Archive for July, 2010

Column … half left … march!

July 29, 2010

This post has its origins in my recent discussion of the way in which Reuters news agency presented the tangled tale of Shahram Amiri earlier this month.  I like the way that Reuters explicitly distinguished between fact, assertion and speculation in their reporting.   Therefore, I thought I’d try to adopt some of Reuters’ methodology in continuing my half-assed analysis of this case:  for the remainder of this post, I will clearly label the statements below with the appropriate tags in square brackets.  See what you think.

[Assertion:]  When Shahram Amiri resurfaced in July 2010, my initial reaction was to note the  temporal proximity with 2010’s other big espionage story:  the Russian sleeper spy ring roundup and swap.  [Fact:] The FBI had supposedly been investigating this collection of agents (perhaps not really a network if they were unknown to each other) for more than a decade.   The eventual spy swap yielded a mixed quartet of former Russian intelligence officers and a technical specialist.   [Speculation:] Maybe it was an even trade.  Maybe the US came out ahead.   [Assertion:] But it could have occurred at almost any time in the past five years:  why now?  [Speculation:]  Well … perhaps to divert media attention from what was about to hit the news quite soon.  (Construct a parallel timeline and judge for yourself.)   [Fact:] At least that’s the direction I thought this post would go when I began to think about writing it.

[Fact:]  I began following the Shahram Amiri story when Iranian media first publicly complained about his disappearance in October 2009.  At the time, and until quite recently, I believed that that Shahram Amiri’s disappearance [Assertion:] was just another in a series of US intelligence community “extra-legal seizures” of Iranian operatives extending back at least five years or so.

[Assertion:]  Anyone with a solid foundation in intelligence history and a basic –or not so basic– knowledge of US intell sources and methods will by now have reached the conclusion that the 3-letter men agencies are engaged in a protracted campaign to scoop up Hizbollah functionaries and Revolutionary Guard cadres from far-flung corners of the globe.  Usually, the US has worked closely with elements of the local intell services in carrying out these missions.  █████ and ██████ come to mind, among other locales.

[A:]  The goals of this campaign are two-fold:  to disrupt Hizbollah armament acquisition networks, and to collect HumInt about Iran’s putative nuclear weapons research programs.  Both of these goals have much more to do with Israel’s national security than our own, but being seen to guarantee Israel’s security is one way of keeping its status as a US strategic liability within manageable limits.  [F:]  It’s not in US interests to have Netanyahu start a Mideast war primarily to shore up his domestic political position, [A:] (his usual m.o.).

Meanwhile, in Occupied Kurdistan …

[F:]  In August 2009 three American “hikers” were seized by Iranian border guards after they [Unconfirmed:] “inadvertently strayed” into Iran from Iraq.  Let’s not concern ourselves with the issue of whether they were: [U:] innocent hikers, [Speculation:] US intelligence agents, or [S:] somebody else’s expendable false-flag recruits.  [A:]  What matters is that [F:] Iran has repeatedly (but semi-officially) proposed making their release conditional on the release of a dozen or so Iranian citizens (including Amiri) held by the US in “extra-judicial confinement.”   In other words, a swap.

[F:]  Publicly, the US has been having none of it, [A:] undoubtedly on principled grounds of proportionality.  [Bleak humor:] A trade of three stooges for a dozen all-star Revolutionary Guards almost certainly would be voided by the Commissioner’s Office as grossly one-sided and not in the best interest of The Game.  [F:] This stalemate prevailed for the remainder of 2009 and thus far into 2010.

Meanwhile, at an undisclosed location …

[U:]  From summer 2009 through spring 2010, Shahram Amiri was repeatedly debriefed –either willingly or unwillingly– by [S:] CIA personnel [U:] concerning his knowledge of Iranian nuclear research programs.  [F:] An article from the ([U:] left-leaning) InterPress Service news agency asserts Shahram Amiri told CIA that Iran no longer has an active nuclear weapons program, [F:] apparently confirming the intelligence community’s 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which came to the same conclusion three years ago.

No matter how you feel about the ideological orientation of IPS, [A:] you do have to like –or you should– the way that IPS’s Gareth Porter based his reporting on the statements of a named source (retired CIA) willing to go on record, and whose assertions were made based on access to serving CIA officials with knowledge of Shahram Amiri’s debriefing.  [F:] The IPS article goes on to contrast their source’s statements with professions made by WaPo and NYT journalists in various articles published during April and June 2010.  The IPS piece asserts that [A:] WaPo, NYT and ABC News reporting has been promoting a “false narrative” that:

[I]ntelligence briefings for Security Council members had included “information about nuclear weaponization” obtained from Amiri. … [J]ournalists have evidently been guided by personal convictions on the issue that are aligned with certain U.S., European and Israeli officials who have been pressuring the Barack Obama administration to reject the 2007 [NIE] estimate.

