March 29, 2015

Posted by orrinj at 8:54 AM


Turning Victims Into Victimizers : From the Rolling Stone rape story to Ferguson to Eric Garner, conservatives are blaming the victim. (Nicole Hemmer, Dec. 9, 2014, US News)

On Sunday night, Charles C. Johnson doxxed the young woman featured in Rolling Stone's disputed story of a gang rape at the University of Virginia. He revealed not only her name but posted screengrabs of what he called her "rape-obsessed" Pinterest site. Johnson justified his actions - which he coupled with calls for donations and boasts about media requests - by stating that he was acting on behalf of "victims of false rape claims." A day earlier, National Review's Brendan O'Neill railed against the "Ivy League lynch mob" calling for students accused of rape to be kicked off campus.

Sandwiched in between these two events was a Sunday morning interview on "Fox News Sunday" with Rush Limbaugh. Asked about the protests surrounding the failure to indict police officers in the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Limbaugh assigned blame to the protesters. "I think that there is a grievance politics in this country that's tearing the country apart," he told Chris Wallace. "It's not based on real-world grievance. It's grievance that's being amplified and made up."

In each case - the doxxing, the "lynch mob" accusations, the cries of "grievance politics" - victims were transformed into victimizers, imbued with far more power than they actually possess. And in each case, victim-blaming papered over the real failure that links the campus rape problem with the police brutality problem: the failure of our criminal justice system to achieve anything like justice - or even fairness.
Take the University of Virginia case. Even if we stipulate that the gang rape didn't happen, or going a step further, that nothing happened at all - which is stipulating quite a lot...

Just in case the author hadn't sufficiently embarrassed herself, Friend Matt points out she also goes all Fox Butterfield:  "In his interview, Limbaugh said protesters should "respect the criminal justice system." Respect it? It is a system that imprisons black men at six times the rate of white men, that makes police encounters for black teenagers 21 times more deadly than for white teens, that incarcerates an ever-growing number of Americans even as crime rates drop precipitously."


Posted by orrinj at 8:37 AM


How Sufjan Stevens Subverts the Stigma of Christian Music : The genre has had a bad reputation since the 1960s, but the singer-songwriter succeeds by focusing on aesthetics over evangelism. (DAVID ROARK, MAR 29 2015, The Atlantic)

While many believers have been busy copying the latest radio hit (transforming Taylor Swift songs into trite melodies about Jesus instead of ex-boyfriends) others have been taking a different approach altogether. Even since the days of "Jesus music," artists such as Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, who were also professed Christians, have gone another route. They didn't see music as just a means to an end, or a way of evangelizing to young people. Instead, they focused on telling compelling stories and creating aesthetically pleasing music, while still expressing themselves personally and spiritually. It's not as if they separated their faith from their work--on the contrary, Christian themes and ideas are woven throughout their lyrics. It's more that their endeavors were simpler: They cared more about writing good songs than converting the world through music.

The same can be said for one of the most renowned bands of this generation: U2. As the writer Joshua Rothman noted in a 2014 story in The New Yorker, "Most people think of U2 as a wildly popular rock band. Actually, they're a wildly popular, semi-secretly Christian rock band." Formed in the late 70s, the Irish rockers--led by the devoutly religious Bono--shaped music as we know it. Yet, even though most of the band are believers, U2's success has had little effect on the perception of music made by Christians and the apparent influence of the religion on popular culture.

These bands only function as a small sample size of the many others with similar approaches that have existed over the years. Music groups that proclaim Christ have dominated the hardcore and hard-rock music scenes in recent years, from the likes of Underoath to Norma Jean to Thrice. But in the last decade especially, there seems to be a greater influx of Christians making music this way, including Sufjan Stevens.

Stevens doesn't hide his beliefs when it comes to the lyrics he writes: from the overt Bible stories in Seven Swans to the theodicy that is "Casimir Pulaski Day," which tells the story of a young girl who dies from cancer. Yet the gist of Stevens' work transcends religious and spiritual subjects to tackle broader themes. Asthmatic Kitty Records, the label Stevens created, notes that The Age of Adz, his latest non-Christmas album before Carrie and Lowell, explores themes of "love, sex, death, disease, illness, anxiety, and suicide." In other words, Stevens sings about topics that matter to humans, regardless of their worldview.

Stevens intentionally keeps his distance from the label of "Christian artist"--as if the adjective even made sense in the first place--and the likes of CCM. "Christian music (as a genre) exists exclusively within the few insulated floors (cubicles and computers included) of some corporate construction in Nashville, Tenn. Otherwise, there's no such thing as Christian music," Stevens told the music blog DOA in an interview.

For the musician, the gospel doesn't just play some small, personal role in life and culture; it infiltrates and restores all of life and culture. It addresses the entire human experience, or "the totality of life" as Schaeffer described it. Stevens' music also doesn't alienate listeners of different beliefs. His work may seem less spiritual than that of others, given its seeming focus on "secular" rather than "sacred" things, but it actually proves more accessible to the wider world than that of contemporary Christian music--an irony given the evangelical intentions of these artists.

