June 18, 2017

Posted by orrinj at 6:05 PM


Influence-rich Saudis blow through Sunni unity (Bruce Riedel, June 15, 2017, Al Monitor)

Qatar has long been an irritant and gadfly of the Saudi royal family and other leaders. While suppressing dissent at home, Qatar has encouraged it abroad. It shares an enormous natural gas deposit with Iran and together with Oman has been a voice in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for keeping ties open with Tehran. Saudi Arabia is apparently determined to put Qatar in its place.

Now the GCC is broken into three camps. There is the Saudi-Bahrain-UAE bloc, which has severed ties and closed borders to Doha. Then come outliers Kuwait and Oman, leaving Qatar alone. Although close to Riyadh, Kuwait is trying to mediate what has become the worst split in the history of the GCC.

Iran was quick to offer support for Qatar. Iranian officials are also blaming the Saudis for the Islamic State terrorist attack on Tehran. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has accused the Saudis of supporting Sunni dissidents in the Kurdish, Arab and Baluchi communities against the Iranian government. The Saudis broke off relations with Iran a year ago. Iran is stepping up its support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen, where the Saudis have been bogged down for more than two years. Iranian advisers are helping the Yemenis with their missile strikes. It's a cheap game for Tehran to exploit the Saudi vulnerabilities in Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere.

Turkey is taking the unprecedented step of deploying troops to the defense of Qatar. A century ago, the founder of the modern Saudi state, King Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, helped engineer the withdrawal of the Ottoman Empire from the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf, with British assistance. Now his son has precipitated the return of the Turkish army to both, and it's unlikely to leave. [...]

Trump is profoundly unpopular with Muslims around the world. Even in the kingdom, only a handful of Saudi citizens when polled last fall wanted him to be elected. He is still trying to get his Muslim ban enacted in the United States. The Saudi royal family embraced Trump because he is not Barack Obama. He doesn't care about human rights or gender equality, he hates the free press and he loves strong men. His leadership means no more criticism of Saudi support for sectarian violence against Shiites.

Posted by orrinj at 5:04 PM


Iran launches missile strike into Syria in response to Tehran attacks (AP, 6/18/17)

Iran's Revolutionary Guard said Sunday it launched missiles into eastern Syria targeting Islamic State militants in response to a June 7 attack on Iran's parliament and a shrine in Tehran. [...]

The launch of surface-to-surface medium range missiles into Syria's Deir el-Zour province comes as Islamic State militants fleeing a US-led coalition onslaught increasingly try to fortify their positions there.

US warplane shoots down Syrian fighter jet (afp, 6/18/17)

A US fighter jet shot down a Syrian regime plane on Sunday, after it dropped bombs on forces fighting the Islamic State in northern Syria, the American-led coalition said. [...]

Meanwhile, fighting broke out on Sunday for the first time in Syria between regime troops and a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, a monitoring group said.

Posted by orrinj at 11:39 AM


Help wanted: Why Republicans won't work for the Trump administration  (Lisa Rein and Abby Phillip June 17, 2017, Washington Post)

Trump's firing of FBI Director James B. Comey last month and the escalating probe into Russian interference in the presidential election have made hiring even more difficult, say former federal officials, party activists, lobbyists and candidates who Trump officials have tried to recruit.

Republicans say they are turning down job offers to work for a chief executive whose volatile temperament makes them nervous. They are asking head-hunters if their reputations could suffer permanent damage, according to 27 people The Washington Post interviewed to assess what is becoming a debilitating factor in recruiting political appointees.

The hiring challenge complicates the already slow pace at which Trump is filling senior leadership jobs across government.

Posted by orrinj at 8:06 AM


Russia Renewed Unused Trump Trademarks in 2016 (MIKE McINTIRE, JUNE 18, 2017, NY Times)

[W]hile no Trump Tower graces the Moscow skyline, the Russian authorities recently made sure that another piece of valuable property -- the intellectual kind -- bearing the same name remained safely in Mr. Trump's portfolio.

