Monday, February 16, 2009

Four years on...

Over four ago Rafik Hariri assassinated (Feb 14th, 2005) "By early afternoon on February 14, 2005, the elegant facades of the hotels, fish restaurants and smart artisan shops along West Beirut’s seafront had been blasted beyond recognition. Pictures from the time show the bomb site like an asteroid crater, and surrounding buildings looked more like giant piles of charred matchsticks than the chic spots they had been hours before."

Remembering the Hariri blast

Sunday, February 15, 2009


Minimal posting for the next few days (through February 28th). However, Tosk's daily tweets will continue to be posted...

Random thoughts...

1. In the February 11th entry, 'Rhetorical questions...', this blogger wondered re the multiple calls to make the shareholders of institutions that get government aid in this downturn "take a haircut." Per Paul Krugman we apparently have the following choice: rescue the banks either by "(a) giving a HUGE handout to current stockholders or (b) effectively taking ownership on the part of we, the people."

One problem with this and much other discussion on this topic is the unstated but implied notions that these are completely two separate groups, and that the shareholders who own bank shares are responsible for the current state of affairs and don't deserve 'bailing out.' Unfortunately, all (millions if not tens of millions, via ownership of mutual funds, 'direct' and via pension funds) of these shareholders are tax-payers and most are not the "fat cats' that excite popular outrage... Politicians can posture re saving taxpayers at the expense of shareholders with relative impunity, because most people think of themselves as 'taxpayers' rather than as 'shareholders,' even though they are both.

OK, so consider taxpayer Suzy Q. Public. Every day she hears from the politicians the false dichotomy - the government needs to pour billions into these institutions to make them whole, and to protect SQP the shareholders need to "take a haircut" (because otherwise they would be given a huge handout). Well, post haircut the value of SQP's wealth and retirement funds are reduced, and even if the banks eventually pay back the entirety of the loans they received plus interest, SQP is unlikely to see one penny of this money. On the other hand, without the haircut the value of SQP's retirement increases as the financial institutions recover... (Note: we are assuming for both scenarios that the government bailout succeeds in turning the economy around) Why does it have to be an either/or (shareholders win vs. taxpayers win) rather than sum-sum?

2. Israel mulls releasing uprising leader to Abbas - So Israel would prefer to negotiate with a man they sentenced to 5 life terms for murder than with any Hamas leaders in Gaza? Other than Fatah and the Palestinian Authority being more compliant than Hamas, what else could account for this?

3. 'Axelrod: Effects of stimulus will be seen soon'- Having passed the "stimulus" package the discussion moves on to how effective it will be, something this blogger regards as a somewhat sterile argument. How will anyone know if the stimulus "works?" Proponents will claim success no matter who happens. Things turn around in the next 12-24 months... thank goodness for the perspicacity of those who proposed and passed the stimulus! The economy continues to be in recession and unemployment continues to rise... thank goodness for the perspicacity of those who proposed and passed the stimulus, because without it things would have been worse! A "no-lose" set of circumstances (note: the Obama team was smart enough to say they would save or create 4 million jobs... one can always claim jobs were 'saved', no matter what happens!) The opposite for opponents.

4. NYPD learns lessons from Mumbai terrorist attack that killed 174 -The NYPD is conducting drills based on lessons learned from the recent terrorist attacks on Mumbai. Good move. The article goes on to say that the new training was ordered "... because in the Mumbai incident, casualties mounted as local police were outgunned and unable to engage the terrorists..." Hah, no lessons to learn here. Of course the Mumbai police were outgunned! Most ordinary Mumbai police are "armed" (if you can call it that!) only with lathis, 6 to 8 foot iron-tipped canes (generally bamboo). And their main use of these is in lathi charges on unarmed civilians.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Random chart...

From Pew Research's 'Darwin Debated: Religion vs. Evolution.' Quote: "Almost 150 years after Charles Darwin published his groundbreaking work On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Americans are still fighting over evolution. If anything, the controversy has recently grown in both size and intensity. In the last five years alone, for example, debates over how evolution should be taught in public schools have been heard in school boards, town councils and legislatures in more than half the states." and "According to an August 2006 survey by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 63 percent of Americans believe that humans and other animals have either always existed in their present form or have evolved over time under the guidance of a supreme being. Only 26 percent say that life evolved solely through processes such as natural selection. A similar Pew Research Center poll, released in August 2005, found that 64 percent of Americans support teaching creationism alongside evolution in the classroom."

Darwin Debated: Religion vs. Evolution
The Social and Legal Dimensions of the Evolution Debate in the U.S.)
An excellent resource: The Debate over Evolution

Thursday, February 12, 2009


"Eluana is still looking good and in a condition to have babies. Her father is only interested in ridding himself of a burden".

