Abhishek Bhatnagar

My views and experiences in the dual-natured worlds of open source and nonprofit

Reading Weekly -August 14, 2016 – August 21, 2016

Highlights this week

A Ma’dan villager in Iraq – one of the so-called marsh Arabs

  1. How Rival Gardens of Eden in Iraq Survived ISIS, Dwindling Tourists, And Each Other – A wonderful article touching on the ISIS, Yazidis, and the varying other beliefs on where the mythological Eden might have been. Very highly recommended!

    Derived from the above article – The Floating Basket Homes of Iraq: A Paradise almost Lost to Saddam is an interesting follow-up on the Ma’dan people.

  2. In Philanthropy, Who Is Actually Broken? – The title of this article doesn’t capture its depth. It’s an interesting take on the already established principle of not imposing cultural values in international development work.

    As you will discover once you head over to read it, it is also one of The Development Set – an interesting and well curated collection of articles on international development.

  3. Around the World in 40 books – This is a great list of books that could be relevant to understanding the political and cultural scapes of many parts of the world. In general I don’t like writing lists of lists, but this link seemed to have enough merit to qualify for an exception.
  4. What It’s Like to Live in the Capital of the ‘Caliphate’ – Good quick read from Foreign Policy’s Dispatch. It doesn’t go into as much depth as one would like, but is still helpful in painting the lives of some in Raqqa, Syria.
  5. On trial: the destruction of history during conflict – Another quick but important read on the ICC trial of Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a Malian who is pleading guilt to the destruction of historic cultural and religious sites in Mali.

    An interesting note, the woman at work here is Fatou Bensouda – the chief prosecutor of the ICC who has already made headlines in the past year like no other previous ICC representative.


The evolutionary psychology of Genocide

Our species is capable of abominable crimes, the very worst of which we call ‘Genocide’. Though the media has repeatedly confused ‘mass killings’ with ‘genocide’, in actuality there is an orthogonal difference between the two. ‘Mass Killings’ can refer to an act which led to a significant loss of human lives regardless of the composition of its victims. ‘Genocide’, refers to an act in which there was a discrete intent to eradicate a group based on its race, nationality, ethnicity, or religion (while often implying mass killings). (Note 1)

When studying genocide, we ask questions of how, when and where, but rarely address that of why. Perhaps this is because the answer is controversial and can touch upon the hotly-debated subject of Nature v. Nurture. I strongly believe the reason that we are capable of genocide unlike any other creature is written within our circuitry, and hence comes from within us. This article is an attempt at explaining why.

Not long ago, I met a Nazi apologist who didn’t deny that the Jewish Holocaust had occurred but believed that it did so at a much smaller scale than what is generally accepted. His reasoning behind this had no basis in historic documents or testimonies (surprised?) but in the belief that the individual soldiers and guards who were charged so, were not capable of killing children in the way that Nazis are believed to have done so. When I pointed out the many examples of what Humans have done and continue to do to children in moments of the hell that is war, he said that it didn’t matter because even though other races might be capable of committing such acts, the Europeans are/were not. Reacting to the change in my countenance, he swiftly rephrased his sentence opting the word ‘culture’ for ‘race’ – it was European culture that was not capable of such barbarity apparently.

I’ll leave the thoughts of what makes a culture sophisticated or barbaric to you (does wearing fancy uniforms and hats make you cultured regardless of what your beliefs might be?), but let’s indulge our friend for a few minutes and try to answer his question – Are Humans capable of killing children? If so, why? If conflict and war is about killing the enemy and raping their women, what purpose does killing children serve? Why must we completely and throughly exterminate the enemy rather than just militarily defeating them? Like a former Nazi guard lamented in a recent interview “Why did we have to kill the children? What fault of it was theres?”

In popular culture, questions like this are attributed to the single word ‘Evil‘, but let’s try to go beyond that. The word ‘evil’ actually means very little, if anything, and paints only a black & white and overly simplistic picture of the complex psyche of Human Beings. Mass conflicts and genocides of the past were not freak-accidents of history that occurred when the concentration of psychopaths in a given population reached an imaginary threshold; instead they happened for predictable, and repeatable reasons. As sad as it is, the ability to participate in genocide lies within most of us.

Let’s take a look at two examples:

The Murambi Massacre: Rwandan Genocide (Note 2)
The Wikipedia article of this massacre is terribly incomplete, so let’s start with a brief background. It occurred when anywhere between 30,000 to 60,000 Tutsis were fleeing from their houses as IDPs in April of 1994. As it is with all IDPs, decisions on where to travel and where to stay are made by a hive-mind using information acquired largely through gossip and rumours. The people involved in this episode fell for such misinformation when they were tricked into believing that the Murambi Technical School would be a refuge for them. They were tricked by clergy, who under normal circumstances would be a trusted source of communal data. Instead, after making the large but empty buildings of the school their home for a few hours, the genocidiares arrived. Finding their targets in an enclosure surrounded by metal gates and concrete, they found their task simple.

The killing began, initially with grenades and automatic weapons. These weapons were rare as many of the killers were civilians and could only afford machetes. After round one, in which only a minority of the IDPs were killed, started round two – the massacre-by-hand. The attackers went in and after two days had killed 99-100% of those trapped within the school. To be sure, the victims outnumbered the genocidiares by a significant magnitude. I’ll leave the grim arithmetic of how many people were killed per hour and how many screams were heard in those nights to you, but just for a moment try to place yourself in the shoes of one of the killers – one of those equipped only with a machete, who lived the untrained life of a civilian. As one of these people described after the genocide – killing is hard. Cutting bone with a blunt and overused blade requires strength and commitment. These murderers were not doing the killing for the joy of it, as psychopaths do; to them it was actual work that needed to be done. To finish their work, they sacrificed sleep and food and exerted themselves until they sweat. Yes, they actually laboured for their beliefs.

