Bradley/Chelsea Manning’s West Wales Roots

I see that Bradley/Chelsea Manning is back in the news as Barack Obama has decided that giving Wikileaks classified information on the US military in Afghanistan is less severe than passing on information embarrassing to the DNC, and pardoned him/her.

I always paid attention to the news articles regarding Manning for no other reason than part of his biography reads as follows:

Born Bradley Edward Manning in 1987 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, she was the second child of Susan Fox, originally from Wales, and Brian Manning, an American. Brian had joined the United States Navy in 1974 at the age of 19, and served for five years as an intelligence analyst. Brian met Susan in a local Woolworths store while stationed in Wales at RAF Brawdy.

In November 2001, Manning and her mother left the United States and moved to Haverfordwest, Wales, where her mother had family. Manning attended the town’s Tasker Milward secondary school.

I was born in Haverfordwest and grew up in nearby Pembroke, and Tasker Milward was one of the big rivals of my local comprehensive school’s rugby team, alongside Milford Haven School. I knew the local Woolworths store that is mentioned, I used to get taken there as a kid where I’d look at the hoppers of sweets which were about as available to me as gold bullion. I have often wondered how much of the way Manning turned out is a result of growing up partly in Haverfordwest: they are all a bit odd down that way. Give it a year or two and we might hear that everything stems from his not being able to understand a damned word anyone was saying and the discovery that everyone was related.

On another issue entirely, the following Wikipedia paragraph is a good demonstration of how political correctness and the obsession with flexible pronouns is turning otherwise sensible English into gibberish:

Manning became the target of bullying at the school because she was the only American and was viewed as effeminate.

She was bullied because she was effeminate. This makes Tasker Milward school sound like a place where feminine girls were some sort of rarity. Actually, now you mention it…

A Rare Case of Uzbek-Kyrgyz Cooperation

I see the police in Turkey have caught the man they believe carried out the attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul on New Year’s Eve. He appears to have spent the interim period at a bare-knuckle boxing gym:

Abdulkadir Masharipov is believed to have mounted the assault on the Reina club which left 39 people dead.

The Uzbek national is said to have been caught in Istanbul’s Esenyurt district.

Uzbek, you say? So not an Uighur, then? Didn’t think so.

There had been fears that the gunman had managed to escape Turkey, perhaps to territory held by so-called Islamic State, which said it was behind the attack.

I must say, this surprises me a lot. One of the features of al-Qa’eda and ISIS-driven gun attacks and bombings is that the perpetrators treat it as a suicide mission and don’t make much of an attempt to escape. The Charlie Hebdo gunmen fled initially but fought to the death when cornered in a warehouse; the Bataclan attackers died at the scene; the Nice lorry driver was shot to death in the cab. The policeman who murdered the Russian ambassador in Ankara didn’t seem much interested in getting away either. The inability to capture these people alive after an attack is what makes ISIS-inspired terrorists so dangerous because, as the Western films taught us, dead men can’t talk.

The guy who drove the lorry into the Christmas market in Berlin on 19th December broke the trend by fleeing Germany to Italy via France, and only got shot and killed when policemen in Milan asked him his identity during a random stop in Milan. Where he was headed is anyone’s guess. And now you have this Uzbek fleeing the scene of the crime and attempting to lie low instead of remaining in the club and making the victim count as high as possible until his ammunition runs out or the police kill him. You’d have thought that if he was intending to escape he’d have got the hell out of Istanbul and over the border into Syria somehow, but he seems to have stuck around. This might be because the Turkish security forces are so efficient they sealed off the entire city and closed the borders so tight nobody could slip through, but I’m a little skeptical of that.

My theory is this: ISIS are finding it more difficult to recruit suicidal fanatics and are having to use slightly less fanatical people who are happy to carry out an atrocity but not so keen on committing suicide in the process. The Arab-speaking world has at this point a lengthening history of supplying suicide attackers, but Uzbeks aren’t generally known for it. Ethnic Uzbeks fought in Afghanistan, switching loyalty between various sides under the leadership of Abdul Rashid Dostum, but in a manner more akin to tribal self-interest than the religious fanaticism shown by the mujaheddin and later the Taliban.

