Thursday 28 October 2010

My Enemy's Enemy (I)

Speculating about what could have pushed local authorities to accept the alleged presence of an Einsatzkommando in northern Finland during WWII, Finnish researcher Oula Silvennoinen stated (28-09-2008) that:

"For a large part of Europe's bourgeoisie, communism was long a much greater abomination than national socialism. The fight against communism justified almost any means possible. This anti-communism included significant potential for violence, even in democratic cultures."
It's interesting that Silvennoinen should explain the collaboration between the Finnish and Nazi-German governments in those terms, because the fight against communism has long been used to officially justify unsavoury aspects of Realpolitik by democratic nations:
"The [CIG's Samuel] Bossard Report [of 1947] marked the first time that either SSU [Strategic Services Unit] or CIG [Central Intelligence Group] had an independent opportunity to examine the operation and to question both Gehlen and Baun as well as other members of the German organization. Impressed with the anti-Communist sympathies of the Germans and the breadth of their contacts (especially with various emigre groups), the CIG representative found 'no evidence to prove that the unusual confidence that had been placed by American authorities in the German operators had been abused' ". [1](*)
The "Gehlen" mentioned above was Generalmajor Reinhard Gehlen. One of the top men in the Abwehr (Nazi Germany's Military Intelligence service, outside the SS), Gehlen and a handful of trusted staff, like Oberstleutnant Herman Baun, had been squirreling away documents and other material, as well as contacts with operatives behind Soviet lines, as bargaining chips in the scenario of an Allied victory.

 The Gehlen network and archives became commonly known as Gehlen Organization and were codenamed Operation Rusty by the American authorities.

Bossard's endorsement is noteworthy, considering that only a few months earlier (16-10-1946) CIG had reported that:
  1. The information produced was unreliable, due to the "practice of drawing broad conclusions from inadequate evidence and a strong tendency to editorialize".
  2. The whole operation wasn't cost-effective: "(…) the statement made in Operation Rusty regarding costs in the 'world intelligence market' (…) are ridiculous throughout."
  3. "One of the greater assets available to US intelligence has always been the extent to which the United States as a nation is trusted and looked up to by democratic-minded people throughout the world. Experience has proven that the best motivation for intelligence work is ideology followed by common interests and favors. The Germans, the Russians, their satellites, and to a lesser extent [the British] have employed fear, direct pressure of other types [Torture? Blackmail?], and lastly, money. With most of these factors lacking to it, Operation Rusty would appear to be dependent largely upon the last and least desirable". [2](*)
Summing things up: an organization headed and staffed by former Nazi Germany officers was put in charge, by American authorities, of counter intelligence, basically on account of the "impressive anti-Communist sympathies" that Gehlen shared with his subordinates.
And although -to the best of my knowledge- no accusation of war crime was ever levelled against Gehlen personally, his organization included much more dubious, shadowy characters such as SS-Standartenfuehrer Walther "Walter" Rauff (designer of the exhaust-gas extermination van, thought to be responsible for up to 100,000 deaths and one-time aide, and protégé of SS-Obergruppenfuehrer Reinhard Heydrich, head of RSHA and chair of the Wannsee Conference) and SS-Hauptsturmfuehrer Nikolaus "Klaus" Barbie (head of the Gestapo in Lyon, thought to be responsible for up to 4,000 deaths), with full knowledge of the American authorities and, perhaps to a lesser degree, their western Allies, including the State of Israel. (**)

In time Gehlen's organization became the BND (the Intelligence Service of the Federal Republic of Germany), headed by Gehlen since its inception in 1956, until 1968, when Gehlen retired. Later in 1947 the CIG (incorporating other American intelligence agencies, as SSU) was renamed CIA.

The next two blogs in this series will contain brief biographical profiles of Rauff and Barbie.

(*) Those quotes are taken verbatim from the reports, except for the remarks inside the brackets, which are mine. Although in the Introduction document the reference to the British was blacked out, the same paragraph can be read in full in Document 21.
However, Document 21 does not explain what "direct pressure of other types" means.
(**) The references to the western Allies and the State of Israel will be justified in forthcoming blogs: specifically, France in Barbie's case, and Israel in Rauff's.

The text quoted is taken verbatim from
Tamara Feinstein (edit.). The CIA and Nazi War Criminals. National Security Archive. George Washington University. 04-02-05.
[1] Op. cit. Volume 1: Introduction
[2] Op. cit. Document 21. Draft to Deputy A, Operation Rusty, 16-10-1946

Images: Wikipedia.

