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Monthly Archives: July 2012

Context Lenses

July 31st, 2012 - 4:20 pm

Some people live in a special world. When Richard Nixon won a landslide victory in November 1972, some people hardly knew anyone who voted for him. Pauline Kael, the film critic, was quoted by the New York Times as saying “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.”

A political consultant once told me that a lot of Americans spent less than ten minutes every two years figuring out who to vote for. Insofar as certain individuals are concerned, it turns out that he’s right.

Lowell Turpin, as per SF Gate

Lowell Turpin was arrested last week after he glanced at his girlfriend’s Facebook page and saw a picture of another man — a clean-cut, white dude that he knew for sure wasn’t him. Instead of calmly asking her about the mysterious man, the 40-year-old allegedly grabbed her laptop, smashed it against a wall, and hit her in the face, according to news reports.

Turns out that romeo in the photo was Romney, you know the guy who is running for president.

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Good news, bad news

July 31st, 2012 - 12:36 pm

The good news out of Afghanistan is the agreement to reopen the logistic routes through Pakistan. The bad news is that the Taliban are going to make millions charging for it.

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – As the United States trumpeted its success in persuading Pakistan to end its seven-month blockade of supplies for NATO troops in Afghanistan, another group privately cheered its good fortune: the Taliban.

One of the Afghan war’s great ironies is that both NATO and the Taliban rely on the convoys to fuel their operations — a recipe for seemingly endless conflict.

The insurgents have earned millions of dollars from Afghan security firms that illegally paid them not to attack trucks making the perilous journey from Pakistan to coalition bases throughout Afghanistan — a practice the U.S. has tried to crack down on but admits likely still occurs.

Meanwhile, in Syria, the good news is that the Assad regime continues to collapse. The bad news is that in the process, some of its chemical weapons may have already fallen into the hands of the Free Syrian Army. Karen Kaya at Long War Journal has a report and video showing the FSA in possession of at least some chemical detection and protection equipment.

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The Call of Cthulhu

July 30th, 2012 - 12:18 pm

Getting involved in the Middle East is like having the girlfriend from hell. Just as you were headed out the door, she threatens to commit suicide. The decision by Damascus to use heavy weapons like artillery, armor, and aircraft against the Syrian rebels not only underscores the superiority of the Assad regime in this category of combat, it also illustrates why it is so hard to leave the region to its own dysfunctional pathologies. Assad’s forces are advancing, albeit fitfully, on Aleppo, causing a further increase in the spate of refugees. At least 200,000 are on the move.

But more armaments are on the way to the rebels, and so the show will go on. NBC News reports on rumors that the Saudis have set up a military assistance command in Turkey. The Gulf sources had also said the Adana center, which is near the Syrian border and a U.S. Air Force base at Incirlik, was set up at the suggestion of Saudi Deputy Foreign Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah during a trip to Turkey.

It’s going to get worse, not better.

Other parties are arming up factions in the region. The Iraqi authorities report that someone is selling heavy weapons to the Kurds, but declined to say who:

A high-ranking Iraqi official said on July 29 that security agencies have uncovered a secret weapons deal between the autonomous Kurdistan region and an unnamed foreign country.

“The weapons include anti-armor and anti-aircraft missiles, and a large number of heavy weapons,” the official said, without specifying the exact weapons systems.

The official said Iraqi authorities have obtained “all the documents” pertaining to the deal, which is for “weapons of a Russian type made in 2004,” and are trying to block it.

For its part, Baghdad has ordered 36 F-16 warplanes from the United States and has already fielded M1 Abrams tanks.

Barzani expressed concern over the F-16s earlier this year, saying he was opposed to the sale of these warplanes while Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was in office, fearing they would be used against Kurdistan.

Who could that someone be? Whoever it is, they’ve got a side to back. The Syrian civil war, like the Spanish one in the 20th century, has become a proxy battleground for foreign powers. On one side of the conflict are Iran, Russia, and Syria. Against them are the KSA, Qatar, and Turkey. What about the United States, one might ask, what about the hegemon? Well, what about them?

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Looking Back at the Future

July 29th, 2012 - 12:25 pm

The imagery is right out of the Time Machine: a landscape dotted with the reminders of a once great era.  Washington Post describes how “the Obama administration is supporting bipartisan legislation in Congress that would designate sites in Oak Ridge; Hanford, Wash.; and Los Alamos, N.M., as national parks.”  These labs, which once represented the future are now reminders of the past. Their fate represents the effect of the loss of its original mission. Their current funding structure represents the jobs they’ve had to take in to keep their people emploed.

Today, thousands of scientists work in those labs on unrelated research, developing pioneering technologies used for Mars exploration, chemotherapy, whole-body X-ray scanning at airports, high-speed computers and biotechnology.

Much of the old government energy lab empire is lost. Plans to turn them into park-like museums are just confirmations of that fact. “It’s really cool. It’s very nostalgic,” a visitor said. That’s about all you can say.

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Making the Connection

July 27th, 2012 - 11:22 am

What do all three of these have in common?

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What Lies Behind

July 26th, 2012 - 11:58 am

The protagonist in many of Eric Ambler’s books is often a person who accidentally wanders outside the confines of ordinary life and discovers a world of horrors under the surface of the normal. The real world, Ambler never tires of reminding his readers, is one of hidden violence, power plays and intrigue inhabited by cynical and powerful men. At some point in the book these villains inevitably taunt the naive hero for clinging to sentimental beliefs like law, liberty or God. ‘Those things’, the cynic tells the protagonist while watching him beaten by his henchmen before a table at which he eats his gourmet breakfast, ‘do not exist’. All that exists is power. To make this reality palatable to the public it is sugar-coated with illusion.

