Thursday, December 31, 2015

Advice For Your Life

You know how you can hear something a hundred times in a hundred different ways before it finally gets through to you? The ten truths listed below fall firmly into that category – life lessons that many of us likely learned years ago, and have been reminded of ever since, but for whatever reason, haven’t fully grasped.

This, my friends, is my attempt at helping all of us, myself included, “get it” and “remember it” once and for all…


We know deep down that life is short, and that death will happen to all of us eventually, and yet we are infinitely surprised when it happens to someone we know. It’s like walking up a flight of stairs with a distracted mind, and misjudging the final step. You expected there to be one more stair than there is, and so you find yourself off balance for a moment, before your mind shifts back to the present moment and how the world really is.

LIVE your life TODAY! Don’t ignore death, but don’t be afraid of it either. Be afraid of a life you never lived because you were too afraid to take action. Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside you while you’re still alive. Be bold. Be courageous. Be scared to death, and then take the next step anyway.


Your life is yours alone. Others can try to persuade you, but they can’t decide for you. They can walk with you, but not in your shoes. So make sure the path you decide to walk aligns with your own intuition and desires, and don’t be scared to switch paths or pave a new one when it makes sense.

Remember, it’s always better to be at the bottom of the ladder you want to climb than the top of the one you don’t. Be productive and patient. And realize that patience is not about waiting, but the ability to keep a good attitude while working hard for what you believe in. This is your life, and it is made up entirely of your choices. May your actions speak louder than your words. May your life preach louder than your lips. May your success be your noise in the end.

And if life only teaches you one thing, let it be that taking a passionate leap is always worth it. Even if you have no idea where you’re going to land, be brave enough to step up to the edge of the unknown, and listen to your heart.

Follow the link to read the other eight. With lots of embedded links. It's good stuff to remember, not just for the beginning of a new year, but for your whole life through.

Space Storm: Aurora over Oregon?

It is (or was?) apparently a possibility:

Strong Geomagnetic Storm May Be Approaching: What You Need To Know
People in Illinois, Oregon and other northern states may catch a glimpse of colorful aurora Wednesday as a geomagnetic storm brews in Earth's magnetosphere. The Space Weather Prediction Center has issued a strong geomagnetic storming watch, expecting a G3 storm to arrive in conjunction with a coronal mass ejection impact.

The prediction center said the G3 geomagnetic storming could effect power systems, spacecraft operations and high-frequency radio transmissions. The storm means that the northern lights may be visible as far south as 50 degrees geomagnetic latitude.

Geomagnetic storms happen when solar wind produces "major changes in the currents, plasmas and fields in Earth's magnetosphere," according to the Space Weather Prediction center. The center has been tracking a coronal mass ejection that's likely to impact earth and has been associated with a small radio blackout on December 28.

These storms may bring beautiful colors into the night sky, but their impacts are widespread, from GPS interference to the creation of harmful currents in power grids.
See the whole article for embedded links and photos. It was supposed to have started yesterday, lasting into the 31st. I didn't see anything last night, but then we are in the southern part of the state. According to the Space Weather Website, the storm is only rated G2 now.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Fah Who Foraze, Merry Christmas to All

Below is a 1930's or 40's Christmas Angel, that watches over our dining room table every year. We inherited it many years ago from an elderly neighbor in San Francisco.

It is set into a rather gaudy looking wreath of shiny silver and gold tinsel and glitter. I love it because it's cheerful, and reminds me of Christmas Past.

Christmas, like so many other things in our lives, seems to be more electronic and digitalised these days. That's not necessarily bad, just different. I enjoy wonderful new LED Christmas lights and Digital entertainments as much as anyone does. It's just that things like this wreath remind me of times we used to have similar joys without plugging something in or turning something on.

I'm not a luddite against electricity. It's just that I think that while we can enjoy the complexities our modern world can offer for our ease and enjoyment, I believe we can also benefit from not losing touch with the simpler joys and pleasures in life. Things that can also help keep us grounded in the here-and-now of our life, and the larger picture of our lives, without becoming lost in endless distractions. Instant gratification distractions and fantasies, that can cause us to loose sight of the things that really matter in the larger picture.

As we move forward into the Brave New World of our future, I hope we remember to bring with us the best parts of our past, and continue to value and cherish the things that make us human, that don't really change much, regardless of the twists and turns of technology, regardless of how many electronics we do or do not own. The things that don't involve flipping on a switch, pressing a button, or voice activated software.

"Fah Who Foraze, Dah Who Doraze". Welcome Christmas, and a Very Merry Christmas to All!


Thursday, December 24, 2015

Nina Hagen: Silent Night

I remember back when I was in college, Nina Hagen was hot stuff. Her style of music -comic punk?- isn't to my tasts. But I rather liked her rendition of this classic song.

Her rendition of Ave Maria is fairly decent too. But the graphics that go with it... Not Safe For Work.


Do you have a dream?

I enjoyed this:

It's a bit over-the-top in parts, but I still enjoyed it.


Talk is cheap...

...and therefore probably worth doing. And with Russia involving itself so directly in the Syrian conflict, it would be difficult to try to achieve anything there without talking to them.

Obama officials are talking to Putin more than ever
But do they have anything to show from their stepped-up dialogue?
An Obama administration debate about whether to engage Vladimir Putin or treat him like a pariah has tilted in the engagement camp’s favor—even as critics and some officials worry that it’s become too easy for the Russian president to get a stature-enhancing meeting with U.S. leaders.

When Secretary of State John Kerry heads to Moscow on Tuesday for a planned sit-down with Putin, it will be his second visit to see the Russian leader since May. It also follows three face-to-face encounters between Putin and President Barack Obama since late September. Some critics of engagement fear that Putin has, in effect, used his military intervention in Syria to win a seat at the diplomatic table, while others doubt that the increased dialogue is achieving anything.

“The skeptics are still skeptical,” said Evelyn Farkas, who departed as the Pentagon’s top official for Russia and Ukraine this fall and pushed for a generally harder line on Moscow than the White House has adopted. “You don't have any results yet for the engagement people.”

For now, sources say, Obama and Kerry in particular believe the costs of interacting with Putin are relatively low and that discussion—whose tone a senior administration official described as “not warm but not hostile,” and “businesslike”—is more likely than a freeze-out to yield progress on disputes over a peace deal for Syria and Russian aggression in Ukraine. [...]
Will anything good come of it? Who knows. Something may come of it, or it may all come to nothing. Time will tell.

The Best Place to Live

10 best places to live in the world: Where does the U.S. fall on the list?
Norway has done it again.

The Land of the Midnight Sun was named as the best place to live in the world for the 12th year in a row in the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Report.

Released today, the report includes an index that ranks 188 countries according to livability. Each country was given a score based on data in three areas: life expectancy, education and income-standard of living. [...]
I was a bit surprised by the #2 spot. Weather was not included in the ranking, but #2 has good climate as well, making it even more attractive.

Can you guess which country was picked as the worst?

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Elon Musk, on OpenAI: “if you’re going to summon anything, make sure it’s good.”

I agree. Will these guys lead the way?

Elon Musk and Other Tech Titans Create Company to Develop Artificial Intelligence
[...] The group’s backers have committed “significant” amounts of money to funding the project, Musk said in an interview. “Think of it as at least a billion.”

In recent years the field of artificial intelligence has shifted from being an obscure, dead-end backwater of computer science to one of the defining technologies of the time. Faster computers, the availability of large data sets, and corporate sponsorship have developed the technology to a point where it powers Google’s web search systems, helps Facebook Inc. understand pictures, lets Tesla’s cars drive themselves autonomously on highways, and allowed IBM to beat expert humans at the game show “Jeopardy!”

That development has caused as much trepidation as it has optimism. Musk, in autumn 2014, described the development of AI as being like “summoning the demon.” With OpenAI, Musk said the idea is: “if you’re going to summon anything, make sure it’s good.”

Brighter Future

“The goal of OpenAI is really somewhat straightforward, it’s what set of actions can we take that increase the probability of the future being better,” Musk said. “We certainly don’t want to have any negative surprises on this front.” [...]
I did a post about that comment of his a while back:

The evolution of AI (Artificial Intelligence)

Nice to see that those who were making the warnings, are also actively working to steer the development in positive directions and trying to avoid unforeseen consequences.

I still think real AI is a long way off. But it isn't too soon to start looking ahead, to anticipate and remedy problems before they even occur.

