May 16, 2017

Posted by orrinj at 9:19 PM


No one at the White House was willing to put their name on the denial of the Comey memo (tHE wEEK, 5/16/17)

 In a statement, the White House denied the description of the conversation between Trump and Comey as relayed in Comey's memo via the Times report -- but no one in the administration was willing to put their name on the statement. The entire denial was issued anonymously:

Posted by orrinj at 9:09 PM


Trump's disclosure endangered spy placed inside ISIS by Israel, officials say (BRIAN ROSS JAMES GORDON MEEK RANDY KREIDER, May 16, 2017, ABC)

The life of a spy placed by Israel inside ISIS is at risk tonight, according to current and former U.S. officials, after President Donald Trump reportedly disclosed classified information in a meeting with Russian officials last week.

The spy provided intelligence involving an active ISIS plot to bring down a passenger jet en route to the United States, with a bomb hidden in a laptop that U.S. officials believe can get through airport screening machines undetected. The information was reliable enough that the U.S. is considering a ban on laptops on all flights from Europe to the United States.

Posted by orrinj at 7:21 PM


Comey Memo Says Trump Asked Him to End Flynn Investigation (MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT, MAY 16, 2017, NY Times)

President Trump asked the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, to shut down the federal investigation into Mr. Trump's former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, in an Oval Office meeting in February, according to a memo Mr. Comey wrote shortly after the meeting.

"I hope you can let this go," the president told Mr. Comey, according to the memo.

The existence of Mr. Trump's request is the clearest evidence that the president has tried to directly influence the Justice Department and F.B.I. investigation into links between Mr. Trump's associates and Russia.

Mr. Comey wrote the memo detailing his conversation with the president immediately after the meeting, which took place the day after Mr. Flynn resigned, according to two people who read the memo. The memo was part of a paper trail Mr. Comey created documenting what he perceived as the president's improper efforts to influence a continuing investigation. An F.B.I. agent's contemporaneous notes are widely held up in court as credible evidence of conversations.

Posted by orrinj at 4:43 PM


Foreign Leaders Have Realized Trump Is a Pushover (DAVID A. GRAHAM, 5/16/17, THE ATLANTIC)

According to The Washington Post's Josh Rogin, NPR, and other reports, Chinese leaders began lobbying for a face-to-face meeting with Trump as soon as possible in his presidency. Ahead of the April visit by President Xi Jinping to the United States, Trump warned that their meeting would be "a very difficult one." That was a reasonable prediction. Trump had spent much of the campaign assailing China, complaining that the country was a currency manipulator (which had not been true since 2014) and that he would take a much harder line than the Obama administration  had.

As it happened, the meeting with Xi was something of a love-fest. Trump and his spokesman have boasted since about the very good relationship they created with China's leader, and hailed their friendship. If Trump was pleased with the outcome, Xi must have been ecstatic. The Chinese president emerged from the meeting with warm praise from Trump; a concession from the U.S. president that China was not manipulating its currency; and conciliatory statements about China's ability to twist the arm of North Korea, its wild-eyed, nuclear-armed neighbor.

Trump explained the last of these flip-flops in an interview with The Wall Street Journal:

He then went into the history of China and Korea. Not North Korea, Korea. And you know, you're talking about thousands of years ... and many wars. And Korea actually used to be a part of China. And after listening for 10 minutes I realized that not--it's not so easy. You know I felt pretty strongly that they have--that they had a tremendous power over China. I actually do think they do have an economic power, and they have certainly a border power to an extent, but they also--a lot of goods come in. But it's not what you would think.

The explanation was remarkable not only for Trump's frank admission that he knew little about the background of the Korean Peninsula, but for his equally frank admission that the leader of a foreign country--and not just any foreign country, but a major American rival that Trump had repeatedly savaged rhetorically--could reverse his understanding of a key issue with just 10 minutes of persuasion.

It is no wonder that the Russians were eager to get in a room with Trump, but Russia and China were not the only foreign countries to recognize how easily swayed Trump could be.

