Chas' Compilation

A compilation of information and links regarding assorted subjects: politics, religion, science, computers, health, movies, music... essentially whatever I'm reading about, working on or experiencing in life.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Will the Middle Class Survive?

4 Things Politicians Will Never Understand About Poor People
Off the top of your head, how many of your friends can you think of make less than $11,000 a year? Maybe they work some mind-numbing part-time job, taking cover charges and stamping hands at a strip club. Or if you're a bit older, how many families do you know of who have one person working, bringing in less than $23,000 to support a spouse and a couple of kids? There's nothing wrong with either of those things ... but those numbers are the poverty threshold in the U.S., and in my area of the country, it encompasses a fudging poopload of people (sorry, I'm trying to cut down on my cursing).
Poverty is a hot topic for politicians, but it seems like every time they open their mouths about the subject, stupid falls out. There's a huge part of me that wants to grab them by their orphan skin lapels and scream reason into their preciously oblivious brains, but the logical side of me knows it won't matter.
[...]
But of all the poor people I've known over the years -- and I have known a lot -- I have come across very few able-bodied, able-minded people who didn't do something to bring in some money. Even the ones who didn't have so much as a part-time job still managed to at least find temporary seasonal work mowing lawns, shoveling snow, or standing on street corners and playing the guitar with their penis.
So if the issue is that these people are watching reruns and collecting government checks, guess what: 91 percent of government benefits go to the disabled, elderly, or working households. Not a typo -- 91 percent. You're free to speculate that some of those people could try harder or are faking their disability or whatever, but there's no way the reality lines up with this politician fantasy of the lazy masses who just greedily rub their hands together while leeching their unfathomable riches from the always generous American populace.

[...] 
OK, let's be calm here. Let's just take a deep breath and talk about this like the rational, well mannered, non-cursing people that we are. Here is an infographic that ran in the Wall Street Journal talking about how the new tax code would be "highly painful" for Americans. The graphic covers every possible scenario the Wall Street Journal can conceive of, from the single mom only making $260,000 a year to the retired couple trying to get by on a fixed income of $180,000:
Reading that dumb fucking mind turd of an image is like wiping my ass with my eyes. If you can look at that steaming pile of shit and not see what's wrong with it, you live in a different goddamn universe than the rest of us.
No, that didn't come from a politician, but this sure as hell does. That's Linda Sanchez, who is desperately trying to tug at our heartstrings by saying that she lives paycheck to paycheck. On her $174,000 salary. To pay for her multiple homes. Now, I understand that if you live a certain lifestyle and you're a limp dick at finances, it would be pretty easy to burn through that much in a year, but does that make us any more sympathetic? Fuck no, it doesn't. Even as one of the least wealthy members of Congress, she still earns three-and-a-half times more money than the average American household. And 16 times more than those at the very top of the poverty line.
So the question is, how can she possibly think of herself as poor? Because $174,000 a year is poor -- for a member of congress. They have no concept whatsoever of what life is like for someone getting by on what most working people make, let alone somebody subsisting on government aid. Although they can comprehend our income as a number, they cannot comprehend the lifestyle because they haven't lived it and they likely never will. You're not going to find these politicians hanging out in the poor section of town, scrounging change for weed (well, maybe Bill Clinton) -- they spend most of their time around other wealthy people -- other members of Congress (about half of which are millionaires), rich donors, high-powered business types, celebrities, etc. So their idea of "poor" or even "brokeass" is the pitiful bastard at the bottom of the chain who is living off of that measly $174,000 base salary because he or she doesn't have any other income on the side. Linda Sanchez is their version of poverty. [...]
My own income has always been a lot closer to $11,000 than those figures in the Wall St. Journal Info Graphic. And yes I get it, that a lot of people aren't sympathetic to people who make six figure salaries, complaining about taxes.

Yet that graphic was from an article in the Wall Street Journal last year. This year, 2014, many of those groups are getting slammed even harder with more taxes.

People in those income brackets used to put away money for their children's college education, buying a home, buying their own health insurance, saving money in 401k accounts for their retirement, invest in their own businesses in order to supply themselves with jobs and an income. They would use the money to become independent, and maintain their independence, by not having to borrow excessively, or rely on others to supply their needs for them.

That used to be considered a good thing, and why it used to be said that the middle class was the "backbone of America". They knew how to take care of themselves, and not be a burden to other people. The more of their money that is taken in taxes, the less they will have to do that with. Or to invest in their own businesses.

I can sympathize with people who struggle with only $11,000 a year. I've been there, and I'm not far from it now. But destroying the middle class isn't going to help the most people in the long run. A tide that lifts all boats, would be preferable to sinking the most productive boats.

A congress that is more interested in lifting all boats, instead of just looking out for it's own interests, might be a good step in the right direction. They could start by actually passing a budget, and living within it, like the majority of the people in this country have to do.
   

