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Magpie is a former journalist, attempted historian [No, you can't ask how her thesis is going], and full-time corvid of the lesbian persuasion. She keeps herself in birdseed by writing those bad computer manuals that you toss out without bothering to read them. She also blogs too much when she's not on deadline, both here and at Pacific Views.

Magpie roosts in Portland, Oregon, where she annoys her housemates (as well as her cats Medea, Whiskers, and Jane Doe) by attempting to play Irish music on the fiddle and concertina.

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Saturday, October 28, 2006


Author Jim Crace was pleased to find that his new book Useless America is selling well on Amazon.

There's just one problem, though: the book doesn't exist.

Via comment is free.

| | Posted by Magpie at 3:04 PM | Get permalink

Things are just fine in Iraq.

Sure, there's some violence going on, but Dubya's administration has plans to deal with it. After all, didn't the prez assure us in his press conference earlier this week that 'there are people [in Iraq] living relatively normal lives who I believe -- strongly believe that they want to continue that normalcy' and that 'death squad members are being brought to justice' by the al-Maliki government?

Armed Mahdi Army militants march through Baghdad's Sadr City district

Another 'normal' day in Iraq, as armed Mahdi Army militants parade through Baghdad's Sadr City district.
[Photo: Kareem Raheem/Reuters]

Of course, there are other ways to look at the situation:

A muscular, 45-year-old Shia, Abu Karar is the intelligence officer in the Martyr al-Sadr office, the organisation led by Moqtada al-Sadr, in a Shia district in the south of Baghdad.

Until recently, the industrial neighbourhood of mechanic shops and spare parts dealers was a mixed Shia-Sunni area. But through a campaign of intimidation, kidnappings and assassinations, Shia militias drove most of the Sunnis out. Abu Karar was one of those in charge of the "cleansing campaign".

A former officer in Saddam's army, he drives around the area in a Japanese car, visiting his men at their checkpoints, talking to police officers and answering numerous calls on his two mobiles.

"I have men everywhere," he says, "ready for any attack from them." In Abu Karar's world, them means Sunni insurgents. The structure of the Jaish el-Mahdi (the Mahdi army) differs from the militia that fought the US and British two years ago. The mainstream Mahdi militia has become much more organised and complicated. At the same time, there is evidence that some commanders are working independently. With the average ransom for a hostage around $5,000 (£2,635) and sometimes up to $20,000, running a militia in Iraq these days can be a very lucrative business. But Abu Karar dismisses suggestions that his men are involved in death squads. "We are defending our people. If the Sunnis come from an area to attack us, we go and attack them. They have started this fight." The mainstream Mahdi militia is organised around the Martyr al-Sadr offices, scattered around Baghdad and holding more authority, in some areas, than the government...

The Mahdi army models itself on Hizbullah, the Lebanese resistance organisation, he says. "We are not only an army for killing, we provide services. We get gas cans from the plant and deliver it to the people. We give the people what the government is unable to provide: services and protection." If someone wishes to inform on a "terrorist", they are asked to swear on the Qur'an. The rest is taken care off by Abu Karar and his men. "We have eyes all over Baghdad. We investigate the suspects and then we get them."

He describes how, a few days ago, he received a tip from a fellow Shia about a Sunni "terrorist group". "They were killing our Shia brothers, in Tobji ... The office in the area called on us to help. We went in a convoy of three cars. We stormed into the house. There was a small gun battle. We found three men; we arrested them."

Were the men questioned? "We don't need interrogations or trials, the informant had sworn by the Qur'an. We took them to the Seda and finished them there." The Seda is a small dirt berm on the edge of Sadr City, north-east of Baghdad, where bodies are often found....

Raid, a captain in the notorious Ministry of Interior commandos, confirms Abu Karar's claims. "When we arrest a suspect, sometimes we get a letter from a Moqtada office asking for the suspect to be transferred to their custody. We do it." He continues: "What can you do if you are policemen standing at a checkpoint and see militiamen with a dead body? Nothing. The policemen can't do anything. They are scared of the militia; they let them pass."

That's just part of journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad's must-read report on the Iraqi civil war that Dubya's administration keeps telling us isn't happening. Make sure to go read it all.

Via UK Guardian.

| | Posted by Magpie at 12:52 PM | Get permalink

Seymour Hersh vs. a stupid reporter.

Sometimes an interview is worth reading even though the person conducting the interview is a jerk. As a case in point, take this Montreal Mirror interview of journalist Seymour Hersh, conducted by alleged journalist Matthew Hays. Despite Hersh's obvious exasperation with the Hays' poorly thought out and leading questions, he nonetheless manages to say quite a lot.