Extermination of the Tutsis was a duty for these people and in their minds, they must have been heroes who are serving the parent cause of a “true Rwanda, the motherland”. Monstrous, I know, but we must recognize that the root cause behind the labour and sacrifice of the civilian genocidiares was not psychopathia or an inherent evilness, but their perverted desire for a pure state. The end goal was not violence or blood-lust; those were just the intermediary necessities to achieve the end goal. This left them with only one option, extermination.

The Yanomamo (also spelled Yanoamo) are a group of indigenous Amazonian people who have been subjected to decades of disruptive anthropological studies. Whatever your thoughts about that maybe, we have learned a lot about traditional hunter/gatherer type societies through them. After having read about a couple of similar groups from regions as unrelated as Venezuela, Papua New Guinea, and India, I have learned that the concept of genocide (read extermination of the enemy) was extremely common in “tribal” rivalries.

One of the best pieces of documentation on such life comes from a book titled ‘Yanoama: The narrative of a white girl kidnapped by Amazonian Indians‘. The book is the story of Helena Valero, a Chilean 12-year-old who led a life with some Yanoama groups for some thirty years after being kidnapped. She emerged from the forest to tell her story to anthropologist Ettore Biocca, who recorded her experiences in that book.

The following is the basic pattern of hunter/gatherer life as that lived in forests as described by Valero:
– If you are a girl, you grow up learning the basics of cooking, “gathering”, cleaning, in preparation to be sold as a wife into a polygamous family post-puberty.
– If you are a boy, you grow up learning hunting and warfare until you become a “man” in your mid-teenages and begin to acquire wives.
– A new village would consist of 10 – 30 people all closely related.
– As the village would reach carrying capacity (between 50 to 200 depending on availability of resources), feuds would begin to break out over family or resource matters, causing some to leave and form another village of close kins.
– As the two villages would spend more time apart and interact with other villages, alliances and warfare would eventually break out regarding “ethnic” (ie kinship) lines.

In a war scenario, the attacking party would almost always seek to exterminate the enemy. This would mean killing every one of their men, regardless of personal culpability. It would also mean most of their older women would be killed or acquired as slaves, and that their young girls would be kidnapped to be “converted” into the new ethnicity. As for the children, well, the girls would also be kidnapped and incubated until puberty, and the boys would be instantly killed.

Echoing the words of the former Nazi guard I mentioned above, Valero confirms that the men she lived with would cite a baby boy’s propensity for future vengeance as the reason to kill him. In this way, the enemy’s ethnicity would be exterminated, in that their genetic lineage would either be diluted through the women, or eradicated through the men. This exact pattern is seen in other forest based hunter/gatherer societies of the past.

Purity and Spirit

Romeo and Juliet

Two blood-lines that would not mix: the Montagues and Capulets

So what does all this mean for genocide? It means that genocide is not an act caused by some “evil” entity or by accident, but through Human propensity for recognition of the concepts of purity and spirit. The people who kill babies and children in order to exterminate their ethnicity implicitly believe that a certain irreducible “spirit” lies within them which naturally makes them impure. Whether this concept really did evolve into our psyches to prevent future vengeance is certainly up for debate but it seems likely.

More evidence for this can be found in one of the best known literary works in the western world – Romeo and Juliet. Being ever the crowd pleaser, Shakespeare doesn’t spare use of the drama sauce and pits the Capulets against an ancient grudge – the Montagues. Both family lineages are influential, and though the patriarchs of the two families, Montague and Capulet, have not had personal disagreements just yet, they see each other as mortal enemies. The grudge for which they hate each other and are willing to disown their children over has been inherited. They have fallen into an infinite loop of a Hobbesian trap (as governments often do), and are not making their decisions rationally. Capulet does not see Romeo for the intelligent and sensitive pacifist he is who represents a modern Verona, but rather, as another thorn that has grown on the Montagues vine. Romeo’s personal traits are irrelevant, and little he could say or do would make him acceptable to Capulet. Montague sees Juliet similarly – she is not a sum of her experiences, her beliefs, her naïveté, or even her eternal love for Romeo – she is simply a continuation of the enemy blood line, and must be eliminated to appease this ancient grudge.

Similarly go all humans, or at least are capable of going. By definition, we are social animals – as creatures, we are not built to chase a desperate glory of altruism and logic, but rather the affirmation and adornments of our friends, regardless of their moral compass. As Peter Singer demonstrates in his book The Expanding Circle, we simultaneously have the ability to be vastly humane to some, but discompassionaite and merciless to others. Who falls inside, or outside the circle of altruism depends on our social setting, and on how empathetic we are able to be of those around us. It is this principle that allows the dual nature within even first-world soliders who are willing to give their lives for their countrymen, but are also able to rape, and torture innocent civilians as long as they look like the enemy. This same principle is often exploited by military leaders to make their men and women more vicious in the battlefield, but in doing so, they are more likely to commit human rights abuses.

Warsaw 1939

A Jewish man having his beard cut-off in 1939 Warsaw


Once we are able to dehumanize, we instantly become capable of committing atrocities. A person that is dehumanized has no wife or husband to feel bad for, no father or mother who are going to miss them, no inherent ability to rehabilitate and become “better”, and supposedly deserve everything that is coming to them and more. We see attempts made at dehumanization every day in the news (Dick Cheney justifying torture, leader of the Jobbik political party in Hungary re-raising the ‘Jewish Question’ (and then finding out that he himself comes from Jewish ancestry), Netanyahu trying to group all Palestinians as terrorists, etc). But one of my personal favourite examples can be seen in just the image above. In it, we see German soldiers toying with a Jewish man, because they can, and because they will meet no resistance. They are snipping off his beard, something sacred to him, as a crowd has gathered around to witness it, as if watching a circus. The poor man can do nothing, and patiently waits, while any sense of humanity he has left is probably being crushed inside. In the eyes of the German soldier facing the camera, we see a cruel tyrant, a person who probably has a family at home whom he loves and friends he is civil to, but to his unfortunate victim, is a madman.



