How to handle hecklers

If you become a predictor, and make a prediction that is justified by fair use of the tricks of the trade, you are bound to encounter a heckler who wil assail the fallibility of each of your datums.

Your datums are things you read, things people said, personality assessments, things that have happened,  things that appear to be happening,  trends, and fact-fences. Taken individually, each of these datums is of low quality. This is to be expected of open sources, save the occasional assassination where the body is clearly on display.

So how do you answer your heckler? The answer lies in the realm of both pure and applied mathematics:

1. The Central Limit Theorem.

2. Techniques of data fusion.

Unless you have a particular interest, there is no need to delve deeper. A confident look, and a “read it and then we’ll talk” should suffice. You’ll probably never hear from the guy.

Tip for predictors: avoid conspiracy theories; movie rental

If you happened to read the last post as soon as I put it up, you might have seen some rapid-fire edits. Besides proof reading, there was, initially, the suggestion that Maliki’s actions might be motivated by something other than stupidity. Then I realized that the wording was suggestive of conspiracy, i.e.,

“Maliki is secretly paid off by the Iranians”, “Maliki siphons Iraqi oil money”, or even, “Maliki wants the dissolution of Iraq.”

These are examples of conspiratorial embellishments, and run contrary to the most useful tool of all analytic thought, Occam’s Razor:

*The most simple explanation is most likely to be true.*

Everything that is happening in Iraq can be explained without resort to hidden conspiracy. On the other hand, there is obvious (not hidden) conspiracy, by the Iranians, and, known by the nature of the politics, of Iraqi politicians. Only the details are unknown, and relatively unimportant in dissecting the problem.

Hamid Karzai has admitted to getting “bags of money” from both Iran and the CIA. In our part of the world, that would point to conspiracy. But there, bags of money are a way of making government function. Perhaps traffic jams in Baghdad are caused by bag men making the rounds. But if everyone is conspiring, it takes the attractiveness out of overarching conspiracy theories.

A delicious paranoic movie, as seen by a conspiracy theorist, is Pascali’s Island. Since it stars Ben Kingsley, you know it’s good. No spoilers here.

No successor to Maliki named; fencing the problem

Fencing the problem is an important part of the predictor’s toolkit. Sometimes the fence is made of facts; other times, pseudo facts, things that have higher probabilities than the swirling cloud of amorphous possibilities.

Since the Sunnis and Kurds have abandoned parliament, one part of the fence is that they are out of the picture. The other part comes as the answer to the question, “Who is left who cares?”, to which the glaring answer is, Shiite factions, who remain a shifting cloud of alliances that is hard to see into with open sources.

But the swirling cloud has  a useful fence.  Iran has three  distinct presences: the IRG, which supports the “legitimate government” of Iraq,  the Qom religious establishment, and the Mahdi Army. Each is tasked with accessing a different part of the Shiite spectrum.

The roots of the Mahdi Army are the poor underclass of Baghdad, providing an easily manipulable paramilitary tool. The Mahdi army was formerly sponsored by the Qom religious establishment, but appears to have been spun off in February, when “firebrand cleric” Muqtadā al-Ṣadr disowned it in a handwritten note. No amount of cynicism can be excessive here; al-Sadr may have been touchingly concerned about the elderly Sistani’s health, and whether his own contamination by worldly affairs would allow him to ascend the clerical hierarchy.  But with levers of power having shifted in a more muscular direction, al-Sadr is back.

The inertia of coherent groups with shared interests provides some degree of predictability. One has to be careful with individuals. Even those who appear to be rigid can make sudden reversals. Others are perpetual ciphers. The general drive of self-interest always plays a part. But since the prize is not a pot of gold, which can be a solitary enjoyment, but power over others, self-interest is not easily defined either.

The sophistication of the Iranian approach, of appealing to multiple blocs with differently authored approaches, is impressive. The Iranians have been out thinking U.S. policy makers for years. Maliki, who is “not a cleric”, has a hand-tailored Iranian interface designed just for him, the IRG.

Let’s paint a picture, and see how it holds together:

1. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s highest ranking cleric, wants a new government. Since the main problem with the present government is with other factions, this suggests he wants a “big Iraq.” His self interest could be that, while he is a big religious authority in a small country, his influence would be diluted by the large religious establishment of Iran. It would be a simplistic error to assume he is not motivated by good will. But the external result is the same.

