February 10, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 10:55 AM


Violent tide of Salafism threatens the Arab spring : A series of repressive dictatorships have been brought down in north Africa, but the ensuing struggles for power have left a vacuum that has allowed the rise of an extremist movement that is gathering both force and supporters (Angelique Chrisafis, Patrick Kingsley and Peter Beaumont, 2/10/13, The Observer)

If it is difficult to describe what is happening, it is because of terminology.

Although many of those involved in violence and encouraging violence could accurately be called Salafis, they remain an absolute minority of a wider minority movement that has emerged as a small but potent political force across post-revolutionary North Africa.

Although the encouragement to violence from this minority has been most marked in Tunisia, it has not been absent in Egypt.

"We've already started to see real threats," said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Centre last week. "There are many instances in Egypt where Salafis have used the language of incitement against opponents.

"Last year, one Egyptian Salafi cleric, Wagdi Ghoneim, called for a jihad on protesters against President Mohamed Morsi, a demand he repeated this month. Another - Yasser el-Burhamy - reportedly banned Muslim taxi-drivers from taking Christian priests to church."

Yasser el-Shimy, Egypt analyst for the Crisis Group said: "All it takes is for one guy to take it upon himself to carry out a fatwa. But the prospects of that happening in Egypt are less - or certainly not more - than they are in Tunisia. In Egypt, there was a deeper integration of Salafis into the political process as soon as the revolution had taken place."

Most tellingly, two leading Egyptian Salafis last week condemned the death threats against ElBaradei and Sabbahi.

A spokesman for al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya - which only last week called for the crucifixion of masked Egyptian protesters known as the Black Bloc - "rejected" assassinations as a political tool, while the leader of the Nour party, Egypt's largest Salafi group, went further, criticising "all forms of violence".

Nader Bakkar, a spokesman for the Nour party, said: "The Salafis in Tunisia are not organised well and they don't have the scholars who can teach them how to deal peacefully with things that they don't like in their country. It gives you a clear vision that we will not see in Egypt what we saw happen in Tunisia."

Bakkar also argued that Shaaban, the cleric who issued the fatwa against ElBaradei and Sabbahi, had little currency in Egyptian Salafism.

"He doesn't have many followers," said Bakkar, who claimed that Shabaan came from a school of Salafism that had preached obedience to former dictator Hosni Mubarak, and whose reputation had therefore been ruined in the post-revolution period.

The main Salafist political parties, which are represented in parliament, have far more of a stake in democratic transition than in Tunisia and Libya.

The best way to think about these terms is that all Muslims are generally Islamist, wishing their states to be founded in and to follow traditions of Islamic culture, just as all Americans are Christianist, adherents to the explicitly Christian Founding.  Rather few Americans are outright Theocrats, just as the genuine Islamicists are only a fraction of most Islamic nations.  And the numbers of the latter will fall over time as Democratic Islam becomes more pervasive and successful.  Sadly the transition won't be seamless, but what transition ever is?

Posted by orrinj at 10:50 AM


Climate change and the president (Editorial Board, 2/10/13, Washington Post)

Putting a slowly rising, significant price on carbon emissions would encourage people to burn less fossil fuel without micromanaging by Congress or the Energy Department. This approach would enlist market forces to green the energy sector. It would also allow for similar policies in other nations to connect with America's, creating a bigger, global market for carbon.

Posted by orrinj at 10:41 AM


Is a National Sales Tax Really Fair? (David Marotta, 2/10/13, Forbes)

A progressive income tax threatens our liberty and prosperity. It punishes the productive by taxing them the highest amounts, reduces employment by increasing the cost of employees and reveals our personal finances and thus invades our privacy.

A popular suggestion is to eliminate the income tax and replace it with a national sales tax, called the fair tax. The idea is that everyone pays their fair share based on what they spend rather than what they earn. Taxing consumption rather than productivity would encourage saving and investment, in turn stimulating production and economic growth.

The national sales tax would fall between 23% and 30%. It could replace the income tax and the 6.2% employee portion of the Social Security tax.