"Logistically I suppose my process of making art is driven less by abstractions of faith or politics and more by practical theory: composition and balance and color," said Stevens. "It's not so much that faith influences us as it lives in us. In every circumstance (giving a speech or tying my shoes), I am living and moving and being. This absolves me from ever making the embarrassing effort to gratify God (and the church) by imposing religious content on anything I do."

Posted by orrinj at 8:28 AM


The Tallis Scholars' Luminous Way With Arvo Pärt (Tom Huizenga, 3/19/15, NPR)

Arvo Pärt was saved by the bell. The Estonian composer, who turns 80 in September, hit a creative roadblock in 1968. After a hiatus of eight years he returned with a new sound inspired by the simple triad (a stack of three notes, an essential building block of Western music) and by bells. He called his new style tintinnabuli (from the Latin for bells).

It's also the title of the new album released last week by The Tallis Scholars, a veteran British vocal ensemble with a reputation in Renaissance masters like Palestrina and Josquin des Prez. Little by little, Peter Phillips, the group's director, has been adding Pärt's a cappella pieces to their repertoire, judging them a perfect fit.

The Tallis Scholars sing Pärt pared down. They employ just two voices per part as in their Renaissance music performances. This method makes a significant difference. It adds clarity and spaciousness to music already suffused with airy silences.

Posted by orrinj at 8:21 AM


How Philadelphia became the unlikely epicenter of American cricket (Raf Noboa y Rivera, 28 March 2015, The Guardian)

The greatest bowler - arguably - in cricket's long history was an American. Let that sink in for a moment.

Here's another fact: cricket was America's first modern team sport.

These may be strange words to write; even stranger to read them. The United States of America, as recently as the turn of the last century, possessed cricketing talent on par with England, Australia, and other cricket nations.
And then it all ended.

On the eve of the Cricket World Cup final on Saturday, it's worth exploring just how cricket was all but extinguished in America - and if there's any route back for the sport in a country where once it reigned supreme.

Cricket's American roots run deep and gnarled through the soil of American history. In fact, it predates the establishment of the United States by nearly a century, if not more. The first evidence of its existence comes from the secret diaries kept by Virginia planter William Byrd III. Byrd, an infamous bon vivant, was famous for establishing the first major horse race in the New World; something he arranged with other planters he knew. His involvement in American cricket is less well-known, but no less important, because it places it in the historical record.

Posted by orrinj at 8:15 AM


How to Read Willmoore Kendall : a review of Willmoore Kendall Contra Mundum. By Willmoore Kendall (George W. Carey, 3/28/15, Imaginative Conservative)

What was Kendall trying to tell us? What were his central teachings? I will list some that are highly interrelated.

(1) He told us to trust the American people. He always loved America and in his later years he came to love its political institutions and procedures. That is one theme that permeates most of his works dealing with the American system and his critiques of the proposals for reform offered by the modern American liberal. The three articles that best reflect this are "Dialogues on Americanism," "Deadlock," and "How to Read Richard Weaver: Philosopher of 'We the (Virtuous) People'."

Having noted this much we must proceed to (2). Willmoore was a majoritarian of very special order. He was a conservative populist of sorts. One will detect a shift of thinking on his part over the years. His early writings, and even those not published here which appeared in the middle 1950′s, illustrate this. "Majority Principle and the Scientific Elite" and "On Preservation of Democracy in America," both reproduced in this volume, indicate his early liberal bent of mind. (See in this regard the first four chapters of Ranney and Kendall, Democracy and the American Party System, for which he bears primary responsibility. See also his classic, John Locke and Majority Rule.)

What brought about the obvious change in his thinking and in what ways did he change? The reader of this work can readily see that in his early writing he accepted all the fundamental premises of liberalism. All opinions were deemed equal, which in very short order led him to the proposition that all values are equal, and, then, into the swamps of relativism. In sum, by a tortuous route well known to Western man, he accepted the fact-value dichotomy. By the late 1950′s, certainly after his conversion to Catholicism, we can discern a distinct shift in his writings with respect to the fact-value dichotomy and the liberal interpretation of majority rule. This is brilliantly manifest in his seldom-read article, "The People Versus Socrates Revisited." And he hammers away at this thesis in "How to Read Milton's Areopagitica." He nails all of this to the door with his "Fallacies of the Open Society," an article which oddly enough is not reproduced in this volume but which did appear in the American Political Science Review in the same year as the Milton article (1960).

I do not mean to imply that Willmoore's conversion to Catholicism produced the change in his thinking to which I have referred. It was, so far as I can determine, the other way around. In his earliest writings such as those I have cited, one will, if he reads closely enough, detect a tension, points and issues involving liberal premises with which Kendall did not quite feel at home. Contrast the "Preservation of Democracy" article with the "Weaver" article, or, better yet, "How to Read The Federalist." Over the years he came to realize that there is a hierarchy of values, that there are transcendent Truths which, however clumsily we might try, we should seek to explore with our "heart" and intellect. 

