Thursday, January 31, 2013

The evidence

The Problem by Thomas Hardy

Shall we conceal the Case, or tell it -
We who believe the evidence?
Here and there the watch-towers knell it
With a sullen significance,
Heard of the few who hearken intently and carry an eagerly upstrained

Hearts that are happiest hold not by it;
Better we let, then, the old view reign;
Since there is peace in it, why decry it?
Since there is comfort, why disdain?
Note not the pigment the while that the painting determines
humanity's joy and pain!

A wandering couch

A couch with a passengers wanders around the campus of Kansas State and takes in the sights.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Hiding in Siberia

The sight that greeted the geologists as they entered the cabin was like something from the middle ages. Jerry-built from whatever materials came to hand, the dwelling was not much more than a burrow—"a low, soot-blackened log kennel that was as cold as a cellar," with a floor consisting of potato peel and pine-nut shells. Looking around in the dim light, the visitors saw that it consisted of a single room. It was cramped, musty and indescribably filthy, propped up by sagging joists—and, astonishingly, home to a family of five:

The silence was suddenly broken by sobs and lamentations. Only then did we see the silhouettes of two women. One was in hysterics, praying: 'This is for our sins, our sins.' The other, keeping behind a post... sank slowly to the floor. The light from the little window fell on her wide, terrified eyes, and we realized we had to get out of there as quickly as possible.

Agafia Lykova (left) with her sister, Natalia.

Led by Pismenskaya, the scientists backed hurriedly out of the hut and retreated to a spot a few yards away, where they took out some provisions and began to eat. After about half an hour, the door of the cabin creaked open, and the old man and his two daughters emerged—no longer hysterical and, though still obviously frightened, "frankly curious." Warily, the three strange figures approached and sat down with their visitors, rejecting everything that they were offered—jam, tea, bread—with a muttered, "We are not allowed that!" When Pismenskaya asked, "Have you ever eaten bread?" the old man answered: "I have. But they have not. They have never seen it." At least he was intelligible. The daughters spoke a language distorted by a lifetime of isolation. "When the sisters talked to each other, it sounded like a slow, blurred cooing." (source: Smithsonian Magazine)
The Smithsonian Magazine has an amazing story about a family of hermits found living in the wilds of Siberia. The father, Karp Lykov, was a member of a fundamentalist Orthodox sect called the Old Believers.

The sect had been persecuted under the Tsars, and things only got worse for them when the communists took over. In 1936, during the purges, Lykov's brother was killed in front of him for his faith and Karp took his family and fled into the Siberian wilderness seeking safety. Over the years they moved several times and faced bouts of near starvation.

They were found in 1978 by a group of geologists surveying the area. The article discusses their introduction to the modern world, and the difficulties they had adjusting. It is a fascinating story of lives spent on the fringe.

Multi-floor rampage

For this fight scene to get you over the hump in hump day we have a guy, presumably our hero, who some reason attacks a building full of scoundrels. Actually, most of the scene is a single, impressively long tracking shot. I wonder how many takes they needed?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Stratfor and Han Jong Sim

George Friedman revisits a topic he's discussed before, North Korea's strategy of developing nuclear weapons up to a point to appear to be a threat, while at the same time being weak enough as to not trigger to vigorous of a response. Added to those two prongs are a behavior irrational enough to be alarming and to cause caution in dealing with them.

It is an interesting read, and he also covers China and Iran's maneuvers, diplomaric and otherwise, in light of North Korea's so far successful strategy.

Since the article was about North Korea, for its Hot Stratfor Babe I decided to plunge into the enormous pool of North Korean actresses for the selection. After my usual exhaustive research I selected Han Jong Sim, who was the star in the North Korean rom-com Comrade Kim Goes Flying.

The movie is about a coal mining girl who dreams of joining the circus, along her way to the big top she also finds love. Sounds delighful.

As for Ms Jong, or Ms Han, or Ms Jong (whatever its supposed to be), in keeping with North Korea's whacky and secretive ways, there isn't much information about her aside from the fact that she is also a gymnast.

Ferocious, Weak and Crazy: The North Korean Strategy
By George Friedman, Founder and Chairman, January 29, 2013

North Korea's state-run media reported Sunday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered the country's top security officials to take "substantial and high-profile important state measures," which has been widely interpreted to mean that North Korea is planning its third nuclear test. Kim said the orders were retaliation for the U.S.-led push to tighten U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang following North Korea's missile test in October. A few days before Kim's statement emerged, the North Koreans said future tests would target the United States, which North Korea regards as its key adversary along with Washington's tool, South Korea.

North Korea has been using the threat of tests and the tests themselves as weapons against its neighbors and the United States for years. On the surface, threatening to test weapons does not appear particularly sensible. If the test fails, you look weak. If it succeeds, you look dangerous without actually having a deliverable weapon. And the closer you come to having a weapon, the more likely someone is to attack you so you don't succeed in actually getting one. Developing a weapon in absolute secret would seem to make more sense. When the weapon is ready, you display it, and you have something solid to threaten enemies with.

North Korea, of course, has been doing this for years and doing it successfully, so what appears absurd on the surface quite obviously isn't. On the contrary, it has proved to be a very effective maneuver. North Korea is estimated to have a gross domestic product of about $28 billion, about the same as Latvia or Turkmenistan. Yet it has maneuvered itself into a situation where the United States, Japan, China, Russia and South Korea have sat down with it at the negotiating table in a bid to persuade it not to build weapons. Sometimes, the great powers give North Korea money and food to persuade it not to develop weapons. It sometimes agrees to a halt, but then resumes its nuclear activities. It never completes a weapon, but it frequently threatens to test one. And when it carries out such tests, it claims its tests are directed at the United States and South Korea, as if the test itself were a threat.

There is brilliance in North Korea's strategy. When the Soviet Union collapsed, North Korea was left in dire economic straits. There were reasonable expectations that its government would soon collapse, leading to the unification of the Korean Peninsula. Naturally, the goal of the North Korean government was regime survival, so it was terrified that outside powers would invade or support an uprising against it. It needed a strategy that would dissuade anyone from trying that. Being weak in every sense, this wasn't going to be easy, but the North Koreans developed a strategy that we described more than 10 years ago as ferocious, weak and crazy. North Korea has pursued this course since the 1990s, and the latest manifestation of this strategy was on display last week. The strategy has worked marvelously and is still working.

A Three-Part Strategy

First, the North Koreans positioned themselves as ferocious by appearing to have, or to be on the verge of having, devastating power. Second, they positioned themselves as being weak such that no matter how ferocious they are, there would be no point in pushing them because they are going to collapse anyway. And third, they positioned themselves as crazy, meaning pushing them would be dangerous since they were liable to engage in the greatest risks imaginable at the slightest provocation.

In the beginning, Pyongyang's ability to appear ferocious was limited to the North Korean army's power to shell Seoul. It had massed artillery along the border and could theoretically devastate the southern capital, assuming the North had enough ammunition, its artillery worked and air power didn't lay waste to its massed artillery. The point was not that it was going to level Seoul but that it had the ability to do so. There were benefits to outsiders in destabilizing the northern regime, but Pyongyang's ferocity -- uncertain though its capabilities were -- was enough to dissuade South Korea and its allies from trying to undermine the regime. Its later move to develop missiles and nuclear weapons followed from the strategy of ferocity -- since nothing was worth a nuclear war, enraging the regime by trying to undermine it wasn't worth the risk.