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Saturday, April 05, 2014

The "Permanent Political Class" Problem

I came across this book a while back:

Throw Them All Out: How Politicians and Their Friends Get Rich off Insider Stock Tips, Land Deals, and Cronyism That Would Send the Rest of Us to Prison
One of the biggest scandals in American politics is waiting to explode: the full story of the inside game in Washington shows how the permanent political class enriches itself at the expense of the rest of us. Insider trading is illegal on Wall Street, yet it is routine among members of Congress. Normal individuals cannot get in on IPOs at the asking price, but politicians do so routinely. The Obama administration has been able to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars to its supporters, ensuring yet more campaign donations. An entire class of investors now makes all of its profits based on influence and access in Washington. Peter Schweizer has doggedly researched through mountains of financial records, tracking complicated deals and stock trades back to the timing of briefings, votes on bills, and every other point of leverage for politicians in Washington. The result is a manifesto for revolution: the Permanent Political Class must go.
Pretty serious accusations. Could it really be that bad? Apparently. The TV Program 60 Minutes eventually did a show about it. It generated so much outrage, that Congress had to pass a law forbidding themselves from participating in insider trading. But guess what? It didn't last long:

Congress Quickly And Quietly Rolls Back Insider Trading Rules For Itself
In November of 2011, the TV show 60 Minutes did a big expose on insider trading within Congress. While everyone else is subject to basic insider trading rules, it turned out that members of Congress were exempt from the rules. And, as you would imagine, many in Congress have access to market-moving, non-public information. And they made use of it. To make lots and lots of money. Of course, after that report came out and got lots of attention, Congress had to act, and within months they had passed the STOCK Act with overwhelming support in Congress to make insider trading laws that apply to everyone else finally apply to Congress and Congressional staffers as well. As that link notes:

The lopsided votes showed lawmakers desperate to regain public trust in an election year, when the public approval rating of Congress has sunk below 15 percent.

Of course, here we are in 2013 and, lo and behold, it is no longer an election year. And apparently some of the details of the ban on insider trading were beginning to chafe Congressional staffers, who found it hard to pad their income with some friendly trades on insider knowledge.

So... with very little fanfare, Congress quietly rolled back a big part of the law late last week. Specifically the part that required staffers to post disclosures about their financial transactions, so that the public could make sure there was no insider trading going on. Congress tried to cover up this fairly significant change because they, themselves, claimed that it would pose a "national risk" to have this information public. A national risk to their bank accounts.

It was such a national risk that Congress did the whole thing quietly, with no debate. The bill was introduced in the Senate on Thursday and quickly voted on late that night when no one was paying attention. Friday afternoon (the best time to sneak through news), the House picked it up by unanimous consent. The House ignored its own promise to give Congress three days to read a bill before holding a vote, because this kind of thing is too important to let anyone read the bill before Congress had to pass it.

And, of course, yesterday, President Obama signed it into law. Because the best way to rebuild trust in Congress, apparently, is to roll back the fact that people there need to obey the same laws as everyone else. That won't lead the public to think that Congress is corrupt. No, not at all.
That was last year; so it just continues, "Business as usual." Disgusting. Visit the original article for all the embedded links.

There is a Question and Answer segment on the webpage for Peter Schweizer's book:

Editorial Reviews
Amazon.com Review
Amazon Exclusive: A Q&A with Author Peter Schweizer

Q:When did you realize that so many insider trading and sweetheart land deals were going on?

A: When I first discovered that members of Congress are exempt from insider trading laws, I didn’t believe it. Then, when I started to look at their stock trades and compare them with what they were doing in office, I was stunned.

Q: What do you mean by the "Permanent Political Class"?

A: I think politics in Washington has become a business opportunity. Republicans and Democrats are not so different as you think. They work together to enrich themselves. They have designed the system to work so that they can make lots of money doing things that would get the rest of us sent to jail.

Q: What do you mean by "honest graft"?

A: When people think of politicians making money in Washington, they think of bribery and other illegal activities. That’s small potatoes. The real money is made by doing stuff that’s legal, including insider trading on the stock market and land deals.

Q: Politicians are exempt from insider trading laws? You’re kidding, right?

A: No. They write the rules, and guess what: the rules that apply to us don’t apply to them. By the way, they are also exempt from whistleblower laws. If you see your boss committing a financial crime, you can report them and you will be protected. You can’t be fired. But if your boss is a congressman? You’re toast. You are not protected.

Q: What’s wrong with politicians who trade stock? Don’t we want them involved in the economy?

A: Yes, but they are doing exactly what corporate insiders get sent to jail for doing. It’s a double standard and it’s unfair. If Martha Stewart had been in the U.S. Senate, she would have been protected.
Congress should be forbidden to pass any laws that do not also apply to themselves. If they had to get their own health care under the same laws that we do, the Affordable Care Act would not exist in it's present form; it would have been something better. The Healthcare.gov site might have actually worked, if they and their families had to use it themselves.

If congress had to actually live under the laws they pass for the rest of us, they would take greater care. But they don't, and they don't. That needs to change.

Congress is supposed to exist to serve us, not rule over us.