I've told my own story about this book here.

Posted by orrinj at 7:52 AM


Al-Qaeda vs. ISIS: The Battle for the Soul of Jihad (DANIEL BYMAN AND JENNIFER WILLIAMS, 3/27/15, Newsweek)

[T]he implications of one side's vic­tory or of continuing division are profound for the Middle East and for the United States, shaping the likely targets of the jihad­ist movement, its ability to achieve its goals and the overall stability of the Middle East. The United States can exploit this split, both to decrease the threat and to weaken the movement as a whole.

The Islamic State and Al-Qaeda fundamentally differ on whom they see as their main enemy, which strategies and tactics to use in attacking that enemy and which social issues and other concerns to emphasize.

Although the ultimate goal of Al-Qaeda is to overthrow the corrupt "apostate" regimes in the Middle East and replace them with "true" Islamic governments, Al-Qaeda's pri­mary enemy is the United States, which it sees as the root cause of the Middle East's problems.

The logic behind this "far enemy" strategy is based on the idea that U.S. mili­tary and economic support for corrupt dic­tators in the Middle East--such as the lead­ers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia--is what has enabled these regimes to withstand attempts to overthrow them. By targeting the United States, Al-Qaeda believes it will eventually force the United States to withdraw its sup­port for these regimes and pull out of the region altogether, thus leaving the regimes vulnerable to attack from within.

The Islamic State does not follow Al-Qa­eda's "far enemy" strategy, preferring instead the "near enemy" strategy, albeit on a re­gional level. As such, the primary target of the Islamic State has not been the United States, but rather apostate regimes in the Arab world--namely, the Bashar Assad regime in Syria and the Haider al-Abadi regime in Iraq.

Baghdadi favors first purifying the Islamic community by at­tacking Shia and other religious minorities as well as rival jihadist groups. The Islamic State's long list of enemies includes the Iraqi Shia, Hezbollah, the Yazidis (a Kurdish eth­no-religious minority located predominantly in Iraq), the wider Kurdish community in Iraq, the Kurds in Syria and rival opposition groups in Syria (including Jabhat al-Nusra). And (surprise!) the Jews.

It is in the interest of the Anglosphere, the Shi'a, the Jews, the Kurds, Islamist political parties, etc. to defeat ISIS, al Qaeda and the Wahhabi dictatorships, starting with the Sa'uds.

Posted by orrinj at 7:45 AM


Deflation: the modern policy bogeyman (Gillian Tett, 3/29/15, Financial Times)

In 2009, the Bank of Japan conducted a public survey on deflation. The results were not what the esteemed central bank wanted or expected - at least not after a "lost decade" of falling prices. Instead of expressing horror at the idea of deflation, 44 per cent of those surveyed deemed it "favourable"; 35 per cent felt neutral about the phenomenon; and just 20.7 per cent described it as "unfavourable". Although a subsequent survey painted a slightly more negative picture, the pattern was clear. As Kathy Matsui, vice-chair of Goldman Sachs Japan, says: "More Japanese actually feel that deflation is a positive than a negative." [...]

[A]n institution called the Bank for International Settlements has just published a striking study of the history of deflation. The BIS, as it is known, operates as something of a central bankers' bank-cum-think-tank. Given its position, you might expect it to echo the orthodox view that deflation is a disaster. But in recent years the BIS has started to pump out some rather subversive research. Its deflation study - like that BoJ survey - goes against the usual grain: it argues that price falls are not always such a disaster, or a reason to panic. Sometimes they can be almost positive.

This argument will horrify most policy makers, not to mention mainstream economists. The BIS paper begins by pointing out that price falls are not so unusual. On the contrary, it states that "deflations were very common before the second world war". And even in the postwar period, there have been 100 or so transitory deflations in the 38 economies that the BIS studies and four persistent ones (in China, Hong Kong and - twice - in Japan).

The crucial point is that you cannot assume that falls in the price of goods (such as food or travel) and assets (shares, houses and so on) are the same. Economists typically assume these price falls go hand in hand, and use the "d" word to describe both. But their impact can differ.

When asset prices crash, this undermines growth because it shatters confidence and increases the size of debt relative to assets. But if the price of goods and services declines, the result is more mixed.

If wages stay high as prices fall, that can hurt productivity and undermine growth. Falling income can also sometimes make it harder to repay debt. But lower prices can boost consumer and corporate spending power, and thus confidence. And in practical terms, the BIS research shows that there have been numerous periods since 1870 when deflation occurred amid growth. "The evidence from our long historical data set sheds new light on the costs of deflations," the report states. "It raises questions about the prevailing view that goods and services price deflations, even if persistent, are always pernicious."

The simple reality is that we create more wealth more cheaply.  Pretending that's a crisis is silly on its face.

Posted by orrinj at 7:33 AM


Saudi Sunnis and Iran's Shiites--Why the U.S. Can't Support Both (RIYADH MOHAMMED, 3/29/15, The Fiscal Times)

[Saudi Arabia] also harbors Wahhabism, an extreme interpretation of Sunni Islam, making the Kingdom a dividing force in the region.