Sunday 24 October 2010

Special: Hired Guns on the Cheap

Long story short: researching for a new blog on globalization and outsourcing, I came across a true gem of irony and surprising coincidences, published Sunday, September 25th 2005 on the Chilean newspaper La Nacion - Pistoleros a sueldo (mínimo). As the original text is in Spanish, this is my translation of the title and summary:

"Unknown chapters of the Chilean mercenaries in Honduras.
Hired gunmen (on minimum wages).

The untold story of the bosses, humiliating working conditions, the dangers awaiting them in Iraq and their instructors' hidden past. The aspirants to fight someone else's war may yet miss out firing upon anybody"

And this is my summary of the main body of La Nacion's story:

After the Honduran daily La Tribuna denounced the presence of 120 Chilean ex military being trained in the Lepaterique township as "private guards" by Your Solution Inc. (a Triple Canopy Inc. subsidiary), for their deployment in Iraq, the Honduran government denied entry to 48 further Chilean trainees.

The Lepaterique facilites were used in the 1980s by the feared Battalion 316 of the Honduran Army, specializing in counterinsurgency, torture, interrogation and psychological warfare.

From 1979 and until 1980, under the supervision of John Negroponte, at the time US Ambassador to Honduras, tens of military instructors from Argentine Army Intelligence Battalion 601, together with CIA staff, trained Honduran effectives in their fight against leftwing insurgents.

Mr. Negroponte was appointed US Ambassador to Iraq by President Bush, and served in that capacity from mid 2004 to early 2005.

Together with Blackwater and DynCorp, Triple Canopy was awarded US$ One billion to provide security to installations and diplomatic personnel in the 27 riskiest destinations around the world.

"Responsible sources estimate that at least 16% of armed foreign personnel operating in Iraq, servicing the coalition headed by the US, are private contractors. Twenty five thousand people, a true army on hire…"

Chilean "security guards" will be paid between US$ 900 and 1,300 per month. However, "the problem arises when comparing the incomes the company, for the same work, offers its American employees: between US$ 400 and 700 per day."

Chilean and Honduran staff sign a contract for one year, while American contractors sign up for 3 months, at the end of which the company pays them their return trip home.

American staffers are given private accommodation, while Latin American contractors are lodged in barracks. American staffers are given booze, unlike their Latin American colleagues.

As of September 2005, private contractors had suffered 268 casualties: the second largest number, after the US regular armed forces.
Who ever said outsourcing isn't a wonderful thing?

Related links:

Triple Canopy, Inc. - Wikipedia
John Negroponte - Wikipedia
Google translation

Wednesday 20 October 2010

Credit Where Credit is Due

Anyone actually reading these rants has probably noticed that I can be harsh to journalists.

My father was an old journalist, when journalists were not graduates and the distinction between a journalist and a proof reader was how many years experience they had, and how popular among the bosses they were. (Dad soon became pretty unpopular, and, for diverse reasons, including lack of personal forethought, ended up his life as a proof reader, working two full-time positions).

I myself once was a proof reader in a big daily broadsheet.

I say all of this as a justification, if you will, for what I am going to say next: in my experience, journalism may have either a heroic or a mediocre side.

In other latitudes journalists often have to make a choice: either to pay a price for saying things like they are, or lead comfortable lives. And frequently, the price to be paid ranges from simply becoming unpopular, to fearing for their personal security.

And yet, often journalists choose to pay the price and to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.

To a great extent, I write these lines to leave the written testimony that Australian journalists apparently refuse to leave: reality can be much less rosy than commonly depicted in our media.

However, these days I have found an unlikely exception in the Australian media: a young journalist who is actually willing to search deeper than official press releases and say uncomfortable things.

These are some of her pieces:

We're all worse off if the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. 20-10-10.

Home price rises mirror the city's income divide. 08-10-10.

Incomes rise in the east and set in the west. 07-10-10.

The big divide: the super rich versus struggle street. 06-10-10.

So, today, for a change, I will praise a journalist: good on you, young Ms. Jessica Irvine.

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Dust in the Wind

"All we do
Crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see".
 (Kansas, "Dust in the wind")

There once was a town called Gary, Indiana.

Founded by the US Steel in 1906, its population reached a peak of 178,320 (*), in 1960 and its health depended on US Steel's profits.

With greater opening to international trade, American manufacturers increasingly lost profitability and layoffs became generalized.

The unionized labour force, mostly white, migrated to areas where better employment opportunities still existed, just to find that these opportunities often disappeared.