1. There are several definitions of Genocide, and the one that I cited belongs to the CPPCG. There are several other modern definitions (which the UN will probably get around to adopting a few centuries from now) which include groups based on sexuality, political beliefs, and class.

2. Massacre at Murambi

Netanyahu does not want peace

Netanyahu’s showing in Paris’ Unity March last week was as an odd one to say the least; some saw it as a PR disaster caused by a heartless sociopath, others as a cold, calculated moved by a seasoned politician. Regardless of your beliefs, you have to hand it to him, no matter what Bibi does, he seems to have a way of appealing to a significant number of Israelis.

A democracy is the best system of governance we have developed, but it is far from perfect. French political scientist Joseph-Marie de Maistre wrote “Every nation gets the government it deserves”, that follows well with my own thought – a democracy is doomed to its electorate. As Randal Munroe demonstrated in his XKCD comic, majority approval of any given subject can be on the wrong side of history, even in a first-world country. Such, I believe, is the case with Israel and its Prime Minster, who has been elected to the country’s highest seat three times already. Netanyahu is a hawkish man who doesn’t mince words or actions, and often speaks louder with airstrikes than his own voice. He has been known for ignoring international outrage at mass deaths of civilians (categorizing them as casualties of war, if acknowledging them at all), while even accelerating operations in such times. But he still has a way of getting away with it.

So, how does he do it? How does he operate on the mandate of a seeming monster, while winning accolades from a populace that considers itself largely liberal? By reusing the oldest tricks in the book of course! He lies, misdirects, victimizes, and censors. A quick and objective look at his tenure provides us with plenty of examples of each, but here are some of my personal favourites.

Suppression of Information and Censorship

To be succesful in political office is to be hypocritical. Last week Netanyahu stood in Paris and defended “freedom of speech” on principle and encouraged the publishing of political cartoons, even if they are offensive to any particular religion. But his principles seemed to flutter in a different direction when he himself was the butt of the joke. The political cartoon below was published in UK’s Sunday Times in 2013. It shows Netanyahu building a wall (of apartheid) with the blood and bodies of Palestinian civilians. All’s fair in journalistic freedom to criticize, correct? Well, not so much. After the cartoon was published, Reuven Rivlin, the Speaker of the Knesset wrote to his British counterpart demanding an apology while citing anti-semitism. The cartoon was published on Holocaust Memorial day, and it was suggested that it was especially egregious of the Sunday Times to print the cartoon on that day.

The Sunday Times, January 27, 2013

The Sunday Times, January 27, 2013

The memory of the Holocaust is sacred for all Human Beings. Invoking it to earn pity points in order to gain political favour isn’t particularly noble. But then again, this wouldn’t be the first time the Israeli government would muddy the memory of a Genocide. In 2004, Yair Auron (professor at Israel Open University, frequent writer on Genocide, and author of The Banality of Indifference) “[found] incriminating evidence that the arms (plunder from the Yom Kippur War) left from the airport in Lod for Goma, [were] transferred directly to the murderous troops of the Rwandan army”. Under Israel’s Freedom of Information law, he filed a request with the Department of Defence for relevant documents to be discharged into the public sphere. His request was denied on the grounds that the release would “harm Israel’s state security and foreign relations”. What that means of course is that by admitting that Israel played a role in the prevalence of Genocide in Rwanda, the government would forfeit its right to self-victimization.


Demonizing and victimizing

To cite Noam Chomsky, selling an illegitimate war in a democracy requires one to manufacture consent. Palestine is a complex mixture of two de facto governments, several militant groups, and quite saliently civilians who are trapped in the mix, but reality is easier understood without nuance. Netanyahu knows this, and realizes that he can justify committing any and all atrocities as long as he can paint all Palestinians with the same broad brush stroke. He chose that of Hamas. For example, Operation Protective Edge was launched by the IDF in 2014 as a response to the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers. The kidnappings were followed by international condemnation, and the question was raised, who was responsible? That didn’t really matter to Netanyahu as he saw this as an opportunity to pin it on his obvious target – “Hamas is responsible, and Hamas will pay“.

It became clear over the days that followed that the Hamas leadership was not responsible, Netanyahu’s lie had outrun itself. But to justify Operation Brother’s Keeper, in which  approximately 800 Palestinians were arrested without charge or trial, nine civilians were killed and about 1300 buildings were raided, and other atrocities, Netanyahu claimed that his attack was justified as Hamas had been breaching the ceasefire anyway by firing hundreds of rockets into Israel. It is indeed true that several rockets targeting innocent Israeli civilians had been fired from Gaza, but neither in the last seven months belonged to Hamas. But once again the truth was immaterial. Supposedly all Palestinian militant groups were Hamas, and they were all the personification of evil. Had Netanyahu acted in the true interest of peace, he would not have demonized the leadership of Hamas, which despite being a terrorist organization, had been stretching a friendly hand to find a peaceful solution. By discrediting this effort for peace, Netanyahu sent a message to the people of Palestine – it doesn’t matter whether you want peace of war, you’re going to get war.

In fact, it seems that Netanyahu never seems to miss an opportunity to demonize Hamas. In the span of last year, he has compared Hamas to:

– ISIS – After the murder of American journalist James Foley, Netanyahu’s Twitter account wouldn’t stop posting pictures of Foley minutes before the beheading and comparing ISIS’s actions to Hamas, much to the chagrin of Foley’s family.

