— Fragments

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May, 2012 Monthly archive

I’m not a big consumer of fashion magazines. But there was a copy of Vogue on my coffee table, and in that issue was an extremely flattering profile of Asma al-Assad, wife of Bashar. It was early 2011, and between the commission of the article by Joan Juliet Buck and its printing, the Arab world erupted and Syria entered its current phase of violence.

Vogue has since removed the article from its site, but you can read it here. You can also listen to Buck’s subsequent repudiation of her article on NPR.

It’s an interesting example of how quickly opinion, and especially elite opinion, can change. Less than two years ago, the Assad regime was respectable enough for Asma and Bashar to sit down with Carla and Nico in the fifth summit between the Syrian and the French president. It was a good time, apparently.

In the Vogue article, the then French ambassador to Syria described Asma’s work thus, “She managed to get people to consider the possibilities of a country that’s modernizing itself, that stands for a tolerant secularism in a powder-keg region, with extremists and radicals pushing in from all sides—and the driving force for that rests largely on the shoulders of one couple. I hope they’ll make the right choices for their country and the region.”

Today the position of the Syrian government that it is defending the state against terrorists is widely ridiculed in the Western press, but it’s worth pointing out that it’s not a new argument, and one that the West was happy to swallow in much less turbulent times.

I wonder who will be the next recipient of a Vogue puff piece to be revealed as actually being cruel and murderous. I’ll think about it as I read their profile of David and Samantha Cameron.

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Today I have been confronted with something extremely unpleasant – a bitter fight between two writers and thinkers I very much admire. George Monbiot, in his most recent article for The Guardian, argues that for leftists to reject the characterization of the Srebrenica Massacre as a genocide is an insult to the victims, an indictment of the the world left, and a case of genocide denialism.

The least pleasant part of Monbiot’s argument is his publication of private email correspondence with Noam Chomsky. In it, Monbiot presses Chomsky to disavow the opinions of Edward Herman (his collaborator on the classic Manufacturing Consent) and David Peterson on the Rwandan genocide and the Srebrenica massacre, as expressed in their book, The Politics of Genocide (which I have not read). Chomsky, contributor of a foreword to their work, adamantly refuses to comply.

For Monbiot, the massacre of 8000 Bosniaks in 1995 constitutes an act “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” and therefore, a genocide. Of course Chomsky does not deny that the killings occurred, or that they constitute a major crime. In fact, the eminent linguist calls them “outright murders without provocation.”

The Srebrenica massacre was surely the ugliest week that Europe has known (on its own soil) since 1945. There is no question that the Bosnian Serb soldiers of Ratko Mladić killed those 8,000 people. What is unknown is the precise proportion of those who were killed by military assault, and those who were summarily executed after they had been captured. Does stating this fact make me a genocide denier? I entreat George Monbiot to supply me with the correct figures.

The thesis (as I understand it) of The Politics of Genocide is that the genocides that have been committed since 1945 have tended to be overlooked when they are perpetrated by Western powers, and harshly condemned when conducted by enemies. It is for this reason that Herman and Peterson have have suggested that the number of those actually executed (as opposed to killed in extremely unequal combat) might be 800 of the 8000 dead, and therefore perhaps not a crime on the scale of some of those that have committed in the name of freedom. Is this the same as denying the Ukrainian famine?

Chomsky, in his email exchange with Monbiot, takes the line that “The mass slaughter in Srebrenica, for example, is certainly a horror story and major crime, but to call it “genocide” so cheapens the word as to constitute virtual Holocaust denial, in my opinion.” Chomsky’s view is that Srebrenica cannot be compared with Treblinka or Sobibor. Is this so objectionable?

What we are left with is a difference of opinion. Monbiot prefers a strict definition of the term genocide, and Chomsky prefers to avoid its use almost entirely. But ultimately, in a free society, we must be allowed to ask the question, and answer it for ourselves: was the Srebrenica massacre a genocide?

Monbiot expresses great concern for the memory of the victims of Srebrenica. Rightly so. But what do those who were cruelly murdered care if they perished in a genocide or a mere massacre? The way to honor them is to see that the people who perpetrated the crime are brought to justice, and to work tirelessly to stop violations of human rights, wherever they occur.

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The Guardian’s polling expert Harry J Enten has written an interesting article, “Occupy Wall Street’s people power loses popularity.” Enten’s declaration that the Occupy movement is losing force is worthy of further investigation. For a statistical expert, he argues on the strength of very few facts.

Enten begins by writing that “any New Yorker can tell you that Occupy Wall Street was a force to be reckoned with in the fall of 2011.” Was it really? In 2011, did the Occupiers mobilize tens of thousands, oust a political leader, or effect any policy change? They did not.

Enten’s sole example of Occupy’s power at that time was his anecdote of being forced to abandon a taxi blocks from his destination in the financial district, due to blocked traffic. By this logic, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and the Marathon are also “forces to be reckoned with.”

