Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Big Sheik-Up

For a long time, the animosity between those who believed that the Qur’an was a mystical book that only a most senior cleric could explain (Shiites) and those who believed in a literal reading of that Holy Book (Sunnis) had faded into irrelevance. But recent events changed that dynamic and rekindled that hostility. Although Sunnis are the vast majority (85%) in global Islam, in the Middle East, Shiites dominate Iran and Iraq and rule the majority of Sunnis in Syria.
A headless Shiite faith (since the 10th century when their Imam just disappeared) found new leaders with the fall of Iran’s Shah in the 1979 Shiite revolution, and a new Shiite agenda was resurrected. The American-led attack on Iraq that toppled a Sunni minority leader (Saddam Hussein) of a Shiite majority land, and caused nearly everyone in that country to take sides based on the nature of their faith. Old scars become fresh wounds. Iraq became a Shiite country with an oppressed Sunni minority. Friendly neighbors turned on each other. Climate change pushed impacted farmers to pray against the seemingly never-ending droughts that plagued western Syrian and southwestern Iraq (Sunni strongholds).
Thus, Muslims everywhere were being asked to reconsider their faith for any number of reasons. The Arab Spring and resultant regime changes required people who never considered governmental alternatives to determine the new directions that toppling dictators opened up. Conservative religiosity began to sweep across all segments of Islam. Coupled with a growing resentment of Western meddling in Middle Eastern affairs (noting that Israel is often considered as an American puppet government by too many Middle Eastern locals), Salafism, Wahhabism and the even more extreme views of the ISIS/al Nusra/Boko Haram took hold in Sunni lands (al Qaeda became representative of an old-world moderate view), while the Iranian militant but puritanical Shia reality redefined that movement.
The Middle East, North Africa and South Central Asia (Afghanistan and Pakistan) became ultra-violent battlegrounds even as once more tolerant regimes in the Islamic parts of Southeast Asia began more rigidly and symbolically defined by creeping Islamic conservatism. Turkey, once heavily secular, veered toward government-supported Sunni practices. This Sunni/Shiite schism paralleled a growing Islamic/Western Judeo-Christian clash of civilizations. A battle of surrogates ensued. ISIS became the firebrand of extreme Sunni believers as Iran deployed and supported Hezbollah and the Houthis (Yemeni rebels adjacent to Saudi Arabia).
Enter the six-nation sanction-pressured talks with Iran over reducing her nuclear program, which otherwise seemed inevitably headed toward embracing nuclear weapons. Given Iran’s pledge to push Israel into the sea and their overt championing of Shiite attacks threatening the entrenched Sunni royals in the Gulf States, their collective position on Iran’s developing that nuclear capacity moved from fear to morbid obsession. As the negotiations produced a 159 page anti-nuclear-draft-treaty, requiring some form of ratification by all parties involved, both Israel and the Gulf States hit the panic button and began a concerted effort to have the non-Iranian parties reject the product of their own negotiators.
I’ve blogged about Israel’s position repeatedly, so today, we look at the fierce response of the Gulf States, nations with the financial wherewithal to write some very large checks to buy nukes from a very volatile global marketplace for weapons that disappeared as CIS countries reconfigured two and half decades ago and an unstable Pakistan has amassed a sizeable nuclear arsenal. The focus has to begin with U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, and is made involuntarily transparent by documents released by reason of the recent WikiLeaks.
“For decades, Saudi Arabia has poured billions of its oil dollars into sympathetic Islamic organizations around the world, quietly practicing checkbook diplomacy to advance its agenda.
“But a trove of thousands of Saudi documents recently released by WikiLeaks reveals in surprising detail how the government’s goal in recent years was not just to spread its strict version of Sunni Islam — though that was a priority — but also to undermine its primary adversary: Shiite Iran.
“The documents from Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry illustrate a near obsession with Iran, with diplomats in Africa, Asia and Europe monitoring Iranian activities in minute detail and top government agencies plotting moves to limit the spread of Shiite Islam.” New York Times, July 16th.
While some Gulf State leaders see some potential benefits to opening regional trade with Iran, regional fears over the new accord range from a further downward price-vector as Iranian oil floods the global marketplace to thoughts of Iran’s enhanced stature and military capacity. “Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political analyst based in the United Arab Emirates, said the accord could trigger a nuclear arms race, though it sets back Iran’s ability to immediately make a nuclear bomb… Iran’s neighbors have expressed concerns that the lifting of economic sanctions will provide the Islamic republic with more money to fund armed groups in the region.” Washington Post, July 14th.
Iran’s hardliners could easily reject the pact, and the 60 day Congressional review, with strong lobbying from Israel and the Gulf States, could pull the U.S. approval of the d├ętente off the table. If Iran and the other powers approve the treaty and the U.S. does not, the American opposition will become meaningless as the rest of the world lifts enough of the sanctions to bring Iran where its moderates want it to be. The alternative, a military attack on Iran, has such dire consequences for the global economy and our own massive deficit, particularly given our track record of military failure in that region, that it is doubtful that such an effort would resonate with the American public. And if we were to attack Iran, think of how grateful ISIS would be for giving them that helpful hand!