Russia's interest: it's the ports

It's not their only interest, but understanding the importance of the two ports is one of the keys to understanding Russia's actions:

The Link Between Putin’s Military Campaigns in Syria and Ukraine
[...] Both Sevastopol and Tartus play a role in compensating for Russia’s geographic deficiencies as well. “Russia’s always had the challenge of not having great maritime access, just as a result of its geography, and so to the extent that it wants to be an active player in [the Mediterranean] … it has to have some ability to operate outside of its own coastal waters,” Mankoff explained. This ambition is enshrined in Russia’s new maritime strategy, detailed in the Maritime Doctrine of the Russian Federation 2020. The strategy places particular emphasis on the Atlantic Ocean due to “NATO expansion, the need to integrate Crimea and the Sevastopol naval base into the Russian economy, and to re-establish a permanent Russian Navy presence in the Mediterranean,” according to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin. The doctrine also stresses the importance of the Arctic, given its mineral resources and the easy access it offers to both the Atlantic and Pacific.

All this isn’t to suggest that naval strategy is the primary motivation behind Russia’s interventions to support pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine and Assad in Syria. In the case of Syria, Putin has a track record of opposing Islamist movements like ISIS (in fact, that track record is one of the factors that brought him to power in the first place). Mankoff suggested that Russia’s Syria policy could be a mix of the personal and the political, saying, “If Putin believes that Assad is his guy and that he has a personal obligation to him, then that may play a role above and beyond what the professional diplomats and strategic thinkers believe is going on here.” Additionally, Mankoff argued that the Russian government might be deliberately trying to draw a comparison between its unflinching support of Assad and America’s brittle support of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, which dissipated during the Arab Spring. [...]
Read the whole thing for embedded links and more. I've posted previously about Russian Geography and History, that broader context also explains a lot. You can read that post here:

Russia, geography and history

Monday, December 07, 2015

Gun violence has declined since the '90's

WTF? How can that be, when the news headlines seem to be screaming the opposite? Take a look at the facts:

We’ve had a massive decline in gun violence in the United States. Here’s why.
Premeditated mass shootings in public places are happening more often, some researchers say, plunging towns and cities into grief and riveting the attention of a horrified nation. In general, though, fewer Americans are dying as a result of gun violence — a shift that began about two decades ago.

In 1993, there were seven homicides by firearm for every 100,000 Americans, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By 2013, that figure had fallen by nearly half, to 3.6 — a total of 11,208 firearm homicides. The number of victims of crimes involving guns that did not result in death (such as robberies) declined even more precipitously, from 725 per 100,000 people in 1993 to 175 in 2013.

Older data suggests that gun violence might have been even more widespread previously. The rate of murder and manslaughter excluding negligence reached an apex in 1980, according to the FBI. That year, there were 10.8 willful killings per 100,000 people. Although not a perfect measure of the overall rate of gun violence, the decline in the rate of murder and manslaughter is suggestive: Two in three homicides these days are committed with guns.

This decline in gun violence is part of an overall decline in violent crime. According to the FBI's data, the national rate of violent crime has decreased 49 percent since its apex in 1991. Even as a certain type of mass shooting is apparently becoming more frequent, America has become a much less violent place.

Much of the decline in violence is still unexplained, but researchers have identified several reasons for the shift. Here are five. [...]
Read the whole thing for embedded links, graphs and more.

Gosh. So, if we have become a less violent society with fewer gun deaths, why does the media make the opposite seem to be true?

Ask yourself, what else has happened since the 1990's? The internet. And with it, instantaneous 24/7 news reporting. So now, if somebody somewhere shoots somebody, it can be reported all over the world within the hour.

Unfortunately, that is unbelievably attractive to the malignant narcissists who want to become instantly famous and recognized, even if it means killing themselves in the process. So we have malignant narcissists seeking fame and recognition at any cost, and a news media looking to instantly report anything and everything tragic and terrible. The two feed off each other, creating a lethal combination. It also makes less (gun deaths) seem like more, because nearly ALL of them get reported widely now.

Some people think taking guns away from everyone is the answer, punishing everyone for the actions of a few. Gun control is a bigger issue than can be tackled in a single blog post, and I'm not going to try here. But I had done a prior post, about Gun Studies and Politics, that has some relevance.

The topic is so polarized, that it can be difficult to get accurate or complete data, as one side or another wants to cut funding, when they start to see answers they don't like. Yet a lot could be learned from what has been tried and failed, as well as what has been tried and worked. I believe that if objectivity could be maintained, some answers could be found that don't include trampling on the 2nd amendment, or denying law abiding citizens the right to protect themselves. Cooler heads and less retoric are needed. Can it be done?

Why the Alawites in Syria Supported Assad?

Could it be because they didn't want to surrender to the Sunni majority which historically has persecuted them, and because the Alawites can't form a state of their own, even if they wanted to? Consider this:

Five Reasons Why There Will Not Be an Alawite State
Will the Alawites try to establish an Alawite State centered in the Coastal Mountains?

Many opposition figures and journalists insist that the Alawites are planning to fall back to the Alawite Mountains in an attempt to establish a separate state. This is unconvincing. Here are the top five reasons why there will not be an Alawite State.

1. The Alawites have tried to get out of the mountains and into the cities. After the French conquered Syria in 1920, the earliest censuses showed a profound demographic segregation between Sunnis and Alawis. In no town of over 200 people did Alawis and Sunnis live together. The coastal cities of Latakia, Jeble, Tartus and Banyas were Sunni cities with Christian neighborhoods, but no Alawi neighborhoods. Only in Antioch did Alawis live in the city and that city was the capital of a separate autonomous region of Iskandarun, which was ceded to the Turks in 1938. In 1945 only 400 Alawis were registered as inhabitants of Damascus. Ever since the end of the Ottoman era, the Alawis have been streaming out of the mountain region along the coast to live in the cities. The French establishment of an autonomous Alawite state on the coast and their over-recruitment of Alawis into the military sped up this process of urbanization and confessional mixing in the cities of Syria. Assad’s Syria further accelerated the urbanization of the Alawites as they were admitted into universities in large numbers and found jobs in all the ministries and national institutions for the first time.

2. The Assads planned to solve the sectarian problem in Syria by integrating the Alawites into Syria as “Muslims.” They promoted a secular state and tried to suppress any traditions that smacked of a separate “Alawite” identity. No formal Alawi institutions have been established to define Alawi culture, religion or particularism. They did not plan for an Alawi state. On the contrary, the Assads bent over backwards to define Alawis as main-stream Muslims, Bashar married a Sunni Muslim in an attempt at nation-building and to stand as an example of integration. He claimed to promote a “secular” vision of Syria. [...]
And you have to wonder if a deeply religious segment of the Sunni population took offense at Assad's "secular vision" for Syria? The same segment that later joined IS/ISIS/Daesh? I say "wonder" because I'm sure there were lots of contributing factors that lead to the Syrian civil war, and I don't pretend to know or understand them all. The whole of Syrian history and it's complex politics is far more than I could ever hope to cover here in a blog post.

The article was published in July of 2012. There is much commentary and embedded links after it, talking about the civil war they could see was coming. Read the whole thing for the other 3 reasons against their being an Alawite state, and the detailed commentary, articles and links that follow.

They saw it coming, and couldn't stop it. Can it even be fixed now? Where would you even start? It's sad for all concerned.

You can read more about the Alawite religion here. Some history and politics too.

Whose Islam is it anyway?

I've noticed more articles like this lately, about Muslims who live in Western countries, complaining about being asked to apologize for terrorist acts that have nothing the do with them:

This British teen hilariously captures why Muslims are tired of being told to condemn ISIS
Within hours of the attacks in Paris, the familiar ritual began: the calls for Muslims to denounce ISIS rolled in, as they inevitably do after a terrorist attack by a group claiming to act in the name of Islam.

This is a common occurrence, and Muslims — myself included — are tired of it. We're tired of being held responsible for the atrocities committed by individuals whose actions and beliefs are abhorrent to us and completely at odds with our values and our understanding of our religion. We're also tired of people acting as if we haven't already condemned ISIS, al-Qaeda, and terrorism over and over and over, loudly, publicly, "unreservedly," and in great detail.

It just starts to get old after a while.


It wasnt the views or opinions of politicians that made me respond but the views of the general public when fridays terror attacks happened which were extremely unfortunate there were only 2 opinions on my twitter time line the first was of people demanding an apology for what happened which was met by either muslims apologising for the acts that occured or the other view, which was my view of muslims asking why we should apologise as ISIS has nothing to do with Islam? [...]
The last part I put in bold. I get tired of hearing Muslims saying that. Why? Because ISIS and other terrorist groups commit their acts in the name of Islam. Looking at it quite objectively, the majority of terrorist actions in the world are being committed by Muslims, in the name of their religious beliefs. To keep saying that it has nothing to do with Islam, treats the rest of us like we are stupid, or not paying attention.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that ISIS has nothing to do with YOUR interpretation, YOUR understanding of Islam? In fact, the author of the article practically says as much later on:
[...] This isn't the first time Muslims have used social media to express irritation at being told to "do more" to counter extremist ideology and to apologize for the actions of strangers who have perverted our beliefs and who actually kill way more Muslims than they do any other group. [...]
Yes, very true. As is true the fact that many Muslims and Muslim groups often denounce the acts of terrorists, which is good news. Which is ironically, why you don't hear about it much. The Media tends to focus primarily on bad news. Muslims denouncing terrorism, not so much. If you follow the above link to the article, there are embedded links to many such denunciations. Much like many I've seen elsewhere. But it's not typically front-page, headline news.

