Friday, August 30, 2013

A Flash in the Pan

Getting labeled a sex offender carries with it a burden of lifetime reporting of movement and residence as well as some pretty strict restrictions of where the offender can live… not near kids, that’s for sure. But for some youngsters, sexting a photo of their girlfriend, even if only a year or two younger than they are, can result in prosecution for having engaged in child pornography… and that carries that nasty sex offender label and all that goes with it… for life. Maybe an anomaly, maybe not exactly the kind of behavior that should, perhaps, carry such dire lifetime consequences, but it is what it is. And while in prison, folks labeled as having engaged in kiddie porn are marked inmates, likely to be targets of violence and even death from other inmates.
Well, lifetime-consequences fans, particularly those living in California, there is probably going to be a new sex crime added to the list. They call it “revenge porn.” Posting sexually explicit or nude photographs of a lover or spouse after the breakup… to get even. “Scorned lovers have long sought revenge on exes, but in the age of the Internet, smartphone cameras and YouTube, it's a whole new ballgame.

“On [August 27th], the California State Assembly debated Senate Bill 255, which would make revenge porn a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison and a $2,000 fine. The bill cleared the Senate by a 37-1 earlier this summer…  ‘Right now law enforcement has no tools to combat revenge porn or cyber-revenge,’ said Sen. Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres), who proposed the bill, in a statement. ‘Unfortunately it is a growing trend and there are a lot of victims out there, a lot more than I ever imagined. It's destroying people's lives.’

“The bill has drawn tension between privacy advocates who cite the victims, and free speech advocates like the ACLU, who argued that the content is Constitutionally protected… High-profile incidents such as the suicide of Audrie Pott have shined a spotlight on the issue in recent years. Pott was a California teen who was allegedly sexually assaulted while passed out a party after drinking. Nude photos of her were allegedly circulated throughout the school in the days leading up to her suicide.

“Current legislation prohibits filming or photographing a person fully or partially undressed in a private place without their consent. The new bill would include photos or videos taken with their consent when it is then distributed without permission with the intention of causing distress.” Huffington Post, August 27th.  But a sex crime? Probably not… A misdemeanor? Yup.

“This bill would provide that any person who photographs or records by any means the image of another, identifiable person with his or her consent who is in a state of full or partial undress in any area in which the person being photographed or recorded has a reasonable expectation of privacy, and subsequently distributes the image taken, and the other person suffers serious emotional distress would constitute disorderly conduct subject to that same punishment.” Legislative description.

Okay, maybe it won’t be prosecuted as a sex crime, but is there really a difference between the teen sexting his GF’s image and this statute? Shouldn’t the teen face the disorderly conduct prosecution instead, if there is a difference of less than __(??) years between the ages of the “model” and the “photographer/publisher”? What are your feelings about these “crimes”?

But then, you could finder harsher laws in a few other countries: “Unconfirmed reports claim the ex-girlfriend of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was executed by firing squad along with 11 others, after the group allegedlymade and sold a sex tape Hyon Song Wol, a singer in North Korea's famed Unhasu Orchestra, was killed by machine gun along with 11 other members of the orchestra and the Wangjaesan Light Music Band, another popular state-run music group in North Korea, according to a report in The Chosun Ilbo, South Korea's largest daily newspaper.” Huffington Post, August 30th. Hmmm, a bit harsh, eh?

I’m Peter Dekom, and new technology creates new crimes every time!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Event Attribution

