Tag Archives: The Guardian

Solution: Muammar Qaddafi Joins The Cast Of “Two And A Half Men”

The Guardian liveblog

Scott Lucas at Enduring America

John Hudson at The Atlantic:

After reviewing Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s interview with ABC’s Christiane Amanpour, UN ambassador Susan Rice had one word to describe the Libyan dictator: “delusional.” The sit-down chat between Qaddafi, Amanpour and two British journalists revealed a leader stridently disconnected with the world around him. “They love me. All my people with me, they love me,” he said, as Libyan rebels clashed violently with military for the 11th day. The best moments of the interview come when Amanpour and the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen try to pin him down on basic facts: it gets pretty surreal.

Richard Adams at The Guardian with a quiz: Sheen or Qaddafi?

Rebecca N. White at The National Interest:

In Geneva today at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi to be “held accountable” for his violent suppression of protestors. Qaddafi’s acts, Clinton said, “violate international legal obligations and common decency.” Before departing yesterday, the secretary of state made it clear that Washington is also prepared to give those trying to overthrow the regime “any kind of assistance,” as the U.S. administration wants the bloodshed to end and Qaddafi to get out “as soon as possible.”

Today, the EU decided to impose sanctions on the Libyan regime, including an arms embargo and a targeted asset ban and visa freeze (aimed at Qaddafi’s closest family and associates). U.S. senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman are meanwhile traveling in the regionand calling for a no-fly zone over Libya. Both said that it wasn’t quite time to use ground forces.

Benjy Sarlin at Talking Points Memo:

Some Senate Republicans, less than enthused by saber-rattling from Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and John McCain (R-AZ) on Libya, warned on Monday that sending military aid to anti-Qadaffi rebels could draw the US into all-out war.

“Dependent upon the method of delivery and what we decide to do we could decide to have a war in Libya to join the war in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN) told reporters, saying he opposed arming the Libyan resistance or imposing a no-fly zone. “You know, people need to be very thoughtful about entering wars without a declaration and without much more congressional scrutiny of what’s involved.”

Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told reporters that a no-fly zone as part of a multinational effort could be effective, but warned that talk of arms shipments was very premature.

“I’m not sure who’s who yet,” he said of the nascent movement to overthrow Muammar Qadaffi. “Anything we can do to expedite his departure and get him off the world stage would be good, but you have to think these things through. One thing I’ve learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, you have to think these things through.”

David Kenner at Foreign Policy:

Fighter jets and ground troops loyal to Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi attacked cities held by the rebel forces on Monday, but leaders of the anti-Qaddafi movement dismissed the attacks as ineffective.

The two Libyan MIG-23s took off from near Qaddafi’s stronghold of Sirte and bombed a number of sites, including a weapons depot and a water pipeline. Troops loyal to Qaddafi were also reportedly shelling the city of Misurata, which is controlled by anti-Qaddafi forces. And in the city of Zawiya, residents said that they rebuffed an attack from pro-Qaddafi militiamen, killing approximately 10 soldiers and capturing around 12 more.

However, there are few signs that the rebels are preparing a force that could threaten Qaddafi’s hold on Tripoli. The security services have brutally suppressed expressions of dissent within the Libyan capital, firing into crowds of demonstrators from the back of pick-up trucks or even ambulances.

The United States, meanwhile, escalated its political and military pressure on the Qaddafi regime by freezing $30 billion of its assets and moving U.S. Navy warships closer to the Libyan coast. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also told reporters that “no option is off the table” in terms of a U.S. response to the crisis, including the implementation of a no-fly zone.

Spencer Ackerman at Danger Room at Wired:

After two weeks of revolution and the deaths of thousands of Libyans, the Obama administration is starting to contemplate military action against the brutal Libyan regime of Moammar Gadhafi.

The United Nations Security Council has already sanctioned Gadhafi and referred him to the International Criminal Court following his violent suppression of Libya’s revolutionary movement, creating the contours of a hardening international position against Gadhafi. And now most U.S. nationals in Libya have now fled, removing what the Obama administration has considered an impediment to action.

So here comes the Navy. The Enterprise carrier strike group, last seen hunting pirates, is in the Red Sea — and may sail through Suez to the Mediterranean — and the New York Times reports that an “amphibious landing vessel, with Marines and helicopters” are there as well. The Financial Times adds that the British are considering the use of the air base at Akrotiri in Cyprus as a staging ground to enforce a no-fly zone. Any envisioned military action is likely to be a multilateral affair, either blessed by the U.N. or NATO.

That seems to be the harshest policy yet envisioned — one explicitly discussed today by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. (No one’s discussing a ground invasion.) For the time being, the Navy is simply moving assets into place in case President Obama decides to take more punitive measures against Gadhafi. Marine Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters today, “We are re-positioning forces in the region to provide options and flexibility.”

Jennifer Rubin:

The New York Times reports:

The United States began moving warships toward Libya and froze $30 billion in the country’s assets on Monday as the administration declared all options on the table in its diplomatic, economic and military campaign to drive Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi from power.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the administration was conferring with allies about imposing a no-fly zone over Libya. Such a move would likely be carried out only under a mandate from the United Nations or NATO, but Mrs. Clinton’s blunt confirmation that it was under consideration was clearly intended to ratchet up the pressure on Colonel Qaddafi and his dwindling band of loyalists.

But then some eager anonymous staffers couldn’t resist assuring the Times that this was mostly a bluff (“officials in Washington and elsewhere said that direct military action remained unlikely, and that the moves were designed as much as anything as a warning to Colonel Qaddafi and a show of support to the protesters seeking to overthrow his government”). Thanks, guys.

I asked some Middle East and military gurus what the Obama administration might be up to.

Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told me via e-mail last night:

We’ve seen marked changes in the administration’s approach to Libya since U.S. citizens left Libya three days ago. From timidity, to direct calls for Qaddaffi’s departure, to announcing that we would provide direct support to anti-government forces, and now the arrival of warships. This is a rapid escalation. I have serious doubts that this White House would deploy troops on Libyan soil. However, I do see this as a means to enforce a no-fly zone. It could also be a means to ensure the safe passage of humanitarian aid to areas that NGOs report have been near-impossible to reach. This is also a bit of psychological warfare, of course. The mere threat of US firepower will not be lost on Qaddaffi, who remembers the U.S. bombing raid on Libya, ordered by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, that killed his adopted daughter.

“Psychological warfare” might work better if Obama officials would keep their traps shut.

dd

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Huh, Don’t Trust Someone Named Curveball. Got It.

Martin Chulov and Helen Pidd at The Guardian:

The defector who convinced the White House that Iraq had a secret biological weapons programme has admitted for the first time that he lied about his story, then watched in shock as it was used to justify the war.

Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, codenamed Curveball by German and American intelligence officials who dealt with his claims, has told the Guardian that he fabricated tales of mobile bioweapons trucks and clandestine factories in an attempt to bring down the Saddam Hussein regime, from which he had fled in 1995.

“Maybe I was right, maybe I was not right,” he said. “They gave me this chance. I had the chance to fabricate something to topple the regime. I and my sons are proud of that and we are proud that we were the reason to give Iraq the margin of democracy.”

The admission comes just after the eighth anniversary of Colin Powell’s speech to the United Nations in which the then-US secretary of state relied heavily on lies that Janabi had told the German secret service, the BND. It also follows the release of former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s memoirs, in which he admitted Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction programme.

Emptywheel at Firedoglake:

But I’m particularly interested in two new details he reveals. First, BND and British intelligence met with Curveball’s boss in mid-2000; the boss debunked Curveball’s claims.

Janabi claimed he was first exposed as a liar as early as mid-2000, when the BND travelled to a Gulf city, believed to be Dubai, to speak with his former boss at the Military Industries Commission in Iraq, Dr Bassil Latif.

The Guardian has learned separately that British intelligence officials were at that meeting, investigating a claim made by Janabi that Latif’s son, who was studying in Britain, was procuring weapons for Saddam.