Also see:

Jon Stewart Tears Up Congress For Quietly Scaling Back Insider Trading Law: The ‘F*cker Act’

   

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Thursday, April 03, 2014

GOP must "Get Beyond Deportation"

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul Says GOP Must Appeal To Hispanics, Get ‘Beyond Deportation’
[...] This certainly was not the first time that Paul, since being elected to the Senate in 2010, has attempted to connect with Hispanics and other minorities.

However, Republicans’ interest in his policy vision and his vision for broadening the party base continues to grow as he ascends in the very, very early 2016 polls and travels the country. Recent stops have included those in Democrat-heavy Detroit and at the University of California, Berkeley.

Paul said Tuesday that Republicans need to focus on such issues as reforming the country’s work visa system and improving educational and employment opportunities for minorities.

However, the GOP must first make clear it is not “just the party of deportation,” he argued.

“The bottom line is that the Hispanic community … is not going to hear us until we get beyond that issue,” Paul told attendees at a symposium sponsored by the conservative Media Research Center and the American Principles Project. “They’re not going to care whether we go to the same church or have the same values or believe in the same kind of future of the country until we get beyond that. … We’ve got to get beyond deportation to get to the rest of the issues.” [...]
It's been pretty obvious for quite some time. But there is a segment of the GOP that has been too slow to wake up to the reality of changing demographics. Not to mention, popular opinion. Two realities that decide elections.
   

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Sunday, March 09, 2014

Thieves who offer Customer Suport to victims? It's called "Ransomware"

Just when you thought you'd seen it all:

'Perfect' ransomware is the scariest threat to your PC
Nothing spurs malware development like success, and that’s likely to be the case in the coming months with ransomware.

Ransomware has been around for around a decade, but it wasn’t until last fall, with the introduction of CryptoLocker, that the malevolent potential of the bad app category was realized. In the last four months of 2013 alone, the malicious software raked in some $5 million, according to Dell SecureWorks. Previously, it took ransomware purveyors an entire year to haul in that kind of money.

So is it any wonder that the latest iteration of this form of digital extortion has attracted the attention of cyber criminals? A compromised personal computer for a botnet or Distributed Denial of Service attack is worth about a buck to a byte bandit, explained Johannes B. Ullrich, chief research officer at the SANS Institute. “With ransomware, the attacker can easily make $100 and more,” he said.

What distinguishes CryptoLocker from past ransomware efforts is its use of strong encryption. Document and image files on machines infected with the Trojan are scrambled using AES 256-bit encryption, and the only way for a keyboard jockey to regain use of the files is to pay a ransom for a digital key to decrypt the data.

[...]

Honor among thieves
The CryptoLocker crew also know the value of maintaining good customer relations. “They’re honoring people who do pay the ransom,” said Jarvis, of SecureWorks.

“In most cases they’re sending the decryption keys back to the computer once they receive payment successfully,” he explained. “We don’t know what the percentage of people who successfully do that is, but we know it’s part of their business model not to lie to people and not do it.”

Moreover, in November, they began offering support to victims who, for whatever reason, fail to meet the hijackers’ ransom deadlines. By submitting a portion of an encrypted file to the bad actors at a black website and paying the ransom, a victim can receive a key to decrypt their files. “You have to reinfect yourself with the malware but once you do that, you can get a successful decryption,” Jarvis explained.

[...]

Ransomware Inc.
"It is inevitable that we will see a cryptographic ransomware toolkit,” he added, “maybe even multiple toolkits because it’s clear that there’s a business opportunity here for criminals.”

Moreover, that opportunity is likely to reach beyond the consumer realm and into the greener pastures of business. “Going after consumers is small fish,” said Bruen, of the Digital Citizens Alliance. “The next step is to conduct ransom operations on major companies. This has already happened,” he said.

“From an attacker’s perspective, there’s definitely a higher risk in getting caught because companies are going to throw more money at the problem than an ordinary consumer can,” he continued, “but the payoff from one of these companies—a Target or a Nieman Marcus—will be much larger.”

Current ransomware attacks involve encrypting select file types on a hard drive, but a business attack will likely choose a higher value target. “Cryptographic keys and digital certificates are ripe for ransom,” Venafi’s Bocek said.

"Whether it’s taking out the key and certificate that secures all communications for a bank or the SSH keys that connect to cloud services for an online retailer, keys and certificates are a very attractive target,” he observed. [...]
Welcome to the Brave new world. The orginal article has embedded links, and more details about the evolution of this software, the way it spreads, and it's potential future applications.

I've already come across a lesser "scareware" version of Ransomeware, that was mentioned in the article. It locked up one of my Linux computers, and wanted payment to unlock it, so this isn't just a Microsoft thing. I was able to get rid of it by uninstalling my browser, clearing the cache, and reinstalling Firefox. But what they are talking about in this article is much more advanced.

Scary stuff.
     

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What happens when vaccinations stop?