- Italian president Silvio Berlusconi, opining (if you can call it that) on whether patient Eluana Englaro, 38, who has been in a coma ever since a car accident 17 years ago should be allowed to die or not.

Italian coma patient Eluana dies
Italy Debates the Right to Die

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Great quotes...

"In a few days time, a very dangerous virus will attack the body of the nation. What virus? Is it AIDS? No, something more dangerous. Something more dangerous than Ebola, which dissolves the human body, more dangerous than cholera, which killed half of Europe a few centuries ago... I have come tonight to warn all boys and girls about an extremely dangerous virus, which is about to attack the hearts of the nation’s youth, and to destroy our relations with God. We must confront this Valentine virus!"

- Egyptian "Cleric" Hazem Shuman, further warning that on Valentine's day "one red thing will become cheaper: the blood of Muslims. All this is the result of the sins committed by Muslim youth."

Random chart

Shows the relative energy intensiveness of various modes of transport, as gallons of fuel necessary to go 350 miles... For a clearer, better sized version please go to the source at Good magazine.

Rhetorical questions...

1. Amongst other indicators of the sad state of the economy the stock market keeps on losing value, thereby reducing the wealth of many, and putting a severe dent in the retirement nest eggs of almost everyone e.g. those with a 401(k), 403(b), etc., etc. This being the case, this blogger has to wonder re all the calls that folks are making to give the shareholders of companies that have received or may receive government assistance a "haircut." For the momentary, fleeting pleasure of 'sticking it' to a few bank CEOs with big stock holdings, they seem to be oblivious to the harm being done to the tens of thousands of taxpayers (on whose behalf this ostensibly is being done!) who have stock in these institutions (either directly, or though pension or mutual fund holdings, etc.) Is this a good idea? Does this make sense?

2. One of candidate Obama's promises designed to increase government transparency was that all legislation passed would be put on a web site for five days, so that people could review and comment prior to the President signing the legislation (with an exception carved out for "emergency" legislation). Now that President Obama is in office folks are moaning because this has not happened e.g. the Lilly Ledbetter Act was signed two days after passage and was not posted; the SCHIP bill also was not posted for the requisite five days...

OK, so this blogger doesn't quite understand the purpose here. Supposedly this will be done because "Too often bills are rushed through Congress and to the president before the public has the opportunity to review them. As president, Obama will not sign any nonemergency bill without giving the American public an opportunity to review and comment on the White House Web site for five days." Hmm, isn't the legislation already passed by Congress at this point? So the only choices are that the President signs the legislation if in agreement, or he vetoes it if in disagreement. (Note: yes, yes, this blogger knows that the President can fail to sign a bill and it will become law automatically ten working days after passage; or he can also do a "pocket veto").

Exactly what are the chances that President Obama will veto a bill he favors just because sentiment and comments run against it? Or that he will sign a bill that he is against, this time because comments and sentiment run in its favor? Answer: nil! If the President favors a bill he can quote approving comments, and when he disfavors a bill he can ignore the feedback. What exactly has anyone gained here other than an opportunity for some "feel-goodism?"

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Iraq election analysis, hah!

Foreign Policy prints an analysis of the Iraqi provincial elections by Philip Zelikow, The new strategic situation in Iraq. His main conclusions? 1. "Maliki did well, but not as well as the U.S. press makes it seem." 2. "The big winner was fragmentation." Etc., etc. Hardly a revelation since this was obvious enough that this blogger pretty much made these same observations last week...


Very small taste, go here for 101 Infrared Photos, tutorial link, and more...


In response to the question "Do you agree, or how do you respond to Paul Krugman in the New York Times who said that centrists have done their best to “make the plan weaker and worse?” Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE) replied "Well, first of all, they’re not cuts. Let’s just get that up front. These are adjustments downward from numbers that were offered by the House in their version and by the Senate in its version."

Better charts...

The February 8th Random chart entry showed one released by the Office of the Speaker of the House of Representatives that showed the number of jobs lost following the starts of the current and "recent" recessions. Two better charts are those available here and here. These improve upon the one earlier, by a) showing the job losses as a percent (i.e. taking into account that the workforce now is larger than it was several years ago), and b) providing additional comparison recessions (i.e. not cherrypicking "recent" recessions). Go to those sites to see the charts (the ones above have been shrunk to encourage you to go to the source to see them) and the accompanying discussion/analysis.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Random chart...

Issued by the office of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, this chart shows the number of job losses following the start of "recent" recessions. Some 3.6 million jobs have been lost since the beginning of the current recession in December 2007. Presumably the two comparisons provided were chosen to emphasize the extent of the current downturn, one wonders how this would look compared to other earlier recessions e.g. '80-'82 or '73-'75... The 1990 recession was fairly "shallow" and "hit bottom" in 13 months, while it took 31 months for the 2000 recession to hit bottom. We're at 13 months and counting, possibly a long way to go...