– Charlie Hebdo’s attackers

The Nazis during the Blitz, (“Hamas is trying to start another Holocaust“)

with himself?


Post-1947 Gaza has been a breeding ground for poverty, religious radicalism and militant groups. The three often go hand in hand, and mix together in a potent cocktail. Despite the attestations of the Israeli government, it is neither Islam, nor genetic “evil” that gives rise to these. War is hell, and a single campaign can set its victims back several decades in time. Dwight Eisenhower, who had seen the horrors of World War II from the frontlines, poignantly pointed this out to us in his famous The Chance for Peace speech.*

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

After several failed peace plans, hundreds of failed ceasefires, billions spent, and tens of thousands of dead, Palestine had recently launched a bid to be recognized as a state in the UN’s general assembly. Despite staunch opposition from Israel and its ally, the United States, Palestine was admitted as a ‘Non-Member Observer State’. The standard bureaucratese title might sound discouraging, but the status upgrade gave Palestine a chance to submit to the ICC for an investigation of crimes that would have been committed in the 2014 Gaza conflict. The ICC’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, reportedly a pedant of a woman, has accepted the case. The news and the events leading to it caused a tumult of lambastations from Israel and the US. In fact Israel went so far as to freeze critical tax revenue it owes to Palestine (something is has done before), as punishment for its actions. The official explanation as to why goes along the lines of “involving the ICC would derail the peace process”.

Without getting into why that is laughable (Israel is the only party that is not on the same page as the international community in the process), it seems obvious that Netanyahu’s government is fearful of findings by the ICC of the grave crimes its army has committed. This decision once again comes at a cost to the Israeli citizen, as any investigation by the ICC will actually NOT be partial to Palestine. By its own constitution, the ICC will discover and investigate crimes committed by both parties. While Fatah and Hamas seem ready to take flack on that front, Netanyahu’s government does not. Palestine is finally talking to Israel via an agent of international diplomacy and not with rockets, but Netanyahu just doesn’t seem to be ready to listen.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is perhaps one of the most complex political problems of our times. It has challenged several intellects, and roused many-a-debates, but still remains a saliently divise topic of conversation. It involves not only the primal human instincts of religion and national identity, but also those of modern political structures, like the UN and the ICC. It should be a triviality to say that there is not going to be an easy solution to it, or a single binary event that makes everything better. For peace to prevail (however you define it), generations will have to pass, and cultural barriers will have to be dismantled. A quick look at the history of our times shows us that peace virtually never occurs by accident or evolves by chance, but instead has to be carefully constructed, with intention and hard work.

Success stories of peace can be found in the works of Nelson Mandela (who after being release from prison could have taken revenge against his white oppressors, but instead forgave their crimes for the better of his country), or Germany after WWII (a country which went from being deeply nationalist and self-assured, to being the most self-reflective and peaceable in the world). These stories are built upon individuals and societies that performed deep-introspection and jumped figurative leaps in their thinking. The actions of Benjamin Netanyahu and his government are regressive, and show a wonton lack of interest in peace.

Contrary to the old precept, Peace in the middle-east is possible. It probably won’t be Mahmoud Abbas who oversees it for Palestine, but it more than certainly won’t be Benjamin Netanyahu who oversees it for Israel. March of this year is a legislative election in Israel; let’s hope Israelis will do away with this monster of a man, who has undone the work of some of his predecessors, and continues to operate to the detriment of Israelis, Palestinians and the rest of humanity.


* Wilfred Owen (who instead had seen the frontlines of World War I) also warned us of the dangers of war for nationalism in his most wonderful poem – Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori.

Je ne suis pas Charlie

The week of January 4, 2015, saw several notable events around the world. These included the detonation of a car bomb in Sana’a, Yemen killing 37 and injuring 66 people, a massacre in Baga, Nigeria by the Boko Haram, killing anywhere between 700 and 2000 people, and attacks on the Parisian satirist magazine, Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people. Only one of these captured the conscience and commanded the attention of the western world in a way that is likely to be a defining event of this decade (as evinced by the rise of the now ubiquitous hashtag #JeSuisCharlie).

Without a doubt, the attacks were carried about by veritable cowards whose collective IQs would barely register in a competition for cerebral mediocrity. But let’s not let the radicalists define the course of our intellectual thought (after all, isn’t that what they want?), let’s instead introspect on what the attacks meant, and what is the best way to respond to them.

The response that followed the attacks from the international media can be broken into three categories: there are those who believe that all muslims are somehow guilty of the attacks and should be punished (let’s call these the crazies), there are those who believe that this is just another attack by the “Islamists” (a collective term for Al Qaeda, ISIS, Hamas, and whoever else) and it should be combated in the global war on terror (let’s call these the moderates/conservatives), but perhaps the loudest of the bunch are those who believe that the attacks are smoking gun evidence of the irreconcilable differences between the Muslim world and “Western values”, and the only way to prevent future attacks is to incite cultural change in the Muslim world (several amongst these call themselves modern liberals).

A theme that has been represented again and again from many within this final group is that of a pencil being destroyed by masked Islamic attackers, but the pencil recovering and attacking the attackers, not with bullets, but instead by itself. This theme speaks to one’s mind the old phrase: “The pen is mightier than the sword”. But implicitly, it also boasts a sense of superiority of the pencil (subliminally – western values), over the gun (subliminally – the radicalists).


