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Belmont Club

The House of the Usher

September 30th, 2014 - 4:29 pm

According to Robert Sczcerba, a health technology venture capitalist and former director of life sciences at Lockheed Martin, the greatest health technology danger is the cacophony of beeps that attend medical devices in every hospital.  Because if everything is a priority then nothing is. He writes:

Have you ever stood in line at a fast food restaurant listening to a loud, persistent beeping from the kitchen’s deep fryer? If so, you’ve probably wanted to yell, “Hey, could somebody get the fries, or press a button to make that stupid dinging stop?” The employees, meanwhile, have long since stopped paying attention to the beeping, their brains having assigned it to the pile of unnecessary stimuli that is safe to ignore.

In a clinical setting, the same problems have much worse consequences than burnt fries and annoyed customers. In emergency rooms, operating rooms, ICUs, and patient’s hospital rooms, there is a constant cacophony of alarms designed to catch the attention of healthcare professionals.

The Secret Service also had an alarm system when intruder Omar Gonzalez jumped the White House fence and made it into the East Room. It played little part in the proceedings because it was muted at the request of an usher. “An alarm box near the front entrance of the White House designed to alert guards to an intruder had been muted at what officers believed was a request of the usher’s office, said a Secret Service official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.”  It had probably given off a false positive in the past. They did exactly what many people did when faced with an inconvenient alarm.  They turned it off.

The Secret Service ‘failed’ president Obama just as the intelligence agencies ‘failed’ to warn him about ISIS.  The data explosion has the downside of flooding us with alarms. On any given day a thousand indicators cross a certain threshold.  Then they cry “wolf” but not all of them are true, urgent cries for help.  Still one of them — Murphy guarantees it — eventually may well be.



September 29th, 2014 - 7:20 pm

Peter Harcher writing in the Sydney Morning Herald  characterizes the protests  rocking Hong Kong as “apparently out of nowhere, China’s communist party confronts the most serious test to its authority since it massacred student protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.”

An upsurge of mass democratic protest in Hong Kong presents Beijing with a choice that will illuminate starkly the very heart of modern China. And Geremie Barme, the director of the Australian Centre on China in the World at ANU, doesn’t think it’s going to illuminate anything very cheering: “Something unpleasant is going to happen,” he says. “Anything like this does touch on the big issues of freedom in China itself; it’s very serious indeed.”

One telling sign of deep anxiety in Beijing is that it has imposed strict censorship within the mainland on news of the protests in Hong Kong.”

But Urs Schotti, the the Far East correspondent of Swiss daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung, says Hong Kong protests are only the latest chapter in the long running Chinese soap opera titled: Who’s in Charge of China? Socialism, he astutely observes, is simply a new name for feudalism which is inevitably riven by a crisis of succession to the throne and a rivalry among the great vassals.

In Communist feudalism, as with all other kinds, powerful barons routinely arise to challenge the center.  There is always a threat to the ruling Chinese Communist dynasty from somewhere in that vast country.

First of all, the fundamental task of the party leadership, which on its highest level consists of the seven-member standing committee of the politburo of the CPC, is to ensure the survival of the current Chinese “dynasty”, the dynasty of the Communist Party of China that was established on October 1, 1949.

Ever since the death of chairman Mao Zedong in 1976, China has embarked on a course of collective leadership. … At present, the country and the CPC are run by members of the fifth leadership generation with president Xi Jinping and prime minister Li Keqiang being most prominent … if everything goes well, they will get another five years in office.

It is no secret that in the run-up to the change of leadership, there was a power struggle with the charismatic and overly ambitious Bo Xilai, then party chief in the important city of Chongqing, losing out.

Recently the danger came from Chongquing. No sooner had the dynast Xi Jinping met the challenge from the Baron of Chongquing than he had to take on the dukes of the Chinese oil empire. Bo Xilai was a princeling who tried to turn a huge Chinese city into an independent power base by purging his rivals.  No sooner had he succeeded than Bo became the target of a purge from the Party Center when they realized he was becoming too big for his britches.

It is ironic that President Xi Jinping has deployed the Maoist model of ‘rectification’ to revitalise and impose his will over the world’s largest and most powerful political party. This is the model of ‘self-purification’ that Mao applied to instil discipline and consolidate personal power from the early 1940s. It requires tight control of an internal security apparatus, to forcefully extract confessions, and it works by rooting out the patronage networks of perceived rivals. More recently Bo used such stratagems to transform the Communist Party in Chongqing city and build a formidable power base, in ways that are not widely understood. Now Xi is applying the same underlying political logic to establish his own authority across the country, with some important innovations. And he is doing it by purging Bo.