Which explains this:

Posted by orrinj at 4:23 PM


At a Besieged White House, Tempers Flare and Confusion Swirls (GLENN THRUSH and MAGGIE HABERMANMAY 16, 2017, NY Times)

A dozen of Mr. Trump's aides and associates, while echoing Mr. Trump's defiance, privately agreed with Mr. Corker's view. They spoke candidly, in a way they were unwilling to do just weeks ago, about the damage that was being done to the administration's standing and the fatigue that was setting in after months of having to defend the president's missteps, Twitter posts and unpredictable actions. [...]

There is a growing sense that Mr. Trump seems unwilling or unable to do the things necessary to keep himself out of trouble, and that the presidency has done little to tame a shoot-from-the-hip-into-his-own-foot style that characterized his campaign.

There is a fear among some of Mr. Trump's senior advisers about leaving him alone in meetings with foreign leaders out of concern he might speak out of turn. General McMaster, in particular, has tried to insert caveats or gentle corrections into conversations when he believes the president is straying off topic or onto boggy diplomatic ground. [...]

In private, three administration officials conceded that they could not publicly articulate their most compelling -- and honest -- defense of the president: that Mr. Trump, a hasty and indifferent reader of printed briefing materials, simply did not possess the interest or knowledge of the granular details of intelligence gathering to leak specific sources and methods of intelligence gathering that would do harm to United States allies.

On the other hand, Hillary Clinton exists.

Posted by orrinj at 4:20 PM


Circus Zambia Empowers Children in Lusaka Slum To Gain Skills, Avoid Drugs (Prudence Phiri, April 27, 2017, Global Press Journal)

"This is what Chibolya is known for, drugs and alcohol," says Patrick Chikoloma, 18, who once abused drugs.

He now is a member of Circus Zambia, an organization that aims to show children in one of Lusaka's poorest areas that they can aspire to bigger things.

"Drugs are easily accessible here, but we want to change that. We want good things to come out of this compound," Chikoloma says.

Having been exposed to drugs and alcohol at a young age, four Chibolya youths in 2014 formed Circus Zambia as a way to keep young people off drugs by empowering them with both acrobatic and academic skills.

Circus Zambia founders -- Gift Chansa, Benard Kaumba, Bright Kalutwa and Amos Malokwa -- found themselves at Barefeet Theatre as they sought to escape the atmosphere of substance abuse in Chibolya. Barefeet is a nongovernmental organization founded in 2006 that uses play, creativity and art to empower vulnerable children and let them know they are loved and can seek a stable life.

There Chansa, Kaumba and Malokwa were chosen to learn circus in China for a year. Upon returning from China in 2014, the trio's stardom in Chibolya led them along with Kalutwa to start Circus Zambia, Chansa says.

"We were stars in Chibolya when word went 'round that we had travelled to China to learn circus. Every child wanted to be associated with us," he says.

"We grabbed the opportunity to change our community and we formed Circus Zambia, because then it was easy to convince the children that they too could be stars, that they too could fly overseas," Chansa says.

Posted by orrinj at 3:27 PM


Are We Ready for Robot Judges? (Christopher Markou, May 16, 2017, Discover)

When American Chief Justice John Roberts recently attended an event, he was asked whether he could forsee a day "when smart machines, driven with artificial intelligences, will assist with courtroom fact finding or, more controversially even, judicial decision making". He responded: "It's a day that's here and it's putting a significant strain on how the judiciary goes about doing things".

Roberts might have been referring to the recent case of Eric Loomis, who was sentenced to six years in prison at least in part by the recommendation of a private company's secret proprietary software.

Posted by orrinj at 3:24 PM


Israel Said to Be Source of Secret Intelligence Trump Gave to Russians (ADAM GOLDMAN, MATTHEW ROSENBERG, MATT APUZZO and ERIC SCHMITT, MAY 16, 2017, NY Times)

The classified intelligence that President Trump disclosed in a meeting last week with Russian officials at the White House was provided by Israel, according to a current and a former American official familiar with how the United States obtained the information. The revelation adds a potential diplomatic complication to the episode.