I’m Peter Dekom, and in this litany of bad choices, we probably will accept the treaty with Iran as our best of the bad choices open to us… and if we don’t or if Iran rejects the treaty… standby for a much more volatile result.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Sometimes a Turkey is a Turkey

Time for a little role-playing. You are long-standing ultra-conservative elected leader of a country deeply divided between religious and secular values. Your entire nation was founded on a rather severe division between faith and government, but, like so much of the world, you are at the vanguard of bringing your faith and its values into government. As secularists rail, as corruption charges resonate against you, a powerful extremist version of your interpretation of your faith is a growing power on your border and in your neighborhood.
And wonder of wonders, this growing force is engaging, with military attacks, a strong minority body of separatists that have plagued your administration and your country as well as a malevolent dictator in a border state who has, in your opinion, a deeply distorted and sacrilegious interpretation of your faith. This growing force is the enemy of your enemies, although it is viewed as a pariah to most of the rest of the world.
Throw in another variable: you run a nation at the crossroads of Middle Eastern and European values, literally having territory in both Europe (3%) and Asia (97%), are a participating member of NATO and have flirted with membership in the European Union. It is an economic powerhouse in a region plagued with economic failure. Your country has been the gateway to increasing numbers of fighters rushing to fight in this “enemy of your enemies” force, and you have watched as your enemies have been assaulted with tons of success. Then, this massively growing malevolent force mounts attacks against your own loyalists, your own constituency, in your own country. What do you do?
So if you are Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, you are facing a Syrian dictatorship from a minority Alawite/Shiite Bashar Assad Regime that is running roughshod over your fellow Sunnis, the 80% majority in Syria. Assad and his Alawites are Islamic apostates to Sunnis, mystics to Sunni literalists. Erdogan and his predecessors have also been battling Kurdish separatists for some time, with a tenuous ceasefire hanging in the balance, basically an “unstable two-year cease-fire between the Turkish government and the Kurdish militants, also known by the initials of their Kurdish name, P.K.K. After a three-decade conflict that claimed at least 40,000 lives, the two sides reached a fragile peace in 2013, though there have been a few minor clashes since then.” New York Times, July 25th.
The big bad force growing in land mass by the minute is, of course, the Islamic State, which only recently has taken to deploying suicide bombs within Turkey itself. The United States and its NATO allies have been working on Turkey to join the fray against ISIS for quite a while, but Erdogan was more than content to watch as ISIS attack his Kurdish and Syrian Alawite enemies. With the ISIS bombing, Erdogan responded to local pressure to respond. So did he join the fight against ISIS? Sort of, but not exactly. Even as he opened an airfield in Turkey to U.S. and its coalition bombers fighting against ISIS, and even though he has moved Turkish forces against ISIS, there’s definitely a catch.
Those brave anti-ISIS Kurdish forces – the P.K.K. and particularly an affiliated and highly effective Kurdish militia (the People’s Protective Unit – known as the Y.P.G. in Turkey) – have also become targets of the Turkish assault. Ending the two-year ceasefire noted above, Turkish forces have not only blasted away at ISIS targets, but they have also attacked Kurdish forces as well: “Turkish fighter jets, which on [July 24th] attacked Islamic State targets in Syria, have launched a wave of airstrikes in northern Iraq, targeting camps of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party for the first time in four years, the prime minister’s office said [July 25th]…
“Fighter jets also struck Islamic State targets in Syria for a second day, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s office said in the statement on Saturday. The jets entered Syrian airspace to do so, the statement said, unlike during the previous strikes, which the government said were carried out from the Turkish side of the border… ‘No one should doubt our determination,’ Mr. Davutoglu said, speaking to reporters in Ankara, the capital, on [July 25th]. ‘We will not allow Turkey to be turned into a lawless country.’
“Turkey has been pressing the United States to establish a no-fly zone in northern Syria, and that goal seems to have gained traction with the Turks’ air campaign… ‘Once ISIS has been cleared from the areas in northern Syria, ‘safe zones’ will be formed naturally,’ offering havens for displaced people, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on [July 25th].
“In a separate but parallel operation, Turkish authorities have carried out a series of counterterrorism raids over the past two days [July 24th and 25th], arresting 590 people suspected of being members of the Islamic State or the P.K.K., Mr. Davutoglu said.” NY Times. The Turkish assaults on P.K.K. continued into the 26th as Ankara requested an emergency NATO meeting to discuss its security issues.
