Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Fickle Newt

Newt Gingrich does a complete 180 on Libya in a matter of weeks. This led to one of my favorite Tweets of all time, of all time!

Newt Gingrich changes positions on Libya as often as he changes wives.

So wrong, but oh, so funny.

UPDATE: Sadly, but unsurprisingly, he's not the only Republican in the "Whatever Obama is For, I'm Against Even If I Was For It Yesterday" camp.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Did God Have a Wife: An Exercise in Bad Journalism

In my previous post I highlighted an excellent example of long-form journalism and mused that more of that was needed. Well, here's an example of a brief article that does virtually nothing to educate the reader on the topic presented.

It's ostensibly about early versions of the Bible and how a researcher believes that they told stories of Asherah, God's wife. For those who haven't studied religion or the ancient Middle East, Asherah was a fertility goddess and mother figure. Stories of her and similar goddesses abound in the region from those times. It is quite possible that she was in early versions of the stories that now make up the Torah/Bible.

But other than the fact that this researcher believes Asherah was redacted from the Bible and a very quick primer on who Asherah is, what does this article tell you? It doesn't give any examples of passages from the Torah that the researcher believes point to Asherah's removal. It doesn't give any concrete examples of the "Hebrew inscriptions" that supposedly evince his hypothesis. It gives no historical background for the writing of the Bible other than a brief aside about "heavy-handed male editors" and one sentence about the pivotal destruction of the first Jewish temple in 587/6 BCE. All of this information would have given this article some weight, some merit. As it is, I find it worthless other than giving me the name of this researcher (Francesca Stavrakopoulou) so that I can dig around for some more helpful material on his research.

Religion is hard to write about. I get that. It rarely has a clear narrative. Many adherents and their beliefs are opaque and confusing. But it seems that effort is rarely made to clearly elucidate the subject. Articles like this (and their headlines) seem made to generate controversy and traffic instead of relying on an excellent writing to bring in readers.

The image is a statue of Asherah (from the Wikipedia article). Isn't it great looking? I'd put that on my mantle.

Pot Heads Dealing Arms Internationally

I really enjoy long-form journalism. It's like a story instead of just some bland recitals of he said/she said. We could use more long-form articles because many stories are too complex and nuanced for three paragraphs complete with misleading headline. I know that goes against the grain of our instant gratification, Twitterific culture, but, you know. Anyway...

I recently came across this story about a couple of 20-something pot heads who became wealthy international arms dealers.

His business plan was simple but brilliant. Most companies grow by attracting more customers. Diveroli realized he could succeed by selling to one customer: the U.S. military. No government agency buys and sells more stuff than the Defense Department — everything from F-16s to paper clips and front-end loaders. By law, every Pentagon purchase order is required to be open to public bidding. And under the Bush administration, small businesses like AEY were guaranteed a share of the arms deals. Diveroli didn't have to actually make any of the products to bid on the contracts. He could just broker the deals, finding the cheapest prices and underbidding the competition. All he had to do was win even a minuscule fraction of the billions the Pentagon spends on arms every year and he would be a millionaire. But Diveroli wanted more than that: His ambition was to be the biggest arms dealer in the world — a young Adnan Khashoggi, a teenage Victor Bout.

To get into the game, Diveroli knew he would have to deal with some of the world's shadiest operators — the war criminals, soldiers of fortune, crooked diplomats and small-time thugs who keep militaries and mercenaries loaded with arms. The vast aftermarket in arms had grown exponentially after the end of the Cold War. For decades, weapons had been stockpiled in warehouses throughout the Balkans and Eastern Europe for the threat of war against the West, but now arms dealers were selling them off to the highest bidder. The Pentagon needed access to this new aftermarket to arm the militias it was creating in Iraq and Afghanistan. The trouble was, it couldn't go into such a murky underworld on its own. It needed proxies to do its dirty work — companies like AEY. The result was a new era of lawlessness. According to a report by Amnesty International, "Tens of millions of rounds of ammunition from the Balkans were reportedly shipped — clandestinely and without public oversight — to Iraq by a chain of private brokers and transport contractors under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Defense."

This was the "gray market" that Diveroli wanted to penetrate. Still a teenager, he rented a room in a house owned by a Hispanic family in Miami and went to work on his laptop. The government website where contracts are posted is, known as "FedBizOpps." Diveroli soon became adept at the arcane lingo of federal contracts. His competition was mostly big corporations like Northrop Grumman, Lockheed and BAE Systems. Those companies had entire departments dedicated to selling to the Pentagon. But Diveroli had his own advantages: low overhead, an appetite for risk and all-devouring ambition.

Read the whole thing. It's worth it.