In an aside, [F:] Porter notes that former DNI Dennis Blair was quoted in one such WaPo article as saying that a new assessment of Iranian’s nuclear program had been delayed by “information coming in and the pace of developments.”  [A:]  WaPo reporters implied that Shahram Amiri’s information confirmed the presence of an active Iranian nuclear weapons program.

What … and so what?

If you’ve made it this far, you’ve waded through a turgid morass of fact and assertion along a path that seems to have no discernible direction.  All those facts and assertions add up to a whole lot of “what,” but things are quite a bit scanty in the “so what” department.  Why should anyone care?   That’s where the value of explicitly labeled speculation can really make itself felt:  by considering a wide range of hypotheses, the potential significance of the Shahram Amiri saga in the greater scheme of things may gradually emerge.

First, consider the possibility that [Speculation:] the Shahram Amiri affair (in its entirety) is somehow linked to the resignation of DNI Dennis Blair.  Let’s examine how that might be, through a series of alternate hypotheses that have not yet been tested against unavailable evidence.  Remember: these are alternative possibilities that need not all be in the realm of the actual.   Indeed, some of them may be mutually exclusive possibilities.

[S:]  For any of several motives, a faction or factions within the US intelligence community seek to reverse the findings of the 2007 NIE and claim that Iran has an active, clandestine nuclear weapons development program.  Let’s call this IC effort  “Projekt EIN.”

[S:]  In advancing Projekt EIN, this faction(s) used and abused information purportedly from/attributed to Shahram Amiri as “evidence” supporting their thesis.

[S:]  Members or allies of said faction(s) may have been on ODNI staff.

[S:] Dennis Blair himself (pick one … or more):

[S:]  was an active participant in Projekt EIN or actually commissioned it.

[S:]  was aware of Projekt EIN only as a “red team” or “rewind analysis” exercise, but was unaware of/neglected to control deliberate leaks from participants who had their own agendas.

[S:]  was entirely unaware of the existence of Projekt EIN and its “conclusions.”

[S:] was set up by rivals in the IC as the fall guy/patsy to be blamed for attempting a disastrous rerun of the 2002-2003 Iraq WMD intelligence fabrication campaign.

[S:] Regardless of Blair’s level of (non)involvement, he had to go when Team Obama learned of Projekt EIN and its politically catastrophic implications.  Whether Blair was actively involved, only partially aware, or blissfully ignorant, it sure didn’t look as though he was on top of things at ODNI.  That’s enough to make your president lose confidence in you.

[A:]  Of course, all the speculation above is based on the assumption that Team Obama is actually opposed to reversing the 2007 NIE.  That might be the most egregious speculation of all.

The Deepest Beauty of Nature

July 24, 2010

My past two posts have been firmly ensconced in the “hu” side of the lunghu dyad, so it’s time to venture back into the “lung” domain for a while.  That means commentary about topics other than rowing; in this case, a not-so-random walk from semantic tagging in Web 2.x into the realm of US – international relations.

This post started out to be something quite innocuous –praise for the work of Thompson Reuters in advancing the art of information provision and dissemination– but the particular example of Reuters’ work that I had intended to use as illustration ended up leading me in an entirely unexpected direction.   Serendipity, I guess.

The trigger for all this was a Reuters story that appeared last week concerning the disappearance and eventual repatriation of Iranian scientist Shahram Amiri.   The past two years there’s been something magical about spooks and summertime, summertime, sum-sum-summertime:  last year at just about this time we were treated to the enchanting saga of the disappearance and re-emergence of the lumber-laden MV Arctic Sea on its cruise to Cyprus/Lebanon nowhere.  2010’s summer storyline has involved a Russo-American spy swap, closely followed by tales of a Persian man of mystery.   Perhaps it’s precisely because of the way in which 2009’s Arctic Sea story unfolded (or re-folded, if you prefer) that Reuters editors elected to take the approach they adopted with the Amiri case.  Or maybe the copy their reporter filed was just so muddled, confusing, convoluted and incoherent that they decided to superimpose an external structure on the story just to provide some form of organization for an otherwise unruly mess.

