Saturday, April 30, 2011

The staff of life

Ancient Egyptian wall carving of stalks of wheat
In an earlier post, The way to a man's heart, I discussed how large areas of North Africa and the Middle East have low food self-sufficiency. That is, they have to import food to feed their populations. Further, they have to spend a far greater percentage of their per-capita income on food, which means any strain to the world's food supply will greatly worsen their situation. 

Wheat rust is one of the most common diseases that infects wheat and other grains. Normally, up to 20% of a crop can be lost to the disease. However, in Uganda in 1977 an even more virulent strain emerged. Called Ug99, it caused crop losses of 80% in Kenya. Ug99 has since spread to North Africa, the Middle East and as far east as Pakistan and Uzbekistan.

As the VOA article Wheat Rust Threatening Crops in Africa, Asia and Mideast explains, recently another strain of wheat rust, this one a variation of stripe rust, has emerged. Like Ug99, the new pathogen has spread quickly through North Africa and the Middle East.

In April an International Wheat Stripe Rust Symposium was held in Syria to discuss the problem. At that meeting Michael Baum, the director of ICARDA and one of the meeting's organizers, pointed out the following:

There is a stark difference between its consequences in poor and rich countries, said Baum. Last year Syria lost up to half of its wheat to the infection whereas neighbouring Turkey, a richer country, lost none.

In Syria, monitoring is weak; three-quarters of the crop consists of a single variety; and there is not enough fungicide available, he said. Turkey, in contrast, has good monitoring; a wide variety of plants, some of which are resistant to the current rust; and substantial supplies of fungicide.

So, it would seem that agricultural methods, combined with a variety of wheat strains, have a lot to do with successfully mitigating the outbreak. It was felt that alleviating this problem, through diversifying wheat strains and improving monitoring, would take three to five years to fully address.

That may be too long of a time frame because, although nobody wants to say it, a combination of a significant loss of grain crops in the region coupled with spiking global food prices is a disaster in the making. At best we'll see a food crisis, at worse famine. How that would blend with the spiraling violence in the region is a frightening thought.

Carter rants at a North Korean press conference
Which brings us to Jimmy Carter in a 'round about sort of a way. While touring North Korea he had the following to say about that country's growing famine:

"One of the most important human rights is to have food to eat, and for South Korea and the US and others to deliberately withhold food aid to the North Korean people is really a human rights violation."

That comment raised a lot of eyebrows, but it shouldn't have been that surprising. The UN, through its Human Rights Council and various Progressive NGOs, has long been banging the drum for Food Justice, sometimes framed as Food as a Human Right.

This is a movement that encompasses the usual bugaboos: climate change (so arability rather than farming practices becomes the culprit for food shortages), sustainable farming, organic farming, cultural diversity, GM food, corporations, exploitation, oppression and lately the much touted obesity epidemic. 

They make no bones about the fact that they want to change, from seed to table, which foods are grown and how and to who they are distributed.

Make no mistake, if the Middle East does slide towards famine there will be loud voices, accompanied by pictures of big eyed children with empty food bowls, blaming it all on Western capitalism and demanding free food from the same Capitalists as payment of a fine for their guilt. How that will play with grocery prices going up is easy to imagine, but the agitation will be there none-the-less.

I'll end this long post with a couple of images from Kittiwat Unarromhas, Flares' favorite Thai baker.

Helloooo visitors from Instapundit.

His farewell trip to that promised land

On this day 111 years ago a passenger train, with the engineer John Luther "Casey" Jones driving, rounded a blind curve. Ahead of him, and only partly off the main track because of a blown air hose, was a stopped freight train. 

Casey, who's train was traveling at 75mph, yelled at his fireman to jump from the train as he reversed the throttle and applied the airbrakes. He could not stop in time. His locomotive smashed the freight's caboose and plowed through a car carrying hay and another loaded with corn before derailing.

Casey was killed in the accident. However, aside from his bruised fireman who had jumped from the train, there were no major injuries among the train's passengers. People attributed the lack of other fatalities to Casey staying in the cab and giving his life to slow the train as much as possible before the collision.

His obituary would have long since been forgotten, but a friend of his, a black engine wiper named Wallace Saunders, wrote lyrics he called "The Ballad of Casey Jones" and set it to the tune of the then popular song "Jimmie Jones". It made its way to vaudeville, and was shortly after published and recorded. 

There are a lot of versions of the lyrics. You can read some of them at Trainweb. He was generally portrayed as a hero in them, although cheap shots were sometimes taken at the widow he left behind. There was also a version written by Union members who portrayed him as a scab riding to hell on a death trap of a train.

The song has been widely recorded. If you search YouTube you can find versions recorded as early as 1910, the Scab version, a Johnny Cash cover of it and even one sung by Buster Keaton of all people. The version I embedded above is a very lively version with wonderful vocals by the Jubalaires from 1948.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Are you looking for a career change?

Do you feel like you're stuck in a rut? Are you tired of the same old rat race day after day? If so, you might be interested in an exciting and rewarding career as a Thereminist. 

Oh, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking there can't be that many job openings for thereminists. While that's true, you can always look at the bright side -- there won't be much competition if a job for a thereminist every becomes available. Besides, you may decide you just want to wile away the hours making spooky, sci-fi music.

Whatever your motive, I've pulled together a series of instructional videos on the basics of therminology which were created by Thomas Grillo. Lesson One, which introduces the basics is embedded above. You can also view Lessons Two, Three, Four, Five, Six and Seven at your leisure.

If you want to get a theremin you can head over to the website Theremin World's store to start your hunt for one. They start at $300 (amplifier not included). If that price is too rich for you, you can always head over to Maker Shed  -- a website I suspect I'm going to regret stumbling upon -- and check out their theremin kits and DIY page

Finally, if you're just looking for a toy theremin to play with, there's always the Gakken Mini-Theremin kit (shown below) which only costs $29.95.