There are certainly religious fanatics in Uzbekistan however, but their numbers and capabilities are often exaggerated either by westerners through ignorance or locals for political convenience. Following 9/11 the president of Uzbekistan, the late Islam Karimov, established his pro-Western credentials with the United States by allowing them to use the Karshi-Khanabad airbase in the south of the country to attack targets in Afghanistan. He also promised to root out extremist elements in Uzbekistan which pleased the US, only he used this as cover to crack down on his domestic political opponents who had nothing to do with Islamic terrorism, earning his government a reputation as a serial abuser of human. Eventually the complaints got so bad the relations between the two countries soured.

My guess would be that ISIS has successfully recruited a few thousand Uzbeks to their cause but their levels of fanaticism and commitment are questionable, at least in comparison to their Arabic comrades.

Police reportedly found the suspect along with his four year-old son at the home of a Kyrgyz friend in the city. Turkish media say that his friend was also detained, along with three women.

This surprises me as well. Despite being close neighbours and sharing an insanely complicated border which completely (and deliberately, thanks to Stalin) dissects ethnic groupings, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz are widely different peoples. The main difference is that Uzbeks are Turkic people who are settled, meaning they live in towns and villages. The Kyrgyz, like the Kazakhs, are traditionally nomadic and more akin to Mongolians. From my own experience and readings, Uzbeks tend to be more aggressive and take their religion a little more seriously. You rarely hear of Kazakhs or Kyrgyz throwing their lot in with al-Qa’eda or ISIS, although no doubt some do. My guess would be they’d number in the low thousands at most, if that.

Despite their common Soviet history, the Uzbeks are hardly natural allies with the Kyrgyz and Kazakhs. In September 2015 I attended an Uzbek wedding near Shymkent in Kazakhstan, close to the border with Uzbekistan. The town of Shymkent is 14% Uzbek, and the village where the wedding took place was pretty much 100% Uzbek. I noticed that there were a few ethnic Russians at the wedding but no Kazakhs; and I happened to be in the venue of a Kazakh wedding the day before and didn’t see any Uzbeks (after a while you can tell them apart by looking at them; of course the locals can do this from a mile away). I asked my friend, who was the one getting married, if there is much mixing between Uzbeks and Kazakhs and he said there wasn’t. You occasionally see some mixing with the Russians and sometimes the Korean minorities, but not between Uzbeks and Kazakhs. I’ve not been to the Ferghana Valley region where Uzbekistan borders  Kyrgyzstan, but I would guess much the same thing applies there.

Ethnic tensions between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz came to a head in 2010 when the two groups clashed in the Kyrgyz cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad, leading to around a thousand people being killed and over a hundred thousand displaced during the fighting and the aftermath. In short, the Istanbul gunman hiding out at the home of his mate appears to be a rare case of Uzbek-Kyrgyz cooperation rather something to be expected.

One would hope that now the Turkish authorities have captured him alive we’ll find out some answers as to who he was working for and his motivations. I doubt they’ll get much useful information out of him regarding ISIS as a whole, if it was indeed they who put him up to it. They’d have known he wasn’t keen on dying at the scene and as such wouldn’t have given him any information that wasn’t pertinent to the job in hand, and as an Uzbek of questionable commitment he would unlikely be included in high-level meetings. I don’t know what methods the Turks use to extract information from foreigners who have murdered 39 people in Istanbul nightclubs, but I suspect he’ll spill whatever he has and then some. Whoever is in charge of the translating might want to spend the day brushing up on Uzbek phrases such as “Please take these crocodile clips off my bollocks!”

The Importance of Individuals

Bloke in Italy makes an interesting point in the comments here:

I don’t like expressing a judgement about a national characteristic – I try very hard to say about people what I would say to their face, and a statement like mine above can only be deeply unfair to most of the individuals concerned…

I was having a conversation on this very point with a friend of mine on Sunday.  My position is that I will say anything I like about a nation state or collective population, but I treat individuals in front of me as I find them.  In other words, I might not like the (say) Iranian government, its policies, the politics, collective habits and customs, and whatever falls under the description of “national character” and I would have no qualms about saying so.  But if I were to meet an Iranian then I would not treat them in a manner that is prejudiced by my feelings on the country as a whole (at least, I hope I wouldn’t).

