Thursday, February 14

As soon as I'm finished with the back massage I'll show you how the camera works

It's a little late in the day for a greeting but Happy Valentine's Day anyhow!  

Yes yes I'll be returning to the blogosphere soon, maybe Monday. I've been involved with family matters. 

I'll also mention that John Batchelor is scheduled to return to the airwaves on Monday. He's been recuperating from surgery and radiation treatments for his base of tongue cancer, which has become an epidemic in men over 50. In his case the cancer was caught before it metastasized so the prognosis for him is very good.  

As to why this cancer has been striking older males, thereby hangs a tale, some of which John related the other day to fellow New York radio talk show hosts Bernie and Sid on their show. Here's the podcast for the brief discussion. And there are scientific reports on the internet about the cancer. But the short answer is that beyond establishing its association with HPV (human papillomavirus) scientists are still trying to understand the cancer; in the meantime, oncologists have gotten skilled at treating it. The key to surviving it, as with all other cancers, is early detection.

Regarding the photos, they're from one of those websites that copy items from other sites then make the reader click through one slide after another; in this case the slides show what a day at the office is like for wildlife photographers. 

Some of the photos are likely staged but I've seen enough of such photos to know that once wild critters overcome their caution about human interlopers they can be very curious about the cameras and what the interlopers are doing with them. 

Except for meerkats. They couldn't care less about cameras. These very warlike little creatures always have a member of the tribe on guard duty. So their view of a standing human, including a wildlife photographer, is that the top of its head makes a great lookout post. 

Speaking of critters, the March edition of The Atlantic features a fascinating article titled Scientists Are Totally Rethinking Animal Cognition. One of  the show-stopping observations is found in the last sentence of this passage:
Mammals in general are widely thought to be conscious, because they share our relatively large brain size, and also have a cerebral cortex, the place where our most complex feats of cognition seem to take place. Birds don’t have a cortex. In the 300 million years that have passed since the avian gene pool separated from ours, their brains have evolved different structures. But one of those structures appears to be networked in cortexlike ways, a tantalizing clue that nature may have more than one method of making a conscious brain.
A couple years ago I studied videos posted at YouTube on the behavior of cockatoos who live with humans and are treated as a member of the family. From this, my impression is that cockatoos are very 'conscious' beings and what's more have strong emotions that are not merely imitative of their human companions.  

I remember one video of a cockatoo, left alone for hours with the family dog, angrily trying to explain to the lady of the house what its day had been like. She kept interrupting the rant to sternly tell the cockatoo that she didn't like to be spoken to in that tone.

This only added to the cockatoo's obvious frustration and the feeling in its voice was reflecting this, as it continued trying to explain within the limitations of its language, and she continued interrupting with a lecture on the importance of politeness.

At one point the camera panned to the dog, who was sitting on the floor as close to the two as he could get and intently watching their exchange. There was something in the dog's expression, as if to say, 'Well I have no idea why the bird is having a bad feather day' -- that caused me to recall from other videos I'd seen that cockatoos cannot bear the sound of incessant barking -- and that very likely dogs who live with cockatoos know this. 

The same thought might have crossed the woman's mind at some point because suddenly she kissed the cockatoo on the beak. That immediately stopped the rant and clearly mollified the bird: finally, a little understanding and sympathy.

But that cockatoo's effort to communicate its frustration to the most important being in its life and its additional frustration that the being was not listening was clearly on display. It very nearly brought tears of empathy to my eyes.

We've all been there, haven't we?


Saturday, February 9

Jeff Bezos, calling the kettle black

"With Rekognition, a government can now build a system to automate the identification and tracking of anyone."

Jeff Bezos Protests the Invasion of His Privacy, as Amazon Builds a Sprawling Surveillance State for Everyone Else
By Glenn Greenwald
February 8, 2019 -- 10:28 AM ET
The Intercept

THE NATIONAL ENQUIRER HAS engaged in behavior so lowly and unscrupulous that it created a seemingly impossible storyline: the world’s richest billionaire and a notorious labor abuser, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, as a sympathetic victim.

On Thursday, Bezos published emails in which the Enquirer’s parent company explicitly threatened to publish intimate photographs of Bezos and his mistress, which were apparently exchanged between the two through their iPhones, unless Bezos agreed to a series of demands involving silence about the company’s conduct.

In a perfect world, none of the sexually salacious material the Enquirer was threatening to release would be incriminating or embarrassing to Bezos: it involves consensual sex between adults that is the business of nobody other than those involved and their spouses. But that’s not the world in which we live: few news events generate moralizing interest like sex scandals, especially among the media.

The prospect of naked selfies of Bezos would obviously generate intense media coverage and all sorts of adolescent giggling and sanctimonious judgments. The Enquirer’s reports of Bezos’ adulterous affair seemed to have already played at least a significant role, if not the primary one, in the recent announcement of Bezos’ divorce from his wife of 25 years.

Beyond the prurient interest in sex scandals, this case entails genuinely newsworthy questions because of its political context. The National Enquirer was so actively devoted to Donald Trump’s election that the chairman of its parent company admitted to helping make hush payments to kill stories of Trump’s affairs, and received immunity for his cooperation in the criminal case of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, while Bezos, as the owner of the steadfastly anti-Trump Washington Post, is viewed by Trump as a political enemy.

