This Year Halloween Has Its Own Selfie App

Ethics Disclosure: I have no affiliation with Looksery. This article is aimed at informing my readers and followers about events and things that I like and consider worth writing about.

StartupSocials Marketing Conference just ended a few days ago and I wish I had five heads and 13 hands so I can think and write at the same time about the great things that I saw there. But since I have only one head, I will use it wisely and get started.

Copyright Cosmin Gheorghe

One way of making the best out of your head is to transform it. And obviously, there is an app for that. Looksery’s app provides face tracking and real-time filters that change the way your face is seen on the screen. The options are ranging from funny avatars to reaaaally scary Halloween appearances.

Copyright Cosmin Gheorghe

So here is my 7-year-old answer to my previous video-selfie:

Copyright Cosmin Gheorghe

Viktor Shaburov, Looksery CEO and President, showed me how Looksery can be used to have fun and spoke about his company’s plans to license their technology to businesses in the telecom industry, healthcare and makeup, as well as movie studios.

Looksery identifies all facial features, and tracks and maps facial expressions. This allows users to get special face effects through the front camera in real-time. The app allows to modify facial features, correct skin tone or transform into a 3D avatar character. In addition to messaging, users can share photos and videos in-app through the social networks as well as email.

October 31st is around the corner and I have to say that one of Looksery’s “creepy” filters is a great attachment to your Halloween electronic greeting:

Copyright Cosmin Gheorghe

Looksery has been featured on CNN, Inc., TechCrunch, Wired, Business Insider and CNet.

My AA: Approval Anonymous

In my entire 40 years, I’ve never once been high or intoxicated. Still, an AA program would serve me well. Approval Anonymous. A support group that could help eliminate my need to be accepted by other people and direct me toward the sense of self that I am just beginning to claim after decades of living inauthentically.

Faggot. Fruit. Fairy. Homo. From the time I was 6 years old, the epithets were pitched with perfect aim, piercing a genuine heart that yearned to beat true. Sure, other kids were tormented too, but they seemed more easily able to identify the differences that made them targets: They were overweight, redheads or handicapped. Somehow the bullies knew that I wasn’t “normal,” but I had no idea that their disdain was borne out of how I felt inside.

I was uneasy about being around other children, because I didn’t feel like I fit in. It wasn’t about my appearance or a lack of confidence in my ability to communicate with them. And it wasn’t as though I knew yet that my precocious interest in the arts set me apart. At that age, it was simply a fiber of awareness that ran through my body. My skin was a costume that I was wearing to a party that didn’t call for dress-up. My exterior told the story of a typical little boy who was cute, clean-cut and running toward tomorrow; my gut — and the “mean kids” — knew better.

The messaging from my peers was reiterated through high school, giving way to an eating problem; I ate so my soul could survive. Food had no obligation to me, yet it was unconditional in making me feel whole and satisfied, even if only for the fleeting moments that it lingered on my tongue. And it let me have control: I could decide how much of it I wanted and when. I had the power, and I made the rules; the food was happy to oblige. Unlike my classmates, who relentlessly teased me about my homosexuality, pecan pie was accepting. It comforted me after a verbal battering, filling me up and hugging me with its buttery crust.

The only thing worse than being a “fag” was being a “fat fag,” or so I was told repeatedly, and I took drastic action to improve my appearance. An addiction to plastic surgery led to a nose job, multiple liposuction procedures and injectables that were certain to generate attention — and they did. I elected to cut into my body to get positive feedback from friends, acquaintances and co-workers. When that wasn’t enough, I had to up the stakes.

I forged a Hollywood career that provided me with more money and status than most people my age enjoyed, but I still felt like a half-baked person who was an undesirable outsider. The perception of success gave me a misguided sense of acceptance. The pariah, the kid whom everyone mocked for being different, now enjoyed access to — and attention from — the rich and famous, which made him uniquely alluring to those who envied his glittery lifestyle. My pain wasn’t recognizable to others; my bleeding was internal.

Finally, in my late 30s, I decided to take a look in the mirror. Losing 15 pounds wouldn’t be so bad for my health. I wasn’t terribly concerned, though, about how the weight affected my appearance anymore. The idea of finding a local gym and perhaps a part-time trainer — and maybe even buying pants with a larger waist size — crossed my mind. A surgical remedy was no longer my go-to solution; I wasn’t willing to take the risk or suffer any more pain by choice.

A professional reinvention was also on the horizon — one that didn’t include the dangerously alluring glamour of the entertainment industry. The guy looking back at me from the mirror was OK with that. Maybe it was time to pursue old passions, to become a writer or go back to school for an M.B.A., two possibilities that now got me more excited than a red carpet. I realized that my identity wasn’t wrapped up in a job or high-level title. And it certainly wasn’t defined by the celebrity affiliations that came as a “gift with purchase.”

I am a work in progress; I haven’t quite figured out all 12 steps of the Approval Anonymous program. But I am well on my way.

Mississippi and Auburn Playoff Selection, Shocking!

The College Football Playoff Selection Committee announced its top four mid-season favorites for the first postseason playoffs for the National Championship today. It indicated that they believe football is only played at a high level in three states. They selected Mississippi State, University of Mississippi, Auburn University, and Florida State University as the leaders in the hunt for the title. Once again, it is as if the Southeastern Conference has been exalted to a level of worship far beyond the whole rest of college football.