Last year, while hacking Democrats' emails and working to undermine the American presidential election, the Russian government also granted extensions to six trademarks for Mr. Trump that had been set to expire. The Trump trademarks, originally obtained between 1996 and 2007 for hotels and branding deals that never materialized, each had terms that were coming to an end in 2016. 

Posted by orrinj at 7:48 AM


Trump's Business Ties in the Gulf Raise Questions About His Allegiances (DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK, JUNE 17, 2017, NY Times)

President Trump has done business with royals from Saudi Arabia for at least 20 years, since he sold the Plaza Hotel to a partnership formed by a Saudi prince. Mr. Trump has earned millions of dollars from the United Arab Emirates for putting his name on a golf course, with a second soon to open.

He has never entered the booming market in neighboring Qatar, however, despite years of trying.

Now a feud has broken out among these three crucial American allies, and Mr. Trump has thrown his weight firmly behind the two countries where he has business ties, raising new concerns about the appearance of a conflict between his public role and his financial incentives.

Mr. Trump has said he is backing Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates because Qatar is "a funder of terror at a very high level." But his stance toward Qatar, which is host to the largest American air base in the region, has differed sharply from the positions of the Pentagon and State Department. The secretaries of defense and state have stayed neutral, urging unity against the common enemy of the Islamic State.

...he stays bought.

Posted by orrinj at 7:41 AM


"I like the sound of that!" Wine descriptions influence consumers' expectations, liking, emotions and willingness to pay for Australian white wines (Lukas Dannera, Trent E. Johnsona, Renata Ristica, b, Herbert L. Meiselmanc, Susan E.P. Bastiana, 5/25/17, Food Research International) 

Regular white wine consumers (n = 126) evaluated the same set of three commercially available white wines (mono-varietal Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc) under three information levels. Session 1, blind tasting (no information provided) and Session 2, informed tasting (held at least 1 week later) with both basic (sensory description of the wines) and elaborate (sensory plus high wine quality and favourable winery information) descriptions followed by liking, wine-evoked emotions (measured with the Australian Wine Evoked Emotions Lexicon (AWEEL)) and willingness to pay evaluations. Before tasting the wine in session 2, consumers also rated expected liking.

Results showed that information level had a significant effect on all investigated variables. The elaborate information level evoked higher expectations before tasting the wines, plus resulted in higher liking ratings, elicitation of more intense positive (e.g. contented, happy and warm-hearted) and less intense negative emotions (e.g. embarrassed and unfulfilled), and a substantial increase in willingness to pay after tasting the wines compared to the blind condition, with the basic condition ranging in-between. These results were consistent across the three wine samples.

Posted by orrinj at 7:40 AM


'Tower blocks could be torn down' - Sadiq Khan (Press Association, 18 JUNE 2017)

High-rise tower blocks dating from the 1960s and 1970s could be torn down in the wake of the deadly Grenfell Tower fire, London mayor Sadiq Khan said.

Writing in the Observer, Mr Khan it may well be the "defining outcome of this tragedy that the worst mistakes" of that era become a thing of the past.

Posted by orrinj at 7:36 AM


Trump Is Offering Populism, Minus the Free Candy (Neil Irwin, JUNE 17, 2017, NY Times)

[C]onsider an alternate history of the Trump administration: one in which the president embraced the lessons of right-wing populists from abroad.

It's Jan. 21, and Mr. Trump is newly sworn in. Shrugging off the snark from liberals on Twitter about the size of his inauguration crowds, he directs his staff to go to work on the Make America Great Again Act of 2017.

They dust off the policy white paper that the campaign staff issued months earlier, and spend their time on Capitol Hill trying to cobble together a coalition to pass a bill aimed at helping the people who put Mr. Trump in the White House.

The bill has lots of money to fight the opioid epidemic and to invest in communities left behind by the modern economy. There is money to prop up troubled health insurance markets, so that Mr. Trump can say he has replaced Obamacare with something better. There are a trillion dollars for public infrastructure -- not some complex tax credit that favors revenue-generating projects in affluent areas, but the brute force of government dollars to build roads and bridges in every corner of the nation.