You run a large insurance company with a massive property damage operation. You cover natural disasters in addition to the run-of-the-mill kinds of lesser issues from car wrecks to bursting pipes. You’ve noticed an uptick in mega-claims, worldwide, ranging from tsunami damage to a Japanese nuclear power station to massive storm surge devastation along the eastern seaboard.
Your job is to assess the risk your company is likely to face and set insurance rates that are both competitive yet sufficient to cover the new kinds of risk you are likely to face. You also need to analyze how much risk pooling and re-insurance you need to keep your company alive should the worst expectations actually take place.
Despite years of being told by members of your local community that there is no such thing as global climate change and that there may in fact be religious intervention to reverse current trends, your statistics have been telling you a different story for quite a few years now. Do your past numbers provide enough substance for you to rely on them, and if not, what kinds of trend analysis figures and projections can you really trust?
What do you do? Even with the smartest mathematicians and actuaries, you aren’t really certain how to plan. “While the ever-practical insurance industry has long focused on the past, climate science has, for the most part, been fixated on the far future. Scientists built computer models of virtual worlds and used them to test hypotheses about what would happen to our children and grandchildren as the planet becomes hotter.
“‘But for most practical decisions,’ says Myles Allen, a climatologist at Oxford University, ‘what the world will be like in 50 years’ time is less important than understanding what the world is like today.’…  A new method of statistical analysis called ‘event attribution,’ developed by Allen, allows climate scientists to better understand how weather patterns work today. It examines recent severe weather events, assessing how much of their probability can be attributed to climate change. These impacts are so complex that isolating them would be like taking the sugar out of a chocolate-chip cookie — nearly impossible, everything is so intertwined. Event attribution tries to break through this ambiguity using brute force.
“Harnessing a tremendous amount of computing power, scientists create two virtual worlds: one where the atmosphere and climate look and operate like ours does today, and one that looks more like the preindustrial world, before we started releasing greenhouse gases from factories, cars and buildings. They alter the weather in both simulated environments and see whether natural disasters play out given differing sea-ice levels, greenhouse-gas concentrations and sea-surface temperatures. They do this over and over and over, tens of thousands of times, producing an estimate of how much our altered climate affected the outcome.” New York Times, August 26th. The process is on-going, inputting new climate details and new disasters on a constant and never-ending analysis.
Factors such as topography now become relevant as well. “Florida is a case in point. There, where some 2.4 million people live less than four feet above the high-tide line and where many U.S.-bound hurricanes are likely to pass, insurers can only use historical models to calculate risk. Climate scientists estimate that sea levels will rise anywhere between 8 inches and 6.6 feet by 2100 — enough to inundate whole neighborhoods in Miami, even on the lower end. The past offers a comfortable fiction that could limit rate hikes by writing the risk off the books…
In June of this year, the Geneva Association, an insurance research group, released a report called ‘Warming of the Oceans and Implications for the (Re)insurance Industry.’ It laid out evidence explaining how rising ocean temperatures are changing climate patterns and called for a ‘paradigm shift’ in the way the insurance industry calculates risk… As more groups like the Geneva Association call for risk models that account for climate change, politicians are going to get a different message. Denying climate change isn’t just foolish — it’s bad for business.” NY Times.
The ramifications extend well beyond the insurance industry itself. Where insurers go under from the strain of overwhelming claims, the burden on government increases exponentially.  Where rates in high-risk zones are not subsidized by the government, they skyrocket or insurance simply isn’t available: “The National Flood Insurance Program was enacted in 1968 to control soaring federal payouts for natural disasters. Communities that participated agreed to regulate development; in return, residents living in flood-prone areas qualified for insurance underwritten and subsidized by the federal government. Nearly 22,000 communities have joined the program, and the government now backs about 5.6 million policies. Twenty percent of the holders of those policies pay subsidized premiums that are significantly below risk-based rates.
“The program was supposed to be the first line of defense against runaway construction in flood zones. Over the past 45 years, it has succeeded in limiting some but not all development in at-risk areas, and disaster losses have ballooned. Following the great Midwestern floods of 1993, what is now the Government Accountability Office predicted that the program would need to borrow up to $1 billion to cover losses; two decades later, a succession of major floods and storms, culminating with Hurricane Sandy last October, have pushed the debt to roughly $25 billion. It hasn’t helped that the program was unsound from the start, laden by Congress with overgenerous subsidies and almost comical provisions that allowed, for example, insurance payouts for structures that flooded up to 16 times.” New York Times, August 29th.
The viability of living in such areas becomes particularly expensive, if not impossible, to justify. In areas of clear vulnerability or repeated and sequential disasters, allowing rebuilding in such venues perhaps becomes a luxury that society can no longer subsidize. Change in the way we look at our world is absolutely necessary. We ignored and continue to ignore climate change issues, and now it’s time to pay the piper.
I’m Peter Dekom, and the same-old/same-old just isn’t anymore.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Bracing for another Meltdown