A nation is more than a collection of individuals and for whatever reason the “national character” does not necessarily reflect the aggregate characters of each citizen.  Somewhere in the process other factors are applied with the result that the collective population can look quite different from its constituent persons.  Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in the Soviet Union, and later Russia: one of the most common things first-time visitors say is how surprised they are by the hospitality and friendliness of the people.  In his excellent book Among the Russians, Colin Thubron says early on “I never again equated the Russian system with the Russian people”.

I have offended many people by making disparaging remarks about their country, but I have offended very few individuals by making disparaging remarks about them (at least, until I’ve got to know them).  I have never understood people taking personal offence at somebody criticising their country, believing it is a reflection on them.  I’ve mentioned it before but one of the things I like about the French is you can slag off Air France, La Poste, and the prefectures and they’ll agree with you: they don’t feel personally insulted because of it.  Alas, the same is not true for many other countries, Australia and Nigeria to name but two.  Remark to an Australian than the prices in pharmacies in Melbourne are extortionate and he’ll say “Fack off home you facking whinging Pom”.

Speaking of Down Under, I remember The New Australian writing on his blog that he had little faith in humanity but plenty of faith in humans.  It was a good line, one that I agree with.  I’ve generally found people collectively to be utter shits but generally very pleasant on an individual level.  TNA also remarked that totalitarian regimes and authoritarian types always put collective humanity over individuals.  The Soviets put everything towards creating the New Soviet Man and a communist society, but had such utter disdain for actual people that they regulated the individual almost out of existence and murdered any that didn’t get with the programme.  Listen to the pronouncements of contemporary politicians worldwide and you’ll realise that viewing individual people as a problem is not unique to the Soviets.

Going back to my earlier example, it would be grossly unfair of me to make assumptions about any Iranian I meet until I’ve been given a chance to assess his individual character.  True, his government might like hanging gays from cranes and threatening to obliterate Israel, but for all I know he has spent twenty years in prison for protesting against that government.  It is hard to think of a country more dysfunctional and unpleasant than Nigeria, yet individual Nigerians are often wonderful people.  I’d like to think I treated those Nigerians I met as individuals and didn’t make sweeping generalisations about them based on what I saw of their country.  Conversely, nobody should have taken what I wrote about Nigeria here as a personal insult (although many did).

In summary, I think the world would be a better place if we stopped attributing such importance to collective groups and the feelings of nation states and just took individuals as we find them.

Faux Cyrillic

Below is a tweet from John Sweeney, a BBC journalist.


That the BBC should be peddling yet more anti-Trump rubbish comes as no surprise.  The reason I have posted it is just to point out that the habit of interspersing Cyrillic letters into English words is extremely annoying for those of us who can read Russian.

Dialogue

In my opinion there are two things which make a good film: a good story and good dialogue.  Preferably there will be both, but one will suffice.  Good acting helps too, but even the best actor can’t save an awful script.  I like films a lot and I’ve watched plenty, and sometimes I’ve watched the same film a dozen times.  One thing I have noticed about modern films is how awful the dialogue is compared to previous eras.  I don’t know if technology can now capture the attention of audiences such that compelling dialogue is no longer required, but it is rare I watch a film these days and think the dialogue is any good.

This isn’t true of films from a different era.  The other night I switched on the TV and found myself twenty minutes into The Maltese Falcon (1941) which I have seen many times.  I kept watching because no matter how often I hear the dialogue between Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade and the other characters I never get tired of it.  My favourite scene is this one:

Note the abrupt change in tone and manner when he addresses the stenographer.  This is what makes the scene for me: Spade’s beef is with the district attorney, whereas the stenographer is merely a guy doing his job, and he acknowledges that.  Of course he’s also being a complete smartarse, and his aside to the stenographer is done at the expense of the district attorney.  Note also the speed at which Bogart delivers his lines.  I doubt there is a A-list actor today who could handle that scene, which may be why they don’t even bother trying any more.

I should add that we have Dashiell Hammett to thank for both the story and the dialogue in The Maltese Falcon, both of which were virtually unchanged in the transfer from book to film.  I am trying to write a book (and making steady progress) and one of the things I am putting the most effort into is the dialogue.  Without good dialogue, I’m not even sure it would be worth writing.