Wahhabis are the most anti-Shiite group among the Sunni Muslims. This is one of the reasons Saudi Arabia is in a regional competition with Iran, which is ruled by adherents of an extreme Shiite version of Islam. While the Obama administration was retreating from Iraq in 2011, and as the Arab Spring was emerging, the worried Saudis began a series of military interventions throughout the Middle East. They planned to protect friendly autocratic governments, overthrow others and attack rebel groups. 

The Saudi actions began in the small Shiite-majority kingdom of Bahrain, which is ruled by a Sunni royal family. The Saudis provided a small contingency force to suppress the Bahrainis who rose up against their government in 2011. In that case, the Saudi motivation to keep a Sunni government in power was combined with the fear that the fall of the Bahraini royal dynasty would open the door to similar uprisings in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries. Add to that the presence of a suppressed Shiite minority that lives in the oil rich eastern region of the Kingdom and the fear that Iran could control Bahrain -- all were factors in the Saudi decision to act in Bahrain.

It's why we're natural allies with the Shi'a.

Posted by orrinj at 7:29 AM


Congress Does Something Useful (WSJ, March 27, 2015)

The other House victory was a 392-37 vote to put doctor payments under Medicare on a more honest budget path. Congress has typically raised these payments for only a year or two, which let it hide future liabilities. Then the Members would use the next year's must-pass "doc fix" as a vehicle to sneak other bad policies into law. Democrats used it as a carrot and stick to win the American Medical Association's support for ObamaCare.

In addition, the GOP persuaded Democrats to accept modest but meaningful reforms in Medicare that could save tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars over time. These include raising premiums for wealthier seniors and better incentives for first-dollar Medicare supplemental insurance. 

...but the key, as we transition to a defined contribution welfare net, is means-testing, which will disqualify all of us from defined benefits.

Posted by orrinj at 7:26 AM


Germany needs more immigrants, study says (Deutsche-Welle, 3/27/15)

Over the long term, Germany will need to attract an average of 533,000 immigrants per year above the number of those that emigrate from the country, according to a study released on Friday by the Bertelsmann Foundation.

Posted by orrinj at 7:12 AM


The Spy (Novelist) Who Loved Me: Olen Steinhauer's Top 4 Fictional Spies (Seira Wilson, March 24, 2015, Amazon Book Review)

Neil Burnside: As the Director of Special Operations for MI-6, this icy kingmaker took viewers through the complex and fraught world of British espionage in The Sandbaggers, which lasted three impeccable seasons from 1978 to 1980. Not quite as bleak as Callan, The Sandbaggers still pulls no punches and, even on a shoestring British-seventies budget, puts most contemporary spy shows to shame. Sadly unknown on this side of the Atlantic, The Sandbaggers should be required viewing for fans of the genre. I return to it regularly.

John Drake: Before starring in the cult classic The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan became the highest-paid TV actor in part because of Danger Man. In two series (1960-1962 and 1964-1968), he played John Drake, an "Irish-American" NATO intelligence operative whose jobs take him all over the world. Smart scripts and a solidly moral character made this a stunning show that holds up remarkably well fifty years later. McGoohan, a staunch Catholic, made ground rules for his character: He never bedded a woman, and he would not kill people. Only occasionally would he produce a gun. What that meant was that, unlike a lot of TV spies, Drake had to use his brains to get himself out of trouble. What it meant for audiences was that they quickly grew to trust their leading man, week after week.

Most of us of a certain age saw at least some episodes of Danger Man and all of The Prisoner on various outlets, but if you've never seen it you owe it to youself to track down The Sandbaggers.

March 28, 2015

Posted by orrinj at 9:04 AM


Vinyl's comeback powered by second-hand records (John Sakamoto, Mar 27 2015, Toronto Star)

"The used-vinyl market is absolutely the driving force behind the revival," says Aaron Keele who, with Akim Boldireff, a.k.a. The Record Guys, is putting on the latest edition of the Toronto Record Show this Sunday.

"It's what fuelled the beginning of the comeback, as not many classic albums were available on new pressings even five years ago," Keele says via email. "Even now that they are becoming available again, many new reissues of classic albums are quite costly or simply still haven't even been reissued yet, so used vinyl fills the need."

Despite being overshadowed by new records, used records also neatly sidestep the trap of what Neil Young sneeringly calls vinyl as "fashion statement."

A lot of record buyers today, he said recently in an interview on Southern California Public Radio, "don't realize that they're listening to CD masters on vinyl and that's because the record companies have figured out that people want vinyl. And they're only making CD masters in digital, so all the new products that come out on vinyl are actually CDs on vinyl, which is really nothing but a fashion statement."

An increasingly expensive fashion statement, at that. Given the shortage of pressing plants and, in this country, the added pain of the U.S. exchange rate, is there a danger the vinyl revival could price itself out of the market?