A committee of 13 members, mostly retired athletic directors, with the notable exception of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, made the selections without specific rationale for the picks. They previously announced that strength of schedule, conference championships, team records and head-to-head competition were criteria they would consider. Since there is no statistical or weighted formula for judging, at the end it simply comes down to the “gut” feeling of the committee as to who they think are the four best teams. That is where the danger comes in. The playoffs were established because of complaints that the BCS method, or the AP poll vote for crowning a national champion were flawed. How is this any better?

There are two undefeated major football powers, Mississippi State and Florida State. There can be no argument that they belong as the top two mid-season picks. Fourteen schools have one loss. Mississippi, Oregon, Alabama, and Michigan State all have seven wins and one loss. So why pick 6-1 Auburn and Mississippi? Here is where the presumption that SEC football is superior to the rest of the country comes into play. There is no question that Alabama and Auburn have been dominating programs and that the quality of football in the conference is outstanding. But, is it so superior that three of the four teams come from that conference? Since SEC teams primarily play each other, the only way to test their strength relative to the other conferences is in match-ups with out-of-conference opponents.

Start with the reality that Florida State, an ACC school is reigning National Champion, having defeated SEC’s Auburn in the game played last January in the Rose Bowl. Arguments about strength of schedule can go on endlessly, but look at Ole Miss, which beat Louisiana-Lafayette, Memphis and plays Presbyterian soon. Auburn beat San Jose State and Louisiana Tech and has Stanford yet to come. Mississippi State beat Southern Mississippi, U of Alabama, Birmingham, South Alabama and has UT Martin on its schedule. Alabama beat Florida Atlantic, Southern Mississippi and has Western Carolina scheduled. Meanwhile, Michigan State has its loss because it played top-ranked Oregon. Notre Dame has few “cupcakes.”

And then there is the Pac 12. Teams like Oregon, UCLA, Arizona, Arizona St, Utah, USC, and Washington are all talented, tough and they play each other. Rarely do Pac 12 teams play SEC teams in the regular season. Downgrading that conference minimizes the strength of schedule and level of competition.

The Committee has a challenging job that few would envy. Any system that attempts to limit teams competing for the national championship will face outrage from those schools who are left out. The NCAA basketball tournament has 64+ teams included and there are still arguments from those who are not selected. Arguing the relative merits of teams is part of the fun surrounding college football.

Based on the first four teams selected for inclusion, it does appear that instead of including multiple conferences, the committee went with SEC.

Original post on, October 29, 2014

Ebola Outbreak Highlights Struggle for Science in Africa and Inequalities in Global Health Research

As authorities scramble to contain the spread of Ebola, it helps to take a step back and examine why the science has not kept pace. Despite some promising advances in immunotherapy, there remains a great deal we haven’t learned about the virus. In part, the lack of research in “non-profitable” infectious diseases occurring in underprivileged countries has left threats like Ebola largely unaddressed. In addition, inequalities within the system of international scientific collaboration have hindered African researchers from leading the way against diseases ravaging their continent.

Similar concerns were echoed by the director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, who acknowledged in a recent interview that the quest for an Ebola vaccine in the United States had been slowed by a combination of lack of interest from the pharmaceutical industry and domestic budget cuts to basic research. With the arrival of the first Ebola patient on U.S. soil, however, the urgency to find a cure has hit home.

Nonetheless, individual states cannot be expected to replace what needs to be a coordinated effort. Speakers at a security meeting last month acknowledged that investing in Africa’s ailing healthcare infrastructure, while necessary, was unsustainable. What is needed are African solutions aimed at paving the way for science-based economies. In the words of Dr. Nkem Khumbah, “Africa needs science, not aid.”

Enter global health science. The past two decades have seen a rapid rise of academic programs in the United States under the label of “global health science” — global health aimed at balancing the dual objectives of encouraging scientific collaboration opportunities with resource-poor countries and protecting against global health threats that disregard national borders. Its principles espoused notions of equal scientific partnership aimed at capacity building and leadership development in countries with limited resources.

For international researchers, collaboration was seen as a welcome opportunity to further their careers by publishing in high-impact journals that are almost exclusively found in Europe and the United States. A combination of domestic and international grants would allow African researchers to focus on diseases that are considered Africa-specific, such as tropical infections.

However, and despite promising indications that science in the continent is gaining momentum, the majority of local laboratories still fail to meet the basic requirements set out by the World Health Organization. Africans account for a mere 1.1 percent of the world’s scientific researchers, and, more alarmingly, there are fewer than 5 million students of higher education in sub-Saharan Africa, a region with a population of more than 1 billion.

As the current Ebola crisis has highlighted, the funding, mentoring and research on Ebola are still performed in centers located in Europe or North America, which, as we have seen, is not always viable. There are few if any academic programs that are dedicated to the research of Ebola in Africa. So why hasn’t the global health science initiative delivered on its promises?

In her book Scrambling for Africa: AIDS, Expertise, and the Rise of American Global Health Science, anthropologist Johanna Tayloe Crane traces the structural inequalities inherent in the system of global health science that have hindered progress on another virus: HIV. Science, as currently deemed legitimate by leading journals, has become increasingly “molecularized” and technologically mediated. In the context of today’s global science, clinical expertise and other “qualitative” knowledge that has been acquired through years of exposure to a particular disease are considered less valuable. In the absence of specialized laboratories, many international collaborators often find themselves relegated to the role of “sample providers” and in some cases lose authorship.