The Politburo Standing Committee then had to take on Zhou Yongkang, who was both China’s internal security chief and the leader of its oil empire. He was even more formidable customer than Bo Xilai. Such men controlled billions of dollars in slush funds, commanded  tens of thousand of armed retainers and had proteges in all parts of the bureaucracy. So Zhou and his henchmen had to go down under charges of corruption.  Otherwise the Dynasty would not survive.


Strike Two

September 28th, 2014 - 2:12 pm

The president blamed US intelligence for misjudging the rise of ISIS in the Middle East. The Boston Globe writes, “President Barack Obama acknowledged that US intelligence agencies underestimated the threat from Islamic State militants and overestimated the ability and will of Iraq’s army to fight.”

The Obama administration has cited its intelligence weaknesses before.

At an August news conference, he said ‘‘there is no doubt’’ that the Islamic State group’s advance ‘‘has been more rapid than the intelligence estimates’’ suggested it would be.

US intelligence agencies, he said, did not have “a full appreciation of the degree to which the Iraqi security forces, when they’re far away from Baghdad, did not have the incentive or the capacity to hold ground against an aggressive adversary.”

But they are always somebody elses’ intelligence failures, never the president’s. The they-a culpa and headlines over US airstrikes in Syria overshadowed another possible failure of intelligence: Yemen.  The administration had touted Yemen as the template for how to fight a terrorism.  In late July Katherine Zimmerman in the Washington Post warned that the administration’s model wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

President Obama says the United States is looking to its Yemen policy as a model for what to do in Iraq and Syria. But what the president labels the “Yemen model” has not been as successful as the White House claims; indeed, it is in danger of collapse. Attempting to replicate it in much more challenging conditions in Iraq and Syria will almost certainly fail.

That warning proved prescient. Last week, Yemen’s capital was largely taken over by Shi’ite rebels. Saudi Arabia, widely viewed as the power behind the throne, decamped.  So did the most of the United States diplomatic mission. Those glaring facts did not diminish the administration’s faith in its own judgment.   Two days ago, Josh Earnest argued the fact that the US was evacuating the embassy didn’t mean the administration strategy wasn’t working.


The Unseen

September 26th, 2014 - 8:06 pm

CBC Canada‘s spoof article describes art at its most refined. “Just because you can’t see anything, doesn’t mean I didn’t put hours of work into creating a particular piece”.  It tells a fictional story.

27-year-old artist Lana Newstrom says she is the first artist in the world to create invisible “art.” In this documentary we traveled to her empty studio to learn more about Lana and her unusual artistic process. …

Paul Rooney, Lana’s agent, believes she might be the greatest artist alive working today: “When she describes what you can’t see, you begin to realize why one of her invisible works can fetch upwards of a million dollars.” said Rooney.

Which even supposing it were true might mean she’s the first artist to produce invisible work, but Lana Newstrom is by no means the most famous. Fox News reports that James Franco, the actor, also “makes invisible art he sells for real money.”

Franco, a man of all trades, has been a student, professor, actor, soap actor (there’s a difference), and a musician.

But his nifty trick in the art world is finding a way to be an artist without actually executing a physical work.

His work is completely invisible.

Along with Brainard and Delia Carey, the art duo known as Praxis, Franco has helped the Museum Of Non-Visible Art, MONA open its doors.

But its pretty empty inside.

Described as “an extravaganza of imagination,” the different pieces of invisible art are on sale from $20 to $10,000. Buyers receive a plaque in the mail describing the art, but no physical work itself.

If I were only in vicinity, I would buy up all his work with all the invisible cash in my pocket.  That makes it all the more real. Because if you can see, touch or feel something, it is surely not worth it.  But if you are told something is worth millions, then it must be. Told is the gold standard of truth. For as that famous aviator-author noted, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Invisible art is like climate change. It is what They say it is. Scientists are warning that Global Warming will cause colder winters.


The End of Eric Holder

September 25th, 2014 - 9:27 am

Eric Holder has suddenly announced his retirement, declaring it was time to rebuild trust between police and minorities. USA Today writes: “Holder has expressed no specific plans for retirement. But after visiting Ferguson, Missouri last month, he told friends and colleagues he wants to help rebuild trust between police and minority communities.” The attorney general said he would stay on until his successor was confirmed.