Friday, February 6, 2009

The high and mighty...

Photo credit: Spiegel Online

Of late the public has been regaled with visions of politicians chastising others they hold responsible for the current state of economic distress of our country. For example, SEC commissioners, bankers, Wall Street tycoons, etc. have all been loudly and publicly chastised for their short-sightedness, failures, and other errors of commission and/or omission... However, one never sees the 'ruling political classes' actually taking a look at themselves or engaging in any soul-searching re possible shortcomings of their own. Quite the opposite. In fact very often it is the politicians making the most noise that are those who have played the biggest role in this denouement.

The failure to take responsibility starts at the top. President Obama recently said, “I found this national debt, doubled, wrapped in a big bow waiting for me as I stepped into the Oval Office.” Hmm, didn't he have an opportunity to vote on every piece of tax raising and expenditure legislation the last four years while he was in the Senate? A similar lack of willingness to assume any responsibility appears to permeate the fiber of all our politicians.

From 'GOP Opposes Pay Limits On Bailed-Out Bankers.'

"One House Democratic aide quipped that bankers should be required to jump through some of the same hoops that welfare recipients are, beyond a simple salary cap. He suggested making bankers fulfill a strict work requirement and submit a time sheet, signed by a supervisor -- perhaps the Board of Directors -- in 15-minute intervals, proving that they worked 40 hours each week. Only certain activities would count, as is the case with TANF recipients.

"That three hour jet ride to get to the meeting in Chicago doesn't count. Reading the Wall Street Journal is also not a countable activity. If they fail to do this once, you cut them off of TARP funds. If they fudge the time sheet, you charge them with TARP fraud and make them pay back any government money they've received," the aide joked. "I'm sensing a legislative opportunity."

OK, the point that we have different rules for the poor and for the rich is absolutely on point and inexcusable. Of course, the weak point to this argument is that it wasn't the Wall Street types (or even just the Republicans) that brought about this state of affairs, it was the politicians of both parties. But, as per usual, the trick is to denounce these harsh rules as if they just came into being by themselves i.e. take no responsibility.

This blogger believes that it would be a good idea to extend this to the political class that runs this country, and who arguably bear as much, if not more, responsibility for the sad state of affairs as the reviled bankers... How about our representatives and senators also having to fulfill a strict work requirement, proving documentation of their workload. Only certain activities would count! Fund raising, limousine rides, self-congratulatory speeches, scratching another pol's back, engaging in quid pro quos, etc. would not be countable activities. If they engage in any of these or similarly proscribed activities they can be charged with fraud and made to pay back all government money they have received (i.e. their salaries). After all, what's good for the goose...

Iraq provincial elections - II

Some of the less superficial analysis of the results of the recent Iraqi provincial elections:

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Sri Lanka: Gov v. LTTE

Amazing interactive battle progress map from the Sri Lanka Ministry of Defense showing the government's offensive against the LTTE...

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A lire

Jakob Kellenberger «Combien de morts faudra-t-il encore à Gaza!»

Le président du CICR Jakob Kellenberger appelle à «lancer enfin un processus de paix sincère et honnête sur Gaza». Il ne veut plus se limiter au discours humanitaire qui évacue les vraies questions. Le recours aux armes lourdes dans une zone aussi dense que Gaza pose un sérieux problème, constate-t-il. Des propos qui tranchent avec la réserve habituelle du CICR.

Jakob Kellenberger, président du CICR, n’a pas vraiment le profil type du participant au World Economic Forum.
A Davos, la crise financière a clairement éclipsé les crises humanitaires. «Je viens ici d’abord pour rencontrer des représentants de gouvernements partenaires ou de pays où nous avons des opérations importantes.»

Il a donc enchaîné les rendez-vous avec le président colombien Uribe, le premier ministre du Pakistan Gilani, le ministre des Affaires étrangères suédois Carl Bildt, ou encore le vice-président de la commission de l’Union européenne pour ne citer qu’eux. Au menu de ses discussions, les otages et prisonniers, les migrations mais aussi la question de Gaza, sujet de débats explosifs au WEF.

«La question humanitaire ne doit pas servir à évacuer les vraies questions. Combien de morts faudra-t-il encore?» lance-t-il en insistant sur le contexte exceptionnel de la dernière intervention militaire à Gaza.