Contrary to popular belief, philosophers argue that science is not socially neutral. The American philosopher Thomas Kuhn emphasized that scientific truth is defined largely by consensus within the dominant scientific community and undergoes periodic “paradigm shifts.” As such, scientific truth is not determined by the linear accumulation of “objective” criteria alone and is heavily influenced by consensus within society. Nowhere is this influence more evident than in the arena of international scientific collaborations.

Under the header “Molecular Politics of HIV,” Crane highlights how the research of HIV has, until recently, focused on a particular genetic subtype that is predominant in North America, Europe and Australia and has subsequently been used to establish all we know about antiretroviral therapy and drug resistance.

As a result, despite the noblest intentions of their counterparts in the United States, collaborators in underprivileged countries usually find themselves consigned to positions of dependency. Many complain that they are not involved in the planning of collaborative projects, their voices not heard and the structural challenges they face at home not acknowledged. For African scientists, this has often led to frustration and has had a detrimental impact on the amount of effort they are willing to invest.

The importance of allowing African academics to pursue equal career ambitions and become leaders at the international level cannot be understated from a health security perspective. Only then will these academics champion their own homegrown innovative solutions and create self-sustaining and robust health science infrastructures.

As Ruth Katz of the Aspen Institute writes on the current Ebola crisis:

For too long, the history of infectious diseases has been that of ignoring a threat until it nears disaster…. To get ahead of the curve, we need a renewed commitment to research and action, and enough resources to put more public health boots on the ground, both at home and abroad.

The global health initiative can deliver. However, its policy makers and leaders need to be conscious of the inherent inequalities within the highly competitive academic environment. Active steps need to be taken in order to ensure that the current collaborative system is more inclusive of the career aims and ambitions of those whose lives are directly affected.

This Week in World War I November 1-7, 1914 Part 2 Supplemental Brief

The Ottomans, Sykes-Picot and ISIS
Supplemental Brief

See also Part 1 of this week’s posting: The Ottomans Enter the War

As mentioned in Part 1 of this weeks posting, on October 29, 1914, Ottoman ships attacked the Russian naval base at Sevastopol in the Crimea. The attack was primarily carried out by two ships that only a few weeks earlier had been part of the German Navy; the cruisers Goeben and Breslau. The two ships had made their way to Constantinople in order to avoid a British flotilla tasked with hunting them down and destroying them. On their arrival, the German government gave them to the Ottoman navy. In a formal ceremony on October 16, the Goeben was renamed the Yavuz Sultan Selim and the Breslau was renamed Midilli. Now flying the Ottoman flag, the two ships became the newest addition to the Ottoman navy. Paradoxically, the original German crew and officers remained on the ships. Their uniforms unchanged save for the addition of a fez.

To arrive in Constantinople, the two ships would have had to make their way past the Ottoman forts and their 23 medium and heavy guns at the mouth of the Dardanelles. They would have needed a Turkish pilot to traverse the ten separate minefields between the entrance and an additional set of fortifications at Chamak and Kephez where the straits narrow to less than a mile in width. The combination of the 72 big guns and the minefields that the Ottomans had placed at the narrows were a formidable obstacle as the Anglo-French naval force, which tried to force the Dardanelles and attack Constantinople in February of 1915, was to discover.

Clearly, those ships could not have made it to Constantinople without the consent of the Turkish military. Once there, the Ottoman government, at the time still technically neutral, had a number of options in dealing with the German visitors. It could allow the ship a brief port stay and then direct them to leave in order to preserve its neutral status in the conflict. That’s what the Italian government had done when the two ships had arrived at the port of Messina in Sicily.

The other alternative would have been to intern the ships and crew for the duration of the war. The German solution, to gift the ships to the Ottoman government, was a highly unusual one and was largely unprecedented in naval history. Capital ships represented a significant investment and took many years to build and outfit, not to mention to train a crew to a high state of readiness. The two ships were relatively new and among the most advanced in the German navy. They were not the sort of things that countries gifted to one another, especially when the owner was at war.

The Ottoman Empire had signed a secret agreement with Germany on August 2, 1914, in which it pledged to enter the war one day after a German declaration of war against Russia. Since Germany had declared war against Russia on August 1, the immediate entry of the Ottoman Empire into the conflict should have been a foregone conclusion. It wasn’t. The Ottoman Sultan, Mohammed (Mehmed) V was determined to keep the Turks out of World War I. Notwithstanding the treaty that had been signed by his government, he refused to accept it or abide by its provisions. Since the sultan was the Commander in Chief of the Ottoman military and since troops could not be deployed without his permission, notwithstanding the treaty, the Ottoman Empire refused to enter the war.

When advised of the attack on Sevastopol, Mohammed V immediately repudiated the attack. He informed the Russian government that he had not authorized it and that it represented the action of “rogue” elements within the Ottoman military. He also offered to make immediate reparations for any damage that had been made to the Russian base. To this day, it is unclear whom in the Ottoman government or military authorized the attack and to what extent the German government was complicit in it. The circumstantial evidence points to Enver Pasha, the pro-German, Turkish Minister of War, but this is not definitive.

Two days later, on November 1, Russian forces began to attack Ottoman positions in the Caucasus and eastern Anatolia. The actual Russian declaration of war did not come till November 2. Great Britain and France issued their own decelerations two days later. Within 2 days of declaring war on the Ottoman Empire, Great Britain attacked the Ottoman Al-Faw fort at the mouth of the Shatt al Arab and landed some 20,000 troops in what was then called southern Mesopotamia. They immediately took control of Basra and the oil fields that surrounded it.