The green is Whooping Cough, the red is Measls:



The toll of the anti-vaccination movement, in one devastating graphic
[...] A couple of manifestations stand out. One is the prevalence of measles in Europe -- especially Britain -- and the U.S. Measles is endemic in the underdeveloped world because of the unavailability of the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine.

But in the developed world it's an artifact of the anti-vaccination movement, which has associated the vaccine with autism. That connection, promoted by the discredited British physician Andrew Wakefield and the starlet Jenny McCarthy, has been thoroughly debunked. But its effects live on, as the map shows.

Vaccine panic also plays a role in the shocking incidence in the U.S. of whooping cough, also beatable by a common vaccine. Researchers have pointed to the effect of "non-medical exemptions" from legally required whooping cough immunizations -- those premised on personal beliefs rather than medical reasons -- as a factor in a 2010 outbreak of whooping cough in California.

These manifestations underscore the folly and irresponsibility of giving credence to anti-vaccination fanatics, as Katie Couric did on her network daytime TV show in December. We examined the ethics of that ratings stunt here and here.

Among other worthwhile examinations of the impact of the anti-vaxxers, see this piece about growing up unvaccinated in Great Britain in the 1970s, and this disturbing piece by Julia Ioffe about her battle with whooping cough, a disease no American should have. [...]
The original article has embedded links.

Measles Outbreak Spreads from Coast to Coast
State health officials in New York recently reported 16 cases of Measles in northern Manhattan and the Bronx, and others say the Measles are becoming a coast-to-coast problem. The New York City outbreak consists of 7 adults and 9 children, and while 2 of the children were too young for the immunization, 2 others were children whose parents refused to get them their shots. Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania have also witnessed a Measles outbreak in recent weeks.

Measles is a contagious illness spread through respiration. Classic symptoms of Measles include fever, cough, runny eyes or nose, and a recognizable rash. Less severe side effects of Measles include diarrhea to more serious and life-altering ones such as pneumonia, brain damage, and corneal ulceration. Risk factors for Measles are malnutrition, immun0deficiency, pregnancy and Vitamin A deficiency. In developed countries such as the U.S., children are immunized against Measles by the age of 18 months. Un-vaccinated individuals are at risk of contracting Measles. [...]
But what about the nine adults? Had they been vaccinated, and got it anyway? I got measles when I was 15, even though I had a vaccination when I was younger. I don't think it always works.
     

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Sunday, March 02, 2014

Is the 21st Century going to be the begining of the Robotic Revolution?

This video suggests it's an actual possibility.



Future is Today - Humanoid Robots 2014
In an earlier post I did with a video of a fantasy android, I suggested that such a technologically advanced AI machine was no where near being developed. I stand by that opinon. However, THIS video gives us a look at what IS near in our future. It's astounding.

Much of the video centers around Japan, where robotics are at an advanced stage. Since the earthquake and nuclear accident of 2011, there has been a new emphasis on developing robots for dangerous work in disaster areas where it's unsafe for humans to go.

I've previously posted about Asimo, Honda's domestic robot. In the video, you will see how much Asimo has evolved since then, as well as many other robots from other countries.

Someone says at one point in the video, that the 20th century began with the industrial revolution, and ended with the computer revolution. And that now the 21st century is beginning with the Robotic revolution. What the video shows, gives a lot of credence to that assertion.

Human-like androids may be far off, but what is near, is going to be quite interesting in it's own right.
     

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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Funding the Affordable Care Act

Or not. With 2.5 million Americans leaving the workforce, that's 2.5 million less paying into it. Even the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) can do math:

White House: It's A Good Thing That Obamacare Will Drive 2.5 Million Americans Out Of The Workforce
[...] By 2024, says the CBO, Obamacare will reduce the size of the U.S. labor force by 2.5 million full-time-equivalent workers. That’s roughly triple what the CBO had estimated three years ago. Such a sizeable decline in the labor force will have substantial detrimental effects on the U.S. economic and fiscal picture.

[...]

In its annual, 182-page Budget and Economic Outlook, the CBO undertook an overhaul of the way it analyzes the effect of Obamacare on the job market. The new, larger estimate of the law’s negative impact on the labor force derives from three factors: (1) Obamacare’s employer mandate, which will discourage hiring and reduce wages offered by employers; (2) Obamacare’s $1 trillion in tax increases, which will discourage work and depress economic growth; and (3) the law’s $2 trillion in subsidies for low-income individuals, which will discourage many from remaining in the labor force.

Let’s focus on that last point, because it’s the one that has been the least-discussed in the media. In the past twelve months, a spate of research from academic economists has concluded that the health law, by offering economic benefits to low-income individuals, will disincentivize some of these individuals from continuing to work. Casey Mulligan of the University of Chicago has been particularly persuasive on this front, publishing two papers with the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Several economists, like Harvard’s Kate Baicker, MIT’s Amy Finkelstein, Texas A&M’s Laura Dague, and Northwestern’s Craig Garthwaite have found that expanding Medicaid is associated with rising unemployment. “Taking that research into account, CBO estimates that expanded Medicaid eligibility under the ACA will, on balance, reduce incentives to work.”

