BREAKING: International Criminal Court surrenders to global whale syndicate

Look, I know they’re dolphins. I have a very small pop culture vocabulary that I can rely on here, OK? It was either this or shoehorn in a “Sex Panther” gag from Anchorman.

Well, prepare to welcome our new Cetacean overlords, my friends, because the day John Bolton warned us all about, probably, has finally come to pass: the damn United Nations, via its International Criminal Court, has ordered a stop to humanity’s last line of defense against the whales, Japan’s “scientific” whaling industry science thing that is totally for scientific purposes, with science. Japan will now have to rethink its entire Southern Ocean whaling program, all on account of bogus technicalities like “hey, um, this is awkward, but your scientific whaling program never actually produced any science as far as we can tell” and “no, seriously, we can’t find any science here anywhere,” and “what were you actually researching, which wine pairs best with which kind of whale?” and also “HOLY HELL YOU MEAN NOBODY EVEN BUYS THE DAMN WHALE MEAT ANYWAY?”

Anyway it would appear that Japan can still keep scientifically whaling as long as they do a better job of pretending that it’s really about science, but I think it’s fair to say that humanity has signed its own death certificate. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a whale go on national television and seriously ask whether a black hole could have swallowed an airplane but nothing else, so we’re clearly not going to outwit them.

Instead of stopping barrel bombs, how about finding a way to end the war?

Foreign Policy has a new entry in the canon of “We Must Do Something about Barrel Bombs, so here are some ideas that won’t do anything to stop Barrel Bombs” literature, this time by Lama Fakih of Human Rights Watch. All sorts of caveats apply here, as they did the last time I wrote about them: barrel bombs are horrible weapons, Human Rights Watch is a great organization, I’m not trying to single out Ms. Fakih who I’m sure is trying to do the best she can in a terrible situation. But for all the hand-wringing about barrel bombs, I’m still waiting for the piece that convincingly argues that:

  1. There’s something the West can do to stop their use short of a full scale military action (which isn’t happening, like it or not)
  2. If somehow we manage to stop Assad from using them, he won’t find another way to continue killing just as many civilians as he’s killing now, with them
  3. There’s something unique about these barrel bombs that stopping their use, even if it doesn’t save a single civilian life (see #2), is worth whatever effort it would require

Lama Fakih has been to the Syria-Turkey border and seen firsthand what barrel bombs do to people when they’re used, so I get why preventing their use means so much to her. But we can’t even get the warring parties to sit at a table and negotiate with each other, so how on Earth are we going to manage to control the conduct of the war at an intricate, detailed, micro-level like deciding which weapons are allowed and which are not?

The stories Ms. Fakih tells of the refugees and their experiences with barrel bombs are gut-wrenching:

I visited one home where nearly 100 people lived, having smuggled themselves into Turkey to escape barrel bombs. They paid approximately $20 apiece to a smuggler to escape, and they had little else. With Turkey’s refugee camps stuffed to their limit, the refugees were sleeping 20 people to a room in residential areas of Kilis and were receiving no humanitarian assistance. They were only eating, they told me, because of the kindness of strangers.

The parents clung closely to their children and cried over the ones they had lost. One mother had lost contact with her son who was forcibly conscripted in the army — “I don’t know anything about him” — while her other son was fighting with the rebels. Mothers asked for help in finding replacements for their children’s missing limbs, treatment for paralyzed arms and legs.

The children spoke to me too. “They are using the barrel bombs to kill people,” a 9-year-old who had lost both her legs told me. “I am learning how to walk through physical therapy. I want to go to school again.”

Their words, words we’ve been echoing for over three years now, haunt me: If the barrel bombs stopped, we would all go home. No one is helping us. How can you help me?

In point of fact, if the barrel bombs stopped, and that was the only thing that changed about the state of affairs in Syria, then those people would not “all go home,” nor should they, because Assad will just switch weapons and continue brutalizing the same civilian populations he’s been brutalizing with the barrel bombs. The fact that these weapons, which have minimal utility as battlefield munitions but are unfortunately very efficient at killing massed groups of civilians, are such a big part of Assad’s arsenal indicates that he’s decided to win the war by killing as many civilians as he possibly can. He’s not going to change tactics just because you take his favorite weapon away from him.