March 27, 2015

Posted by orrinj at 5:55 PM


Yemen's Houthi rebels advance despite Saudi-led air strikes (Reuters, 27 March 2015)

Yemen's Houthi rebels made broad gains in the country's south and east today despite a second day of Saudi-led air strikes meant to check the Iranian-backed militia's efforts to overthrow President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Shia Muslim Houthi fighters and allied army units gained their first foothold on Yemen's Arabian Sea coast by seizing the port of Shaqra 100km (60 miles) east of Aden, residents told Reuters.

The advances threaten Hadi's last refuge in Yemen and potentially undermine the air campaign to support him.

Posted by orrinj at 5:52 PM


How Kate Upton's Cleavage Could Destroy North Korea (JAMES PEARSON, 3/27/15, Reuters)

A $50 portable media player is providing many North Koreans a window to the outside world despite the government's efforts to keep its people isolated - a symbol of change in one of the world's most repressed societies.

By some estimates, up to half of all urban North Korean households have an easily concealed "notel," a small portable media player used to watch DVDs or content stored on USB sticks that can be easily smuggled into the country and passed hand to hand. People are exchanging South Korean soaps, pop music, Hollywood films and news programs, all of which are expressly prohibited by the Pyongyang regime, according to North Korean defectors, activists and recent visitors to the isolated country.

"The North Korean government takes their national ideology extremely seriously, so the spread of all this media that competes with their propaganda is a big and growing problem for them," said Sokeel Park of Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), an organization that works with defectors. "If Pyongyang fails to successfully adapt to these trends, they could threaten the long-term survival of the regime itself."

Posted by orrinj at 12:49 PM


What We Can Learn From Patrick Henry's 'Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death' Speech (Carson Holloway, March 23, 2015, Daily Signal)

[T]he speech can remind today's Americans of three important political virtues, virtues as relevant to Patrick Henry's time as to ours.

First, the speech reminds us of the importance of both civility and candor to a healthy politics. Perhaps surprisingly in view of its impassioned ending, the speech begins by noting the importance of civility. Henry opens his remarks by acknowledging the "patriotism, as well as the abilities" of those who spoke on the other side of the issue. He disclaims any intention to be "disrespectful" to them.

Nevertheless, the speech also points to the need for a candid civility. The stakes in play--freedom or slavery--require each citizen to speak his mind forthrightly. Only on the basis of such open debate, after all, can we "hope to arrive at truth, and fulfill the great responsibility we hold to God and our country." Civility means not seeking to give offense. It does not mean avoiding hard truths because they may offend others.

Second, the speech is an exercise in prudence, and it therefore teaches us something about prudence. According to Aristotle, prudence is the virtue by which we know how to act for the best in the circumstances we face. Thus understood, prudence involves complex political judgments, and it cannot be reduced to a simple formula. We often try to do this, however, and especially to reduce prudence to caution.

Henry, however, suggested that a prudent regard for "experience" taught in this case the need for bold, immediate action. All of the colonists' experience, he argued, showed that further argument with the British would be fruitless. The government of Great Britain was preparing to use force to bring the colonies to heel, and so prudence rejected further delays and called instead for immediate resistance--before the British force in America grew so strong that such resistance would become impossible.

Finally and most obviously, the speech shows forth a spirit of courage. According to Aristotle, courage is the virtue that faces death for a good cause. The speech is a call to arms--not figuratively as the expression "call to arms" is often used, but literally a call to armed resistance against the British. Henry's electrifying final words--"give me liberty or give me death"--remind us that finally a just freedom can be held securely only by those who are willing to risk everything to preserve it.

Posted by orrinj at 12:47 PM


Rift widens between Turkey's Erdogan and his successor (Daniel Dombey, 3/27/15, Financial Times)

An investigation into senior members of Turkey's ruling AK party marked the latest fallout from a widening rift between the country's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his handpicked successor, Ahmet Davutoglu.
The tension between the two men has injected an unusual element of internal strife into the long ruling AK party, and poses a threat to Mr Erdogan's gambit to consolidate his sway over the country after June 7 general elections.

"There is a power struggle between Erdogan and Davutoglu," says Ahmet Hakan, a well-known Turkish commentator. "Erdogan says: 'I want control', while Davutoglu says: 'I am the prime minister and I want to use my powers.' "

Posted by orrinj at 12:43 PM


No Common Core Calamity : Contrary to the critics' assertions, Common Core testing seems to be going just fine. (Ulrich Boser March 26, 2015, US News)

[I]t turns out that my daughter's experience might be the norm, and the standards and assessments seem to be going far better than many believe. In a recent piece in Columbia Journalism Review, for instance, writer Alexander Russo argues that the "media's coverage of this spring's Common Core testing rollout has been guilty of over-emphasizing the extent of the conflict, speculating dire consequences based on little information."

Russo's reporting reflects my experience, and at my child's school, the administration of the tests appears to be going pretty well. There was no major opt-out effort by parents, or test-prep rallies with kids running through banners. I didn't get any robocalls telling me that my kids would need a good night's rest or hear of any massive technical glitches through the parent grapevine.