Article 1: By Banksy

It’s hard to criticize Bansky, it really is. But the reason I find this easy-to-sell theme simplistic and dis-appealing is because it invokes an amnesia of history and washing out of the many complex reasons that have pitted western values against Islamic radicalists in the modern world. On an absolute level, of course the moderate, liberal and even conservative denizens of the Western world have the higher moral ground in this battle, but the same cannot be said for their governments. While Obama and western EU countries talk of equality and collect Noble Peace awards, their militaries bombard civilians with drones and B-52 bombers. There of course can be some justification to destroying “terrorist” hideouts and operational bases, but the declaration of all killed as either enemy combatants or terrorists, de-spires confidence in these militaries’ ability to self-meditate and inspires confidence in a very real and systematic turtle stacking situation.

George W. Bush is gone, but the term he so lovingly gave birth to – “evil-doers” still lives. If not verbatim, then just the idea behind it, that of the radicalists just being “evil people who do what they do because I just told you they are evil” is what still dominates the western mindset. It forgets that those that we call terrorists are not purely an artifact of the religion under which they commit their horrendous crimes, but instead, of being at the end of half-a-century of political experiments with questionable objectives. These experiments included but were not limited to colonialism, occupation, militarization, social clustering, and severe forms of general meddling.

In reality, the west’s moral superiority is built upon the confinement and suffering of many from the “east”. This does not excuse the behaviour of the Hebdo attackers, but it does help explain it; it should also help us push the brakes on judgement of Islam as a religion of hatred and violence, and in acquiescing the global Islamic terrorist movement as a function on the history inflicted upon it. Whether you grew up in Gaza, where you saw any and all legitimate paths to international credibility your people tried to take being washed upon by the international media, or in Iraq where a war that was supposed to topple the villainous dictator and bring peace and stability, but instead witnessed your country being ripped apart powerless, giving rise to organizations like ISIS, or in Algeria, where French colonialism and hegemony created such a disharmony that you found it better to move to France itself, but are now subject to Islamophobia and ghettoization, you are likely to see the world with a lens of a victim. Freedom of Speech should and does stand supreme in any nation that is to be respected, but flagrant and irresponsible caricature of an already victimized population under its banner is not particularly respectable.

The pen with which western ideals are written, and that is drawn in so many illustrations after the Hebdo attacks is now supposed to destroy the radicals. But it is the same pen that for several centuries has caused mass subjugation of Islamic civilians. It is also the same pen that drafted the Patriot Act, and the same pen that powers the industry that so ruthlessly exploits foreign lands and its people for profit, and the same pen that continues to write foreign policies that will only further alienate and impoverish those on the other end of the spectrum. This belief that western values support a culture of “exchange of ideas” and reify the ideals of the phrase liberté, égalité, fraternité, is virulent and blinding. Leaving this culture of self-superiority and self-victimization behind requires willingness to sit down and understand the true roots of the problem, not fanning flames for the sake of humour.

Inciting “Je Suis Charlie” is supposed to say to the world “I am for Freedom of Speech”, or if you look at it in another way “I am not afraid”. But then again, few in the international sphere disagree. Is repeating the hashtag really helping? Or is it driving the wedge further to a group that is already alienated? The people who attacked Charlie Hebdo did so because they saw the magazine’s flagrant contempt of what’s so sacred to them as an exaggerated symbol of all the other injustices they feel have been dealt to them. Should we really keep pushing that button? If I were one of those on the other side, I would ask “Why was the media that is now being so bold so quiet though all the injustices that were committed against us?”

As a person who strongly believes that Freedom of Speech should be protected at all costs but also that that right should be meted in a responsible and progressive manner, I am not Charlie Hebdo.

The cost of saying no to Peacekeeping

Virginia Page Fortana of Columbia University has a great paper out titled Does Peacekeeping Keep Peace? [1], which shows through a comprehensive study of recent civil wars that peacekeeping in general does lead to greater stability in conflict zones. In her own words “peacekeeping after civil wars does indeed make an important contribution to the stability of peace.”

In another release from 2011, Australia’s Institute for Economics and Peace showed that peace is generally profitable to the global economy. It calculated that conflicts had caused a loss of about $8 trillion in 2011, and $38 trillion over five years.

While we can all submit that it would be pure fantasy to expect a conflict free world, we should be able to categorize easily preventable conflicts, and at the very least work towards them. The GPI report shows that a 25% reduction in conflict would deliver a $2 trillion net return to the world economy.

With countries like Mali, Mauritania, and Syria now falling away to Islamic extremists in stark opposition to US interests, you really wonder, what is the true cause of reluctance from international interventionism. In my opinion, it is nothing but the lack of political will.

1. Does Peacekeeping Keep Peace? International Intervention and the Duration of Peace After Civil War

2. Vision of Humanity – Global Peace Index 2011

3. You may also want to check out some of the conflicts that The Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention is tracking through its early warning system.

The possibility of a military intervention in Syria

Why did NATO intervene in Libya, but is not getting involved in Syria?
I know what you’re thinking: Oil!

Yes indeed, oil security was one of the key reasons for the NATO intervention in Libya, but even the rest of the international community lauded that mission, but has not been quite so enthusiastic in the case of Syria.

This is despite the fact that the Syrian crisis is seeing a growing number of casualties. These are now coming to a head of that of the Libyan crisis, and are likely to surpass it soon. [1][2]

Well, the Syrian crisis is a lot more complex than the Libyan crisis when looked in the context of international politics. Look at the maps of these two countries and note who their neighbors are.

Countries that surround Libya
Tunisia, Algeria, Niger, Chad, Egypt

Countries that surround Syria
Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon

In the case of Syria, Turkey and Israel both are very strong military powers with interests in the area. Lebanon and Iraq are also heavily militarized with Jordan being a close military and political ally of Saudi Arabia, a state that has expressed concerns about Syria quite a bit lately. Here’s a quick analysis of the roles that Israel, Turkey and Iran (another superpower with an interest in the area) might play in this conflict.