What’s the solution? How do you stop Assad from using barrel bombs? Ms. Fakih mentions UN Security Council Resolution 2139, adopted on February 22, that calls for an end to attacks on civilian populations and for both sides to allow corridors for humanitarian aid to reach those populations. This is nice, but as with most things the UN does, it basically says “we condemn this thing we don’t like, and we promise you that if it happens again, we will condemn it even more strenuously.” We’re not exactly talking about Liam Neeson on the phone with his daughter’s kidnappers here.

Ms. Fakih also suggests that the UNSC “impos[e] an international arms embargo against the Syrian government and all groups responsible for systematic crimes” and “refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.” Both of which are fine ideas, but won’t do anything to stop the barrel bomb attacks. Barrel bombs are crude, homemade weapons, put in the field by Assad precisely because they can keep being manufactured even if his international arms suppliers cut him off. As far as the ICC is concerned, Assad might start worrying about them just as soon as he’s certain he won’t wind up like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi, which is to say “never.” If he doesn’t win the war, which for him means barrel bombs, he and his top commanders probably aren’t going to make it out of Syria alive, so what threat does the ICC hold for them?

You know what would actually help the terrorized Syrian populace and end these terrible barrel bomb attacks? If we stopped worrying so much about the barrel bombs and instead found a way to end the damn war as soon as possible regardless of the actual terms of the settlement. That’s what the Syrians themselves want, at least according to this admittedly compromised poll, and it is the only thing that’s going to help them. That’s a tall order, admittedly, but for starters we might try dropping our increasingly absurd demand that Assad voluntarily step down when he’s actually winning the civil war, and we might lean on our SNC pals, to the extent that they still control any of the actual rebel fighters, to do the same. Assad isn’t going anywhere unless he’s forced, and the rebels don’t appear to have the muscle to do anything but fight him to a protracted stalemate, which is the worst possible outcome for the Syrian people. Protest movements tend to fail when they turn violent, and I think we can safely say that this one turned violent a while back, so it’s not a surprise that we find ourselves at this point.

This is not to argue that Assad is a good guy, or that having him remain in power would be right or good for Syria, or that he shouldn’t be hauled before the ICC and made to answer for his many crimes, it’s simply an assessment of the situation as it is. The most important thing for the Syrians right now is to find a way to stop the fighting; everything else can be compromised in the name of that goal. In the long-run, Assad has so compromised his authority to govern Syria that it’s unlikely he’d be in power for much longer, and even if he were to hang on to power until he died (naturally), it’s exceedingly unlikely that the Syrian people would acquiesce to his successor. That might mean that Syria will find itself right back in the same situation in five or ten years, or it might mean that Syria can have a peaceful, or more peaceful, transition away from the Assads to something else. Whatever else, it would mean a few years of peace and recovery for a country that desperately needs any bit of relief it can get right now.


Why do you keep fighting all the time, Paul Krugman and Nate Silver? Is it our fault? Are you guys getting a divorce? OH GOD PLEASE DON’T GET A DIVORCE WE’LL BE GOOD WE SWEAR!!!!!11!

OK, so is this Krugman-Silver pas de dweeb (I kid!) really something we’re supposed to care about? The new FiveThirtyEight has been around for all of 10 days and it’s already being pronounced a failure. That would be unfortunate under any circumstance, but is kind of ridiculous in this case, given that most people seemed to think that Nate Silver was a pretty bright guy before his site relaunched, and I don’t think ESPN gave him a lobotomy while they were building his new site. Although it’s entirely possible that they whittled his brains away by forcing him to watch a marathon of First Take episodes and then listen to Darren Rovell wank on about the business of sports or whatever the hell he does. Let’s say it’s possible that ESPN has made Nate Silver dumber, but unlikely.