2. The rumors that Maliki’s election was the result of Iranian pressure have been persistent. If he is a puppet, there are all degrees of puppetry, ranging from a long term money maker like Charley McCarthy to the the merely idolatrous Castro. Maliki’s policies toward the Sunnis and Kurds, which seem almost purposely designed to make Iraq fall apart, may have been inspired by Iranian influence, or the desire to disengage/marginalize/subjugate the Sunnis. As the saying goes, even paranoids have real enemies.

3. The Mahdi Army, which is clearly an Iranian proxy, has been reactivated, in the sense that the Qom religious establishment has decided to give it a push. While none of the Shiite factions, or any factions in Iraq, adhere to what we call fair play, the Mahdi Army is something like the Paris Mob of the French Revolution.

An interesting analogy with Ukraine presents. Vladimir Putin, an intelligent man, is aware that absorption of a country with hostile elements imports instability. The Iranians, also intelligent, are aware that absorption of the whole of Iraq presents the same problem. It appears they want to peel off the bottom. Given the sophistication of their strategies, they seem likely to succeed. It will have a little wrapping on it to avoid the stigma of annexation.




Sunni vs. Shiite; Who are the “Good Guys” ? Movie rental.

In December 2012, the bodyguards of Vice-President of Iraq Tariq al-Hashimi were arrested and beaten. Whatever they said in these comfortable circumstances was used to accuse him of running an assassination squad. He was tried in absentia, sentenced to death, and now resides, safe from extradition, in Turkey.

With confessions obtained by torture and al-Maliki’s sectarian attitude, it should be easy to discount this as a gross perversion of justice.  So it is. So what did al-Hashimi’s political bedfellows have to say about it? Quoting the Seattle Times, “Two of Iraq’s top political leaders voiced muted criticism…”  Muted? Why “muted” ?

In February 2012, the New York Times reported, “In a report offering details of their investigation into the politically divisive case, the nine judges, drawn from all of Iraq’s main ethnic and religious factions, appeared to offer support to terrorism charges leveled by the Iraqi authorities in December against Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi.”

If you’re wondering where I’m going with this, it’s a Zen Predictor’s Exercise. You have a natural desire to identify the “good guy.” This exercise will help you get away from that.

Suppose aL-Maliki knew, somehow, that aL-Hashimi was a plotter. It doesn’t make sense to the Western mind to televise confessions obtained by torture. Torture was used in the recent past in  a desperate attempt to save American lives from the predations of Al Qaeda, but it never occurred to us to decorate judicial proceedings with the results. We forget that torture was an instrument of justice as late as the 1850’s in Switzerland, of all places. We forget that the Miranda ruling was, in part, a guard against “forced confession”, which encompassed torture, i.e., the rubber hose, the telephone book, and much worse.  We have collective amnesia on the subject.

That was a very long, but necessary detour in a post about who’s good/who’s bad in Iraq. Does it make Maliki the “good guy”? The New Yorker has an interesting sketch. Quoting, “Having spent much of his life hunted by assassins, Maliki gives the impression of a man who learned long ago to ruthlessly suppress his feelings. ”

It does not appear that one can qualify an Iraqi politician by Western standards of behavior, since staying alive is such a preoccupation. The U.S. no longer participates in the Iraqi political process, but hypothetically, should we choose based upon who the man is a proxy for? The only certain fact is that Maliki is a Shiite. The uncertainty is such that both Al Jazeera and Middle East Monitor decline to identify his successor.

The most interesting example of “who is this guy working for” is Ahmed Chalabi, blamed by some for getting us into Iraq in the first place. The  history of this man’s alliances, shifts, positions, and alleged betrayals makes fascinating reading. And he’s still alive.

To the Western mind, this is all very peculiar. With our judicial mindset, we want to pick the “good guy”, but it seems as if the actors of the Iraqi political scene  balance only two desires, temporary coexistence, and doing each other in. This should all be familiar to us from the movie, “Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” Rent it.






Russian fighter jets arrive in Iraq; it’s deja vu all over again

Some sources, such as the NY Times, The Independent, are behind pay-walls, which may be accessible by a free monthly article allotment. Reuters has a silent video.  Do your own Google search.