In short, Turkish involvement in the attacks against ISIS has given Erdogan an excuse to reengage his Kurdish foes, now facing two enemies on two fronts. It’s a mess, and ISIS may not enjoy the new Turkish front, but they have to be cackling a bit at the assaults against their Kurdish enemies. A giant neutral zone between their Syria and Iraqi might not phase ISIS for the short term, as they consolidate their holdings in Syria (where they hold more than half the land mass) and Iraq (they are 25 miles from Baghdad). And ISIS has most certainly been growing, day-by-day, as allied airstrikes have had exceptionally limited impact on their expansionism.
If and when that neutral zone is established between Turkey and Syria/ISIS, you can pretty much expect Turkish cooperation to fade, its attacks on Kurdish targets to generate another fragile ceasefire, but it is otherwise unlikely that it will be Turkish boots on the ground that will take down ISIS; they are much more likely to respond to Shiite forces from Iran and Iraq than their fellow Sunnis within ISIS. With this internecine military response, an unstable situation has reached a new level of “so much worse.” Where this goes, and how deeply embroiled we will become in this mess has yet to be determined, but our series of missteps in Iraq were among the most important causes of this malevolent Middle Eastern reality.
I’m Peter Dekom, and even if this is simply a case of understanding what our own risks are in the region, American voters really need to know what they are likely to be paying for, one way or another, over the next few decades… or longer.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Tailpipes from Hell

When you’re driving down a highway, and some nasty vehicle is puffing and smoking into the air, you know for sure you’ve got a polluter. But imagine a Tesla or a Leaf being pulled over by reason of unwanted carbon emissions? Silly, huh. An electric vehicle (EV) just plain does not pollute, right?
A view from the tailpipe gives EVs a clear edge: no emissions, no pollution, no problem. Shift the view to that of a smokestack, though, and we get a much different picture. The EV that caused no environmental damage on the road during the day still needs to be charged at night. This requires a great deal of electricity generated by a power plant somewhere, and if that power plant runs on coal, it’s not hard to imagine it spewing more emissions from a smokestack than a comparable gas car coughed up from a tailpipe.” MotherJones.com, July 9th.
The problem with air pollution is that you literally have to take in a total picture for any given activity that consumes energy or any activity that generates waste. Like your steak? Milk is good? Raising cattle results in massive methane emissions, and that gas is 24 times heavier and greenhouse-creating (heat-trapping) than carbon dioxide. According to a Penn State study (Carbon, Methane Emissions and the Dairy Cow): “Agriculture contributes approximately 6 to 7% of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Methane from enteric (microbial) [intestinal] fermentation represents 20% and manure management 7% of the total methane emitted. Some dietary practices that have been shown to reduce methane include addition of ionophores, fats, use of high quality forages, and increased use of grains…
“Ruminants (beef, dairy, goats, and sheep) are the main contributors to CH4 [methane] production…  The ruminant animal is unique because of its four stomach compartments: reticulum, rumen, omasum and abomasum. The rumen is a large, hollow muscular organ where microbial fermentation occurs. It can hold 40 to 60 gallons of material and an estimated 150 billion microorganisms per teaspoon are present in its contents. The function of the rumen as a fermentation vat and the presence of certain bacteria promote the development of gases. ” TMI?
We aren’t going to see cattle with catalytic converters anytime soon, but wouldn’t it be interesting to see where electric cars are drawing more dirty power than their fossil fuel counterparts? A June report – Environmental Benefits from Driving Electric Vehicles? – published by The National Bureau of Economic Research, asked precisely that question. MotherJones.com summarized the parameters and results of the report: “The researchers focused on five major pollutants: carbon (CO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen (NOx), particulate matter (PM 2.5), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). They considered 11 different 2014 models of EVs, as well as the ‘closest substitute’ gas car. Whenever possible they used an exact equivalent, as with the Ford Focus, which comes in both electric and gas-powered versions.
“For gas cars, calculating environmental damage was pretty straightforward. The researchers considered factors like a car's fuel-efficiency rating (city miles for urban counties, highway miles for non-urban), pollutant dispersion (such as average wind patterns), and number of environmental damages (to health, infrastructure, crops, and so on). Together that data gave them the aggregate emissions of driving a certain gas car one mile in a given US county.
“Determining the comparable damage from electric vehicles was a bit trickier. Here they used an EV's fuel-efficiency equivalent (kilowatt-hours per mile) to figure out how much electricity it drew from a regional grid. They also knew the hourly emissions profiles for the five target pollutants at 1,486 power plants across the US. So for each county they knew how the grid responded when an EV plugged in, which told them how much environmental damage that car produced at the power plant.”

Estimated damages for gas (left) and electric (right) cars by US county; the damages range from roughly 1 to 5 cent(s) per mile on each side, green to red. [University of North Carolina’s Stephen] Holland et al, 2015/NBER [the above-noted report]
“The above maps show the environmental damages by county for a 2014 gas (left panel) and electric (right) Ford Focus. For the gas car, the worst damage—shown in red, at upwards of five cents a mile—tends to occur in highly populated urban areas. That makes sense, because that's where tailpipe emissions can do the most immediate social harm. The cleaner green areas were closer to a penny a mile in damage.