I essentially don't disagree with the author. I would just balance it a bit by adding that the reasons people ask for denunciations by Muslims living in Western countries is, that we like to believe that our Muslim neighbors and coworkers really do denounce the violence, that YOUR interpretation of Islam genuinely is peaceful, and therefore you wont murder us at the next holiday office party.

It's human nature for you to complain about the unfairness you feel in your situation. It's also human nature for us to not want to be murdered, to wish for and welcome immigrants who want to join us and support our culture, not kill us and destroy it. We have already had too many refujihadis. If people are getting fed up with that, it shouldn't be a surprise to anyone.

Ideally, peace loving Muslims who wish to join Western cultures should be our allies against terrorism. Unfortunately, it's not always easy to tell who is who, or when a seemingly integrated immigrant may "convert" to more extremist views and act on them. It's doubly unfortunate, because the extremists want us to be distrustful and alienated from those Muslims who would be our natural allies.

And talking about "Whose Islam is it anyway", have a look at this really, uh, "different" perspective:

How a Blonde Tattooed Texas Girl Became an ISIS Twitter Star
Last Monday, I had 60 followers on Twitter. Today, I have more than 4,300. Not to brag or anything, but that's more than Benjamin Wittes; more than Bobby Chesney; more than Jack Goldsmith; more than my boss, Daniel Byman. But here's the problem: A healthy number of them are Islamic extremists, including no small number of supporters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). A lot of them live in Saudi Arabia.

And some of them want to marry me.

The reason is a single tweet.

Early last week, the hashtag “#MuslimApologies” began trending on Twitter. The hashtag was a tongue-in-cheek response to those—such as right-wing radio host Laura Ingraham—who, in the wake of the beheadings of Westerners by ISIS, have questioned why Muslims have not been more vocal about denouncing terrorism carried out in the name of Islam (except that many have). Tired of constantly being asked to apologize for the acts of a few vile individuals who twist Islam to justify their barbarism, Muslims on Twitter decided to take a humorous stand—by apologizing for everything: the Twilight saga, World Wars I and II, that Pluto is no longer a planet, and, my personal favorite, that Mufasa had to die in The Lion King. Some also used the hashtag to sarcastically apologize for the important contributions Islamic culture has made to the world, from algebra to coffee to the camera obscura.

Of course, I wanted to get in on the fun.


If you were to pass me on the street, you would never suspect I’m a Muslim: I don’t wear hijab. I have platinum blonde hair and blue eyes. And I am heavily tattooed. I grew up in Texas and was raised Southern Baptist. I use the word “y’all” a lot—and not ironically. But I am Muslim. I also speak Arabic and hold a Master’s degree in International Security with a focus on terrorism and the Middle East. Several years ago, I realized that although I had long studied, analyzed, and written about Islamic political theory and how jihadist ideologues like Osama bin Laden use the Qur’an to justify their heinous acts of violence, I had never actually read the Qur’an. So I read it—and what I found in its pages changed my life. I found answers to questions about faith and belief and morality that had been plaguing me since my youth. I found the connection to God I thought I had lost. And three years ago, I converted to Islam.

Just to be clear: I detest the twisted interpretations of Islam espoused by the likes of Al Qaeda and ISIS just as much today as I did before I converted—in fact, probably more so, since now I see it not only as a sick bastardization of a beautiful religion, but a sick bastardization of my beautiful religion. When I read the Qur’an, I find a God who is beneficent, who is merciful, and who cherishes mankind. I find a religion that encourages independent thought, compassion for humanity, and social justice. The jihadis claim to love these same things about Islam, but have somehow decided that the best way to share God’s message of mercy and compassion with the world is to blow up mosques and behead humanitarian aid workers. Great plan, guys.

After sending my tweet, I went to bed. When I awoke the next morning, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my humble little tweet had been retweeted numerous times and I had picked up dozens of new followers. Several people—almost all Muslims—had responded expressing their happiness for me and welcoming me to Islam. So that was nice. I also got a few trolls, of course: people telling me I was brainwashed, trying to convince me that the CIA created ISIS, or asking me if I had engaged in female genital mutilation yet. That was less nice, but to be expected; it is Twitter, after all. Then things took an unexpected turn. My tweet went viral—at last check, it had been retweeted more than 11,300 times—and I soon began to notice a disturbing trend: of the thousands of people who were retweeting and following me, many of them had the black flag of ISIS as their Twitter profile photos. Others had pictures of themselves holding swords, standing in front of the black ISIS flag. Uh-oh.


You know all those articles (some better than others) that have sprung up lately about how ISIS is this social media juggernaut that is remarkably adept at spreading their propaganda online? Well it turns out that you don’t become a propaganda juggernaut by conscientiously vetting your sources or fact-checking. Who knew?

So it doesn’t matter that I also happen to tweet things in support of LGBT rights, post YouTube videos of The Clash, or actively try to get the “#No2ISIS” hashtag trending. All that matters are the tweet about becoming Muslim and the tweet with the picture of pro-ISIS graffiti.

Here’s the thing: it’s clear that my tweet about becoming Muslim struck a nerve with a lot of Muslims, both here in America and in the broader Muslim world. Non-Muslims sometimes don’t realize how much hatred and negativity gets thrown at Muslims and how utterly soul crushing it can be to have to defend yourself and your beliefs on a daily basis, and it’s really nice to see someone saying something positive about Islam.

At the same time, though, it’s precisely the actions of ISIS and their followers and the words of intolerance emanating from the Salafi camp that provoke this reaction against Muslims. And I, for one, do not appreciate having my conversion story used to attract more people to a repugnant ideology that spawns suicide bombings and beheadings. [...]
Read the whole thing for embedded links, her twitter posts, responses to those posts, and more. Not to mention her photo; she definitely IS a platinum blond without a hijab. Her story is fascinating. Just when you think you have it figured out, it takes another twist or turn. Two things I gained from reading this are:

One: There certainly is more than one way to interpret Islam. Your mileage may vary. And...

Two: Be careful of what you say on social media, and who you say it to. Your words can easily be taken out of context and used by other people for purposes you never intended.

At first it confirmed what I've always thought about social media like Twitter; that it is inherently shallow, and because you can't use it to speak about anything in depth, it's way too easy to be misunderstood. But, on the other hand, any one who follows up her story (actually bothers to find out more about it and her) might have their minds blown.

Islam isn't going away, and if it finds more ways to peacefully coexist with the rest of the world, so much the better. Many of it's adherents keep insisting it's a religion of peace. Well, let's see more of it, folks. Seeing is believing. Actions speak louder than words. Although I'm sure many would argue that the majority of Muslims in the world are peaceful, are not terrorists, and in fact are often victims of terrorists. So, what do we do?

I would like to see a follow up to this story, to see what happens next. Will Jennifer regain control of the Twitter message SHE wants to communicate? I'll be watching.

Also see:

Bombing Syria Won’t Make Paris Safer

The CAIR Effect: See something, do nothing


Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Oh no, what have I done?

In a weak moment, whilst perusing the Black Friday offerings on, I ordered one:

Amazon Echo
Amazon Echo is designed around your voice. It's hands-free and always on. With seven microphones and beam-forming technology, Echo can hear you from across the room—even while music is playing. Echo is also an expertly tuned speaker that can fill any room with immersive sound.

Echo connects to Alexa, a cloud-based voice service, to provide information, answer questions, play music, read the news, check sports scores or the weather, and more—instantly. All you have to do is ask. Echo begins working as soon as it detects the wake word. You can pick Alexa or Amazon as your wake word. [...]
The features listed with the photo are only a few of the key features. Follow the link for more info, embedded videos, reviews, FAQ and more.

It, "Alexa", arrives tomorrow. I wonder if it will be anything like HAL from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey? That would be kinda cool, I guess. As long as she isn't the Beta version that murders you while you sleep.

UPDATE 12-08-15: So far, so good. It does everything they said it would. Only complaint, it can't attach to external speakers (but I knew that before I bought it.) It was very easy to set up, it's very easy to use. The voice recognition is really excellent. I can play radio stations from all over the world. When I want info about a song or music, I can ask Alexa, and she will tell me.