German Court Endorses Antisemitic Attack

There are still some things which really make my jaw hit the floor.  This is one of them:

A regional court in Germany has decided that a brutal attempt to set fire to a local synagogue in 2014 was an act meant to express criticism against Israel’s conduct in its ongoing conflict with Hamas.

A German regional court in the city of Wuppertal affirmed a lower court decision last Friday stating that a violent attempt to burn the city’s Bergische Synagogue by three men in 2014 was a justified expression of criticism of Israel’s policies.

Firstly, note the fact that the judge has endorsed the belief that there is a direct link between a Jewish building of worship in Germany and the state of Israel, i.e. to attack one is to protest the other. Secondly, the judge has endorsed arson as a legitimate form of protest. Add those two together and the judge has effective legalised violent attacks on Jews on the grounds that it is merely a form of political protest.  This in Germany, of all places.

It’s been my opinion for a while that Germany is fast disappearing up its own arse.  After WWII they fell over themselves at every opportunity to show they were no longer warmongering racists and over time this led them to believe they are the epitome of peace and tolerance.  Two or three generations on and they are so self-absorbed with their own sense of superiority that they have lost the ability to condemn and punish certain acts of violence that happen on their soil.  If they were to do so it might shake the foundations of what for the Germans is now religious dogma: when it comes to tolerance and forgiveness, nobody is purer than we.  For the German establishment and middle classes, it is better to excuse away certain things than to risk losing that mantle.

We saw it with Merkel’s decision to accept a million “refugees” into Germany without bothering to consult those who would be affected.  We saw it with the sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2015/16.  This happened in Austria, but the mentality is much the same. Now we’ve got German judges refusing to condemn the attempted murder of Jews.

The problem, as this latest incident shows, is one that plagues self-righteous establishments in general, especially organisations like the BBC.  By refusing to condemn X they effectively endorse Y, and often by default they are inflicting on Y a judgement they cannot bring themselves bear on X.  Over time it becomes increasingly clear that they are working in the interests of X and against those of Y whether they realise it or not: to an outsider it is obvious.  Germans would probably be aghast if one were to tell them that at least one of their regional courts appears to be deeply prejudiced against Jews, because they would be so blinded by their self-righteous tolerance of Islamic violence that they’d not be able to see it.  But to anyone reading that report and noting German government policies over the past couple of years, it is becoming increasingly clear that Jews might want to consider putting in place a Plan B, probably one involving Israel.

I don’t think Jew-hatred runs through Germany like it did in the late 1930s, I’m not saying that.  I’m saying that they have fallen into the same trap as American academia and assorted social justice movements worldwide: by convincing themselves they are the epitome of tolerance and understanding they have actually become extremely intolerant towards anyone who doesn’t rank highly on their list of favoured clients.  There might be a difference between the German government sending brownshirts to smash up Jewish stores and a regional court giving the all-clear for Muslims to torch synagogues, but it is one that Jews might not appreciate too highly – especially if they happen to be sitting inside the synagogue at the time.  As we learn from the article:

The original synagogue in Wuppertal was burned by Nazis during the Kristallnacht pogroms in 1938.

Oh.

There are elections coming up in Germany this year, and how German vote will determine whether they intend to continue taking their country in this direction or not.  I was talking to a friend of mine yesterday and she was fairly surprised that I thought we might see a civil war, or something akin to the Northern Ireland troubles, in a European country before too long.  Incidents like the one in Wuppertal do little to assure me that I might be wrong.

More Psychology than Economics

Years ago I worked as a banqueting steward in Manchester’s Victoria & Albert Hotel, which at the time was a Meridian (it’s now a Marriott).  A large part of my job was to wait the tables in the massive function room, which people would hire for weddings, conferences, balls, etc.  We didn’t do a lot of silver service thankfully – most of it was plated, meaning the chef and his team would prepare a hundred or more dishes on plates and half a dozen of us stewards would distribute them among the tables.  I never learned to carry more than four plates at once, but some people could carry six or eight.