Stratfor and Sara Malakul Lane

This Strafor article discusses the Kaspersky kidnapping and gives tips, should you be a possible target of a kidnapping for ransom, as to how to minimize your risk. Ivan Kaspersky, who's kidnapping is discussed in the article, is the son of Russian billionaire who was kidnapped and successfully rescued. 

Naturally, that brought to mind Sara Malakul Lane, Steven Seagal's kidnapped daughter in his cinematic masterpiece Belly of the Beast as this article's Hot Stratfor Babe. 

In the film she's been kidnapped in Thailand, or some such place, but luckily for her Dear Ol' Dad is a retired CIA assassin turned zen mystic (or something like that, his movie characters tend to blend together). Of course, he has to unretire and battle his way across Asia to save her.

As an aside -- Sara Malakul Lane was to go on to appear in a movie called Sharktopus. I wonder, would that be considered a step-up or a step-down from being in a Seagal movie? Regardless, I think we can all agree that getting named a Hot Stratfor Babe is most definitely a step-up.

After the article I've embedded a video of a fight scene from the movie. It starts with some ninjas types showing up and menacing Seagal and his sidekick by standing on one foot like cranes and waving their swords around. Then they attack, and mayhem ensues.


By Scott Stewart,April 28, 2011

On April 24, officers from the anti-kidnapping unit of Moscow's Criminal Investigation Department and the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) rescued 20-year-old Ivan Kaspersky from a dacha in Sergiev Posad, a small town about 40 miles northeast of Moscow. Kaspersky, the son of Russian computer software services billionaire Eugene Kaspersky (founder of Kaspersky Lab), was kidnapped on April 19 as he was walking to work from his Moscow apartment. A fourth-year computer student at Moscow State University, Kaspersky was working as an intern at a software company located near Moscow's Strogino metro station.

Following the abduction, Kaspersky was reportedly forced to call his father and relay his captors' demands for a ransom of 3 million euros ($4.4 million). After receiving the ransom call, the elder Kaspersky turned to Russian law enforcement for assistance. On April 21, news of the abduction hit the Russian and international press, placing pressure on the kidnappers and potentially placing Kaspersky's life in jeopardy. In order to defuse the situation, disinformation was leaked to the press that a ransom had been paid, that Kaspersky had been released unharmed and that the family did not want the authorities involved. Kaspersky's father also contacted the kidnappers and agreed to pay the ransom. Responding to the ruse, four of the five members of the kidnapping gang left the dacha where Kaspersky was being held to retrieve the ransom and were intercepted by Russian authorities as they left. The authorities then stormed the dacha, arrested the remaining captor and released Kaspersky. The five kidnappers remain in custody and are awaiting trial.

According to Russia's RT television network, Russian officials indicated that the kidnapping was orchestrated by an older couple who were in debt and sought to use the ransom to get out of their financial difficulties. The couple reportedly enlisted their 30-year-old son and two of his friends to act as muscle for the plot. Fortunately for Kaspersky, the group that abducted him was quite unprofessional and the place where he was being held was identified by the cell phone used to contact Kaspersky's father. Reports conflict as to whether the cell phone's location was tracked by the FSB, the police anti-kidnapping unit or someone else working for Kaspersky's father, but in any case, in the end the group's inexperience and naivete allowed for Kaspersky's story to have a happy ending.

However, the story also demonstrates that even amateurs can successfully locate and abduct the son of a billionaire, and some very important lessons can be drawn from this case.

The Abduction

According to the Russian news service RIA Novosti, Kaspersky's abductors had been stalking him and his girlfriend for several months prior to the kidnapping. This pre-operational surveillance permitted the kidnappers to determine Kaspersky's behavioral patterns and learn that he did not have any sort of security detail protecting him. Media reports also indicate that the kidnappers were apparently able to obtain all the information they required to begin their physical surveillance of the victim from information Kaspersky himself had posted on, a Russian social networking site. According to RT, Kaspersky's Vkontakte profile contained information such as his true name, his photo, where he was attending school, what he was studying, who he was dating, where we was working for his internship and even the addresses of the last two apartments where he lived. [continued after jump]

Thursday, April 28, 2011

And the winner is...

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov hogs the spotlight
As we all know, last Sunday was National Horse Day in Turkmenistan. An important part of the festivities was the Horse Beauty Contest. I have no doubt that you've all been waiting with bated breath to learn which horse won.

The Herald Sun reports that the lucky winner is a stallion named Khanbegler entered by  Ovlyaguli Sheripov, who won a new Toyota Land Cruiser with the inscription "a present from the respected president of Turkmenistan" for his efforts.

I would like to show you the lovely horse, but all of the articles about the competition I could find were instead illustrated with pictures of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov riding his horse while dressed in a fancy horse riding costume. That's him on his horse above. 

I wish I could tell you more, but as you'll discover if you read the Herald Sun article, aside from a brief mention of Sheripov and his mighty steed, the article primarily focuses on President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov's activities during the contest; which included him galloping around, a dove landing on his outstretched hand, and the 19 year old student Maral gushing, "It's like a fairy tale. It's so touching. I've only ever seen this in a circus."

Well, the circus part sounds about right.

Considering the focus on Berdymukhamedov instead of the winner throughout the article, and the fact this is Turkmenistan after all, the last two paragraphs of the article weren't at all surprising:
Berdymukhamedov began cutting back on some of the excesses of Niyazov, known as the Turkmenbashi, and last year removed a golden statue of his predecessor that rotated to face the sun.

But observers have noted a budding personality cult, with giant banners of his face hanging on government buildings, and critics complaining that his attempts at reform so far amounted to little more than window dressing.