More significantly, as Casey Mulligan has warned, the new subsidized insurance exchanges will allow low-income workers to work less while maintaining the same effective income: what economists call the income effect. In addition, because the subsidies decline on a sliding scale as you make more money, that sliding scale means that as workers work more, they make less per hour worked: what economists call the substitution effect.

When Mitt Romney signed his health-reform legislation in Massachusetts in 2006, economists didn’t discern a substantial impact on the labor market. That led many Obamacare cheerleaders to dismiss concerns that the law would depress the workforce. But Mulligan observes that the Massachusetts law did not have a meaningful impact on income tax rates, unlike Obamacare. The ACA “increases national rates about 12 times as much as the Massachusetts law increased rates,” notes Mulligan; “among other things, [Massachusetts’] employer penalty is an order of magnitude less.”

CBO staff, to its credit, read the sheaf of new research on this topic, and revised its estimates accordingly. Hence all the hubbub about the new report. But wait—there’s more!

Carney: Americans should stop working ‘to pursue their dreams’

After the CBO review came out, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney published a statement in which he declared, remarkably, that it’s a good thing that millions of Americans may drop out of the work force:

Over the longer run, CBO finds that because of this law, individuals will be empowered to make choices about their own lives and livelihoods, like retiring on time rather than working into their elderly years or choosing to spend more time with their families. At the beginning of this year, we noted that as part of this new day in health care, Americans would no longer be trapped in a job just to provide coverage for their families, and would have the opportunity to pursue their dreams.

Bored with your job? No worries—now you can quit, thanks to the generosity of other taxpayers. Want to retire early? No worries—now you can, thanks to the generosity of other taxpayers, and also thanks to the higher premiums that young people will be forced to pay on your behalf. The White House’s apparently sincere belief—echoed by progressive pundits at MSNBC, The New Republic, and the L.A. Times—is that it’s a good thing for fewer Americans to be economically self-sufficient.

If you’re one of the chumps out there who still toils away at a challenging job, and still pays taxes so that others can “pursue their dreams,” you have a right to resent the White House’s argument. And the “dream-pursuers” themselves should become aware of all the research suggesting that earned success, through hard work, is the most reliable path to true happiness.

Participation in the labor force was already declining, thanks to the poor economy and the retirement of the Baby Boomers. Obamacare, it appears, will accelerate that process, forcing fewer and fewer taxpayers to support a greater number of government beneficiaries.

No universal-coverage plan is immune from this problem

I should issue two caveats before I go on: any health-reform plan that seeks to offer coverage to the uninsured will have this type of effect on the labor market. As Josh Barro notes, the new Republican plan to replace Obamacare offered by Senators Tom Coburn (Okla.), Richard Burr (N.C.), and Orrin Hatch (Utah) also has a means-tested subsidy to help the poor buy health insurance.

In addition, it is genuinely a good thing for us to move to a system where people control their own health dollars and their own health coverage, and aren’t stuck at a job because they’re afraid of losing the coverage they have. But giving people the opportunity to switch jobs is quite a different goal from encouraging them to drop out of the work force altogether.

The negative effect of Obamacare on the labor market is far worse than any Republican alternative would be, because the ACA dramatically expands Medicaid, and because the law heavily subsidizes health insurance for those nearing retirement. In addition, Obamacare depresses economic growth through a $1 trillion tax increase, and increases the cost of hiring new workers, because of its employer mandate requiring most businesses to offer health coverage to every worker.

The CBO report harbors more bad news

The new CBO report contained a lot of other interesting information. CBO projects that economic growth will be more sluggish than they had previously projected. From 2018 to 2023, nominal GDP growth will average 4.2 percent, compared to the CBO’s previous estimate of 4.4 percent. Over the same period, unemployment will average 5.6 percent, higher than the previous estimate of 5.4 percent.

Because of this slower economic growth, CBO projects that from 2014 to 2023, the federal government will receive $1.4 trillion less in tax revenue than it had projected last year. As a result, “CBO now estimates that the cumulative deficit for the 2014-2023 period…would be about $1.0 trillion greater than it projected in May [2013].” [...]
The biggest problem with the ACA, the way it is, is funding it. Parts of it were fine, and the Republican plan embraced those parts. But other parts are unsustainable. What is the point of passing legislation that is unsustainable?

Ideally, the president should have worked with Democrats and Republicans in Congress to combine aspects of both their plans, into something that would work. But that didn't happen. We got the Democrats plan shoved down our throats. Now what's going to happen, as this disaster continues to unfold, and it starts to fail?

It looks like we shall see. We will all have front row seats, whether we want them or not.

The full article at Forbes.com has many embedded links, graphs, and videos.

     

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A more moderate Iran?

That's the Image they are trying to project on the world stage. But what's going on at home?