That claim was proven false, and Latif strongly denied Janabi’s claim of mobile bioweapons trucks and another allegation that 12 people had died during an accident at a secret bioweapons facility in south-east Baghdad.

The German officials returned to confront him with Latif’s version. “He says, ‘There are no trucks,’ and I say, ‘OK, when [Latif says] there no trucks then [there are none],’” Janabi recalled.

So this is yet another well-placed Iraqi who warned western intelligence that the WMD evidence that would eventually lead to war was baseless (one George Tenet and others haven’t admitted in the past).

And Curveball describes how BND returned to his claims in 2002, then dropped it, then returned to it just before Colin Powell’s Feruary 5, 2003 speech at the UN.

We’ve known the outlines of these details before. But it sure adds to the picture of the US dialing up the intelligence it needed — however flimsy — to start a war.

Ray Gustini at The Atlantic:

Guardian reporters Martin Chulov and Helen Pidd tracked down Alwan in Karlsruhe, a medium-sized city along the French-German border. They speculate his admission “appeared to be partly a purge of conscience, partly an attempt to justify what he did,” or maybe just a last-ditch attempt “to resurrect his own reputation” in the hopes of moving back to Iraq. They acknowledge Curveball’s attempted “reinvention as a liberator and patriot is a tough sell to many in the CIA, the BND and in the Bush administration, whose careers were terminally wounded” by his fabrications.

Alwan’s motives, not surprisingly, were of little interest to pundits based in those countries that devoted seven years of blood and treasure to the fight in Iraq. “Yet another nail in the coffin of those who claim that the intelligence was clear about the alleged threat,” writes Guardian columnist Carnie Ross. “We should name this process for what it was: the manufacture of a lie.” Wonkette’s Ken Layne echoed the sentiment. “Tell whatever lies you want for whatever ends you desire. That is the lesson.”

Paul Waldman at Tapped:

Things move fast these days, and 2003 can seem like ancient history to some. But given that the run-up to the war in Iraq was the greatest media failure in decades, I thought this would be a good opportunity to remind ourselves of the tears of joy and gratitude that greeted Powell’s U.N. speech. What’s important to keep in mind is that a lot of Powell’s bogus claims were known at the time to be false or baseless, if reporters had bothered to ask around. But they didn’t, because they were so blinded by how awesome Powell was. Think I exaggerate? Let’s take a look back:

“Secretary of State Colin Powell’s strong, plain-spoken indictment of the Saddam Hussein regime before the UN Security Council Wednesday embodies something truly great about the United States. Those around the world who demanded proof must now be satisfied, or else admit that no satisfaction is possible for them.” — Chicago Sun-Times”In a brilliant presentation as riveting and as convincing as Adlai Stevenson’s 1962 unmasking of Soviet missiles in Cuba, Powell proved beyond any doubt that Iraq still possesses and continues to develop illegal weapons of mass destruction. The case for war has been made. And it’s irrefutable.” — New York Daily News

“Only those ready to believe Iraq and assume that the United States would manufacture false evidence against Saddam would not be persuaded by Powell’s case.” — San Antonio Express-News

“The evidence he presented to the United Nations — some of it circumstantial, some of it absolutely bone-chilling in its detail — had to prove to anyone that Iraq not only hasn’t accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them. Only a fool — or possibly a Frenchman — could conclude otherwise.” — Richard Cohen, Washington Post

That’s just a small sample, but you see the pattern: Not only was Powell’s show presented as settling the matter of whether Iraq had this terrifying arsenal and would use it on us, but if you didn’t agree, you were either an Iraqi sympathizer or at the very least anti-American. At that point, the debate over whether we would invade was pretty much over — the only question was when the bombs would start falling. It may boggle the mind that so much of the case for war was based on the testimony of one absurdly unreliable guy. But that was what passed for “intelligence” during the Bush years.

Doug Mataconis:

The Germans returned to Janabi in May 2002, just when the propaganda run-up to the Iraq War was beginning. It doesn’t take too much to figure out that this likely occurred at the behest of the United States, which was eager for as much information proving that Saddam Hussein was pursuing a WMD program in violation of UN sanctions as it could find. Despite the fact that he had been previously established as a liar, he was apparently taken seriously and given incentives for sharing as much information as he could come up with. Which he obviously did.

At the same time, there’s no evidence that the United States knew about the problems with Janabi’s credibility, or even that they knew who he was other than “Curveball,” the code name assigned to him by German intelligence. So, absent additional information, this doesn’t strike me as implicating the Bush Administration in Janabi’s lies. What it does demonstrate, though, is the extent to which, during the period from late 2001 through early 2003, the United States was singularly focused on finding any evidence it could to justify war against Iraq to the exclusion of anything to the contrary. Obviously, the Germans, as our allies, picked up on this and provided us with the information we needed. The problem is that nobody in Berlin or Washington seems to have bothered to make any effort  to independently verify what Janabi was saying before deciding to use it as the basis to go to war. And that’s a problem.

So far at least, this story seems to be be drawing very little attention in the blogsphere, and none at all among conservative bloggers. That’s too bad, because the fact that we fought a war based not only on bad intelligence, but on intelligence that was based on evidence provided by someone who was already a known liar strikes me as something that we ought to be concerned about.

Moe Lane:

I probably wouldn’t be on Colin Powell’s Christmas card list, nor he on mine – not for any particular enmity on my part, or (hypothetical) on his; we’re just not the same kind of Republicans – but I have to admit:

Colin Powell, the US secretary of state at the time of the Iraq invasion, has called on the CIA and Pentagon to explain why they failed to alert him to the unreliability of a key source behind claims of Saddam Hussein’s bio-weapons capability.

…I’d like to know the answer to this one myself.  I mean, contrary to Lefty mythology, the liberation of Iraq did not hinge on the presence of WMDs (although I will admit that their proven past existence and use on civilian targets by the late, unlamented-by-civilized-people Hussein regime did make quite a few Democrats at least temporarily capable of being swayed by reason); but the failure to find any in significant amounts after the fact was definitely embarrassing to the Bush administration, and I join former Secretary Powell in wanting to hear the bureaucrats explain themselves.  Because we’re still counting on these people to tell us what the heck is going on, and President Obama needs to be better served by them than former President Bush was.

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Let’s Go Back To WikiLeaks And Learn Something Interesting!

John Vidal at The Guardian:

The US fears that Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest crude oil exporter, may not have enough reserves to prevent oil prices escalating, confidential cables from its embassy in Riyadh show.

The cables, released by WikiLeaks, urge Washington to take seriously a warning from a senior Saudi government oil executive that the kingdom’s crude oil reserves may have been overstated by as much as 300bn barrels – nearly 40%.

The revelation comes as the oil price has soared in recent weeks to more than $100 a barrel on global demand and tensions in the Middle East. Many analysts expect that the Saudis and their Opec cartel partners would pump more oil if rising prices threatened to choke off demand.

However, Sadad al-Husseini, a geologist and former head of exploration at the Saudi oil monopoly Aramco, met the US consul general in Riyadh in November 2007 and told the US diplomat that Aramco’s 12.5m barrel-a-day capacity needed to keep a lid on prices could not be reached.

According to the cables, which date between 2007-09, Husseini said Saudi Arabia might reach an output of 12m barrels a day in 10 years but before then – possibly as early as 2012 – global oil production would have hit its highest point. This crunch point is known as “peak oil“.

Husseini said that at that point Aramco would not be able to stop the rise of global oil prices because the Saudi energy industry had overstated its recoverable reserves to spur foreign investment. He argued that Aramco had badly underestimated the time needed to bring new oil on tap.

One cable said: “According to al-Husseini, the crux of the issue is twofold. First, it is possible that Saudi reserves are not as bountiful as sometimes described, and the timeline for their production not as unrestrained as Aramco and energy optimists would like to portray.”