And there certainly was no sign of Washington mandating what my kids would learn or be tested on, as some observers have charged. In fact, the weekly email from my daughter's teacher barely mentioned the tests, other than to note that they were happening.

That's not to say that my daughter was all smiles. She later conceded that the English exam had some demanding portions. More difficult was the math test, which she started taking on Tuesday. The exam had some tough questions, and when I spoke to her that evening, she was upset that she didn't know some of the answers. Her favorite experience so far? Her teacher allowing her to chew on mints and gum during the tests.

My daughter's displeasure is to be expected, though. No one really enjoys testing, and for their part, critics overlook the fact that the new standards have done a lot to improve the caliber of tests. As recently as 2012, high schoolers in almost 10 states took English exams without any so-called "extended response items," according to Education Week newspaper. In other words, states tested students in English without actually assessing the student's ability to write an essay. In contrast, the new Common Core tests include writing prompts as well as other items that require students to demonstrate that they really understand what they've learned.

What's more, the standards have helped improve the quality of teaching in many areas. Take Amanda Burdi, a third grade teacher in Bloomingdale, Illinois. In an interview, she told one of my colleagues that the new standards have helped her refine her craft. Before the Common Core, she said, teachers spent little time working together in teams to support student learning. But the new standards have "really opened up that communication for teachers," she said. "There's a lot more conversation about student work."

No wonder conservatives have driven the standardized testing movement.

Posted by orrinj at 12:40 PM


Israel Unfreezes Palestinian Tax Revenue (Stephanie Butnick, March 27, 2015, Tablet)

Back in January, when the Palestinian Authority moved to join the International Criminal Court as a means of pursuing war crimes charges against Israel over this summer's Gaza war, Israel responded by swiftly freezing NIS 500 million (roughly $127 million) in Palestinian tax revenue typically transferred to PA officials in Ramallah. Today, less than a week before the PA is set to become an official ICC member (April 1), Israel announced it would unfreeze the funds and resume tax transfers to the PA.

According to a statement released by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office, Netanyahu approved the recommendation made by Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, the IDF, and the Shin Bet intelligence agency, whose collaboration indicates the extreme effects of withholding the more than $100 million monthly revenue.

Posted by orrinj at 12:37 PM


European FMs head to Switzerland as Iran deal coalesces (DAVE CLARK March 27, 2015,AFP) 

In the latest sign a nuclear deal between world powers and Iran is imminent, British foreign minister Philip Hammond said Friday he was ready to join the talks this weekend

Posted by orrinj at 12:34 PM


Scott Walker Adjusts Stance on Immigration at Private Dinner (REID J. EPSTEIN,  March 26, 2015, WSJ)
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told a private dinner of New Hampshire Republicans this month that he backed the idea of allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the country and to eventually become eligible for citizenship, a position at odds with his previous public statements on the matter.

Mr. Walker's remarks, which were confirmed by three people present, vary from the call he has made for "no amnesty"--a phrase widely employed by people who believe immigrants who broke the law by entering the country without permission shouldn't be awarded legal status or citizenship.

...but you'd think he'd have learned from Mitt the damage that pretending nativism does to a general election candidate. It's all well and good to return to decency after you win the nomionation, but you've already convinced the great middle of your fundamental indecency.

Posted by orrinj at 12:14 PM


More Illegal Immigrants Snagging White-Collar Jobs (ERIC PIANIN, 3/26/15, The Fiscal Times)

While the size of the illegal immigrant workforce in this country has changed little since the worst of the recession, a substantial number of these unauthorized workers have moved into better-paying white-collar jobs, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center. [...]

The share of all unauthorized immigrant workers with management and professional jobs grew to 13 percent in 2012 from 10 percent in 2007, according to the study, while the share with construction or production jobs declined to 29 percent from 34 percent.

March 26, 2015

Posted by orrinj at 5:14 PM


Stock Up on Money-Saving LED Bulbs Starting Under $4 Each, Today Only (Shep McAllister, 3/26/15,

If you still haven't upgraded your home's lighting to LED, here's a great chance to do it on the cheap. Today only, Amazon's selling 6-packs of Energetic Lighting LED bulbs starting at just $23, or under $4 per bulb.

Posted by orrinj at 5:12 PM


Iran brain drain in reverse? Why some young professionals are going home. (Scott Peterson, MARCH 26, 2015, The Christian Science Monitor)

The Leon restaurant, which sits atop a luxury mall in Tehran, features large paintings, a faux fireplace, and jazz, all to complement its fusion menu and fabulous, thick steaks.

It's a place one goes to be seen. So when the check comes, Salar - oozing confidence and sporting a wild shock of gelled hair, a stylish plaid shirt, and a leather wristband - knows just what to do.

The 31-year-old British-educated Iranian investor hands the waiter his debit card. He then tells him his PIN, raising his voice so anyone within earshot can hear he has embraced a practice common in Iran but unthinkable anywhere else.

Recommended: How much do you know about Iran? Take our quiz to find out.
"When I first came back, I couldn't believe people in Iran shared their PIN numbers like that. Now I sometimes shout it out," says Salar, a pseudonym.