All of this raises serious questions, which thus far are limited to pure speculation, about how the National Enquirer obtained the intimate photos exchanged between Bezos and his mistress. Despite a lack of evidence, MSNBC is already doing what it exists to do – implying with no evidence that Trump is to blame (in this case, by abusing the powers of the NSA or FBI to spy on Bezos). But, under the circumstances, those are legitimate questions to be probing (though responsible news agencies would wait for evidence before airing innuendo of that sort).

If the surveillance powers of the NSA, FBI or other agencies were used to obtain incriminating information about Bezos due to their view of him as a political enemy – and, again, there is no evidence this has happened – it certainly would not be the first time. Those agencies have a long and shameful history of doing exactly that, which is why the Democratic adoration for those agencies, and the recent bipartisan further empowerment of them, was so disturbing.

Indeed, one of the stories we were able to report using the Snowden documents, one that received less attention that it should have, is an active NSA program to collect the online sex activities, including browsing records of porn site and sex chats, of people regarded by the U.S. Government as radical or radicalizing in order to use their online sex habits to destroy their reputations. This is what and who the NSA, CIA and FBI are and long have been.


IF BEZOS WERE the political victim of surveillance state abuses, it would be scandalous and dangerous. It would also be deeply ironic.

That’s because Amazon, the company that has made Bezos the planet’s richest human being, is a critical partner for the U.S. Government in building an ever-more invasive, militarized and sprawling surveillance state. Indeed, one of the largest components of Amazon’s business, and thus one of the most important sources of Bezos’ vast wealth and power, is working with the Pentagon and the NSA to empower the U.S. Government with more potent and more sophisticated weapons, including surveillance weapons.

In December 2017, Amazon boasted that it had perfected new face-recognition software for crowds, which it called Rekognition. It explained that the product is intended, in large part, for use by governments and police forces around the world. The ACLU quickly warned that the product is “dangerous” and that Amazon “is actively helping governments deploy it.”

“Powered by artificial intelligence,” wrote the ACLU, “Rekognition can identify, track, and analyze people in real time and recognize up to 100 people in a single image. It can quickly scan information it collects against databases featuring tens of millions of faces.” The group warned: “Amazon’s Rekognition raises profound civil liberties and civil rights concerns.” In a separate advisory, the ACLU said of this face-recognition software that Amazon’s “marketing materials read like a user manual for the type of authoritarian surveillance you can currently see in China.”


BuzzFeed obtained documents showing details of Amazon’s work in implementing the technology with the Orlando Police Department, ones that “reveal the accelerated pace at which law enforcement is embracing facial recognition tools with limited training and little to no oversight from regulators or the public.” Citing Amazon’s work to implement the software with police departments, the ACLU explained:

With Rekognition, a government can now build a system to automate the identification and tracking of anyone. If police body cameras, for example, were outfitted with facial recognition, devices intended for officer transparency and accountability would further transform into surveillance machines aimed at the public. With this technology, police would be able to determine who attends protests. ICE could seek to continuously monitor immigrants as they embark on new lives. Cities might routinely track their own residents, whether they have reason to suspect criminal activity or not. As with other surveillance technologies, these systems are certain to be disproportionately aimed at minority communities.

Numerous lawmakers, including Congress’ leading privacy advocates, wrote a letter in July, 2018, expressing grave concerns about how this software and similar mass-face-recognition programs would be used by government and law enforcement agencies. They posed a series of questions based on their concern that “this technology comes with inherent risks, including the compromising of Americans’ right to privacy, as well as racial and gender bias.”

In a separate article about Amazon’s privacy threats, the ACLU explained that the group “and other civil rights groups have repeatedly warned that face surveillance poses an unprecedented threat to civil liberties and civil rights that must be stopped before it becomes widespread.”

Amazon’s extensive relationship with the NSA, FBI, Pentagon and other surveillance agencies in the west is multi-faceted, highly lucrative and rapidly growing. Last March, the Intercept reported on a new app that Amazon developers and British police forces have jointly developed to use on the public in police work, just “the latest example of third parties aiding, automating, and in some cases, replacing, the functions of law enforcement agencies — and raises privacy questions about Amazon’s role as an intermediary.”


Beyond allowing police departments to “store citizens’ crime reports on Amazon’s servers, rather than those operated by the police,” the Amazon products “will allow users to report crimes directly to their smart speakers,” an innovation David Murakami Wood, a scholar of surveillance, warned “serves as a startling reminder of the growing reach that technology companies have into our daily lives, intimate habits, and vulnerable moments — with and without our permission.”

Then there are the serious privacy dangers posed by Amazon’s “Ring” camera products, revealed in the Intercept last month by Sam Biddle. As he reported, Amazon’s Ring, intended to be a home security system, has “a history of lax, sloppy oversight when it comes to deciding who has access to some of the most precious, intimate data belonging to any person: a live, high-definition feed from around — and perhaps inside — their house.”

Among other transgressions, “Ring provided its Ukraine-based research and development team virtually unfettered access to a folder on Amazon’s S3 cloud storage service that contained every video created by every Ring camera around the world.” Biddle added: “This would amount to an enormous list of highly sensitive files that could be easily browsed and viewed. Downloading and sharing these customer video files would have required little more than a click.”About the Ring surveillance in particular, the ACLU explained:

Imagine if a neighborhood was set up with these doorbell cameras. Simply walking up to a friend’s house could result in your face, your fingerprint, or your voice being flagged as “suspicious” and delivered to a government database without your knowledge or consent. With Amazon selling the devices, operating the servers, and pushing the technology on law enforcement, the company is building all the pieces of a surveillance network, reaching from the government all the way to our front doors.