Iranian executions spiking despite thaw with West, ‘moderate president’
Sources say could mean power struggle in Tehran
The number of executions carried out by Iranian authorities — often hanging dubiously convicted citizens from construction cranes in public — has risen sharply since President Hassan Rouhani took office in August, a surge most likely because of a secret power struggle within Iran’s notoriously veiled political system.

Away from positive news coverage of the Obama administration’s push for nuclear detente with Iran, the Islamic republic is executing about 66 people per month, 19 more per month than during the 2-year period before Mr. Rouhani took office, according to an analysis of figures compiled by nonpartisan groups including Amnesty International, the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center and various Iranian opposition activists in Washington.

Critics of the nuclear deal are citing the executions as evidence that Mr. Rouhani is far from the moderate reformer that many portrayed him to be upon his ascension to the presidency.

But U.S. intelligence sources, human rights advocates and high-level sources on Capitol Hill caution against jumping to that conclusion. In interviews with The Washington Times, several sources said reasons for the surge in executions are complex.

“There are indications that the Iranian regime is executing more people now compared to just a year ago,” one U.S. intelligence official told The Times on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely about sensitive issues. “But it’s difficult to identify any overarching political strategy behind Tehran’s actions.”

Mr. Rouhani may have a political mandate from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to thaw relations with the West. But sources say the president may have limited control over the nation’s judiciary, where decisions are made by other players — including Islamist hard-liners with mandates of their own from Ayatollah Khamenei.

A leading theory is that the leader of the Iranian judiciary, Sadeq Larijani, is green-lighting more executions in an attempt to smear Mr. Rouhani’s image as a moderate. The spike in hangings also may result from Ayatollah Khamenei’s desire to hammer home to Iranians that the mullahs’ grip on society remains tight — even if Mr. Rouhani is seen to be spreading the rhetoric of reform on the world stage.

Human rights outrage

Either way, human rights advocates say, Iran is flagrantly violating international law.

After Amnesty International’s claim that 33 people were hanged in a single week last month, the top human rights office at the United Nations noted that “28 women and a number of political prisoners” were among those executed in 2013. The office also said the killings were based on convictions that do not meet the “most serious crimes” threshold under international law.

“The persistent execution of individuals for exercising their rights to freedom of assembly, association and affiliation to minority groups contravenes universally accepted human rights principles and norms,” said Ahmed Shaheed, U.N. special rapporteur for the situation of human rights in Iran.

[...]

Some believe Iran’s executions will derail prospects for a long-term thaw in relations with West.

“Iranian authorities’ attempts to change their international image are meaningless if at the same time executions continue to increase,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, a deputy director at Amnesty International, which opposes all executions everywhere.

The situation is adding to unease in Washington, where lawmakers are split over the recent push for diplomacy with Tehran. Most Democrats, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who heads the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, call for patience while nuclear negotiations proceed.

Many Republicans say Tehran simply can’t be trusted.

“History has taught us that we are not dealing with an honest broker,” Rep. George Holding, North Carolina Republican and member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said on the House floor last week. “The election of President Rouhani does nothing to change the fact that the supreme leader is still in charge.”

Others argue that Mr. Rouhani is under immense pressure, walking a tightrope between easing tensions with the West and preventing disruption inside Iran.

“We’re clearly seeing a power struggle playing out in Iran between the hard-liners, who aren’t willing to compromise an inch on the nuclear program, and Rouhani, who has placed great emphasis on engagement with the West,” said Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

“The hard-liners,” Mr. Engel told The Times, “are willing to do what it takes to sully the image of Rouhani in the eyes of the West.”

The Larijani theory

The U.S. intelligence official said Iranian Judiciary Chief Sadeq Larijani “could be trying to send a message that tolerance has its limits.”

Iranian sources highlight Mr. Larijani as the face of Tehran’s resistance to international criticism over executions. He responded harshly to the United Nations last week, declaring at a meeting with religious and political leaders in Iran that the Islamic republic “will never cave to this type of pressure” from Western-backed entities, according to a report by Al-Monitor, which cited a pro-regime Persian-language website as its source.

There are signs that some in Mr. Rouhani’s inner circle are at odds with Mr. Larijani and have been angered by the executions. As hangings spiked in November, Ali Younesi, a reformist member of Iran’s parliament and Mr. Rouhani’s special assistant in ethnic and minority affairs, said “extremist elements” in the government were responsible.

His comments were cited by the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, which said “sources close to the Rouhani government” privately claimed that some executions were “actions as sabotage.”

According to those sources, the execution surge is “intended to deprive the government of the chance to present a more positive portrayal of Iran on the international arena, and to discredit Rouhani and his team, casting doubt on whether he is able to deliver his campaign promises to safeguard the nation’s basic rights.”

But the extent to which blame should fall on Mr. Larijani is not clear. Another source who spoke with The Times said human rights advocates may be overlooking evidence of closeness between the judiciary chief and Mr. Rouhani.

One of Mr. Larijani’s brothers is parliament Chairman Ali Larijani, who is believed to be closely aligned with Mr. Rouhani in the push for a nuclear deal with the West.