Israel is one of the United States' most important allies and a major intelligence collector in the Middle East. The revelation that Mr. Trump boasted about some of Israel's most sensitive information to the Russians could damage the relationship between the two countries. It also raises the possibility that the information could be passed to Iran, Russia's close ally and Israel's main threat in the Middle East.

After all, those Trump voters wanted him to help Russia and Iran at the expense of Israel, no?

Israeli Official: Trump Sharing Intelligence With Russia Is "Worst Fears Confirmed" (Sheera Frenkel, 5/16/17, BuzzFeed News)

"We have an arrangement with America which is unique to the world of intelligence sharing. We do not have this relationship with any other country," said the officer, who spoke to BuzzFeed News on condition of anonymity as he was not granted permission to speak to the press.

"There is a special understanding of security cooperation between our countries," they said. "To know that this intelligence is shared with others, without our prior knowledge? That is, for us, our worst fears confirmed." [...]

A second intelligence officer, who spoke to BuzzFeed News via encrypted app and also spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Israel had shared specific intelligence with the US regarding an active threat to US-bound planes. Speaking to BuzzFeed News via a military base in northern Israel, he said Israeli intelligence officers were "boiling mad and demanding answers" as to whether Israel's military would continue its current intelligence-sharing agreement with the US.

Posted by orrinj at 1:13 PM


Trump Refusal to 'Bail Out' Insurers Might End Up Making Policies Cheaper (Alison Kodjak, 5/16/17, npr)

President Trump has been saying in recent weeks that the Affordable Care act, or Obamacare, is "dead."

So he's threatened to cut off crucial payments to health insurance companies that help low-income customers pay day to day health care expenses.

That plan, however, may just end up bringing more people into the Affordable Care Act insurance markets.

An analysis by the consulting firm Oliver Wyman shows that if the government stops paying for the subsidies that the lowest-income customers get on the Affordable Care Act exchanges, the government would instead have to provide larger tax credits to more people.

The result? Many more people could end up finding they can get insurance policies at little to no cost at all. And that "might also encourage some subsidy-eligible people who have not previously purchased plans to enroll," the report concludes.


Posted by orrinj at 11:00 AM


'Highly Worrying': International Intelligence Officials Warn Trump Poses Security Risk (Associated Press, 5/16/17) 

A senior European intelligence official tells The Associated Press that his country might stop sharing information with the United States if it confirms President Donald Trump shared classified details with Russian officials.

The official said Tuesday that doing so "could be a risk for our sources."

Posted by orrinj at 7:49 AM



Recently, a trio of mainstream physicists accused hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other mainstream physicists of Not Doing Science in a very public forum. Their article, published in February's Scientific American2, targets the inflationary universe theory, which, during the past 35 years, has come to be what most physicists use to explain the origin (and present state) of the cosmos. By publishing in SciAm, these authors aren't just asking the vicariously scientific public--you and I--to accept their theory as correct. They are asking us to decide what it means to Do Science.

This whole ordeal goes back to the Big Bang. As in, theory of. It's not terribly controversial, but it has a few problems. In the early 1980s, physicists were trying to make sense of a particularly vexing one: The Big Bang does not explain why the universe is so flat. Flat, in this sense, doesn't mean squashed or thin. It just means that most of the universe is basically an empty, featureless vacuum; galaxies, stars, planets, and whatever you prefer to call Pluto, all are statistical blips. Experiments measuring the breadth of the cosmos had shown there was no way the Big Bang was energetic enough to fling the universe so wide. It ought to be collapsing back in on itself. Instead, the universe is still expanding.

Three physicists--Alan Guth of MIT, Andrei Linde of Stanford, and Paul Steinhardt of Princeton--started working on inflation as a potential solution. Either right before or right after the Big Bang (depends on which inflationary model you accept), there existed a bubble of rapidly expanding inflationary energy. This turbo-charged the Big Bang. The universe opened up wide and flat. It's essentially a vast, uniform nothingness, except some regions of vacuum are ever so slightly more dense than others. These attract atoms, which form molecules, which form dust particles, which form rocks, which attract gases that get so dense they combust, wheedle, spin, orbit ... you know the rest.

Point is, without inflation (or something) the universe would have expanded too slowly, and the gravity from all that matter would have caused it to collapse back in on itself.