The financial sector is currently designed to benefit the financial sector and the high-profile investment community… and literally no one else. Since the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagal requirement that once separated traditional commercial banks (where savings are deposited and loans generated) from companies that trade securities and debt instruments in the marketplace now part of ancient history, our financial system is as precarious as ever. Traders need harsh market movements, up and down, to make money. Commercial banks crave stability to encourage credit availability.
Trading institutions love being able to borrow fed funds, currently at near zero interest rates, to use as investment capital on their own accounts to play in a stock market where they have unique, high speed computer access (“flash trades”) to make money for themselves. Why in the world would they remotely want to put that lending capacity into the hands of small businesses at reasonable interest rates when they can make mega-profits on their own?!
Traders also like to create their own bundles and bets on complex amalgamations of indexed securities (“derivatives”) that rise and fall on “difficult-to-understand” formulae it takes mathematicians to analyze. Sometimes they create such clever instruments to support trends they are actually betting against in other transactions! They are aided in this conspiracy by the credit rating institutions whose quality assessments will impact price and profitability of credit-based derivatives. The better the rating, the easier to sell to institutions with defined investment limits and hence the higher the profits. But there’s a catch: the company selling the relevant derivatives gets to pick the rating agency. Of course they will avoid hiring such an agency if it is tough and honest on the risks… they want one that is “easy” to score with! Remember, subprime mortgage bundles were given an A rating by most of these agencies. Nothing has changed.
The Federal Reserve is sensing some issues that we may face soon. The real estate market is flying upwards based on a bit more credit (some from Fannie and Freddie) at pretty low rates. But everyone, particularly the Fed, knows that this cheap, subsidized interest rate is not long for this world. In the not-too-distant future, interest rates will begin a significant move upwards. Not only will variable rates rise, but rates on new loans will definitely splash water on the fiery-hot housing market, probably dragging prices back down.
“[On August 19th], the Federal Reserve described some significant shortcomings in the banks’ responses to the so-called stress tests… Despite the severity of the recent housing crisis, the Fed said some banks were not taking into account the possibility of falling house prices when valuing certain mortgage-related assets for the tests.” New York Times, August 19th. They’re back into the “real estate prices only go up” syndrome. And yes, the banks would rather play with their capital than hold it in reserve for an obviously-coming rainy day.
And it’s not as if the administration is missing the issue: “President Obama urged the nation’s top financial regulators on Monday to move faster on new rules for Wall Street, telling them in a private White House meeting that they must work to prevent a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis… Administration officials and some lawmakers have expressed frustration that critical parts of Mr. Obama’s overhaul of the financial system, which was voted into law three years ago and is known as the Dodd-Frank act, remain unenforced as an alphabet soup of federal agencies wrangle over how to adopt it.
“In particular, top presidential aides have highlighted the failure in putting the Volcker Rule into effect. It would prohibit banks from risking institutional money in certain speculative investments. Last month, Jacob Lew, the Treasury secretary, complained in a speech that the regulators were moving too slowly to confront the dangers of banks that are so large that governments cannot allow them to fail for fear of bringing down the economy.” NY Times. Why is such an obvious set of very, very serious issues being left to dangle in the wind?
The GOP-dominated House of Representatives, with Congress people facing an election every two years (and needing the support of campaign contributors to keep their jobs), belongs to Wall Street. They opposed expanding financial protection and limiting the cowboy mentality that dominates the trading world, arguing to their gullible constituents that they are supporting a “free market” economy and keeping government out of the regulatory process. Sounds “all-American,” but it is a great big lie. With the playing field already tilted in favor of the traders, they are just tilting that table increasingly in the wrong direction. They are withholding funding for regulatory agencies, the Senate’s filibustering minority is slowing down appointments to administrative positions and refusing to consider the kinds of further regulation that would stop our addiction to precarious markets.
If Canada has been able to avoid big recessions and depressions throughout modern history, the United States has created a very opposite roller coaster ride between soaring markets and severe economic downturns. The gyrations hurt the job market like nothing else. They slam middle class existence, destroying lives along the way. And they make traders rich.
Former Citigroup CEO, Sanford Weill (pictured above), a man who led the deregulation process from atop one of the largest financial institutions in the world and screamed with joy under the “too big to fail” assumptions that got rid of the restrictions in Glass-Steagal has seen the folly of his actions. Last July, in an interview on CNBC’s SquawkBox, Weill supported the putting Glass-Steagal’s separation of commercial banking and trading back into effect and creating regulated exchanges for derivatives. “So let commercial banks take deposits and make commerce loans and real estate loans in such a way that they are not going to risk the taxpayer dollars. If they want to hedge what they’re doing in their investments, let them do it in a way that it can be mark-to-market on a daily basis,” he said. But with Congress slorping at the donation/Citizens United trough, and Wall Street power brokers making sure it is well stocked, don’t expect any meaningful reform anytime soon. We probably need another meltdown to throw these mega-corrupt elected officials out of office. How much pain will average Americans endure “next time”?
I’m Peter Dekom, and we apparently have the kind of regulatory structure we deserve though our own failure to act.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Messing with the Meddle East