Many nations have tried to play the ferocity game, but the North Koreans added a brilliant and subtle twist to it: being weak. The North Koreans advertised the weakness of their economy, particularly its food insecurity, by various means. This was not done overtly, but by allowing glimpses of its weakness. Given the weakness of its economy and the difficulty of life in North Korea, there was no need to risk trying to undermine the North. It would collapse from its own defects.

This was a double inoculation. The North Koreans' ferocity with weapons whose effectiveness might be questionable, but still pose an unquantifiable threat, caused its enemies to tread carefully. Why risk unleashing its ferocity when its weakness would bring it down? Indeed, a constant debate among Western analysts over the North's power versus its weakness combines to paralyze policymakers.

The North Koreans added a third layer to perfect all of this. They portrayed themselves as crazy, working to appear unpredictable, given to extravagant threats and seeming to welcome a war. Sometimes, they reaffirmed they were crazy via steps like sinking South Korean ships for no apparent reason. As in poker, so with the North: You can play against many sorts of players, from those who truly understand the odds to those who are just playing for fun, but never, ever play poker against a nut. He is totally unpredictable, can't be gamed, and if you play with his head you don't know what will happen.

So long as the North Koreans remained ferocious, weak and crazy, the best thing to do was not irritate them too much and not to worry what kind of government they had. But being weak and crazy was the easy part for the North; maintaining its appearance of ferocity was more challenging. Not only did the North Koreans have to keep increasing their ferocity, they had to avoid increasing it so much that it overpowered the deterrent effect of their weakness and craziness.

A Cautious Nuclear Program

Hence, we have North Korea's eternal nuclear program. It never quite produces a weapon, but no one can be sure whether a weapon might be produced. Due to widespread perceptions that the North Koreans are crazy, it is widely believed they might rush to complete their weapon and go to war at the slightest provocation. The result is the United States, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea holding meetings with North Korea to try to persuade it not to do something crazy.

Interestingly, North Korea never does anything significant and dangerous, or at least not dangerous enough to break the pattern. Since the Korean War, North Korea has carefully calculated its actions, timing them to avoid any move that could force a major reaction. We see this caution built into its nuclear program. After more than a decade of very public ferocity, the North Koreans have not come close to a deliverable weapon. But since if you upset them, they just might, the best bet has been to tread lightly and see if you can gently persuade them not to do something insane.

The North's positioning is superb: Minimal risky action sufficient to lend credibility to its ferocity and craziness plus endless rhetorical threats maneuvers North Korea into being a major global threat in the eyes of the great powers. Having won themselves this position, the North Koreans are not about to risk it, even if a 20-something leader is hurling threats.

The China Angle and the Iranian Pupil

There is, however, a somewhat more interesting dimension emerging. Over the years, the United States, Japan and South Korea have looked to the Chinese to intercede and persuade the North Koreans not to do anything rash. This diplomatic pattern has established itself so firmly that we wonder what the actual Chinese role is in all this. China is currently engaged in territorial disputes with U.S. allies in the South and East China seas. Whether anyone would or could go to war over islands in these waters is dubious, but the situation is still worth noting.

The Chinese and the Japanese have been particularly hostile toward one another in recent weeks in terms of rhetoric and moving their ships around. A crisis in North Korea, particularly one in which the North tested a nuclear weapon, would inevitably initiate the diplomatic dance whereby the Americans and Japanese ask the Chinese to intercede with the North Koreans. The Chinese would oblige. This is not a great effort for them, since having detonated a nuclear device, the North isn't interested in doing much more. In fact, Pyongyang will be drawing on the test's proverbial fallout for some time. The Chinese are calling in no chits with the North Koreans, and the Americans and Japanese -- terribly afraid of what the ferocious, weak, crazy North Koreans will do next -- will be grateful to China for defusing the "crisis." And who could be so churlish as to raise issues on trade or minor islands when China has used its power to force North Korea to step down?

It is impossible for us to know what the Chinese are thinking, and we have no overt basis for assuming the Chinese and North Koreans are collaborating, but we do note that China has taken an increasing interest in stabilizing North Korea. For its part, North Korea has tended to stage these crises -- and their subsequent Chinese interventions -- at quite useful times for Beijing.

It should also be noted that other countries have learned the ferocious, weak, crazy maneuver from North Korea. Iran is the best pupil. It has convincingly portrayed itself as ferocious via its nuclear program, endlessly and quite publicly pursuing its program without ever quite succeeding. It is also persistently seen as weak, perpetually facing economic crises and wrathful mobs of iPod-wielding youths. Whether Iran can play the weakness card as skillfully as North Korea remains unclear -- Iran just doesn't have the famines North Korea has.

Additionally, Iran's rhetoric at times can certainly be considered crazy: Tehran has carefully cultivated perceptions that it would wage nuclear war even if this meant the death of all Iranians. Like North Korea, Iran also has managed to retain its form of government and its national sovereignty. Endless predictions of the fall of the Islamic republic to a rising generation have proved false.

I do not mean to appear to be criticizing the "ferocious, weak and crazy" strategy. When you are playing a weak hand, such a strategy can yield demonstrable benefits. It preserves regimes, centers one as a major international player and can wring concessions out of major powers. It can be pushed too far, however, when the fear of ferocity and craziness undermines the solace your opponents find in your weakness.

Diplomacy is the art of nations achieving their ends without resorting to war. It is particularly important for small, isolated nations to survive without going to war. As in many things, the paradox of appearing willing to go to war in spite of all rational calculations can be the foundation for avoiding war. It is a sound strategy, and for North Korea and Iran, for the time being at least, it has worked.

Ferocious, Weak and Crazy: The North Korean Strategy is republished with permission of Stratfor.

For our Northern friends suffering from cabin fever

Never let it be said that Flare's doesn't tend to its reader's needs -- even those regulars daft enough to live in a climate that doesn't support palm trees. I figured you might need a project to wile away the hours and came up with this video. OK, it will only wile away the minutes, but still.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Old Japanese magazine covers

Click any image to enlarge

50watts has a post featuring vintage Japanese magazine covers. It is interesting to see the familiar early and mid 20th century graphics style as translated by Japanese graphic artists of the day, although one wonders who was influencing who back in the day.

There are more samples after the jump, and even more at the 50watts link above.

Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues

Monday morning, start of the workweek blues by Skip James.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The world's poorest President

Jose Mujica, the leader of Urugauy, has been dubbed the poorest President in the world. As the BBC explains:
Laundry is strung outside the house. The water comes from a well in a yard, overgrown with weeds. Only two police officers and Manuela, a three-legged dog, keep watch outside.

This is the residence of the president of Uruguay, Jose Mujica, whose lifestyle clearly differs sharply from that of most other world leaders.

President Mujica has shunned the luxurious house that the Uruguayan state provides for its leaders and opted to stay at his wife's farmhouse, off a dirt road outside the capital, Montevideo.

The president and his wife work the land themselves, growing flowers.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Stratfor and Sofia Boutella

In this Stratfor article Scott Stewart discusses the recent kidnapping of foreigners in Algeria. As he points out, although the situation in Maali might point to a spill-over of radicalization, as Stewart points outs such kidnappings are actually old hat in Algeria.

It is a good read, giving details about an area that is often off of our radars.

For the article's Hot Stratfor Babe I turned to ASlgerian actresses and, after giving the matter careful consideration, I decided that Sofia Boutella was worthy of the honor.

Ms Boutella was born in Algeria, but moved to France and trained in classical dance. She moved on to gymnastics and was a member of France's rythmic gymnastics team.

From there she moved on to hip-hop and modeling and has also done a number of commercials and music videos. Naturally, she also moved to the movies, where she has had parts in such notable flops as StreetDance 2.