The Ottoman entry into the war would prove disastrous for the Ottoman Empire and would result in its complete destruction and the occupation of Constantinople by British and French forces in November of 1918. When the war started, the Russian government had obtained British and French agreement for its objectives against the Ottomans: control of Constantinople and the Turkish Straits (the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles), seizure of the Armenian districts of Eastern Anatolia from Trebizond to Bitlis, and a strip of land along the Black Sea coast to Turkish Thrace and then south through the Bosphorus along the Marmara coast to Izmit.

Had Russia succeeded in its objective it would have been the culmination of a centuries long effort to take control of Constantinople and the Turkish straits and would have established Russia not only as the preeminent sea power in the Black Sea but also as a formidable naval power in the Mediterranean. Russia was also anxious to obtain control of the oil fields around Mosul and Kirkuk in the north of Mesopotamia but this demand, unacceptable to Britain, was left unsettled.

Unwilling to stand aside while the Russians helped themselves to the spoils of the Ottomans, Great Britain and France came to an agreement on how to divide up the balance of the Ottoman Empire. The agreement, officially called the Asia Minor Treaty, but popularly known as the Sykes-Picot agreement, was reached in May 1916. The British government was represented by Mark Sykes, a career foreign service officer, while France was represented by Francois Georges Picot. The French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing was the great nephew of Picot.

The two men reached an agreement to divide up the balance of the Ottoman Empire between them. France would get the region of “Greater Syria” which was expanded to include the northwest section of what is now northern Iraq including Mosul and Kirkuk and portions of southern Anatolia. Great Britain would get southern Mesopotamia, and the region of Palestine. The region of Palestine at the time encompassed both sides of the Jordan River and would today correspond to the states of Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Territories of Gaza and the West Bank. Russia did not directly participate in the negotiations, but the Russian foreign minister Samsonov was kept abreast of them and consented to the Anglo-French plan.

At the time the Sykes-Picot agreement was reached, the United States had not yet entered the war. Woodrow Wilson had not yet formulated his 14 Points, and had not yet proposed the creation of the League of Nations or the idea that the former territories of the Ottoman Empire should be administered as mandates under the supervision of the League of Nations. At this point the Anglo-French agreement was little more than a naked land grab in the imperialist tradition that had seen European nations divide up much of the rest of the world and organize them into colonies of the respective mother countries.

The actual division between the French and British territories was largely arbitrary. They did not follow, the administrative districts of the Ottoman Empire. Moreover, “Palestine” and “Greater Syria” were European geographic concepts, ones that dated to classical antiquity, and did not correspond to any administrative districts of the Ottoman Empire.

In addition, there was a certain amount of “horse trading” that took place. What is now northwestern Iraq, for example, and corresponds largely to the Kurdish region, was originally intended to be in the French zone and was to be incorporated into Syria. The Russians had also wanted this region added to their zone in eastern Anatolia. Instead it was incorporated into Mesopotamia and became part of the British zone and what would eventually become Iraq. In return, Great Britain gave France a 25 percent interest in the Anglo-Turkish oil company, which it subsequently organized to exploit the oil fields around Mosul.

Within their zone, France and Great Britain would be free to organize their new territories as they saw fit. France, for example, decided that the Maronite Christians in greater Syria should have their own country and carved out Lebanon for them. Until then, Lebanon had not existed. Likewise, the British carved out Jordan from the region they called Palestine in order to provide a “kingdom” for Faisal bin Hussein, the son of the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali, after the Hashemite clan had lost out to the Saud family for control of Arabia and what would eventually become the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

After the Bolshevik revolution, Great Britain and France refused to hand over to Moscow those portions of the Ottoman Empire that they had previously agreed would go to Russia. In retaliation the Bolsheviks published the text of the hitherto secret Sykes-Picot agreement. The publication of the agreement was to prove particularly problematic for the British government because it exposed not only Anglo-French intentions to carve up the Ottoman Empire, but it demonstrated that London had made a number of promises that were incompatible with the aims of the Sykes-Picot agreement.

The principal problem was how to reconcile British promises, the “McMahon-Hussein correspondence”, to Hussein bin Ali, to support the creation of an Arab state from the Arab lands of the Ottoman Empire in return for Arab support against the Turkish military (ably led by British major T.E Lawrence who would achieve immortality as Lawrence of Arabia), the Balfour Declaration supporting the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and Anglo-French plans for dividing up the Ottoman Empire.

Interestingly enough, the Balfour Declaration envisioned the creation of a “Jewish homeland” but stopped short of proposing an independent Jewish “nation state”. Moreover, the discussions in the British Cabinet preceding the announcement imply that the principal zones of settlement would be chiefly along the Mediterranean costal strip and did not envision that Jerusalem, its immediate environs or the west bank would form part of this “Jewish homeland” as this area was seen as too important to the Arab communities in Palestine and its inclusion as too politically charged. By and large, the mechanics of where settlement would occur, what administrative form the Jewish homeland would take, and how the Jewish and Arab communities would be organized in relation to one another, and to the British colonial administration, was left to resolve later.