The word “Ferguson” came up in another context recently. President Obama, speaking at the UN to seek support to fight ISIS in the world, compared that evil to Ferguson as well:

I realize that America’s critics will be quick to point out that at times we too have failed to live up to our ideals; that America has plenty of problems within our own borders. This is true. In a summer marked by instability in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, I know the world also took notice of the small American city of Ferguson, Missouri — where a young man was killed, and a community was divided. So yes, we have our own racial and ethnic tensions. And like every country, we continually wrestle with how to reconcile the vast changes wrought by globalization and greater diversity with the traditions that we hold dear.

Ferguson is more than a small town; it is now a political bomb shelter. Both Holder and Obama are running for cover in the only place they know to hide, for a storm is now fairly upon them. The new Iraqi prime minister announced the existence of an ISIS plot to attack subways in New York and Paris. Foreign Policy writes that “a bad moon is rising.” David Rothkopf says that behind the president’s confident words at the UN, the panic and disarray was palpable.  Obama is trying to minimize a crisis that if anything is going to grow:

But offstage, the discussions about all these issues had a dramatically different tone. It was doubtful and largely pessimistic.

When Obama spoke of dismantling IS’s “network of death,” regional diplomats worried anew that he was overly focused on one terrorist group when they saw the problem as rapidly spreading violent extremism, a threat not just in Iraq and Syria but stretching from Mali to Nigeria to the Horn of Africa, from Libya to Egypt to Gaza to Syria and Iraq, from the Gulf to Afghanistan, Pakistan to China. They worried the U.S. president who was touting his own progress combatting al Qaeda had failed to realize that in overly focusing on one group he opened the door to a spread and proliferation of terror threats that made extremism far more prevalent and dangerous today than at any time in history. Obama spoke of tackling extremism but described it as a generational threat that the people of the region or “the civilized peoples of this world” must combat over time. To one listener from a country burdened by refugees from the war in Syria, this was “a sign that he thought this was too big a problem to deal with, that he was pushing it off into the future.” Another Arab diplomat said to me, “The president is trying to win by defining the problem as narrowly as possible. It makes it more manageable.”

But ISIS is just the tip of iceberg. Obama is facing comprehensive catastrophe in the Middle East. Obama’s Arab backers, writes the Daily Beast, may draw him deeper into the flames, and in particular into the divisions between the rulers and their restive subjects:

The backing from Gulf countries for the military intervention against militants of the so-called Islamic State in northern Syria, far from helping the United States in the battle for hearts and minds, may actually be hurting Washington in the region. And the reasons for that suggest just how densely complicated the Mideast quagmire has become.

While the participation of the super-rich Gulf monarchies in a coalition against the group widely known as ISIS or ISIL may help with some moderate Muslims, and may reassure European leaders, among those Islamists inside and outside Syria who are at the core of the opposition to President Bashar al Assad this development is viewed with deep suspicion.

Even Democrats, writes Neil Macdonald of CBC News, don’t know where Obama is going with this. Tom Friedman, who is a bellweather of the inner weathers if nothing else, basically says that Obama can’t win against ISIS. Not, that is, without repudiating himself root and branch. And not without getting smack dab in the midst of the Islamic civil war:

The tension arises because ISIS is a killing machine, and it will take another killing machine to search it out and destroy it on the ground. There is no way the “moderate” Syrians we’re training can alone fight ISIS and the Syrian regime at the same time. Iraqis, Turkey and the nearby Arab states will have to also field troops.

After all, this is a civil war for the future of both Sunni Islam and the Arab world. We can degrade ISIS from the air — I’m glad we have hit these ISIS psychopaths in Syria — but only Arabs and Turks can destroy ISIS on the ground. Right now, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, stands for authoritarianism, press intimidation, crony capitalism and quiet support for Islamists, including ISIS. He won’t even let us use our base in Turkey to degrade ISIS from the air. What’s in his soul? What’s in the soul of the Arab regimes who are ready to join us in bombing ISIS in Syria, but rule out ground troops?

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Poor In a Cave of Wonders

September 24th, 2014 - 4:07 pm

The Center for American Progress notes without embarassment that in an age where stuff made by the greedy people has gotten cheap, the services provided by the well-intentioned are driving everyone to the poorhouse. The AP writes: “A study by the Center for American Progress shows just … for a typical married couple with two children, the combined cost of child care, housing, health care and savings for college and retirement jumped 32 percent from 2000 to 2012 — and that’s after adjusting for inflation.”

What’s interesting is that prices have been diverging over time.  Many things have gotten cheaper with the years while some have gotten ruinously expensive.