When times were quiet and there weren’t many functions on I used to take the occasional shift in the restaurant behind the bar.  I can’t give you exact figures because I can’t remember them and inflation will apply, but the place was extortionately expensive.  In fact, everything in that hotel was one giant rip-off, and I expect – as I learned recently from a discussion on wi-fi prices in hotels over at Mr Worstall’s – the higher-end hotels rip people off because they assume it will all be submitted as a business expense.

Anyway, between the banquets and the restaurants I noticed there were a lot of complaints and food was being sent back, or we’d be collecting plates with uneaten food.  Chefs being chefs, they generally dismissed all this as the customers being heathens who simply wouldn’t know vegetables are, apparently, best served near-raw.  I was young then and still had a long way to go towards finding my place in the world, but nevertheless I was able to see what the problem was: it wasn’t that the food was bad, it was that we were charging too much for it.

We were charging a lot of money for the supposed privilege of eating in our fine establishment and enjoying food prepared by our top chef, and so customers’ expectations were sky-high from the beginning.  If the slightest thing was wrong they’d complain, and rightly so.  But if the same thing had been served up at a lower cost they’d have eaten it gladly.  I learned during my time in that hotel that when customers complain it is not so much about quality or price but of unmet expectations.

I experienced this myself when I checked into the Pullman hotel in Cologne some years back and found they charged for parking and wifi on top of the 250 Euros per night room rate (I was paying in Accor club points).  Now I know they are just ripping off businessmen but at the time I didn’t and I was incensed.  I could understand the Ibis in Heidelberg charging for wifi and parking because their room rate was about 70 Euro per night, but I thought the Pullman in Cologne was ripping me off.  I complained and to their credit they waived the charges in pretty short order.

This weekend I am going to Lille, just for the hell of it.  I have found a hotel which charges 200 Euros per night, and an additional 20 Euros per night for parking.  Reading the reviews, I see that a few people are quite pissed off by this extra charge.  Sure it reflects the market rate for parking in Lille city centre, but as a guest of a 200 Euro per night four star hotel, having to pay extra for parking grates a bit.  Again, it’s not so much the price but the feeling that you’re being fleeced; it makes you feel that you’re dealing with an outfit more akin to Ryanair than a luxury hotel.  I suppose these outfits must run the numbers and find the additional revenue compensates for the complaints and negative comments, but often I wonder how closely the management pay attention to these things.

It appears that British Airways does.  Via the ever-traveling Michael Jennings who posted this link on his Facebook page:

In the annual Investor Presentation to the City back in November, British Airways revealed plans to re-introduce Club Europe on UK domestic flights.

This is almost certainly linked to the introduction of ‘buy on board’ catering from next Wednesday.  BA’s biggest nightmare is that someone paying £7,670 for a fully flexible Club World ticket from Edinburgh to Tokyo decides to switch to a Middle East carrier or KLM because they are insulted at paying £2.30 for a cup of coffee on the connection.

And that’s exactly what would happen: if you’ve shelled out all that money and then somebody asks you to pay £2.30 for a cup of coffee between Edinburgh and London, you’d never fly with them again.  It’s not about the money, but the principle: people don’t mind spending money, but they don’t like being ripped off.  It’s more psychology than economics, in fact.

Russians Upset Over Distant Events

It’s good to see Cold War paranoia is back in 2017:

Russia says it views the arrival of more than 3,000 US soldiers in Poland as a threat to its own security.

The troops are part of President Barack Obama’s response to reassure Nato allies concerned about a more aggressive Russia.

It is the largest US military reinforcement of Europe in decades.

Here is a map of Poland and its surrounds:

The distance between the eastern Polish border and the western Russian border is about 500km.  There are entire nations lying between Russia proper and Poland; they might as well complain about the troops in Germany as Poland.

Of course, they may be talking about the Russian enclave around Kaliningrad, in which case it is necessary to note that:

Last October, Russia sent nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to its exclave of Kaliningrad, sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania, followed a month later by Bastion anti-ship missile launchers.

Which presumably don’t threaten anyone, oh no.  They’re for defensive purposes, you see.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the BBC that the move “threatens our interests and our security”.

Perhaps if the Russians would state clearly what their “interests” in Poland and its neighbours were, such agonising would be unnecessary.  And this is just bollocks:

“It’s a third country that is building up its military presence on our borders in Europe,” [Peskov] said. “It isn’t even a European country.”