Eventually, the British government would abandon the idea of a unified Arab state in the old Ottoman lands. Would be rulers were paid off with smaller states, the Hashemite clan got Jordan and Mesopotamia in return for organizing the Arab revolt, the Saud family, with British consent, ended up with Arabia and the holy cites of Mecca and Medina, but no “Arab nation state” emerged. Great Britain was initially supportive of Jewish immigration into Palestine but became increasingly unsupportive as it led to Arab unrest in the British controlled areas.

In the end Sykes-Picot prevailed, with minor modifications. It would result in the organization of the Middle East into various colonies and eventually independent nation states. The borders created by the British and the French as a result of the Sykes Picot agreement have, other than for their adjustment as a result of various conflicts, largely persisted to this day.

The British general Sir Edmund Allenby called the Middle East Theater during World War I a “sideshow”. The exploits of Lawrence of Arabia he called “a sideshow in a sideshow”. While the Middle East Theater would in fact prove to be a “sideshow” in as far as the outcome of WW I was concerned, the war itself would have a dramatic impact on the organization of the Middle East. It would be responsible not only for the contemporary, and often dysfunctional, organization of the region, but also for many of the issues with which we find ourselves dealing with today.

The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has resurrected in the public consciousness the existence of the Sykes-Picot treaty and its influence in shaping the contemporary Middle East. In the process, transforming it from an obscure footnote of interest only to the specialist historian to a popular topic in the mainstream media. This author too has not been immune to this development. See for example the current segment for Fox and Friends.

ISIS has specifically called for the “repudiation” of Sykes-Picot. Since Great Britain and France no longer have colonies in the Middle East, their demand is directed at the national borders and the individual nation states that are the legacy of Sykes-Picot. Their demand is nothing less than the abolition of those states and the creation of the Arab nation state that was promised to the Sharif of Mecca in 1916 by the British government and subsequently reneged on.

It is unlikely that ISIS will succeed in this aim. If for no other reason that the United States could not allow the creation of a state that would control some 40 percent of the world’s oil reserves. The political orientation of that state is irrelevant, though the extremism of ISIS makes it that much more unacceptable. Today we face the reality of a barbarous regime spawned in part by, and looking to overturn, a political order that resulted from events that transpired a century ago. Events that in fact should never have happened had the Ottoman Sultan Mohammed V succeeded in keeping the Ottoman Empire out of the war.

We now leave the world of the historian to enter the world of contemporary international relations. While the roots of ISIS may be a topic of historical interest, the outcome of the struggle to defeat it is a current issue of international politics and a core interest of American foreign policy in the region. Will ISIS be defeated? The answer is yes. If for no other reason then the fact that ISIS is the political equivalent of a hemorrhagic fever. It is so extreme, so inflexible, so lethal, that it will burn itself out. The question we have to answer is, what will be the price?

American air power is a formidable force. There is frankly nothing in the world that can withstand it. It will succeed in degrading ISIS, it will slow it down and it will buy us time. But it will not be enough. ISIS is now an army. The only way to defeat an army is with boots on the ground. The question is: whose boots are they going to be? It is clear that those boots will not be American. Comments from the Pentagon notwithstanding, the White House has made it clear that it will not deploy any significant number of American forces on the ground. It’s possible that some token force may be deployed ostensibly to “protect” the American embassy, but not enough to have a true offensive capability.

The political reality is that Americans will simply not stand to shed American blood and capital to regain territories that we have already shed thousands of lives and trillions of dollars to take control off once before. It is equally clear that it is highly unlikely that those boots will be Turkish. That leaves only one set of boots on the ground and they belong to Iran. In fact Iran has already deployed tens of thousands of troops in Iraq including several battalions of Revolutionary Guards.

The irony is that ISIS will likely be defeated by a combination of American planes and Iranian boots. When the Arab revolt started in Syria, the Saudis and their allies saw it as an opportunity to roll back the “Shia arc” of influence that stretched from Iran across Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon and which included Hezbollah and Hamas. It was largely Saudi and Gulf money that financed the Sunni revolt in Syria.

In this case, the strategy went terrible wrong. No wonder Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the architect of that strategy, was dismissed as the Chief of General Intelligence, the Saudi security agency. Instead we now find that the medicine proposed is worse then the disease. The result is a defacto alliance between Iran and the United States to defeat ISIS. In the end, American air power and Iranian boots will prevail over ISIS. Instead of weakening the Iranian Shia arc of influence, however, American air power will have made it stronger, possibly, in the short term, a permanent fixture of Middle East politics.

The larger question is what will the US have to give up in order to cement its new Iranian alliance? Already it is clear that Assad is off the table. He will survive and American air power will insure that the murderous Assad regime continues in Syria. So much for the “red line”. Likewise, it’s hard too see how we can credibly put any constraints on the Iranian nuclear program when we are relying on Iranian boots to defeat ISIS. That doesn’t mean that the White House may not yet announce an “agreement” to curtail Iran’s nuclear program. If so, it will be all for show. The Iranian nuclear development program is alive and well and while it is still far off from developing a nuclear capability it is now only a question of when not if.

How extensive will the American-Iranian military cooperation be? Someone in the White House Press Corp should really ask Josh Earnest if American Forward Air Controllers have been imbedded or if there are plans to imbed them in Iranian military units operating in Iraq. The official answer is likely to be “no” on both counts, but the real answer is “not yet but its coming”. The idea that American air power will provide close air support for Iranian Revolutionary Guard units, an organization that the State Department still classifies as a terrorist organization, should give us pause and underscores the fact that in the Middle East, truth is often stranger than fiction.