Bezos’ relationship with the military and intelligence wings of the U.S. Government is hard to overstate. Just last October, his company, Blue Origin, won a $500 million contract from the U.S. Air Force to help develop military rockets and spy satellites. Bezos personally thanked them in a tweet, proclaiming how “proud” he is “to serve the national security space community.”


Then there’s the patent Amazon obtained last October, as reported by the Intercept, “that would allow its virtual assistant Alexa to decipher a user’s physical characteristics and emotional state based on their voice.” In particular, it would enable anyone using the product to determine a person’s accent and likely place of origin: “The algorithm would also consider a customer’s physical location — based on their IP address, primary shipping address, and browser settings — to help determine their accent.”

All of this is taking place as Amazon vies for, and is the favorite to win, one of the largest Pentagon contracts yet: a $10 billion agreement to provide exclusive cloud services to the world’s largest military. CNN reported just last week that the company is now enmeshed in scandal over that effort, specifically a formal investigation into “whether Amazon improperly hired a former Defense Department worker who was involved with a $10 billion government contract for which the tech company is competing.”

Bezos’ relationship with the military and spying agencies of the U.S. Government, and law enforcement agencies around the world, predates his purchase of the Washington Post and has become a central prong of Amazon’s business growth. Back in 2014, Amazon secured a massive contract with the CIA when the spy agency agreed to pay it $600 million for computing cloud software. As the Atlantic noted at the time, Amazon’s software “will begin servicing all 17 agencies that make up the intelligence community.”

Given how vital the military and spy agencies now are to Amazon’s business, it’s unsurprising that the amount Amazon pays to lobbyists to serve its interests in Washington has exploded: quadrupling since 2013 from $3 million to almost $15 million last year, according to Open Secrets.


JEFF BEZOS IS AS ENTITLED as anyone else to his personal privacy. The threats from the National Enquirer are grotesque. If Bezos’ preemptive self-publishing of his private sex material reduces the unwarranted shame and stigma around adult consensual sexual activities, that will be a societal good.

But Bezos, given how much he works and profits to destroy the privacy of everyone else (to say nothing of the labor abuses of his company), is about the least sympathetic victim imaginable of privacy invasion. In the past, hard-core surveillance cheerleaders in Congress such as Dianne Feinstein, Pete Hoekstra, and Jane Harman became overnight, indignant privacy advocates when they learned that the surveillance state apparatus they long cheered had been turned against them.

Perhaps being a victim of privacy invasion will help Jeff Bezos realize the evils of what his company is enabling. Only time will tell. As of now, one of the world’s greatest privacy invaders just had his privacy invaded. As the ACLU put it: “Amazon is building the tools for authoritarian surveillance that advocates, activists, community leaders, politicians, and experts have repeatedly warned against.”

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Pundita is worth more than a million Republican operatives

If President Trump quits Syria it won't stop me from hating him for what he's done to Syria. I do not forgive such things. But I would campaign for him if he runs for president again. Leave Syria, Mr Trump. Go, in the name of God, go.


Tuesday, February 5

Wenn Trump nur wüsste

I've been noting a number of attempts to excuse President Trump's actions regarding Syria. The excuses boil down to the one invoked by many Germans living under Nazi rule, and encapsulated in the infamous phrase, "Wenn der Führer nur wüsste “ -- If Hitler only knew.

This defense continued even after the war's end, with many Germans refusing to believe Hitler could have known about, much less directed, the genocide exposed during the Nuremberg trials:
It wasn’t until Eichmann’s trial in 1961 that the world finally learned, and Germany confronted, the full extent and monstrosity of the final solution. The extermination of the European Jews was not the improvised handiwork of a few rogue Gestapo agents, operating secretly under the Fuhrer’s nose; it was the result of a well-planned, state-wide campaign of extermination, carried out with the willing participation of state ministries and the military at all levels. The idea of “If only the Fuhrer knew” wasn’t a mere excuse exonerating Hitler, it was an apology for the whole nation of Germany.
The government of the United States of America under the regimes of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, along with the entire NATO leadership, were knowing participants in the genocide perpetrated against Syria's Alawites. If not for the Russian intervention in Syria the perpetrators would've gotten away with wiping out the Alawites.  

Who planned the genocide? Recently I wrote that the hallmark of evil is the enormous complexity it creates to cover its tracks. I'd guess the prime suspect would be the Saudi regime but so many governments were involved and there's been so much blame-shifting it might take another decade to untangle the mess.    

In any case, the Russians blew the lid off when they exposed that the U.S. and its coalition had been aiding and abetting Islamic State in Syria. This happened when President Vladimir Putin displayed satellite photos at a G20 summit in Turkey, photos that showed large convoys of oil tanker traffic making brazenly routine runs between IS-controlled territory in Syria and Turkey's border. It would have been impossible for the U.S. command to overlook the convoys, yet they took half-hearted measures only after they learned the Russians were preparing to present evidence about what was happening. 
Caught red-handed, a grim-faced President Obama met with Putin on the sidelines of the summit, in what unfolding events suggested was his attempt to sweep the outrage under the rug by striking a 'deal' with the Russians. But even if Putin agreed to a deal, Obama repeatedly misled the Kremlin right up until the time he left office about the plan for Syria.