Iran is well aware that the next major inter-state conflict in the middle east will more than certainly involve it in one way or another. Unfortunately for it though, its most important military allies are geographically far from it. Syria is an exception. Syria has a strong army by international standards and both Ayatollah Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are aware of this. Keeping Bashar Al-Assad in power and a close friend is of importance to them, and I believe that they are likely to get involved in any conflict over-throwing him (financially if not militarily). That must also mean that they are confident enough right now that the FSA will not succeed in over-throwing him.

Iran would like to see a stable Syria with Bashar Al-Assad in power.

Israel of course has the Golan Heights issue at play, which is a territory of Syria that is occupies. Though Golan Heights is the least important of territories occupied by it[3], by no means does it want to see a conflict there. As the Syrian crisis goes on, Golan Heights is likely to see an increasing number of displaced persons from Syria. The Israeli government would be obliged to offer refuge to this group which it likely will. Of their concern however will be the fear that a growing number of Syrian nationals in the region could cause revolts and general instability in the Golan Heights. For this reason, a stable Syrian government is of interest to Israel.

This is plain to see in rhetoric of the Israeli government. Recently, their deputy minister, Shaul Mofaz accused Syria of committing Genocide and called for international intervention. A government official also commented a few weeks ago that since Israel’s interests are being threatened and the international community is not doing anything about the situation, this is proof that Israel should take action in its own hands and not rely on others, speaking generally.

Turkey also has similar interests in Syria. Syria has a substantial Kurdish population at 9% [4]. Syrian Kurds live largely in northern Syria, closer to the Turkish border and are likely to take refuge in that country were they to be expelled. We know that in war situations minorities are always the first group to be persecuted, and the Kurds are likely to be targets if the Syrian war spills a bit north. Turkey is well aware of this fact and does not want to see an influx of Syrian Kurds. It is afraid that with a confluence of its own population of the Kurdish people, the Kurds of Armenia, Iraq and Azerbaijan, and the new additions from Syria, it could lose the already tenuous control it has on them. Such an event would only strengthen the separatist Kurdistani movement and this would be against Turkey’s interests.

Turkey would also be pro-intervention hence and I believe that they are slowly walking down this path now. With the Turkish jet that was recently shot by the Syrian Army, Turkey has been propelled in a position where it has to take a staunch stand on the issue publicly. I think they are having a little trouble doing this because they are unsure of who their allies might be in such a conflict.

Given this assessment, for those of us who want to see an intervention in Syria for humanitarian reasons, we have to succeed in proving to the international community that Al-Assad is overthrowable. If we can provide any support (financial or even moral) support to the Free Syrian Army, I think we could convince Turkey and Israel (and subsequently the United States) to intervene. Iran might try and prevent such a coalition but would likely not act militarily against a strong pact. I think Turkey will have to take the first step and convince Israel manually. If these two countries get involved, NATO could be pulled in, either through Israel’s influence or Turkey’s NATO membership.

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libyan_civil_war
2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syrian_uprising_(2011–present)#Deaths
3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israeli-occupied_territories
4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Syria#Ethnic_groups

Git Stash

Git’s Stash feature is consistently under used, which is strange because is also one of Git’s features that makes it ridiculously awesome.

Hers’s how it works:

You start working on an issue or feature and have made changes to one or many files in working towards a commit. But before you finish it, you notice that there is an emergency fix you have to make on another issue, or you realize that you have to take up another task before you can commit your current one.

You could in this case just start working on the new task and then carefully stage files for it without including changes from your work for the previous task, but not only is this sloppy, but it is also unlikely to work.

In a case like this, you can just “stash” away the work you have done on your first task and be left with a clean tree to start work on the second.

The Normal Way

All you have to do is go

git stash

You’ll see a return message like

Saved working directory and index state WIP on master: 38fcd98 LAST_COMMIT
HEAD is now at 38fcd98 LAST_COMMIT


To see your saved stash, go

git stash list

You should see a list like

stash@{0}: WIP on master: 38fcd98 LAST_COMMIT
stash@{1}: On master: Stashed Feature X

As you can see, stashes are stacked with the newest ones being on the top.

Once you have tackled the new issue and want to go back to your original work, you want to “apply” your stash by going

git stash apply

This will automatically recover the stash at the top of the pile. But this is not what you always want. You might want to recover a stash from way down the stack. In such a case, just go

git stash apply stash@{1}

The Better Way

When you just got ‘git stash’, the stash message is auto-created making it not very descriptive. So when your stash stack is up to say, 20 commit objects, it might be hard to tell what’s really inside one. You can always go

git stash show stash@{1}

to look inside a stash, but this is not always the quickest way. To tackle this problem, be sure to give your stashes names by going

git stash save "Work on #553"

Now when you go ‘git list’, you’ll see

stash@{0}: On master: Work on #553
stash@{1}: On master: Work on #550
stash@{2}: WIP on master: 38fcd98 LAST_COMMIT
stash@{3}: On master: HELLOsetcap CAP_NET_RAW+eip CAP_NET_ADMIN+eip /usr/bin/dumpcap

As you can see, its a lot easier to tell what might be in the first two stashes here than the last two.

Anyway, also be sure to go

man git stash

as usual, to discover many more cool features of stash.

War Don Don: the complexity of trying Issa Sesay

Just finished watching the documentary film War Don Don. It follows the trial of Issa Sesay at The Special Court for Sierra Leone, the same institution that recently convicted Charles Taylor.

Sesay was the interim leader of the Revolutionary United Front rebel group during the Sierra Leone civil war before being a senior commander for them. He acquired this position after the leader and founder Foday Sankoh was arrested and the organization was left headless.

