Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Mark Frauenfelder @ Boing Boing
WSJ reporter confirms authenticity of her letter to friends about horrific conditions in Iraq

Farnaz Fassihi, a Wall Street Journal correspondent in Iraq, confirmed that a widely-redistributed letter she emailed to friends about the nightmarish situation in Iraq was indeed written by her. Too bad the WSJ doesn't allow this reporter to write these kinds of stories for the paper.

"Iraqis say that thanks to America they got freedom in exchange for insecurity," Fassihi wrote (among much else) in the letter. "Guess what? They say they'd take security over freedom any day, even if it means having a dictator ruler." And: "Despite President Bush's rosy assessments, Iraq remains a disaster. If under Saddam it was a 'potential' threat, under the Americans it has been transformed to 'imminent and active threat,' a foreign policy failure bound to haunt the United States for decades to come.

...Making clear what can only, at best, appear between lines in her published dispatches, Fassihi concluded, "One could argue that Iraq is already lost beyond salvation. For those of us on the ground it's hard to imagine what if any thing could salvage it from its violent downward spiral. The genie of terrorism, chaos and mayhem has been unleashed onto this country as a result of American mistakes and it can't be put back into a bottle."

Link

Unlike the US Army in my previous post, the WSJ stood up for her.
Editor & Publisher
After she confirmed writing the letter on Wednesday, Paul Steiger, editor of the Wall Street Journal, stood up for her, telling the New York Post that her "private opinions have in no way distorted her coverage, which has been a model of intelligent and courageous reporting, and scrupulous accuracy and fairness."
Continue reading to see a copy of the email.

Farnaz Fassihi
Being a foreign correspondent in Baghdad these days is like being under virtual house arrest. Forget about the reasons that lured me to this job: a chance to see the world, explore the exotic, meet new people in far away lands, discover their ways and tell stories that could make a difference.

Little by little, day-by-day, being based in Iraq has defied all those reasons. I am house bound. I leave when I have a very good reason to and a scheduled interview. I avoid going to people's homes and never walk in the streets. I can't go grocery shopping any more, can't eat in restaurants, can't strike a conversation with strangers, can't look for stories, can't drive in any thing but a full armored car, can't go to scenes of breaking news stories, can't be stuck in traffic, can't speak English outside, can't take a road trip, can't say I'm an American, can't linger at checkpoints, can't be curious about what people are saying, doing, feeling. And can't and can't.

There has been one too many close calls, including a car bomb so near our house that it blew out all the windows. So now my most pressing concern every day is not to write a kick-ass story but to stay alive and make sure our Iraqi employees stay alive. In Baghdad I am a security personnel first, a reporter second.

It's hard to pinpoint when the turning point exactly began. Was it April when the Fallujah fell out of the grasp of the Americans? Was it when Moqtada and Jish Mahdi declared war on the U.S. military? Was it when Sadr City, home to ten percent of Iraq's population, became a nightly battlefield for the Americans? Or was it when the insurgency began spreading from isolated pockets in the Sunni triangle to include most of Iraq? Despite President Bush's rosy assessments, Iraq remains a disaster. If under Saddam it was a potential threat, under the Americans it has been transformed to imminent and active threat, a foreign policy failure bound to haunt the United States for decades to come.

Iraqis like to call this mess the situation. When asked how are things? they reply: the situation is very bad.

What they mean by situation is this: the Iraqi government doesn't control most Iraqi cities, there are several car bombs going off each day around the country killing and injuring scores of innocent people, the country's roads are becoming impassable and littered by hundreds of landmines and explosive devices aimed to kill American soldiers, there are assassinations, kidnappings and beheadings. The situation, basically, means a raging barbaric guerilla war.

In four days, 110 people died and over 300 got injured in Baghdad alone. The numbers are so shocking that the ministry of health, which was attempting an exercise of public transparency by releasing the numbers-- has now stopped disclosing them.

Insurgents now attack Americans 87 times a day.

A friend drove thru the Shiite slum of Sadr City yesterday. He said young men were openly placing improvised explosive devices into the ground. They melt a shallow hole into the asphalt, dig the explosive, cover it with dirt and put an old tire or plastic can over it to signal to the locals this is booby-trapped. He said on the main roads of Sadr City, there were a dozen landmines per every ten yards. His car snaked and swirled to avoid driving over them. Behind the walls sits an angry Iraqi ready to detonate them as soon as an American convoy gets near. This is in Shiite land, the population that was supposed to love America for liberating Iraq.