The Unspectacular, Unsophisticated Algerian Hostage Crisis
By Scott Stewart, Vice President of Analysis, January 24, 2013

The recent jihadist attack on the Tigantourine natural gas facility near In Amenas, Algeria, and the subsequent hostage situation there have prompted some knee-jerk discussions among media punditry. From these discussions came the belief that the incident was spectacular, sophisticated and above all unprecedented. A closer examination shows quite the opposite.

Indeed, very little of the incident was without precedent. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who orchestrated the attack, has employed similar tactics and a similar scale of force before, and frequently he has deployed forces far from his group's core territory in northern Mali. Large-scale raids, often meant to take hostages, have been conducted across far expanses of the Sahel. What was unprecedented was the target. Energy and extraction sites have been attacked in the past, but never before was an Algerian natural gas facility selected for such an assault.

A closer look at the operation also reveals Belmokhtar's true intentions. The objective of the attack was not to kill hostages but to kidnap foreign workers for ransom -- an objective in keeping with many of Belmokhtar's previous forays. But in the end, his operation was a failure. His group killed several hostages but did not destroy the facility or successfully transport hostages away from the site. He lost several men and weapons, and just as important, he appears to have also lost the millions of dollars he could have gained through ransoming his captives.

Offering Perspective

Until recently, Belmokhtar and his group, the Mulathameen Brigade, or the "Masked Ones," which donned the name "Those Who Sign in Blood" for the Tigantourine operation, were associated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Prior to their association with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, they were a part of Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which operated in the Sahel. As part of these groups, Belmokhtar led many kidnapping raids and other operations throughout the region, and these past examples offer perspective for examining the Tigantourine operation and for attempting to forecast the groups' future activities.

In April 2003, Belmokhtar was one of the leaders of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat operation that took 32 European tourists hostage in the Hoggar Mountains near Illizi, Algeria, which is roughly 257 kilometers (160 miles) southwest of the Tigantourine facility. Seventeen hostages were freed after an Algerian military raid, and the rest were released in August 2003 -- save for one woman, who died of sunstroke.

Prior to 2006, when the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat essentially became al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, kidnappings and attempted kidnappings occurred roughly once a year. But after 2006, the operational tempo of kidnappings in the Sahel quickened, with about three to five operations conducted per year. According to U.S. Treasury Department Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen, al Qaeda earned approximately $120 million in ransoms from 2004 to 2012. Cohen added that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb had become the most proficient kidnapping unit of all al Qaeda's franchise groups.

Examples of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's proficiency abound. In September 2010, the group took seven hostages from a uranium mine in Arlit, Niger, and kidnapped four European tourists in Mali in January 2009. More recently, it kidnapped three aid workers in Tindouf, Algeria, in October 2011.

Typically the group prefers to kidnap more than one person. Having multiple hostages allows the captors to kill one or more of them to ratchet up pressure for the ransom of the others. Guarding multiple hostages requires more resources, but Belmokhtar has plenty of human resources, and the additional ransom makes guarding them worth the extra effort.

Holding multiple hostages also enables the kidnappers to make political statements -- often connected to outrageous demands. In the Tigantourine attack, much attention was paid to the militants' demands to the U.S. government to release Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, also known as "The Blind Sheikh," and Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist convicted of terrorism charges. But again, such demands are not unprecedented. Edwin Dyer, one of the four European tourists kidnapped in January 2009, was beheaded in June 2009 after the British government refused al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's demand to release imprisoned jihadist cleric Abu Qatada. The group again demanded the release of Abu Qatada in April 2012 in exchange for British-South African citizen Stephen Malcolm, who was kidnapped in Timbuktu, Mali, in November 2011. Certainly the militants had no realistic expectation that the British would meet their demands; the demands and Dyer's subsequent execution were meant as political statements, not realistic objectives.

Botched Missions

Tactically, how the Tigantourine attack transpired remains unclear. What we do know is that the amount of militants used in the attack is not unprecedented. While serving as a unit leader for the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat in 2005, Belmokhtar led a group of 150 militants in a raid on a military outpost in Lemgheiti, Mauritania, that left 15 Mauritanian soldiers dead and another 17 wounded.

According to a Jan. 21 statement made by Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal on Jan. 21, it appears that Belmokhtar's Tigantourine operation was a two-pronged attack. One team appears to have been tasked with intercepting a bus taking Western employees from the facility to the airport. Militants reportedly used vehicles marked as oil company security or as belonging to the Algerian government. Sellal noted that the objective of the operation was to take a group of the hostages out of the country, presumably transporting them to northern Mali's Kidal region, where in recent years al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has held its foreign hostages.

Notably, the Tigantourine facility is located only about 32 kilometers from the Libyan border. The attackers probably took advantage of the chaos in Libya to gather weapons and prepare for the attack and then came across the border from Libya to conduct the attack. They could have covered very quickly the distance from the Libyan border to the facility, and this likely provided them an element of tactical surprise.

The second prong of the attack was directed against the facility itself. Heavily armed attackers surprised the security forces at the facility and subdued them by concentrating their forces and using overwhelming firepower. Algerian forces recovered from the assailants a recoilless rifle, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and several medium and light machine guns. We are currently unsure if this group was tasked with taking additional hostages at the facility and fleeing with them, staging a drawn-out hostage drama, as in Beslan, or sabotaging the facility and fleeing. Such an operation may have meant to divert attention from the group of militants that was transporting hostages out of the country. Having a group of hostages in custody outside Algeria could have helped them extract the second team from the facility.

In any case, the first unit apparently failed to achieve its objective, and it does not appear that the militants were able to take hostages from the bus and quickly transport them out of the country. (Currently, not all of the hostages are accounted for, but they are most likely among the unidentified dead. It will take time for forensics teams to identify them.) Moreover, on the second day helicopter gunships thwarted the escape efforts of some militants, who had used foreign hostages as human shields.

Some reports indicate that the attackers set explosive charges around the plant and attempted to destroy it Jan. 19, an action that apparently triggered the final assault to neutralize the militants at the facility. We have not seen photos of any demolition charges or any other indication that the attackers employed any sort of sophisticated improvised explosive devices in the operation. If the attackers went to the trouble to bring large quantities of explosives with them on the raid, they likely did so intending to use the explosives to damage the plant or to facilitate a drawn-out hostage drama -- or both. The militants wouldn't need large quantities of explosives to seize hostages, and they would not have spent the money to buy them or the effort to transport them unless they are critical to their mission.

But tactically, both missions -- stopping a vehicle to kidnap foreigners and storming a facility -- are within the demonstrated capabilities of Sahel-based jihadist militants. In addition to numerous vehicular ambushes al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has conducted to steal cargo or grab hostages, it has also raided hotels, homes and clinics to seize hostages. Perhaps the attack most similar to Tigantourine was the September 2010 raid on the Areva uranium mining facility near Arlit, Niger. The facility was more than 320 kilometers from the Malian border and more than 160 kilometers from the border with Algeria. The militants demonstrated their ability to operate hundreds of kilometers from their bases in northern Mali, successfully storm a facility and return to northern Mali with Western hostages. These militant groups have also staged large-scale raids on military bases across the Sahel.

Several indicators suggest the Tigantourine operation was intended to seize hostages, not kill hostages. According to a June 2007 classified cable released by Wikileaks, the U.S. Embassy in Algiers said that Belmokhtar had criticized al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's suicide operations that mean to kill civilians. Moreover, the attackers did not immediately begin to shoot foreigners as they did during the November 2008 Mumbai attack and the June 2004 attack against foreign energy workers in Yanbu, Saudi Arabia. They failed to hold these hostages for any period of time, and by all accounts they failed to take Western hostages back to northern Mali. This amounts to a significant loss for Belmokhtar.