President Trump has carried forward the plan despite any of his rhetoric to the contrary. To assume or hope that he hasn't known what's been going on Syria, or that all the evil is the work of a cabal of neocons he can't control, is a kind of mental self-blinding. 

To ask why about any of this is an attempt to psychoanalyse the devil -- just about the most useless thing one can do. Once I recounted on this blog that I had to learn the hard way that the most one can ever do with evil is give it a good thrashing and send it on its way. 

It can take a long time to be in a position to give evil a good thrashing; until then the most that can be done is what the Russians did in Syria: try to hold the line and speak the truth as loudly as possible. And pray like mad.


Sunday, February 3

The worse the collective sleep patterns, the crazier the society

In the old days, humanity had 1 category for craziness -- craziness -- with the causes breaking down into roughly 4 categories: mischevious spirits, vengeful demons, annoyed gods, and the machinations of black magicians. Today, in place of that simple system, psychiatry has identified more than 200 categories of mental disorders, with some of the more "common" ones listed as "depression, bipolar disorder, dementia, schizophrenia, and anxiety disorders." 

Psychiatrists prefer the term "disorder" to "crazy." Yet all one has to do, as I've done during the past two weeks, is pay close attention to politically-related news and discussion to be aware that there are now societies with a large number of people who can appear sane enough or take enough pills to hold down a job but are actually batshit crazy.   

The number seems to be increasing, if not skyrocketing, if any indication can be found in the British government's expressed concern last year about worsening "collective mental health" in the United Kingdom, a worsening broadly noted in the society, and which has activated the bureaucratic antibodies.

An article about the issue, Our Collective Mental Health Is Getting Worse — But Why? ticks off various reasons to blame the British medical system's paltry attention to the mental health crisis but allows that lifestyles can also be a factor:
Modern, Western lifestyles undermine mental health. Unhealthy diets, lack of physical exercise, loneliness, family break up, childhood neglect and trauma, the pressure of competition in schools and the workplace — the list goes on. Increased investment and improvements to services will never be enough to repair the damage caused by the way we live today.
However, as the findings roll in from brain researchers around the world, it's becoming increasingly clear there's no way a society can be reasonably sane if large numbers of its people have crummy sleep patterns. 

The findings are shoving science from observed correlations between mental disorders and poor sleep to cause-and-effect; i.e., chronic poor sleep can be a causative factor in a host of mental disorders.  

The red flag was raised as early as the 1970s when many executives whose business kept them zig-zagging by jet between time zones developed full-blown psychoses. The cause-and-effect discovery by scientists hired by globalized corporations launched blackout curtains and a host of other tactics to help globetrotting employees offset the effects of chronic jet lag.  

Although the discovery and attendant warnings about sleep deprivation percolated into Western mainstream media, here we are today with few prepared to confront the implications of that early research and the recent findings. 

One reason is that the emphasis quickly shifted from psychosis to poor physical health. In other words, doctors didn't go around telling medical reporters that the whole damn society would go crazy if people didn't get enough of the right kind of sleep; instead, they emphasized the role of sleep in maintaining good physical health. 

All that accomplished was to galvanize the chronically sleep deprived to search for offsets -- power naps, megavitamins, herbal recipes, meditation, etc. -- in the attempt to compensate for wrecking their circadian cycle. 

The quest became a mania in South Korea, one of the most sleep-deprived societies in the world, and thus sleeponomics.  

Yet mental illness has become so widespread in South Korea the topic has its own article in Wikipedia, which examines all and everything as causative factors except en masse chronic sleep deprivation. The closest Wikipedia gets to the topic is to note a finding published in 2002:
17% of the South Korean population has insomnia, which is a rate comparable to that of insomnia in the United States.[23]
Without reading the study, I'd question whether it makes a clear distinction between insomnia -- the inability to sleep -- and a lifestyle choice leading to chronic sleep deprivation. 

In any case, nothing I've come across so far in the literature indicates the South Koreans are considering that there's a direct, cause-and-effect connection between their widespread mental disorders and famous sleeplessness.

There would be good reasons for South Koreans to refrain from looking for any such connection; it would be the same in the U.K., here in the USA, and any other highly urbanized society that depends on global trade and consumerism. 

Yet while such societies can get by with large numbers under treatment for poor physical health -- that's what the medical and pharmaceutical industries are for -- it's something close to auto-genocide if they normalize practices bound to drive large numbers of their people crazy.

That's where we are today. That's the greatest threat humanity faces today. 

The really bad news is that this is not only about getting more hours of sleep -- something the sleeponomics sales pitches overlook. It's also about the type of sleep. Short yourself on REM sleep and you're asking for big trouble. 

I'll close with remarks from a Pundita reader in response to my January 2 posting of a transcript at Business Insider, which I titled "The Scariest Warning Out There To Get Enough Sleep" (actually the warning in this post should be  scarier but the other is from a bona fide sleep expert):
ATM said...
Getting enough sleep is critical, but it should be pointed out that it is not simply a question of getting a specified number of hours, it must be the right kind of sleep.