Oscar Wilde meets Jersey Shore

The cast of a New York production of The Importance of Being Earnest stage scenes using transcripts from Jersey Shore. I've never watched that show, but it doesn't matter, the results are funny none-the-less. Above is Part 1, you can watch all 5 parts at

(via Open Culture)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Whew, I dodged a bullet on that one

Weeee... I'm a Predator drone!
Had I, like I planned on doing this morning, published my  'Is Obama the Love Child of OJ Simpson?' birther expose I would have certainly ended up looking silly with the release of his birth certificate.

All I can say is, "Thank God for procrastination." It's the only reason that my carefully crafted image as a serious and impartial internet journalist is still intact tonight.

Still, one wonders why he dragged that out for so long?

Maybe he is just be goofily secretive by nature, but I tend to suspect -- and it is just pure supposition on my part -- that he has some dirt in his past that he is hiding. I think he calculates that if he stonewalls everything it will conceal where people should be looking for the good stuff.

Regardless, he made what should have been an easy climb down a difficult one. I watched part of his announcement this morning and he was putting on his Exasperated Dad act. I suppose he thinks it will all blow over, and any other questions about his past can be wrapped in the tainted aura of the birth certificate situation and be safetly ignored.

However, a lot of people have to be wondering, especially after seeing how harmless the birth certificate is, why he fought its release so hard and long?  Call me a cynic if you must, but I know I would still like to see his college transcripts and, perhaps of more interest, find out what sort of financial aid and/or scholarships he received.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Stratfor and Julanne Johnston

In this Strafor article George Friedman discusses the evolving situation between Iran and Saudi Arabia in light of the looming withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. 

The U.S. is working to modify the Status of Forces Agreement between Washington and Iraq to allow troops to remain, but even if they could get an agreement to leave a small trip-wire force in place, there would still exist a power vacumm in the Gulf area. Naturally, Iran seeks to fill that vacuum if possible.

For this article's Hot Stratfor Babe I selected Julanne Johnston, who starred with Douglass Fairbanks in the 1924 film The Thief of Bagdad.

I don't know much about the movie, but in preparing these comments I watched bits and pieces of the film. The sets, large cast of extras and the special effects are pretty impressive for their day. Although I'm not much of a silent film fan, I would like to see a good print of this movie someday. 

As a bonus, at the end of the article I've included a brief video of Fairbanks and Johnston whizzing out of the palace, flying above the cheering throngs and over the city walls as they sail off into the finale. It gives some feel for the scale of the sets and level of the special effects of the film.

By George Friedman, April 26, 2011

The United States told the Iraqi government last week that if it wants U.S. troops to remain in Iraq beyond the deadline of Dec. 31, 2011, as stipulated by the current Status of Forces Agreement between Washington and Baghdad, it would have to inform the United States quickly. Unless a new agreement is reached soon, the United States will be unable to remain. The implication in the U.S. position is that a complex planning process must be initiated to leave troops there and delays will not allow that process to take place.

What is actually going on is that the United States is urging the Iraqi government to change its mind on U.S. withdrawal, and it would like Iraq to change its mind right now in order to influence some of the events taking place in the Persian Gulf. The Shiite uprising in Bahrain and the Saudi intervention, along with events in Yemen, have created an extremely unstable situation in the region, and the United States is afraid that completing the withdrawal would increase the instability.

The Iranian Rise

The American concern, of course, has to do with Iran. The United States has been unable to block Iranian influence in Iraq's post-Baathist government. Indeed, the degree to which the Iraqi government is a coherent entity is questionable, and its military and security forces have limited logistical and planning ability and are not capable of territorial defense. The issue is not the intent of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who himself is enigmatic. The problem is that the coalition that governs Iraq is fragmented and still not yet finalized, dominated by Iranian proxies such Muqtada al-Sadr -- and it only intermittently controls the operations of the ministries under it, or the military and security forces.

As such, Iraq is vulnerable to the influence of any substantial power, and the most important substantial power following the withdrawal of the United States will be Iran. There has been much discussion of the historic tension between Iraqi Shia and Iranian Shia, all of which is true. But Iran has been systematically building its influence in Iraq among all factions using money, blackmail and ideology delivered by a sophisticated intelligence service. More important, as the United States withdraws, Iraqis, regardless of their feelings toward Iran (those Iraqis who haven't always felt this way), are clearly sensing that resisting Iran is dangerous and accommodation with Iran is the only solution. They see Iran as the rising power in the region, and that perception is neither unreasonable nor something to which the United States or Saudi Arabia has an easy counter.

The Iraqi government's response to the American offer has been predictable. While some quietly want the United States to remain, the general response has ranged from dismissal to threats if the United States did not leave. Given that the United States has reportedly offered to leave as many as 20,000 troops in a country that 170,000 American troops could not impose order on, the Iraqi perception is that this is merely a symbolic presence and that endorsing it would get Iraq into trouble with Iran, which has far more than 20,000 troops and ever-present intelligence services. It is not clear that the Iraqis were ever prepared to allow U.S. troops to remain, but 20,000 is enough to enrage Iran and not enough to deal with the consequences.

The American assumption in deciding to leave Iraq -- and this goes back to George W. Bush as well as Barack Obama -- was that over the course of four years, the United States would be able to leave because it would have created a coherent government and military. The United States underestimated the degree to which fragmentation in Iraq would prevent that outcome and the degree to which Iranian influence would undermine the effort. The United States made a pledge to the American public and a treaty with the Iraqi government to withdraw forces, but the conditions that were expected to develop simply did not.

Not coincidentally, the withdrawal of American forces has coincided with tremendous instability in the region, particularly on the Arabian Peninsula. All around the periphery of Saudi Arabia an arc of instability has emerged. It is not that the Iranians engineered it, but they have certainly taken advantage of it. As a result, Saudi Arabia is in a position where it has had to commit forces in Bahrain, is standing by in Yemen, and is even concerned about internal instability given the rise of both reform-minded and Shiite elements at a time of unprecedented transition given the geriatric state of the country's top four leaders. Iran has certainly done whatever it could to exacerbate this instability, which fits neatly into the Iraqi situation.