Inflation explained that process so well that it came to dominate mainstream physics. It isn't a theory, per se--not like the theory of relativity is a theory. It's more like
a thematically connected group of competing hypotheses, what Guth calls an "umbrella." They share some crucial traits, namely, ripples in the cosmic microwave background radiation. And the hypotheses predict that these traits will conform to certain numerical measurements. Some of these criteria have been met; for instance, in 1998 physicists found proof of dark matter, which accounted for 70 percent of the missing matter that inflation had predicted. Confirming other criteria has been more elusive.

For years, scientists have been looking for precise measurements of a type of gravitational radiation left over from the Big Bang. One recent experiment looking for this so-called B-Mode polarization used a European Space Agency satellite called Planck. And in 2013, scientists interpreting results from Planck said they fit right into one of the inflationary hypotheses.

Eureka? Not according to three other physicists who attended the ESA press conference where the Planck results were announced. They were Avi Loeb, chair of Harvard University's astronomy department; Anna Ijjas, then a grad student and now a post-doc at Princeton's Center for Theoretical Science; and Steinhard, one of the original inflation architects. They felt that the ESA had fit the Planck data to the most convenient inflationary hypothesis. But, crucially, not the simplest. Physics should favor simplicity, and the Planck data actually caused simpler inflationary models to make less sense.

They published a critique of inflation in the journal Physics Letters B--which eventually became the SciAm article--calling out what they saw as errors fitting the Planck data to inflation. They went even further. They pointed out that inflationary energy had never been directly observed, and was therefore hypothetical. Even more vexing to them was the fact that some inflationary models predict the existence of the multiverse, which by definition exists outside this universe's rules and thus cannot be tested using this universe's iteration of science.

But inflation's biggest crime was its flexibility: The authors argue that inflation contains so many hypotheses that you can essentially fit at least one of them around any new data that comes out. In short, inflation can never be disproved. People studying it, therefore, are Not Doing Science.

Posted by orrinj at 7:39 AM


Independence and Brexit have realigned Scots behind the Tories : The twin referendums have shaken up the electorate. The Conservatives are making the most of it (The Economist, 5/11/17)

Margaret Thatcher lost the party more votes, as most Scots felt they had not consented to her economic policies. Support for devolution grew, paving the way for the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, which in turn expedited the rise of the SNP.

Conservative decline changed the electoral geography. Forerunners of the Liberal Democrats picked up seats in the Highlands and islands. In the north-east voters swapped the Tories for the SNP. But Labour was the main beneficiary of Conservative woes, winning the most Scottish votes in every general election from 1964 to 2010.

The independence referendum of 2014 changed all that. In the general election of 2015 Labour was reduced from 41 seats to only one, as supporters of independence coalesced around the SNP.

Now opponents of independence are coming together, in a few places to the benefit of the Lib Dems, but mostly around the Tories. Most of the party's gains in polls have come from unionists fleeing Labour, which also opposes independence but with less conviction. In this month's local elections the Tories won 25% of first-preference votes, up from 13% in 2012; Labour dropped from 31% to 21%. In Stonehaven Roy Skene, an oil engineer, explains that he "doesn't see what good independence would do", adding that he can no longer trust Labour to resist the SNP.

Scotish independence is the same as Brexit.

Posted by orrinj at 7:36 AM


Man Who Wants to be UK's Next Prime Minister Appoints Communist Aide (Harry Phibbs, May 16, 2017, Heat Street)

The Labour Party leader and would-be British prime minister Jeremy Corbyn has just recruited a man called Andrew Murray to help run Labour's general election campaign. Nobody with any interest in mainstream politics has heard of him but Corbyn has praised Murray's "special skills".

Special is one way of putting it.

Of course, Corbyn's own extremist credentials are well established, but even they pale in comparison with Murray's.

Until recently Murray was a senior figure in of the Communist Party of Britain. He expressed"solidarity" with North Korea.

In 1998, to mark the 120th anniversary of Stalin's birth, Murray wrote for the communist-supporting Morning Star newspaper in praise of his hero. He acknowledged the Soviet leader, pictured, was responsible for "harsh measures" but lamented that "hack propagandists abominate the name of Stalin beyond all others".