His move back to Tehran is part of a reverse brain drain encouraged by the June 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani. Shouting out PINs is just one of many quirks embraced by those young professionals educated abroad who have spurned good prospects in the West to return to live and invest here. 

It's a bet on the future, and for many a bet on the presidency of Mr. Rouhani, the relatively moderate regime insider who has promised to resolve Iran's nuclear issue with world powers and revive an economy crippled by sanctions and tumbling oil prices.

Posted by orrinj at 5:04 PM


As US lets Yemen fall, Israeli ire pales next to Arab fury (AVI ISSACHAROFF, March 26, 2015, Times of Israel)

Decision makers in Israel have come to an understanding that the Americans have no intention of imposing demands on Iran with regards to halting military operations and even terrorist attacks in other countries as part of the agreement over Tehran's nuclear program.

But Israel's concerns regarding the Houthi takeover of Yemen are nothing compared to the profound discontent of Riyadh and other Arab countries, in light of Iran's rampage throughout the Middle East and the blatant inaction on the part of the US.

The outcome of the Saudi military operation may not be decisive, but reflects much Saudi, Jordanian and Egyptian frustration. The anger of these regimes is not directed at Iran, which is more or less engaged in the kind of hostile activity expected of it, but mainly at Washington.

Posted by orrinj at 4:57 PM


In Shocking Breach, U.S. Declassifies Document Revealing Some of Israel's Nuclear Capabilities (Tom Gross, March 26, 2015, Weekly Standard)

On February 12, the Pentagon quietly declassified a top-secret 386-page Department of Defense document from 1987 detailing Israel's nuclear program - the first time Israel's alleged nuclear program has ever been officially and publically referenced by the U.S. authorities.

In the declassified document, the Pentagon reveals supposed details about Israel's deterrence capabilities, but it kept sections on France, Germany, and Italy classified. Those sections are blacked out in the document.

The two main exceptions in the international media that wrote about the declassification at the time were the state-funded Iranian regime station Press TV and the state-funded Russian station RT. 

Both these media were rumored to have been tipped off about this obscure report at the time by persons in Washington. (Both the RT and PressTV stories falsely claim that the U.S. gave Israel help in building a hydrogen bomb. This is incorrect.)

Israel has never admitted to having nuclear weapons. To do so might spark a regional nuclear arms race, and eventual nuclear confrontation.

The declassification is a serious breach of decades' old understandings concerning this issue between Israel and its north American and certain European allies.

Cutting Losses on Iran Nuclear Deal, Israel Eyes Small Print (Dan Williams and John Irish, 3/26/15, Reuters) 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has begun to signal that Israel could resign itself to an Iranian nuclear deal that would leave its enemy with some uranium enrichment capability, a compromise he has long opposed.

The shift seems surprising given Netanyahu's contentious speech to the U.S. Congress earlier this month in which he argued against world powers letting Tehran keep thousands of uranium centrifuges and remain on possible course to a bomb.

Really?  Is anyone outside the rightwing bubble surprised he folded?

Posted by orrinj at 4:53 PM


FANTASY BASEBALL: BETTER WITH AGE (Will Leitch, 3/26/15, Sports on Earth)

[T]he one thing in my life that I can say, with 100 percent certainty, has gotten nothing but better every single year since it began to exist ... is fantasy baseball.

Everybody has his or her fantasy baseball origin story. I'm old enough to have played my first league in college, and like many people back then, we had one poor soul spending every Monday morning poring through the pages of USA Today and manually tabulating our stats to give us our standings. We had to call him with trades. (Phones back then were attached to birds: It would often take several weeks to get a response to my Tim Naehring-and-Greg Vaughn-for-Albert Belle trade offers, and the response typically accompanied by an egg, twigs and the avian flu.) Later, we subscribed to a stats service that would fax us our stats for the past week every Sunday night: I remember asking my mom at the hospital she worked at, the only place this college student home for the summer knew had a fax machine, to let me use the Emergency Room's fax number for the weekly reports. (Back then, medicine was practiced exclusively by the application of leeches and the recitation of various Latin incantations directed at the part of the body suffering the current malady.) There was no such thing as a "fantasy baseball expert"; such a profession would have seemed absurd. (The only advice available to humanity back then was what you could decipher from cave drawings and whatever visions might appear after drinking cactus water and staring into the fire.)

Fantasy baseball was the purview of obsessives and a few dorky writers in Manhattan no one ever heard from again. It was terrible -- and it was fun. It was immediately exhilarating to have control over baseball players in a way you'd never had before, to put together the team you would if you had the opportunity, to predict the future. It's easy to forget now, but fantasy baseball really did feel revolutionary back then, and even, to some, as a threat to the actual game. Baseball has always been a sport you can take apart and reassemble to resemble something close to what you had before, and fantasy baseball allowed you to do this in any fashion that you desired. I just wished I had more people to play with, and that I could do it faster.