As the United States leaves Iraq, Iran expects to increase its influence there. Iran normally acts cautiously even while engaged in extreme rhetoric. Therefore, it is unlikely to send conventional forces into Iraq. Indeed, it might not be necessary to do so in order to gain a dominant political position. Nor is it inconceivable that the Iranians could decide to act more aggressively. With the United States gone, the risks decline.

Saudi Arabia's Problem

The country that could possibly counter Iran in Iraq is Saudi Arabia, which has been known to funnel money to Sunni groups there. Its military is no match for Iran's in a battle for Iraq, and its influence there has been less than Iran's among most groups. More important, as the Saudis face the crisis on their periphery they are diverted and preoccupied by events to the east and south. The unrest in the region, therefore, increases the sense of isolation of some Iraqis and increases their vulnerability to Iran. Thus, given that Iraq is Iran's primary national security concern, the events in the Persian Gulf work to Iran's advantage. [continued after jump]

Raw Intelligence Report: A View from Syria

 The following is a brief item from Stratfor giving the observations of a person in Syria. I'm posting it without comment.

(STRATFOR) Editor’s Note: What follows is raw insight from a STRATFOR source in Syria. The following does not reflect STRATFOR’s view, but provides a perspective on the situation in Syria.

People are scared. An understatement, no doubt, but my friends — both foreign and Syrian — are worried about the developments. Almost all of my foreign friends are leaving and many have moved departing flights up in light of the recent events. Most Syrians don’t have this option and are weighing their options should sustained protests move to inner Damascus. Everyone is thinking along their sect even if they aren’t open about it. Much of the violence is attributed by Syrians to these mysterious “armed gangs.” Many are still placing hope in “Habibna” (literally “Our Love,” a nickname for the president) to bring about enough reforms to placate the demonstrators. A point that I was forced to make over and over is that a lot of the people protesting are doing so because someone they knew was killed and not because they were anti-government, although they are now. Privately, my Syrian friends admitted that Bashar [al Assad, the Syrian president] needs to make some major, major concessions quickly or risk continued protests and bloodshed of which would be attributed to him and not merely “the regime.”

By now we are all familiar with the cycle of protests reaching their high point on Fridays, after prayers. This Friday, however, was different for Syrians. Having seen the infamous emergency law lifted, albeit with serious caveats, Syrians were hoping for a relaxing of the security responses to the demonstrations. What they got was half as many demonstrators killed in one day as in all the days of demonstrations preceding it combined. It was almost as if things had been safer when the emergency law had been in effect. (On a side note, my friend guessed that maybe two out of every 100 Syrians could actually tell you what the emergency law was.) What was most striking about the demonstrations was that there were two in Damascus itself (Midan on Friday, April 22, and Berze on Saturday, April 23). While not in the city center these are by no means the far suburbs and countryside of Daraa or Douma. There were also protests in Muadamiyeh, which is right outside town next to the main bus station. I’ve heard that tanks along this road were seen April 24 pointing their guns not in the direction of the road but toward the city. The regime and everyone is terrified about protests in the city itself. [continued after jump]

Monday, April 25, 2011

Advanced slingshot technology

Above are two videos of Jorge Sprave's Gatling Slingshot Crossbow. The bottom of the two shows it in slow motion and, while the target isn't that far away, it still has an amazingly tight pattern. I would hate to get beaned by that thing.

If you go to his Slingshot Channel YouTube page he has some other pretty nasty and/or clever looking slingshots.

Some of his other videos are: Shooting Machetes with the Slingshot, Turn your christmas tree into a deadly slingshot crossbow, How to make a Zombie slaying arrow shooting slingshot, Winch Operated Portable Slingshot Cannon and Hunting Vampires With The Slingshot among many more.

He also has a Slingshot Channel Blog where he discusses slingshots and his projects.

(via Neatorama)

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Tut's Trumpets

James Tappern plays Tut's trumpet for a 1939 radio broadcast
Two if the items found in the Pharaoh Tutankhamun's tomb were trumpets, one of silver and one of bronze. During the looting of the Cairo during the recent demonstrations the bronze trumpet was stolen. However, it was recently recovered in a bag on the Cairo Metro. 

With the trumpets back in the news, the BBC has published the article Recreating the sound of Tutankhamun's trumpets which recounts the time they were played for a 1939 BBC radio broadcast. They were fitted with a modern trumpet mouthpiece and bandsman James Tappern played a few notes on each instrument.

If you want to hear what they sound like, follow the above link to the BBC article. It contains a link to an audio of the broadcast and you can listen to the portion where both trumpets are played.  

(via Never Yet Melted which has a nice picture showing the carvings on the horn of one of the trumpets)

Happy Easter

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Acoustic Gangster's Paradise

An acoustic cover of Coolio's old song. The sideways hat is a nice touch.

Stratfor and Rachel Weisz

This Stratfor article returns to Yeman to further discuss that country's disintegrating situation. The breakdown in Yeman is providing an opening for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) which greatly complicates the U.S. and Saudi response to the crisis. 

If you missed it, be sure to read the earlier Startfor Yeman article for more context on the situation. 

Sticking with the Hot Stratfor Babe selection criteria of the earlier Yeman article, I looked at movies that had deserts in them and settled on Rachel Weisz of the Mummy movies for the honor. Yes, you don't think of temple complexes and mummies when you think of Yeman, but a desert is a desert and and so the locale will do just fine as a stand-in. 

Rachel plays Evelyn 'Evy' Carnahan, a klutzy librarian who doubles as an Egyptologist, er... I mean Yemantologist. She hooks up with the slightly disreputable Rick O'Connell, played by Brendan Fraiser, and over the course of the Mummy movies they manage to keep releasing an ancient mummy that threatens to destroy the world. As silly as they are, the Mummy movies are entertaining, popcorn munching fun to watch. 