For example:
Experiencing sufficient REM sleep is essential for normal functioning, both sleeping and waking. The symptoms of insufficient REM sleep include mental problems, including impaired memory, hallucinations, mood swings, and inability to concentrate. Physical problems observed include lowered core body temperatures, impaired immune systems, and in extreme cases, death.
End Quote 
I suspect that the number of images that one views during screen time may interfere with [normal]  memory formation. I recommend turning images off.
In response to my two-part question about his second remark he wrote:
Q: 1.I assume you mean ad images on internet sites.....2.And by shutting them off I assume you mean using an ad blocker; if my guess is wrong, or if additional imagine blocking can be done, please let me know.
A: 1.Yes, what I think is happening is that ads force us to multitask while reading and multitasking is known to lower IQ.
IQ drops of 15 points for multitasking men lowered their scores to the average range of an 8-year-old child.
End Quote
I suspect that some categories of screen time involve frequent multitasking and the way that it lowers IQ is by damaging short term memory. It would be nice if a study made an attempt to isolate causation, instead modern scientist[s] seem to vaguely wave their hands as if any screen was a work of witchcraft stealing the [soul]. If information is not kept long enough in short term memory it will not make it into long term memory where connections between memories are made.

2.Yes in theory, however ad blockers do not work very well because they are detected and many sites force you to shut them off.
If you are on linux you can use a Text Browser like Lynx. If you are on Windows you might use Browsh with Firefox, which gives your a browser 1997 feel except with better fonts. Browsh is not detected as an ad blocker because it is a post processing Firefox input.
A simple solution is to turn off javascript.
Except that may remove more information from a site than you want and is also detected.
It was once quite easy to navigate the internet with a pure text browser, but the internet lords are making it very hard for the blind these days. Text readers or brail readers for the blind only work well when you can extract ham from the spam on a site.

Sunday, January 27

Gee, that's a gorgeous song and a glorious duet

Two YouTube Comments, to which I add a hearty "Same here!":
Sadly, if it hadn’t been for looking at Wikipedia for details about this Armando Manzanero classic, I probably would have never heard Miss Natsukawa’s beautiful contribution to the catalog of duet versions of this song. Now that I’ve heard her voice, I will seek her other artistic endeavors.  
I love this version better than the other existing versions, too. I love the way Rimi sings this song. Besides, Rimi’s clear, penetrating voice makes a really good contrast with Bocelli's deep, warm voice. Thanks for uploading.
English-language version of the lyrics for "Somos Novios"

"It's Impossible" 

It's impossible, tell the sun to leave the sky
It's just impossible
It's impossible, ask a baby not to cry
It's just impossible

Can I hold you closer to me
And not feel you going through me
Split the second that I never think of you
Oh, how impossible

Can the ocean keep from rushing to the shore
It's just impossible
If I had you, could I ever want for more
It's just impossible

And tomorrow
Should you ask me for the world, somehow I'd get it
I would sell my very soul and not regret it
For to live without your love
It's just impossible

Can the ocean keep from rushing to the shore
It's just impossible
If I had you, could I ever want for more
It's just impossible

And tomorrow
Should you ask me for the world, somehow I'd get it
I would sell my very soul and not regret it
For to live without your love
It's just impossible


What's the world coming to? In UAE non-Muslims are increasingly able to worship openly.

"The U.A.E. will display its more accommodating stance in February when it hosts Pope Francis for the first visit by a sitting pope to the Arabian Peninsula. The pope’s itinerary includes engaging in an interfaith dialogue and celebrating Mass at a sports complex with a capacity of around 120,000."

In Arab Nation, Christians, Buddhists and Jews Emerge to Worship
U.A.E. celebrates religious tolerance and prepares to welcome Pope Francis
By Asa Fitch

Jan. 27, 2019 8:00 a.m. ET
The Wall Street Journal 

[See the WSJ website for photographs and a chart of percentages of religious denominations in U.A.E., "where most of the over nine million people are expatriates."]

DUBAI—Every Friday, on the fourth floor of a hotel conference center in this Arab business hub, several thousand Christians arrive to worship in two-hour shifts at what may be the world’s best-hidden megachurch.

There is no sign outside the center to guide people to Fellowship. The Protestant congregation sprang up roughly a decade ago in a place where Islam is the official religion, non-Muslim practice has long been closely monitored and sanctioned church buildings are limited and regulated.

But restrictions on places of worship have gradually loosened in the United Arab Emirates. The government has designated 2019 the “year of tolerance” to reinforce the idea that, in a region torn by conflict, people of diverse cultures and religions can find common ground.

The U.A.E. will display its more accommodating stance in February when it hosts Pope Francis for the first visit by a sitting pope to the Arabian Peninsula. The pope’s itinerary includes engaging in an interfaith dialogue and celebrating Mass at a sports complex with a capacity of around 120,000.

Fellowship started with a handful of people, but now attracts roughly 4,000 a week from all religious backgrounds to services at two hotels. The services reflect the opening to non-Muslims in the U.A.E., which has accelerated in recent years as the government cultivated ties with Western powers that value the freedom of worship and explored ways to undermine the pull of Islamic extremism.

As a result, a Buddhist temple catering to Sri Lankans, Cambodians and Thais is now operating out of a villa in Dubai. Leaders of a Jewish synagogue, which had been operating in secret, revealed its existence recently. A large Hindu temple is under construction. The religious institutions serve a population composed almost entirely of expatriate workers from Asia, Europe and beyond.

Rulers in the U.A.E. have allowed the establishment of churches since the 1960s, and have traditionally been more religiously permissive than neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia, which bans any form of non-Muslim worship.

But religious freedoms here have limits. The U.A.E.’s constitution guarantees freedom of worship as long as it doesn’t clash with public policy or morals, according to the U.S. State Department in its religious freedom report for 2017. The country’s laws also prohibit blasphemy and non-Muslim proselytizing.