I’m here to argue for giving Silver a chance with this new site before we all pronounce it a crushing disappointment, and I’m not just saying that because he could see this and decide to give me a job (But, Nate, if that happened I would be totally down with it, OK? I don’t use a ton of data in my writing, but apparently that’s not a disqualifier for you?) The criticisms that Krugman has leveled at the “new” FiveThirtyEight are legitimate but premature, and he’s making them in a way that sounds too defensive. Yes, it is true that political and sports pundits are especially innumerate, and that the same “cold, hard facts” approach that Silver brings to those fields isn’t as apparently necessary in economics or science journalism (and what the hell is up with that “Life” section, anyway?), but as long as they’re doing those things well, what’s the harm? I can see where Silver’s manifesto might have gotten your back up in a “hey, I’m already doing this stuff, so maybe lay off?” sense, but can we give the site a month or even a couple before we’re ready to declare it a failure?

So that brings us to Nate Silver, because so far it’s apparent that FiveThirtyEight isn’t doing economics or science journalism very well. Look, if your website is going to follow The Data wherever it leads, you can’t hire a climate change denier who can’t use data (or Google) very well as your climate reporter and expect not to take some heat for it. I know it’s neat to be contrarian, but in this case the contrarian position really doesn’t have any actual support in the scientific community (i.e., the people making and using all the data that you’re supposed to be following). Again, it’s been 10 days, so still comfortably in any reasonable grace period, but you might want to consider this kind of thing moving forward. Also, this was probably a bad idea.

Still, I think it would be best if Silver’s critics could give FiveThirtyEight enough time to work out the kinks and stop giving blithering idiots a bunch of easy “OOOO LIBS HATE NATE SILVER NOW BECAUSE HE PREDICTED THE REPUBLICANS WILL TAKE THE SENATE” stories. I know that’s not why you’re criticizing Silver, but Rush’s audience doesn’t, and Rush probably does but he doesn’t care.


Crimea: disputed narratives

I have a new Ukraine/Crimea piece up at Lobe Log, probably my last Ukraine piece there unless something really dramatic happens (I tend to agree with the thinking behind Pavel Felgenhauer’s piece in Foreign Policy that argues that if Putin plans on moving against the rest of Ukraine, he needs to do it soon or forget the whole thing). This one looks at last week’s events and also attempts, without trying to take one side or the other, what I think are the two biggest points at which the Russian/Crimean and the American/European/Ukrainian stories diverge in terms of what’s been happening, which are the legitimacy of the Crimean referendum:

Although the Ukrainian government appears to have no intention of contesting Russia’s annexation of Crimea on the ground, it, along with the US and EU, has insisted that last week’s referendum is illegal under both international and Ukrainian law. Russia has argued that the referendum was consistent with international law, specifically Article 1 of the UN Charter (which mentions “respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples” as one of the UN’s guiding principles), and Putin has specifically cited Kosovo’s secession from Serbia (which Russia opposed) as having set the precedent for this similar act by Crimea.

and, going further back, the legitimacy of the interim Ukrainian government:

But there is no disputing the fact that Viktor Yanukovych was the legally elected president of Ukraine before his ouster, and Russia’s official position has been that it still recognizes him as Ukraine’s rightful president, though it has not pushed for his restoration. Russia has characterized the Euromaidan protest movement that removed Yanukovych from office as an “armed fascist coup,” engineered with considerable American support. Far-right Ukrainian parties did play a large part in the protest movement, as evidenced by the sizable role that they have been given in the interim Ukrainian government. Moreover, a recording of a January phone call between Assistant US Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt shows that American officials were at least discussing ways to assist the protest movement and what a post-Yanukovych government might look like.

There were a couple of things I didn’t talk about in the piece, partly for space reasons but also because they’re either less important (in my opinion) or more convoluted. On the question of the referendum’s legitimacy I stuck only to the question of its legality, which as I wrote is debatable under international law but clearly unconstitutional under Ukrainian law, assuming you acknowledge that there’s a legitimate government in Kyiv upholding it. Obviously there’s another measurement of a vote’s legitimacy, which is whether or not the outcome was rigged, and on that score the referendum fails to pass the smell test. There was the presence of armed Russian soldiers civilian self-defense forces who were in no way Russian soldiers in the streets, for one thing. For another, the, shall we say, design of the ballot (“Should Crimea be independent from Ukraine? Choose ‘yes’ or ‘yes.'”) left a lot to be desired.