We’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t. Our military track record in the Middle East is less than stellar. Look at Iraq, unraveling a “warp speed.” The once-in-power Sunni minority is reduced to voting with bombs, mostly in “neutral” Baghdad, primarily against Shiite targets. Remember the basis for this hatred? A majority of Sunnis, who believe in a required and literal reading of the Qur’an, find the Shiite interpretation of the Qur’an, as a mystical book that can only be discerned by the most senior prelates, to be sacrilegious and abhorrent. And Iraqi Shiites (60% of Iraq’s population) now look to 90%+ Shiite Iran for leadership. Iraq really has been reduced to civil war. Our foray into Afghanistan (Central Asia actually) has placed a mega-corrupt government atop a country that is hardly stabilizing, despite our massive efforts to the contrary.
The extremist and militant Muslim Brotherhood, the same party that elected the deposed Mohammad Morsi to the Egyptian presidency, is being repressed, slaughtered, and marginalized as they are now being blamed for all things bad in Egypt. These extremists are hardly America’s best friend, and our annual aid to Egypt - $1.3 billion - mostly winds up supporting the very military dedicated to taking down that Brotherhood. But given the massive unpopularity of the United States, and the Obama administration’s awkward chastisement of the removal of a democratically-elected president, there new rumors that are gathering local popularity.
When the conversation turns to politics, the predominant topic is a surprise to American ears: the conspiracy between the United States and the Muslim Brotherhood to destroy Egypt… However crackpot that view may sound, it is widespread among supporters of the military, which ousted the Muslim Brotherhood’s elected president, Mohamed Morsi, [in July]…
“On Zaki Street, the cafes were full of smokers of shisha, the flavored tobacco burned in water pipes, and of backgammon players. Outside, the driver of a horse-drawn cart full of canisters of cooking gas clanged his cans to announce his presence, and Farouq, a middle-aged man making deliveries to supermarkets with a motorcycle-drawn cart, stopped to talk… ‘Americans are with the Muslim Brotherhood,’ Farouq stated in a tone suggesting that it was common knowledge. ‘O.K., you did something good when you killed Osama bin Laden, but now you are with Al Qaeda. You support the terrorists.’”  New York Times, August 25th. Stupid? Or a plot by the military to turn U.S. policy-makers toward the changed government, bolstering continued military aid from the U.S.?
Meanwhile, our options in Syria – with 60% of polled Americans wary of any U.S. involvement in that conflict – are bad and worse. As the United Nations was thwarted by systematic gunfire in their investigation of the site where approximately 355 people were gassed to death (about 3,600 citizens were exposed to the neurotoxins) – “hey, we told you it was too dangerous for you to inspect” – it seems all-but-certain that the killing was due to the application of a WMD by the Assad regime against its own people. That elusive “red line” has been crossed, and while the United States will not act unilaterally, it is difficult to understand exactly how the U.S. would participate in a more internationally-based military intervention. Nothing we do in Syria is likely to produce a result that will benefit American interests any time in the near-term. Nevertheless, our military tells us that our forces are in place and poised to strike if ordered by the President.
The Assad regime clings to power by a slender thread, heavily reliant on Russian and Iranian military aid. But the factions battling to topple Assad already feel that the West has reacted with too little, too late. Regional Islamists – from al Qaeda to militant hotheads from all over the Islamic world – have joined with local rebels with a hope to install a Sunni version of a theocracy, replete with harsh Sharia law over this critically-situated country. Secularists are sensing peril in an aftermath that may be nothing more than decades of civil war and general instability. If quasi-Shiite Assad retains power (Shiites represent a small minority in this mostly-Sunni country), his regime is profoundly antithetical to the United States. If Islamists take power, their rule would be profoundly antithetical to the United States. If civil war ensues, there is absolutely no benefit to the region… or the United States. And even in the unlikely event of a new secular government, the delays in Western aid have seemingly permanently alienated even this formerly pro-Western faction.
There is a back door to all of this that seems counter-intuitive but may represent a hidden opportunity that may well be worth of exploration: seeking d├ętente if not rapprochement with Iran. While we know that all real power in Iran is squarely in the hands of the Ayatollah Khamenei and his cronies, there are signs that those stepping into power in the newly elected government understand and have long-standing ties with the United States. While the new President, Hassan Rouhani, categorized as a “moderate cleric” has clear ties to the Ayatollahs who allowed him to run, he also faces an economy decimated by Western sanctions that have a very unhappy electorate looking for a better life. Removing those sanctions would be a big deal to his constituency.
Senior officials surrounding Rouhani have some interesting backgrounds. “Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, studied international relations at San Francisco State University [and attended] the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver [where he] obtained a PhD in international law and policy… Ali Akbar Salehi [is] an Iranian academic, diplomat and the head of Atomic Energy Organization of Iran… He received a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from the American University of Beirut in 1971 and a PhD in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1977.” Wikipedia.  
Or we can keep reading silly headlines, storm and fury signifying nothing, like: “Iran's parliament has approved fast tracking debate on a bill that seeks to sue the U.S. for its involvement in the 1953 coup that overthrew the country's democratically elected prime minister.” Huffington Post, August 27th. Perhaps engagement and discussion could make a difference, but of course, there’s no guarantee that this approach will have the remotest chance of success. But then, the policy we are already pursuing in the remainder of the region is the poster-child for diplomatic and military failure. It’s time to try something new.
I’m Peter Dekom, and we most certainly cannot be doing any worse than we already are in our Meddle Eastern policies.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Virtual Virtue