And thus: Every single year since I started playing fantasy baseball in 1994 -- a horrible year to start, by the way: I'm pretty sure we lost three-quarters of our league after that season -- fantasy baseball has gotten better. The means of playing it has gotten better, the connections we make with old friends have gotten easier, the research into it has gotten deeper and more nuanced. Everything about fantasy baseball has improved. This stands in the way of what we generally consider human progress. Most innovations come with downsides that are inextricable from their positives. Sure, you now have automated maps in your car so you never get lost. But there's the offshoot of never knowing, away from the map, where the heck you are. Fantasy baseball has none of this. Fantasy baseball is only better.

In 1988, my partner and I called the Kingdome to see if Mike Schooler had gotten a save the night before.  Now you can see how your team is doing live online.

Posted by orrinj at 4:29 PM


Saudi Arabia bombs Yemen as fears grow of a land invasion (Ali al-Mujahed, March 26, 2015, Washington Post)

Saudi Arabia launched intense airstrikes on neighboring Yemen on Thursday, as part of a bold Arab-led offensive against Shiite rebels that threatened to expand into a war involving ground troops.

Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies plunged into the Yemen crisis after a rebel advance forced the country's Western-backed president to flee and left the Shiite insurgents, known as Houthis, on the brink of controlling the country's two largest cities.

The Yemeni battles have flared into a balance-of-power showdown between Shiite power Iran, which is believed to back the Houthi rebels, and Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies.

The offensive quickly divided the Middle East, with Shiite powers like the Iranian and Iraqi government and Lebanon's Hezbollah militia denouncing the bombing. Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, told Iran's Arabic-language al-Alam channel that "We will spare no effort to contain the crisis in Yemen." Meanwhile Sunni-majority countries offered assistance ranging from logistical aid to fighter jets.

There were indications that the battle could expand to a land war. Saudi state TV said Thursday that a ground offensive was being studied, but gave no further details. Egypt's minister of foreign affairs, Sameh Shoukri, said in a speech to Arab foreign ministers that Egypt was willing "to send ground forces if necessary" to back the anti-Houthi fight.

Not only does the conflict clarify the lines, but the threat of destabilizing the Sa'uds--who fund salafism/wahabbism--hastens the endgame of the WoT.

March 25, 2015

Posted by orrinj at 7:26 PM


How Poor Are the Poor? (Thomas B. Edsall, 3/25/15, NY Times)

There is a consensus among poverty experts that over the past 50 years there has been some improvement in the condition of the poor.

"Anyone who studies the issue seriously understands that material poverty has continued to fall in the U.S. in recent decades, primarily due to the success of anti-poverty programs" and the declining cost of "food, air-conditioning, communications, transportation, and entertainment," David Autor, a professor of economics at M.I.T., wrote in response to my query.

Posted by orrinj at 6:52 PM


Amazon Robot Contest May Accelerate Warehouse Automation : Robots will use the latest computer-vision and machine-learning algorithms to try to perform the work done by humans in vast fulfillment centers. (Will Knight, March 25, 2015, MIT Technology Review)

Packets of Oreos, boxes of crayons, and squeaky dog toys will test the limits of robot vision and manipulation in a competition this May. Amazon is organizing the event to spur the development of more nimble-fingered product-packing machines.

Participating robots will earn points by locating products sitting somewhere on a stack of shelves, retrieving them safely, and then packing them into cardboard shipping boxes. Robots that accidentally crush a cookie or drop a toy will have points deducted. The people whose robots earn the most points will win $25,000.

Amazon has already automated some of the work done in its vast fulfillment centers. Robots in a few locations send shelves laden with products over to human workers who then grab and package them. These mobile robots, made by Kiva Systems, a company that Amazon bought in 2012 for $678 million, reduce the distance human workers have to walk in order to find products. However, no robot can yet pick and pack products with the speed and reliability of a human. Industrial robots that are already widespread in several industries are limited to extremely precise, repetitive work in highly controlled environments.

Pete Wurman, chief technology officer of Kiva Systems, says that about 30 teams from academic departments around the world will take part in the challenge, which will be held at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Seattle (ICRA 2015). In each round, robots will be told to pick and pack one of 25 different items from a stack of shelves resembling those found in Amazon's warehouses. Some teams are developing their own robots, while others are adapting commercially available systems with their own grippers and software.

Posted by orrinj at 6:33 PM


SOON A TEXAS TOWN WILL RUN ON 100 PERCENT RENEWABLE ENERGY (Mary Beth Griggs, 3/25/15, Popular Science)

Georgetown, Texas is a relatively small city of 50,000 people, and its city-run utility recently announced that it would rely entirely on wind and solar energy in just two years. Georgetown plans to achieve this feat by purchasing energy from local solar and wind ventures. Texas gets plenty of sun during the days, and it tends to get windy in the state at night, so getting energy from both sources should cover the energy needs of the town. In an additional benefit, the move also saves water in a state that is notoriously dry. As Slate notes coal-burning power plants not only rely on non-renewable fossil fuels, but also use up stunning amounts of water, a resource also craved by agriculture, and, well, people.

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