Posted by orrinj at 6:49 AM


Lessons On Race And Vouchers From Milwaukee (Claudio Sanchez, 5/16/17, NPR)

"My argument with Howard Fuller is that Catholic and Christian schools used this opening to, in essence, save their schools," says Harris. "If you set up a Christian academy and your main interest is to get a few hundred children to improve your [school finances] and you use Christianity as the draw, these schools have exploited persons' beliefs for their own private gain," Harris argues.

"In our community," adds Harris, "a lot of people believe that if they can get their kids into a safe place so they can pray every day, they may be able to save their child's life. Education is secondary."

Education is obviously less important than safety and faith, no?

Posted by orrinj at 5:57 AM


Diamond-Shaped Intersections Prevent Crashes by Cutting Out Left Turns (MICHELE DEBCZAK,  JUNE 6, 2016, Mental Floss)

The "diverging diamond interchange" (or DDI) replaces the traditional layout of an intersection with a clever design that's more efficient and less likely to lead to accidents. It works like this: At the intersection, two roadways carrying opposing traffic temporarily swap sides, creating a diamond shape. At the points where the roads intersect, traffic lights regulate who crosses when. (For a better idea of how they function in real life, you can check out the video below from the Florida Department of Transportation.)

The biggest difference with the design is that drivers turning left no longer have to pull out in front of oncoming traffic to do so. They can easily turn onto the diverging left lane when driving on the opposite side of the road.

The concept gained popularity in the U.S. after a grad student named Gilbert Chlewicki wrote a term paper detailing it. Even after discovering that the French had been using his idea since the 1970s, he continued to promote it here in the States. Today there are 62 DDIs in 22 states, and their effectiveness indicates that they're here to stay.

Posted by orrinj at 5:46 AM


PA lawmaker photographed throwing rocks at Israeli troops (ALEXANDER FULBRIGHT, May 16, 2017, Times of Israel)

A Palestinian Authority lawmaker recently took part in violent clashes against Israeli security forces in the West Bank, images of which were published on Monday.

In the photos, Fatah party member Jamal Hawil can be seen using a slingshot to hurl rocks at Israeli troops during a riot at the Beit El junction amid large plumes of smoke, as well as taking cover behind makeshift barricades alongside other protesters.

The last two centuries plus teach us that brute force never stops self-determination in the long run, particularly when the party trying to prevent democracy is Western.  They are eventually defeated by their own ideals

Posted by orrinj at 5:40 AM


On the Reformation's 500th anniversary, remembering Martin Luther's contribution to literacy (Richard Gunderman, 5/15/17, The Conversation)

Gutenberg's earlier introduction of the printing press in 1439 made possible the rapid dissemination of Luther's works throughout much of Europe, and their impact was staggering.

Luther's collected works run to 55 volumes. It is estimated that between 1520 and 1526, some 1,700 editions of Luther's works were printed. Of the six to seven million pamphlets printed during this time, more than a quarter were Luther's works, many of which played a vital role in propelling the reformation forward.

Thanks to Luther's translation of the Bible, it became possible for German-speaking people to stop relying on church authorities and instead read the Bible for themselves.

Luther argued that ordinary people were not only capable of interpreting the scriptures for themselves, but that in doing so they stood the best chance of hearing God's word. He wrote,

"Let the man who would hear God speak read Holy Scripture."

Luther's Bible helped form a common German dialect. Prior to Luther, people from different regions of present-day Germany often experienced great difficulty understanding one another. Luther's Bible translation promoted a single German vernacular, helping to bring people together around a common tongue.

This view, combined with the wide availability of scripture, shifted responsibility for scriptural interpretation from clerics to the laity. Luther wanted ordinary people to assume more responsibility for reading the Bible.

In promoting his point of view, Luther helped to provide one of the most effective arguments for universal literacy in the history of Western civilization.