By Reva Bhalla, April 21, 2011

Nearly three months have passed since the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, first saw mass demonstrations against Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, but an exit from the current stalemate is still nowhere in sight. Saleh retains enough support to continue dictating the terms of his eventual political departure to an emboldened yet frustrated opposition. At the same time, the writ of his authority beyond the capital is dwindling, which is increasing the level of chaos and allowing various rebel groups to collect arms, recruit fighters and operate under dangerously few constraints.

The prospect of Saleh's political struggle providing a boon to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is understandably producing anxiety in Washington, where U.S. officials have spent the past few months trying to envision what a post-Saleh Yemen would mean for U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the Arabian Peninsula.

While fending off opponents at home, Saleh and his followers have been relying on the "me or chaos" tactic abroad to hang onto power. Loyalists argue that the dismantling of the Saleh regime would fundamentally derail years of U.S. investment designed to elicit meaningful Yemeni cooperation against AQAP or, worse, result in a civil war that will provide AQAP with freedom to hone its skills. Emboldened by the recent unrest, a jihadist group called the Abyan-Aden Islamic Army launched a major raid on a weapons depot in Ja'ar in late March, leading a number of media outlets to speculate that the toppling of the Saleh regime would play directly into the hands of Yemen's jihadists.

Meanwhile, the opposition has countered that the Yemeni jihadist threat is a perception engineered by Saleh to convince the West of the dangers of abandoning support for his regime. Opposition figures argue that Saleh's policies are what led to the rise of AQAP in the first place and that the fall of his regime would provide the United States with a clean slate to address its counterterrorism concerns with new, non-Saleh-affiliated political allies. The reality is likely somewhere in between.

The Birth of Yemen's Modern Jihadist Movement

The pervasiveness of radical Islamists in Yemen's military and security apparatus is no secret, and it contributes to the staying power of al Qaeda and its offspring in the Arabian Peninsula. The root of the issue dates back to the Soviet-Afghan war, when Osama bin Laden, whose family hails from the Hadramout region of the eastern Yemeni hinterland, commanded a small group of Arab volunteers under the leadership of Abdullah Azzam in the Islamist insurgency against the Soviets through the 1980s. Yemenis formed one of the largest contingents within bin Laden's Arab volunteer force in Afghanistan, which meant that by 1989, a sizable number of battle-hardened Yemenis returned home looking for a new purpose.

They did not have to wait long. Leading the jihadist pack returning from Afghanistan was Tariq al Fadhli of the once-powerful al Fadhli tribe based in the southern Yemeni province of Abyan. Joining al Fadhli was Sheikh Abdul Majid al Zindani, the spiritual father of Yemen's Salafi movement and one of the leaders of the conservative Islah party (now leading the political opposition against Saleh). The al Fadhli tribe had lost its lands to the Marxists of the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP), which had ruled South Yemen with Soviet backing throughout the 1980s while North Yemen was ruled with Saudi backing. Al Fadhli, an opportunist who tends to downplay his previous interactions with bin Laden, returned to his homeland in 1989 (supposedly with funding from bin Laden) with a mission backed by North Yemen and Saudi Arabia to rid the south of Marxists. He and his group set up camp in the mountains of Saada province on the Saudi border and also established a training facility in Abyan province in South Yemen. Joining al Fadhli's group were a few thousand Arabs from Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan who had fought in Afghanistan and faced arrest or worse if they tried to return home. [continued after jump]

Friday, April 22, 2011

Happy Earth Day

Mother Earth thanks you,
especially now that Bolivia has granted her human rights.

One RosettaStone course you'll never see

In the village of Ayapa in the southern state of Tabasco, Mexico live two old men, Manuel Segovia, 75, and Isidro Velazquez, 69. They live a few hundreds yards from each other, but do not talk to each other. No one knows why they're not on speaking terms -- apparently they just don't much like each other.

This would hardly merit mention, but they are the two last speakers of Ayapaneco, which is the Spanish name for Nuumte Oote (True Voice) as it is called in their language.

The children of Segovia can understand it when he speaks it, but they can only pronounce a few words in the language. Segovia has tried to hold classes in the village, but as he explains,  "I bought pencils and notebooks myself. The classes would start off full and then the pupils would stop coming."

When the two die, the language will die with them.

Daniel Suslak, a linguistic anthropologist from Indiana University, is compiling a dictionary of Nuumte Oote. Why? I don't know. It seems like a project that offers little return to me, but I suppoase it will go into a linguistic database and will be of some use in research.

You can read about it at the Guardian article Language at risk of dying out – the last two speakers aren't talking.

UPDATE: I found a video which I think is the two of them. I imagine they speak Nuumte Oote on it, but the narration is in Spanish, which is Greek to me, so I'm not sure if and when they speak the dying language.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Meanwhile, back in Turkmenistan...

Festively garbed Turkmen women admire an exhibit of horse paintings.
While we're preparing for Easter this Sunday, in Turkmenistan they are preparing for one of their most important holidays, Turkmen Horse Day. Throughout Turkmenistan they have festivals, contests and exhibitions in honor of their prized Akhalteke "Heavenly Horses" breed of racing horses.

President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov kicked off the week-long festivities with the following speech:

“I heartily congratulate you on the opening of the “Horse – the Wings of Revival” Exhibition and III International Conference “Turkmen Horse and Art of World Horse Breeding” in honor of the Turkmen Horse Day. I wish good health, long life and family well being to you and every success in work to the exhibition and international conference!”

“The age-old national values have been revived in our country during the years of independence. The wonderful traditions of the Turkmen people, their customs and rites, holidays and festivities have been enriched with a new content and gained a new meaning in the epoch of new Revival and great reforms. The state has created the conditions conducive to reviving former worldwide fame of our ‘heavenly’ horses, which have been a cherished adornment of the celebrations at all times.