There’s been a lot of talk about how education, particularly higher education, will fare in a world of online alternatives. Premier professors can disseminate audio-visual recordings of their most powerful lectures or series of lectures, monetizing access at differing levels. View the course for free or a modest fee. Pay more and interact with the course, in real time if the presentation is live, or be evaluated for credit as part of an overall course of study. Perhaps the degree will be granted by a single institution from which the courses emanate, or maybe, where courses from many different prestigious colleges or universities are being amalgamated, from a new institution created to regulate and confer appropriate degrees to students who have completed the requisite coursework.
Interaction among students can take place in new social networks based on these courses of study. Cheating and plagiarism can be contained with retinal or fingerprint scans and content scanning that compares the work to writings of students around the world (the latter being a process that is already in widespread use). Perhaps an examination once a year in a physical location might also work.
I don’t think the SEC or the Pac 12 will substitute fantasy sports for the real thing, however! But the fact remains that while I don’t see the death of major colleges and universities teaching on their existing campuses anytime soon, I also see a transition of acceptance of virtual online education being accepted as mainstream and quality learning… with a global reach.
There have been lots of courses and opportunities from smaller, for profit, online colleges, but the biggest and best are the institutions that will have the greatest impact. We’re seeing some pretty major universities creating some very interesting online instruction. “From their start two years ago, when a free artificial intelligence course from Stanford enrolled 170,000 students, free massive open online courses, or MOOCs, have drawn millions and yielded results like the perfect scores of Battushig, a 15-year-old Mongolian boy, in a tough electronics course offered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology [ranked first by U.S. News & World Report among U.S. engineering universities].
“But the courses have not yet produced profound change, partly because they offer no credit and do not lead to a degree. The disruption may be approaching, though, as Georgia Tech, which has one of the country’s top computer science programs, plans to offer a MOOC-based online master’s degree in computer science for $6,600 — far less than the $45,000 on-campus price.” New York Times, August 17th.
Stanford University is the second-ranked and Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) the fifth-ranked (according to U.S. News & World Report) engineering universities in the United States. Getting degrees from universities at this level, allowing enrollment on a global level to find the “best and the brightest” without borders and vastly lower tuition barriers (and no separate charges for room and board or even travel costs), can alter the landscape of global empowerment even in nascent developing countries. The expansion of English or some other major languages as the lingua franca of education may also draw the world closer together, just as political divisions seem to be intensifying.
Economies of scale can provide enough funding to make this form of education exceptionally affordable, perhaps even subsidizing on-campus degrees where tuition costs have soared as a multiple of the cost of living. “Zvi Galil, the dean of the [Georgia Tech’s] College of Computing, expects that in the coming years, the program could attract up to 10,000 students annually, many from outside the United States and some who would not complete the full master’s degree. ‘Online, there’s no visa problem,’ he said… The program rests on an unusual partnership forged by Dr. Galil and Sebastian Thrun, a founder of Udacity, a Silicon Valley provider of the open online courses.
“‘Perhaps Zvi Galil and Sebastian Thrun will prove to be the Wright brothers of MOOCs,’ said S. James Gates Jr., a University of Maryland physicist who serves on President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. ‘This is the first deliberate and thoughtful attempt to apply education technology to bringing instruction to scale. It could be epoch-making. If it really works, it could begin the process of lowering the cost of education, and lowering barriers for millions of Americans.’
“The plan is for Georgia Tech to provide the content and professors and to get 60 percent of the revenue, and for Udacity to offer the computer platform, provide course assistants and receive the other 40 percent. The projected budget for the test run starting in January is $3.1 million — including $2 million donated by AT&T, which will use the program to train employees and find potential hires — with $240,000 in profits. By the third year, the projection is for $14.3 million in costs and $4.7 million in profits.” NY Times.
You simply cannot overlook how learning has transitioned over time. Long gone are those informal gatherings of Greek philosophers and their adoring students that ultimately evolved into the hallowed halls of Oxford, Cambridge, Yale and Harvard. A seminal shift in communications technologies and related social practices almost by definition has to impact education as we know it.
I’m Peter Dekom, and this is clearly just the beginning of a revolution is how we teach and how we learn.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Don’t Get Your Slopes Up