The figures help explain why many Americans feel stressed even as the economy has strengthened — and why some feel bewildered to hear that overall inflation in the United States is, if anything, too low.

From TVs, computers and cellphones to clothing and cars, many goods have dropped in price in the past decade. Those declining prices have helped keep overall inflation historically low — even lower than the 2 percent the Federal Reserve thinks is ideal.

Yet when you consider that average health care and college costs rocketed more than 80 percent from 2000 to 2012, it’s easier to understand why many families feel they are struggling.

Computed inflation has been depressed  by measuring the items that have cheapened, even though the total cost burden is disproportionately increased because of services that can only be described as overpriced.  A professor divided the universe of living costs into the necessities and the luxuries and claims the luxuries have gotten cheap. “An overseas colleague characterized the situation well: America is a place where the luxuries are cheap and the necessities are expensive,” said Joseph Cohen, a sociology professor at Queens College in New York.” But that’s not quite true.  Nearly every physical object we buy today is so much more value for money than its counterpart 10 years ago.  It’s the services that have gone up in price.  The other way to divide the cost universe is between the competitive and the rigged.

Take health care for example. A hospital may be a place of healing but its accounting department is often a den of iniquity. Recently the newspapers ran with the story of $117,000 unforseen hospital bill.


The Rise of SPECTRE

September 23rd, 2014 - 10:03 pm

In the year 1942, on the tropical island of Guadalcanal, two Marines independently created the most enduring superhero image of their generation.  John Basilone and Mitchell Paige both won the Medal of Honor in the same spectacular fashion, by firing water-cooled Browning machine guns from the hip, mowing down their enemies by the dozen.  Other men, like attack pilots and certainly submarine captains, might have dispatched more of the enemy, but none in so cinematic as manner of these two men, who wreathed in steam and gunsmoke, stood like Achilles astride the battlefield, possessed by an almost supernatural force so that friend and foe alike might recall that Mars himself stood by their side feeding the murderous belt of cartridges into the ravening gun. Mitchell Paige later became the model of GI Joe for Hasbro toys.

The public probably needed superheroes because the real Cold War world was so frightening.   But with Captain America, Batman and others on duty, we never despaired. Our worst imaginings were held at bay by our imaginary defenders. Nobody needed to fear Cobra while GI Joe was on guard.  Even awesome Hydra, with their fearsome green costumes emblazoned with a serpent emblems, could be safely left to Nick Fury and SHIELD.

But somewhere along the line the superheroes were retired.  The imaginary as well as the real heroes of America were replaced by new, gentler advocates like Captain Planet or all-Islamic 99.  The old school defenders of the imagination faded away. Uncle Sam became a suspected bigot. The Green Lantern came out as gay. Superman renounced his American citizenship.  Mr. District Attorney was played by Martha Coakley. The G-men shrank to ordinary FBI agents. Even the Secret Service became old and arthritic, too lost in booze and party girls to stop space aliens, North Korean terrorists or even middle aged fence jumpers from barging into the White House.

The supervillain franchises by contrast, have flourished.  The bad guys are churning them out faster than the public can keep count. Just today the newspapers announced the existence of more terrorist groups than heretofore imagined. The government, eager not to alarm the public, has kept the emergence of the most dreaded groups secret until now, when all can be revealed in the aftermath of the air strikes on Syria.  No, it’s not true that terror groups have been decimated.  A whole alphabet soup has spilled out of the can.

Those include the al-Nusra Front, which has ties to al-Qaeda and has made clear its intent to launch attacks outside of the Syrian battleground. Speaking at the same conference, James Clapper, director of US National Intelligence, said the Khorasan Group, part of al-Nusra, represents a threat on par with Islamic State. The Khorasan Group is also part of the core al-Qaeda that operates along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.

Not only are Osama’s acolytes not decimated, they’ve been reduced to bush league (pardon the pun) in comparison to new supervillain franchises that are springing up like mushrooms. ISIS is clearly more powerful than fuddy-duddy old al-Qaeda and “Khorasan” is on par with ISIS. Not only that, these groups wear evil costumes, just like in the comics.


US Bombs Syria — Can We Say That?

September 22nd, 2014 - 7:05 pm

Is it “kinetic military action”? Is it an “extended counterterrorism operation”? Is it war? Nah.  Never war.

The United States launched its first wave of bombing attacks over Syria early Tuesday against an expected 20 to 25 Islamic State targets, U.S. officials said.