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A real Putin’s Putin

There’s some intense stuff going on in Eastern Europe, in the Black Sea area especially. The leader of a supposed-constitutional republic has been getting out of hand for some time now–suppressing internal opposition, dealing harshly with dissenters, that sort of thing. Lately though, he’s not only started tightly controlling the media in his country, but he’s also behaving somewhat aggressively toward one of his neighbors, though he insists that his actions are completely justified. It could prove to be a real mess.

Time for NATO to get tough and back this guy off, right?

Well, not exactly. See, the country whose president I’m talking about is already in NATO. Oh, you thought I was talking about Russia’s Generalissimo President Francisco Franco Vladimir Putin? No, I’m talking about him:

Hey, who’s got two thumbs and is using both of them right now to block Twitter in his country? THIS GUY!

Yes, it’s Turkey’s Generalissimo Prime Minister Francisco Franco Tayyip Erdoğan. Tayyip has long been a fan of taking it to protesters, and as protests have heated up again in the last couple of months, people are dying as a result of the heavy-handed tactics being used by Turkish security forces. Over the last few days  Erdoğan has been trying to block Twitter inside Turkey. Why, you ask? Because there are three Twitter accounts that keep publicly documenting alleged corruption throughout Erdoğan’s government, including Erdoğan himself. Erdoğan and his allies blame everything on a vast conspiracy against Erdoğan himself, involving financiers and banks, the foreign media, and the CIA; now they’ve added “the Jewish diaspora,” because they apparently thought they were being too subtle with direction of the whole conspiracy thing.

Amazingly, it’s possible that Erdoğan, who has survived gassing, pepper spraying, beating, and now killing protesters in a country that claims to respect basic freedoms, may have finally jumped the shark by banning Twitter. Members of his own political party, including Turkish President Abdullah Gül (who also shot down Erdoğan’s “international conspiracy” garbage) and Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, have expressed their disapproval of the move. It’s a pretty clear violation of article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Turkey is a signatory. Worse, from Erdoğan’s perspective, is that it seems to strip away whatever tattered veil of democratic pretense he still had, after his mistreatment of the Gezi Park protesters made his fundamental illiberalism apparent.

Running plays straight out of the autocrat’s playbook, Erdoğan has now manufactured a military crisis in order to rally domestic support:

Turkey’s air force has shot down a Syrian aircraft for violating Turkish airspace, an action that Syria denounced as “unprecedented and unjustifiable”.

The incident happened on Sunday, with the plane crashing near the Syrian town of Kasab on the Turkish border after it was targeted by F-16s.

Luckily he’s created his military incident by going after a much bigger asshole in Assad, and it’s not as though this is the first time Turkey and Syria are clashing over airspace violations. Damascus claims the jet was in Syrian airspace, but why would anyone believe them over Istanbul? But it’s given Erdoğan an excellent rallying cry while campaigning for the local elections being held in Turkey in a few days:

“Our F-16s went up in the air and shot that plane down. Why? Because if you violate my airspace, then from now on, our slap will be hard,” Erdogan told supporters at a campaign rally.

The Turkish version of the Tea Party probably eats that crap up. And with fighting between Assad’s forces and the rebels encroaching on the Turkish border with increasing regularity, Erdoğan may have plenty of excuses to engage in more jingoistic military action in the weeks to come.

How many people do you need to kill to host a World Cup?

If the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, or the UAE actually cared about the safety of migrant workers in the Persian Gulf, this would have been a pretty good rationale for withdrawing their ambassadors from Qatar:

A report from the International Trade Union Confederation says 1,200 migrant workers from India and Nepal have died in Qatar since the country was awarded the 2022 World Cup.

The ITUC estimates that 4,000 migrant workers will die by the time the first game is played in 2022. The report is in line with recent death numbers from the embassies of the two countries.

The Nepalese embassy in Qatar reported last month that 400 Nepalese workers had died working on World Cup projects since 2010. The Indian embassy reported that 500 Indian workers had died in Qatar since 2012. There are 1.4 million migrant workers in Qatar, the ITUC reports, many of whom are now tasked with building the infrastructure necessary to host a World Cup from scratch.

Just by comparison, preparations for the recent Sochi Olympics saw around 60 worker deaths, and the 2004 Athens Olympics suffered 40 worker deaths, and those are easily the two largest figures for any Olympics or World Cup this century, so “1200 going on 4000” worker deaths is utterly appalling.

