanistan, as those actions convince some villagers that their lives and livelihoods are under attack.

In a unique survey, The Globe and Mail interviewed 42 ordinary Taliban foot-soldiers in Kandahar and discovered 12 fighters who said their family members had died in air strikes, and 21 who said their poppy fields had been targeted for destruction by anti-drug teams.

The results suggest an unusual concentration of first-hand experience with bombing deaths and opium eradication among the insurgents, analysts say. Despite the violence and expensive counter-narcotics campaigns in Afghanistan, most villagers have not been touched by these events themselves, and their prevalence among the Taliban highlights two important motives for the insurgency.

“This is very interesting,” said Sarah Chayes, an American author who lives in Kandahar.

The Taliban may exaggerate their claims of civilians killed in air strikes, Ms. Chayes said, “but I do think civilian deaths, and the cultivated impression of civilian deaths, is playing an increasing role.”

Some analysts have described senior Taliban leaders reaping large profits from the opium industry, but Ms. Chayes said the ordinary fighters are only trying to protect a meagre source of income in a place where other jobs are scarce.

“It’s not profit motive at these guys’ level; it’s bare livelihood,” she said. “Anybody would defend that.”

Aerial bombings and civilian deaths have both increased: The United Nations estimates more than 1,500 civilians were killed last year, as compared with the 900 to 1,000 civilian deaths counted by two studies of the previous year. An analysis of the first nine months of 2007 found the number of air strikes was already 50 per cent higher than the total for 2006.

Civilian bombings emerged as a major theme of the war last year. President Hamid Karzai shed tears in public as he spoke about civilian deaths. In June, a coalition of Afghan aid agencies published a controversial report suggesting that the rate of civilian casualties had doubled from the previous year, and that international forces were starting to rival the Taliban as the greatest source of civilian deaths.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization disputed the aid groups’ figures, but quietly took action to reduce the likelihood of killing civilians. A report from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon this month said that international forces had reviewed standard operating procedures for aerial engagement with a view to reducing collateral deaths caused from the air.

Still, some countries, such as the United States, have been reluctant to curtail their use of air power.

“The United States views this as the tragic but bearable cost of a successful operation against insurgents, without understanding that the Taliban has deliberately traded the lives of a few dozen guerrilla fighters in order to cost the American forces the permanent loyalty of that [bombed] village,” wrote Thomas Johnson and Chris Mason, of the Naval Postgraduate School in California, in an academic paper last year.

The Taliban are usually reluctant to admit that they’re fighting for any causes other than religion, but they have recently embraced civilian deaths as a rallying point. Insurgents have helped journalists arrange interviews with victims in the aftermath of air strikes in southern Afghanistan, and NATO soldiers have repeatedly witnessed the Taliban forcing civilians into dangerous situations in hopes of getting them killed by foreign troops, thus evoking the wrath of the village.

The Globe and Mail’s survey was not scientific, but it offers a sample of the insurgents’ views on the topic. Asked specifically about bombings by foreign troops, almost a third of respondents claimed their family members had died in such incidents during the current war.

Some insurgents complained about bombings by Russian aircraft in the 1980s in addition to recent air strikes under the Karzai government, suggesting that memories of the Soviet invasion fuel some of the current opposition to U.S. and NATO troops.

Talking to the Taliban (Part 2)

Via Globe & Mail:

He looks like an ordinary Afghan in ragged clothes. He says he’s young, 24 or 25 years old, but his eyes seem older. Somebody he knows, or loves, was killed by a bomb dropped from the sky, he says. The government tried to destroy his farm. His tribe has feuded with the government in recent years, and he feels pushed to the edge of a society that ranks among the poorest in the world.

So he lives by the gun. He cradles the weapon in his arms, saying he will follow the tradition of his ancestors who battled foreign armies. He is not only a Taliban foot soldier, he says. He belongs to the mujahedeen, the holy warriors, who fight any infidel who tries to invade Afghanistan.

He does not care where the foreigners come from. Maybe he knows the word Canada, but he cannot point to the country on a map. When he squints down his rifle at Canadian soldiers, he cannot imagine the faraway land that gave birth to those helmeted figures. He only wants to drive them away. He fervently believes that expelling the foreigners will set things right in his troubled country.