It went on: “In a presentation, Abdallah al-Saif, current Aramco senior vice-president for exploration, reported that Aramco has 716bn barrels of total reserves, of which 51% are recoverable, and that in 20 years Aramco will have 900bn barrels of reserves.

“Al-Husseini disagrees with this analysis, believing Aramco’s reserves are overstated by as much as 300bn barrels. In his view once 50% of original proven reserves has been reached … a steady output in decline will ensue and no amount of effort will be able to stop it. He believes that what will result is a plateau in total output that will last approximately 15 years followed by decreasing output.”

Kevin Drum:

This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been following the oil industry over the past few years. Matthew Simmons’ Twilight in the Desert, which I reviewed six years ago, made a detailed case that Saudi Arabia’s production capacity had pretty much maxed out already, and Business Week published an article three years ago based on internal Saudi documents that said much the same: the Saudis could pump 12 million barrels a day in short spurts but only 10 million barrels on a steady basis — and that’s all there is. Production capacity just isn’t going up.

Steve LeVine at Foreign Policy:

The issue is pivotal. Put simply, the price of oil — the price you are paying at the pump, indeed the cost of everything in your home — is wholly determined by what oil traders think Saudi reserves and production capability really are. As an example, oil plunged yesterday to their lowest price of the year — $87.87 a barrel — when Saudi Arabian Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi (pictured above) suggested that the kingdom will put new oil supplies on the market to compensate for any uptick in global demand.

The thing is, the Saudis are highly secretive about these figures — unlike almost every important petro-state on the Earth outside the Middle East, the Saudis will not permit their oilfields to be independently audited. One might wonder why that would be the case, and the late Matt Simmons, for example, made much hay suggesting that the reason is that the Saudis simply don’t have as much oil as they claim. I myself got ahold of documents back in 2008 suggesting the same. Sensible voices, however, said such are the thoughts of the conspiratorial-minded, and that the Saudis genuinely possess what they claimed — they were denying the right to verify because … well because that’s just what they do.

Ryan Avent at Free Exchange at The Economist:

It’s interesting to look at recent production data with this kind of news in mind (to see production numbers you can download  this PDF, or check out charts at the Oil Drum). What we observe is that from around 2004, oil production hasn’t increased very much, even as prices have soared. Now, one reason for this plateau may be the lag in bringing new supply online. During the cheap oil 1990s, production growth and exploration were limited. As prices rose in the early 2000s, producers brought existing, high-cost facilities online, adding to supply. But once existing production was running at capacity, the industry had to wait to get new facilities up to increase supply, and that process doesn’t happen overnight. So it could be that, globally, we’re experiencing a temporary period of high prices and stagnant supply while new extraction is set up.

Of course, in an environment of growing demand, a temporary supply limit can be costly.

But let’s think about one other potential dynamic. In the old days, OPEC attempted to use its cartel status to artificially limit supply and raise prices. This, however, was difficult to orchestrate; there was always the incentive to cheat and sell more than one’s quote of oil at the artificially high price, and as more participants cheated the supply limit fell apart. But as global supply runs against natural limits, incentives begin shifting the other way.

If an individual gains information suggesting that oil reserves are overstated, then they’re likely to expect an increase in future prices. Such an individual could bet on this outcome by buying oil futures, but this behaviour is limited by the nature of the contract; at some point traders may need to take delivery of actual oil, in which case they’ll need a place to store it, and that storing activity would be highly visible in the form of rising inventories.

But what if you’re an oil producer, and you learn this information? Well, obviously you’d like to make the same bet, and hold on to your oil until you can sell it at a higher price. Fortunately for you, oil producer, nature has provided a natural storage tank. All you have to do to make your bet is not produce any more oil than you need to sell to cover costs.

All of which is to say, the world doesn’t need to experience declines in potential oil production to see a rise in oil prices. All it needs is for oil producers to see that such limits loom and begin betting on the near-certainty of rising prices. Of course, different countries will face different liquidity constraints; some leaders may find themselves producing full out in order to sustain their socialist paradise, particularly when prices temporarily dip thanks to recession. But at those times, other countries with fiscal room to spare should cut back their production further—to buy more, essentially, when prices are low in order to sell more when prices are high.

Ariel Schwartz at Fast Company:

Even Jeroen van der Veer, the chief executive of Royal Dutch Shell, has admitted that oil supply may no longer keep up with demand by 2015. But the just-released cables, which detail a back-and-forth between the U.S. consul general and geologist Sadad al-Husseini, the former head of exploration at Saudi Aramco, confirms that the situation is serious.

Weasel Zippers

Israel Matzav:

If this is taken seriously, it should accelerate the search for alternative energy sources and reduce the influence of ‘our friends the Saudis.’ Both those results would be blessings.

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Shall I Compare Thee To A Snake, A Gorilla, A Jungle, Bananas, Sex…

Uri Friedman at The Atlantic with a round-up.

Paul Kedrosky:

Over the weekend I tried to buy a new dishwasher. Being the fine net-friendly fellow that I am, I  began Google-ing for information. And Google-ing. and Google-ing. As I tweeted frustratedly at the tend of the failed exercise, “To a first approximation, the entire web is spam when it comes to appliance reviews”.

This is, of course, merely a personal example of the drive-by damage done by keyword-driven content — material created to be consumed like info-krill by Google’s algorithms. Find some popular keywords that lead to traffic and transactions, wrap some anodyne and regularly-changing content around the keywords so Google doesn’t kick you out of search results, and watch the dollars roll in as Google steers you life-support systems connected to wallets, i.e, idiot humans.

Google has become a snake that too readily consumes its own keyword tail. Identify some words that show up in profitable searches — from appliances, to mesothelioma suits, to kayak lessons — churn out content cheaply and regularly, and you’re done. On the web, no-one knows you’re a content-grinder.

Charles Arthur at The Guardian:

The reason why this has happened is obvious: Google is the 900-pound gorilla of search, with around 90% of the market (excluding China and Russia), and there’s an entire industry which has grown up specifically around tickling the gorilla to make it happy and enrich the ticklers. I’ve not come across anyone who describes their job as “Bing results optimisation”, nor who puts that at the top of their business CV. Well, I’m sure there are people inside Microsoft whose job title is exactly that. But not outside it.

There are two lines of thought on what happens next.

1) Google comes back from the Christmas break newly determined to fix those damned scraping sites that don’t originate content, because it says in its own webmaster guidelines that “Google will take action against domains that try to rank more highly by just showing scraped or other auto-generated pages that don’t add any value to users.”

The only value those scrapers add, in fact, is to Google, because they display tons of AdSense ads. (Well, you can make a fair bet that they aren’t Bing’s equivalent.)

Wait – the scrapers that dominate the first search page, the place from which 89% of clicks come (for only 11% of clicks come from the last 990 results out of the first thousand, or at least did in 2006, a number that has probably only shifted down since then) all benefit Google financially, even while it sees market share improvements? That’s not quite the disincentive one might have hoped for that would make Google act.

2) People start not using Google, because its search is damn well broken and becoming more broken for stuff you care about by the day. This could happen. The question is whether it would be visible enough – that is, whether enough people would do it – that it would show up on Google’s radar and be made a priority.

Over at Hacker News, the suggestions in the comments echo the idea that Google’s search really isn’t cutting the mustard any more (“vertical search” is the new watchword). Which means that really, Google does need to implement method (1) above. It might not notice if a few geeks abandon it – but once the idea really gets hold (as it will through the links they offer and comments they drop) that Google’s search is broken, then the rout begins.

I haven’t been able to get a comment from Google on this, though I’m sure it would run something along the lines of “Google makes every effort to make its search results the best and takes seriously the issues raised here.”

Update: Google responded to this article: “Google works hard to preserve the quality of our index and we’re continuing to make improvements to this. Sites that abuse our quality guidelines or prove to be spam are removed from our index as fast as possible”. (For clarification, I didn’t initially contact Google as it was a public holiday when I wrote the original article. Matt Cutts did not respond to Twitter contact as he is on holiday, Google says.)