Occupy was a moral force. Its slogan “We are the 99%” and its symbolic attack on the whole world financial system had a huge impact on the imaginations of millions of people around the world and greatly unnerved the nation’s most powerful people. However, there is no question that in 2011, in New York City, it did not yet possess tangible political, economic, or physical force.

In November, Occupy was swept from Zuccotti Park. “You can’t be faulted,” Enten generously concedes, “if you believed that Occupy Wall Street forces would be back.” But you are “mostly wrong.”

Why just “mostly” wrong? Probably because two weeks ago, New York City witnessed the undeniable fact of its largest May Day protest in years, and it was Occupy Wall Street that inspired it. Enten dismisses the rally because “the police managed the protest with ease.” But why should a peaceful assembly of citizens be difficult to “manage?” He comments that May Day did not even “have the presence to cause even minor disruption.” Enten’s view of what makes a protest meaningful is perhaps unsurprising considering how much store he set by his own aborted taxi ride.

Enten wisely moves on to the safer terrain of opinion polls to make the argument that public support for Occupy has declined. Yet the first fact he points out is that “most pollsters have not even bothered to survey Americans on their view of Occupy since the end of the Zuccotti Park sit in.” But what does this matter? Just because pollsters are not interested in Occupy does not mean people do not care. Very few polls are conducted about The Avengers, baseball, or sex positions, but New Yorkers still think about all of them!

Finally we arrive at the meat and potatoes. According to the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, the percentage of Americans who say they are supporters of Occupy Wall Street has fallen since November from 29% to 16%. A Siena Research Institute survey shows that the number of New Yorkers with a favorable view of Occupy has fallen from 58% to 49% over approximately the same period.

Enten concludes by arguing that the Occupy Wall Street protests are unlikely to be important in the 2012 campaign. Why? It has to do with “the current numbers of protesters and, more importantly [emphasis mine], the percentage of the public that supports them.” Is Enten really arguing that poll results are more important than people marching in the street?

For the sake of argument, let us imagine that the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll is right, and that 16% of American adults support Occupy. This is quite enormous! 16% of the population is not black, or latino, or Jewish, or Mormon, or gay, yet these minorities still have great political importance. And favorability of Occupy is three times as high in New York City, where people are much more likely to have actually come into personal contact with the movement. These are not the figures of irrelevance.

Perceptions of Occupy Wall Street have definitely changed since the fall. For example, in October, even Mitt Romney expressed sympathy with the protesters, saying, “I look at what’s happening on Wall Street and my view is, boy, I understand how those people feel.” Would he dare to say the same again today? As the Occupy movement becomes more explicitly anti-capitalist, it really should not come as a surprise that it might lose some support.

A year ago, Occupy Wall Street did not exist. The pollsters did not predict it. Yet the movement spread to hundreds of cities around the world, and energized all those who oppose bailouts for the banks and austerity for everyone else. Can the result of two polls really tell us all we need to know about the future of Occupy?

Harry J Enten does not have a crystal ball. He cannot forecast the future. He does not know what people think. What he should be able to do however, is to have the humility to think harder about the facts in front of him and to approach them like a true scientist, with a spirit of inquiry, instead of prejudgment.

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Aitor Karanka, assistant manager of Real Madrid, former Spain international, son of the Basque Country, has become part of José Mourinho’s “family.” The Special One has assured the world that wherever he goes, Karanka will follow.

Yesterday we were even blessed with the unnerving spectacle of Mourinho and his technical staff singing, “Karanka portugués, Karanka portugués.” Karanka is so loyal that he’s even switched nationalities, apparently.

But after watching the video, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another welcome, from the 1932 classic “Freaks.”

Is there a similarity here or is it just me?

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Dan Patterson and I recorded another episode of hard news, dirty politics, and civilized propaganda last night for KoPoint. We had an outstanding group in with us: Elisa Camahort Page, cofounder of BlogHer; Ellen Ratner, White House Bureau Chief for Talk Radio News Service, Josh Wolff of ShoutEm, and Deanna Zandt, media technologist and author.

It was a lively discussion, and you can find it here. Dan Patterson made a great Urtak about gay marriage, and you can always leave your own questions and answers below as well.

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I sent the last post to my father with the subject line “Very angry.” He replied that he thought I was angry because Puyol was going to miss the Eurocup, not about Syria.

I am not angry that Carles Puyol will miss the Eurocup, I am sad. I first really became aware of the Spain and Barcelona defender at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan. First of all, in the great tradition of Spanish international footballers, Puyol is a pretty caveman-looking dude, strikingly so. His hair, which has gotten even longer over the years, was already out of control back then.

Immediately noticeable in Puyol’s play was his fierce desire to compete and to win. To watch him fearlessly launch his body in the path of shots and oncoming attackers made you believe that here was a player that aspired to more than Spain’s usual quarter-finals. When Spain was cruelly eliminated by South Korea, Puyol was one of the last with any energy left, throwing himself forward again and again, in search of the goal his team needed.