M: Why does so much of the American public often seem wilfully ignorant? Much of the populace seems intent on not knowing what is going on in terms of political and foreign affairs.

SH: This is the strangest interview I've ever had.

M: Why?

SH: Because you're so fucking opinionated. I don't disagree with you, but we're just rolling through your thoughts on things. It is sort of silly. No, it's not silly, but we're just rolling from whatever obsession you have to the next. You're pretty obsessional.

M: Isn't that a fair question?

SH: The ignorance may not be willful. The problem with this is, in order to answer your questions, I have to buy into what it is you're saying. I have no fucking way of knowing whether they're ignorant. I mean, Americans are pretty fucking ignorant. What we don't know is pretty huge. You could never accuse Americans of learning from history or learning from past mistakes. You're talking about a country that went to war in Vietnam with the theory that we had to bomb North Vietnam in order to keep the hordes of Red China from coming, right? Not knowing that Vietnam and China had fought wars for 2,000 years and would fight one four years after the war was over, in '79. What we don't know is just breathtaking in my country. To call this ignorance willful as opposed to general ignorance, I don't know. On any issue, Americans can display an incredible lack of information. I doubt if there's a society which has paid less attention to the facts than any else.

M: There have been many comparisons made between the Vietnam War and the current Iraq War. Though there was resistance to this, Bush recently acknowledged some parallels in an interview. As someone who has covered both conflicts extensively, were you surprised that so many of the same mistakes appeared to be made in Iraq so soon after Vietnam?

SH: Are you suggesting that a) we learn from our mistakes? Or b) that willful ignorance goes from one generation to the other? (laughs) I'm just answering your questions. You are pretty tendentious. It's okay, it's better than dumb questions. It's not dumb, but just don't be a lawyer, because the judge will just say, "Rephrase. You're leading the client." But that's okay, you're entitled to an opinion. I have the same view you do, the problem is that I do believe in being vaguely empirical.

Do make sure to read the whole thing; it's more fun than a barrel of Republicans.

Via Cursor.

| | Posted by Magpie at 12:01 AM | Get permalink

Friday, October 27, 2006

Is net neutrality a lot of mumbo jumbo?

Or is the new anti-net neutrality ad from the National Cable and Telecommunication Association just the same old bullsh*t?

Take a look at the ad and decide for yourself.

Still from NCTA anti-net neutrality ad

While the ad claims that the big Silicon Valley companies are just looking to freeload on everyone else's dime, the reality is quite different. What's really going on is cable and telecommunications companies want to kill net neutrality so that they can charge content providers for preferred access to their customers.

As Craigslist founder Craig Newmark once described it (via Cory Doctorow's memory of the comment):

Imagine if you tried to order a pizza and the phone company said, "AT&T's preferred pizza vendor is Domino's. Press one to connect to Domino's now. If you would still like to order from your neighborhood pizzeria, please hold for three minutes while Domino's guaranteed orders are placed."

Personally, I'd like to pick my own pizza vendor. And search engine.

Via Boing Boing.

| | Posted by Magpie at 5:13 PM | Get permalink

Putting the brakes on the international arms trade.

By a 139 to 1 vote, the UN General Assembly has decided to start work on a treaty to put limits on international weapons trafficking.

Guess which country was the lone vote against the effort?

[Hint: It's the same one that has the planet's 53rd-freest press.]

More:  Why did the US vote against the treaty? Take your pick:

"The only way for a global arms trade treaty to work is to have every country agree on a standard," said Richard Grenell, a spokesman for the US mission to the UN told the Associated Press. The official US line is that so much compromise would be required to pass a UN treaty that it would be watered down to the point of not having any substance. "For us, that standard would be so far below what we are already required to do under US law that we had to vote against it in order to maintain our higher standards."

But Rebecca Peters, [director of the International Action Network on Small Arms], believes the Bush administration's decision is the result of powerful lobbying from groups like the National Rifle Assocation (NRA), which has traditionally opposed UN arms control resolutions. "The most likely explanation for why the US was the sole opponent of the resolution is that the US has Congressional elections in two weeks, and the government is bowing to pressure from the extremist NRA," Peters said.
[Emphasis added]

Via Spiegel.

| | Posted by Magpie at 3:42 PM | Get permalink

The GOP is losing another part of its base.

Which part? Rural voters.

According to a new poll by the nonpartisan Center for Rural Strategies, rural voters in the US have shifted dramatically toward the Democrats over the past month.

The poll of rural voters in 41 contested congressional districts found that likely voters preferred Democratic candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives by a margin of 13 points, 52 percent to 39 percent. In mid-September, the same population of voters was evenly split between the two parties at 45 percent each.