“For the electric Focus, environmental damage was far more regional. In the West, where the power grid tends to be clean, electric vehicles did little damage (again, about a cent a mile). But in the Midwest and Northeast, where the electricity grid tends to rely on coal power plants, the damage from emissions ranged back up toward five cents a mile. Texas and the South were in the middle of the pack.”
Of course, the underlying “big polluter” is King Coal, and it is very much in the interest of mine owners and utilities that depend on coal to try and convince the world that they can manage to generate power with “clean coal.” Unfortunately, there is no commercially viable process that can eliminate the air and sold-waste effluents from coal-generated power; they simply pump the effluents underground for future generations to deal with and call that “clean coal.” Beijing air is the poster-child for coal-burning smog, but the world is slowly weaning itself from this nastiest of power sources.
That the United States gas massive coal reserves has pitted man-induced-climate-change-denying Republicans against do-gooder Democrats over what is described as a “War on Coal.” There is pain in allowing coal to continue to be used in any way at all in generating electrical power; it is the world’s worst single source of pollution. But there is also pain involved in shutting down coal mines and coal-fired power plants.
“Mines are closing almost every month. Sawmills that provide wooden support beams for the tunnels are laying off workers, and diners are putting up signs asking their customers to pray for the miners.
“The coal industry, long the heart that pumped the economy here [in West Virginia], is in deep trouble, buffeted by power plants switching to cheap natural gas, crippling debt, mounting foreign competition and increasingly strict regulations to limit greenhouse gases and toxic emissions like mercury…
“Since January, six domestic coal producers have filed for bankruptcy, including Patriot Coal, which applied for Chapter 11 for the second time… The decline has taken a heavy toll here in Wayne County and the surrounding area in West Virginia and Kentucky, where roughly one in three of the nation’s 80,000 coal miners work.
“They are at the center of a layoff epidemic that has reduced their numbers by roughly 5,000 annually over the last four years in the two states alone. And the wave of layoffs is spreading, with Murray Energy, one of the nation’s largest coal producers, recently announcing it would cut its work force in Ohio and Illinois, as well as West Virginia, by more than 1,800 miners.” New York Times, July 17th.
There are no easy answers. As we lose jobs to a global labor market, changing consumer demands and needed environmental restrictions, there will be casualties. But in the harshness of these changes, we also need compassion and a willingness to lend a helping hand. We have to do what’s best for most of us, but care enough for those from whom we require the greatest sacrifices.
I’m Peter Dekom, and while “balance” and “gradual change” may be the watchwords in most circumstances, immediate radical action with care for those making the sacrifice is truly the only way to maintain a planet that is livable for most of us.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Unthinking Rejection

How many in Congress do you think have read and understood the 159 page Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the accord that emanated from the six nation coalition that reached a nuclear weapons containment agreement with Iran? Republican or Democrat? How many made up their minds to reject it before the document was even given to them? The deal was announced on July 14th and the actual document was given to Congress on the 19th.
“Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stared at Secretary of State John Kerry on [July 23rd] with thinly veiled disgust… While Mr. Corker, who promised a considered assessment of the agreement, may have seemed close to an endgame during a hearing on Capitol Hill, the vast majority of Republicans appear to have made up their minds before a single classified briefing, hearing or visit with administration officials… Their view seems born of genuine distaste for the deal’s details, inherent distrust of President Obama, intense loyalty to Israel and an expansive view of the role that sanctions have played beyond preventing Iran’s nuclear abilities.
“The discord began the Sunday before a deal was announced [in mid-July], when some high-ranking Republicans, including Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, were booked on Sunday [July 19th] talk shows and denounced the accord ahead of its release…
“Hours after the accord was revealed — but before classified sections were made available to Congress — Republican lawmakers raced to send out news releases criticizing it… ‘If these people who announced an hour after the deal was announced were in a jury pool,’ said Senator Angus King, independent of Maine, who is undecided about the agreement, ‘they’d be disqualified.’
“On [July 22nd], hours before Mr. Kerry briefed House members on the classified details of the nuclear accord, House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio vowed that Republicans would ‘do everything possible to stop’ it… ‘I’ve voiced my concerns about these discussions for over a year,’ Mr. Boehner added [July 23rd].
“Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas and a candidate for president, rushed to give interviews after the Senate briefing to excoriate supporters of the accord as expressing ‘partisan loyalty to the White House’ before conceding that he had not asked Mr. Kerry a single question about the deal.” New York Times, July 23rd.
Wow! What are the alternatives to this accord, as imperfect as it is? Tighten sanctions? Push ‘em harder to mend their evil ways across the board, get Iran to stop fostering terrorism and to recognize Israel, and generally to be nice? If Iran ratifies the treaty and the International Atomic Energy Agency of the U.N. signs off on compliance (which will take a while), given the support of the United Nations as the other five negotiators (U.K, France, Germany, China, and Russia) to lift the sanctions, whether the U.S. goes along or not, Iran is back to being a world trader with open markets to everyone else.  The U.S. would be alone with its then-ineffective sanctions in place… showing the world exactly how powerless we are and how out of step we are with global sentiments. Bottom line, no matter how Congress votes, they have zero chance of stopping the bulk of the Iran accord from happening anyway.