The form Reuters selected for the Amiri article was that old journalism standby, the rhetorical Q & A piece — but with an innovative twist necessitated by the murky subject matter.  As you can see here, the response to each rhetorical question about a contentious aspect of the Amiri story is divided into subsections labeled “fact,” “unconfirmed,” “assertion,” or “speculation.”  In this case, Reuters probably also should  have added a category labeled “blatant spin,” but that might have been considered to indicate editorial bias of some kind.

Needless to say, I like some parts of this approach to presenting (dis)information.   Not so much that I employ it in my own blogging (here, it’s the reader’s job to separate faction from friction), but I like it.   I’d prefer lighter doses of the Q & A/call-and-response/declamation-and-chorus story superstructure, but I really like the explicit labels denoting the extent to which text statements depart from the centroid point of  “fact.”   Much most mass media “journalism” too often steers a course diametrically opposed to Reuters’, vigorously stirring fact, assertion, speculation and spin into a frothy, foamy confection with little nutritional value.   Just imagine a(ny) Fox News segment with video subtitles labeling the statements made on-air:  once you’ve finally contained your uncontrollable laughter, you’ll have to admit that Fox couldn’t possibly do it while continuing to claim “fair and balanced” news coverage.   ‘Nuff said:  I look forward to the YouTube mash-up.

But I digress.   The initial point of this post was to use Reuters’ Amiri article as a jumping-off point to discuss text processing and information evaluation, whether by a human reader or by a specialized software system.   Reuters has been at the forefront of Web 2.x innovation in journalism through its OpenCalais project, an open source software initiative that automates entity-identification/semantic tagging of online information (whether it’s Reuters’ content or someone else’s).   The result is structured (meta)data embedded within narrative text, which is a datatype traditionally considered by computer scientists to be “unstructured.”

At the moment, semantic tagging is primarily focused on named entities (nouns), with the goal of more precisely identifying which particular instance of an entity is meant by the author (disambiguation, in wiki-speak), and/or on identifying ontological relationships between entities.   Semantic tagging is not yet commonly used to denote qualitative aspects of text.   But momentum is gathering on many fronts.   An interesting recent paper from Stevanak and Carr at the Colorado School of Mines[!] points to methods of semantic text analysis that have a lot of promise.  Their research focused on differentiating fiction text from non-fiction on the basis of the internal semantic networks within each text formed by the order, proximity and sequence of the individual words themselves.

Similar approaches to deploying complex network theory in the service of information processing/analysis can and will focus on deeper levels of meaning embedded within text and oral narrative:  chains and webs of semantic ontologies; convergence with/divergence from some metric of accuracy; relevance of the text to information goals of the reader, or something else altogether.

The Reuters Amiri example falls far short of any of this, but that’s to be expected given where we are right now.   Distinguishing fact from assertion with a text label isn’t semantic tagging in the Web 2.x sense of the term because it doesn’t entail assigning actual data codes to text elements as a means to an automated information processing end.   And it’s not exactly an information quality metric either, since the Reuters label categories don’t precisely map to any of the roughly twenty or so dimensions of IQ.   But it’s a start, a rough-and-ready attempt at a level of explicit R & V attribution that’s rarely present in media reporting … and also missing from quite a bit of intell analysis writing.

It was this last observation that sent me off on an extended examination of the Amiri OsInt itself.  As is often the case with intell analysis, I reflexively began by evaluating available information in the context of what I thought I already knew about the overall operating environment.   Things took an interesting turn …

Next time:  Column … half left … march!

Initiating Incident no. 5

July 11, 2010

“At the start of a [drama], there is some sort of stasis. The initiating incident interrupts that stasis, and the [drama] ends when some form of stasis is regained.  The status of stasis can change many times throughout the [drama]; therefore, when a “shit disturber” causes bullshit, dramatic action begins, and continues until either shit happens, or stops.”
Alan Holman

I walked west across the bridge toward the boathouse on a cold January evening in some other year.  Freezing rain was beginning to fall, and a change to snow was forecast.  The sun had set at least two hours earlier, so the sidewalk was illuminated only by the glare of passing traffic and the glow of lights from the boathouse 100 meters away.  A thin skin of ice was already forming on the worn concrete pavement.

