Sunday, November 29, 2009


Yes, that's right.

I don't write much humor here - because writing humor is not my talent. It's not that I don't have a sense of humor, but writing humorous material is about the most difficult assignment I know. I'd rather perform maximum likelihood estimation equations.

But - just because I don't write it, doesn't mean I can't present it here. This afternoon I was looking at the website of my friend Jonathan Caws-Elwitt. He's a multi-faceted writer. He does write humor. Here's a link to part of his website.


Saturday, November 28, 2009

Artistic Interlude in Atlanta

I travelled to Atlanta, GA, last week for the first time in 13 years. When I was in that city in 1996, I was impressed by 1. the heat, 2. the traffic, 3. the urban bleakness. I was in the city on business, and didn't know a soul there. This time, I was staying with friends, who showed me some interesting neighborhoods. Here's some of the art I found out and about . . .

Friday, November 20, 2009

Who Fears a Free Mikhail Khodorkovsky?

The New York Times asks this very sensible question in this article to be published in the Sunday NYT magazine. The answer to the question might seem obvious - the people who fear Khodorkovsky are the same people who imprisoned him. Putin & Co.

Perhaps another question might be so obvious. Namely - "What does it matter?"

In my opinion, it matters quite a lot. I don't have strong feelings about Khodorkovsky the man. I've never met him. From what I've read, he is a man of strong will & character - who followed a familiar path toward amassing his billions of dollars. In other words - he used connections & some unscrupulous means to get his fortune started. All the oligarchs did.

He differed from the rest, however, in that he tried to stay & fight Putin & Co. Obviously, he badly misjudged his foes.

All this matters for Khodorkovsky, obviously, as he sits in his prison cell. But might not be so obvious is how it matters for Russia. As long as he sits in jail, we cannot possibly talk about the rule of law in Russia. We cannot talk about a level playing field for doing business. All this matters for Russia because without a functioning legal system and a predictable environment for investors, economic development in Russia will continue to be quite shallow. The country can continue to live off its oil and gas revenues, but this is not a growth strategy. If Russia is going to develop economically and politically, Khodorkovsky must be freed.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

What do you think?

After a long hiatus, I've decided to start polling the public again. If you've been reading these pages at all regularly, then you are familiar with the case of Adnan and Emin.

Here is a poll about their situation, and about the political climate in Azerbaijan generally.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Shame on the government of Azerbaijan!

The sentence of Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade should not be a surprise. Two years for Adnan; two and a half for Emin. Everyone knows that the the government of Azerbaijan is not afraid to jail journalists. In the last 10 years, the government has jailed numerous courageous journalists and even has been implicated in their deaths. What that government does fear is its own people. The government of Azerbaijan fears its own people because it abuses them. This is the reason for the harsh sentence for two young men who were guilty of promoting democracy in a country where this concept endangers those in power.

I am not optimistic that there will be some reprieve for Emin and Adnan, although such events occur. This allows the president to act magnanimously after the kangaroo courts have done their work, intimidating journalists.

And I am not optimistic that pressure or reaction to the sentence from Europe or the United States will be able to sway the government of Azerbaijan toward leniency in general. With this decision, the government put its repressive stance on the record. For the rulers of Azerbaijan, control of Azerbaijani citizens is much more important than any sense of justice. To any casual observer, the case against these two young men is clearly evident as a farce. It was a show trial, but the government of Azerbaijan is not ashamed to conduct such travesties. Such procedures have nothing to do with justice, truth or fairness. They are about naked power and intimidation of the populace.

I write these lines before dawn in the United States. At this hour, the weather here is dark and rainy. Though the day is later in Baku, it is much, much darker there.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Yet more repression in Moscow

The author of this interesting post suggests that Western leaders are still hoping for signs of liberalism from Medvedev. I hope that they are not so naive - but I suppose that it's possible.

The post itself is disturbing. Two more human rights organizations coming under pressure from Russian authorities. Nothing really new, over course. But these two organizations are quite prominent, and the fact that the authorities move against them with such impunity is discouraging.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The screws tighten even on the faithful

Radio Liberty has a small piece today about what seems to be a minor request by the authorities in Baku: Turn down the call to prayer!

Many of those who have lived in Azerbaijan and other Muslim countries know this sound - in the morning and the evening most notably. I remember being awoken by the electronic muezzin in Lenkoran at what seemed to be an ungodly hour. I was staying near the Iranian-supported mosque, which may have explained its volume.

In Baku, I rarely noticed the muezzin, although I lived right next to the Old City.

I find it very hard to believe that the authorities are responding to any complaints for residents. The idea that authorities would respond to citizen complaints in general is just laughable. They are asking for the mosques to turn down the muezzins in a direct expression of power. They are asserting their dominance over the religious establishment. Religion should serve the state. Those who are involved with religious matters should not forget this fact.

Gas glut?

This morning I saw this article in Financial Times about the world forecast for gas supplies. I have nothing personally against the billionaires in Russia, but I think the more their power is weakened, the better for Russia, the better for democracy in Russia, and the better for the world in general.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Thinking about the media and governance

This morning I was reading this amusing and disturbing column by Maureen Dowd, and I was thinking about a conversation I had a couple of days ago with my students in the class I teach about ethics.

I had given the students a reading assignment, and after I re-read the material myself, it seemed that there was not much to discuss. But - of course - this is not usually the case, and even here I was able to take what seemed to be unpromising material and turn it into a substantive discussion. The column the students & I read concerned observations of a newsman on coverage of a political campaign. He opined that journalists should just get out of the way. Enough with the puffed up opinions!

Why is it, I asked the students, that the trend is to more & more partisan coverage of the news? Consumers on one hand have an increasing number of news outlets, but the news that is presented tends to be increasingly partisan. And how does this trend intersect with the journalistic responsibility to provide information necessary for democratic governance? (I think this is the responsibility of journalists because I am a democrat and I am a journalist.)

I made reference to the work by James T. Hamilton and Markus Prior, two scholars whose work I greatly admire. The work of both concerns this very question - how the media is becoming increasingly partisan and what the impact is on the media audience. Frankly, I think that I lost my students when I began talking economic theory, upon which the work of Hamilton in particular rests.

The conversation turned out well. One student admitted that she loves watching Glenn Beck because he is "hysterical." I agreed that he is hysterical, but I didn't think this psychological condition was an asset. My point was that this increasing partisan media system is harmful, leading to increasing cynicism, voter apathy, and general disengagement from democratic governance. At the end of the class, I asked who hoped to be involved in government in any way.

No one raised a hand.