By 2000, Gary's population had been reduced to 102,746 (*) [with 95,920 (*) estimated for 2008], predominantly black and impoverished [83.2% of the total (**)].

Paul Mason, from BBC, reports here what became of Gary, Indiana. More  images of Gary can be found at the "Gary, Indiana, Ghost Town" web page.

From an Australian perspective, Gary's fate, however tragic, may look as something remote, utterly alien, unrelated to us.

Still, this may be the shape of things to come, not only for us in Australia, but for humankind.

(*) Gary, Indiana. Wikipedia
(**) Gary City, Indiana - Fact Sheet. US Census Bureau, 2006-2008 American Community Survey.

Monday 4 October 2010

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics (II)

Mark Twain, it appears, is an unlimited source of quotations, even if sometimes the quotations can only be tentatively attributed to him.

Regardless, the following is a pearl of wisdom:

"If you don't read the newspaper, you're uninformed;
if you do read the newspaper, you're misinformed."

Enter Mr. Michael Pascoe, from Fairfax, resolute to prove Twain's dictum.

Commenting on the ABS report Measures of Australia's Progress, 2010 (ABS catalogue 1370.0), Mr. Pascoe declared, among other things:

"Per capita real net national disposable income grew by 2.6 per cent a year over the decade - that's the money in our collective wallets and purses;
"Our national per capita wealth (the national balance sheet, what Australia is worth divided by the number of people) increased by about 0.9 per cent a year.
"And, the real clincher against the whinging class, real average household income of low-income Australians grew by 41 per cent. The poor have become substantially better off, if the word 'richer' doesn't quite fit. Middle-income folk saw their after-inflation household income rise by a whopping 46 per cent."

Allow me to focus on these three items.

But first a note of caution: one must understand that journalists, even business journalists with long years of experience, are constrained by time: they have to abide by deadlines and are likely to have little time or inclination to fact-check the information they come across. In other words, it seems, is unreasonable to expect them to read "Explanatory notes" or any other such minutiae.

So, one may forgive Mr. Pascoe for not checking the notes referring to the third item above (the "real clincher" of 41% enrichment enjoyed by low income households).

Still, that's a shame. Had he opened just one link, he'd have seen the following note, and perhaps saved himself this rejoinder:

"The headline indicator shows a rise in the real income of low income households between 1997-98 and 2007-08, with their average real equivalised disposable household weekly income increasing by 41% over this period. However, part of this increase reflects improvements to the way income was measured from 2003-04 onwards."

Have a look at the chart below, reproduced here for your viewing pleasure.

The jump in the data, in the 2003-2004 period, reflects the "improvements" mentioned in the paragraph above. You'll also notice that the "slope" of the curve changed in that period: I suppose now Mr. Pascoe would say that the whingeing class are getting richer, faster...

That chart was in the very first page of the ABS report on Household economic wellbeing. Is that chart (together with the accompanying text) that pushed Mr. Pascoe into the display of neoliberal triumphalism, reflected in his piece.

I'm planning to write, in the not-so-distant future, about these "improvements". For now, let's just say things that were there but weren't considered income then, still are there, but are now considered as income.

Mr. Pascoe's failure to notice the caveat put there by ABS can be blamed on a lack of time, and excessive rush. That's fine: he would have had to click a couple of links to find the warnings about that data.

However, his failure to notice that wealth and income per capita (or average) measures mean diddly squat (revealed in his comments about "our collective wallets and purses" and about our "national balance sheet" increasing 0.9% per year) is simply appalling.

Here he didn't even need to click one link and read. He only had to ask his Fairfax colleague, Mr. Ross Gittins:

"Next, more attention needs to be paid to changes in the distribution of income, consumption and wealth. That's because changes in the averages of each of those things can be misleading. If, for example, much of a rise in income goes to the highest income group, it's possible that the real incomes of people on lower incomes could actually fall without this showing up in the average."

If he had checked more thoroughly the material made available by the ABS, he might even have seen the following table:

And, so as not to tire busy readers, the good folks at the ABS even provided the interpretation:

"Percentile ratios are one measure of the spread of incomes across the population. For example, the P90/P10 ratio is the ratio of income at the 90th percentile (i.e. the income level dividing the bottom 90% of the population from the top 10%) to that at the 10th percentile. In 2007-08, this ratio was 4.30, meaning that the income of households at the 90th percentile was over four times as great as the income of households at the 10th percentile. This represented an increase of 14% from 1997-98 (3.77)."