In contested Senate races in states with significant rural populations, rural voters preferred Democrats by 4 points, 47 to 43 percent, reversing the 4-point lead Republican Senate candidates held among rural voters in mid-September. But those results fall within the poll's margin of error.

"We're seeing a real erosion in Republican support among rural voters, and that could determine who controls Congress," said Democrat Anna Greenberg, one of the poll's analysts. "There has been a perfect storm of issues that have led rural voters toward Democratic candidates -- the war in Iraq, economic struggle in rural communities and a muddling of 'moral values' because of the Mark Foley scandal."

"The numbers in this poll have to be disturbing to any Republican involved in the upcoming election," said Bill Greener, a Republican strategist and consultant on the poll. "Republican success has relied on strong support from rural voters, and this survey indicates we don't have that support today. We have to do better if we are going to reach our objectives on Election Day."
[Emphasis mine]

I'm trying really hard not to get too optimistic about how the November election will turn out, but the news continues to be so bad for the GOP that it's hard to see any way for the Democrats to lose other than due to massive election fraud. And given the GOP's track record, fraud on that level is certainly a possibility.

| | Posted by Magpie at 11:00 AM | Get permalink

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Is this another sign that Dubya's US is on the slide?

BBC News reports that the largest producers of counterfeit US currency are North Korea and Colombia. That's nothing new, really. But what did strike me as new and probably important was a paragraph in the middle of the story:

In Bulgaria, previously one of the biggest producers of fake dollars, fraudsters have turned to copying the euro, said the study.

I'd have to say that one warning sign that your country's currency has really lost its value is when counterfeiters stop faking your money and switch to someone else's.

And it really makes me wonder about something else that the BBC reports in the story: South Korean intelligence agencies say that North Korea has stopped making counterfeit US currency. Is the reason they've stopped is so that they can join Bulgaria in the more lucrative trade of making fake euros?

| | Posted by Magpie at 7:06 PM | Get permalink

That job I interviewed for the other day.

I got it!

It pays decent money, so I don't have to worry about my cruel landlord tossing me out on the street. And I can afford to pay to do the dental work on that tooth I broke the other week. I can take public transportation to work, so I can leave my car parked most of the time. Even better, the new job is working for company that I liked a lot when I did a contract for them a few years ago.

So things are looking up. Mostly.

Before I can actually start work, though, I have to spend part of today sitting in a waiting room so I can have the privilege of peeing in a cup for a pre-employment drug test. Good thing, too — we have to prevent irresponsible magpies from spending their days writing computer manuals under the influence of controlled substances.

| | Posted by Magpie at 12:16 PM | Get permalink

Dubya's benchmarks for a successful Iraq occupation.

Ted Rall has an inside line.

Ted Rall cartoon on Bush's Iraq benchmarks

[Cartoon: © 2006 Ted Rall]

You can view the rest of the cartoon over here. And if you want to see more of Rall's stuff, check out his website.

Via Association of American Editorial Cartoonists.

| | Posted by Magpie at 12:05 AM | Get permalink

Is your car's engine running a bit rough?

Better take it to a car geek to get its onboard computer hacked.

Via NY Times.

| | Posted by Magpie at 12:01 AM | Get permalink

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Lesbians and gay men win one in New Jersey.

More or less.

I was going to post on the NJ Supremes' ruling that the state constitution requires that gay and lesbian couples be granted the same legal rights as heterosexual couples, but Blogger went down for a big chunk of the afternoon and early evening, leaving me all dressed up with nowhere to blog.

But never fear! One of my comrades at Pacific Views did a great post on the subject while I was stuck offline, gnashing my teeth. So go read what Natasha has to say.

| | Posted by Magpie at 11:17 PM | Get permalink

Why isn't this financial scandal big news?

It's not like it's small potatoes: It involves billions of dollars of tax-exempt bonds issued by local governments; US $100 million in lost tax revenues annually; and schools and low-cost housing that never gets built. And, not incidentally, the scandal also involves a lot of money going into the pockets of US banks, insurance companies, and financial advisors who arranged the 'black box' bond deals.

This should be front-page news, but not only is it not on the front pages, the scandal hasn't made any page of any US newspaper that we can find. (A related story in the St Paul Pioneer Press is the only exception.) If not for three reporters at a financial publication, Bloomberg Markets, nobody would know about the scandal at all.