At a time when most people worked in farming, reading was not necessary to maintain a livelihood. But Luther wanted to remove the language barrier so that everyone could read the Bible "without hindrance." His rationale for wanting people both to learn to read and to read regularly was, from his point of view, among the most powerful imaginable - that reading it for themselves would bring them closer to God.

The End of History is just the marketization of politics, economics and religion.
Posted by orrinj at 5:30 AM


No Exit on Health Care (Richard A. Epstein, May 15, 2017, Hoover)

During his campaign, then-candidate Trump wrote that he "does not believe health insurance carriers should be able to refuse coverage to individuals due to pre-existing conditions." That leaves open the question of how much more, if anything, high-risk patients can be charged relative to others. The key provision of the AHCA fudges this particular question, by saying that its legislation does not allow health care insurers "to limit access to health care coverage for persons with preexisting provisions." But that provision would not prevent them from increasing the cost of coverage so as to reduce or eliminate the amount of the implicit subsidy. In addition, there is also fierce resistance to those provisions in the AHCA that would allow the states to raise the community rating differential so that insurers could increase from three-fold to five-fold the rate differential between their youngest and oldest customers, in order to reduce that cross-subsidy.

Such intense opposition to these key AHCA provisions is indicative of the huge difficulties that it takes to manage cross-subsidies. If these are kept too large, as they are under the current Affordable Care Act, then insurance in the individual market will implode because young people will flee from plans that offer them a raw financial deal. But if the level of the subsidy is reduced, then the cost of existing coverage for older insureds will necessarily skyrocket, so that they will be forced to leave their plans. One possible way to control this problem is for the federal government to cover the costs of the needed subsidies from general revenues, which would make their cost explicit, by putting it on the budget, allowing for a political debate about the size of the subsidy. But elected officials are reluctant to raise taxes, and even when they do, there is a real question of whether the funds set aside are sufficient to cover any shortfall that might exist.

The simplest way to attack the size of the subsidy is to reduce the set of benefits that are included in the health plan. On this score, the rich set of essential medical benefits under the ACA are far more extensive than those provided in any voluntary market, which is a good sign that they should be pared back in ways that make coverage more affordable. Private insurance companies in an unregulated market can alter their product mix in response to changes in cost and demand. But government programs face huge rigidities in this regard, because every type of current service supplier will lobby furiously to make sure that its benefits survive the financial axe. The new bill does not attack this problem directly, but allows for states to gain waivers from the essential benefits, inviting a massive political battle as to which particular benefits will be cut and why.

At the same time, it is hard to see what progress can be made in dealing with preexisting conditions. Thus under the House version of the AHCA, states may seek waivers that allow insurers to charge more for preexisting conditions, but only if they set aside sufficient funds to help those hurt by the rise in market rates. The AHCA contains $138 billion to deal with the issue, to be divvied up among 50 states to help them reach their goal. But, as with essential minimum benefits, this provision raises at least as many questions as it answers. It is never clear whether these funds are sufficient to cover the shortfall, and, if so, how they are to be allocated across the states. Nor is it clear just how much funds any state must commit to the program in order to make the waiver good. The AHCA does not set up a competitive market in which each firm makes its own pricing system. What it does is propose an alternative system with a different set of coverage formulas and cross-subsides that no one can figure out how to price in advance, which accounts for some of the intense opposition to the legislation.

Posted by orrinj at 5:14 AM


White House grapples with newest crisis amid report Trump gave secret info to Russians (AP AND TIMES OF ISRAEL, May 16, 2017)

[O]fficials refused to answer specific questions, including what precisely the report had gotten wrong, ensuring it would dominate a week that White House officials hoped would be quiet in advance of the president's first foreign trip, which includes stops in Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Vatican, as well as Brussels and Sicily for NATO and G7 summits.

Reporters started gathering in the hallway outside Press Secretary Sean Spicer's office right after the Post story broke. As the group grew to more than 20 people, press aides walked silently by as journalists asked for more information. Soon, three of the four TV channels being played in the press area were reporting the Post story.

At one point National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who would later deliver the televised denial, stumbled into the crowd of journalists as he walked through the West Wing.

"This is the last place in the world I wanted to be," he said, nervously, as he was pushed for information. "I'm leaving. I'm leaving."