Not to mention that there is not one tiny shred of evidence that even if the sanctions were tightened with global support (good luck) Iran would suddenly renounce its fundamental policy vectors, including their vituperative opposition to the United States and Israel to make a better treaty deal, one that their hardliners oppose as strongly as does the GOP.
Or we could simply bomb Iran into the Stone Age, hitting their widely spread out nuclear facilities, deep underground, with the kind of munitions that would be effective. That of course wouldn’t impact the price of oil (and there aren’t GOP supporters from oil and gas states that just might benefit from such a price rise), huh? Back to $120+/barrel oil and vastly higher prices at the pump. Oh, and forget about the casualties and the hard dollar costs.
But then, our Middle Eastern politics – at least as far as the GOP is concerned – are outsourced to a nation with even fewer supporters than Iran, a nation that faced a critical vote in the U.N. General Assembly 138 to 9 (41 abstentions): Israel, and that’s the margin of their loss on the issue of inviting Palestine to have official standing at the U.N. albeit as an observer. Dem Evangelicals are hell-bent on forcing Armageddon (which triggers the Second Coming of Jesus Christ) through nuclear holocaust involving Israel and its neighbors.
And then maybe you have enjoyed those recent myriad scary ads on television and social media telling us that we should have gotten a “better deal” (without saying exactly how) or that we shouldn’t even be talking to that pariah state, that America/Israel-hating Iran, because they are fomenting terrorism all over the place, untrustworthy, and dangerous. Led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and a new nonprofit group it is supporting, Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran and supported by millions of dollars from huge American supporters of Israel, lots of contributors – anonymous and identified (like Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson) – have financed this this new campaign and are focused on getting a complete Congressional rejection of the deal.
“Groups lobbying against the deal are zeroing in on Democrats like New York Sen. Charles Schumer, as well as Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.). They’re also focused on Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) and Ted Deutch (D-Fla.).
“‘Democrats should be especially concerned about this Iran deal because it’s going to fuel a nuclear arms race and because Iran is a country that routinely violates human rights, including persecuting gay people,’ said Patrick Dorton, a Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran spokesman. Dorton previously worked for AIPAC.” Washington Post, July 21st. But Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu wants Congress to follow his directives… now! CBS News estimates the pro-Israel, anti-Iran-deal financing behind these ads has aggregated to $40 million (vs. $10 million to support the treaty).
I would like someone from that “group without answers” to tell me (1) why you need to negotiate peace treaties only with nations who agree with your perspective and with whom you really do not need a peace treaty and/or (2) why you should never sign a peace treaty until all open issues of every kind are resolved to your favor, never taking positive steps one at a time, only closing when you got everything you want from an enemy who hates you? It’s called total, unconditional surrender. I guess we should never have entered into treaties that reduced nuclear arsenals with that rogue and torturing Soviet Union (a nation that eventually collapsed), and Republican President Nixon had no business, in 1972, opening the door to the People’s Republic of China, a then-repressive nation that had tortured American prisoners during the Korean War! And remember, no matter what the United States does, unless Iran backs out, it’s already a done deal. Go figure.
I’m Peter Dekom, and everyone knows Iran cannot be completely trusted, but until someone has a better implementable path, it’s the best anyone has come up with to date!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Saving Money, Losing Freedom & Fun

The writing is on the wall… or at least the road. Crowded cities and congested highways, insufficient and damaged infrastructure built for a different era and often worn into oblivion, are sooner or later going to force governments to take the joy and freedom of driving away from most if not all of us. We may be able to pick our destination, which will instantly become a government record that can be produced as “evidence” later, but it will be a computer array that will make and implement the choices of how to get there. Our Congress – still struggling over a much-needed transportation infrastructure bill – has no appetite for the trillions of dollars it would take to upgrade, repair and expand our roads to placate existing driver desires.
Local governments struggle with the volume of potholes and bridge failures within their line of sight. Governments are getting very personal in their push against consumer freedom and their cars… and it goes way beyond state and federal emissions and mileage requirements. It’s just too many people in too many cars doing what they want.
One size fits all is the growing mantra. For example, New York City has just mandated that all new replacement cabs for the next decade will be one of a few variations of the Nissan NV200, a boxy vehicle designed specifically for and at the request of the City. The Checker cab of old is long gone, and the Crown Victoria that dominates today will fade from history. But you ain’t seen nothin’ yet! And once again, there is a little change about to occur, in New York City, that augurs badly for the long-term prospect of people driving their own cars.