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Looking For James Bond

July 25th, 2012 - 11:22 am

Could you spot  a secret agent? In the movies you can always tell by the kind of tuxedos they wear, the fancy cars they drive and the impossibly expensive wristwatches they sport. Maybe that’s because the iconic Secret Agent was patterned after an entertainer. Ian Fleming modeled James Bond after Hoagy Carmichael. “Rather like Hoagy Carmichael in a way. That black hair falling down over the right eyebrow. Much the same bones. But there was something a bit cruel in the mouth, and the eyes were cold.”

But in reality surely secret agents are much more low key. However,  administration officials have of late been lamenting the absence of the intelligence operatives inside Syria. Ken Dilanian of Los Angeles Times reports that “despite a dire need for intelligence about the groups fighting to overthrow the Syrian government, the CIA has little if any presence in the country, seriously limiting its ability to collect information and influence the course of events, according to current and former U.S. officials.” The reason, according to Dilanian’s sources, was the decision to close the US embassy. “Closing the embassy left the agency without a secure base from which to operate, and CIA personnel left the country, the officials said.”

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Unfriend

July 24th, 2012 - 1:25 pm

The Oxford dictionary “word of the year for 2009″ was unfriend, meaning “to remove someone as a ‘friend’ on a social networking site such as Facebook.” The ability to unfriend someone, for no reason at all, is probably one of the last preserves of individualism left in the world. How long it can continue to last in a society where it has become impolite and sometimes illegal to exclude someone for anything other than a specific legal cause is an open question.

The LA Times, for example, has a long article on whether it wasn’t discriminatory to mention that James Holmes, the Aurora, Colorado shooter is white. “Is this racist? Racially insensitive? Or unobjectionably informative?” it asks.  The amount of editorial effort devoted to avoiding the offense of describing a person is enormous. That puts us in a better position to answer Washington Post’s John Kelly rhetorical question that ‘if Holmes was so odd, how did he get guns legally?’

The same way he got his $26,000 National Science Foundation grant, free tuition and admission into the Colorado University medical school. He applied for it and nobody had a reason to say no. “No program that I’m familiar with in the United States requires a psychiatric evaluation for their students,” a Colorado University official said. ”To the best of our knowledge at this point, we did everything that we should have done,” Chancellor Don Elliman told reporters.

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The New Middle East

July 23rd, 2012 - 12:00 pm

Washington has finally convinced itself that the Syrian regime is doomed and that its plan to shape the post-Assad outcome through the UN is, and perhaps always was, a fantasy. However, the administration is still trying to limit its involvement to diplomacy, including efforts to close airspace to reinforcements bound for Damascus and working with a wide spectrum of Syrians through NGOs.

For his own part, Assad is fighting for time to create an Allawite rump state on the Mediterranean coast; a bastion to which he, the Russians and the Iranians can cling and from which he can continue to support Hezbollah. That brood is now in disarray, like a colony of ants with a dead queen. Reports from Lebanon suggest that the Shi’ites who supported Hezbollah despite loathing its politics now fear they will be left adrift in a Middle East once again riven with sectarian conflict.

The New York Times describes the administration’s rude awakening. “The Obama administration has for now abandoned efforts for a diplomatic settlement to the conflict in Syria, and instead it is increasing aid to the rebels and redoubling efforts to rally a coalition of like-minded countries to forcibly bring down the government of President Bashar al-Assad, American officials say.”

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No Hell Below Us, Above Us Only Sky

July 22nd, 2012 - 11:49 am

Art imitates life. But does life imitate art? The superficial similarities between real-life neuroscience Ph.D. student James Holmes, the shooter at the Aurora, Colorado massacre, and the villain of Stephen Hunter’s not-too-well-written thriller Soft Target are uncanny. The fictional mastermind in Hunter’s book is a genius-level, upper-middle class white kid who is bored with the world. He recruits some jihadis to attack a mall (loosely modeled after the Mall of America) in a Mumbai-style attack to provide him with a little stimulation. He wants to turn the mall into the ultimate first-person multiplayer shoot-em-up game and commits the act not for money, not even for power, but just to do something way cool.

Any good novelist captures his life and times, so it is no surprise that Hunter, a competent writer who sometimes rises to brilliance in the action genre, should also capture the political spirit of the age. When news of the attack spreadw in his story, Hunter describes the reactions of “the superintendent of state police … Colonel Douglas Obobo … the son of a Kenyan father and American mother … educated at Harvard Law.” Obobo immediately knows who the perp is, who it has got to be:

Some crazed white militia, some NRA offshoot, some screwball Tea Party gone berserk. In his mind, one never could tell about the right in this country, particularly deep in the glowering Midwest, where men clung to guns and religion, cursed bitterly as America changed, and still believed, fundamentally, in the old ways.

Unfortunately Obobo is wrong; and because the mall is a “gun-free zone,” the evil boy genius’ not very bright killers drive the crowds before them like sheep before wolves — until someone who didn’t get the word decides to fight back and kills the perps.

Hunter’s evil boy genius never sees himself as evil at all. The concept is totally foreign to him. He lives in a universe in which the concept of evil has no meaning. And when the hero eventually guns him down, the genius mastermind’s only regret is that in the game of real life there isn’t a restart button to do it all again. He dies without regrets, without remorse.

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