There are more features available if I sign up for Amazon Prime ($100 per year, which works out to $8.50 a month). I'm thinking about it.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Evolution of Thanksgiving

Is this where we are heading?:

Don't laugh too hard, we may already be well on the way there:


How did the US help create IS/ISIS/Daesh?

Russia Says U.S. Policies Helped Islamic State, Interfax Reports
U.S. actions in the Middle East helped Islamic State to gain influence, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said, according to Interfax.

The strengthening of Islamic State “became possible partly due to irresponsible U.S. politics” that focused on fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad instead of joining efforts to root out terrorism, Medvedev was cited as saying in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday. President Barack Obama earlier on Sunday said that Russia is facing a strategic choice as Assad can’t stay. The Obama administration declined to comment Sunday on Medvedev’s statement. [...]

Another article I read earlier in the week, would seem to support the idea of bad US policy being partly responsible for helping create IS (Daesh). This is from an interview with Robert Ford, former US ambassador to Syria:

Why we’re not doing a better job destroying ISIS, according to the former U.S. ambassador to Syria
[...] Looking back on our policy toward Iraq and Syria, did the Obama administration do enough?

Well, the administration I think made one major mistake in both countries. Which is that it didn’t seek to implement policies that would help address underlying Sunni-Arab grievances. For example, Assad's unbelievable brutality in Syria. Removing sarin gas was a small step, but the regime still uses chemical weapons. On the Iraq side, there was a similar problem. There the administration in 2010 strongly backed Nouri al-Maliki returning as prime minster. There were some in the administration who thought that was not a good idea because he was very sectarian, but the administration went ahead anyway.

The problems that Maliki caused among Iraqis combined with Bashar al-Assad's actions in Syria created this devil’s brew that is the Islamic State. The administration is trying to address it now. They finally dropped their support of Maliki, and they’re trying to address it in a very narrow way in Syria, but it got very bad before the administration started to make changes. [...]
Sunni Muslims in both Syria and Iraq were not being represented, so they joined forces and became IS/ISIS/Daesh.

The Russians have an interest in solving this, because it's unfolding on their doorstep, and they don't want it spreading to the large Muslim population in their own country. And while Assad has been brutal, he was also fighting Sunni Muslims, many of them brutal, who became IS/ISIS/Daesh fighters.

Assad and his followers are of the Alawite Muslim sect, which are more westernized than the Sunnis. The Alawites are only around 10% of the Syrian population, whereas the Sunnis are about 74%. Historically,Sunnis have persecuted Alawites. The Sunnis outnumbered them and tried to take over, and Alawites defended themselves.

The Alawites have Iran and Russia as allies, who support keeping Assad in power.

The US got rid of Saddam in Iraq, and destabilized it. The US got rid of Qaudaffi in Libya, and destabilized it. Now the US is demanding the removal of Assad. Is it any wonder the Russians support him? Perhaps they have had enough of the US destabilizing the Middle East. One only has to look at a map to see why it matters more to Russia; it affects them more directly by proximity.

If the US wants to try to negotiate the eventual removal of Assad, they can try. But to insist on it as they are doing may be a mistake, because Russia and it's allies don't want it, and it looks as if they are going to try to use the UN to support that position as well. If they succeed at the UN, and can't be persuaded to change their minds, then continuing to insist on Assad's removal just becomes a block to further progress. Maybe the US needs to be more flexible and bend a little?

Russia may try to go it alone, but they may ultimately find they need more allies. Ideally, we should have a coalition to fight IS/ISIS/Daesh. Russia it seems, does not want to join a US led coalition. Fine, even understandable. But Russia may well find that few want to join a coalition lead by Russia.

The US and Russia would be stronger working together. But it won't happen unless both sides can learn to bend, to compromise on particular areas of concern they each have, that they currently can't agree on. That must be overcome before they can work together. Can they do it? Will they?


Thursday, November 26, 2015

Some good Thanksgiving advice: "When you gather ’round the turkey, try not to be one"

Here's an interesting idea:

Have a happy, politics-free Thanksgiving
[...] Nobody needs tryptophan when you’ve got Pundy McPundit (amateur, professional or otherwise) at the table to bore your company to death with his or her insights on “climate-proofing” your holiday feast; bombard you with details about Bernie Sanders’ latest Web ad; regurgitate John Kasich’s latest attacks on critics of his massive Medicaid expansion; or champion Jeb Bush’s latest re-re-re-reboot (two exclamation points, new talking points, a fix-it toolbox, blah, blah blah).


I feel sorry for rabid partisans on either side of the aisle who refuse to talk to family members, co-workers or friends who support a candidate they don’t like. Life’s too short — and 99 percent of all politicians are crapweasels, anyway.


It shouldn’t be a struggle to avoid yelling about Bush, Clinton or Trump as you pass the sweet-potato casserole. Don’t get mad. Get perspective. Here, let me help:

If your children are alive, free and healthy, count your blessings and say a prayer for all those parents spending the holiday week in hospitals, hospices, clinics, jails or funeral homes.

If you can’t think of something nice to say to the person sitting next of you, trade memories of the dearest, departed loved ones you share a connection with who are no longer sitting at the table at all.

Pick up an instrument and play music together or sing some old hymns of Thanksgiving (“We Gather Together” was always my favorite).

Take a walk, breathe fresh air, go out on the deck and make fire pit s’mores (or use the gas grill).

Show the young ones at your gathering how to make rubberband stars, advanced paper airplanes, origami hearts or crochet snowflakes.

Get silly. Play “Charades” or “Spoons” or “Balderdash.” Laugh at yourself and laugh with your relatives.

Don’t take family time for granted. Ever. You never know when your time will be up. It would be ridiculous if the very last, parting words you traded with an elderly uncle or sibling or cousin you rarely get to see were “You’re an idiot for voting for (fill in the blank)!” instead of “I love you.”

Look up at the stars. Remember how small and insignificant you are in the universe.

Finally: When you gather ’round the turkey, try not to be one.
Amen. Read the whole thing for embedded links and more.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

ISIS, ISIL, or IS... or "Daesh"?

Words matter in ‘ISIS’ war, so use ‘Daesh’
The militants who are killing civilians, raping and forcing captured women into sexual slavery, and beheading foreigners in Iraq and Syria are known by several names: the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS; the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL; and, more recently, the Islamic State, or IS. French officials recently declared that that country would stop using any of those names and instead refer to the group as “Daesh.”

The Obama Administration should switch to this nomenclature, too
, because how we talk about this group is central to defeating them.

Whether referred to as ISIS, ISIL, or IS, all three names reflect aspirations that the United States and its allies unequivocally reject. Political and religious leaders all over the world have noted this. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said, “This is a terrorist group and not a state. . . the term Islamic State blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims, and Islamists.” President Obama made similar remarks saying, “ISIL is not Islamic . . . and [is] certainly not a state.”

Muslim scholars around the world have denounced the group’s attempt to declare a caliphate. Egyptian Islamic theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi published an open letter to Muslim scholars explaining, “A group simply announcing a caliphate is not enough to establish a caliphate.” The Syrian Sufi leader Muhammad al-Yacoubi called the group’s declaration “illegitimate” and that supporting it was “haram,” or forbidden.

The term “Daesh” is strategically a better choice because it is still accurate in that it spells out the acronym of the group’s full Arabic name, al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham. Yet, at the same time, “Daesh” can also be understood as a play on words — and an insult. Depending on how it is conjugated in Arabic, it can mean anything from “to trample down and crush” to “a bigot who imposes his view on others.” Already, the group has reportedly threatened to cut out the tongues of anyone who uses the term.

Why do they care so much? The same reason the United States should. Language matters.

With some 30,000 to 50,000 fighters, Daesh is a relatively small group, and propaganda is central to its growth strategy. Whether hijacking popular Twitter hashtags or using little known distribution channels to post videos to YouTube, their leadership knows that the war of words online is just as key to increasing its power and influence as the actual gruesome acts they commit on the ground.

By using the militants’ preferred names, the US government implicitly gives them legitimacy. But referring to the group as Daesh doesn’t just withhold validity. It also might help the United States craft better policy. [...]
I first heard the term "Daesh" being used by Putin. Now I know why. And I see why the French now want to use it. So should we.

The rest of this article, which is not very long, talks about the many good reasons to be using the name Daesh, and about the many Muslim groups and scholars around the world who know ISIS, ISIL, IS as Daesh. And they oppose Daesh, vehemently, for many reasons. The article has embedded links for many of these Muslim anti-Daesh groups.

Not only is it encouraging to know that these groups and scholars exist, but the article explains why it's important to use the name Daesh, so our allies in the Muslim world know that we understand, using the word from their language, that we share the same concerns about the same people.