Earlier this spring, New York “Mayor de Blasio signed a contract with Google to start bringing Google’s patented driverless cars into the New York Taxi fleet. The mayor’s office said that there would be 5,000 driverless cabs on New York City streets by 2016. The driverless vehicle, which first came onto our radar in 2010, has already been legalized for street-use in the state of Nevada and was recently ‘driven’ by a blind man through a Taco bell drive-thru. The driverless taxi cabs will be customized to meet the needs of busy New Yorkers, and each vehicle will come equipped with ATMs, food vending machines, and ‘better entertainment options’ according to the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission.” Inhabit.com, April 1st.
Wow, so much fun! No more lingering cigarette smell left over from a driver waiting for fares… but who’s going to chastise the passenger who lights up (a disemboweled voice, an ejection seat?). Yet you won’t be struggling with a driver who doesn’t speak English and doesn’t really know the city. Will the fare be cheaper because the labor cost dropped like a stone? “No,” you gasp?! Ah, labor cost! Yeah… jobs… yeah… Think of all those drivers who will be laid off or who will never be hired. Our quest to create and hold jobs bucket seems to have sprung another leak. It seems that GPS-guided, environment-sensing, self-driving cars are about to become a part of daily American life.
Google has been experimenting with driverless cars for quite a few years now. They have lots statistics, lots of interesting facts, all published and open to inspection. Clearly a fault-directed legal tort system is going to change, and the insurance company metrics – upon which car insurance rates are based – will also reflect an altered risk profile. A study based these Google numbers suggests that consumers might save an average of $1,000 a year as a result of self-driving cars.
“[The] Ferenstein Wire asked the actuaries at insurance startup Metromile to take evidence from Google’s detailed accident report and construct their own pricing model for self-driving cars… Metromile recently partnered with Uber to provide its drivers a special insurance deal. Since Uber is on record for wanting to replace its fleet with self-driving cars, Metromile will likely be among the first companies that must come up with pricing models at scale.
“The insurance model is based on a 20-year-old single female in the San Francisco Bay Area, driving 12,000 miles/year. Most of the cost savings from self-driving cars come from the near elimination of accidental collisions (a 90% reduction).
“So, why do we still need insurance if so few cars get into accidents?... The model estimates that some cars may be vandalized or broken into, which makes up much of the yearly insurance cost for autonomous vehicles. In the future, self-driving cars could just park themselves in a secure garage at night rather than waiting around while their owner sleeps or goes grocery shopping — making the price even cheaper.” FastCompany.com, July 18th.
As we gravitate toward these automated vehicles, overall commuting and driving patterns will be efficiently controlled by a central computer system (welcome malignant hackers or malevolent terrorists or enemies wanting to freeze America in her tracks!), which in theory should eliminate gridlock (is there a model for Congress?) and traffic jams… reducing accidents that cause these as well. Will people even own cars anymore?
In time, futurists predict, the entire design of cities themselves will also change. Take this view for example: “A fascinating new simulation finds that self-driving cars will terraform [change their topography and shape] cities: 90% of cars will be eliminated, acres of land will open up, and commute times will drop 10%. A team of transportation scientists at the Organization for Cooperation and Development took data on actual trips in Lisbon, Portugal and looked at how a fleet of self-driving, shared ‘taxibots’ would change city landscape [PDF and see the above simulation graphic].
“These ‘taxibots,’ the researchers imagine, are a marriage of mass carpooling and UPS delivery intelligence: they constantly roam throughout cities and match carpool routes with mathematical elegance. Ultimately, they estimate, 9 out of 10 cars would be completely unnecessary  as would public transit.
“‘Nearly the same mobility can be delivered with 10% of the cars. TaxiBots combined with high-capacity public transport could remove 9 out of every 10 cars in a mid-sized European city,’ the paper concludes.” The Ferenstein Wire, April 24th. To us, it seems that this massive alteration in some cities and some countries is just a fact of life that future generations will have to deal with. It may be a while for the most rural areas in the most underdeveloped countries in the world, but the creeping change is happening here… now and in the near future, so we need to be prepared to share the road with these self-driving vehicles… until they envelop us as well.
I’m Peter Dekom, and how do you think masses of self-driving cars will change how you live and move?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Greedy Side of Denying Man-Induced Climate Change

If your wealth stems from the ugliest side of pollution and resource exploitation, who ya gonna call?! If your industry is on the environmental hit list and you just do not want to control your behavior, who ya gonna call? If you can get enough people to buy into a Biblical misinterpretation that even the Pope finds wrong but allows you to pollute, pollute, who ya gonna call? Who’re your biggest contributors, baby? Who’s there with the SuperPacs, dark money and declared, that boosts your election kitty, sonny? Who’s asking for payback, kid? Who ya gonna call, Mr. Hand-outstretched? Kids with asthma, workers with black lungs? Dey don’t vote or write checks! Here’s a little piece from the morning (July 10th) briefing from The Washington Post.