The U.A.E. shows little tolerance for political Islam, too, and authorities provide guidance for the content of sermons in mosques, the State Department said.

The U.S. government has been supportive of the U.A.E.’s push for tolerance, and State Department officials have met with local religious leaders, according to people who attended the meetings, amid efforts to foster better religious understanding across the Middle East, partly to combat terrorism.

The path toward open worship in the U.A.E. hasn’t been without its bumps.

There are about 45 officially sanctioned church buildings in the country, but more than 700 Christian congregations, leaving them to share limited space for services. In the lobby of the Evangelical Church center in Abu Dhabi, the capital, a board lists more than 50 congregations that worship there. Church services in the U.A.E. generally take place on Friday, the Muslim day of worship and a day off for most residents.

Local religious leaders said they would like to see more land allocated for church-building. But many also recognize that it isn’t their decision to make.

“There’s certainly a need for it,” says Rev. Andrew Thompson, the British chaplain at St. Andrew’s, an Anglican church in Abu Dhabi. “But I also caution Christians to say at the end of the day it’s not our country, and I’m concerned about the sense of entitlement.”

In Dubai, the phenomenon of hotel churches began a few years ago, after the Christian population became too large for designated church facilities. Congregations started meeting all over the city, but authorities eventually banned the practice last year, citing existing regulations for religious institutions.

Only three churches—including Fellowship—were allowed to continue meeting in hotels following an appeal to Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak al-Nahyan, a member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family who has been the country’s minister of tolerance since 2017.

Concerns about Christian congregations that couldn’t meet because of that move came up in discussions between a delegation of American evangelical leaders and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed in November, according to several people who were there.

The Ministry of Tolerance didn’t respond to requests for comment about Emirati policy.

Local religious leaders said they are encouraged by gradual progress and are hopeful for the future. Many of the evangelicals came away from their meetings reassured that the problem stemmed not from deliberate persecution of Christians but from the lack of clear bureaucratic procedures to approve new churches, according to members of the delegation.

At a recent Fellowship service, there was no sign of security forces or government monitoring as people shuffled in and out. In a conference-center ballroom, a nine-piece band led by a Filipino woman in stonewashed jeans sung a rendition of Matt Redman’s Christian pop hit “10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord).”

Tim Maxson, one of the church’s pastors, led Communion for a congregation that looked like a cross-section of Dubai’s expatriate workforce, a mishmash of nationalities including Filipinos, Kenyans, Australians, Americans, South Africans and Indians.

“We have Presbyterians, Baptists, Pentecostals, Roman Catholics, Mar Thomas, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Assemblies of God,” said Jim Burgess, the Oklahoman who became Fellowship’s first full-time pastor about 10 years ago. “People,” he said, “are not as concerned about the label as they are with what’s inside.”



China's slowed growth rate is relative

Blurb from From The Economist's January 23 Daily Dispatch:
China’s economy: Slowness is in the eye of the beholder
China’s growth rate for 2018, which was announced on Monday, gave rise to pessimistic headlines. At 6.6%, thanks [due] in part to a trade war with America, it was at its weakest since 1990. But a closer look at the data gives reason for optimism. China’s economy is growing from a much larger base than before and domestic demand has more than plugged the gap from a falling trade surplus. Though there were some worrying signs, China’s economy remains buoyant.
Now that says nothing about the extent to which Beijing's accounting methods have been puffing up China's growth rates lo these many years, but The Economist has a good point. If you're going to accept the data at face value, then you have to accept that the weak growth rate is relative.


Thursday, January 24

La Mafia del Poder en California?

"Yet [Mexico's new president] faces tremendous opposition as well, especially from the political and economic elite, which he calls 'la mafia del poder' – the power mafia – and whose grip, he believes, must be broken if the system is to be reformed."
It turns out that income inequality in the U.S. state of California is worse than in Mexico. That's saying a lot, given the situation for Mexicans. From Michael Massing's January 20 op-ed for The Guardian, 
Who is more dangerous: El Chapo or Carlos Slim?
... With a GDP approaching $1.15tn, Mexico’s economy is now the 15th largest in the world, but its per-capita income of about $9,000 ranks just 70th. According to the Gini scale of income inequality, Mexico is the world’s 19th most unequal country – more so than even Nicaragua, Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, and Chad. A shocking 43.6% of Mexicans are considered poor. ...
But as Spencer Morrison pointed out a year ago at his National Economics Editorial website, "Were California a country it’d be the 17th most unequal nation, ahead of Mexico and Guatemala."  The quote is from his article, California’s Income Inequality Now Worse Than Mexico’s; Poverty Level Highest In America, which notes:
... over the last few decades, California has built one of America’s most lavish welfare states. There’s just one problem: it’s not working.
The sad truth of the matter is that California’s poverty rate is the highest in the country, at 20.6 percent. This is based on data from the US Census Bureau, and modified so as to account for differences in the cost of living between states. And if you’re a skeptical “progressive” then don’t worry, even Politifact confirms this finding.
As bad as that sounds, perhaps the more embarrassing statistic is that income inequality in California is at an all-time high. This should be obvious to anyone who’s actually been to California and seen the proliferation of tent cities and urban slums: [video]
Inequality can be encapsulated in a number called the Gini Coefficient (GC): “0” is perfect equality, where everyone earns the same income, while “1” is perfect inequality, where one individual earns everything (leaving none for anyone else). Importantly, a higher GC means more inequality.
In California the GC is 0.488. This is the second highest of all America’s major states, behind only New York, and it is also far higher than the national average of 0.479—which itself is inflated by absurdly high GCs from large liberal states like California and New York.
But it’s only when looking at the global context do you really get a sense of how bad it is. If California were an independent country, it would be the 17th most unequal country on earth, according to data from the World Bank. It would rest comfortably just behind Honduras (at 0.511), and ahead of Guatemala (0.487) and Mexico (0.482).
Now compare this to the other “social democracies” that California is wont to compare itself with: Canada sits at spot number 111, while Norway is way down the list at number 153 (out of 176 countries).
In terms of inequality, California has more in common with banana republics than the “social democracies” it emulates. Perhaps they should get their own house in order before lecturing the rest of us on the benefits of socialism.
California's government has a different view of the situation, pointing to a large number of American indigents that municipalities across the U.S. have 'shipped' to California because of the state's generous welfare benefits, a severe shortage of low-income housing in the state, and in general all and everything except socialism.    