“The Turkmen Horse Day is celebrated solemnly and widely in our country each year on the last Sunday of April in honor of horses called the wings of the soul of the Turkmen people. It is encouraging that scientists, horse breeders, experts, connoisseurs of Ahalteke horses from all over the world come to our country to participate in celebra...

Ooops, sorry about that. I must have dozed off typing that in. Anyway, I'm sure it was a fine speech.

What interests me about it is that National Holidays are often times days where prisoners are granted amnesty. As near as I can tell the Turkmen government spends the year randomly tossing people into jail and then pardons them to make room to toss other people into jail.

In light of my Free Ma-Ro campaign, which admittedly hasn't exactly caught fire in the blogsphere for some odd reason, I think Turkmen Horse Day would be the first holiday during which the Turkmenstani pop star, his dad, brother and brother-in-law might be granted amnesty. I wish them good luck. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

School lunches from 'round the world

Slovakian school lunch
I've already linked to a weeks worth of food pictures. Izismile has a post Worldly School Lunches (40 pics) that shows school lunches from around the world. I'm part Slovakian in ancestry, so I led off above with a Slovakian school lunch. Looks pretty tasty to me.

I've included a few more of the pictures. At Izismile, many of the countries show more than one of their lunches. Go to there to see all 40 pictures. 

The Brazilian lunch is one I would like to dig into
Who knew that the French feed their kids a plate of Freedom Fries?
Djibouti lunches look pretty grim
Our tax dollars at work -- an American lunch of a dog and fries
The Japanese rice bowl lunch looks tasty
The kids in Ghana look pleased with their simple lunches
The South Korean lunch has a lot of variety
The lunch from Singapore has my mouth watering just looking at it

The evolution of ruins

"The city was desolate. No remnant of this race hangs round the ruins, with traditions handed down from father to son, and from generation to generation. It lay before us like a shattered bark in the midst of the ocean, her masts gone, her name effaced, her crew perished, and none to tell whence she came, to whom she belonged, how long on her voyage, or what caused her destruction ... all was mystery, dark impenetrable mystery, and every circumstance increased it."
The picture is of an abandoned trailer in the abandoned resort city of Salton City, California. The city was laid out, but it all went wrong. Somebody has since painted the trailer pink. 

The quote is from the John L. Stephens book Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan. He had just discovered the ruined Mayan city of Copan. He bought the ruined city for $50.  

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Stratfor and Joan Collins

Today's Stratfor article discusses the approaching transition from the fourth to the fifth generation of leadership in China.

For decades China has been ruled by a group that adheres to the leadership principals of  Deng Xiaoping. Deng was the person who guided China  from Mao's Cultural Revolution to its modern state.

The leadership struggle among the various factions is taking place amidst an over-heated economy, an expanding military and an evolving diplomatic posture. Depending of which group emerges on top, they will either continue or supplant the leadership principals of Deng. Needless to say, the consequences of that will have great effect on regional stability and the global political order.

The article refers to Deng, and to the leaders who followed him and maintained his governing priorities as the Deng Dynasty. This naturally led me to the old prime-time soap opera Dynasty as I searched for this article's Hot Stratfor Babe. 

Since conniving is likely taking place in Beijing, I settled on Joan Collins who played Alexis Dynasty's biggest female conniver. I never saw the show, but according to the show's Wikipedia article she engaged in numerous cat fights where she and her opponents were inclined to end up in various pools of water, mud puddles and the like. Sounds like quality entertainment to me.

By Matthew Gertken and Jennifer Richmond, April 19, 2011

Beijing has become noticeably more anxious than usual in recent months, launching one of the more high-profile security campaigns to suppress political dissent since the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. Journalists, bloggers, artists, Christians and others have been arrested or have disappeared in a crackdown prompted by fears that foreign forces and domestic dissidents have hatched any number of "Jasmine" gatherings inspired by recent events in the Middle East. More remarkable than the small, foreign-coordinated protests, however, has been the state's aggressive and erratic reaction to them.

Meanwhile, the Chinese economy has maintained a furious pace of credit-fueled growth despite authorities' repeated claims of working to slow growth down to prevent excessive inflation and systemic financial risks. The government's cautious approach to fighting inflation has emboldened local governments and state companies, which benefit from rapid growth. Yet the risk to socio-political stability posed by inflation, expected to peak in springtime, has provoked a gradually tougher stance. The government thus faces twin perils of economic overheating on one side and overcorrection on the other, either of which could trigger an outburst of social unrest -- and both of which have led to increasingly erratic policymaking.

These security and economic challenges are taking place at a time when the transition from the so-called fourth generation of leaders to the fifth generation in 2012 is under way. The transition has heightened disagreements over economic policy and insecurities over social stability, further complicating attempts to coordinate effective policy. Yet something deeper is driving the Communist Party of China's (CPC's) anxiety and heavy-handed security measures: the need to transform the country's entire economic model, which carries hazards that the Party fears will jeopardize its very legitimacy.

Deng's Model

Former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping is well known for launching China's emergence from Mao's Cultural Revolution and inaugurating the rise of a modern, internationally oriented economic giant. Deng's model rested on three pillars.

The first was economic pragmatism, allowing for capitalist-style incentives domestically and channels for international trade. Deng paved the way for a growth boom that would provide employment and put an end to the preceding decade of civil strife. The CPC's legitimacy thus famously became linked to the country's economic success rather than to ideological zeal and class warfare.

The second pillar was a foreign policy of cooperation. The lack of emphasis on political ideology opened space for international maneuver, with economic cooperation the basis for new relationships. This gave enormous impetus to the Sino-American detente Nixon and Mao initiated. In Deng's words, China would maintain a low profile and avoid taking the lead. China would remain unobtrusive to befriend and do business with almost any country -- as long as it recognized Beijing as the one and only China.