The RUF is generally known for wreaking havoc during the civil war while indulging in killing, raping, maiming, and following a typical hedonistic methodology without making a distinction between civilians and the enemy. In fact in 1998, it launched “Operation Spare No Soul” to protest the arrest of Sankoh. The RUF claimed that the campaign was meant to target international forces or “mercenaries”, but evidence shows otherwise. However, what is important to realize in a situation like this is that not everyone who belongs to the organization participates in all its activities, and hence might have a lesser or greater personal responsibility for the crimes of the organization. Rephrasing that, defining someone guilty by association is not serving justice.

This is exactly the case that Sesay’s defence team tried to make – that he himself was not guilty of all the charges laid upon him. Though Sesay himself admitted that he could not have avoided the charge of recruiting and using child soldiers, he does earnestly seem to believe that he should be absolved of the rest. The documentary tries its best to be impartial to Sesay (I think), at times even taking his side emotionally. But on the whole, it raises some very interesting points that come up often when dealing with cases like this under international law.

The charges laid against Sesay included: “terrorizing civilians, collective punishments, unlawful killings, crimes against humanity, sexual violence, physical violence, use of child soldiers, abductions and forced labor, looting and burning, and attacks on UNAMSIL personnel”. A full list of the charges is available in this PDF document starting on page 8, or here with a bit of an explanation to them.

What distinguishes Sesay from most other rebel and militia heads is that despite advice to do otherwise, between 1999 and 2002, he disarmed his party to a large extent. This led to the RUF being significantly weakened allowing the international forces to achieve their military objectives and bringing the war to an end. The documentary shows that Sesay had been asked by the imprisoned leadership of the RUF and Charles Taylor himself not to disarm. In fact Sesay had apparently been told that if he does disarm, he will end up in prison; an event that actually occurred when he met with the warner in prison. All of this of course begs the question, why did Sesay disarm.

He himself claims that he did it because he sought peace. Even though he had committed many a crimes earlier, that he was only using those as a means to an end, rather than as the end itself as some of the other RUF leaders had done. It is very very hard to tell if this was indeed the case, but even the chief prosecutor Stephen J. Rapp seemed to hint that Sesay ultimately made his decision in favour of peace.

Does this mean that Sesay is deserving of our sympathy or that he should be absolved of some of his crimes? Was it just that he was a soldier who happened to be caught up in a situation in which his options were either to commit crimes or to die? Even if this were the case, should we and the international justice system forgive his crimes at the expense of the tens of thousands of victims?

My answer to such questions is usually no. The end does not justify the means, but I do submit that this is a very complex issue. If Sesay had different fortune and if the RUF had won the war, I imagine that he would be in a position like Paul Kagame’s right now. He might not have been the president, but he would have been part of the senior leadership (as the Lome Peace Accord guaranteed anyway). Paul Kagame was also a military leader whose troops committed many a crimes; the difficulty in such situations is always in placing the blame. It makes sense that the leadership share the responsibility especially if it can be established that they were aware of the actions of the troops (a judgement I have left to the prosecutors of the trial), but we also have to consider what choices did the leader have.

After being pronounced guilty, Sesay said that he wants the world to take note that he, a rebel military leader gave up arms and surrendered in the interest of peace, but is now the ONLY member of the RUF leadership being convicted of any crimes (he was sentenced on 16 charges, the biggest being 52 years). His defence lawyer suggests that this is a terrible message to send to other rebel groups in the world who are being asked to surrender. They could only draw from this case that were they to give up, only a life sentence would await them with no mercy. Hence it would be in their best interests to continue fighting to the death with nothing to lose.

I’ll be going to bed with these thoughts in my head tonight. How else could this case have been handled? It involved arresting a man who wanted to make peace, but had a monstrous background. We should also take note that his background might have been a function of his circumstances for which he is not to blame. In collecting evidence and testimonies to convict this man, others who also committed horrendous war crimes (but did not sit in influential positions) were let go and in one case even hired by the defence team.

Wayne Jordash, Sesay’s lead defence upon losing says of the court, “Any process which isn’t prepared to examine itself is fundamentally flawed. You [the Special Court] have such an impetus towards convicting everybody before the Court, and that doesn’t lend itself to a truth-finding process”. Absolutely true. But what he is overlooking is the cost of defending that man. If you have to let other criminals go to maintain the sanctity of one trial, then you are not serving justice.

Complex issues indeed. Anyway, I would recommend the documentary for watching for anyone interested in such topics. It is on Netflix if that makes it any easier.

Is DOCX really an open standard?

It is hard to believe that even in 2012 we struggle with standards as common as those of documents, presentations and spreadsheets. The de facto formats of these of course are those used by Microsoft Office (docx, pptx, xlsx (collectively called OpenXML or OOXML)), which causes a growing number of Libre and Open Office users such as myself much chagrin.

Like everyone else, the majority of office files I receive in my inbox belong to one of the OOXML category, and invariably as I edit and return the document to the owner, they complain that I have in some way corrupted or changed the elements within because of my choice of software, which is usually true. Then they berate me for being using “crappy” open source software and in one case, for being an “anti-Microsoft hippy”.

Let’s be clear, I am not an anti-Microsoft hippy. Like many of you, I run Linux and under a normal scenario, do not have access to Windows, so running MS Office is really not an option. Even if it were, I would detest having to pay for it. So for the simple reason of including myself and the millions of others who use the various open office suites out there, I request that you stop using OOXML formats, at least until Microsoft truly supports them in MS Office.