Yet the bottom line, at least on paper, is that the state is among the richest regions in the entire world. From Wikipedia's article:
California's $2.9 trillion economy is larger than that of any other [U.S.] state, larger than those of Texas and Florida combined, and the largest sub-national economy in the world. 
If it were a country, California would be the 5th largest economy in the world (larger than the United Kingdom, France, or India). 
The Greater Los Angeles Area and the San Francisco Bay Area are the nation's second- and third-largest urban economies ($1.253 trillion and $878 billion respectively as of 2017), after the New York City metropolitan area. The San Francisco Bay Area PSA had the nation's highest GDP per capita in 2017 (~$99,000) and is home to three of the world's ten largest companies by market capitalization and four of the world's ten richest people.
So something about California's income inequality isn't quite adding up, and it's the same for Mexico's. To return to Massing:
That destitution is the root cause of many of Mexico’s other ills. Drug trafficking, violence, corruption, impunity, migration – all are outgrowths of the country’s high unemployment, low wages, poor schools, inadequate healthcare, farmers without land, youths without jobs. These conditions seem all the more intolerable in a country so blessed with resources, including fertile farmland, vast oil reserves, deep-water ports, a temperate climate, stunning beaches, and a population that the OECD ranks the most hard-working of the 37 nations surveyed.
Yes. Mexico's masses are hard-working people -- and they are careful listeners, a point I made some years ago on this blog, which makes them quick studies. No need to repeat an instruction 20 times over to a Mexican worker. 

Mexico's new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is clear about the country's root problem, as Massing notes:
... López Obrador’s Morena party also won control of both houses of the Mexican Congress and of many state governorships, giving him enormous power. Yet he faces tremendous opposition as well, especially from the political and economic elite, which he calls “la mafia del poder” – the power mafia – and whose grip, he believes, must be broken if the system is to be reformed.
While every lurid revelation of the Guzmán trial has been breathlessly noted, the power of this mafia has gone largely unremarked. The group is dominated by a dozen or so oligarchs and their families, who have a lock on such key economic sectors as telecommunications, media, mining and banking.
Repeated forecasts of rapid development for Mexico have come to naught due to the suffocating hold that this small circle of super-connected individuals continues to have over its economy; by eliminating competition, they can keep prices high and profits surging. ...
In short, Mexico's government created a Frankenstein Free Market Economy (free when we want it to be, not so free otherwise) that is a sure-fire prescription for mass destitution, as post-Soviet Russians learned the hard way.

Does California have anything like this Frankenstein economy? Would that be a factor in the great disparity between incomes in the state? I don't know enough about California to have a considered opinion on the questions. But it could explain much if the state has developed a kind of oligarchy that's masked by large welfare schemes.

One thing I do know that could be pertinent to California is that much of what's called 'free market capitalism' is itself a Frankenstein; it's actually companies started and/or supported with government help.  

In any case, Mexico definitely has an oligarch problem:
While every lurid revelation of the Guzmán trial has been breathlessly noted, the power of [La Mafia del Poder] has gone largely unremarked. The group is dominated by a dozen or so oligarchs and their families, who have a lock on such key economic sectors as telecommunications, media, mining and banking. Repeated forecasts of rapid development for Mexico have come to naught due to the suffocating hold that this small circle of super-connected individuals continues to have over its economy; by eliminating competition, they can keep prices high and profits surging.
At the center of the power elite is Carlos Slim. His estimated net worth of about $60bn places him seventh on Forbes’s international rich list. This one man’s wealth is equivalent to more than 5% of Mexico’s GDP. The core of his empire is América Móvil, Latin America’s largest mobile phone company; its longtime domination of Mexico’s telecommunications industry has kept the nation’s phone rates among the highest in the world, costing the economy an estimated $25bn a year.
Slim also owns nearly 17% of the New York Times, making him its largest shareholder. Like other American news organizations, the Times rarely writes about him and the ways in which he and other Mexican oligarchs have used their power to stymie the tax policies, public investments and income transfers needed to enable more Mexicans to enjoy the type of comfortable middle-class life depicted in Roma, the recent acclaimed film set in Mexico City in the early 1970s.  ...
Spoken like a true socialist. Massing should pay a little less attention to public investments and more to government policies that stifle business competition in Mexico. I can only hope that Amlo will do the same.