In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan (sound familiar?). On January 20, 1980, then President Jimmy Carter issued an ultimatum to the Russians that if they did not withdraw, the United States would boycott the Summer Olympics scheduled for Moscow later that year. The USSR did not budge, and the U.S. made good on its threat with a few other nations following suit.
The United States was ultimately joined in the boycott by some other countries – including Japan, West Germany (Schmidt was able to convince the national Olympic committee not to send a team by a narrow margin), China, the Philippines, Argentina and Canada. Some of these countries competed at the Olympic Boycott Games in Philadelphia. Notably, United Kingdom, France and Australia supported the boycott but allowed their athletes to participate if they wished and left the final decisions to participate in the Games to their respective National Olympic Committees and the individual athletes of the countries concerned. The United Kingdom and France sent a much smaller delegation of athletes than usual. The British equestrian, hockey, and yachting associations boycotted completely. Nevertheless, the delegation of the United Kingdom was the largest among Western Europe, with 170 athletes applying to compete.” Wikipedia. 
Even though it’s a hot summer, there is a chill in the air that seems colder than a freezing bank of slalom wickets atop a snow-capped mountain. With a high-level summit between Russian Tsar Vladimir Putin and President Putin cancelled over the former’s grant of temporary asylum to NSA-secrets-leaker Edward Snowden, additional compelling social issues suggest that Russia’s 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi may face an equally harsh response: another boycott.
With strong new Russian legislation, with equally strong majority support among the Russian people, to crush gay rights, the thought that Olympic athletes who just might be gay or lesbian could be subject to arrest was sweeping the world press. “In an interview with the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti, Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko said: ‘An athlete of nontraditional sexual orientation isn’t banned from coming to Sochi. But if he goes out into the streets and starts to propagandize, then of course he will be held accountable.’”, August 1st. Not exactly reassuring, huh?
Hints of a possible U.S. boycott were presented as President Obama appeared on an American late-night talk show: “Obama criticized a new Russian law cracking down on gay rights activism during an interview with NBC's ‘The Tonight Show,’ saying he has ‘no patience for countries that try to treat gays and lesbians and transgendered persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them.’
“Russia has said it will enforce the law when it hosts the 2014 Winter Olympics. Asked whether the law would impact the games, Obama said he believes Putin and Russia have ‘a big stake in making sure the Olympics work.’… ‘I think they understand that for most of the countries that participate in the Olympics, we wouldn't tolerate gays and lesbians being treated differently,’ he said.
“Obama continued, ‘One of the things I think is very important for me to speak out on is making sure that people are treated fairly and justly because that's what we stand for, and I believe that that's a precept that's not unique to America. That's just something that should apply everywhere.’” New York Times, August 7th.  For those with tickets to Sochi, they might just want to reconsider, since the Russian habit of digging in its heels to oppose anything that the U.S advocates does not augur well for this Olympic event.
I’m Peter Dekom, and the history of the Olympics in political symbolism continues unabated.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Arab “Spring a Leak”