If the income tax was eliminated, the Internal Revenue Service, as well as thousands of pages of the tax code, would be obsolete. You would not be required to report your personal financial information to the government, which would both protect your privacy and reduce falsification on tax returns. [...]

Taxing income decreases productivity. Taxing consumption will similarly decrease spending. Less demand for consumer goods will reduce prices and also consumer debt. Families will be encouraged to have capital to save and invest as the tax burdens are removed on investments.

Deferred consumption, money not spent, is the textbook definition of capital. And because a sales tax is a consumption tax, more people will defer consumption and have capital to invest instead. Money invested earns more money. Increased savings and investing help create a healthy country with better economic growth.

If personal savings are to replace defined-benefit entitlements, you have to force people to save.  
Posted by orrinj at 9:35 AM


Amazon unpacked : The online giant is creating thousands of UK jobs, so why are some employees less than happy? (Sarah O'Connor, 2/08/13, Financial Times)

Amazon's warehouse in Rugeley, Staffs, looks like huge blue box. It is the size of nine football pitches

Between a sooty power station and a brown canal on the edge of a small English town, there is a building that seems as if it should be somewhere else. An enormous long blue box, it looks like a smear of summer sky on the damp industrial landscape.

Inside, hundreds of people in orange vests are pushing trolleys around a space the size of nine football pitches, glancing down at the screens of their handheld satnav computers for directions on where to walk next and what to pick up when they get there. They do not dawdle - the devices in their hands are also measuring their productivity in real time. They might each walk between seven and 15 miles today. It is almost Christmas and the people working in this building, together with those in seven others like it across the country, are dispatching a truck filled with parcels every three minutes or so. Before they can go home at the end of their eight-hour shift, or go to the canteen for their 30-minute break, they must walk through a set of airport-style security scanners to prove they are not stealing anything. They also walk past a life-sized cardboard image of a cheery blonde woman in an orange vest. "This is the best job I have ever had!" says a speech bubble near her head. [...]

There was an electric atmosphere in the big blue warehouse that autumn as the operation geared up for the first time. "At the start it was buzzing," said a member of the Amazon management team at the site, who did not want to be named. "Brothers, sisters, neighbours, everyone was just so pleased to have jobs. Everything was new."

Workers in Amazon's warehouses - or "associates in Amazon's fulfilment centres" as the company would put it - are divided into four main groups. There are the people on the "receive lines" and the "pack lines": they either unpack, check and scan every product arriving from around the world, or they pack up customers' orders at the other end of the process. Another group stows away suppliers' products somewhere in the warehouse. They put things wherever there's a free space - in Rugeley, there are inflatable palm trees next to milk frothers and protein powder next to kettles. Only Amazon's vast computer brain knows where everything is, because the workers use their handheld computers to scan both the item they are stowing away and a barcode on the spot on the shelf where they put it.

The last group, the "pickers", push trolleys around and pick out customers' orders from the aisles. Amazon's software calculates the most efficient walking route to collect all the items to fill a trolley, and then simply directs the worker from one shelf space to the next via instructions on the screen of the handheld satnav device. Even with these efficient routes, there's a lot of walking. One of the new Rugeley "pickers" lost almost half a stone in his first three shifts. "You're sort of like a robot, but in human form," said the Amazon manager. "It's human automation, if you like." Amazon recently bought a robot company, but says it still expects to keep plenty of humans around because they are so much better at coping with the vast array of differently shaped products the company sells.

What did the people of Rugeley make of all this? For many, it has been a culture shock. "The feedback we're getting is it's like being in a slave camp," said Brian Garner, the dapper chairman of the Lea Hall Miners Welfare Centre and Social Club, still a popular drinking spot.

One of the first complaints to spread through the town was that employees were getting blisters from the safety boots some were given to wear, which workers said were either too cheap or the wrong sizes. One former shop-floor manager, who did not want to be named, said he always told new workers to smear their bare feet with Vaseline. "Then put your socks on and your boots on, because I know for a fact these boots are going to rub and cause blisters and sores."