And to think that all of this was set in motion by an event 100 years ago that was never supposed to happen!

Does Satire News Influence Elections?

As Election Day looms, The Daily Show ramped up their media coverage by heading to Texas for a week of shows entitled Democalypse 2014: South by South Mess. A Comedy Central show relocated to broadcast on-the-spot election coverage. That should strike us as strange, right? But in all likelihood, it doesn’t. The idea that a satire news show would take election coverage so seriously no longer comes as a surprise. How did satire news become such a major player in news media? And, is its increased social power dangerous for our democracy?

Let’s start with the facts. Satire news today plays a major role in shaping voter perceptions. If you think back on recent election coverage, chances are that at least some of your memories of “news” coverage include satire. Maybe you recall The Daily Show‘s coverage of the Florida governor’s race, John Oliver’s mockery of the GOP efforts to rebrand, or Stephen Colbert’s Twitter-mocking of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. Maybe you read The Onion‘s piece “Midterm Candidates Distancing Selves from United States.”

But beyond the anecdotal we now know that satire news is increasingly overtaking mainstream news as a source of voter information, especially for younger and left-leaning voters. A 2009 Rasmussen poll showed that nearly one-third of Americans under the age of 40 say satirical news-oriented television programs like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show are taking the place of traditional news outlets. Further research by the Pew Research Center from 2012 showed that among younger millennial-aged voters satire news was not only more common, but also more trusted.

This trend has been surging over the last few elections. It’s worth recalling that The Daily Show has gone on the road every two years either for coverage live from the Democrat and Republican conventions, or in midterm years, to locations they considered central to major races. They traveled to D.C. in 2002 and 2010, and visited the swing state of Ohio in 2006. On October 30, 2008 Stewart and Colbert held a pre-midterm rally on the National Mall that attracted a live audience of over 200,000 and 2.5 million live viewers.

There have been some extremely noteworthy satire moments in the last few elections: Who could forget the role that Colbert played in educating viewers on campaign finance by starting his own Super PAC and then encouraging his viewers to do the same? And then there was Tina Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin that played a key role in drawing voters away from the McCain-Palin ticket. And it goes beyond the professional satirists too: average citizens are tweeting, facebooking, snapchatting, and creating satirical memes that often go viral. Entire twitter accounts, for instance, are satirical. The satirical Twitter feed for “Top Conservative Cat,” who describes as a “Colbert conservative,” has over 104,000 followers on Twitter.

This is all goes to show that satire is everywhere and that it’s increasingly a part of the media diet of younger, more left-leaning voters. But this trend can’t be good for our democracy, right? Satire is a form of mockery; it can’t possibly teach voters how to respect the values at the core of our nation. If anything, the rise in satire is a sign of the demise of our nation. Or is it?

Actually, the rise in satire is a sign of the health of our democracy. And we have a range of data to prove it. First of all, a study conducted by the Pew Research Center has shown that viewers of programs like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report actually score higher for accuracy on current events than viewers of programs like The O’Reilly Factor or The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. They also score higher than viewers of cable news sources like CNN and Fox News. This research is backed by a number of other studies, including one by the Annenburg Public Policy Center that proved that Colbert’s Super PAC stunt worked as a civics lesson.

Satire news has stepped up to help inform the electorate at a complex moment in news media history. The 24/7 television news cycle is now almost totally dominated by opinion, expert debates, punditry, and other forms of fluff that don’t actually offer viewers much in terms of objective information. The result is that viewers that watch Fox News, for instance, are less informed about political information than viewers that watch no news at all. And, to make it worse, they are more likely to believe misinformation.

Young news consumers, in contrast, are more apt to question the source of their information and satire news viewers are more likely to trust Jon Stewart than Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC as a source of news. And this from voters that are reaching new lows in levels of trust in politicians, the media, and other authority figures. Too often television news today media packages information in stark oppositions that then allow “experts” to present opposite points of view. Often the oppositions are based on false binaries, faulty logic, or sheer hyperbole. Such a format does not enhance the critical thinking necessary for informed democratic participation.

Many often falsely blame the satirists for the state of news, when it is satire that simply comments on and calls attention to the flaws in our media and politicians. Satire trades in exposing falsehoods, mocking poor thinking, and laughing at folly. Satire works by asking the audience to think critically and to question the status quo. In this way, satirists like Stewart, Colbert, and Oliver function as a corrective for the sensational, often silly, news that is reported on cable television. If there were no flaws in the system, there would be nothing for them to mock.

And this is why the increased role of satire news in our democracy is a positive sign. For the first time in U.S. history a range of satirical news sources are providing the public with valuable information from which to make educated decisions. Our knowledge as voters may be coming from HBO and Comedy Central instead of Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN, but the satire news is helping us stay informed and stay productively critical. Contrary to some criticism, satire’s goal is not voter apathy; its goal is to encourage voters to turn their disgust into action and their frustrations into votes.

Fiji's Post-Election Democracy: How Robust?

By Gerard A. Finin

It would be easy to look skeptically at Fiji’s recent national election – the Pacific island nation’s first since a military coup in 2006 – given the fact that the coup leader who had been running the country by decree since then, Commodore Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama, was elected prime minister by a wide margin in the September 17 vote.

Fiji voters wait to cast their ballot.