We have to start any analysis of the Middle East with one not-so-pleasant reality: with the exception of Israel – our feisty, often-difficult but unwavering ally – the region is not particularly fond of the United States. With a history of supporting brutal dictators willing to “help” American policies in exchange for military aid that keeps them in power… and backing Israel even when the latter seems to be rubbing salt in open Arab wounds, the U.S. is hardly likely to reverse it negative image in the region anytime soon… no matter what we do. Our long-standing willingness to ignore our own purported democratic values to foster military, political and economic hegemony for decades is not lost on the regional populace.
Our momentary assistance to anti-Qaddafi Tunisian rebels is long-since forgotten in the cacophony of Islamist factionalism, Benghazi killings and militant dreams of an Islamic empire stretching from North Africa well into South Asia and beyond. Egypt’s flirtation with democracy ended, according to those supporting the military “adjustment” (hey, if it were a “coup,” American law requires that military aid be stopped instantly!!!), when Muhammad Morsi shoved an Islamist-leaning constitution through a governmental body that did not have the power to implement a new constitution or, according to the Muslim Brotherhood, when a democratically-elected President was deposed by the military. Any way you look at it, it’s over.
The Syrian debacle offers the United States a dramatic lose-lose scenario: allow a murderous, WMD-gas-employing dictator who continues a slaughter that has taken more than 100,000 lives or help overthrow that dictator with a likely postscript of civil war and violently anti-American Islamist militants to ready press for leadership. A strong, democratic secular government that supports religious and ethnic minorities is our vision what should happen, but that would fall under the category of “it’s a miracle!” What exactly are we doing with Assad gassing his people to death? “Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel suggested [August 23rd] that the Pentagon was moving naval forces closer to Syria in preparation for a possible decision by President Obama to order military strikes.”, August 24th.
Fundamentalist Islamic militancy arose in the putrid ground of failed economic hopes, corrupt regimes siphoning most of the “quality of life” values for themselves and their cronies, with the American support noted above. The Western television shows and movies of old showing the economic promise of a prosperous middle class never happened for most. Schools to train high-value workers for the future, adequate medical care, corruption-free police enforcement of normal civility, a trustworthy legal systems and functional infrastructure just were promises destined to be broken. Poverty was the remaining vector, one unlikely to change as far as the mind’s eye could envision. Fundamentalist Islam, rejecting the distraction of Western “luxuries” vs. dedication to Islamic pursuits, explained poverty well, even elevated that status to “desirable.” It gave too many justification for the lives they couldn’t seem to change.
In the muck and mire, tiny little Gaza, Palestine’s little ball of militant hate ruled by deeply committed anti-Israeli/anti-American Islamists (Hamas), is 141 square miles of fading hopes, economic desperation, escalating anger and anarchical chaos. It is a launching pad for rocket and missile attacks against Israel and a rallying point for regional militants. Events in neighboring Egypt have gone the wrong way for Hamas.