The U.S. refused to deliver fighter jets for a good reason: When used as tactical bombers without sophisticated targeting, they are indiscriminate devices, leveling neighborhoods. Where Sunnis have fled, real estate is going to take a real hit. The desirability of precision targetting is why there has not, as yet, been U.S. air support.

Let’s paint the picture:

1. Of the 10,000 ISIS fighters in Iraq, some will die from bombs, others from lucky bullets, and others will disperse to both urban and rural locations.

2. Those Sunnis who return will find nothing remains of their homesteads.

3. The fighter jets, with the amazing lack of accuracy characteristic of dumb munitions, will strike both Sunni tribesmen, ISIS fighers, and people who claimed to be innocent Sunni tribesmen, who either are or are not.

4. The Saudis have urged the Sunnis to participate in Iraq’s government. There is as yet no indication that their cooperation will be offered or accepted for other than immediate objectives, such as killing their personal enemies.

5. A U.S. general, whose name I can’t remember, hoped that the absence of immediate U.S. military intervention would help the Iraqis understand the need for an inclusive government. With Russian  jets, this is no longer necessary. Iraq’s Shiites are going to do it the Syrian way. After all, it worked in Syria, where the Alawites are a minority, so why shouldn’t it work in Iraq, where the Shiites are a majority?

As Yogi Berra would say, “It’s deja vu all over again.”


Putin’s paramilitary problem

I was going to write a lengthy essay on this, but I risk being scooped by events, so here’s the short form. Paramilitaries are like unguided missiles, stoked to a fevered pitch by  emotional appeals to patriotism. There is no “off switch.” Putin has to let their springs run down a bit, and even then, they are a huge problem.

So Kerry’s demand that Putin disarm the revolutionaries “within hours” is obvious theater. Kerry knows how it works.

Those who live to return to Russia have left the blood of their comrades in Ukraine. Just as with the Bay of Pigs Invasion,   there are going to be some very angry people. They will accuse Putin for betrayal. Recall that some theories of the JFK assassination implicate Cuban counter-revolutionaries. Without any suggestion by me that such theories are valid, because I have no idea, this should give you an idea of how serious a problem it is.

It is somewhat encouraging that four OSCE monitors have just been released. This suggests that the paramilitaries are, in fact, coming off their surge, and becoming semi-manageable.

But the returning paramilitary is a ticking time bomb, with ample capacity for conspiracy directed at revenge. Putin is an expert at staying alive. If necessary, he will liquidate particularly dangerous individuals.

Putin’s Ukraine Miscalculation; his war plan

The broad outline of the plan seems to have been:

1. A false flag operation  would fake a rebellion. It would be carried out by Russian paramilitaries with supervision by more professional elements of the Russian covert establishment.

2. Disinformation techniques would activate latent ethnic tensions.

3. The fake rebellion and and active ethnic tensions were to draw energy from each other, just as a dry wind fans a forest fire.

4. When the conflagration  was burning brightly, Russian troops would invade to put the fire out.

5. Since Putin considers himself a moral person, the conflagration was never intended to be a real one. It was intended to have all the fire and sparkle of an electric Christmas tree. This was a weakness of the plan.

6. The Russian armed forces would put on a visible show of worldwide scope to remind us that they are not a pushover. We noticed this, and were amused.

Disinformation, and propaganda in general, have been such a staple of USSR strategy, both internal and external, Putin felt he had the best brains in the business to draw on. One can imagine KGB fossils summoned out of retirement, with canes, bad-fitting suits, puffing away on  cheap cigarettes, reminiscing about the good old days. “Ukraine is a ripe apple, comrade. We will make it fall into your lap.”

There is  indication that this worked in some small villages, but elsewhere, the KGB veterans were overwhelmed in an information horse race.  They simply did not appreciate that the grapevine moves faster these days. The Internet, which Putin calls “a CIA invention“, has a lot to do with this. But even the plain old cellphone affects the calculation. Human naivete is not a constant. Connectedness and naivete are inversely related.