Each project, of course, will have a big sign crediting the Make America Great Again Act with a big photo of Mr. Trump flashing a thumbs up.

To help keep conservatives and business interests on board with all that spending, the bill loosens environmental laws and bank regulations, among other policy goodies that make C.E.O.s' hearts flutter. But it wouldn't achieve a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate unless packaged with those aforementioned goodies that appeal to Democrats. Maybe it could increase the minimum wage, but also include a tax credit for companies that hire American workers to offset the cost to businesses.

The government would pay for it all with higher deficits. Free candy for everyone! [...]

Based on the early policy moves of the Trump administration, spending too much on goodies for his working-class supporters isn't something Americans need to fear. He has chosen a very different path -- even when following through would be more consistent with his campaign promises.

During the campaign, Mr. Trump promised not to cut Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. As president, his budget would cut the Social Security disability insurance program and Medicaid.

His first major legislative effort was a health care bill that would cause 23 million people to lose coverage, according to the Congressional Budget Office's estimate, while cutting taxes for the affluent. It would hit older Americans, who disproportionately voted for Mr. Trump, particularly hard in the form of higher health insurance costs. The bill, which is being revised by the Senate, is deeply unpopular, according to public opinion polls.

Despite the president's talk of a bold $1 trillion infrastructure plan, there is not yet an actual legislative proposal, and the approach the administration has described relies heavily on tax credits to encourage private investment. That tends to limit the scope of any projects to those that can generate revenue to pay off investors.

On taxes there is also no legislative proposal yet, and the bullet points the administration has released imply much bigger advantages for corporations and the highest earners than for middle-class Americans.

On opioid addiction and other problems facing some of the troubled communities that heavily favored Mr. Trump at the voting booth, the most visible thing the administration has done is appoint a task force. His budget would slash regional development funds, through the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Delta Regional Authority, for example, both of which benefit areas that voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Trump.

On top of it all, Mr. Trump has set a political tone that makes it harder to change course and find bipartisan support for something like the MAGA Act later. Instead of putting Democrats in a jam by proposing something broadly popular, the president has made it easy for them to be united in opposition.

He's the world's first UnPopulist.

Posted by orrinj at 7:29 AM


Republicans debating remedies for corporate tax avoidance (David Morgan, 6/17/17, Reuters)

Lawmakers say the current tax code incentivizes profit shifting overseas because of the high 35 percent U.S. corporate income tax rate and rules that allow companies to hold profits abroad tax free until returned to U.S. soil.

Without effective measures against tax avoidance, experts and lobbyists said tax legislation could trigger a new exodus of income and assets abroad. Because Trump and Republicans in Congress also want to end U.S. taxes on foreign earnings, companies could eliminate their U.S. tax bills altogether without restrictions.

Tax reduction strategies have been employed for decades by companies including Microsoft Corp (MSFT.O), Apple Inc (AAPL.O) and Amazon.com Inc (AMZN.O).

Independent analysts estimate the federal government misses out on more than $100 billion a year in corporate tax revenues as a result of tax reduction maneuvers. That is equal to one-third of the $300 billion in annual corporate tax revenues.

Posted by orrinj at 7:00 AM


Why the falling cost of light matters (Tim Harford, 2/06/17, BBC World Service)

He burned 20lb (9kg) of wood, kept track of how long it burned for and carefully recorded the dim, flickering firelight with his meter.

Next, he bought a Roman oil lamp, fitted it with a wick, and filled it with cold-pressed sesame oil.

He lit the lamp and watched the oil burn down, again using the light meter to measure its soft, even glow.

Bill Nordhaus's open wood fire had burned for just three hours on 9kg of wood.

But a mere eggcup of oil burned all day, and more brightly and controllably.

Why did he do this?

He wanted to understand the economic significance of the light bulb.

But Prof Nordhaus also wanted to illuminate a difficult issue for economists: how to keep track of inflation, the changing cost of goods and services. [...]

Imagine gathering and chopping wood 10 hours a day for six days.

Those 60 hours of work would produce 1,000 lumen hours of light.