Now, the dismantling of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood by the new military-backed government that ousted the Islamist president has Hamas reeling without crucial economic and diplomatic support. Over the past [several] weeks, a ‘crisis cell’ of ministers has met daily. With Gaza’s economy facing a $250 million shortfall since Egypt shut down hundreds of smuggling tunnels, the Hamas government has begun to ration some resources…
‘Now, Hamas is an orphan,’ said Akram Atallah, a political analyst and columnist, referring to the fact that the movement sprang from Egypt’s Brotherhood a quarter century ago. ‘Hamas was dreaming and going up with its dreams that the Islamists were going to take over in all the capitals. Those dreams have been dashed.’
“The tide of the Arab Spring initially buoyed Hamas, helping bolster Iran and Syria, which provided the Gazan leadership weapons and cash, while undermining President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who was deeply distrustful and hostile to the group. But Hamas eventually sided with the Sunni opposition in the civil war in Syria — alienating President Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian backers. That was offset when Mr. Mubarak was replaced by Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader and ideological ally who relaxed the borders and brokered talks between Hamas and the hostile West as well as its Palestinian rivals.
“With Egypt’s military crackdown, Mr. Morsi in detention and the Brotherhood leadership either locked up, dead or in hiding, smuggling between Gaza and Egypt has come to a virtual halt. That means no access to building materials, fuel that costs less than half as much as that imported from Israel, and many other cheap commodities Gazans had come to rely on.” New York Times, August 23rd. Does Hamas force itself back into an alliance with more-moderate President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and his Fatah faction that dominates the West Bank? Does anger seethe and erupt into suicidal attacks against Israel? Does civil war drop the area into even more severe chaos? Is mass starvation and ultra-violence the next step?
All across the Islamic world, hopes have been dashed. Democracy is non-functional – even once-secular Turkey is wrestling with a lurch to the religious right. While the big schism is between those seeking to impost a pan-Islamic regime throughout that region versus those seeking secular modernity, the smaller factions make roiling civil war of “I’m right and you don’t deserve to live” players the definition of the likely future.
To those who challenge Islam as a warrior religion with violence as the only solution… attempting to contract “peaceful” Christianity… I only point out that Islam is 600 years younger than Christianity that itself enjoyed (enjoys?) its own obsession with ultra-violence: for example, the Spanish Inquisition, the religious justification for the conquest of the New World, Asia and Africa, the Salem Witch Trials and even our own Ku Klux Clan pursuing their vision of God’s mandate under a burning cross. Is this just human nature? Our response to limited natural resources and demographic overcrowding? Or are we actually evolving at some level, even as global climate change will only add strains to their rather astoundingly violent reality that began with such hope.
   I’m Peter Dekom, and evolution does require empathy and kindness… or brutal Darwinian pain… so pick one.