Avoiding Complacency at Energy Sites

Despite a long history of militant activity in Algeria, energy facilities had largely escaped unscathed -- until last week. When al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb began to conduct large vehicle bombings in Algiers and roadside bombing attacks against buses carrying foreign energy workers in or near the capital, energy companies countered the threat by flying workers directly into airports near energy facilities like the one in In Amenas.

This lack of attacks led to some complacency on the part of Algerian officials and security forces at Tigantourine. But in the wake of the recent attack, security at such facilities will be increased, and any sense of complacency will disappear -- at least for a while. And because militants prefer to hit softer targets, we are unlikely to see follow-on attacks at similar facilities in the region in the immediate future. It may also take Belmokhtar some time to replace the leaders and materiel unexpectedly lost in the attack.

However, with targets in the region becoming scarcer and harder to attack, these groups will likely continue to extend their range of operations for new kidnapping victims. Doing so would not only replace the resources they lost in the attack but would also circumvent the French and African military offensive in Mali, where their traditional smuggling activities will be disrupted.

Another lingering concern is the presence of large quantities of shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles in the region. If Belmokhtar or other militants decide to attack Westerners working at energy facilities in the region instead of merely kidnapping them, and if increased security prevents them from other direct assaults, like Tigantourine, these militants could attack aircraft used to ferry Westerners to airports near these remote sites.

As Mali becomes a more difficult environment in which to operate, these groups likely will retreat, at least initially, to Mali's Kidal region and possibly Niger's Air region. Once those areas face the French-backed African intervention forces, a retreat farther back into southern Libya is likely, due to the vacuum of authority there and the close links they have with Libyan militants.

Contrary to what has been widely discussed, the Tigantourine attack fit well within the range and capability of Sahel-based jihadist militants like those of Belmokhtar's group. Thus the attack was more of a reminder of the region's chronic problems and less a startling new threat. Militancy and banditry were fixtures in the Sahel well before the jihadist ideology entered the region. This history -- combined with the vacuum of authority in the region brought on by the Malian coup and the overthrow of Gadhafi, the prospect of millions of dollars in ransom and the large quantities of available weapons -- means we will see more kidnappings and other attacks in the years to come.

[Stratfor] Editor's Note: A comprehensive assessment on al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb can be found here.

The Unspectacular, Unsophisticated Algerian Hostage Crisis is republished with permission of Stratfor.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Maori war shields and cultural diffusion

Click any image to enlarge
For some reason the comic book charachter The Phantom has captured the imagination of Maori tribesman. The decorate their shields, which they use in their ritualized combat, with images of the super hero. It must be jarring to see them shaking their spears at each other while holding such a foolish looking thing. I wonder if captured ones hang in [places of honor in their lodges?

From OObject's post 15 Papua New Guinean superhero war shields where there are more and each is linked to a site further discussing them.

Trampoline acrobatics

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


It has been one of those nights, so time for some Z. For those that don't know, if Flares were a cheap gin joint then Z -- a Japanese emo-screamo punk band -- would be our house band. We would also wonder why we had no customers.

Young girl vs some hooligans

In this fight scene to get you over the hump in hump day some drunken rowdies accost a young girl and her father. First she kung-fus the snot out of them, then a nameless hero steps in to assist in the mayhem.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Stratfor and Helena Bonham Carter

First, i apologize for being away for so long without giving any word of my whereabouts. I had visitors, but thought I could at least do light posting. That didn't prove to be the case.

As for the Stratfor article, in this one Adriano Bosoni discusses England's drift away from the European Union. The EU project has long been unpopular with large segnments of the British public and pressure has been building to rework the relationship if not withdraw from the EU altogether.

Since it was about England I opted for an English actress as the article's Hot Stratfor Babe. For whatever reason Helena Bonham Carter sprang to mind as being sort of (note weasel wording) quintessentially English.

I don't recall ever actually seeing her in a film, but I do have an impression she mainly pouts in a lot of period pieces. I may be wrong about that.

United Kingdom Moves Away from the European Project
By Adriano Bosoni, January 22, 2013

British Prime Minister David Cameron will deliver a speech in London on Jan. 23, during which he will discuss the future of the United Kingdom's relationship with the European Union. Excerpts leaked to the media suggest that harsh EU criticism will figure prominently in the speech, a suggestion in keeping with Cameron's recent statements about the bloc. But more important, the excerpts signal an unprecedented policy departure: renegotiating the United Kingdom's role in the European Union. London has negotiated exemptions from some EU policies in the past, even gaining some concessions from Brussels in the process; this time, it is trying to become less integrated with the bloc altogether.

Cameron has pledged to hold a referendum after 2015 on the United Kingdom's role in Europe. He has also said he would reclaim powers London surrendered to the European Union. While they no doubt reflect similar anxieties across the Continent, such statements are anathema to the European project, and by making them, Cameron could be setting a precedent that could further undermine the European Union.

Cameron's Compromise

Cameron's strategy partly is a reaction to British domestic politics. There is a faction within the ruling Conservative Party that believes the country should abandon the European Union entirely. It was this faction that pressed Cameron to call a referendum on the United Kingdom's EU membership. Some party members also fear that the United Kingdom Independence Party, the country's traditionally euroskeptic party, is gaining ground in the country.

Such fears may be well founded. According to various opinion polls, roughly 8-14 percent of the country supports the United Kingdom Independence Party, even though it received only 3.1 percent of the popular vote in the 2010 elections. These levels of support make the party a serious contender with the Liberal Democrats as the United Kingdom's third-largest party (after the Labour Party and the Conservative Party). Some polls show that the United Kingdom Independence Party already is the third-most popular party, while others suggest it has poached members from the Conservative Party, a worrying trend ahead of elections for the European Parliament in 2014 and general elections in 2015.

Its growing popularity can be attributed to other factors. Beyond its anti-EU rhetoric, the United Kingdom Independence Party is gaining strength as an anti-establishment voice in the country, supported by those disappointed with mainstream British parties. Similar situations are developing elsewhere in Europe, where the ongoing crisis has weakened the traditional political elite.

The debate over the United Kingdom's role in the European Union is also causing friction with the Conservatives' junior coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats. Party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has repeatedly criticized the Conservatives' push for a referendum, arguing that the proposal is creating uncertainty in the country and by extension threatening economic growth and job creation. Several of the country's top businessmen share this belief. On Jan. 9, Virgin Group's Richard Branson, London Stock Exchange head Chris Gibson-Smith and eight other business leaders published a letter in the Financial Times criticizing Cameron's plan to renegotiate EU membership terms.

British citizens likewise are conflicted on the subject. In general, polls have shown that a slight majority of Britons favor leaving the European Union, but recent surveys found that opinion was evenly split. Conservative Party voters particularly support an EU withdrawal.

Given the issue's sensitivity, Cameron has sought to please everyone. He said there would be a referendum, but it would entail the United Kingdom's position in the European Union, not British membership. Despite his criticisms of the bloc, Cameron has said he does not want to leave the European Union outright; rather, he wants to repatriate from Brussels as many powers as possible. Cameron believes the United Kingdom still needs direct access to Europe's common market but that London should regain power regarding such issues as employment legislation and social and judicial affairs. Most important, the referendum would take place after the general elections of 2015.

London's Costs of Membership

London also believes that the United Kingdom has surrendered too much of its national sovereignty to supranational EU institutions. The United Kingdom is a net contributor to the European Union, and London feels that the costs of membership exceed the benefits. The Common Agricultural Policy, which subsidizes agricultural sectors in continental Europe, does not really benefit the United Kingdom, and the Common Fisheries Policy has forced the United Kingdom to share its fishing waters with other EU member states.