Perhaps, had Mr. Pascoe read this information, he'd have realized it's exactly what Mr. Gittins was warning against in the paragraph above!

In a future opportunity, he might want to try the website Statistics Every Writer Should Know, or even my own humble writings.

In any case, I feel perfectly justified to whinge, Mr. Pascoe, about neoliberal policies and about journalists who don't do their homework.

Observation vs deduction

What are the roles of observation and deduction in science? The following piece aims to shed some light on this issue.

A little history (I)

After thousands of years of observation, the list of known planets seemed to end with Saturn. How did this list come to be expanded?

Although dim, Uranus is visible to the naked eye and, in fact, it was observed before being identified as a planet. In 1690 John Flamsteed observed it several times. Between 1750 and 1769 Pierre Lemonnier observed it twelve times.

These earlier observers may have misidentified it as a star.

Initially William Herschel observed it on 13/03/1781 and reported it as a comet. The Astronomer Royal, whom Herschel had notified, identified it as a planet.

By 1783 Herschel himself acknowledged that Uranus was a planet.

One could say that Herschel's achievement was more related to the correct identification of Uranus' true nature and that it largely was a serendipitous event.

A little history (II)

Unlike Uranus, Neptune is essentially invisible to the naked eye.

It may have been observed through telescope by Galileo (1613), Jerome Lalande (1795) and John Herschel (1830). However, like Uranus before, it was probably mistaken for a star, and, in any case, its true nature was never communicated by its would-be discoverers.

But the histories of Neptune and Uranus are related in a more fundamental way.

After Uranus' discovery, studies were conducted to predict its orbit. But these studies suffered from a curious problem: after a while, they would become increasingly imprecise. The observations, in other words, falsified the predictions.

Discrepancies between Uranus' actual position and Alexis Bouvard's 1821 predictions could be explained in at least three ways:

(1) Perhaps gravity, at such great distances, operated in a manner slightly different to what Newton described;
(2) Maybe Bouvard's predictions were based on observations containing systematic measurement errors;
(3) A yet undiscovered planet could be perturbing Uranus' orbit.

Two researchers, John Couch Adams and Urbain Le Verrier, independently decided to pursue the third explanation.

By early 1846 both researchers had produced at least some calculations, based on Newton's gravitation; and, being finally aware of each other's work, commissioned the Greenwich and Berlin observatories, respectively, to conduct the astronomical search.

The exact content of the calculations made by Adams and Le Verrier, as well as the details of the search conducted at Greenwich and Berlin, are subject to controversy.

The fact is that on 24/09/1846, after less than an hour search, the Berlin Observatory reported the planet had been found, very near where Le Verrier had predicted.

Adams recognized Le Verrier's priority. Apparently, the most recent opinion prevailing among historians of astronomy favors Le Verrier.


Unlike the discovery of Uranus, where serendipity played such a clear role, the discovery of Neptune was hailed as a major triumph for Newtonian physics.

By correct deduction on the basis of current knowledge, Le Verrier and Adams had produced new knowledge. The apparent inexactitude in the orbit of Uranus had been explained: it had very little to do with systematic measurement errors and nothing to do with an erroneous appreciation of gravity by Newton.

However, I would like to point to an asymmetry between knowledge acquired through observation and knowledge acquired through deduction, at one hand; at the other hand, I would like to call the attention to a failure of some views on the philosophy of science.

The existence and true nature of Uranus was established by observation. That of Neptune was also established by observation.

Whoever rightfully deserves be credited with the correct prediction of the orbit, mass and angular speed of Neptune, was only formulating a hypothesis. That's why they required the collaboration of the observatories of Greenwich and Berlin.

In this sense, there is an asymmetry between knowledge acquired through observation and that acquired through deduction: deduction is neither sufficient nor necessary to determine the reality of a phenomenon.

It's not necessary, because discovery of a phenomenon can happen at least through serendipitous events, as in Uranus' case.

It's not sufficient, because predictions and hypothesis could be wrong, even if they are validly derived from acknowledged principles.

This last point was illustrated by the searches by Greenwich and Berlin. An even better illustration, however, comes also from the history of astronomy: the Ptolemaic system. A treatment of this episode falls outside the scope of this piece.

The second point I would like to make is that an extreme understanding of Popper's falsificationism would probably have discarded Newton's gravity, on the grounds of the discrepancy between the predicted orbit of Uranus and its actual orbit.

Contrary to Popper's view, Newtonian gravity gained credibility, and rightly so, when its apparent failure was explained through a discovery of a new planetary body.

NOTE: Images and information from Wikipedia.