– Vous vous êtes rendu à Gaza pendant l’intervention israélienne et avez fait des déclarations fortes en parlant de catastrophe humanitaire extrême qui tranchent avec la modération habituelle du CICR. Israël a-t-il franchi un pas (seuil) dans cette intervention?
D’abord, j’ai effectivement été le seul responsable d’une organisation humanitaire à me rendre à Gaza pendant la guerre comme je l’ai fait en 2006 au Liban. C’est important de se faire une impression à chaud de la réalité du terrain. Cela renforce aussi ma crédibilité lorsque je m’entretiens ensuite avec les autorités à Tel-Aviv et à Ramallah. La situation humanitaire à Gaza était extrêmement grave. Dans les autres hôpitaux que j’ai visités en temps de guerre, je n’ai pas vu comme à Gaza des blessures qui provenaient quasiment uniquement d’armes lourdes. Les chiffres, c’est une chose vous savez, mais quand on voit tant de civils, tant de femmes et d’enfants mutilés, tant d’amputations et de blessures à la tête, cela fait très mal. Il y a eu un très gros problème de coût humain dans ce contexte-là.

– Constatez-vous une violation flagrante du Droit international humanitaire (DIH)?
Comme vous le savez nous ne faisons pas ce genre de déclarations. Nous avons entrepris des démarches pour le respect du DIH. Trois points ont été soulevés: l’évacuation des blessés qui devait être permanente et non réduite à trois heures quotidiennes, la distinction entre combattants et civils, enfin la proportionnalité de l’usage de la force. Même si vous avez la volonté de respecter ces deux dernières règles, c’est très difficile si vous utilisez des armes si lourdes dans une zone d’une telle densité de population. Pour prendre un point de comparaison, la densité de population à Gaza est trois fois plus dense que dans le quartier de Manhattan à New York. Dans ces circonstances, le modus operandi militaire choisi pose un sérieux problème.

– Et quelle est la situation aujourd’hui à Gaza?
Il y a des besoins humanitaires d’urgence et des besoins importants de réhabilitation d’infrastructures. Mais il faut s’attaquer sérieusement à la question de Gaza. Il faut commencer par lever l’embargo et cesser d’isoler Gaza du monde. Il faut que la population puisse travailler. J’ai un vrai souci: tout le monde se concentre sur l’action humanitaire aujourd’hui. Mais je ne suis plus prêt à limiter mon discours à l’humanitaire. Toutes ces discussions sur l’action humanitaire ne doivent pas servir, comme j’en ai peur, à évacuer les questions politiques difficiles. Avec tout ce que j’ai vu, je me demande combien de morts, de mutilés et d’invalides, dont tant de civils, il faudra encore avant qu’on ait compris qu’il n’y a pas d’alternative à un processus de paix honnête et sincère. Un processus qui doit inclure tous les Etats et groupes armés qui ont une influence dans cette situation.


"Residents of the Italian island of Lampedusa are rebelling against Rome. Thousands of refugees who have arrived there by boat could soon be interred on the small island -- to prevent them from disappearing into the European Union."

- Report from Spiegel Online, detailing the Italian government's idea to build a large detention facility on the island of Lampedusa to hold illegal immigrants prior to their deportation. The Lampedusans are upset and fear that this will kill their tourist industry...

One assumes that Spiegel Online meant to say "interned" and not "interred."

Interred: 1. To place (a dead body) in a grave or tomb; bury. 2. Obsolete. to put into the earth.
Interned: To confine, especially in wartime.

Stimulus update II...

The January 28th blog entry, Some recovery info, took a quick look at the House-proposed "American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009," which was then passed later that day... This week the Senate has taken up its version of the Act, S.336. OMBWatch tracks the action, and has a nice recap of the differences so far between the House and Senate versions. These mainly seem to be in the area of transparency, with the Senate calling for less disclosure.

Monday, February 2, 2009

King of kings

In August 2008 Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi held a meeting in Benghazi, where he invited over 200 African kings and traditional rulers. At that meeting they gave him the title of 'King of Kings.'

This week he showed up at the meeting of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, accompanied by royalty (including His Highness Iguru G. Solomon of the Bunyoro kingdom, Queen Best Kamugisha, Mother of the Toro kingdom and King Tossoh Gbaguidi of Benin). and clutching a four foot gold staff... and was promptly elected chairman of the African Union. This was hailed by his royal entourage: "On behalf of the traditional kings, on behalf of all the sultans, on behalf of all the princes, on behalf of all the customary rulers, I want to say thank you to the King of Kings who we have now crowned," declared King Tossoh Gbaguidi of Benin. Gaddafi pledge to create a "United States of Africa."

Gaddafi: Africa's 'king of kings'
Gaddafi stages another first as meeting opens in Addis
Gaddafi vows to push Africa unity
Africa: Libyan President Elected As New AU Chairman

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Random chart...

From McKinsey: "Our research indicates that the United States spends $650 billion more on health care than might be expected given the country’s wealth and the experience of comparable members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)."