Poland’s not in Europe?  Where is it then, Africa?

Poland’s Undersecretary of State for Defence Tomasz Szatkowski said the deployment was necessary because of Russia’s “large exercises” next to its border and its “aggressive actions in our vicinity – I mean Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea”.

Ah, finally somebody who is speaking sensibly.

Mr Trump’s nomination for defence secretary – Gen James Mattis – is likely to be asked about the new administration’s attitude to Russia in his Senate confirmation hearing later on Thursday.

Leaving aside Obama’s last-minute posturing, a thousand quid says Mattis fully approves of the troops being in Poland and sees preventing Russia from attempting to annex more of Eastern Europe as being a top US strategic priority in the way that confronting them over Syria most certainly is not.  I can well imagine Trump pushing the Europeans to start paying more for their own defense and rightly so, but I think Putin will be making a very big mistake if he thinks the US is about to abandon Eastern Europe to Russian control.

UPDATE

And whaddya know?

President-elect Donald Trump’s nominees for defence secretary and spy chief have been taking aim at Russia during their Senate confirmation hearings.

General James Mattis, defence secretary nominee, warned Nato was under its biggest attack since World War Two.

Mr Mattis, a retired general and Mr Trump’s pick for Pentagon chief, said Russian President Vladimir Putin was trying to divide Nato nations.

“I think right now the most important thing is that we recognise the reality of what we deal with with Mr Putin,” he told the Armed Services Committee.

“And we recognise that he is trying to break the North Atlantic Alliance and that we take the steps… to defend ourselves where we must.

“I think it’s under the biggest attack since World War II, sir, and that’s from Russia, from terrorist groups and with what China is doing in the South China Sea.”

I think we might get to find out fairly soon just how much of a Russian puppet Trump is.  My guess, as I hinted at earlier, is the stance of his administration will be “You can have Syria, but if you start rattling sabres in Eastern Europe, we’ll arm them to the teeth”.

ExxonMobil’s Lobbying Efforts

This is a rather good tweet from ExxonMobil, presumably posted to set straight the dimwitted journalists who reported on Rex Tillerson’s confirmation hearing yesterday:

This is something ExxonMobil has long claimed, and was reported in Steve Coll’s Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power: their efforts in Washington D.C. are aimed less at trying to change government policy than 1) trying to figure out how government policy will impact ExxonMobil, and 2) inform lawmakers what impact those policies will actually have.

The difference might be too subtle for some, but this is different from ExxonMobil lobbying the US government to implement (or not) policies in order to benefit the corporation at the expense of everyone else.

Donald Trump and Press Freedom

Much fun was had at Donald Trump’s press conference yesterday when he shut down a CNN loudmouth who appeared to think Trump owed him a favour.  Cue much gnashing of teeth on Twitter about how Trump is endangering the freedom of the press.

Let’s get something straight here.  Freedom of the press means only that a newspaper or other media organ is allowed to operate free of government interference, and can write or say whatever they like subject to the usual caveats regarding defamation and issues of national security.  And that’s it.

Freedom of the press does not mean that certain journalists are entitled to take part in the press conferences of presidents (or president-elects), and demand that the speaker takes their questions.  This is especially true if the media organ in question – in this case CNN – chose to abandon all pretence to journalistic integrity and openly side with one Presidential candidate over another during the election.

Donald Trump owes the mainstream media absolutely nothing, and is no more obliged to grant them access to his press conferences or answer their questions than he is to me in my role of a blogger.  True, it would be better if a US President or President-elect does hold press conferences such that the people can be better informed, but the media has utterly abused its privileges in this regard for so long that allowing it to continue in its current form would be tantamount to a conspiracy to mislead the public.

I hope Trump kicks out or ignores those news organisations which have proven themselves to be staffed by partisan hacks openly campaigning for the Democrats, and gives preferential treatment to those who at least pretend to be informing the public in an impartial manner.  If no such organisations exist, then perhaps it is time to get rid of the White House press conferences and let Trump stick to using Twitter.

Either way, unless Trump is attempting to shut newspapers down or severely restrict what they can print (as we in the UK seem to be doing with barely a whimper), then complaints of press freedom being under attack are utterly baseless and should be ignored.