It would be crazy not to. The question is whether it really can make a difference.

Vivek Wadhwa at Tech Crunch:

This semester, my students at the School of Information at UC-Berkeley researched the VC system from the perspective of company founders. We prepared a detailed survey; randomly selected 500 companies from a venture database; and set out to contact the founders. Thanks to Reid Hoffman, we were able to get premium access to LinkedIn—which was very helpful and provided a wealth of information.  But some of the founders didn’t have LinkedIn accounts, and others didn’t respond to our LinkedIn “inmails”. So I instructed my students to use Google searches to research each founder’s work history, by year, and to track him or her down in that way.

But it turns out that you can’t easily do such searches in Google any more. Google has become a jungle: a tropical paradise for spammers and marketers. Almost every search takes you to websites that want you to click on links that make them money, or to sponsored sites that make Google money. There’s no way to do a meaningful chronological search.

We ended up using instead a web-search tool called Blekko. It’s a new technology and is far from perfect; but it is innovative and fills the vacuum of competition with Google (and Bing).

Blekko was founded in 2007 by Rich Skrenta, Tom Annau, Mike Markson, and a bunch of former Google and Yahoo engineers. Previously, Skrenta had built Topix and what has become Netscape’s Open Directory Project. For Blekko, his team has created a new distributed computing platform to crawl the web and create search indices. Blekko is backed by notable angels, including Ron Conway, Marc Andreessen, Jeff Clavier, and Mike Maples. It has received a total of $24 million in venture funding, including $14M from U.S. Venture Partners and CMEA capital.

In addition to providing regular search capabilities like Google’s, Blekko allows you to define what it calls “slashtags” and filter the information you retrieve according to your own criteria. Slashtags are mostly human-curated sets of websites built around a specific topic, such as health, finance, sports, tech, and colleges.  So if you are looking for information about swine flu, you can add “/health” to your query and search only the top 70 or so relevant health sites rather than tens of thousands spam sites.  Blekko crowdsources the editorial judgment for what should and should not be in a slashtag, as Wikipedia does.  One Blekko user created a slashtag for 2100 college websites.  So anyone can do a targeted search for all the schools offering courses in molecular biology, for example. Most searches are like this—they can be restricted to a few thousand relevant sites. The results become much more relevant and trustworthy when you can filter out all the garbage.

The feature that I’ve found most useful is the ability to order search results.  If you are doing searches by date, as my students were, Blekko allows you to add the slashtag “/date” to the end of your query and retrieve information in a chronological fashion. Google does provide an option to search within a date range, but these are the dates when website was indexed rather than created; which means the results are practically useless. Blekko makes an effort to index the page by the date on which it was actually created (by analyzing other information embedded in its HTML).  So if I want to search for articles that mention my name, I can do a regular search; sort the results chronologically; limit them to tech blog sites or to any blog sites for a particular year; and perhaps find any references related to the subject of economics. Try doing any of this in Google or Bing

Anil Dash:

Noticing a pattern here?

Paul Kedrosky, Dishwashers, and How Google Eats Its Own Tail:

Google has become a snake that too readily consumes its own keyword tail. Identify some words that show up in profitable searches — from appliances, to mesothelioma suits, to kayak lessons — churn out content cheaply and regularly, and you’re done. On the web, no-one knows you’re a content-grinder.

The result, however, is awful. Pages and pages of Google results that are just, for practical purposes, advertisements in the loose guise of articles, original or re-purposed. It hearkens back to the dark days of 1999, before Google arrived, when search had become largely useless, with results completely overwhelmed by spam and info-clutter.

Alan Patrick, On the increasing uselessness of Google:

The lead up to the Christmas and New Year holidays required researching a number of consumer goods to buy, which of course meant using Google to search for them and ratings reviews thereof. But this year it really hit home just how badly Google’s systems have been spammed, as typically anything on Page 1 of the search results was some form of SEO spam – most typically a site that doesn’t actually sell you anything, just points to other sites (often doing the same thing) while slipping you some Ads (no doubt sold as “relevant”).

Google is like a monoculture, and thus parasites have a major impact once they have adapted to it – especially if Google has “lost the war”. If search was more heterogenous, spamsites would find it more costly to scam every site. That is a very interesting argument against the level of Google market dominance.

And finally, Jeff Atwood, Trouble in the House of Google:

Throughout my investigation I had nagging doubts that we were seeing serious cracks in the algorithmic search foundations of the house that Google built. But I was afraid to write an article about it for fear I’d be claimed an incompetent kook. I wasn’t comfortable sharing that opinion widely, because we might be doing something obviously wrong. Which we tend to do frequently and often. Gravity can’t be wrong. We’re just clumsy … right?

I can’t help noticing that we’re not the only site to have serious problems with Google search results in the last few months. In fact, the drum beat of deteriorating Google search quality has been practically deafening of late.

From there, Jeff links to several more examples, including the ones I mentioned above. As Alan alludes to in his post, the threat here is that Google has become a monoculture, a threat I’ve written about many times.

Felix Salmon:

It turns out that the banana we all know and love — the Cavendish — is actually the second type of banana grown in enormous quantities and exported across Europe and North America. The first was the Gros Michel, which was wiped out by Tropical Race One; you might be saddened to hear that “to those who knew the Gros Michel the flavor of the Cavendish was lamentably bland.” Indeed, Chiquita was so sure that Americans would never switch to the Cavendish that they stuck with the Gros Michel for far too long, and lost dominance of the industry to Dole.

In both cases, the fact that the same species of banana is grown and eaten everywhere constitutes a serious tail risk, even if today’s desperate attempts to genetically modify a disease-resistant Cavendish bear fruit:

A new Cavendish banana still didn’t seem like a panacea. The cultivar may dominate the world’s banana export market, but, it turns out, eighty-seven per cent of bananas are eaten locally. In Africa and Asia, villagers grow such hetergeneous mixes in their back yards that no one disease can imperil them. Tropical Race Four, scientists now theorize, has existed in the soil for thousands of years. Banana companies needed only to enter Asia, as they did twenty years ago, and plant uniform fields of Cavendish in order to unleash the blight. A disease-resistant Cavendish would still mean a commercial monoculture, and who’s to say that one day Tropical Race Five won’t show up?

This is exactly what I was talking about a year ago, in my post about Dan Barber, world hunger, and locavorism, when I talked about how monocultures are naturally prone to disastrous outbreaks of disease, and how a much more heterogeneous system of eating a variety of locally-grown foods is much more robust and equally capable of feeding the planet.

[…]

The problems with monoculture aren’t purely agricultural, either. Anil Dash has a post up today about the decline of Google search quality, and diagnosing the problem as being that “Google has become a monoculture”; Alan Patrick quotes a commenter at Hacker News as saying that if search were more heterogeneous, spamsites would find it more costly to scam every site.

I’m not completely convinced that seeing large numbers of SEO sites atop search results for consumer goods is entirely a function of the fact that Google is a monoculture. My guess is that in fact what we’re seeing is simply the result of enormous numbers of SEO sites, all using slightly different methods of trying to game the Google algorithm. Even if only a small percentage of those SEO sites succeed, and even if they only succeed briefly, the result is still a first page of Google results dominated by SEO spam — a lose-lose proposition for everybody, but one which wouldn’t be solved by having heterogeneous algorithms: they would all simply have different SEO sites atop their various search-result pages.

But maybe if Google wasn’t a monoculture, there wouldn’t be quite as many SEO sites all trying to hit the jackpot of, however briefly, landing atop the Google search results. In general, monoculture is a bad and brittle thing — and that goes for search as much as it goes for bananas.