The entire ITUC report reads like a dystopian nightmare in which the migrant workers have the status of indentured servants and are literally being worked to death by their Qatari employers for minimal pay (which is frequently less than what those workers were promised when they were recruited to go work in Qatar).

“Julie” is a cleaner from the Philippines:

I signed up in Manila to be a waitress. However, our company forced some of us to work two shifts, first working as cleaners in schools all morning, from 6:00 am -12:00 pm, and then working in hotels in food service and housekeeping from 3:00 pm-12:00 am in some of the most luxurious hotels in Doha. The company driver picked us up at 1am. We got so little sleep. We worked 26 days a month, all but Fridays, and even then our manager would yell at us to work on our one day off.

I have to return to my labour camp by 23:00. If I return late, my employer makes salary reductions without notifying me.

After being in Qatar for five years, I would like to take my annual leave and go back home for a short visit. The company practice is that the manager demands a deposit payment of US$ 275 – an amount which I cannot afford in addition to the price of the ticket.

“Benigno,” a driver also from the Philippines:

I signed a contract with a recruitment agency in the Philippines authenticated by the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration and promising a payment of US$ 484 per month.

But when I arrived in Qatar, my employer told me this contract was invalid. He confiscated my passport and then presented me with another contract with a payment of US$ 376 per month. We refused to sign this contract because we were misled into this situation. However, I still started to work for the company because I have to pay back my debts back home of US$ 471.

My colleagues and I are aware of the injustice that is done to us, but we are afraid to complain to the authorities. We see that workers who do complain are either blacklisted, deported or threatened. Our managers told us that workers who go on strike get deported within 12 hours.

A Nepalese carpenter named “Raju” had his retina detached when he was struck in the eye with a nail while working in rainy conditions without having been given safety goggles. He had to go to the labor court to try to get compensation for his injury. He had to pay out of his own pocket to have court documents translated from Arabic to Nepali.

The mistreatment is ubiquitous and can be seen in construction and road crews, where workers are forced to work even in on summer days when the temperature approaches 120 degrees Fahrenheit, to domestic workers, who are routinely abused by their employers, and even to workers in Doha’s swank Education City complex, where many prestigious Western universities (whose leaders frankly ought to be ashamed of themselves) have satellite campuses whose offices are cleaned and staffed by migrants making $220 or so per month.

There are several individual stories in the report, but it’s the photographs of the squalor in which these workers are forced to live that is most striking. The ITUC investigators did two things right: they counted deaths due to “natural causes” (since being forced to perform intensive labor in 120 degree summer heat and then dying of a heart attack is not “natural”) and unsafe living conditions right alongside deaths due to actual workplace mishaps

Whether the cause of death is labelled a work accidents, heart attack (brought on by the life threatening effects of heat stress) or diseases from squalid living conditions, the root cause is the same – working conditions.

and they went to worker camps outside the Qatari capital, Doha, where migrant workers live in awful conditions but still better than what they’re forced to live in elsewhere in the country. In Al Wakrah, whose football stadium is being expanded from 20,000 seats to around 45,000 seats in advance of the World Cup (and in an effort to build Al Wakrah up into a major city), workers, who had their passports confiscated (which is supposed to be illegal) and were expected to survive on around US$220 per month, were found to be living in the half-finished stadium, sleeping ten to a room and cooking and eating in unsanitary conditions.

The Qataris insist that the ITUC report is bogus because it totally doesn’t give them the ‘A’ they deserve for effort. Their Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy issued a statement that contained an impressive amount of words given that none of them, when put together, actually say anything:

“The International Trade Union Confederation’s statement that our standards have no credible enforcement mechanism is hence both incorrect and misleading,” the committee said. “We know that there are issues. While this process of change is not something that can be achieved overnight, we have the will and the commitment to see it through.”

Sure, definitely they’ve got the will to something something. Except that there has been a series of reports like this one done since Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup almost four years ago, and it’s apparent in every one of them that not a single thing has changed in Qatar’s labor policy since the previous report was done. Nobody is asking for the system to be completely fixed overnight, but some sign of change in four freaking years is not asking too much. Maybe instead of talking about their “commitment to see it through,” the Qataris should actually do something about the problem.