"Daesh". I was sold on it at "a bigot who imposes his view on others." Hopefully President Obama will get on board with using this name. If he does, the media will likely follow his lead.

The Myth of Scandinavian Socialism

Here is the Myth exposed:

No, Bernie Sanders, Scandinavia is not a socialist utopia
When Bernie Sanders was asked during CNN’s Democratic presidential debate how a self-proclaimed socialist could hope to be elected to the White House, he gave the answer he usually gives: Socialism has been wonderful for the countries of Scandinavia, and America should emulate their example.

“We should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people,” Sanders said. When the moderator turned to Hillary Clinton, she agreed that America has to “save capitalism from itself” and that, yes, Scandinavia is great. “I love Denmark,” declared Clinton. It was the only time in the debate a candidate uttered the verb “love.”

Liberals have had a crush on Scandinavia for decades. “It is a country whose very name has become a synonym for a materialist paradise,” observed Time magazine in a 1976 story on Sweden. “Its citizens enjoy one of the world’s highest living standards. . . . Neither ill health, unemployment nor old age pose the terror of financial hardship. [Sweden’s] cradle-to-grave benefits are unmatched in any other free society outside Scandinavia.” In 2010, a National Public Radio story marveled at the way “Denmark Thrives Despite High Taxes.” The small Nordic nation, said NPR, “seems to violate the laws of the economic universe,” improbably balancing low poverty and unemployment rates with stratospheric taxes that were among the world’s highest.

Such paeans may inspire Clinton’s love and Sanders’ faith in America’s socialist future. As with most urban legends, however, the reality of Scandinavia’s welfare-state utopia doesn’t match the hype. [...]
The rest of the article goes into detail about how Scandinavian prospered in spite of socialism, not because of it. How socialism nearly destroyed their prosperity, and how they have spend years rolling back welfare and taxes, and re-introducing free market reforms. How much of the success of Scandinavian countries has to do with who they are:
[...] The real key to Scandinavia’s unique successes isn’t socialism, it’s culture. Social trust and cohesion, a broad egalitarian ethic, a strong emphasis on work and responsibility, commitment to the rule of law — these are healthy attributes of a Nordic culture that was ingrained over centuries. In the region’s small and homogeneous countries (overwhelmingly white, Protestant, and native-born), those norms took deep root. The good outcomes and high living standards they produced antedated the socialist nostrums of the 1970s. Scandinavia’s quality of life didn’t spring from leftist policies. It survived them. [...]
Read the whole thing, it's short and it gets to the point, with many embedded links to back up what it says.

BTW, I've no objections to looking at Scandinavia as a model, so long as we look at everything, their successes and their failures. We could learn a lot from both of those. If some things they've done were successful and could be adopted by us, so be it. It's just the sweeping generalizations based on fantasy that I'm leary of. Read the whole article. Why adopt policies from the Scandinavians that they themselves have discarded as unworkable? Even policies that work for them in their largely homogenous culture, may not necessarily transplant to ours. When looking for role models, let's keep it REAL, shall we?

Saturday, November 14, 2015

French President calls for "pitiless war" ...

Understandable under the circumstances. But who is going to answer that call? I have every sympathy for France and the French people. I've posted in the past about some of France's problems with the riots in 2006.

I don't pretend to have a complete understanding of all the issues and problems of France or Europe. And I wish them the best in solving them. These latest attacks in Paris have garnered the sympathy of civilized people all over the world, and rightly so. But I have to ask: should the French President be calling for a war, when he has no significant army to fight one?

When Europeans call for war, they typically count on the US military to take on the brunt of the fighting. Europe wanted Obama to be the American president, and they got him. He's gutted our military, which is now a fraction of what it was.

I don't say that is good or bad; it simply is what it is. I doubt we will be going to war again any time soon. There may be pressure to change that now. But can we, and should we? Here is an opinion ventured by professor Andrew J. Bacevich of Boston University, that looks at those very questions:

A war the West cannot win
French President Francois Hollande’s response to Friday’s vicious terrorist attacks, now attributed to ISIS, was immediate and uncompromising. “We are going to lead a war which will be pitiless,” he vowed.

Whether France itself possesses the will or the capacity to undertake such a war is another matter. So too is the question of whether further war can provide a remedy to the problem at hand: widespread disorder roiling much of the Greater Middle East and periodically spilling into the outside world.

It’s not as if the outside world hasn’t already given pitiless war a try. The Soviet Union spent all of the 1980s attempting to pacify Afghanistan and succeeded only in killing a million or so Afghans while creating an incubator for Islamic radicalism. Beginning in 2003, the United States attempted something similar in Iraq and ended up producing similarly destabilizing results. By the time US troops withdrew in 2011, something like 200,000 Iraqis had died, most of the them civilians. Today Iraq teeters on the brink of disintegration.

Perhaps if the Russians had tried harder or the Americans had stayed longer they might have achieved a more favorable outcome. Yet that qualifies as a theoretical possibility at best. Years of fighting in Afghanistan exhausted the Soviet Union and contributed directly to its subsequent collapse. Years of fighting in Iraq used up whatever “Let’s roll!” combativeness Americans may have entertained in the wake of 9/11.

Today, notwithstanding the Obama administration’s continuing appetite for military piddling — air strikes, commando raids, and advisory missions — few Americans retain any appetite for undertaking further large-scale hostilities in the Islamic world. Fewer still will sign up to follow President Hollande in undertaking any new crusade. Their reluctance to do so is understandable and appropriate.


Rather than assuming an offensive posture, the West should revert to a defensive one. Instead of attempting to impose its will on the Greater Middle East, it should erect barriers to protect itself from the violence emanating from that quarter. Such barriers will necessarily be imperfect, but they will produce greater security at a more affordable cost than is gained by engaging in futile, open-ended armed conflicts. Rather than vainly attempting to police or control, this revised strategy should seek to contain.

Such an approach posits that, confronted with the responsibility to do so, the peoples of the Greater Middle East will prove better equipped to solve their problems than are policy makers back in Washington, London, or Paris. It rejects as presumptuous any claim that the West can untangle problems of vast historical and religious complexity to which Western folly contributed. It rests on this core principle: Do no (further) harm. [...]
It's worth reading the whole thing, it's well reasoned.

I resisted it a first. But he makes a good case. If the offensive measures taken in the Middle East by both the United States and Russia, at great cost in both resources and lives, did not achieve the desired results, then should we not pause before doing the same thing again? The terrorists who wish to provoke that response would love to see us repeat our mistakes again and again, and weaken ourselves.

Read the whole thing, to better understand the cohesiveness of the professors argument. While it might be emotionally more satisfying to agree with the French president, it would behoove us all to not rush to repeat mistakes, and carefully consider all options available to us. And the probable consequences.

California dreaming... ending or begining?

Is one generation's California Dream, another generation's nightmare? This article makes a good case for it:

My Dark California Dream
Our­ parents had wide open spaces all around.
We still had nature within reach. Now what?
CALIFORNIA’S over, everything I love about this place is going to hell.

I knew there was something familiar about this thought from the moment it occurred to me in Yosemite National Park. My sister and I started going to those mountains 40 years ago with our parents, who taught us to see the Sierra Nevada as a never-changing sanctuary in a California increasingly overrun by suburban sprawl.

Once we had our own families, we indoctrinated our kids in the same joys: suffering under backpacks, drinking snowmelt from creeks, jumping into (and quickly back out of) icy lakes, and napping in wildflower meadows. Yosemite remains my personal paradise, but the impact of drought and climate change has become overwhelming — smoky air from fires, shriveled glaciers leaving creeks dry and meadows gray, no wildflowers.

The big new forest fire didn’t help, as we hiked back to our car in mid-August. We were never in danger, but smoke from that so-called Walker fire filled the sky and turned sunlight orange. At the surprisingly good restaurant attached to the Lee Vining Mobil station just outside the park, ashes fell like apocalyptic snowflakes onto our fish tacos. We watched a DC-10 air tanker carpet bomb flames a few miles off. We had intended to stay in a nearby motel, but Highway Patrol officers told us they planned to close the road, so we joined the line of vehicles escorted past red walls of fire.

We slept at a friend’s house on the western flank of the Sierra Nevada. The next morning, as we began our drive home to San Francisco, this sense of unraveling — of California coming apart at the seams — worsened by the mile. The air was more Beijing than Yosemite, and the Merced River, normally a white-water pleasure ground, was a muddy sequence of black pools below mountains covered with dead ponderosa pines, a tiny sample of the more than 12 million California trees killed by drought and the bark beetles that thrive in this now-warmer climate.

The San Joaquin Valley, still farther west, is depressing on good days, with its endemic poverty and badly polluted air and water. But driving in freeway traffic through endless housing developments on that particular weekend encouraged a fugue state of bleakness in me. Somewhere in that haze lay an industrial-agricultural plain where the unregulated pumping of groundwater has gone on for so long that corporate farms pull up moisture that rained down during the last glacial period — with two paradoxical and equally strange geological effects.