This portrait of an average Taliban fighter emerges from groundbreaking research by The Globe and Mail in Kandahar. The newspaper’s staff, working with a freelance researcher, gained unprecedented access to insurgent groups in five districts of Kandahar province, and finished the dangerous assignment with 42 video recordings of fighters answering a standardized list of questions.

It’s not a scientific survey, but it’s the first public attempt to look at the Taliban in a systematic way.

The translation of the interviews, 517 pages long, suggests the Taliban are more complicated than might be guessed from their usual depiction as religious warriors; they are fierce and frightening, but proud and occasionally poetic. They use the language of radical Islam, but their message often consists of nothing more than xenophobia and a desire to protect their way of life.

Uneducated and inarticulate, they mumble their way through monosyllabic answers and avoid hard questions. When asked about money, for instance, the fighters reveal few details about their sources of financing. With repeated questioning, they do eventually open up, however, about their political dreams and the economic rationale for the war. They even dare to question their own leadership.

“These people are the heart of the problem,” said a former mujahedeen commander in Kandahar who reviewed the interview footage. “These are the people you need to deal with: the guys with the guns.”

Portrait of an Insurgent

Strong patterns stood out in the fighters’ answers, some of which will be explored in more detail in The Globe’s series on the insurgents over the coming week.

Almost a third of respondents claimed that at least one family member had died in aerial bombings in recent years. Many also described themselves as fighting to defend Afghan villagers from air strikes by foreign troops.

Most of them admitted a personal role in the illegal opium industry, and half of them said their poppy fields had been targeted by government eradication efforts, suggesting they suffer more eradication than other Afghan farmers. Several of them voiced frustration that the government officials take bribes for turning a blind eye to the drug trade while punishing poor opium growers.

They claimed origins in 19 different Pashtun tribes, but the largest numbers came from Kandahar tribes that have been disenfranchised by the current government. No foreigners or non-Pashtuns were encountered during the survey, supporting the impression that such fighters are extremely rare.

Few of them claimed to be fighting a global jihad; most described their goal as the return of a stricter Islamic government in Afghanistan.

They showed deep ignorance about the world, even making serious errors in their telling of Afghanistan’s recent history. None of the fighters appeared to know anything about Canada; faced with a multiple-choice question, only one of them correctly guessed that Canada is located north of the United States.

Perhaps most surprisingly, 24 of the fighters said it doesn’t matter whether Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar returns to power as the head of Afghanistan’s government. Most claimed to be fighting for principles, not a leader.

Talking to the Taliban (Part 1)

Via The Globe & Mail:

Understanding the insurgents is a basic part of reporting on the Afghan war, but it’s a remarkably difficult task. I’ve had several meetings with individual Taliban since I started covering Afghanistan, but personal contacts with the insurgents are growing more dangerous because they have started kidnapping journalists.

So we decided to try an unscientific survey.

I’ve been working with a researcher in Kandahar since September of 2006, meeting with him regularly for long sessions of tea and talk. He’s a close friend of The Globe and Mail translators in the city. I often send him on fact-finding trips to places that would be off-limits for anybody without strong connections to the insurgency, and over many months he has learned basic journalism skills. This project involved tasks at which he’s already proven reliable: Find a specific person, point a camera at them, ask questions from a list and, most challengingly, listen to the answers and formulate further questions. He’s still learning the art of follow-up questioning, but otherwise he appeared to be fairly disciplined about obeying the rules described below.

The Taliban researcher was asked:

To find small groups of Taliban and try to speak with them individually. They don’t need to show their faces or give their names. (Persuading the insurgents to speak by themselves proved difficult, and clusters of three or four interviews often contain answers that echo each other, as apparently Taliban waited to hear what their comrades would say.)

To visit as many districts as possible. (He visited five: Zhari, Panjwai, Maywand, Arghandab and Daman. Access to each district was negotiated by him and a Globe and Mail translator.)

Ask a standard list of 20 questions, in the same order every time. (He largely followed this request, with a few exceptions: He sometimes felt it would be dangerous to push insurgents for answers about their loyalty to Mullah Omar, for instance.)

Try to get enough elaboration that the interview lasts a minimum of 10 minutes. (This improved during the course of the project, with durations varying from four to 15 minutes.)