Refusing to implement standards being unveiled next month by the Environmental Protection Agency is the fossil fuel industry’s biggest new ask of Republican governors, especially the four running for president. The Obama administration is putting the finishing touches on far-reaching rules to cut power plant emissions. Recognizing he will not have the votes to override a presidential veto, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told governors in February that they should decline to respond to federal requests for state-issued plans on how they would meet lower emission targets.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican who retains national ambitions despite passing on a 2016 presidential run, has been the most vocal about his plan to ignore federal orders. Pence said [July 9th] that he will “refuse to comply” unless a previously issued draft is massively watered down. “The best way for this rule to be improved is for it to be withdrawn completely,” he told reporters on a 40-minute conference call, which was organized by a leading energy industry association. “No state is obligated to adopt the president’s climate change agenda as their own … We’ve drawn a line in the sand and made it clear that the state of Indiana will not comply … We’ll avail ourselves of all legal remedies.”
The American Energy Alliance is pushing governors to “embrace a Just-Say-No approach,” President Tom Pyle said yesterday after a friendly Q&A with Pence. He praised Texas’ Greg Abbott, Oklahoma’s Mary Fallin, Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker — all Republicans — for threatening to defy the feds…
— Stopping the EPA regs will be a major focus of discussion at ALEC’s annual meeting later this month. At least three presidential candidates—Scott Walker, Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee—are scheduled to speak to the American Legislative Exchange Council when the conservative state policy organization meets in San Diego from July 22-24, according to a copy of the agenda obtained by The Daily 202 [of The Washington Post]. The Post’s Tom Hamburger pulls back the curtain:
·         At a winter meeting in Washington, ALEC had state legislators and industry underwriters review proposed “model bills” that could be distributed to states. One draft bill called for abolishing the EPA and replacing it with a committee of state officials. The idea was put aside after some corporate lobbyists cautioned that it could hurt ALEC’s credibility. Nonetheless, ALEC officials agreed to set up a “working group” to consider further action.
·         While ALEC has been a lightning rod for criticism from the left in recent years, losing some of its high-profile corporate members as a result, the group maintains a core of financial supporters from the coal, oil and utility sectors and has started to grow again. Under new leadership, ALEC has vowed to become more open to dissenting views and debate…
The oil industry is making its presence felt in the early stages of the presidential race. Those tied to the fossil fuel industry write some of the biggest checks in GOP politics. The billionaire Koch brothers, whose business empire includes oil refining, care personally about the issue.
We know that “clean coal” means storing pressurized effluents from coal-fired plants deep underground for future generations to deal with. As of now, there is no commercially viable method for burning coal (mostly for power generation) without significant toxic emissions (in the air or from what’s left after the burn). But if man isn’t deemed the “cause” of global climate change, hey fossil fuel burners need not be concerned with goals to reduce such emissions or move to alternative energy generation, right? The Environmental Protection Agency is simply unnecessary waste, accordingly.
So the fossil fuel industry has created a litmus test for candidates they will support and those that it will use every power at their disposal to crush: their willingness to allow fossil-fuel burning and resource development without EPA interference, statutory or regulatory controls, expensive retrofit cleansing equipment, emissions limits or government commitments to hit target emissions levels. In short, it’s war on Democrats or GOP-candidates unwilling to take a stand against environmental control. And trust me, the fossil fuel industry, despite a recent drop in oil prices, is really, really, really well-funded to implement their policy directives. We certainly want these captains of industry to bring “Beijing air” (above picture) – the product of heavy-coal-burning-power-generation – to American cities in the United States, don’t we?!
I’m Peter Dekom, and the degree of selfish defiance and callous disregard of what’s best for most Americans in unconscionable.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Is This the Real Reason Evangelical Republicans Oppose the Iran Nuclear Accord?

"For they are the spirits of devils, working miracles, which go forth unto the kings of the earth and of the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty. And he gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue, Armageddon.”
(Revelation 16:14, 16).

The Bible has been translated, interpreted, rewritten over the ages through one version of that Holy Tome or another. Biblical writer John Ramsden (Bible Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 1) tackles the complex Evangelical notion of a Middle Eastern war to end all wars, to decimate the heathen (including the Jews in Israel) and to lift the true believers from the earth with the Second Coming of Christ. Armageddon. It’s a bit long (and boy did I edit it!), but worth noting, because of a powerful belief among Evangelicals that a well-armed Israel facing a well-armed regional foe (often deemed to mean nuclear weapons) will trigger the return of Christ, the destruction of all non-believers (sounds a bit ISIS-like, huh?) and the salvation of true Evangelicals.