When he attacked, he was tremendous. Look at this goal he set up for Fernando Torres at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Impressive skill.

It’s true that in his early days, sometimes his enthusiasm led him into defensive blunders. But he settled down, became an absolute rock. Let us remember that in the three games of the knockout stage at Euro 2008, and the four games of the final stage of the 2010 World Cup, Spain let in precisely zero goals. Puyol was the boss of that defense.

He was pretty useful with his head too. Take that, Germans!

For a few months this year, Puyol was the champion of Spain, Europe, and the World with his club, and the champion of Europe and the World with Spain. That is an absolutely unprecedented achievement in world football. Puyol is one of the best defenders to have ever played.

Puyol has injured his knee, and will not play his 100th game for Spain at the Eurocup. It is a hard blow for him and for all football fans. At 34, it’s unlikely that he will play for Spain again in a major tournament, so there will be no more memories of that tremendous fighter in the red shirt. We will have to satisfy ourselves with the many beautiful moments he has given us.

Gracias campeón!

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The growing prospect of war in Syria is deeply disturbing. Something that further bothered me today was an ugly expression I came across for the first time – lethal aid. Apparently, John Kerry says we shouldn’t consider it yet, at least not until the unity of the Syrian opposition has been consolidated.

Lethal aid is clearly a derivative of “non-lethal aid,” an expression which itself seems to have been invented in March of this year. It describes the material support that the U.S. and its allies are giving Syrian rebels, support which does not extend to arms and ammunition at this time.

What are U.S. policymakers trying to do when they dress up their plans for Syria in language no one has ever heard? Are they trying to make it easier for the American people to understand what is going on, or are they obfuscating?

It seems clear that powerful sections of the U.S. foreign policy establishment desire war with Syria. John Kerry himself points out that removing Bashar al-Assad from power is the stated goal. The goal is explicitly not to protect the lives of Syrians. Which makes sense, because the two different objectives are at odds with each other.

Over the last year, Syria has known terrible violence. Yet it has been spared the destruction that comes with a true civil war. In fact, fewer people have lost their lives in the Syrian conflict than have perished in the war in Libya. But this does not really matter to men like John Kerry. The goal is to remove the leader of the Syrian state, irrespective of the cost.

Lethal aid will not improve the lives of the Syrian people. Lethal aid will do one thing – it will kill Syrians.

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A couple of weeks ago, Joe Gerber of IDEO shared an interesting idea with me. He mentioned that making sure that to-do list items begin with verbs is a very easy way to rationalize your work.

As I’ve found over the last few weeks, having the discipline to turn items like “canada polling” or “Jim” into “write article about polling in Canada,” “Call Jim,” really is a way to make your to-do list more immediately understandable to you,  less intimidating, and therefore easier to accomplish.

But you do still have to do the work to check the items off the list!

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As we walked along 27th St., headed back to Urtak HQ after lunch, the team and I were talking startups. As Eric Ries argues, when a startup changes direction but stays grounded in what they’ve learned, that’s called a pivot. What we were talking about was whether we as startups are pivoting, or whether we are actually travelling.

In basketball, a player who has picked up her dribble and and planted herself can continue to pivot off of one foot. But if she moves the other foot she has walked with the ball – travelling. It’s a rule violation, and her team loses possession.

The term pivot is thrown around pretty loosely in the startup world, which might be in part because it is quite vaguely defined. After all, in life, we almost always stay grounded in what we learn regardless of what new direction we choose to take.

Steve Blank, another guru of entrepreneurship, contends that, “a startup is a temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.” Pivoting would thus appear an absolute requirement for any startup, no matter how successful – just think of the evolution of Facebook since 2004.

What then is the difference between pivoting and travelling? Venture capitalist Rob Go, in an excellent article, argues that a travelling violation means selling an entirely different product to entirely different customers. This is very close, but not satisfactory. For instance, it could be argued that with the iPhone, and especially the iPad, Apple in fact sold entirely different products to entirely different customers. So it’s not just about the product and market. What’s missing?

Mark Pincus of Zynga nails it. In an interview with BusinessWeek, he says that while a company should keep trying different strategies, what should never change is your vision. If Apple sold bicycles, we can imagine what they might look like. Beautiful, sleek, and definitely fixed-gear.

If you’ve changed your product, your target market, and your vision, you haven’t pivoted – you’ve travelled. But then again, sometimes you get away with it! Just ask Instagram, or LeBron James.

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I went down to Union Square today both to show solidarity on May 1 and to record some audio for KoPoint. Everyone seemed to have a camera, which is a huge change from protests even five years ago. Two women carried my favorite banner “We found love in a hopeless place.”

Below find the segment that I recorded with Dan Patterson.

“The Occupy movement has functioned like a grain of sand irritating an oyster. A pearl of resistance is forming around that grain of sand as people are being drawn to Occupy and the message of more power to the 99%”

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