Others point out that Mr. Rouhani named Mostafa Pourmohammadi in August to become justice minister. At the time, Human Rights Watch noted that Mr. Pourmohammadi, previously a deputy intelligence minister, has long been implicated in the government’s 1988 executions of thousands of political dissidents, as well as the assassinations of several intellectuals in 1998.

Supreme leader’s power

Overanalysis of the politics behind the spike in executions may be irrelevant, said some Iran analysts. They said that whatever is playing out in Tehran is occurring beneath the gaze of the supreme leader — the only figure truly capable of changing the nation’s policies.

After Tehran’s violent crackdown on pro-reform demonstrators in 2009, it has been a common perception in Washington that widespread public frustration burns deeply beneath the Islamic republic’s surface.

“At times of widespread popular discontent, the regime in Tehran uses executions, in particular public hanging of convicts, as a means of terrorizing the public and reminding Iranians of the power of the central government,” said Ali Alfoneh, a researcher at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies specializing in the inner workings of the Iranian regime.

“Therefore,” Mr. Alfoneh said, “the rise in the number of executions signifies both popular discontent and the regime’s nervousness.” [...]
While the situation is complex, and there are many factions with competing agendas on all sides, the one constant factor that does not seem to change, is that the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is always in charge, and pulling all the strings. And I'll bet he is nervous, lest he end up like Mubarak or Qaddafi or any number of other deposed Dictators.

Iran has a high number of young, restless, unemployed people, who want change. Killing large numbers of them is one way to try to keep them under control. Meanwhile:



Iran stocks are booming, and nuclear talks are why
As Iran's government and a group of global powers creep forward on talks about easing economic sanctions slapped on that country, the Iranian street is showing signs of breaking free from the economic stagnation that has crippled the country for years.

Iran and the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany agreed on Thursday to a timeline and framework for further talks next month on restraining the Islamic state's nuclear ambitions. At the same time, United Nations inspectors have reported improved access to Iran's nuclear facilities.

All parties involved continue to warn that serious differences remain in the talks, and hopes for a final deal by July have been called ambitious.

[...]

Despite the market's rise, there are lingering questions about the economy. Inflation has lowered somewhat, but it still comes in at a staggering 35 percent a year. Rabii said he's optimistic, however, that the new government understands the economy and that inflation will be in the 20 percent range next year as a result.

Unemployment is also relatively high: Government estimates put it at 12 percent. However that's much lower than many European countries that were caught up in the financial crisis.

Economists who follow Iran add that it has a young and well-educated population. Because jobs have been hard to come by, many young people have chosen to stay in school and earn higher degrees. Many analysts believe Iran will be eager to attract new foreign investment in order to create jobs for the up-and-coming segment of the population.

Alireza Nader, an Iran expert for the think tank Rand Corp., is one of those analysts. Nader said he sees evidence that Iran's economy has improved since the initial November deal. Still, he noted, most of the sanctions levied against Iran over its nuclear program remain intact.

"Iran is losing more money than it is earning, especially since it can't export all of its oil," Nader said. He agreed with Rabii that confidence in the new government of President Hassan Rouhani is helping the public's mood and giving strength to the Iranian currency, the rial.

Cliff Kupchan, who studies Iran for the Eurasia Group, told CNBC that he sees an immediate improvement in Iran's economy since the initial deal was reached about three months ago. But he said Iran's economic gains would be cut if a nuclear deal falls through and full sanctions are restored.

"The rial would plummet again, Iran's deficit would grow, access to foreign cash reserves would vanish, I think most of the gains Iran has seen would disappear," he said.

Turquoise's Rabii agreed that a deal would help Iran's financial situation more than an impasse would. [...]
I have mixed feeling about all this. On the one hand, if foreign in vestment were to pour into Iran, in theory, that would give the West some leverage with Iran, by tying Irans economy and prosperity in with Western Markets.

I say "in theory", because whatever seems to be happening in Iran, it's always the Supreme Leader who is in charge. He could welcome Western investment in Iran, to build up and strengthen it's economy, and then at some point confiscate those assets and throw the Westerners out, as Iran has done in the past. If they could use those new assets and corresponding strength to then wage war against Iraq, or otherwise gain access to Iraq's oilfields, they could disregard the West completely, as they would then be in a position of great power, and could pursue their nuclear ambitions without restraint.

That is the danger of allowing Iran to strengthen, while the Supreme Leader Khamenei is still in charge. His agenda is his own. It seems to me unwise to risk encouraging or advancing it. And look and see what "reform" means in Iran currently.

We have to ask ourselves, is this is a country we wish to strengthen? We kept pressure on the former Soviet Union until it self-destructed. Should we not do the same here?


Some of my previous posts about Iran:


Is it time for regime change in Iran yet?

Iran, under the surface... is it crumbling?

Hangings in Iran increase, to silence dissent

Iran's pressing needs and Iraq's vulnerability.