Brad DeLong

Paul Krugman:

Brad DeLong takes us to two articles on trouble with Google: basically, scammers and spammers are doing their best to game the search engine, and in the process making it less useful to the rest of us. And people are turning to other search engines that are less affected, precisely because they’re less pervasive and the scammers and spammers haven’t adapted to them.

This makes me think of sex.

If you follow evolutionary theory, you know that one big question is why sexual reproduction evolved — and why it persists, given the substantial costs involved. Why doesn’t nature just engage in cloning?

And the most persuasive answer, as I understand it, is defense against parasites. If each generation of an organism looks exactly like the last, parasites can steadily evolve to bypass the organism’s defenses — which is why yes, we’ll have no bananas once the fungus spreads to cloned plantations around the world. But scrambling the genes each generation makes the parasites’ job harder.

So the trouble with Google is that it’s a huge target, to which human parasites — scammers and spammers — are adapting.

I’m not quite sure what search-engine sex would involve. But Google apparently needs some.

Matthew Elshaw:

And that’s not all, there are a large number of other posts which share the same thoughts on Google’s declining search quality.

While the major problems with Google’s search quality appear to be the rise of content farms and review sites, some posts also mention a number of other grey hat SEO tactics like link buying and doorway domains that are still working for some sites.

With the number of posts on this topic, I don’t think it will be long before a Google representative steps in to clear the air. In the mean time, what do you think about Google’s search results? Have you seen a decline in quality in recent months?

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What The Hell Is Going On In Tunisia?

Andrew Sullivan has a great many posts on Tunisia. Video above is graphic.

Live blogs: The Guardian, Scott Lucas at Enduring America, BBC News

Paul Behringer at National Interest:

“Wildcat protests and rioting” have “shaken” Tunisia’s leader of twenty-three years, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, according to the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. The demonstrations, which the United Nations says have resulted in over sixty deaths, were sparked at least partly by a WikiLeaked document written by the American ambassador (and cleverly titled “Corruption in Tunisia: What’s Yours is Mine”) in which he detailed the ruling family’s extravagent wealth (many Tunisians refer to Ben Ali’s extended relations as “The Family” or “The Mafia”). And what began in mid-December as one small-town street vendor’s self-immolation (after authorities took away his vegetable cart) culminated Thursday in the looting and destruction by protestors of a home owned by the president’s uncle in a wealthy seaside resort.

President Ben Ali, who originally took power in a bloodless coup, then gave a speech in which he promised to halt violent crackdowns on the demonstrators, open up freedom for the press and stop Internet censorship—and “cut prices for sugar, milk and bread.” He also promised to step down as president after his current term runs out in 2014, as required by Tunisia’s constitution. But the Times also reports that his effort to sooth the public’s anger (and save his own neck) have thus far come to naught.

Nick Baumann at Mother Jones:

Want to know what’s happening in Tunisia? Let me explain:

What is Tunisia? Tunisia is a mostly Arab, mostly Muslim country in North Africa. It is on the south side of the Mediterranean sea, east of Algeria and west of Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya. Its capital is Tunis, and it has been ruled by dictators since it won independence from France in 1956. The current ruler, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (Ben Ali), has ruled since 1987. He is the kind of ruler who gets re-elected with 90 percent of the “vote.”

What’s happening? Violent riots and protests have spread across the country over the past four weeks. Now Ben Ali’s totalitarian government seems to be collapsing. (Elliott Abrams, a former Bush administration official who unfortunately is rarely right about anything, thinks that if democracy can take hold in Tunisia, is could spread elsewhere in the Arab world, too.)

Why are Tunisians unhappy? Well, they don’t have much freedom. But there also just aren’t enough jobs. Official unemployment is 13 percent, but it’s probably actually much higher. The combination of a repressive regime and a faltering economy is often bad news for the regime. Plus, the regime has diverted a lot of the country’s wealth to Ben Ali’s family and friends, so people are really upset about official corruption.

How did it all start? On December 19, authorities in the small, central city of Sidi Bouzid seized the produce cart that 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi was using to make a living. So Bouazizi set himself on fire. Young people in the small, central city of Sidi Bouzid rioted, and police moved to seal the city. In early January, Bouazizi died, becoming an early martyr for the cause. Brian Whitaker, the Middle East editor of the Guardian and a Tunisia expert, has a good article explaining how Bouazizi and Sidi Bouzid got the ball rolling on revolution.

Robert Mackey in NYT:

On Thursday, as protests continued across Tunisia, bloggers and eyewitnesses posted more video of the demonstrations online, including graphic images of protesters who have been gunned down on the streets.

One clip, uploaded by contributors to Nawaat — a group blog using Posterous, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to spread news of the protests — showed a huge banner of the country’s president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, being torn down in Hammamet on Thursday. As my colleague David Kirkpatrick reported from Hammamet, an exclusive Mediterranean beach town, “rioters calling for the ouster of Tunisia’s authoritarian president swarmed the streets, torched bank offices and ransacked a mansion belonging to one of his relatives.”

Despite apparent efforts by the government to keep Tunisians from using social networks to report on the crisis, new video continues to be posted day after day.

As the casualties mount, and the government continues to use violence to suppress the discontent, video of dead protesters has been added to Nawaat’s YouTube channel with disturbing regularity. On Thursday,  one extremely graphic clip, apparently filmed earlier in the day on the streets of Tunis, the capital, showed the body of a man the bloggers said was gunned down by a sniper.

Jillian C. York, on 1/13:

An email from Youssef Gaigi:

Today’s speech shows definitely a major shift in Tunisia’s history.
Ben Ali talked for the third time in the past month to the people. Something unprecedented, we barely knew this guy. Ben Ali talked in the Tunisian dialect instead of Arabic for the first time ever.
He spoke directly to the police forces and ordered them not to shoot, unless in cases of self-defense. On the same line he said a commission will investigate in the murders that occurred.
He also said that people misled him in several areas, and particularly in the areas of politics and freedom. He admited that he didn’t achieve his goals or dreams in these areas.He granted that all liberties will be given to the people of Tunisia. He stated that the right of setting an organization, a political party, or a media will be totally opened. He said all censorship online or on traditional media will be stopped.
People are still cautious and doubt these words. We are talking about billions of $ stolen by his family. A political party, RCD, which is much much stronger than other parties. We are also talking about 150k policemen who acted like a terrorist organization for decades and particularly lately. Turning his words into action will be a very difficult mission.
We will probably start by checking his words tomorrow.

And

I missed another major point in his speech, probably because of the excitement of this moment.
He announced that he would not run for president in 2014.
Again, I am not sure this is sufficient. Yet this is a step forward.

Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy:

Barely a month goes by without a Washington Post editorial bemoaning Egypt’s authoritarian retrenchment and criticizing the Obama administration’s alleged failure to promote Arab democracy. But now Tunisia has erupted as the story of the year for Arab reformers. The spiraling protests and the regime’s heavy-handed, but thus far ineffective, repression have captured the imagination of Arab publics, governments, and political analysts. Despite Tunis’s efforts to censor media coverage, images and video have made it out onto social media and up to Al Jazeera and other satellite TV. The “Tunisia scenario” is now the term of art for activist hopes and government fears of political instability and mass protests from Jordan to Egypt to the Gulf.

But the Post‘s op-ed page has been strikingly silent about the Tunisian protests. Thus far, a month into the massive demonstrations rocking Tunisia, the Washington Post editorial page has published exactly zero editorials about Tunisia. For that matter, the Weekly Standard, another magazine which frequently claims the mantle of Arab democracy and attacks Obama for failing on it, has thus far published exactly zero articles about Tunisia (though, to his credit, frequent Standard contributor and ex-Bush administration official Elliott Abrams has weighed in on it at his new CFR blog). Why are the most prominent media voices on Arab democracy so entirely absent on the Arab reform story of the year?