Economically, a Russia-Ukraine match-up makes great sense. But the majority of Russian speaking Ukrainians do not favor it. It is to Putin’s credit that, unlike the truly dark figures of history, he did not yield to the temptation of a false-flag massacre, or more direct incitement of Ukrainian violence, which, if accomplished without decisive detection, would have turned their heads toward Russia.

Next: How can Putin extricate from this mess?

Putin is remorseful; his Bay of Pigs

Poroshenko says, “Peace depends upon Putin’s mood.”

To a limited extent, and with a complete admission of fallibility, I think I understand the guy. In this context, at least. I’ve given it more than casual consideration; a couple years ago, I wrote a paper on Putin’s character.

I think Putin is, in a sense, remorseful, in that he is genuinely worried about the potential for loss of human life. Whether this extends beyond ethnic Russians is yet to be seen. But among the lives at risk, there are Russians. Besides the broader Russian population of Ukraine, there are the proxies, who, as with the Bay of Pigs, were put there as the result of a faulty calculation. The conditions on the ground did not move in the direction that would favor success. And now, he must be thinking, “How do I get them out of there?”

The appearance of  Putin as a cold, calculating individual is at least partly a put-on.  It works to his advantage. It does not appear that he rises to the sensitivity of leaders of the E.U., but that may be as good as it gets in human history. Compared to our own record, Putin is probably not impressed with our argument based on defense of freedom. We, on the other hand, are less than impressed by Putin’s comparatively small sacrifices because of the motive, grabbing land. The one subject both sides seem to tacitly avoid are the Chechen wars. Some things are worth not talking about, and defense of Western civilization is one of them.

But at this moment, Poroshenko has provided us with an absolutely stunning insight: Putin can lose his cool. If Putin is playing Hitler yelling at Chamberlain (see Munich Agreement) for what purpose is the theatricality?  Whatever the intelligence view, the White House is justifiably concerned about whatever possibility remains of invasion. But on the other hand, Putin must know it would wake up the Germans.

Meta analysis example; a Reuters opinion piece

The sample piece, dated 4/24/2014,  is “The revolution in Putin’s head.”

1. DIscount the title. The purpose is to get you to read it.

2. “Former Kremlin operatives, serving officials, diplomats and dissidents that I recently spoke to in Moscow all agreed that Putin, who is a pragmatic leader, has been reborn as a true revolutionary who will challenge the West in the following ways.”

The phrase “all agreed”, indicates a sampling bias. Couldn’t the author find anyone to disagree? Even if you have to look a little bit, dissenters are valuable sources.

If you are reading this, you probably live in a country where politicians frequently redefine themselves. Are they constantly being reborn? That’s a heck of a lot of nativity.  “Reborn” refers to the Christian religious doctrine of “spiritual rebirth.” The writer is motivated by the desire to excite the reader’s interest, rather than inform. Good writing does both, but  the balance here is wrong.

3. This contains a  fallacious piece of logic: “Putin was drawn to the potential of ethnic nationalism in Crimea. He knew its power and he feared that if he did not tap into it, someone else would. ” It’s a defective syllogism:

a. “potential of ethnic nationism” OK.

b. “knew its power”   OK.

c. “feared that if he did not tap into it, someone else would.”  Not OK; it is not derived from the two “premises.”

Was the writer prescient?   “Putin will do all that he can to ensure that Ukraine’s elections on May 25th are seen as illegitimate.” Apparently, the writer was not prescient.

So the piece is a bucket of loose bolts, but there is some precious metal content that interests the scrap yard. There is a direct source quote, “Expect to see the spirit of the Maidan in the East”, which, in that time frame, I would have put in my “possibly useful” pile. But the gem is this:

“Putin has made domestic politics equally uncertain. An academic who was tapped to write a speech for Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev last year was — in an unconnected event — interrogated by the Public Security Bureau. “In the old days,” he said, “you knew where you were. Either you were in with the regime or you were interrogated. No one knows where they are any more.””

Confusion is much harder to fake than fact. This goes into my pile called “psychology of the inner circle”.  The inner circle  circled the wagons. It is compatible with the idea that the regime, anticipating absorption of Ukraine, armored itself against heightened internal tensions. The crackdown on social media adds to the picture.

The best part of the quote’s appearance is the lack of interpretation. It is left as a diamond in the rough. Now it’s in my pocket.





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