But as one of the leaders of a multinational mission to observe the voting, I was genuinely impressed by the election’s organization and turnout, and do not doubt that Bainimarama’s mandate to lead Fiji now represents a choice freely made by the electorate, based largely on popular measures such as elimination of tuition fees and bus fares for children attending school.

This is an important watershed for Fiji. In recognition of the restoration of elected rule, Australia and U.S. have just lifted sanctions they had imposed following the coup, and the Commonwealth group of nations has reinstated Fiji to full membership.

True, it’s highly unlikely that Fiji’s military officers would have permitted an election if they had not been confident of their candidate winning decisively. And to be sure the election campaign provided numerous advantages of incumbency to the interim military government, which, for example, circumscribed media reporting, civil society activities and freedom of assembly. Still, during the campaign the regime opened itself to criticism and public debate to a degree that had not previously been tolerated.

The long-awaited election has now been followed by the convening of parliament, which had been suspended since the coup, and formation of an opposition led by an outspoken woman leader, Ro Teimumu Kepa, who once had been taken into custody by soldiers for speaking her mind. This has opened democratic space for debate and criticism of the government that was previously suppressed.

In addition, the election brought a younger generation of voters into the political process, with approximately one-third of those who registered for the election voting for the very first time.

The author (left) with a fellow
election observer.

Fiji’s new constitution, adopted by decree before the election, contains a number of elements that are significantly different from previous constitutions. One of the most positive is the move away from a structure that had previously encouraged ethnic voting, essentially reserving a certain proportion of parliamentary seats for each of the country’s two main ethnic groups: indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijian citizens whose ancestry is from the Indian subcontinent (a British colonial legacy of imported labor for Fiji’s sugar plantations). Under the new system of governance, members of parliament are elected by a single nationwide constituency.

However, the new constitution also includes immunity provisions for all those who participated in the coup, and equally striking is the elimination of the Great Council of Chiefs, a group that had been seen by many as an important link to Fiji’s rich culture and traditions.

For the foreseeable future, domestic political stability in Fiji is likely, but it remains unclear if the disbanded Great Council of Chiefs will quietly recede into the landscape or gradually become a source of tension, especially in the rural areas. And the election has not settled long-festering land tenure issues or challenges associated with the viability of the sugar industry.

Fiji’s election was by many measures a success, yet we should not be lulled into interpreting this as more than one important step on the road to establishing a more robust democratic society. Although Prime Minister Bainimarama has officially retired his military command, the degree to which the Royal Fiji Military Forces will continue to assert their influence in politics – both directly and indirectly – remains an open question.

As a key center for government, education and business in the South Pacific, Fiji’s election bodes well for restoring its place in the international community and playing a more positive role in regional affairs. One hopes that Bainimarama and his comrades in the military will remain convinced that Fiji stands to gain much more as a robust and vibrant democracy than it does as a small island dictatorship.

Dr. Gerard Finin, who is co-director of the East-West Center’s Pacific Islands Development Program, led the U.S. contingent of a multinational mission to observe Fiji’s Sept. 17 national election.

Want to Thank Me? Go Vote!

When people hear that I served in the military, they tend to always thank me for my service. Rich or poor, black or white, men or women, Americans in general seem to be fairly universal in their praise for the people who are part of our all-volunteer force. As a nation, it is accepted and proclaimed that America owes a debt of gratitude to my generation of veterans. Collectively, society pays us back in health care at the VA or college through the Post 9/11 GI Bill or a new opportunity through a Small Business Administration-backed loan. But how should individual Americans show their thanks?

People tend to be sincere in their thanks. Sometimes it’s a little too sincere — acting as if I had no other life choice other than to join the Army (in truth, these kinds of “thanks” can get awkward). Sometimes people are warm and kind, while other times they say thanks because they think it’s just the right social thing to do — like “bless you” after someone sneezes. Anyone who is Active Duty or a veteran of the military knows these various forms of thanks, and we can usually guess which one will be delivered before the first word crosses a person’s lips.

The moments, though, that we enjoy and remember are fairly universal too. It’s the experience of people who are actually interested, who want to understand, and who, in their own way are trying to grasp this tragic human experience of warfare. Often times, these moments are those interactions with kids, usually nine and under, trying to grasp all these foreign concepts. My favorite question is still the one from a six-year-old who asked me (while I was in uniform) why I was wearing the same outfit as his dad.

My response to the people who thank me is to return their thanks and on the more solemn and serious occasions I simply smile and tell them it was my privilege to serve. People have bought me drinks or meals, and a London cabbie even offered to pay my fare. I always try to decline (with exception of the drinks — I’m only human) but usually I succumb to some type of charity. It seems incredibly selfish to accept charity for doing something I loved being a part of, but I have found through the years that the charity towards me tends to make the giver feel much better, as if they have helped contribute to “the Cause.”

Recently, I have been giving more thought to what individual Americans “owe” those of us who served. An often repeated adage is that “a veteran – whether active duty, retired, or national guard or reserve – is someone who, at one point in their life, wrote a blank check made payable to ‘The United States of America,’ for an amount of “up to and including THEIR LIFE.” So what do individual Americans owe in return for my “blank check?”

Truth be told, I actually think you owe me nothing. I sacrificed some, but certainly nowhere near as much as many. You do however owe a great deal to those men and women who returned less than whole in body, spirit, or most tragically, life. And the best conclusion I have come up with is that you owe them a commitment to civic involvement.