Perhaps they’ve had nothing to say simply because there has been little coverage of Tunisia in the Western media, and the United States has few interests or leverage in Tunis, making it a marginal issue for U.S. political debate. Tunisia is not generally on the front burner in American thinking about the Middle East. It’s far away from Israel, Iraq, and the Gulf, and plays little role in the headline strategic issues facing the U.S. in the region. Despite being one of the most repressive and authoritarian regimes in the region, Tunisia has generally been seen as a model of economic development and secularism. Its promotion of women’s rights and crushing of Islamist opposition has taken priority in the West over its near-complete censorship of the media and blanket domination of political society. Indeed, the United States has cared so little about Tunisia’s absolute rejection of democracy and world-class censorship that it chose it for the regional office of MEPI, the Bush administration’s signature democracy promotion initiative.

This is understandable, but hardly satisfying. I can understand the hesitation of U.S. officials to take a strong position on the side of either the protesters or the regime at this point, given the strategic complexities and the implications of taking any rhetorical stance. To my ears, at least, the U.S. message has been muddled, with some officials seeming to take the side of the protesters and warning against too-harsh repression and others seeming to avoid taking a stance. For what it’s worth, I told a State Department official in a public forum yesterday that the absence of major U.S. interests in Tunisia and the real prospect of change there make it a good place for the Obama administration to take a principled stand in favor of public freedoms and against repression.

Daniel Larison responds to Lynch:

The easy answer, but possibly also the right one, is that they have nothing to say about it because it is something much more like a genuine, indigenous popular movement that is not working to advance “pro-Western” or “pro-American” policy goals, and it is therefore irrelevant or even unwelcome in their view. Most of the “color” revolutions were directed against governments that were seen as hostile to U.S. and allied interests or at least too closely aligned with Russia and (in Lebanon’s case) Syria, and the “color” revolutionaries were always identified as “pro-Western” reformers regardless of the accuracy of this description, and so advocates of “democracy” responding accordingly with enthusiastic support for the protesters. When a pro-Western secular autocrat faces a popular uprising that is almost certainly not being encouraged and backed from outside, these advocates of “democracy” have nothing to say because democratic reform was simply a means for advancing regime changes in several countries that the advocates wanted to bring into a Western orbit. Ben Ali’s downfall represents quite the opposite. If Lynch looked back at the reactions from most democracy-promoting outlets after the elections of Morales or of Chavez, which came at the expense of pro-American oligarchies, he would likely find a similar silence and indifference to the empowerment of those countries’ poor majorities.

Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy:

UPDATE: The Tunisian government is denying that Morjane has stepped down, according to Al Arabiya. Meanwhile, President Ben Ali just spoke and said he had ordered security forces to stop firing on demonstrators. He also announced a series of measures aimed at mollifying popular anger, including lower prices for bread, milk, and sugar. Most important of all, he promised not to run for re-election in 2014, when his term is due to expire. We’ll see if he lasts that long.

This thing may really be happening. Kamel Morjane — or someone with access to his website — has just announced his resignation*:

Citizens of the Republic of Tunisia, After witnessing the recent event that our country has been enduring since December17th  2010, I declare my inaptitude in pursuing my function in a serene and objective environment as intended.

I declare hereby my official resignation from my function as a minister of foreign affairs at the Tunisian government. In  a last effort to assume my responsabilities, I am asking the families of the tunisian martyrs to accept my sincere condoleances and my deep regret faced to their common tragedy. I assumed the fate of the Tunisian citizens, after marrying the daughter of one of Ben Ali’s first cousins, and was a member of the family and part of their clan. I am not proud of my own family, and in an honest declaration, would be ready to be judged in court at the same time as they will be. This will be my last service to the Tunisian citizens, in hope that with my resignation, citizens of Tunisia will be more graceful towards me and my family.

I make this decision in hope for the return of rest. I relinquish the Tunisian government to express my  deep affliction and my righteous anger toward the dire management of  this crisis, causing hence the death of dozens of young Tunisians. I am  profoundly convinced that these are not terrorist acts, but citizens  exerting their right to strike against a regime who abandoned them for  two decades. For this reason, I do not deem myself a member of this  oppressing and manipulating government. In a last resort to save face with the international media, the government is working hard from within to portray the protesters as mindless terrorists  destroying their country and refusing any peaceful discussion. The  government has hired teams of their own police in civilian attire that  go around ravaging the suburbs in an effort to spread doubt and  disseminate the truth about the tunisian people.

I reiterate my most sincere condolences to the families of victims, not only  to the ones that passed away these four past weeks, but to all the broken families by the injustice and inconveniences caused by this clan as  well.

For a free Tunisia,

Kamel Morjane

This is a fast-moving story. The New York Times reports that protesters overran a mansion owned by one of the president’s relatives. The Twitterverse is aflame with rumors that other members of the ruling family have fled the country. President Ben Ali is said to have three helicopters fueled up and ready for an emergency flight to Malta.

Max Fisher at The Atlantic

Elizabeth Dickson at Foreign Policy:

As I spoke by phone with Taoufik Ben Brik, a Tunisian opposition journalist, just moments ago, the country’s president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, got onto a plane and left the country. “There will be a military coup — we will see. You will see,” Ben Brik told me. “The army has just closed down the airspace in Tunisia, and they are arresting members of the family.”

If Twitter is to be believed, Ben Ali really is gone.

Ben Brik, one of the (now former?) president’s most pronounced critics, described the regime as “the worst kind of tyranny — [running] a police state, a military state, and a surveillance state.” Ben Brik himself has been subject to that as a journalist, having been harassed and imprisoned on numerous occasions. “It wasn’t just that I was arrested — I was harassed, me and my family. Google me and you will see how they arrested my child, just 14 years old.” Ben Brik was most recently released last April and remains in Tunis, where he is watching the situation unfold on the streets.

What brought the protesters to the streets in the first place was the drive for democracy, a place where freedom was possible — and normal. And yes, WikiLeaks helped. “WikiLeaks revealed a truth previously unspeakable about the mafia-like state,” Ben Brik said.

Mahar Arar at The Huffington Post:

To understand why these acts of violence against civilians is rarely condemned by Western governments, we have to understand the political dynamics in the region. Tunisia, despite the private criticisms targeted at the regime by the U.S. ambassador (as was revealed by WikiLeaks), is considered an important Western ally in the so called “war on terror”. Ben Ali, the President of the “Republic”, like the majority of the Arab dictators, have taken advantage of the American government’s strong desire to build relationships with new allies to fight Al-Qaida and related groups. These police states, including Tunisia, exploited this post-9/11 trend in the American foreign policy which allowed them an increased grip on power. As a result, they delegitimized peaceful decent further, put more restrictions on freedom of expression and heavily controlled Internet access. Also, because they have only been concerned about their own well being, and not about the well being of their constituents, these rulers have focused on increasing their own wealth and that of their family members through questionable business dealings and favouritism. It is no secret that the Ben Ali clan acts more like a Mafia putting their hands on the majority of profitable businesses in the country.

Here is my humble prediction for the next decade: unless Arab leaders implement serious political and economical reforms we will see more of this type of popular uprising in other neighbouring countries. It is only a matter of time. The wind of peaceful change in Tunisia has given hope to the oppressed people all over the Arab World. Whether Western countries or their allies in the region like or not, this wind, with the help of the Internet, will eventually affect the all these countries who are thirsty for democracy and justice. Only then, when it is too late, the Western countries will regret that they have all along been on the wrong side of the fence.

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Get Yr Water Boiling: Hitchens V. Ono

Caitlin Dickson at The Atlantic with the round-up.

Yoko Ono at The New York Times:

JOHN and I are in our Dakota kitchen in the middle of the night. Three cats — Sasha, Micha and Charo — are looking up at John, who is making tea for us two.

Sasha is all white, Micha is all black. They are both gorgeous, classy Persian cats. Charo, on the other hand, is a mutt. John used to have a special love for Charo. “You’ve got a funny face, Charo!” he would say, and pat her.