And given that I'm not a Bloomberg subscriber who can look behind the magazine's pay firewall, I wouldn't know anything at all about the story if CJR Daily hadn't posted about the Bloomberg story. Here's part of that post:

The headline is "Broken Promises," the special report "Duping Main Street." Words clad in mulberry explain: "Wall Street created $7 billion in bonds for housing and schools. The tax-exempt deals were a ruse; banks and advisers collected millions in fees and investment gains. The public got nothing." [...]

Bloomberg's William Selway, Martin Z. Braun and David Dietz outline a scandal of staggering proportions, then make their case through exhaustive research and reporting that backs up the splashy start.

Their story begins with Pastor Willie Williams in Pensacola, Fla., as he remarks that the Oakwood Terrace complex of 300 apartments for low-income residents "looks like a concentration camp." It didn't have to be that way, as the complex was one development "eligible to benefit from $220 million in bonds issued by a public agency in 1999 to promote affordable housing in Florida." But, says Bloomberg, "None of the money went to Oakwood Terrace. Not a penny of the $220 million bond issue -- which was underwritten by JPMorgan Chase & Co., the third-largest bank in the U.S., and insured by a unit of American International Group Inc., the world's largest insurance company -- was ever spent on low-income residences."

"During the past decade, local governments across the U.S. have issued more than 70 of these phantom bonds -- at least $7 billion of them," Bloomberg continues, explaining that the money generated by the sale of these tax-exempt bonds should be used for, say, housing renovations or computers for inner-city schools. But "Taxpayers never get most of those benefits; the winners are the banks, insurance companies and financial advisers that get paid millions of dollars for crafting these transactions and then profit by using bond proceeds for their own investment gains."

This sort of behind-the-scenes scam is possible because these complicated "black box deals," Bloomberg says, "sometimes contain secret agreements that promise to pay the financial middlemen higher fees if none of the money from the bond offerings is used to help the public. The agencies that issue the bonds buy them back from investors. The money goes untapped, and the advisers keep their fees."

Municipal bonds might not naturally come to mind when considering financial corruption, but Bloomberg's writers manage to make this obscure, arcane issue come alive for Street obsessive types and general readers alike....

The Bloomberg story, incidentally, is further proof that the most important economic news is often buried in the business pages and in specialized business publications, where it goes unseen and unread by most of the public. Hell, it even goes unseen by most journalists — something I well remember from my time as a reporter.

This magpie sends big congrats to Bloomberg for publishing this important story. But the congrats would be even bigger if they'd take the story out from behind the pay firewall so that it would get the attention it deserves.

Thanks to Suburban Guerrilla for a post that got me to look a second time at CJR Daily.

| | Posted by Magpie at 8:51 AM | Get permalink

Land of the  free .

There used to be a time when a news story like this would never have existed:

Several governments around the world have tried to rebut criticism of how they handle detainees by claiming they are only following the U.S. example in the war on terror, the U.N. anti-torture chief said Monday.

Manfred Nowak, the U.N. special investigator on torture, said that when he criticizes governments for their questionable treatment of detainees, they respond by telling him that if the United States does something, it must be all right. He would not name any countries except for Jordan.

"The United States has been the pioneer, if you wish, of human rights and is a country that has a high reputation in the world," Nowak told a news conference. "Today, many other governments are kind of saying, 'But why are you criticizing us, we are not doing something different than what the United States is doing?'"
[Emphasis mine]

I have to wonder how many years — or decades — it's going to take to dig the US out from under this one of Dubya's legacies to the nation.

Via AP.

| | Posted by Magpie at 8:28 AM | Get permalink

Short and to the point.

Wired recently asked a bunch of its favorite writers to submit extremely short stories. Like, we're talking six words, none of which can be repeated. They got a ton of gems from the authors who responded, but this one is my favorite:

Bush told the truth. Hell froze.
- William Gibson

Although this one is a close second:

Longed for him. Got him. Shit.
- Margaret Atwood

There's a ton more here, including a bunch that couldn't fit into the print magazine.

Via Boing Boing.

| | Posted by Magpie at 8:11 AM | Get permalink

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

We never really needed freedom of the press, anyway.

And a good thing, too. Otherwise, those of us in the US might find it worrisome that Reporters Without Borders' latest Press Freedom Index puts the US at #53 worldwide. If you're counting, that's just below the Dominican Republic and a bit ahead of Hong Kong.

For comparison purposes, the 2002 index put the US at #17, and even last year's index had the US at #44.

Ranking of countries by press freedom

How low can the US go? [Data: Reporters Without Borders]

Why has the US dropped so fast since 2002? One word: Dubya.