The researcher’s work was supervised by a long-time translator for The Globe and Mail, who watched the videos and did the rough translations.

I debriefed the researcher as he returned from his visits to the districts. A professional service was contracted to provide a second verbatim transcript in English, with coding for subtitles, so that we could publish all the material online.

The interviews began in August of 2007 and finished in November. In months that followed, the videos were circulated privately among sources in Kandahar and Kabul to gather opinions about the authenticity of the material and reaction to the Taliban statements.

The “Gas Tax Holiday” — Politics as Usual

It would be nice if the media would stop their incessant carping about Rev. Wright (today the NY Post is delving into his personal life reporting that “BARACK’S REV. ‘STOLE A WIFE’”) for a moment to give Obama some considerable credit for refusing to jump on the gas tax holiday bandwagon and calling it exactly what it is: a cheap political gimmick. Well, not that cheap actually. It’s estimated that it will cost the U.S. Treasury $9 billion and 300,000 highway construction jobs while doing practically nothing for average consumers. In any case, it takes some considerable courage to adopt a principled stance that’s perhaps going to be unpopular the week before two key primaries (aren’t they all “key” according to the media?) in favour of doing the right thing.

As for Hillary’s boner today when she said “I’m not going to put my lot in with economists,” needless to say, former Clinton Labor Secretary (and noted economist) Robert Reich isn’t impressed. “In case you’ve missed it, we now have a president who doesn’t care what most economists think” he writes on his blog. “George W. Bush doesn’t even care what scientists think. He rejects all experts who disagree with his politics. This has led to some extraordinarily stupid policies.”

Hmmm. Kind of like our own government cutting the GST in the face of a pending recession and wasting billions on subsidies for corn-based ethanol. Apparently, the Stephen Harper Party of Canada doesn’t put its lot in with economists either, despite the PM sometimes pretending to be one!

Note: Before anyone points out the irony of deferring to “experts” after an earlier post concerning that topic, I’m well aware of it, thank you. But still…

Computers Suck

Now there’s something we can all surely agree on, right?

By the way, in case you’re unfamiliar with it, the wonderful South Park Studio can be found here.

Thick as a Whale Omelette

Yes, that would be our old friend “Trusty Tory” who, as was adroitly pointed out the other day, has his head “so far up Stephen Harper’s ass, [he] can’t take a breath without French-kissing one of his intestinal parasites.”

Today’s load of bollocks involves taking a quote by Garth Turner completely out of context and then waxing indignant that somehow the member from Halton isn’t telling “the TRUTH” about his eventual expulsion from The Stephen Harper Party of Canada.

So here’s the quote, in full, and I’ve bolded the part that the “Trusty” One elected to cherry-pick for the purposes of today’s puerile temper tantrum:

“Within a week of becoming an MP again, and within five minutes of my first private face-to-face meeting with Stephen Harper, I began to realize the prime minister was a chameleon. He sought to punish me for having voiced my constituents’ surprise and dismay that he would have put in his cabinet a man just elected as a Liberal and a completely unelected party financier. Within a day, his chief of staff had threatened me with expulsion from the caucus. His party whip had read me the riot act. I’d been told to issue a media release recanting my comments, and to immediately discontinue this blog. In other words, to obey.”

Now just listen to the trusty knob-gobbler’s hissy fit: “No, Garth, you were tossed because you had a big mouth. You leaked information from caucus meetings on your blog. Some of us remember, Garth, because we can read the news.”

Well, whatever’s fit to print in the Sun Media’s dog trainer, at least. What makes this so laughably pathetic is that it’s yet another example of a whole post based on a blatant untruth, with the “trusty” one all the while claiming to be a paragon of truthfulness. In this case, however, he isn’t even “truthy”… Turner makes it quite plainly clear from his post that he’s not referring to the reason he was eventually turfed from the party, but rather to the deceitful and vindictive character of the current prime minister that manifested itself almost from the outset of their awkward relationship. Of course none of that will make the slightest bit of difference to the drooling yokels and slack-jawed rubes that comprise TT’s mutual masturbation society.