We were nearly home, inching through Sunday-afternoon traffic (rush hour is now everywhere and always), when I realized that I had become my parents. Put another way, it was finally my turn to suffer the sense of loss that made my mother weep over every strip mall obliterating every once-lovely farm during family road trips in our 1971 VW micro-bus. My father’s nostalgia was more for 1950s Los Angeles: Bing Crosby living down the street, the Four Freshmen on the radio, a T-shirt filled with oranges as he rode the bus from his family’s Westwood home through sleepy neighborhoods to a completely separate town called Santa Monica.

Confusing one’s own youth with the youth of the world is a common human affliction, but California has been changing so fast for so long that every new generation gets to experience both a fresh version of the California dream and, typically by late middle-age, its painful death.


“Eyes wide open, here,” says Terry Sawyer, co-owner of the nearby Hog Island Oyster Company, where the big issue is excess atmospheric carbon dioxide raising ocean acidity so fast that oyster larvae struggle to build shells. “The California dream of us being wet and making a living and enjoying ourselves may be threatened,” he says. “I have kids, and I want that dream intact for them, but it may not be the same dream. I may not be growing the same organism. I am hopeful, but I am extremely concerned.”

Everybody is — except, of course, those living the most obvious new California dream, the technology gold rush. Try telling successful 25-year-old entrepreneurs in San Francisco that California’s over and you’ll get blank stares as they contemplate stock options, condos going up all over the city, restaurants packed nightly and spectacular organic produce at farmers’ markets every day.

It’s not only 25-year-olds saying that.
“You’re a naturalist, Duane, so of course you see it through that lens,” said Mr. Starr, later in our conversation. “But don’t lose sight of all the great new things happening, all over California. Marc Benioff just built one of the greatest pediatric hospitals on the planet a few miles from your house! And this whole tsunami of foreign investment pouring into California is really a ringing endorsement of the dream.”

I drive by Mr. Benioff’s hospital every day, and I know that Mr. Starr is right. I am also impressed, sincerely, by all these brilliant people making fortunes seemingly overnight. I recognize that prosperity is better than its absence, and I like the fact that Californians still help make the future look hopeful, by developing better solar panels and electric cars, sustainable agriculture and marine-protected areas that preserve fish populations and their habitats. I have also noticed the friendly crowds jostling my elbows at every surf break and on the shockingly long lines below Yosemite rock climbs. These people have as much fun as I ever did, loving the only version of California available to them. [...]
That's just it. Those of us who knew an older version of California, miss it as it disappears. New people come along, not knowing how things used to be, and they think it's fabulous just the way it is.

Perhaps this is true of life generally, not just California specifically. As we get older, we miss what was. California's transformation(s) have been many and rapid, which makes it dramatic. But I think it's happening everywhere, as the world becomes a smaller, more crowded place. And once you become old enough to have as significant amount of "past" behind you, you notice it more.

It was a good article, with lots more examples, read the whole thing for embedded links and more.


Russia, geography and history

When history repeats itself, it's sometimes for geographical reasons. This article explains a lot:

Russia and the Curse of Geography
Want to understand why Putin does what he does? Look at a map.
Vladimir Putin says he is a religious man, a great supporter of the Russian Orthodox Church. If so, he may well go to bed each night, say his prayers, and ask God: “Why didn’t you put mountains in eastern Ukraine?”

If God had built mountains in eastern Ukraine, then the great expanse of flatland that is the European Plain would not have been such inviting territory for the invaders who have attacked Russia from there repeatedly through history. As things stand, Putin, like Russian leaders before him, likely feels he has no choice but to at least try to control the flatlands to Russia’s west. So it is with landscapes around the world—their physical features imprison political leaders, constraining their choices and room for maneuver. These rules of geography are especially clear in Russia, where power is hard to defend, and where for centuries leaders have compensated by pushing outward.

Western leaders seem to have difficulty deciphering Putin’s motives, especially when it comes to his actions in Ukraine and Syria; Russia’s current leader has been described in terms that evoke Winston Churchill’s famous 1939 observation that Russia “is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside of an enigma.” But it’s helpful to look at Putin’s military interventions abroad in the context of Russian leaders’ longstanding attempts to deal with geography. What if Putin’s motives aren’t so mysterious after all? What if you can read them clearly on a map?


Just as strategically important—and just as significant to the calculations of Russia’s leaders throughout history—has been the country’s historical lack of its own warm-water port with direct access to the oceans. Many of the country’s ports on the Arctic freeze for several months each year. Vladivostok, the largest Russian port on the Pacific Ocean, is enclosed by the Sea of Japan, which is dominated by the Japanese. This does not just halt the flow of trade into and out of Russia; it prevents the Russian fleet from operating as a global power, as it does not have year-round access to the world’s most important sea-lanes.


Two of Russia’s chief preoccupations—its vulnerability on land and its lack of access to warm-water ports—came together in Ukraine in 2014. As long as a pro-Russian government held sway in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, Russia could be confident that its buffer zone would remain intact and guard the European Plain. Even a neutral Ukraine, which would promise not to join the European Union or NATO and would uphold the lease Russia had on the warm-water port at Sevastopol in Crimea, would be acceptable. But when protests in Ukraine brought down the pro-Russia government of Viktor Yanukovych and a new, more pro-Western government came to power, Putin had a choice. He could have respected the territorial integrity of Ukraine, or he could have done what Russian leaders have done for centuries with the bad geographic cards they were dealt. He chose his own kind of attack as defense, annexing Crimea to ensure Russia’s access to its only proper warm-water port, and moving to prevent NATO from creeping even closer to Russia’s border.

The same geographic preoccupations are visible now in Russia’s intervention in Syria on behalf of Putin’s ally, Bashar al-Assad. The Russians have a naval base in the port city of Tartus on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. If Assad falls, Syria’s new rulers may kick them out. Putin clearly believes the risk of confronting NATO members in another geographic sphere is worth it.

Russia has not finished with Ukraine yet, nor Syria. From the Grand Principality of Moscow, through Peter the Great, Stalin, and now Putin, each Russian leader has been confronted by the same problems. [...]
Read the whole thing for embedded links, lots of maps, and more. It really explains a lot. I'm not arguing that what Russia is doing is right or wrong. I am saying that when you look at the maps and the history, it is understandable. Russia has it's reasons, in the past and the present. Anyone who really wants to understand what is happening and why, needs to look at the larger picture and take these very real concerns into consideration.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Is Windows 10 the new software "Borg"?

Borg, as in "resistance is futile":

Microsoft Makes Windows 10 Upgrades Automatic For Windows 7 And Windows 8
[...] In September Microsoft admitted it is downloading Windows 10 on every Windows 7 and Windows 8 computer. Then in October it claimed an ‘accident’ saw these downloads begin installing without user permission. Well this accident now looks to have been a secret test run because Microsoft has confirmed mass upgrades to Windows 10 from all Windows 7 and Windows 8 computers are about to begin…

In a post to the official Windows blog, Windows and Devices Group executive vice president Terry Myerson announced this will be a two step process:

Step One

Beginning now, Windows 10 has been reclassified as an “Optional” update in Windows Update for Windows 7 and Windows 8 computers. This means users who have set their version of Windows to accept all updates will find the Windows 10 installation process will begin automatically and they will need to actively cancel it.


Step Two

But in “early” 2016 things will become more aggressive and Microsoft will again reclassify Windows 10 as a “Recommended” update. Given the default setting on Windows 7 and Windows 8 is for all Recommended updates to install automatically this means the vast majority of users will find the Windows 10 install process starts up on their machines.

“Depending upon your Windows Update settings, this may cause the upgrade process to automatically initiate on your device,” admits Myerson.


For Most, Resistance Is Now Futile

While tech savvy users will find workarounds and hacks, quite frankly avoiding the upgrade process is going to become far too much effort for the average consumer.

Is Windows 10 worth upgrading? From the perspective of most mainstream consumers, I’d say yes. It’s slicker than Windows 7 and more intuitive than Windows 8. But it is also incredibly invasive and controlling, taking an iron grip on what it installs to your PC and tracking everything you do – something options let you minimise, but not stop entirely.

As such my personal objection to Microsoft’s behaviour is not that Windows 10 doesn’t represent a potentially valuable upgrade, it is that the company has forgotten the fundamental right of customers to choose. And dressing ‘choice’ up as ‘you can just keep saying No’ is a facade everyone should see through…
I had blocked it in my updates, but it keeps unblocking itself and adding itself back. This is really pushy, and I resent it.