Evening practice started at 7, after the college crew training session was over and they’d had a chance to shower and head off to dinner.   I walked through the parking lot and approached the front door of the boathouse.  Despite the shadows on the north side of the building, I could see the head coach out in front, sprinkling road salt across the concrete apron beside the door.  Although I barely knew him, I couldn’t just walk silently by, and knew that I needed to say something [to break the ice, so to speak], but didn’t know quite what.  I began to get a bit uneasy as I drew nearer.

Then, inspiration struck, sparked by the still and silent walk I’d just enjoyed across the low, arching span of the bridge across the lake.  As I came within earshot, it seemed only appropriate to say, “Bridge freezes before road surface.”  He chuckled.  Another socially awkward situation averted.  Whew.

Elated at my impromptu quip, I entered the boathouse foyer smiling … and glowing inside.  “Bridge freezes before road surface. hehehe.”  The stairs to the second floor erg room curved up to the right less than 8 feet ahead, but I wasn’t really paying attention.   In two strides I’d reached the foot of the stairs, and looked up … into the eyes of ████████ ██████  rounding the staircase corner as she descended with a friend.  I was completely taken aback.   ███ ███████ ████ ████████ ██████.   It was all I could do to keep smiling and say, “Hiii!”  The happiness and openness in my voice was definitely not lost in translation: I could practically hear the crackle of the electric arc that jumped between our eyes, and she flinched as though she’d been zapped by a cattle prod.   She managed a “Hello” and continued down the stairs.  Her friend, behind her, was absolutely astounded, eyes wide with shock.  As they reached the door, I heard her ask in a low voice, “Do you know him?”  I couldn’t hear the reply as they went outside, but ████████████████████████████.

It was an unnerving experience  –for both of us, I’m sure.   I don’t really remember much about the workout that followed, not only because of what had just happened but also because of what happened afterward.

Generally, about a dozen people from the club showed up at the evening winter workouts.  We erged for about an hour and then did twenty minutes of core exercises to wrap up.  As usual, there were a two or three elite-level women training on ergs at the front of the room or on the weight machines down the hall.  They’d already been working out when we club rowers arrived and, as was generally the case, they finished about ten minutes before we did.  These magnificent Amazons are among the finest athletes in the world, and it was difficult to even conceive of the possibility that we were participating in the same sport.  Without even thinking about it, I guess I regarded them as somehow bionic.  Certainly, as very different creatures from we mere mortals: further, faster, harder.

When our workout ended some time after 8:30, I put on my coat and hat, walked down the stairs and out the door.  The other club members were still chatting upstairs in the training room.  As forecast, the freezing rain had changed to sleety snow.  A quarter-inch already lay on the pavement and the grass, and more was falling every second.  The bridge was a faint shadow across the lake one hundred yards away, obscured by clouds of steadily falling snow.  Despite the nasty weather, it was a picturesque scene.

I walked across the snowy lawn, passed through a gap in a post-and-rail fence,  crossed the road to the north side of the bridge, and started along the sidewalk to the east bank, where my car was parked.  Although there’s no railing between the sidewalk and the roadway, a thick, hip-high stone parapet prevents pedestrians –and vehicles– from blundering over the side into the lake.  It’s topped with a concrete capstone 18 inches wide interrupted at intervals by low piers that project a few inches higher.  Like the bridge itself, the parapet forms a gentle arch across the lake –its highest point in the center of the span.

By this time, almost half an inch of snow had collected atop the parapet, but I was mostly looking over the side at the surface of the lake, watching the falling snow vanish into the dark water fifteen feet below.  Very picturesque.  I reached the apex of the bridge’s arch, and suddenly noticed that something was written in the snow atop the parapet, having been carefully printed with a fingertip just minutes before.  Here was an instant message destined to disappear almost as soon as it had been written:  the first few letters were already filling with fast-falling snow.  I walked along beside the parapet, reading each word letter by letter in the headlights of passing cars as the swirling snow swept down.  Here’s what I saw:

“Oh Chris[t?], my love!  Would that this cold west wind could blow you here from the coast, into my arms and into my bed!”

I retraced my steps along the sidewalk to read it again, to make sure that I hadn’t missed anything.  By the time I reached the beginning of the sentence, the first few words were unrecognizable.   Wow.  This had been written by someone who’d crossed the bridge just minutes before I did, someone who had written a message for no one else to read, to pour out her soul on a bleak and dreary night, more as a kind of prayer than anything else.

A pair of extremely intense emotional moments for both the author and the only reader under the sky, only slightly offset in the onward-flowing current of time’s relentless stream.