Update: As Zorpheas notes, the claim about Turner leaking information from caucus meetings is itself unsubstantiated by any evidence. So not only is TT flagrantly misrepresenting Turner’s comments about why he parted ways with the “Conservatives” he’s also willfully reiterating a baseless smear. Kind of gives a whole new meaning to the word “trusty” doesn’t it? Sort of like the loose employment of the terms “conservative” and “truth” I guess…

One on One: Gerald Scarfe (Part 2)

The rest of the interview with Gerald Scarfe and the concluding animation (the trial) from Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

The Experts Speak!

I was just watching Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky from the (fictitious) Institute of Expertology who are two of the authors of a new book called “Mission Accomplished! Or How We Won the War in Iraq: The Experts Speak” on Bill Moyers Journal talking about how all of the so-called “experts” got just about everything wrong concerning the fiasco in Iraq. “Never before has such a large and diverse group of experts been so unanimously in favor of a particular national policy as they were in the case of the U.S. invasion of Iraq,” note the authors. “In the face of such a consensus, we had no choice but to ask ourselves, ‘Could the iron law of expertology — the experts are never right — be wrong?’”

Here’s some false expertise from their previous book subtitled “The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation”:

“Just a fad, a passing fancy.”
—Phil Wrigley, Chicago Cubs owner, commenting on the advent of night baseball, C. 1935

“Bill Clinton will lose to any Republican nominee who doesn’t drool on the stage.”
—The Wall Street Journal, editorial, October 30, 1995

“There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.”

—President of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977

“Can’t act. Can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little.”
—M-6-M executive, reacting to Fred Astaire’s screen test, 1928

“Forget it, Louis, no Civil War picture ever made a nickel.”
—Irving Thalberg’s warning to Louis B. Mayer regarding Gone With the Wind

You can watch the interview at the PBS website here.

General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait

This 1974 documentary film by French director Barbet Schroeder is a fascinating “self-portrait” of “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular” (as he modestly liked to describe himself).

It was made with the support and participation of the African dictator at the height of his power as ruler of Uganda. The film follows Amin closely in a series of formal and informal settings, combined with several short interviews in which Amin expounds his unconventional theories of politics, economics, and international relations. Amin is seen supervising the Ugandan paratrooper school, boating through a wildlife park, playing the accordion in a jazz band at a formal dinner, and staging a mock assault on a small hill representing the Golan Heights. Forced into exile just five years after the making of this film, Amin died in Saudi Arabia in 2003.

Given its quirky verisimilitude, the documentary is actually far more bizarre than semi-fictional movie “The Last King of Scotland” from a couple of years ago.

Update: KEv reminds us of the most excellent song: “Idi Amin – Amazin’ Man” — check it out.

Mark Steyn & “The Duffinator”

“Now tell me about Richard Warman… We’re going to take an extra minute here because Canadians have to hear about this.” — Mike Duffy

Yeah, because the whole controversy is soooo phenomenally important and deeply concerning that it can be crammed into the afterthoughts of a sixty second appendix. Urgh.

This exchange might actually have been somewhat interesting had it involved even the slightest modicum of substantive, critical interrogation rather than quite predictably winding up being yet another opportunity for the morbidly corpulent, blubber-brained “Duffinator” to impose his own sketchy, ill-formed, down-market narrative on the discussion whilst shamelessly slavering over the pretentious mental midgetry of an unctuous, jumped-up fuckwit like Steyn.

Of course, that was just MY initial impression. Your mileage may vary.

h/t: Kate @ SDA

Beware the Believers!

“He’s the Dick to the Dawk to the PhD…”

Not sure what the good professor would think of that irreverent little ditty.

In any case, onward to more serious matters…

Chris Comer, a Science Teacher in Texas was expelled last year for not teaching so-called Intelligent Design in her science class. From the NCSE article: “Ultimately, the TEA’s firing of Chris Comer is a by-product of the relentless promotion of ID for more than a decade by creationists at the Discovery Institute. In the wake of court decisions ruling that it is unconstitutional to teach creationism in the public schools, ID creationists, a significant number of whose central figures live in Texas, launched the effort that they formalized in their 1998 ‘Wedge Strategy’ document, which outlines their twenty-year plan to ‘wedge’ ID into the cultural and educational mainstream.”

Well, I’m sure we’ll be hearing a great deal of indignant outrage and huffy, self-righteous fuliminations from Ben Stein and Phyllis Schlafly about this academic travesty, right? ...Right?

Nah, I didn’t think so either.