For journalists the significant turning point came with the wave of abduction and kidnappings. Only two weeks ago we felt safe around Baghdad because foreigners were being abducted on the roads and highways between towns. Then came a frantic phone call from a journalist female friend at 11 p.m. telling me two Italian women had been abducted from their homes in broad daylight. Then the two Americans, who got beheaded this week and the Brit, were abducted from their homes in a residential neighborhood. They were supplying the entire block with round the clock electricity from their generator to win friends. The abductors grabbed one of them at 6 a.m. when he came out to switch on the generator; his beheaded body was thrown back near the neighborhoods. The insurgency, we are told, is rampant with no signs of calming down. If any thing, it is growing stronger, organized and more sophisticated every day. The various elements within it -- baathists, criminals, nationalists and Al Qaeda -- are cooperating and coordinating.

I went to an emergency meeting for foreign correspondents with the military and embassy to discuss the kidnappings. We were somberly told our fate would largely depend on where we were in the kidnapping chain once it was determined we were missing. Here is how it goes: criminal gangs grab you and sell you up to Baathists in Fallujah, who will in turn sell you to Al Qaeda. In turn, cash and weapons flow the other way from Al Qaeda to the Baathisst to the criminals. My friend Georges, the French journalist snatched on the road to Najaf, has been missing for a month with no word on release or whether he is still alive.

America's last hope for a quick exit? The Iraqi police and National Guard units we are spending billions of dollars to train. The cops are being murdered by the dozens every dayÜover 700 to date -- and the insurgents are infiltrating their ranks. The problem is so serious that the U.S. military has allocated $6 million dollars to buy out 30,000 cops they just trained to get rid of them quietly.

As for reconstruction: firstly it's so unsafe for foreigners to operate that almost all projects have come to a halt. After two years, of the $18 billion Congress appropriated for Iraq reconstruction only about $1 billion or so has been spent and a chuck has now been reallocated for improving security, a sign of just how bad things are going here.

Oil dreams? Insurgents disrupt oil flow routinely as a result of sabotage and oil prices have hit record high of $49 a barrel.

Who did this war exactly benefit? Was it worth it? Are we safer because Saddam is holed up and Al Qaeda is running around in Iraq?

Iraqis say that thanks to America they got freedom in exchange for insecurity. Guess what? They say they'd take security over freedom any day, even if it means having a dictator ruler.

I heard an educated Iraqi say today that if Saddam Hussein were allowed to run for elections he would get the majority of the vote. This is truly sad.

Then I went to see an Iraqi scholar this week to talk to him about elections here. He has been trying to educate the public on the importance of voting. He said, "President Bush wanted to turn Iraq into a democracy that would be an example for the Middle East. Forget about democracy, forget about being a model for the region, we have to salvage Iraq before all is lost."

One could argue that Iraq is already lost beyond salvation. For those of us on the ground it's hard to imagine what if any thing could salvage it from its violent downward spiral.

The genie of terrorism, chaos and mayhem has been unleashed onto this country as a result of American mistakes and it can't be put back into a bottle.

The Iraqi government is talking about having elections in three months while half of the country remains a no go zone -- out of the hands of the government and the Americans and out of reach of journalists. In the other half, the disenchanted population is too terrified to show up at polling stations. The Sunnis have already said they'd boycott elections, leaving the stage open for polarized government of Kurds and Shiites that will not be deemed as legitimate and will most certainly lead to civil war.

I asked a 28-year-old engineer if he and his family would participate in the Iraqi elections since it was the first time Iraqis could to some degree elect a leadership. His response summed it all: "Go and vote and risk being blown into pieces or followed by the insurgents and murdered for cooperating with the Americans? For what? To practice democracy? Are you joking?"

"In a complete reversal of their policy and on the heels of Avex's partial cessation of copy protected CDs (translation), Sony Music Entertainment in Japan has announced that it will abolish its Label Gate CCCD format (translation) beginning in November 2004 and move back to normal CD-audio format discs for all future releases. Reasons cited are music users' increased consciousness about copyrights and maintenance of legality (conformity to the CD-audio format specification). In related news, Sony also released a slightly updated HD walkman (translation) due to pressure from the iPod, but because of hardware limitations the device still does not support MP3 playback."
Yay! Sony does something smart in the DRM space for a change.