Others found the pressure intense. Several former workers said the handheld computers, which look like clunky scientific calculators with handles and big screens, gave them a real-time indication of whether they were running behind or ahead of their target and by how much. Managers could also send text messages to these devices to tell workers to speed up, they said. "People were constantly warned about talking to one another by the management, who were keen to eliminate any form of time-wasting," one former worker added.

In a statement, Amazon said: "Some of the positions in our fulfilment centres are indeed physically demanding, and some associates may log between seven and 15 miles walking per shift. We are clear about this in our job postings and during the screening process and, in fact, many associates seek these positions as they enjoy the active nature of the work. Like most companies, we have performance expectations for every Amazon employee - managers, software developers, site merchandisers and fulfilment centre associates - and we measure actual performance against those expectations."

The reality is that labor sucks and we long to be free of it.  We want jobs, not work.

Posted by orrinj at 9:21 AM


Why I've fallen out of love with football (Simon Kuper, 2/08/13, Financial Times)

Much worse than the football is that vast critical apparatus attached to it. The 24-hour humourless hype is exhausting. Every comment by Alex Ferguson about a referee is treated as world news - bigger than, say, a massacre in Mali. Last June about 500 of us journalists crammed into one of the England team's meaningless press conferences in Donetsk, Ukraine. Meanwhile, the media lack resources to cover actual news.

Then there's the anger: at a referee who gives a penalty, or a player who dares change clubs. Heavy use of the word "hate" ("I hate Manchester United" et cetera) means football talk often sounds like fascist propaganda. Hysteria would be much reduced if fans and media shed the fairytale notion that a footballer must love whichever club he happens to play for. Footballers don't think that way. Listen to their language: they call themselves "professionals" with "careers". Football is a job - well-paid and often enjoyable, but employees don't love their employers. A friend who supports Manchester United told me he believed United's long-serving players Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs loved United. I asked him if he loved the bank where he worked. Obviously not, he said. Well, Scholes and Giggs don't love United either. They just have happy employee-employer relationships.

Anyone who peeks behind football's curtain discovers there is no magic there. Another friend, a Sunderland fan, during a stint writing about football found himself in the tunnel with Sunderland's players just before kick-off. He looked at them and realised, "It's just a job", and the magic died for him.

Mr. Kuper actually has it backwards.  The problem is that the game itself just isn't very good.  Nevermind all the rule changes that would be required to make it better, you now have such a thorough scouting system, such demand for young talent, and so much money being thrown around that, like the NBA and NFL, you're ending up with kids who get rich before they ever develop the skills of their profession.  And, unfortunately, because it is a truly global game, with myriad leagues for youngsters to sign with, you can't institute a baseball-style draft that would give you time to train them in the minor leagues.

Meanwhile, it is the seriousness with which they take the game that makes it amusing.  That vast critical apparatus and the hype are hilarious to observe.

Posted by orrinj at 8:55 AM


Swedes slam 'outdated' farming subsidies (The Local,  9 Feb 13)

Agricultural subsidies will take the biggest share of the European Union's budget to 2020, despite a 13 percent drop in future agricultural spending, under a deal struck by EU leaders this week.

France and other major farming nations thwarted attempts by Britain and its northern European allies to shift a greater share of EU spending towards new measures to boost growth and jobs, reported Reuters.

Posted by orrinj at 8:44 AM


Relax! You'll Be More Productive (TONY SCHWARTZ, 2/10/13, NY Times)

As athletes understand especially well, the greater the performance demand, the greater the need for renewal. When we're under pressure, however, most of us experience the opposite impulse: to push harder rather than rest. This may explain why a recent survey by Harris Interactive found that Americans left an average of 9.2 vacation days unused in 2012 -- up from 6.2 days in 2011.

The importance of restoration is rooted in our physiology. Human beings aren't designed to expend energy continuously. Rather, we're meant to pulse between spending and recovering energy.