“Yoko, Yoko, you’re supposed to first put the tea bags in, and then the hot water.” John took the role of the tea maker, for being English. So I gave up doing it.

It was nice to be up in the middle of the night, when there was no sound in the house, and sip the tea John would make. One night, however, John said: “I was talking to Aunt Mimi this afternoon and she says you are supposed to put the hot water in first. Then the tea bag. I could swear she taught me to put the tea bag in first, but …”

“So all this time, we were doing it wrong?”

“Yeah …”

We both cracked up. That was in 1980. Neither of us knew that it was to be the last year of our life together.

Christopher Hitchens at Slate:

I simply hate to think of the harm that might result from this. It is already virtually impossible in the United States, unless you undertake the job yourself, to get a cup or pot of tea that tastes remotely as it ought to. It’s quite common to be served a cup or a pot of water, well off the boil, with the tea bags lying on an adjacent cold plate. Then comes the ridiculous business of pouring the tepid water, dunking the bag until some change in color occurs, and eventually finding some way of disposing of the resulting and dispiriting tampon surrogate. The drink itself is then best thrown away, though if swallowed, it will have about the same effect on morale as a reading of the memoirs of President James Earl Carter

Now, imagine that tea, like coffee, came without a bag (as it used to do—and still does if you buy a proper tin of it). Would you consider, in either case, pouring the hot water, letting it sit for a bit, and then throwing the grounds or the leaves on top? I thought not. Try it once, and you will never repeat the experience, even if you have a good strainer to hand. In the case of coffee, it might just work if you are quick enough, though where would be the point? But ground beans are heavier and denser, and in any case many good coffees require water that is just fractionally off the boil. Whereas tea is a herb (or an herb if you insist) that has been thoroughly dried. In order for it to release its innate qualities, it requires to be infused. And an infusion, by definition, needs the water to be boiling when it hits the tea. Grasp only this, and you hold the root of the matter.

[…]

If you use a pot at all, make sure it is pre-warmed. (I would add that you should do the same thing even if you are only using a cup or a mug.) Stir the tea before letting it steep. But this above all: “[O]ne should take the teapot to the kettle, and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours.” This isn’t hard to do, even if you are using electricity rather than gas, once you have brought all the makings to the same scene of operations right next to the kettle.

It’s not quite over yet. If you use milk, use the least creamy type or the tea will acquire a sickly taste. And do not put the milk in the cup first—family feuds have lasted generations over this—because you will almost certainly put in too much. Add it later, and be very careful when you pour. Finally, a decent cylindrical mug will preserve the needful heat and flavor for longer than will a shallow and wide-mouthed—how often those attributes seem to go together—teacup. Orwell thought that sugar overwhelmed the taste, but brown sugar or honey are, I believe, permissible and sometimes necessary.

Patrick Kingsley at The Guardian:

As Hitchens himself acknowledges, his analysis places him within a canon of tea-based literature that dates back to George Orwell. But though Hitch is broadly in agreement with Orwell’s take on tea, the pair do deviate on some crucial matters. Hitch feels that Orwell’s preference for china teapots and “Indian or Ceylonese” tealeaf is outmoded. And while Orwell argues that it is “misguided” to add sugar, for Hitch, “brown sugar or honey are, I believe, permissible and sometimes necessary”.

But Hitch’s closing remarks are ones that Orwell would surely not quibble with. “Next time you are in a Starbucks or its equivalent and want some tea,” he writes, “don’t be afraid to decline that hasty cup of hot water with added bag. It’s NOT what you asked for.”

Andrew Sullivan:

Starbucks’ London Fog or Earl Grey Tea Latte unsweetened is the best approximation of my mother’s cup of cha that I have been able to find. Except she would proceed to add three teaspoons of sugar and one artificial sweetener.

Nate Freeman at The New York Observer:

When Chistopher Hitchens pontificates on the subject of beverage, it’s a safe bet to assume it’s concerning alcohol. Up until his diagnosis with cancer and subsequent chemo, Hitch would consume no less than a bottle of wine and few gulps of whiskey per day, he wrote in Hitch-22. And tales of larger excess are out there, even encouraged by the man. But we are greeted in Slate today by a tempered Hitch, one who simply wants to share with his readers the proper way to make tea. And no, spiking it with liquor is not part of the recipe (though feel free to make an amendment or two!).

Tom Scocca at Slate:

I applaud Christopher Hitchens’ tea-making instructions, including his tactful decision to give Yoko Ono a grace period before correcting the misinformation she had published in the New York Times in John Lennon’s name. Tea goes in first.

Please do not allow Hitchens’ contrarian reputation, Englishness, ideological fervor, or disparagement of teabags to distract you from his essential message: the water must be boiling.

This is not about being finicky or snobbish. The boiling-water rule applies at every level of quality. A cheapo Lipton teabag needs and deserves fully boiling water every bit as much as a handful of top-grade single-plantation Assam does. A cup of black tea made with less-than-boiling water is like a hamburger that’s still cold in the middle. Whether it’s a McDonald’s burger or a gourmet burger is beside the point.

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Filed under Food, Foreign Affairs

The Clash Or The Sex Pistols Surely Would Have Written A Song About This

Sebastian E. Payne at The Spectator had a liveblog of the protests

Fraser Nelson at The Spectator:

The revolution may not be televised, but protests certainly are – and the process magnifies the drama. Since last night, the news broadcasts have all had footage of two thugs trying to smash the windows of the Treasury and, in the process, familiarising themselves with the properties of bombproof glass. The attack on Charles and Camilla’s royal limo is splashed across all this morning’s front pages.

The script is so well-rehearsed now that I hesitate to repeat it: the vast majority are peaceful protesters, infiltrated by vandals who soak up the attention. Many of the protesters yesterday looked like they’d get a cab straight back home to their Notting Hill trust-fund houses. This is not 1968 or the Poll Tax riots: it’s some produced-for-television protest at cuts which are 3.3 per cent over four years. Milder even than the now-forgotten post-1976 cuts.

Yes, there’s a budget deficit to fix – but did the universities budget really have to take such a knock? The Lib Dem error, in my view, is accepting the Tory pledge not to cut the wasteful NHS budget. Had its budget been shaved by the same amount as other government departments, there would be no need to cut the uni budget. The axe could have been wielded more evenly. The lesson from Canada’s cuts was that there should be no protected departments: if you protect a budget as massive as that of the NHS (which accounts for a quarter of departmental spending), then you concentrate pain elsewhere. Someone – in Britain’s case, undergraduates – gets it in the neck.

That said, British university funding is an anomaly. Look at the websites of the top ten world universities and those of Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial jump out with the tiny amount they are able to charge undergraduates. The elite American unis are about £30k each.

Bagehot at The Economist:

The newspapers were duly full of pictures of the royal couple, as well as images of the smashed window of their car and a great smear across its gleaming bodywork where somebody had thrown a can of paint. But of course, this was effectively an accident. The prince had been on his way to an annual charity theatrical extravaganza, the Royal Variety Performance (a duty which is already one of the trials of the royal year), when his car had been stuck in traffic near Oxford Circus, far from the centre of the student protests. By chance, a smallish breakaway group of protestors were in the same spot, apparently intent on smashing up some posh shops when suddenly the poshest car in Britain purred up next to them, bearing a prince in black tie. Some sort of attack on the car was more or less inevitable at that point. The prince was a victim of dreadful luck (and arguably poor reconnaissance and teamwork by the police and his protection officers, a question which is even now being investigated). But even as I watched I found myself thinking, this could so nearly have been so much worse. And luck has been at the forefront of my mind all along, during this first wave of unrest.

Let me explain. I’m pretty sure that if the occupant of the Rolls Royce last night had been the Queen, an elderly lady who also commands much more public respect and loyalty than her son, the country would have woken this morning in a much darker mood. What if the armoured glass of the Rolls Royce’s window had given way, injuring the prince (or the Queen)? What if a police bodyguard had been injured, or pulled his gun? (There are reports in some newspapers that the policeman in the prince’s chase car was bashing protestors away with his car door, which sounds a bit close for comfort if true). What if the royal car had injured someone when it finally made its escape at some speed? A different outcome to any one of these what-ifs would, I think, make Britain feel a markedly edgier country right now.