Yet the United Kingdom is a strong defender of the single market. Roughly half of its exports end up in the European Union, and half of its imports come from the European Union. While the United States is the United Kingdom's single most important export destination, four of its five top export destinations are eurozone countries: Germany, the Netherlands, France and Ireland. Germany is also the source of about 12.6 percent of all British imports.

Some critics suggest that the United Kingdom could leave the European Union but remain a part of the European Economic Area, the trade agreement that includes non-EU members, such as Iceland and Norway. However, the country would still be required to make financial contributions to continental Europe and adapt its legal order to EU standards, but it would not have a vote in EU decisions. According to Cameron, the United Kingdom must be part of the common market and have a say in policymaking.

The issue points to the United Kingdom's grand strategy. Despite an alliance with the United States, the United Kingdom is essentially a European power, and it cannot afford to be excluded from Continental affairs. Throughout history, London's foremost concern has been the emergence of a single European power that could threaten the British Isles politically, economically or militarily. Maintaining the balance of power in the Continent -- especially one in which London has some degree of influence -- is a strategic imperative for the United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom's Strategic Dilemma

The United Kingdom's push to renegotiate its status in the European Union threatens the European project. In the past, the bloc granted special concessions to the British, such as allowing them to keep the pound sterling during Maastricht Treaty negotiations. These concessions inspired other EU members to ask for similar treatment -- most notably Denmark, which also managed to opt out of the euro.

However, this is the first time that London has openly demanded the return to a previous stage in the process of European integration. At no other time has a country tried to dissociate itself from the bloc in this way. The decision not only challenges the Franco-German view of the European Union but also makes a compromise extremely difficult and risky between France and Germany and the United Kingdom.

Most important, Cameron is framing his proposals not in terms of national sovereignty but in terms of social well-being. In doing so, he acknowledges the social implications of the European crisis. Cameron has even said that the European Union currently is hurting its citizens more than it is helping them. According to leaked portions of his upcoming speech, he believes that there is a "growing frustration that the EU is seen as something that is done to people rather than acting on their behalf" and that the issues are "being intensified by the very solutions required to resolve the economic problems."

The excerpts also cite Cameron as saying "people are increasingly frustrated that decisions taken further and further away from them mean their living standards are slashed through enforced austerity or their taxes are used to bail out governments on the other side of the Continent." This rhetoric could become highly attractive in Europe, where people from Germany to Finland believe that taxpayers' money is being used to bail out inefficient peripheral countries. And many Greek, Spanish and Portuguese citizens probably would sympathize with the notion that austerity is worsening their quality of life. Cameron's rhetoric suggests that he is positioning the United Kingdom to be the leader of a counternarrative that opposes Germany's view of the crisis.

But this strategy is not without risks for the United Kingdom. In recent years, the country's veto power in the European Union has been reduced substantially. With each reform of the European treaties, unanimous decisions were replaced by the use of qualified majority. Even in cases where unanimity is required, Berlin and Paris have managed to bypass London when making decisions. For example, Cameron refused to sign the fiscal compact treaty in 2011, but Germany and France decided to proceed with it, even if only 25 of the 27 EU members accepted it.

Moreover, the "enhanced cooperation mechanism," the system by which EU members can make decisions without the participation of other members, increasingly has been used to move forward with European projects. Currently, the EU's Financial Transaction Tax is being negotiated under this format. In recent times, London has been able only to achieve exemptions without real power to block decisions.

Meanwhile, the ongoing crisis has compelled the European Union to prioritize the 17 members of the eurozone over the rest of the bloc. This has created a two-speed Europe, where core EU members integrate even further as the others are neglected somewhat. London could try to become the leader of the non-eurozone countries, but these countries often have competing agendas, as evidenced by recent negotiations over the EU budget. In those negotiations, the United Kingdom was pushing for a smaller EU budget to ease its financial burden, but countries like Poland and Romania were interested in maintaining high agricultural subsidies and strong development aid.

The dilemma is best understood in the context of the United Kingdom's grand strategy. Unnecessary political isolation on the Continent is a real threat to London. The more the European Union focuses on the eurozone, the less influence the United Kingdom has on continental Europe. The eurozone currently stretches from Finland to Portugal, creating the type of unified, Continental entity that London fears.

For the British, this threat can be mitigated in several ways, the most important of which is its alliance with the United States. As long as London is the main military ally and a major economic partner of the world's only superpower, continental Europe cannot afford to ignore the United Kingdom. Moreover, London also represents a viable alternative to the German leadership of Europe, especially when France is weak and enmeshed in its own domestic problems. And even if the United Kingdom chooses to move away from mainland Europe, its political and economic influence will continue to be felt in the Continent.

The United Kingdom's grand strategy has long been characterized by balancing between Europe and the United States. Currently, London is not so much redefining that grand strategy as it is shifting its weight away from Europe without completely abandoning the Continent.

United Kingdom Moves Away from the European Project is republished with permission of Stratfor.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Debussy playing the piano

In 1913 Claude Debussy made a series of recordings using a device called the Welte-Mignon reproducing piano system. It recorded his key strokes and pedal work. Debussy was quite delighted by the quality of the reproduction.

You can read more about it at Steve's Debussy plays Debussy page and/or order, Claude Debussy: The Composer as Pianist (The Caswell Collection, Vol. 1), a CD of the recordings from Amazon.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Vintage micro cars

Click any image to enlarge
Bruce Weiner runs the Microcar Museum in Madison Georgia. The museum specializes in vintage micro automobiles. These are some of the vehicles he's going to be auctioning in February.

Found via La boite verte's article Les Microcars, des mini-voitures anciennes where there are more samples. There is also a Flickr stream that has even more of the tiny vehicles.

Auditioning for a hump day appearance

A thought to get you over the hump in hump day -- for every crappy actor you've seen on the screen there are dozens who tried out for the part and were worse.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Stratfor and Andie MacDowell

In this Stratfor article George Friedman tries to dress up Obama's increasing isolationist tilt as the U.S. disengages from international flash points a wise move. Me, I'm not so sure -- I think building roads, spreading cells towers and in general hailing American notions of democracy will prove to be much more fertile seeds than a lot of people think at present.

Besides, dirty little wars are the lot of major powers. As much as they may be unpopular, they're kind of inevitable and avoiding them usually costs down the road. We shall see.

As for the Hot Stratfor Babe, since the article dealt with endless war the endless day of the movie Groundhog Day came to mind, and so Andie MacDowell became the easy winner of this article's title of Hot Stratfor Babe.

Ms MacDowell started her career as a print model, turned to television commercials and from there moved onto a very successful stint as a leading lady in movies. She continues to be busy, doing television, film and continues to model.

Avoiding the Wars That Never End
By George Friedman, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, January 15, 2013

Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that the United States would transfer the primary responsibility for combat operations in Afghanistan to the Afghan military in the coming months, a major step toward the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Also last week, France began an intervention in Mali designed to block jihadists from taking control of the country and creating a base of operations in France's former African colonies.

The two events are linked in a way that transcends the issue of Islamist insurgency and points to a larger geopolitical shift. The United States is not just drawing down its combat commitments; it is moving away from the view that it has the primary responsibility for trying to manage the world on behalf of itself, the Europeans and its other allies. Instead, that burden is shifting to those who have immediate interests involved.
Insecurity in 9/11's Wake

It is interesting to recall how the United States involved itself in Afghanistan. After 9/11, the United States was in shock and lacked clear intelligence on al Qaeda. It did not know what additional capabilities al Qaeda had or what the group's intentions were. Lacking intelligence, a political leader has the obligation to act on worst-case scenarios after the enemy has demonstrated hostile intentions and capabilities. The possible scenarios ranged from additional sleeper cells operating and awaiting orders in the United States to al Qaeda having obtained nuclear weapons to destroy cities. When you don't know, it is both prudent and psychologically inevitable to plan for the worst.