In the 1950s, the researchers William Dement and Nathaniel Kleitman discovered that we sleep in cycles of roughly 90 minutes, moving from light to deep sleep and back out again. They named this pattern the Basic-Rest Activity Cycle or BRAC. A decade later, Professor Kleitman discovered that this cycle recapitulates itself during our waking lives.

The difference is that during the day we move from a state of alertness progressively into physiological fatigue approximately every 90 minutes. Our bodies regularly tell us to take a break, but we often override these signals and instead stoke ourselves up with caffeine, sugar and our own emergency reserves -- the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol.

Working in 90-minute intervals turns out to be a prescription for maximizing productivity. Professor K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues at Florida State University have studied elite performers, including musicians, athletes, actors and chess players. In each of these fields, Dr. Ericsson found that the best performers typically practice in uninterrupted sessions that last no more than 90 minutes. They begin in the morning, take a break between sessions, and rarely work for more than four and a half hours in any given day.

"To maximize gains from long-term practice," Dr. Ericsson concluded, "individuals must avoid exhaustion and must limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis."

Posted by orrinj at 8:22 AM


Among US evangelicals, surprising support for immigration reform (Reuters, February 10, 2013)

Thou shalt compromise, at least on immigration reform. 

That is the message being heard from some leading evangelicals in the United States. After decades of promoting traditionally conservative causes like opposition to abortion, many evangelical leaders are now wielding their formidable influence to persuade Republican lawmakers to back one of President Barack Obama's top priorities. 

With Hispanic attendance at their churches rising, these evangelicals are among the loudest advocates of a US immigration reform. A group of pastors has launched a 40-day campaign to have churchgoers pray, read scripture passages about welcoming the stranger and lobby their members of Congress, many of them in the conservative South. 

"We have pastors preach in pulpits to parishioners in Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas - in all the wonderful red states across America," that aiding immigrants, illegal or not, is a Christian duty, said Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, one of the country's most prominent Hispanic evangelicals. [...]

Unlikely as it may have seemed at the height of the "culture wars" of the last two decades, these evangelicals are attempting to nudge Republicans to the center. The effort is well timed, coming as the Republican Party strives to improve its appeal to Hispanic voters who went solidly Democratic at 2012 elections. 

"This is one area where social conservative input is extremely welcomed by the Republican Party," said O'Connell. 

Pastors are asking worshippers to email their lawmakers and tell them: "I am a Christian, a conservative and I vote. I want you to support immigration reform this year," said Rodriguez. 

There is no other position consistent with faith.

Posted by orrinj at 8:15 AM


Many 2011 federal budget cuts had little real-world effect (David A. Fahrenthold, February 9, 2012, Washington Post)

In the real world, in fact, many of their "cuts" cut nothing at all. The Transportation Department got credit for "cutting" a $280 million tunnel that had been canceled six months earlier. It also "cut" a $375,000 road project that had been created by a legislative typo, on a road that did not exist.

At the Census Bureau, officials got credit for a whopping $6 billion cut, simply for obeying the calendar. They promised not to hold the expensive 2010 census again in 2011.

Today, an examination of 12 of the largest cuts shows that, thanks in part to these gimmicks, federal agencies absorbed $23 billion in reductions without losing a single employee.

"Many of the cuts we put in were smoke and mirrors," said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), a hard-line conservative now in his second term. "That's the lesson from April 2011: that when Washington says it cuts spending, it doesn't mean the same thing that normal people mean."

Now the failures of that 2011 bill have come back to haunt the leaders who crafted it. Disillusionment with that bill has persuaded many conservatives to reject a line-by-line, program-by-program approach to cutting the budget.

Instead, many have embraced the sequester, a looming $85 billion across-the-board cut set to take effect March 1. Obama and GOP leaders have said they don't like the idea: the sequester is a "dumb cut," in Washington parlance, which would cut the government's best ideas along with its worst without regard to merit.

There's so much bloat in a budget for an America on a global war footing you can't cut enough to get to the stuff with merit.