I thought the same at the first student protests that saw windows broken at the Conservative party HQ, and a fire extinguisher thrown from the roof, narrowly missing the police below. If the extinguisher had been a foot to one side and killed a policeman, the politics of austerity would have taken a quite different turn.

Is this a turning point? Regular readers will know that my hunch 10 days ago, during the last student protests, was that this was not a revolution in the making. I still think that. It does not take very many trouble-makers to create the sort of violent scenes seen yesterday.

Nor were all of them students, though when I was on the streets last week I did not see too many of the “rent-a-mob anarchists” being talked about in some tabloids this morning. True, there were some of the older, tough anti-globalisation types you see at things like G8 or G20 protests. But the people who worried me were more the young 16 year old kids from tough outer suburbs, many with scarves over their faces. They radiated some of the same sort of anger of the “casseurs” seen at Parisian demonstrations, from the grim housing estates around the French capital. Though at French protests it is true that casseurs are often a group apart from the main body of demonstrators, and spend as much energy attacking students and passers-by as they do fighting the police.

In contrast, if teenagers were behind some of the serious vandalism and trouble yesterday, I would guess there was a solidly political core to their anger. The small number of teenagers I spoke to last week were incensed that a government full of posh millionaires was—as they saw it—removing the public support that would allow them any hope of attending higher education. It is an under-reported detail that many of the demonstrators are not just angry about the idea of rising tuition fees in the future, they are also very angry about the planned abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance, a £30 a week bribe (for want of a better word) paid to pupils who turn up on time every morning at sixth form colleges. There are, as it happens, good arguments to be made for and against the EMA. But to the demonstrators, the only explanation was that a bunch of rich people in power are heartlessly taking something from poor kids, because they are selfish and do not care.

Michael White at The Guardian:

After watching last night’s TV news and reading this morning’s front pages about the attack on the royal Roller, protesting students, and their leaders, must be in despair. It elbows the purpose of their demo – condemnation of the coalition’s tuition fees hike – right out of sight.

Worse than that, it turns the whole agenda on its head. This morning, the BBC is talking all about security at public buildings and why the police were not protecting Prince Charles and his moll more effectively on their way to the Royal Command performance.

At least armed officers didn’t shoot anyone, the Met’s boss, Sir Paul Stephenson has just suggested on air.

It would be silly, as well as cynical, to imagine that David Cameron is privately pleased to see public indignation so easily deflected from his government’s controversial policy. Or that Nick Clegg is positively thrilled to have a day off from his new constitutional role as air raid shelter for the Tories.

Why? Because they’re not wicked or stupid. Trouble on the streets means political trouble and ill-affordable expense for the coalition. Two thousand coppers on overtime cost money.

Worse, today’s FT’s choice of page one photo is not Fleet Street’s obvious choice – Camilla looking as if someone has just pinched her bottom (Charles is in the clear, his right hand visible). No, it picked flames in Parliament Square. Feather-brained markets may push up interest rates on government debt if they see many more like that. Greeks will be shaking their heads as they sip their German-funded breakfast coffees.

I spent several hours on the streets yesterday, on both sides of the river and around Parliament Square. My impression was that the demo was mostly good-natured and that the police were on their best behaviour, certainly mostly cheerful and polite in my hearing on the Westminster Abbey corner of the kettle where a lot of the aggro took place.

When one officer slipped on grassy mud he got up and grinned. Students laughed too and shouted “Calmer”, or was it “Karma”? That incident was at least as typical as the student to whom I spoke after seeing him with a bleeding head. A truncheon did it, he said. The police pushed us “on the front line. We stood our ground”.

But what does a police commander do when faced with a small but determined cadre of people determined to smash property or provoke a fight? Were the troublemakers students? It’s not always easy to tell. Many students – including those still at school – struck me as well-dressed middle class kids who wouldn’t know how to hurt a fly.

There again, it’s sometimes to easy to dump all the blame on the feral youths who emerge from bad neighbourhoods in all great cities looking for a target for their anger. Old ladies or Damilola Taylor, royal cars, shatterproof Treasury windows. Student demos are a perfect cover for the mob.

Paul Pillar at The National Interest:

The attack by student protesters Thursday evening in London on a limousine carrying Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, offers some broader conclusions. None of them are, as some commentary has suggested, that we are on the verge of a new era of protest with students in the vanguard. My alternative lessons:

Security threats can emerge from just about anywhere. The main theme in commentary in Britain about the incident is recrimination over a breakdown in security. “How could this be allowed to happen?” is the most frequently asked question. Investigations and inquiries no doubt will retrospectively point to some error in judgment about the route selected, or some shortfall of communication between the royals’ security detail and other police elements. But even with terrorism—which this incident was not, although it could have been—the potential sources of threat are multitudinous. When non-terrorist agents of disruption such as rowdy students on a London street are factored in, the potential sources are essentially infinite. Even meticulous preparations cannot allow for them all.

Narrow self-interest can be behind wider trouble. Far from being the harbinger of a big new social movement, protesters who assaulted the royal limo and have been involved in other recent disruptions in Britain are overwhelmingly students upset about one very specific measure in the coalition government’s austerity program; the raising of university tuition fees. Similar issues help to explain why there have not been protests in the United States against its current wars that remotely resemble those forty years earlier over the Vietnam War. The different magnitude of the wars and the number of casualties is one difference, but the presence or absence of conscription—and how it affects the personal interests of college-age males—is clearly another.

Alex Massie at The Daily Beast:

The royal family was not the only unlucky target of protest. Rioting students and anti-capitalist groups smashed the windows of the Treasury building. Others urinated on the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, just across the street from the House of Commons, while one student was photographed swinging from the Union Flag that hangs from the Cenotaph—Britain’s principle memorial to her war dead.

This wasn’t some disadvantaged teenager from one of London’s tougher housing projects protesting against rises in university tuition fees but, rather, a bona fide “trustafarian” and history student named Charlie Gilmour—son of Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour.

Altogether now, every wag in the country quipped: “We Don’t Need No Education.”

Gilmour apologized today, but the damage had been done. It may have been just a minority of the 20,000 student protesters who captured the headlines, but they did more to discredit their cause than any argument the government could have produced.

The pictures and footage of violence were also a reminder of the role luck plays in politics. The riots led Thursday’s news bulletins and Friday’s newspapers, deflecting attention from the first serious parliamentary rebellion against David Cameron’s coalition. The government’s majority was cut from 84 to 21 as MPs voted on controversial—and painful—plans to triple university tuition fees.

(American readers are permitted a rueful smile at the fact that Britain’s leading universities will now be able to charge up to $14,000 a year.)

For Cameron’s coalition partners in the Liberal Democrats this was an agonizing moment. Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader and Deputy Prime Minister, had campaigned on a slogan of “No More Broken Promises” and every one of his MPs had signed a pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees.

Power is about choices, however, and the Liberal Democrats found themselves in deep, uncharted waters. While Clegg tried to muster support for the government line, fully half his MPs rebelled against him and voted with the opposition. Clegg put his credibility on the line and may reap an electoral whirlwind after one of the more spectacular political flip-flops in recent memory.

The rioters, however, may prove his best allies. “Middle Britain” was horrified by the scenes of violence and the half of the population that never attended college is unlikely to be impressed by the sight of well-off students disgracing themselves and defiling national monuments.

For the coalition government, however, it was also a warning of what may be to come. As the deep spending cuts necessary to rebalance Britain’s broken public finances take their toll, and as the young are radicalized by their perception of an uncaring government, such scenes, more reminiscent of Paris than London, may yet become a regular and disconcerting part of the British political landscape.

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