Purging Western Influences from Islamic minds

Iranian Fashion Police Publicly Bludgeon Women

Amadinejad talks crazy on Iranian TV, with help from a "Death to Amercia" chorus

Amadinejad supports Pop Islam, Iranian nationalism, to serve the goal of Martydom
     


     

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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Androids: Fantasy VS Reality

The fantasy Android:



But what is the reality of Artificial Intelligence? The harsh truth:

Supercomputer Takes 40 Minutes To Model 1 Second of Brain Activity
Despite rumors, the singularity, or point at which artificial intelligence can overtake human smarts, still isn't quite here. One of the world's most powerful supercomputers is still no match for the humble human brain, taking 40 minutes to replicate a single second of brain activity.

Researchers in Germany and Japan used K, the fourth-most powerful supercomputer in the world, to simulate brain activity. With more than 700,000 processor cores and 1.4 million gigabytes of RAM, K simulated the interplay of 1.73 billion nerve cells and more than 10 trillion synapses, or junctions between brain cells. Though that may sound like a lot of brain cells and connections, it represents just 1 percent of the human brain's network.

The long-term goal is to make computing so fast that it can simulate the mind— brain cell by brain cell— in real-time. That may be feasible by the end of the decade, researcher Markus Diesmann, of the University of Freiburg, told the Telegraph.
It "may be" feasible by the end of the decade? To catch up with one second of human brain activity? Even if it does, we're talking about a Super-Computer. It's a long way from the android brain in the video. And yes, computers are advancing very fast. But to catch up with a human brain, much less surpass it... it won't happen tomorrow.

     

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If cosmic rays could play classical music instruments...

Oh, wait a minute! They can:

NASA Moon Probe Broadcasts Space Weather Symphony Live Online
A NASA probe orbiting the moon is broadcasting live cosmic tunes from a computer near you.

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has a new internet radio station for people who want to check out space weather through music. Operating in real time — as long as the craft isn't behind the moon — the station plays music that changes in pitch and instrument based on how much radiation the spacecraft experiences.

"Our minds love music, so this offers a pleasurable way to interface with the data," project leader Mary Quinn of the University of New Hampshire, Durham, said in a statement. "It also provides accessibility for people with visual impairment."



Cloudy, with a chance of B-flat

Launched in 2009, LRO orbits the moon as it maps its surface. The craft carries with it a Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation, or CRaTER. Six detectors on the instrument measure the radiation from solar activity and galactic cosmic rays.

The detectors measure how many energetic particles are registered each second and sends the information to CRaTER Live Radio, where software converts the measurements into pitches in a four-octave scale. Six pitches are played each second — one for each detector. Low pitches indicate high activity, while higher pitches indicate lower counts.

As activity increases, the musical instruments scale as well. The main instrument at the lowest level of activity is a piano. Two instruments up, it becomes a marimba. Further activity is indicated by a steel drum or a guitar, while the peak of normal activity is indicated by the strum of a banjo.

During the course of a significant solar event such as a solar flare, radiation activity may exceed the normal operating range. In such a case, the software creates a second operating range with the piano at the bottom and banjo at the top, but the background violin and cello scales. A drop in pitch for the background instruments indicates a move to the secondary range.

24-hours of space tunes

LRO broadcasts 24 hours, and is live at all times except when the craft travels behind the moon. During this blackout period, the station reuses the previous hour's activity, changing the sound of the background bongo drum and muting the chiming triangle.

The process, known as sonofication, converts data into sound and has been utilized in a number of fields on a variety of missions, including Voyager 1, Voyager 2 and Kepler. [...]
The actual website you can listen to it on live, is here:

CRaTER Live Internet Radio Station Sonification/Music Design

Give the page a minute or two to load. In the upper left hand corner is a sound bar that controls the music, it should start playing automatically. The site has a lot of detailed information about how it all works.

I've checked it out a few times. The "Music" is probably more ambient than musical, though it can vary a considerable degree, depending on the space weather. Sometimes it sounds more pleasant than others.

Your mileage may vary! ;-)


     

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Could you make the grade in 1912?

This was kinda depressing:

1912 eighth grade exam: Could you make it to high school in 1912?
A 1912 eighth-grade exam was donated to a museum in Bullitt County, Ky.

The Bullitt County Genealogical Society put a scanned copy of the 1912 eighth-grade exam on its website today.

This exam was called the "Common Exam" in 1912 and was "apparently a big deal," according to the Society's description of the scanned document. Students in Bullitt County would come to the county courthouse once or twice a year to take the exam.

For passing the exam, students could be given scholarships to attend high school ("which was also a big deal back then," the site says).

The exam consists of 56 questions, a 40-word spelling test, and mentions a separate reading and writing test.

The test quizzed students on mathematics, grammar, geography, physiology, civil government, and history.

Try your hand at some of the questions. Would you have made it into high school in 1912? [...]
Try the questions out... and weep. I gave up pretty quick. I'm sure I actually learned some of this stuff back in the day, but it ain't available on instant recall. All I can say now is, "Where's my calculator?"

     

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