It just isn't right, because in the end, you have to ask "Whose computer is this, mine or Microsoft's?" I bought it with Windows 7, because that is what I wanted. Offering a free upgrade path to 10 is fine, but I want the freedom to choose it. When I want. If I want. When I decide that I'm ready for it.

Do I actually have to seriously consider moving to a Mac, as my only option? Or moving to Linux Mint on my Windows 7 computer, before it "turns"?

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Writing computer code: not for everyone?

Not only not for everyone, but not for most people:

Coding Academies Are Nonsense
[...] I see coding shrinking as a widespread profession. Not because software is going away, but because the way we build software will fundamentally change. Technology for software creation without code is already edging toward mainstream use. Visual content creation tools such as Scratch, DWNLD and Telerik will continue to improve until all functionality required to build apps is available to consumers — without having to write a line of code.

Who needs to code when you can use visual building blocks or even plain English to describe intent? Advances in natural-language processing and conceptual modeling will remove the need for traditional coding from app development. Software development tools will soon understand what you mean versus what you say. Even small advances in disambiguating intent will pay huge dividends. The seeds are already planted, from the OpenCog project to NLTK natural-language processing to MIT’s proof that you can order around a computer in your human language instead of code.

Academies had better gather those revenues while they can, because ultimately they are the product of short-term thinking. Coding skills will continue to be in high demand until technology for software creation without code disrupts the entire party, crowding out programming as a viable profession. [...]
Kinda what I suspected. The technology is changing quickly, and whats valid today is obsolete tomorrow. I think eventually there will be software that can create code. There were also some interesting comments about people who try to learn computer coding, and why they give it up. If you need more convincing, read the whole thing for further arguments, embedded links and more.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Sense about Syria, from Jimmy Carter?

Could it be? Take a look:

Jimmy Carter: A Five-Nation Plan to End the Syrian Crisis
[...] In May 2015, a group of global leaders known as the Elders visited Moscow, where we had detailed discussions with the American ambassador, former President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, former Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov and representatives of international think tanks, including the Moscow branch of the Carnegie Center.

They pointed out the longstanding partnership between Russia and the Assad regime and the great threat of the Islamic State to Russia, where an estimated 14 percent of its population are Sunni Muslims. Later, I questioned President Putin about his support for Mr. Assad, and about his two sessions that year with representatives of factions from Syria. He replied that little progress had been made, and he thought that the only real chance of ending the conflict was for the United States and Russia to be joined by Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia in preparing a comprehensive peace proposal. He believed that all factions in Syria, except the Islamic State, would accept almost any plan endorsed strongly by these five, with Iran and Russia supporting Mr. Assad and the other three backing the opposition. With his approval, I relayed this suggestion to Washington.

For the past three years, the Carter Center has been working with Syrians across political divides, armed opposition group leaders and diplomats from the United Nations and Europe to find a political path for ending the conflict. This effort has been based on data-driven research about the Syrian catastrophe that the center has conducted, which reveals the location of different factions and clearly shows that neither side in Syria can prevail militarily.

The recent decision by Russia to support the Assad regime with airstrikes and other military forces has intensified the fighting, raised the level of armaments and may increase the flow of refugees to neighboring countries and Europe. At the same time, it has helped to clarify the choice between a political process in which the Assad regime assumes a role and more war in which the Islamic State becomes an even greater threat to world peace. With these clear alternatives, the five nations mentioned above could formulate a unanimous proposal. Unfortunately, differences among them persist.


The involvement of Russia and Iran is essential. Mr. Assad’s only concession in four years of war was giving up chemical weapons, and he did so only under pressure from Russia and Iran. Similarly, he will not end the war by accepting concessions imposed by the West, but is likely to do so if urged by his allies.

Mr. Assad’s governing authority could then be ended in an orderly process, an acceptable government established in Syria, and a concerted effort could then be made to stamp out the threat of the Islamic State. [...]
I'm not a Jimmy Carter fan. But if you read the whole thing, for the full context, it actually makes sense. Even a broken clock is right twice a day. Carter may be right about this. It should be seriously considered.


Monday, October 26, 2015

The S.S. United States: can she be saved?

Friends of the S.S. United States Send Out a Last S.O.S.

A Titanic-sized supership that once ferried presidents, Hollywood royalty, actual royalty and even the Mona Lisa has a place in the history books as the fastest oceanliner in the world. The owners are now racing to avoid having the ship, the S.S. United States, relegated to the junk heap.

A preservationist group, the S.S. United States Conservancy, saved the vessel from being scrapped a few years ago. Its members are working with a developer to give the mothballed vessel a new life as a stationary waterfront real-estate development in New York City, the ship’s home port in her heyday.

Their big dreams, however, now face a financial crisis: Short of money, the conservancy in recent days formally authorized a ship broker to explore the potential sale to a recycler. In other words, the preservationists might have to scrap their vessel.

It came down to hard numbers. The preservationists have struggled for years to raise the $60,000 a month it costs to dock and maintain the ship, known as the Big U, which is longer than three football fields and once sailed the Atlantic with three orchestras on board. A developer only recently started shaping plans to fill the ship with tenants, an undertaking of the kind that can stretch for years even when it is not this unusual.

“The project is not cookie-cutter,” said Susan Gibbs, the conservancy’s executive director. “This has complicated our efforts.”

The conservancy continues to seek out donors, investors or a buyer to preserve the ship and press forward with development. But unless something happens by Oct. 31, the group said in a statement, “We will have no choice but to negotiate the sale of the ship to a responsible recycler.”

The decision to seek bids from scrappers was “excruciating,” said Ms. Gibbs, particularly since the development plan emerged in the last year. “We’ve never been closer to saving the S.S. United States, and we’ve never been closer to losing her,” she said.

Her connection is personal. Ms. Gibbs’s grandfather William Francis Gibbs, a giant of 20th century naval architecture, designed the ship and considered it his masterwork. [...]
See the whole thing for more photos, embedded links, slideshow and more.

I remember visiting the Queen Mary Cruise Ship in Long Beach California, where it is permanently moored as a floating tourist attraction, with a hotel, restaurants, convention center, museum and more. It was very enjoyable and a memorable experience. Could not the same be done for the S.S. United States, before it disappears forever? I wish for it this:

It's an artist's rendition, but with the right investors, it could become a reality. Will it, before time runs out? Such a rich piece of history, let's not throw it away when it could be recycled in a productive, useful new way, and provide enjoyment for generations to come.

Also see:

Save the S.S. United States from the scrap-heap

The S.S. United States: Darkest Days

The S.S. United States: Built to Last

SS United States, Part 2: The Blue Riband


"Demographics tend to be political destiny"

Republicans’ 2016 math problem, explained in two charts
It's easy to overthink elections. I do it all the time. But at its most basic level, demographics tend to be political destiny. And that's why Dan Balz's column over the weekend, which details the difficult demographic realities facing the Republican Party in 2016 (and beyond), is so important. [...]
Read the whole thing for the two charts, embedded links and more. I think it explains a lot.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Who's got the better plan for Syria?

One could argue, Russia has the more realistic one:

Who Is a Better Strategist: Obama or Putin?
[...] And yet, it is hard to escape the impression that Putin has been playing his weak hand better than Obama has played his strong one. These perceptions arise in part because Obama inherited several foreign-policy debacles, and it’s hard to abandon a bunch of failed projects without being accused of retreating. Obama’s main mistake was not going far enough to liquidate the unsound positions bequeathed by his predecessor: He should have gotten out of Afghanistan faster and never done regime change in Libya at all. By contrast, Putin looks successful at first glance because Russia is playing a more active role than it did back when it was largely prostrate. Given where Russia was in 1995 or even 2000, there was nowhere to go but up.

But Putin has also done one thing right: He has pursued simple objectives that were fairly easy to achieve and that played to Russia’s modest strengths. In Ukraine, he had one overriding goal: to prevent that country from moving closer to the EU, eventually becoming a full member, and then joining NATO. He wasn’t interested in trying to reincorporate all of Ukraine or turn it into a clone of Russia, and the “frozen conflict” that now exists there is sufficient to achieve his core goal. This essentially negative objective was not that hard to accomplish because Ukraine was corrupt, internally divided, and right next door to Russia. These features made it easy for Putin to use a modest degree of force and hard for anyone else to respond without starting a cycle of escalation they could not win.

Putin’s goals in Syria are equally simple, realistic, and aligned with Russia’s limited means. He wants to preserve the Assad regime as a meaningful political entity so that it remains an avenue of Russian influence and a part of any future political settlement. He’s not trying to conquer Syria, restore the Alawites to full control over the entire country, defeat the Islamic State, or eliminate all Iranian influence. And he’s certainly not pursuing some sort of quixotic dream of building democracy there. A limited deployment of Russian airpower and a handful of “volunteers” may suffice to keep Assad from being defeated, especially if the United States and others eventually adopt a more realistic approach to the conflict as well.