Everybody knows what the solutions are: break the kafalah system that keeps migrant workers at the total whim of their Qatari “sponsors” (a euphemism for “masters”), establish a wage structure that does not discriminate by nationality the way the current system does, enforce the law when it comes to confiscating passports, allow workers to freely associate and unionize, stop charging new workers a “recruitment fee” (a direct violation of international labor law), provide reasonable accommodations, and start protecting domestic workers from abusive employers. Hell, just hiring enough inspectors to actually visit all the work sites and camps around the country, and enforcing the laws that are already on the books, would be a start. Some of these changes would cost money, I realize, but the country with the largest per capita GDP in the world can probably afford to shell out a few bucks here and there to try to keep the workers who support its economic largesse alive.

The ITUC report contends that “[i]f FIFA demand[s] Qatar abolish kafala and respect fundamental international rights, it will happen.” That’s probably true, but good luck waiting for FIFA to do anything of the kind. It’s quite clear how FIFA operates:

Jack Warner, the former vice-president of Fifa, appears to have been personally paid $1.2 million (£720,000) from a company controlled by a former Qatari football official shortly after the decision to award the country the tournament.

I wonder if FIFA charges a flat bribe rate per worker killed, or if it’s a sliding scale. Probably a sliding scale.

Great arguments for military intervention

The Brussels Forum, quoting from their website, “is an annual high-level meeting of the most influential North American and European political, corporate, and intellectual leaders to address pressing challenges currently facing both sides of the Atlantic.” It’s going on right now. Today there was a panel called “The Fate of Syria Three Years On,” which included as a panelist Anne-Marie Slaughter, head of the New America Foundation. She was formerly the State Department Director of Planning for Secretary Clinton. She would like to see us intervene in Syria at least to accomplish one objective:

Barrel bombs are ugly weapons. They’re crude (though their manufacture has gotten more professional as the war has gone on), easy to make (so Assad’s forces could make as many as they need even if Iran and Russia were to stop supplying him with weapons for whatever reason), and although they’re too primitive to be very effective individually, when they’re dropped in bunches on crowds of civilians in, say, an Aleppo marketplace, the effect is gruesome. They’re the kind of weapon that is only effective against massed crowds people, so Assad’s heavy use of them is indicative of the fact that he’s trying to win the war by slaughtering as many Syrians as he can.

But there are two problems here: first, Russia and Iran haven’t stopped supplying Assad with weapons, and aren’t likely to stop any time soon. Plus, Assad has other homemade weapons at his disposal, like improvised rocket-assisted mortars, and the UMLACA devices that were used in August’s chemical weapons attack. So preventing “mass killing via barrel bombs” is a pretty narrow objective in that it would literally stop mass killing only via that one particular method. Assad would continue to have plenty of ways to kill masses of people. So this is kind of the essence of doing something just to Do Something.

And, you know, it wouldn’t even actually Do that. The second, far more serious/astounding, problem with Dr. Slaughter’s plan is that barrel bombs are dropped from helicopters, not planes. The nice, but in this case obviously inconvenient, thing about helicopters is that they don’t need to take off and land at an airport. You could obliterate every airport in the country and not actually prevent a single barrel bomb incident. Dr. Slaughter had this pointed out to her on Twitter, and responded:

Now, there’s no reason to expect that most people would know how a barrel bomb is delivered to the target. But I don’t think it’s asking too much for a prominent academic who runs a think tank and is actually proposing military action to maybe get a tighter grasp on the issues before he or she advocates for this kind of thing, is it?

In a related Twitter exchange I saw this inspiring call to arms, from a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins (so I’m not just nutpicking here):

Well that’s certainly…something! Although I would imagine that it would be a little worse for the additional people who would be killed as a result of our use of force, maybe? But it seems to me that going to war because, you know, we might as well, can’t fuck things up anymore than they’re already fucked, probably, isn’t likely to rally a reluctant American public to the cause. Nor is it a defensible justification for war.

Bomb the airports to stop one particular weapon that doesn’t need an airport to be used? Use force because “eh, how could things get any worse?” There are serious arguments in favor of military intervention in Syria, but these aren’t even trying.