The third pillar was the primacy of the CPC's system. Reform of the political system along the lines of Western countries could be envisioned, but in practice would be deferred. That the reform process in no way would be allowed to undermine Party supremacy was sealed after the mass protests at Tiananmen, which the military crushed after a dangerous intra-Party struggle. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) and the People's Armed Police would serve as Deng's "Great Wall of steel" protecting the Party from insurrection. [continued after jump]

I've become a fan of the Indian cricket team

Poonam Pandey after surviving an
explosion in a pastel factory

Well, no, not really. I watched cricket once and as I recall it seemed like a completely daft version of American baseball.

While perusing Weird Asia News I came across the article Indian Model Will Strip For World Cup Victory (SFW). It reports that Indian model Poonam Pandey has claimed she will strip naked if India wins the Cricket World Cup.

She justified the promise, which she claims is not a publicity stunt, by saying, “I’m a cricket fanatic and I’m a diehard supporter of my nation. India needs a lot of support and this is my way of supporting the team… I’m confident of my body and I’m doing this to excite our boys to play better.”

OK, the jokes just write themselves so I'll just move on. You may of course add comments to the comment thread if you get the urge.

This is apparently some sort of a trend. It started when the Paraguayan model Larissa Riquelme  said she would run around naked if her team won the World's Cup. They lost, but she stripped off her clothes in front of the flag of Paraguay for a photo shoot anyways. Um... that was sporting of her I guess.

I also remember reading earlier this year, at the ever zany ChinaSmack, the article Han Yifei Nude Photographs Fulfill Chinese Basketball Promise (NSFW - not much really, just a lot of skin and strategically placed basketballs. Still, better safe than sorry). They won. Han Yifei produced the pictures.

So, this appears to be a growing trend, moving from Paraguay, to China to India. Hmmm... if the direction of travel of this trend continues, the next thing you know the Saudi Women's Soccer Team will be promising to showing some ankle any day now. Whoo-boy, be still my beating heart!

Saudi Women's Soccer Team

Monday, April 18, 2011

StatPlanet - tap into the World Bank's data

Click for larger view
StatPlanet World Bank is a application that allows you to access, analyze and display interactive maps and charts drawn from over 3000 indicators available from World Bank databases. The above example shows a graph of high-technology exports. The upper chart focuses on China, the U.S. and Japan, and the cursor is hovering over Brazil to bring up its data. 

Go to the StatPlanet World Bank page to find the URL for the web-based version (the above screen is from that version). Once there you can also download a desktop version of it as well as documentation. At the end of this post is a video demonstrating its capabilities with an introduction on how to use it.

It was written by Frank van Cappelle, of the University of Melbourne, and won the World Bank's Apps for Development challenge. You can see the other finalists in the competition, many of which look equally interesting, at Apps for Development Application Gallery

Be warned -- if you like pushing data around following any of the links in this post will end up consuming a lot of your time.

(HT: InventorSpot)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Tax the Rich

The above video is a time lapse of the protests against Gov. Walker that took place in Madison. It was made by Dusan Harminc, a Madison area Art Director who does motion graphics and interaction design (that's the artsy-fartsy term for interface design). Poking around his portfolio a bit shows that he has a strong graphics sense does very nice work in that area. The video above is a good example of that.

However, one thing struck me as I watched the above video, and is a weakness so glaring that it ultimately renders the video incoherent, is how it divorces the images from the context of the protest. 

He fails completely to capture what the protest is about. In fact, by repeatedly injecting images of the young woman holding the "Tax the Rich" sign he actually hijacks the protest's message -- it is not longer an examination or promotion of a labor protest, instead it becomes a rather trite and shallow trifle that is of little interest or persuasion.   

Now, I don't want to come across like I'm beating up on Dusan Harminc, I'm not. As I said, I think he has a strong graphic sense and I assume he was creating that video with an artist's eye and not a journalist's pen. 

Rather, in terms of the protest's messaging, the problem lies with with the likes of Richard Trumka. I've pointed out before, that to inflate the number of protesters, the Unions had to bring in students and activists of all stripes. The problem with that is that Progressives are obsessed with their notion of  narrative. If they can frame the story then they can control the debate. However, each activist group they bring into the mix inevitably adds their own tropes to the narrative. 

In the case of the Madison protests this means the Union signal gradually gets subsumed by the static of all the other competing messages that all the other groups add to the protest.

The result is you end up with a beautifully done video that is completely off message. Instead of a message supporting the Union's cause you get a vapid sign with the shallow message to tax the rich. Ultimately, that is just a step away from the silliness of Rob Lewis, the socialist Noodles Restaurant employee who was outraged that the boss man made him cook dishes that appeared the menu. 

I expect this sort of Progressive cacophony to continue. I also think it will continue to harm them.

This should be a warning to the Tea Party people. When they've focused on their core message of fiscal conservatism they've done well. However, veering too far into social conservative causes, or the isolationism of some libertarians, will dilute the effectiveness of the Tea Party message. Repeat it again and again: cut spending, limited government, cut spending, limited government, cut spending, limited government...

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Strafor and Marilyn Monroe

Whenever the word "bomb" appears in a Stratfor article it makes my task of selecting the article's Hot Stratfor Babe immeasurably simpler. All I have to do is cycle through Blonde bombshells and pick one out.

For this Strafor article, which discusses the possibility of car bombs in Mexico's drug wars, I've selected Marilyn Monroe as the Hot Stratfor Babe.

There is also a bit of a connection between Marilyn and Mexico. Shortly before her death she went on a trip to Mexico City. The FBI was to report that during that trip she attended a luncheon at the residence of Peter Lawford with President Kennedy.

That report was part of a file they were keeping about her regarding her contacts John and Robert Kennedy as well as various communists. Eventually, when the file was released, because of the proximity of her Mexican lunch to her death, that report was to get tangled into the suspicions surrounding the circumstances of her death.

If you're interested, you can read about it in some detail in the 2006 Reader's Digest article Bombshell: Documents Throw New Light on Marilyn Monroe’s Death.