The solution is to build the wall between California and the rest of America

Then put signs all along the Mexican-U.S. that show a little arrow pointing to California with the caption that reads (in Spanish, of course) "Thataway for jobs and free health care and housing."

As to how California would fare if kicked out of the American union -- the regime could appeal to the International Monetary Fund for help. I can't wait to see the kind of austerity measures the IMF would impose on California in exchange for keeping the new country afloat. You may trust the first loan condition would be scaling back on bloated welfare programs.  

Then California could borrow from the World Bank to build a wall all along their border and Mexico.



When will the U.S. government shutdown end? I can tell you when..

It will end two days after the American mainstream media are no longer able to hide the fact that a great number of the furloughed "nonessential" federal jobs are just that.

As to the financial hardship endured by nonessential federal employees who aren't getting paychecks during the shutdown -- many jobs in the U.S. private sector are going begging because companies can't find workers to fill them. Three-hundred thousand or so former federal employees should be able to do the work even when a job requires retraining, which most if not all companies will be glad to provide; that's how desperate the companies are for workers.



Al Qaeda methodically expanding reach in India by 'going local'

January 23, 2019
The Soufan Center
[H/T Joshua Landis/Carl Fountain - Twitter]

Seventeen years after the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda has survived, due in large part to a deliberate strategy focused on gaining the support of the masses by “going local.” Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), the youngest affiliate of al-Qaeda, is in many ways the realization of that new strategy. Western counterterrorism circles are slowly recognizing the viability of al-Qaeda’s reach into South Asia, as AQIS appears to be building its capabilities throughout the region as other terrorist groups, including the Islamic State’s regional affiliate, Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), bear the brunt of global counter-terrorism operations. 

This paper takes a fresh look at the emergence of AQIS— its leadership, funding sources, and future role as a dominant actor in the global jihadist movement. Moreover, this paper assesses the group’s ability to target the U.S. homeland and its assets abroad.



Tuesday, January 22

We're living with governments designed to work in the 19th Century. Now what?

Residents converting city space to a food garden

Residents converting a typical city park into foraging gardens growing edible plants

The observation in the title of this post applies whether the government is liberal democratic or authoritarian. So, beyond all the political rhetoric about improving government, humanity has what's called a 'white elephant' on its hands; i.e., "a possession that is useless or troublesome, especially one that is expensive to maintain or difficult to dispose of."  (The origin of the term is "from the story that the kings of Siam gave such animals as a gift to courtiers they disliked, in order to ruin the recipient by the great expense incurred in maintaining the animal.")

The simple truth is that our huge numbers, and the sheer number of problems in this era and how they intersect, can't be dealt with effectively by 19th Century of government, which depends on a system of bureaus administered in a top-down fashion. A big problem with these bureaus, as I pointed out in a 2014 essay The Devil and Departmentalization, is that they have a way of inexorably expanding while their chiefs jealously guard information in order to protect and increase their budgets.

In other words, bureaus lead to compartmentalization of knowledge and expertise -- one hand not knowing what the other hand is doing, so to speak.  

Result? Well, there's a theory that al Qaeda had such a free run at the United States back in the day because the CIA wouldn't share information with the FBI that if acted upon by the two agencies in a coordinated fashion might have averted 9/11.

In any case, we've continued with a hopelessly outdated form of government administration because -- what's the alternative? Of course, alternatives have always existed; one simply needs to read world history that goes back before the time of Frederick the Great to find them.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, even before the Germanic kingdoms, even before the Romans and the Ottomans, even before Egypt's pharaohs, villagers and nomadic tribes the world over were managing to deal with community issues without bureaus.

But peoples today want an alternative that reflects their particular problems, many of which are products of entire societies trying to hammer the square peg of the 20th Century into the round hole of the 19th Century.

The alternative for our era boils down to many ad-hoc Do it Yourself approaches, worked out by groups of people who get tired of waiting for their government to do something for them and find ways to do it themselves. Eventually, the best of these DIY approaches will be integrated and codified and form the basis for a more formal type of government that large numbers of people find acceptable.

Between now and then is, well, messy, as is all guess-and-by-golly innovation, especially when it runs afoul of Defenders of the Status Quo. 

As to the argument that the defenders won't let the DIY approaches get far enough to be a challenge -- that was largely true up until the turn of this century. But today the internet is allowing unprecedented numbers of people to learn in agonizing detail just how much the status quo screwed up during the past century, even in the wealthiest, most technologically advanced nations. 

Indeed, I could spend the next 48 hours plugging in links to reports about horrific mistakes made by governments that took even good ideas and turned them into disasters and used huge amounts of money to fob off terrible ideas on unsuspecting millions of citizens.

Such reports are depressing and even frightening reading, and their existence on the internet has created a kind of two-tier reality. Most of the reports never make it into the mainstream television news, which is still the bastion of the status quo. But within less than a generation a large and fast-growing number of people who get much of their news from the internet has read enough depressing reports to be clearly aware that government in its present form is a white elephant. Many of these same people are sharing knowledge around the world about DIY approaches they've used to solve problems affecting entire communities, and that have worked.  

And it's to be remembered that the status quo is still useful and will remain so. Both the DIY urban farming projects I highlighted above have received government assistance. So it's not either-or, and it has to be that way to avoid anarchy and outright chaos in societies.

Little by little, but eventually a critical mass of innovation builds up, and so the status quo itself evolves.