Ethan explains that although Wikipedia tries to maintain an neutral point of view (NPOV), it is inherently systemically biased by its demographic to pay more attention to articles that the contributors know about and research from sources which are available online. Xed, a Wikipedian has tried to address this systemic bias with a new project called the "Committee Regarding Overcoming Serious Systemic Bias On Wikipedia" or CROSSBOW.

From draft CROSSBOW manifesto
Wikipedia has a number of systemic biases, mostly deriving from the demographics of our participant base, the heavy bias towards online research, and the (generally commendable) tendency to "write what you know". Systemic bias is not to be confused with systematic bias. The latter just means "thoroughgoing bias". Systemic bias means that there are structural reasons why Wikipedia gives certain topics much better coverage than others. As of this writing, Wikipedia is disproportionately white and male; disproportionately American; disproportionately written by people from white collar backgrounds. We do not think this is a result of a conspiracy - it is largely a result of self-selection - but it has effects not all of which are beneficial, and which need to be looked at and (in some cases) countered.

Wikipedia is biased toward over-inclusion of certain material pertaining to (for example) science fiction, contemporary youth culture, contemporary U.S. and UK culture in general, and anything already well covered in the English-langauge portion of the Internet. These excessive inclusions are relatively harmless: at worst, people look at some of these articles and say "this is silly, why is it in an encyclopedia?" Of far greater (and more detrimental) consequence, these same biases lead to minimal or non-existent treatment of topics of great importance. One example is that, as of this writing, the Congo Civil War, possibly the largest war since World War II has claimed over 3 million lives, but one would be hard pressed to learn much about it from Wikipedia. In fact, there is more information on a fictional plant.

They are planning a variety of projects to try to address the bias. If you are interested and can help, you should.

Our good friend Andrew Orlowski points out that as Wikipedia tries to get more distribution on smaller devices such as mobile phones, they need to be wary of the size of the database and the framework in order to be more inclusive than just web oriented techies or in his words, "Californian techno-utopians, wiki-fiddlers."

So the most useful thing the Wikipedia project could do is not write another adoring 20,000 word article on our good friend Joi Ito (the spiritual leader), or "memes", but nail down a simple lightweight framework that librarians, schools, churches and small businesses could use as an annotation and broadcast channel.

This is another way to address the bias. Move to non-web devices too, although in this article Andrew is talking about "Questions like 'What's the kid's soccer schedule?', and 'Is Thursday street cleaning day on Geary?'" I do agree that Wikipedians should be spending their time writing about the Congo Civil War instead of writing a 20,000 word article on me.

Salon
Operation American Repression?

An Army officer in Iraq who wrote a highly critical article on the administration's conduct of the war is being investigated for disloyalty -- if charged and convicted, he could get 20 years.

Sept. 29, 2004 | An Army Reserve staff sergeant who last week wrote a critical analysis of the United States' prospects in Iraq now faces possible disciplinary action for disloyalty and insubordination. If charges are bought and the officer is found guilty, he could face 20 years in prison. It would be the first such disloyalty prosecution since the Vietnam War.

The essay that sparked the military investigation is titled "Why We Cannot Win" and was posted Sept. 20 on the conservative antiwar Web site LewRockwell.com. Written by Al Lorentz, a non-commissioned officer from Texas with nearly 20 years in the Army who is serving in Iraq, the essay offers a bleak assessment of America's chances for success in Iraq.

The Essay, Why We Cannot Win is still on the LewRockwell.com.

I don't understand. How can writing an essay like this send you to jail for 20 years?

Technology Review
Japanese Schools Use Computer Chips to Keep Tabs on Children

TOKYO (AP) - Cutting class just got harder but schools are safer thanks to computer chips that help track students, Japanese officials say.

Some schools here this month began trial runs in which students carry chips that have tiny antennae and can be traced by radio, with some of the kids attaching the tags to their backpacks.

The chips send signals to receivers at school gates. A computer in the system shows when a student enters or leaves.

School officials say rising concerns about student safety prompted the idea.

But student safety is still MUCH better than the rest of the world. Elementary school first graders still take public transportation to school by themselves. I think tagging is a bit over the top.
"And the kids love it - they think it's cool," he added.
Yeah. Right...

And when are they going to start tagging everyone else...

via Smart Mobs