By contrast, U.S. goals toward both of these conflicts have been a combination of wishful thinking and strategic contradictions. In Ukraine, a familiar alliance of neocon fantasists (e.g., Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland) and liberal internationalists convinced themselves that the EU Accession Agreement was a purely benign act whose virtues and alleged neutrality no one could possibly misconstrue. As a result, they were completely blindsided when Moscow kept using the realpolitik playbook and saw the whole matter very differently. (There was an element of hypocrisy and blindness here, too; Russia was simply acting the same way the United States has long acted when dealing with the Western Hemisphere, but somehow U.S. officials managed to ignore the clear warnings that Moscow had given.) Moreover, the core Western objective — creating a well-functioning democratic Ukrainian state — was a laudable but hugely demanding task from the very beginning, whereas Putin’s far more limited goal — keeping Ukraine out of NATO — was comparatively easy.

Needless to say, U.S. policy in Syria has been even more muddled. Since the uprising first began, Washington has been vainly trying to achieve a series of difficult and incompatible goals. It says, “Assad must go,” but it doesn’t want any jihadi groups (i.e., the only people who are really fighting Assad) to replace him. It wants to “degrade and destroy ISIS,” but it also wants to make sure anti-Islamic State groups like al-Nusra Front don’t succeed. It is relying on Kurdish fighters to help deal with the Islamic State, but it wants Turkey to help, too, and Turkey opposes any steps that might stoke the fires of Kurdish nationalism. So the United States has been searching in vain for “politically correct” Syrian rebels — those ever-elusive “moderates” — and it has yet to find more than a handful. And apart from wanting Assad gone, the long-term U.S. vision for Syria’s future was never clear. Given all this muddled direction, is it any wonder Putin’s actions look bold and decisive while Obama’s seem confused?

This difference is partly structural: Because Russia is much weaker than the United States (and destined to grow even weaker over time), it has to play its remaining cards carefully and pursue only vital objectives that are achievable at modest cost. The United States has vastly more resources to throw at global problems, and its favorable geopolitical position allows it to avoid most of the repercussions of its mistakes. Add to that the tendency of both neoconservatives and liberal internationalists to believe that spreading the gospel of “freedom” around the world is necessary, easy to do, and won’t generate unintended consequences or serious resistance, and you have a recipe for an overly ambitious yet under-resourced set of policy initiatives. Needless to say, this is the perfect recipe for recurring failure. [...]
Having a strong hand is not perhaps as important as playing well the hand you have.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Did Obama miss an important opportunity when he met with Putin in NY?

This article from Salon says yes, indeed:

Thomas Friedman, read your Chomsky: The New York Times gets Putin/Obama all wrong, again
[...] It is now several weeks since Russia let it be known that it would reinforce its long-standing support of Bashar al-Assad with new military commitments. First came the materiƩl. Bombing runs began a week ago. On Monday, a senior military official in Moscow announced that Russian troops are to join the fight against the Islamic State.

We are always encouraged to find anything Putin does devious and the outcome of hidden motives and some obscure agenda having to do with his pouting ambition to be seen as a first-rank world leader. From the government-supervised New York Times on down, this is what you read in the newspapers and hear on the radio and television broadcasts. I urge readers to pay no attention to this stuff. It is all about Washington’s agenda to obscure.

Russia’s favored strategy in Syria has long been very clear. It is a question of distinguishing the primary and secondary contradictions, as the Marxists say. The Assad regime is to be kept in place so as to preserve those political institutions still functioning as the basis of a reconstructed national government. Once the threat of Islamic terror is defeated, a political transition into a post-Assad reconstruction can be negotiated.

For a time it appeared that Washington was prepared to buy into this set of expedients. This impression derived from the very frequent contacts between John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, with whom the American secretary of state has often worked closely.

Then came the fateful encounter between Obama and Putin at the U.N. Obama spoke first, Putin afterward. Then the two met privately.

A few days ago a source in Moscow with good lines into Kremlin thinking wrote a long note on the Obama-Putin encounter in New York. Here is some of what this source said:

The meeting with Obama in New York did not go well. It was extremely contentious, and Obama did not engage. Putin made the case that the important first priority had to be to eliminate Daesh [the Islamic State], and that after more than a year of the U.S. campaign there has been no significant success. Indeed, the contrary is the case.

Putin’s point was that air power alone will not succeed, and that now the only real boots on the ground are the Kurds and the armies of Syria and its supporters—Hezbollah and some Iranians, but the Iranians troops involved in the struggle with Daesh are operating mostly in Iraq.

Putin proposed creating a coalition, the equivalent of the anti-Hitler alliance, to focus on Daesh, and then focusing in Round 2 on the transition of Syria into a form of decentralized federation of highly autonomous regions—Kurdish, Sunni, Alawite-Christian and a few others—which all work together now.

Putin had been led to believe through the Lavrov /Kerry channel… that there would be a broader agreement to work together. So he was surprised that Obama did not seize the opportunity to engage the battle in a coordinated way…. In the end they agreed only on coordination between the two militaries to avoid running into each other.

Putin left New York with the view that it is now much more important to support the government in Syria than he had thought before he went, because he came convinced that the U.S., left to its present course, is going to create another Libya, this time in Syria. Israel has a similar view, as does Egypt, Iran, and, increasingly, countries in Europe. With Daesh already so deeply implanted, this would lead to vast crisis—military, political, economic, humanitarian—that would spread across all of the Middle East, into the Caucasus and across North Africa, with millions of refugees….

There are four things to say about this account straight off the top. One, the subtext is that Putin reached the point in New York when he effectively threw up his hands and said, “I’m fed up.” Two, Obama went into that meeting more or less befuddled as to what to say. In a word, he was outclassed.

Three, the strategy Putin presented to Obama is clear, logical, lawful and has a good chance of working. In other words, it is everything the Obama administration’s is not, Kerry’s efforts to work with Lavrov notwithstanding.

Four and most important, the history books may well conclude that the U.N. on Sept. 27 was the very place and the very day the U.S. ceded the initiative to Russia on the Syria crisis. This is my read as of now, although in circumstances this kinetic it is too perilous to anticipate what may come next.

The American press has been slightly berserk subsequent to the U.N. encounter, putting more spin on the new Russian policy than a gyroscope has in space. Putin is weak and desperate, he is making Syria more violent, Russian jets are bombing CIA-backed “moderates” and not ISIS, this is Russia’s second Afghanistan, nothing can work so long as Assad remains in power.

“Putin stupidly went into Syria looking for a cheap sugar high to show his people that Russia is still a world power,” Tom Friedman, a standout in this line, wrote in the Times last week. “Watch him become public enemy No. 1 in the Sunni Muslim world. ‘Yo, Vladimir, how’s that working for you?’”

I read all this with a mirror: It is nothing more than a reflection of how far below its knees the Obama administration’s pants have just fallen. Who went stupidly into Syria, Tom? Yo, Tom, your lump-them-together prejudices are showing: Most of “the Sunni Muslim world” is as appalled by the Islamic State as the non-Sunni Muslim world.


What a weird sensation it is to agree with Charles Krauthammer, one of the Washington’s Post’s too-numerous right-wing opinion-page writers. It is like traveling in a strange, badly run country where something always seems about to go wrong.

“If it had the wit, the Obama administration would be not angered, but appropriately humiliated,” Krauthammer wrote in last Thursday’s paper. “President Obama has, once again, been totally outmaneuvered by Vladimir Putin.”

It is a lot better than Tom Friedman’s driveling defense of the president. Somewhere, at least, a spade is still a spade. But with this observation the common ground with Krauthammer begins and ends. Obama has got it radically wrong in Syria—and indeed across the Middle East—but not in the ways we are encouraged to think. Where lie the errors, then? [...]
The author of the article has a great deal more to say. He clearly isn't on the side of American Foreign Policy regarding Syria (or much else). But many of the questions posited are worth asking. What are we doing in Syria?

IF indeed the above plan was proposed to Obama by Putin, I have to say, it makes more sense to me than supporting small Sunni groups against Assad. The sooner the war there ends, the better. If then Syria transitions "into a form of decentralized federation of highly autonomous regions", that might well stem the flow of refugees, and stabilize the region.

It sounds like a plan. Have we anything better to offer? I'm just askin'.

It sounds more realistic and plausible than what's being said by our Bagdad Bob President. The only thing I can say in defense of Obama is, I wasn't at the meeting with Putin, and I don't know what was said. But if it was as described as above, I would have to wonder if it indeed was a missed opportunity.

Also see: 'This is victory as far as they're concerned': Obama could be wrong about Putin's big moves in Syria