I’ve been angrily told before that OOXML or OpenXML is indeed an Open Format, which is technically correct. But there’s more to the story than that. If there weren’t, Libre and Open Office would have built perfect support for it a long time ago. They realize that not fully supporting Microsoft formats is one of the key repellers to new users for their base, so they would not not implement OOXML by choice.

The real reason that these software do not fully support OOXML is because there is a difference between the OOXML specification, and OOXML implementation in MS Office. To understand why, you have to familiarize yourself with three standards:

  • ECMA 376
  • ISO/IEC 29500 Transitional
  • ISO/IEC 29500 Strict

ECMA is a private international standards organization much like the better known ISO. The difference between the two is that ECMA is made out of companies, while ISO is made out of countries. There is certainly a need for both them in the technology market.

ISO along with another consortium called OASIS adopted the ODF (Open Document Format) back in 2006 to solve the document standardization crisis. This is the format that is used by Libre and Open office, along with most other open office suites. Such a format becoming successful would of course threaten Microsoft's already established monopoly in the Document market, which at the time ran on closed formats such as doc, ppt, and xls. So in 2007, they decided to create their own open standard with ECMA called OpenXML or OOXML, otherwise known as ECMA-376. This was the new “XML based” replacement for ODF, which of course seemed unnecessary to ISO and was initially rejected. But with the use of some muscle, Microsoft got the proposal fast-tracked in ISO even though reportedly 20 out of the 30 countries involved were not interested in passing it. This however didn’t stop the ISO secretariat Lisa Rachjel from pushing it through anyway after deciding “to move Open XML forward after consulting with staff at the International Technology Task Force”.

So ISO had a new incoming standard, but specific clauses of it still met resistance. To solve this problem, it was proposed that OOXML be split into two sub-standards, namely ISO 29500 Transitional, and ISO 29500 Strict. The Strict version was that which was accepted by ISO, and the Transitional version was fairly granted to Microsoft to allow them to slowly curb out older features from the closed source days. Nothing wrong with this, its only fair to their users.

However, the problem arose when Microsoft decided not to fully implement the Strict version of the standard in Office 2010. As published my Microsoft here and stated by Wikipedia here:

Microsoft Office 2010 provides read support for ECMA-376, read/write support for ISO/IEC 29500 Transitional, and read support for ISO/IEC 29500 Strict.

What this means is that when you save a document in MS Office 2010 or prior in any of the ‘X’ formats, you are not saving them in the advertised OpenXML format. This document will hence NOT be properly readable by other software such as Libre and Open Office and they will make changes to the document when they are opened and saved within them. The problem hence lies with the former, not the latter.

But, to be fair, we should note that we have been promised full ODF support in the upcoming Office 15. Alex Brown has an excellent post on this subject with more details about the gap between the promises Microsoft made in 2008 to what they actually delivered in 2010. Hopefully they won’t follow suit and actually keep their promises this time. I am actually genuinely excited to find out.

Lately there has been a shift towards the usage of PDF, especially when it comes to documents that do not need to be edited such as resumes, essays, and reports. The reason for the change of course is an organic realization that PDF is a no-bullshit format that works consistently and predictably across all platforms. While PDF is not exactly an open format, Adobe does provide free and consistent specifications for all to implement it as they please. If you are an MS Office user and also have been a part of the great PDF shift, you too have something to gain from the true open implementation of OOXML.

I would still prefer to see ODF win the battle, but if this happens, then at least their will be much fewer reasons to complain. Plus, Libre Office developers won’t be jerked around as much in trying to play catch up to an always moving target.

Anyway in the meanwhile, please save your documents in ODF when you use Microsoft Office.

How to buy a road bike

Buying a road bike as a beginner can be quite the daunting task. You’ll likely see bikes available to you starting at $60, going all the way into the $1000s with seemingly little differences between them. But even the smallest of parts do make a difference on a bike and should be considered carefully. The following is my experience of going through that beginner phase and some lessons that I can offer from it. If you’re a beginner, it might help you not make some mistakes that I did.

My first roadie was a Sears Free Spirit 10-speeder with a shiny and sleek looking frame. When I bought it, I didn’t know what I was buying and was attracted by the low cost and what seemed to be a good condition. My advice to you: don’t buy a Free Sprit bike!

The Free Spirit brand was founded in the 60s (I think) and has been ubiquitous around North America since. You’ll find 100s of these bikes on Craigslist for very low prices; they look attractive and stylish (have a vintage look to them), but are utterly crappy contraptions. To be sure, the Free Spirit brand applies to a wide swath of bikes some of which are better than others, but they are department store grade and were always meant more for show than a good ride.

I rode mine for over a year with my typical route being 25ks including many steep up-hills. Needless to say, I did not enjoy those rides very much, and it almost ruined biking for me. I ended up using the bike more so on flatter surfaces with predictable routes. Here as I learned slowly were the specific problems with the Free Spirit:

Avoid those things. Seriously!

If you go for vintage bike, you are still likely to meet stem shifters and extension levers, but just make sure they have quality derailleurs, like Shimano 600 (Ultegra on new bikes), 150, Exage, or other higher-end models. This makes a huge difference in the overall efficiency of your bike.

My current bike is not a vintage, but not exactly a new-order bike either. It’s a Giant Kronos touring bike. By no means the best, but certainly good. It has a CroMoly frame (23 lbs for the whole bike) with Shimano RSX derailleurs (again, not the best, but good). The brakes are double-pivoted as opposed to cantilever – this is not such a big deal for normal city riding, but if you find yourself on wide roads with fast moving cars often, try and upgrade to the former.

The Kronos is an absolute treat to ride when compared to the Free Spirit. It glides effortlessly on flat roads and makes going uphill extremely easy. I do the same path as before in literally half the time now.

Moral of the story: don’t buy Free Spirit bikes.