The United States had sufficient information to act in Afghanistan. It knew that al Qaeda was operating in Afghanistan and that disrupting the main cell was a useful step in taking some action against the threat. However, the United States did not immediately invade Afghanistan. It bombed the country extensively and inserted limited forces on the ground, but the primary burden of fighting the Taliban government was in the hands of anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan that had been resisting the Taliban and in the hands of other forces that could be induced to act against the Taliban. The Taliban gave up the cities and prepared for a long war. Al Qaeda's command cell left Afghanistan and shifted to Pakistan.

The United States achieved its primary goal early on. That goal was not to deny al Qaeda the ability to operate in Afghanistan, an objective that would achieve nothing. Rather, the goal was to engage al Qaeda and disrupt its command-and-control structure as a way to degrade the group's ability to plan and execute additional attacks. The move to Pakistan at the very least bought time, and given continued pressure on the main cell, allowed the United States to gather more intelligence about al Qaeda assets around the world.

This second mission -- to identify al Qaeda assets around the world -- required a second effort. The primary means of identifying them was through their electronic communications, and the United States proceeded to create a vast technological mechanism designed to detect communications and use that detection to identify and capture or kill al Qaeda operatives. The problem with this technique -- really the only one available -- was that it was impossible to monitor al Qaeda's communications without monitoring everyone's. If there was a needle in the haystack, the entire haystack had to be examined. This was a radical shift in the government's relationship to the private communications of citizens. The justification was that at a time of war, in which the threat to the United States was uncertain and possibly massive, these measures were necessary.

This action was not unique in American history. Abraham Lincoln violated the Constitution in several ways during the Civil War, from suspending the right to habeas corpus to blocking the Maryland Legislature from voting on a secession measure. Franklin Roosevelt allowed the FBI to open citizens' mail and put Japanese-Americans into internment camps. The idea that civil liberties must be protected in time of war is not historically how the United States, or most countries, operate. In that sense there was nothing unique in the decision to monitor communications in order to find al Qaeda and stop attacks. How else could the needle be found in the haystack? Likewise, detention without trial was not unique. Lincoln and Roosevelt both resorted to it.

The Civil War and World War II were different from the current conflict, however, because their conclusions were clear and decisive. The wars would end, one way or another, and so would the suspension of rights. Unlike those wars, the war in Afghanistan was extended indefinitely by the shift in strategy from disrupting al Qaeda's command cell to fighting the Taliban to building a democratic society in Afghanistan. With the second step, the U.S. military mission changed its focus and increased its presence massively, and with the third, the terminal date of the war became very far away.

But there was a broader issue. The war in Afghanistan was not the main war. Afghanistan happened to be the place where al Qaeda was headquartered on Sept. 11, 2001. The country was not essential to al Qaeda, and creating a democratic society there -- if it were even possible -- would not necessarily weaken al Qaeda. Even destroying al Qaeda would not prevent new Islamist organizations or individuals from rising up.
A New Kind of War

The main war was not against one specific terrorist group, but rather against an idea: the radical tendency in Islamism. Most Muslims are not radicals, but any religion with 1 billion adherents will have its share of extremists. The tendency is there, and it is deeply rooted. If the goal of the war were the destruction of this radical tendency, then it was not going to happen. While the risk of attacks could be reduced -- and indeed there were no further 9/11s despite repeated attempts in the United States -- there was no way to eliminate the threat. No matter how many divisions were deployed, no matter how many systems for electronic detection were created, they could only mitigate the threat, not eliminate it. Therefore, what some called the Long War really became permanent war.

The means by which the war was pursued could not result in victory. They could, however, completely unbalance U.S. strategy by committing massive resources to missions not clearly connected with preventing Islamist terrorism. It also created a situation where emergency intrusions on critical portions of the Bill of Rights -- such as the need to obtain a warrant for certain actions -- became a permanent feature. Permanent war makes for permanent temporary measures.

The break point came, in my opinion, in about 2004. Around that time, al Qaeda was unable to mount attacks on the United States despite multiple efforts. The war in Afghanistan had dislodged al Qaeda and created the Karzai government. The invasion of Iraq -- whatever the rationale might have been -- clearly produced a level of resistance that the United States could not contain or could contain only by making agreements with its enemies in Iraq. At that point, a radical rethinking of the war had to take place. It did not.

The radical rethinking had to do not with Iraq or Afghanistan, but rather with what to do about a permanent threat to the United States, and indeed to many other countries, posed by the global networks of radical Islamists prepared to carry out terrorist attacks. The threat would not go away, and it could not be eliminated. At the same time, it did not threaten the existence of the republic. The 9/11 attacks were atrocious, but they did not threaten the survival of the United States in spite of the human cost. Combating the threat required a degree of proportionality so the fight could be maintained on an ongoing basis, without becoming the only goal of U.S. foreign policy or domestic life. Mitigation was the only possibility; the threat would have to be endured.

Washington found a way to achieve this balance in the past, albeit against very different sorts of threats. The United States emerged as a great power in the early 20th century. During that time, it fought three wars: World War I, World War II and the Cold War, which included Korea, Vietnam and other, smaller engagements. In World War I and World War II, the United States waited for events to unfold, and in Europe in particular it waited until the European powers reached a point where they could not deal with the threat of German hegemony without American intervention. In both instances, it intervened heavily only late in the war, at the point where the Germans had been exhausted by other European powers. It should be remembered that the main American push in World War II did not take place until the summer of 1944. The American strategy was to wait and see whether the Europeans could stabilize the situation themselves, using distance to mobilize as late as possible and intervene decisively only at the critical moment.

The critics of this approach, particularly prior to World War II, called it isolationism. But the United States was not isolationist; it was involved in Asia throughout this period. Rather, it saw itself as being the actor of last resort, capable of acting at the decisive moment with overwhelming force because geography had given the United States the option of time and resources.

During the Cold War, the United States modified this strategy. It still depended on allies, but it now saw itself as the first responder. Partly this could be seen in U.S. nuclear strategy. This could also be seen in Korea and Vietnam, where allies played subsidiary roles, but the primary effort was American. The Cold War was fought on a different set of principles than the two world wars.

The Cold War strategy was applied to the war against radical Islamism, in which the United States -- because of 9/11 but also because of a mindset that could be seen in other interventions -- was the first responder. Other allies followed the United States' lead and provided support to the degree to which they felt comfortable. The allies could withdraw without fundamentally undermining the war effort. The United States could not.

The approach in the U.S.-jihadist war was a complete reversal from the approach taken in the two world wars. This was understandable given that it was triggered by an unexpected and catastrophic event, the reponse to which flowed from a lack of intelligence. When Japan struck Pearl Harbor, emotions were at least as intense, but U.S. strategy in the Pacific was measured and cautious. And the enemy's capabilities were much better understood.
Stepping Back as Global Policeman

The United States cannot fight a war against radical Islamism and win, and it certainly cannot be the sole actor in a war waged primarily in the Eastern Hemisphere. This is why the French intervention in Mali is particularly interesting. France retains interests in its former colonial empire in Africa, and Mali is at the geographic center of these interests. To the north of Mali is Algeria, where France has significant energy investments; to the east of Mali is Niger, where France has a significant stake in the mining of mineral resources, particularly uranium; and to the south of Mali is Ivory Coast, where France plays a major role in cocoa production. The future of Mali matters to France far more than it matters to the United States.