“In order to present what the Bible has to say we must first clear away a lot of misinformation on the subject. Considering that the word ‘Armageddon’ occurs only once in the Bible, it is amazing how well it is known -- whilst at the same time so little understood! This is simply because it has been taken completely out of context and applied to pretty well any major battle in the history of mankind. Popular belief is that it refers to some forthcoming battle involving Russia, Arabs, Israel and others on the plain of Esdraelon in Northern Israel which is also described as Jezreel or the valley of Megiddo…
“Unfortunately so-called ‘experts’ in linguistics and religious studies seem unable to agree about the location of Armageddon. Some say that it was originally spelt ‘Har-Megiddo’ and therefore means a Hill at the end of the Megiddo valley. The problem with that is that we never read in the Bible of a battle on any such hill. On the contrary the Biblical battles fought at Megiddo were on a plain -- such as when Josiah was killed by Pharoah Necho (see 2 Chron 35:22). Meanwhile, another expert assures us that even though in the 1881 Revised Version of the Bible the word Har-Mageddon appears (and it is the only major version of the Bible to carry this description), the earliest known interpretation extant is in Arabic and means ‘a level trodden place.’ Nevertheless, the general consensus among popular writers and preachers is that Armageddon refers to the place in Northern Israel where a future battle is to be fought out…
“Over 140 years ago a Bible student, John Thomas, pointed out the symbolic meaning of the term Armageddon. While some experts were studying the detailed origins and etymology of the word, and others were scurrying around the Middle East looking for a literal battlefield, Thomas, in his exposition of Revelation(2) demonstrated the need to stand back and take an overall view of what was involved, and what lay behind this essentially symbolic Hebrew term. By doing so he was able to perceive what others may have missed, namely that the word Armageddon could be broken down into three major components: Arema-gai-dun. When put together into a meaningful phrase these Hebrew words could read ‘A heap of sheaves in a valley for judgement.’ Although this is not the place to do so, a digression to show how these words and ideas are used elsewhere in Scripture is extremely interesting. Clearly such an analysis of the word shows how consistent it is with the overall teaching of those prophets who spoke in the Hebrew tongue about things to do with God's land and coming events thereon…
“[But when will Armageddon occur? We don’t know.] The real reason, however, why we do not know when Armageddon will take place is because it involves not just a war between nations but the return of Christ himself. We have seen this in the earlier extract from Revelation chapter 14. We have also seen that it is not just another Middle East war between Jews and Arabs: it is the Great and the Terrible Day of the Lord (Joel 2:31). It is indeed the same event as we read about in Ezekiel (chapter 38), Daniel (chapter 11), Zechariah (chapter 12-14) and elsewhere. A careful reading of those chapters and the contexts in which they occur make it quite clear that they refer to the event described in Revelation 16:14-16 as Armageddon, or, the time when the nations of the earth are gathered together for the battle of that great day of God Almighty. That being so, and as Christ and the saints are involved, it suggests that Armageddon must take place sometime after the return of Christ, after the resurrection and subsequent judgement of the baptized believers (or saints). It is only after this that the work of re-establishing the Kingdom of God on earth can begin… So it is very simply because we do not know when Christ will return that we cannot say precisely when Armageddon will occur…
“Why is it that some people look for Armageddon to occur prior to Christ's return, or believe that his return will be prompted by some such disturbance? We do not know for sure, but if you asked some Bible readers: ‘From whence did Christ ascend, and to what place will he return?,’ they might well say ‘The Mount of Olives,’ but they would be wrong! Where does the Bible provide that information? Curiously enough, it doesn't.”
So if Iran literally slows or stops its nuclear program, the potential for nuclear holocaust (choice of words most intentional) decreases proportionately. Evangelicals love Israeli PM Benjamin “Bibi’ Netanyahu, the ultimate hardliner, a man who favors tough military responses to most of his nation’s issues with hateful neighbors. If anyone can foment Armageddon, Bibi’s your man. But politicians catering to Evangelicals can’t exactly come out and say there are fostering a world where Armageddon will actually annihilate every Jew in Israel (along with the rest of the planet’s non-believers), and that they can, through their policy machinations, literally force the Second Coming of Christ (so Christ is open to such crass manipulation?).
Nobody’s going to tell you that the new nuclear accord with Iran is remotely bulletproof. For those in Congress who pretend to believe that additional sanctions – which have failed to stem Iran’s nuclear program over the years – will bring Iran back to the table, ready to deal, they know that isn’t going to happen. Why should something that has failed for so very long suddenly succeed, and why would the United States believe that the rest of the world would accept such a U.S. restriction and not deal with Iran?
No, the real reason is that having such a treaty pushes back or even eliminates Iran’s nuclear arming… and hence delays Armageddon and the Second Coming. Folks won’t talk about this inane theory, but unless you understand the religious undertones behind this right wing blast of the Iran nuclear reduction accord, you might actually think that the real reason for such fervent opposition is based on detailed strategic analysis and military intelligence. While such considerations cannot be ignored, the real reason is so incredibly unbelievable, other than to an indoctrinated Evangelical, that it truly cannot be spoken openly without a severe risk of global derision.
I’m Peter Dekom, and if you do not believe my analysis, try Googling “Armageddon + War in Israel” and see what other experts have to say on the matter.