Who was the writer?  Let’s review:  it wasn’t one of my teammates, because I’d been the first to leave.  It wasn’t one of the college crew, because they’d left much earlier, they didn’t park on the far side of the lake, and in any case the campus was in the opposite direction.  It was unlikely to be a random rambler, because this was no night to be rambling, no matter how lovelorn.  The only remaining plausible candidates were the handful of elite women rowers who’d been in the boathouse until shortly before I left, and who did park across the lake.  In addition, several of them were graduates of  powerhouse rowing programs in California and Washington State:  very likely to have long-absent lovers back on the West Coast.

So I began to think about how the wintry scene might have appeared when seen through another’s eyes.  As seen by someone who is:

  • separated from family, friends and familiar surroundings
  • striving for the pinnacle of personal success, but constantly confronted by the imminent possibility of utter, abject failure or serious physical injury
  • routinely pushed up to –and beyond– her physical and mental limits
  • pitted against herself and her own teammates
  • relentlessly faced with the prospect of being used and then discarded by her coaches
  • almost completely dependent on her own resources, capabilities, and will to endure

That’s a tough, tough daily grind.  A hard, hard life in an almost pitiless world.

And that was the moment when I finally understood how foolishly mistaken I’d been for so long.  These women weren’t modern-day Amazons, weren’t alien, exotic cyborgs, but instead were all too human.  Like the rest of us mere mortals.

That being so, what is to be done?  More to the point, what is it I could do?

At the very least, I decided, I could be nice, be friendly, be supportive when I encountered them in the boathouse: smile, say hello, exchange pleasantries.  I could provide psychological and emotional support that made random acts of kindness more than a bumper sticker slogan.  My past and recent experience had shown that quiet affirmation from a complete stranger can be much more effective precisely because it’s so unexpected –in the cold, heartless Northeast, anyway.  And although we’d long been told by our club officers not to ‘bother’ the university crews and elite rowers around the boathouse, this was clearly a situation that required low key, personal intervention.

So that’s what I began to do, in fits and starts.  When I remembered.  When it seemed appropriate.

Kindness is well received.

Ratio Shift

July 5, 2010

Caution! This post contains copious quantities of rowing jargon and terminology. If you’re not already a rower, the following material may be virtually incomprehensible.

As I may have mentioned on an earlier occasion, I row sweep boats. I row with a club in which the boat lineups are assembled by coaches based on the members who have signed up to row that day. Except for boats training for an upcoming race, the lineups are never the same from day-to-day. On the one hand, this means that you get to row with most of the other members of the club (although mixed gender boats aren’t as frequently launched as are single-sex lineups), but on the other hand it means that the quality of rowers you’re boated with can vary considerably –to put it mildly.

Our club is a mix of (mostly) masters rowers (folks from their thirties into their sixties) and –in summer– college kids home on summer break. Many of the masters rowers aren’t fit and aren’t focused: they learned to row late in life & they’re still learning (but verrrry slowly). The college rowers are fit, but some have fairly raw rowing skills. Others are damn good and well-coached: by and large, they’re a pleasure to row with.

Among the masters men, by far and away the most serious deficiency is lack of slide control on the recovery. This results in timing problems at the catch and “stern check,” as the sternward movement of their (often excessive) body weight counteracts boat momentum with every stroke. This phenomenon has several potential root causes, which vary from rower to rower:

♦ A “hitch” at the finish of the stroke (the hands stop close to the body once the blade has concluded its path through the water and has been extracted). This pause delays the rower getting his hands away from his body and establishing forward body angle before starting back up the slide to full leg compression for the next stroke. Because of that brief pause at the finish, these rowers are always lagging behind and rushing to catch up to stroke seat.

♦ Rowers with “slow hands” at the catch are often “rowing it in” –starting the leg drive before the blade is in the water– shortening the effective stroke through the water and resulting in a too-early finish. Their recovery timing is therefore out of sync, and they’re moving back up the slide to the catch position too soon relative to the rest of the rowers in the boat.

♦ Too little flexibility in the waist and torso (caused by a big gut or lower back problems) results in a short stroke through the water, a too-early finish, and a consequently too-early recovery back up the slide. When rowers exhibiting this symptom arrive at full compression before the stroke seat, they tend to “hang” at the catch –pause briefly before dropping the oar blade into the water– or row it in.

♦ Some rowers are too weak to drive the blade through the water from catch to finish as quickly as others in the boat. They finish too late and try to compensate by rushing back to the catch position for the next stroke.

♦ All of the above.

(more…)