What is most interesting is the absence of the United States in the fight, even if it is providing intelligence and other support, such as mobilizing ground forces from other African countries. The United States is not acting as if this is its fight; it is acting as if this is the fight of an ally, whom it might help in extremis, but not in a time when U.S. assistance is unnecessary. And if the French can't mount an effective operation in Mali, then little help can be given.

This changing approach is also evident in Syria, where the United States has systematically avoided anything beyond limited and covert assistance, and Libya, where the United States intervened after the French and British launched an attack they could not sustain. That was, I believe, a turning point, given the unsatisfactory outcome there. Rather than accepting a broad commitment against radical Islamism everywhere, the United States is allowing the burden to shift to powers that have direct interests in these areas.

Reversing a strategy is difficult. It is uncomfortable for any power to acknowledge that it has overreached, which the United States did both in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is even more difficult to acknowledge that the goals set by President George W. Bush in Iraq and Obama in Afghanistan lacked coherence. But clearly the war has run its course, and what is difficult is also obvious. We are not going to eliminate the threat of radical Islamism. The commitment of force to an unattainable goal twists national strategy out of shape and changes the fabric of domestic life. Obviously, overwatch must be in place against the emergence of an organization like al Qaeda, with global reach, sophisticated operatives and operational discipline. But this is very different from responding to jihadists in Mali, where the United States has limited interests and fewer resources.

Accepting an ongoing threat is also difficult. Mitigating the threat of an enemy rather than defeating the enemy outright goes against an impulse. But it is not something alien to American strategy. The United States is involved in the world, and it can't follow the founders' dictum of staying out of European struggles. But the United States has the option of following U.S. strategy in the two world wars. The United States was patient, accepted risks and shifted the burden to others, and when it acted, it acted out of necessity, with clearly defined goals matched by capabilities. Waiting until there is no choice but to go to war is not isolationism. Allowing others to carry the primary risk is not disengagement. Waging wars that are finite is not irresponsible.

The greatest danger of war is what it can do to one's own society, changing the obligations of citizens and reshaping their rights. The United States has always done this during wars, but those wars would always end. Fighting a war that cannot end reshapes domestic life permanently. A strategy that compels engagement everywhere will exhaust a country. No empire can survive the imperative of permanent, unwinnable warfare. It is fascinating to watch the French deal with Mali. It is even more fascinating to watch the United States wishing them well and mostly staying out of it. It has taken about 10 years, but here we can see the American system stabilize itself by mitigating the threats that can't be eliminated and refusing to be drawn into fights it can let others handle.

Avoiding the Wars That Never End is republished with permission of Stratfor.

Perpetual motion

Perpetual motion is a realm of pipe-dream chasers and fraudsters. This video has some nice examples of old perpetual motion machine designs in action although the hidden pumps and motors aren't discussed.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Monster clouds

Image by Alicia Neal (click to enlarge)
Sure, when as a child you looked at them all you saw in your imagination were bunny rabbits and the like, but it turns out that, in spite of the harsh environment, clouds are teeming with life. 

Because of the altitude, along with the extremely cold temperatures,  ultraviolet rays break down the water into toxic compounds are very acidic and contain toxins such as hydrogen peroxide. However, as Ars Technica reports:
[I]t was clear that the bacteria were breaking down a significant amount of the hydrogen peroxide themselves. This is likely a kind of coping mechanism—cells chemically stressed in this way produce an enzyme that helps neutralize oxidants like hydrogen peroxide and hydroxyl radicals.

Organic compounds also appear in these droplets, but the bacteria turned out to be the dominant factor behind their breakdown. For most of these chemicals, the presence of ultraviolet light (and, thus, hydroxyl radicals) was irrelevant to their stability. They only declined when there were bacteria around to munch on them. What’s more, hydrogen peroxide and hydroxyl radicals didn’t slow them down one bit.

So then, it’s likely that bacteria really are active in clouds. And they’re not just bit players—they have a significant effect on the chemistry of cloud water. They’re controlling the concentration of hydroxyl radicals and forming particles that could be future condensation nuclei (making clouds that would be more reflective and less likely to generate precipitation). In order to fully understand the behavior of clouds, researchers are going to have to pay attention to the vagabond microbes eking out a living at 5,000 feet.
Life is pretty amazing, isn't it? They just keep finding it everywhere they look, even in some of the harshest environments. I wonder what the Mars rovers will eventually show? Odds seem increasingly tilted towards something.

You Told Me and Taken

A double dose of Monday morning start of the workweek blues
with Gus Jinkins and his Orchestra.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Japanese pre-1915 prints

Click any image to enlarge
The Library of congress has a large collection they've posted online. Part of it is their catalog of pre-1915 Japanese prints. These, and the ones that follow after the jump, are just a small sampling of what they offer. Many more are at their Fine Prints: Japanese, pre-1915 pages.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Goofing off

Like the birds at the marina above, I'm goofing off tonight when it comes to posting. Watching the Packers and hoping they pull off a win, although it is at half-time and they've been wobbly, it's still a close game.

Der Klopapier-Halter

As near as I can figure out, although I haven't really put that much energy into pondering the matter, this is the World's most elaborate toilet paper dispenser.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Stratfor and Raquel Welch

This is an interesting article by Tristan Reed that discusses the importance of human networks, and in deciphering their structure to begin to be able to analyze an organization.

Of course with clandestine organizations this is difficult, and it is made even more of a puzzle as various leaders and subalterns in a group are killed or arrested.

As for the4 article's Hot Stratfor Babe, since the article was speaking of networks it was only natural that the network of human blood vessels would spring to mind, and from there is was only a hop, skip and a jump to the movie Fantastic Journey and its female lead Raquel Welch.

Ms Welch started out as a weather girl and moved on to television and then the movies. She was a little late for the 'Bombshell' period of Hollywood, so her career always seemed like it was a day late and a dollar short in certain ways.

Regardless, she's aged well, both physically and in reputation, with some of her opinions on her status as a sex symbol being a bit of a refreshing surprise these many years later.

Intelligence and Human Networks
By Tristan Reed, January 10, 2012

Stratfor views the world through the lens of geopolitics, the study of hard, physical constraints on man's ability to shape reality. Political decisions are limited by the geography in which they take place, eliminating many of the options concocted by ideologues and making their human decisions easier to predict. But the study of geopolitics only takes the understanding of global affairs so far: It identifies the geographical constraints but leaves an array of options open to human actors. So when forecasting on a shorter time frame, analysis must go beyond geographical constraints to more specific, temporal constraints. For this reason, predicting the short-term activities of human actors requires an understanding of the constraints they face in the human terrain within which they operate.

As a result, one task common to any intelligence organization is defining the human network of a state, criminal organization, militant movement or any other organization to better determine and understand a group's characteristics and abilities. A human network in this sense is a broad term used to describe the intricate web of relations existing in an organization and within a specific region. For anyone or any organization with interests in a given geographic area, understanding the networks of individuals with influence in the region is critical.

Intelligence and Analysis

People use human networks to organize the control of resources and geography. No person alone can control anything of significance. Presidents, drug lords and CEOs rely on people to execute their strategies and are constrained by the capabilities and interests of the people who work for them. Identifying these networks may be a daunting task depending on the network. For obvious reasons, criminal organizations and militant networks strive to keep their membership secret, and it is not always apparent who gives the orders and who carries out the orders in a political body. To discern who's who in a group, and therefore whether an individual matters in a group, requires both intelligence and analysis to make sense of the intelligence.