The United States (53rd) has fallen nine places since last year, after being in 17th position in the first year of the Index, in 2002. Relations between the media and the Bush administration sharply deteriorated after the president used the pretext of "national security" to regard as suspicious any journalist who questioned his "war on terrorism." The zeal of federal courts which, unlike those in 33 US states, refuse to recognise the media's right not to reveal its sources, even threatens journalists whose investigations have no connection at all with terrorism.

Freelance journalist and blogger Josh Wolf was imprisoned when he refused to hand over his video archives. Sudanese cameraman Sami al-Haj, who works for the pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera, has been held without trial since June 2002 at the US military base at Guantanamo, and Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein has been held by US authorities in Iraq since April this year.

Reporters Without Borders has more information on this year's Press Freedom Index here. There's a description of how the index was complied here, and the list of questions used this year is here.

An interesting sideline: If you look at 2002's Press Freedom Index, you'll see that Hong Kong was right below the US that year (at #18), just as it is on the 2006 index. Hong Kong's huge drop since then is due to limitations on press freedom imposed by China's communist government and by Beijing's sock puppets in Hong Kong. It's sad that the US, a country that's supposedly a bastion of freedom, has a press only marginally freer than that of Hong Kong, which is part of a country that has some of the most draconian restrictions on free expression on the planet. But with Dubya in charge of the US for the last six years, who needs communists to take away our freedoms, eh?

| | Posted by Magpie at 6:16 PM | Get permalink

Slow posting again today.

Sorry, but I'm busy in job interviews today. Even magpies need to eat.

In the meantime, you know where the blogroll is.

| | Posted by Magpie at 12:36 PM | Get permalink

Monday, October 23, 2006

This should be interesting.

From a news advisory I just got:

For the first time since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, active- duty members of the military are asking Members of Congress to end the U.S. occupation of Iraq and bring American soldiers home.

Sixty-five active-duty members have sent Appeals for Redress to Members of Congress. Three of these people (including two who served in Iraq) and their attorney will speak about this on Wednesday, Oct. 25 at 11 a.m. EDT.

Under the Military Whistle-Blower Protection Act (DOD directive 7050.6), active-duty military, National Guard and Reservists can file and send a protected communication to a Member of Congress regarding any subject without reprisal.
[Emphasis mine]

Given the retaliation that all of these servicemembers will likely suffer — despite the protection of the whistleblower law — I'd guess that this isn't a mere publicity stunt by what I'm sure right-wingers are already calling a bunch of unpatriotic crybabies.

Via US Newswire.

| | Posted by Magpie at 3:08 PM | Get permalink

Civil war? What civil war?

Oh yeah ... the one that US occupation troops are stuck in the middle of in Baghdad.

Before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, it was one of the nightmare scenarios: a slugfest in Iraq's capital, a sprawl of narrow streets, markets and blind alleys that is home to 6 million people.

More than three years later, the close-quarters fight the United States wanted to avoid is a reality. Rather than fighting Saddam Hussein's army, however, U.S. troops are caught in the crossfire alongside Iraqi forces as both try to take back the city from religion-based militias and death squads, as well as insurgents.

"This is the toughest thing I hope I ever do: fighting a counterinsurgency atop a sectarian conflict," said Col. James Pasquarette, commander of the Army's 1st Brigade Combat Team, positioned northwest of Baghdad.

The raging battle for Baghdad is looking more like a civil war, even if the U.S. and Iraqi governments avoid using the term....

The administration calls the battle for Baghdad the key to Iraq's future. The main obstacles to progress in that fight, according to experts and U.S. officers:
  • The lack of a political deal to disarm militias has allowed religious violence to grow.

  • Urban warfare neutralizes the American military's edge in technology and firepower.

  • Iraqi security forces vary in quality and loyalty and may not be ready for a battle of this intensity.

The battle for the capital is a fight the United States cannot afford to lose. "If you don't win in Baghdad, you can't win in the rest of the country," said Thomas X. Hammes, author of The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century.
[Emphasis mine]

Via USA Today.

| | Posted by Magpie at 11:42 AM | Get permalink

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Pop quiz!

Quick! What's that in the picture?

An alien space station, maybe? A secret weapon? A newly discovered underground organism?

(No peeking at the ALT tag, either!)

Electron micrograph of a snowflake with rime frost

What is that thing, anyway?
[Photo: USDA]

Give up?

You'll find the answer here. And a much larger version of the photo here.

| | Posted by Magpie at 3:28 PM | Get permalink

Kinda busy this morning.

But you can expect new posts this afternoon (West Coast US time).

In the meantime, I've noticed that Suburban Guerrilla and On Topic both have lots of tasty new posts up. You might want to go give them each a visit and then check back in here later on.

| | Posted by Magpie at 9:45 AM | Get permalink

Liar, liar, pants on fire!


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