As a bonus, at the end of the Strafor article I've included the famous video of Marilyn monroe, after being introduced by the same Peter Lawford, singing Happy Birthday to JFK.

By Scott Stewart, April 14, 2011

On April 5, Mexican newspaper El Universal reported that a row of concrete Jersey barriers was being emplaced in front of the U.S. Consulate General in Monterrey, Mexico. The story indicated that the wall was put in to block visibility of the facility, but being only about 107 centimeters (42 inches) high, such barriers do little to block visibility. Instead, this modular concrete wall is clearly being used to block one lane of traffic in front of the consulate in an effort to provide the facility with some additional standoff distance from the avenue that passes in front of it.

Due to the location and design of the current consulate building in Monterrey, there is only a narrow sidewalk separating the building's front wall from the street and very little distance between the front wall and the building. This lack of standoff has been long noted, and it was an important factor in the decision to build a new consulate in Monterrey (construction began in June 2010 and is scheduled to be completed in January 2013).

The U.S. Consulate in Monterrey has been targeted in the past by cartels using small arms and grenades. The last grenade attack near the consulate was in October 2010. However, the Jersey barriers placed in front of the consulate will do little to protect the building against small arms fire, which can be directed at portions of the building above the perimeter wall, or grenades, which can be thrown over the wall. Rather, such barriers are used to protect facilities against an attack using a car bomb, or what is called in military and law enforcement vernacular a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED).

That such barriers have been employed (or re-employed, really, since they have been used before at the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey) indicates that there is at least a perceived VBIED threat in Mexico. The placement of the barriers was followed by a Warden Message issued April 8 by the U.S. Consulate General in Monterrey warning that "the U.S. government has received uncorroborated information Mexican criminal gangs may intend to attack U.S. law enforcement officers or U.S. citizens in the near future in Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon and San Luis Potosi." It is quite possible that the placement of the barriers at the consulate was related to this Warden Message.

The Mexican cartels have employed improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in the past, but the devices have been small. While their successful employment has shown that the cartels could deploy larger devices if they decided to do so, there are still some factors causing them to avoid using large VBIEDs.

Some History

The use of IEDs in Mexico is nothing new. Explosives are plentiful in Mexico due to their widespread use in the country's mining and petroleum sectors. Because of Mexico's strict gun laws, it is easier and cheaper to procure explosives -- specifically commercial explosives such as Tovex -- in Mexico than it is firearms. We have seen a number of different actors use explosive devices in Mexico, including left-wing groups such as the Popular Revolutionary Army and its various splinters, which have targeted banks and commercial centers (though usually at night and in a manner intended to cause property damage and not human casualties). An anarchist group calling itself the Subversive Alliance for the Liberation of the Earth, Animals and Humans has also employed a large number of small IEDs against banks, insurance companies, car dealerships and other targets.

Explosives have also played a minor role in the escalation of cartel violence in Mexico. The first cartel-related IED incident we recall was the Feb. 15, 2008, premature detonation of an IED in Mexico City that investigators concluded was likely a failed assassination attempt against a high-ranking police official. Three months later, in May 2008, there was a rash of such assassinations in Mexico City targeting high-ranking police officials such as Edgar Millan Gomez, who at the time of his death was Mexico's highest-ranking federal law enforcement officer. While these assassinations were conducted using firearms, they supported the theory that the Feb. 15, 2008, incident was indeed a failed assassination attempt.

Mexican officials have frequently encountered explosives, including small amounts of military-grade explosives and far larger quantities of commercial explosives, when they have uncovered arms caches belonging to the cartels. But it was not until July 2010 that IEDs began to be employed by the cartels with any frequency. [continued after jump]

Friday, April 15, 2011

Houston gets robbed

Earlier this week it was reported that Houston was passed over for retiring space shuttle

WTF? That just isn't right. 

As one would expect both Canaveral and the Smithsonian each get one,  Atlantis and Discovery respectively. The Endeavour goes to the California Science Center which makes sense because that is in the area where the shuttles were built. 

The real surprise is Houston, home of Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center, being frozen out by the awarding of the Enterprise (a prototype that never flew)  to a museum in New York instead.

I think it only makes much more sense for Houston's Johnson Space Center to get one of the Orbiters, with either California or the Smithsonian getting the prototype Enterprise and New York -- which was peripheral to the space program to say the least -- getting no shuttle.

The suspicion is that Houston not receiving a shuttle was driven by politics. That would of course be a disgrace, and just another sign that this administration knows nothing of history and make any decision, no matter how dubious, with their eyes towards elections. From the article linked above:

Mitchell said President Obama's re-election bid factored into NASA's choosing locations in Florida and California. Houston Mayor Annise Parker struck a similar tone, saying the decision was largely expected since the White House hinted "Houston would not be a winner in this political competition."

"There was no other city with our history of human space flight or more deserving of a retiring orbiter," Parker said in a statement.

Mitchell said he would like a congressional investigation into NASA's decision-making — and expects Texas congressional leaders to call for one.

In a statement, Republican Sen. John Cornyn said, "it is clear political favors trumped common sense and fairness." Added Republican U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, "with this White House I always expect the worst and am rarely disappointed."

In a conference call, NASA acknowledged that its choices meant all the shuttles were heading to different coasts and that the middle of the country was shutout, but it defended the decisions and said it would welcome a congressional inquiry.

I suppose it could be worse, the American shuttles at least avoided the the ignoble fate of the Russian Buran Class shuttles.

The Buran, the only Russian shuttle that flew (an unmanned orbital mission) was demolished when the hanger it was being stored in collapsed. The Ptichka was never quite completed and is being stored at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Their third unnamed shuttle was stored outdoors in a parking lot until it was sold to a museum in Germany, while the fourth was sold in pieces on the internet and the final one was scrapped long before any significant work was completed on it.

Old Russian shuttles never die, they just get crushed by their hangers...
...or get stripped and sold on Ebay