How intelligence is acquired depends on the resources and methods available to an intelligence organization, while the analysis that follows differs depending on the intent. For example, International Security Assistance Force military operations aimed at disrupting militant networks in Afghanistan would require the collection of informants and signals intelligence followed by analysis to pinpoint the exact location of individuals within a network to enable targeted operations. Simply knowing who belongs to a militant network and their location is not enough; the value lies in the significance and capabilities of an individual in the group. Detaining an individual who lays improvised explosive devices on a road may result in short-term disruptions to the target's area of operations, but identifying and detaining a bombmaker with exclusive experience and training will have a far greater impact.

The true value of analysis lies in understanding the significance of a particular individual in a network. Mapping out a human network begins with the simple question of who belongs to a particular network. Next, identify and define relationships with other known individuals and organizations. For some, this process takes the form of link analysis, which is a visual representation of a network where each individual is represented in a diagram. Links between the individuals who interact with one another are then depicted. These links show an individual's significance in a group and establish whether he is a lowly scout within a transnational criminal organization who may only interact with his paymaster. The paymaster, by contrast, could be linked to dozens of other group members. Examining how many links within a group an individual has, however, is just scratching the surface of understanding the network.

Every individual within a given human network has reasons to be tied to others within the network. Understanding what unites the individuals in an organization provides further depth of understanding. Whether it be ideology, mutual interests, familial ties or paid services, why a relationship exists will help determine the strength of such bonds, the motives of the network and the limitations to what a network can accomplish. For example, when assessing the strength of the Syrian regime, it is imperative to identify and examine the inner circle of President Bashar al Assad. Analyzing these members can indicate which factions of the Syrian population and which political and familial groupings support or reject the al Assad regime. That key posts within the government are now occupied primarily by Alawites indicates a combination of regime distrust of the Sunnis and dwindling levels of support from even high-ranking Sunnis. Similarly, examining the once-strong ties of inner circle members who have defected indicates which factions no longer support the regime and points toward other groups that might also have doubts about remaining loyal.

Rarely is there a completely isolated human network. Human relations typically span multiple regions or even continents. Politicians can have their own business interests, drug traffickers may have counterparts in another country and militant groups may have the sympathy of other groups or even members in a state's government. There are no limits on how separate networks may interact with one another. Understanding a group's ties to other groups further defines the original group's influence. For example, a political leader at odds with the powerful military of his state may find significant constraints in governing (due to the limitations within the human network on figures linking the military assets to political leaders). A drug trafficker with a law enforcement officer on his payroll will likely find less resistance from authorities when conducting illicit business (due to the capabilities that a police officer would provide to the network).

The reasons for, and methods of, defining a human network will vary depending on the intelligence organization. A nation with vast resources like the United States has an exceptionally large focus on human networks around the world and a full array of intelligence disciplines to gather the necessary information. At Stratfor, our reasons to map the intricate web of human relations within an organization differ as we look to understand the constraints that human networks place on actors.

Challenges of Tracking Human Networks

The individuals in an organization are constantly changing. This means the job of mapping the driving forces in an organization never ends, since relations shift, roles change and individuals often are taken out of the picture altogether. As a result, intelligence collectors must continually task their intelligence assets for new information, and analysts must continually update their organizational charts.

Logically, the more fluid the membership of an organization, the more difficult it is for an intelligence organization -- or rival organization -- to follow it. As an example, take Los Zetas, who dominate the Mexican border town of Nuevo Laredo. The group always will have individuals in the city in charge of running daily criminal operations, such as coordinating gunmen, drug shipments, money laundering and retail drug sales. Within a Mexican transnational criminal organization, the person filling this role is typically called a "plaza boss." Several alleged Zetas plaza bosses of Nuevo Laredo were killed or captured during 2012 in Mexican military operations. With each kill or capture, an organization must replace the former plaza boss. This frequent succession of plaza bosses obviously reshapes the human network operating in Nuevo Laredo.

It is no simple matter for a collector to ask his informants about, or to eavesdrop through surveillance, for information about the personnel changes. It takes time for a new plaza boss to assume his new responsibilities. A new office manager must get to know his employees and operations before making critical decisions. Additionally, an intelligence collector's assets may not be able to provide updates right away. In the case of an informant, does the informant have the same access to the new plaza boss as the former? Roles are more constant within an organization and can be split up among individuals. Thus, a person who had handled both gunmen and drug shipments may be replaced by two people to break up the responsibilities. Therefore, collectors and analysts must seek to understand the roles of the new plaza boss and whether he has the same influence as the prior one.

What We Do

Understanding that the players within organizations change frequently, but that the roles and constraints of an organization transform far more slowly, is key to how Stratfor approaches human networks. For the leader of a nation, the geopolitical imperatives of the nation serve as impersonal forces directing the decisions of a rational individual. For a criminal or insurgent leader, there is only so much that can be done while attempting to avoid notice by law enforcement and the military, and the organization's imperatives will likely remain in place. In determining the constraints and imperatives, we can better identify the significance and courses of actions of an organization without necessarily knowing the details about the individuals serving specific roles.

Particularly with more clandestine human networks, we continually examine the external effects of known personnel changes. For example, how has the death of a Taliban leader in Pakistan affected the operations of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan as a whole, such as in the case of the Jan. 3 death of Taliban leader Maulvi Nazir in South Waziristan? Nazir commanded a relatively benign faction of the Pakistani Taliban that kept more aggressive, anti-government factions out of South Waziristan. His removal, and the nature of his removal, could invite militants waging an active fight against the Pakistani government to return to South Waziristan. Ultimately, Nazir was a distinct figure in the Pakistani militant network due to his alliance with Islamabad. While his removal won't change the fact that militants will thrive on the Pakistani-Afghan border (which geography dictates), it does marginally tilt the balance away from Islamabad and toward the militants.

With the example of Los Zetas in Nuevo Laredo, we know Nuevo Laredo is a critical location for the transnational criminal organization. As a border town with one of the highest volumes of cross-border commercial shipping to the United States, the city serves as one of the principal sources of revenue for Zetas drug traffickers. For this reason, Los Zetas will certainly continue to replace figures who are removed by military and law enforcement.

Using this known behavior and the imperatives, we can learn about Los Zetas elsewhere in Mexico: By observing the group at a broader geographic level, we can deduce the significance of a capture or death in a specific locale. If the losses of personnel in Nuevo Laredo have had a significant impact on the organization, operations would likely suffer in other geographic areas as the group accommodates its losses in Nuevo Laredo.

In forecasting the political, economic or security climate of a geographic region, understanding human networks must be incorporated into any analysis. Areas such as Mexico and Syria have geographic elements that define conflicts. Mexico's location between the cocaine producers of the northern Andes and cocaine consumers in the United States ensures that groups will profit off the cocaine flow from south to north. The Sierra Madre Occidental and Sierra Madre Oriental divide trafficking corridors between the east and west coasts of Mexico. But geography alone can't be used to predict how groups will organize and compete with each other within those trafficking corridors. Predicting the spread and scope of violence depends on knowledge of the human network and of who controls the resources and terrain. Similarly, the geographic significance of the Levant to Iran and Iraq determines the importance of Syria as an access point to the Mediterranean, but that alone doesn't determine the future of al Assad's regime. Understanding who his most trusted confidants are, what their relationships are based on and watching their moves enables us to filter the constant news of death and destruction coming out of Syria and to focus on the individuals who directly support al Assad and determine his immediate fate.

Inasmuch as humans can overcome geography, they can do so through organizations that control terrain and resources. Understanding the nature of those organizations and how they control those assets requires knowledge of the human network.

Intelligence and Human Networks is republished with permission of Stratfor.