You owe it them to be involved, locally and nationally, in our country’s political system. For it was our country’s political leadership that sent them to war. It is the laziest of cynics who declare that politics is only for the rich or for the organized or for anyone but themselves. Cynicism and apathy isn’t smart or wise; it’s just easy, because having no hope and giving up is always a simple and pathetic answer. Politics is a frustrating field. We are not always going to agree on policy, but that’s okay. Ultimately, that is what makes our country truly great: From many, one.

So even in this toxic political environment, I ask you give up your most finite resource: your time. Learn about the candidates, study an issue you care about, and get involved. If you cannot be motivated for yourself, friends or family, or the next generation, then be motivated by the men and women we have left on the battlefield. Ultimately, that is the best form of thanks to those who have served. Now — Go Vote.

Forecast: Right Turn Ahead

In her campaign appearances, GOP Senate candidate Joni Ernst is composed, courteous, and emphatically unthreatening.

Tim Cook's "coming out" matters because it does not matter

The best thing about Tim Cook’s coming out was what it was not. It did not come as the result of some sex scandal perhaps involving an employee. It was not an embarrassing disclosure after being caught in some public restroom or a park. It was not a grudging coming out after years of very public denials and the usual “my personal life is private” protestations. It did not even come with any grand pretensions to being a catalyst for changing hearts and minds in an acrimonious debate about same-sex marriage or discrimination laws. He was not getting some kind of tech equivalent of a Golden Globe lifetime award and feeling expansive.

One cannot even really say Tim Cook “came out” for it implies he was in a closet all this time. But actually most people thought he was already out. But now that he has officially confirmed it, the reaction has been fairly ho-hum. There will be no grand boycott of Apple launched by conservatives. Republican senator Ted Cruz told CNBC “Those are his personal choices. I’ll tell you. I love my iPhone. Listen Tim Cook makes personal choices and that’s his life.”

Tim Cook’s coming out was far less dramatic than an Apple product launch. He wrote a moving op-ed and quietly became as the New Yorker puts it “the most prominent openly gay C.E.O. in history.”

It’s only fitting that the most prominent openly gay C.E.O. comes from Silicon Valley, from an industry that is famously more live-and-let-live when it came to personal lives, where companies often have LGBT groups. Another Tim, Tim Gill, the founder and chairman of Quark set up the Gill Foundation to fund the gay and lesbian movement. This is where much of workplace protections and rights of gay employees to be treated the same as heterosexual employees were forged. And the Apple CEO’s coming out is the fruit of all those endeavours. As he himself wrote “I’ve had the good fortune to work at a company that loves creativity and innovation and knows it can only flourish when you embrace people’s differences. Not everyone is so lucky.” This apple did not fall very far from the tree.

In that sense, Cook’s coming out was no great surprise, nor any great risk either to his professional career or to Apple’s stock price. But the same would not hold true if the head of some Wall Street investment firm or a big bank decided to come out. In businesses that are far more of an old boys club, coming out would still be a loaded issue. It’s unlikely that Cook’s coming out will precipitate a great rush out of corporate closets of America’s big firms.

But there is something to note in this coming out story. We tend to look for gay “icons” in the world of culture. We obsess about which film star might or might not be gay or bisexual because we are interested voyeuristically in the sex lives of stars. We speculate about the sexuality of writers because we want to mine their works for nuggets of their personal lives. And to a lesser extent we think about the sexuality of sportsfigures either because it’s so unexpected (a footballer) or stereotypical (a diver) or so not-news (Martina Navratilova).

And all of these people resist those labels because they do not want to become the gay writer, the gay actor, the gay musician or the gay sportsperson. They do want their lives to be seen through that prism and only that prism. And they come out when they are either past their prime like a Ricky Martin or completely secure like an Elton John. Or like Freddie Mercury or Rock Hudson, are outed by disease. Or it’s only an exceptional event that tends to push them out in front. Vikram Seth, a man famously guarded about his privacy decided to appear on the cover of India Today because he thought his stature could help the fight against Section 377 which criminalizes gay sex in India.

But while Tim Cook will no doubt be embraced as a gay role model by LGBT groups, he will not be a gay CEO in quite the same way as a writer might worry about being branded a gay writer. As an actor or a writer, the worry is whether the public will be able to see beyond the sexuality in the work they produce.

In that sense his coming out, while quieter and less flashy than a showbiz coming out, matters far more. It is the coming out most gay persons want. It adds another layer to what we know about them without defining his persona and colouring his work. Cook makes no apology for being gay. In fact he calls it “God’s greatest gift” because it made him more empathetic. But he is neither militant about it, nor defensive. It’s not his cross to bear. That actually has a resonance that we are unused to in coming out narratives.

We tend to look for our out celebrities in the arts and culture because we think culture is the true game-changer. But Cook’s coming out reminds us that gays and lesbians are in all kinds of professions. When leaders of companies that make iron and steel, detergents and tea, cell phones and clothing, decide to be open about their sexuality and then just go back to work as usual it makes for a powerful statement about the need to judge people by the work they do, not their sexuality.

And ultimately that’s all any of us really want. To be recognized for the work we do every day and not discriminated against because of the person we fall in love with. And Tim Cook is no exception.

As the CEO of Apple, Cook knows that he will be judged by iPhone and iPad not iGay. And that’s exactly how it should be.

A version of this blog originally appeared on