The operation, expected to last several hours, involved planes launched from U.S.destroyers in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea. Planes from five Arab countries also participated in the strikes.

The first explosions from Tomahawk missiles were heard in northern Syria. Targets were expected to include command and control centers, training camps and weapons depots.

“War” would mean that America was actually out to win against ISIS/ISIL/ISI?. So far only ISIS has announced the intention of beating America.  America just wants to manage ISIS/ISIL/ISI?. A bombing doesn’t make a war any more than Pearl Harbor did. And like Bluto said, ‘was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?’ No way.  It ain’t over. It ain’t even war. The only ‘war’ the world today is the War Against Ebola and the world is losing that.

Still the question is, what next in Syria? Readers will notice that Yemen, after whom the campaign on ISIS is allegedly based, is on the verge of falling to a Shi’ite Militia.  The Saudis have dee-deed. Fortunately America can’t “lose” that, since legally there’s nothing happening there.


The Attractions of Paradise

September 22nd, 2014 - 5:40 pm

Back in the 1930s intellectuals sometimes advised each other: don’t give to beggars, you’ll delay the revolution.  Socialism has been described as a method of loving humanity so that you can be indifferent to your actual neighbor.  The idea has been around a long time. The 1960s musical Hair caught the notion in these lyrics:

How can people have no feelings?
How can they ignore their friends?
Easy to be proud, easy to say no

And especially people who care about strangers
Who care about evil and social injustice
Do you only care about the bleeding crowd?
How about a needing friend?

The bleeding crowd is easy to love from afar.  The problem with a friend is you have to let him come close enough to see his warts. The reason we want the state to fix things is so we don’t have to deal with things like warts.

One of the most interesting aspects of the now-famous confrontation between Robert F Kennedy Jr and PJTV’s Michelle Fields is his argument that you can be a conservationist without being one.  RFK Jr said we should lobby for government to economize on energy so we as individuals don’t have to.  Asked whether he would give up his car and gadgets, Kennedy retorted to Fields: “one of the biggest canards that the press if falling for is blaming individuals for their own choices. That’s not the issue, the issue is what’s happening on Capitol Hill and that’s the thing you guys aren’t paying attention to.”

He went on to say that the reason government should restrict energy usage was so that people didn’t have to change their lifestyles.  Once the government saved energy there would be plenty for all. That was the real nub of the problem. All that the giving up of yachts, limousines and private jets by the Kennedys and DiCaprios will accomplish is delay the Revolution., which beggars like Michelle Fields fail to see.



September 22nd, 2014 - 3:06 pm

Recent events in Yemen have underscored the problem of the failure of the substitute.  For those who’ve not been following events in Yemen, Shi’ite rebels, who some say are backed by Iran, have been attacking government buildings in the capital and shutdown the international airport.

“This is a coup attempt,” President Abbed Rabbo Mansour Hadi said.

The fighting on Sept. 19 marked an escalation of the Shi’ite revolt in Yemen. After several days of massive protests, the Shi’ites, also known as Ansar Allah and led by Abdul Malik Al Houthi, have turned to open attacks on the government.

ABC News reports, “In a stunning sweep of the Yemeni capital, the country’s Shiite rebels seized homes, offices and military bases of their Sunni foes on Monday, forcing many into hiding and triggering an exodus of civilians from the city after a week of fighting that left 340 people dead.”  Yemen is one of the administration’s partners in its whatever-you-call-it against terror.

It was the latest development in the Hawthi blitz, which has plunged volatile Yemen into more turmoil, pitting the Shiite rebels against the Sunni-dominated military and their Islamist tribal allies.

The heavily armed Hawthi fighters on Monday seized tanks and armored vehicles from military headquarters they had overrun, and raided the home of long-time archenemy Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the commander of the army’s elite 1st Armored Division and a veteran of a series of wars against the Shiite rebels, as well as residences of top Sunni Islamist militiamen or the fundamentalist Islah party.

Recent events in Yemen are significant because the administration’s partnership with its government and with the Saudis is a template for its plan to fight ISIS.  They have also partnered with the the Yemenis to fight al-Qaeda. And the model’s performance is not reassuring. In Yemen, the Saudis have evacuated their diplomats.

Sana’a: Saudi Arabia evacuated most of its diplomats from Yemen as tension mounted between Al Houthi rebels and the government in the capital, a source who deals with the Saudi embassy told Gulf News.

“The Saudi diplomats snuck into Sana’a airport on Sunday hours before police attempted to break up a sit-in by Al Houthis on the airport road”.