That is the equivalent of one modern light bulb shining for just 54 minutes, although what you would actually get is many more hours of dim, flickering light instead. [...]

According to Prof Nordhaus's research, if you set aside one whole week a year to spend 60 hours devoted exclusively to making candles - or earning the money to buy them - that would enable you to burn a single candle for just two hours and 20 minutes every evening. [...]

By 1900, one of Thomas Edison's carbon filament bulbs would provide you with 10 days of bright, continuous illumination, 100 times as bright as a candle, for the money you could earn with our 60-hour week of hard labour.

By 1920, that same week of labour would pay for more than five months' continuous light from tungsten filament bulbs.

By 1990, it was 10 years.

A couple of years after that, thanks to compact fluorescent bulbs, it was more than five times longer.

The labour that had once produced the equivalent of 54 minutes of quality light now produced 52 years.

And modern LED lights continue to get cheaper and cheaper.

Switch off a light bulb for an hour and you are saving illumination that would have cost our ancestors all week to create.

It would have taken Benjamin Franklin's contemporaries all afternoon.

But someone in a rich industrial economy today could earn the money to buy that illumination in a fraction of a second.

LED bulbs offer sharper, cheaper and more energy efficient illumination

And of course, unlike oil lamps and candles, modern light bulbs are clean, fire-safe and controllable.

The light bulb has become an icon of innovation.

It has transformed our society into one where we can work, read, sew or play whenever we want to, regardless of how dark the night has become.

But the price of light alone tells a fascinating story: it has fallen by a factor of 500,000, far faster than official inflation statistics suggest.

Posted by orrinj at 6:50 AM


Author Reconsiders Urging Cities to Cater to Millennials (Jonathan O'Connell, 6/17/17, The Washington Post)

Richard Florida's argument, in short, was that to save themselves from postindustrial ruin, cities needed to attract the best young talent in computer programming, engineering, finance, media and the arts so their towns could build economies based upon the venture capital and start-up companies the new workforce would produce.

Often taking a cue from Florida's mantra, real estate developers dialed up hip but tiny apartments designed for creative millennials and outfitted them with coffee bars, gyms, pool tables, bocce courts, pool decks and fire pits. Mayors invested in better sidewalks, bike lanes and business incubators aimed at nurturing the new arrivals and keeping them around longer.

Somewhere along the way, however, Florida realized that the workers he so cajoled were eating their cities alive.

In places such as New York, San Francisco, Seattle and arguably Washington, the mostly white, young and wealthy "creative class" has so fervently flocked to urban neighborhoods that they have effectively pushed out huge populations of mostly blue-collar and often poor or minority residents.

"I think, to be honest, I and others didn't realize the contradictory effect," Florida said in April at a panel discussion. He said he realizes now that prompting creative types to cluster in small areas clearly drove living costs to such heights that low-income and often middle-income households have been forced elsewhere, creating a divide.

"We are cramming ourselves into this limited amount of space. And at the same time that the super-affluent, the advantaged, the creative class -- we could go on and on (with what to call them) -- the techies, global super-rich, absentee investors, invest in these cities, they push others out ... and it carves these divides," he said.

The strategy is working, now just give the displaced vouchers to move out of the city, where they can enjoy a higher quality of life and get better education for their kids.

Posted by orrinj at 6:46 AM


Teen Tobacco Use Hits a Record Low, With Sharp Drop in Vaping (Laurie McGinley, 6/17/17, The Washington Post)
Teenagers' use of e-cigarettes fell sharply last year, while overall tobacco use declined to a new low, according to data that some antismoking advocates said could signal a turning point in the decades-long effort against youth smoking.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's annual report on youth and tobacco found that 11.3 percent of high school students used e-cigarettes in 2016, compared with 16 percent the year before. That's the first drop since the CDC started keeping track of e-cigarettes in 2011.

In addition, just 8 percent of high-schoolers smoked cigarettes last year, while a little over 20 percent reported using "any tobacco product," which includes cigars, hookahs, pipes, smokeless tobacco and small, leaf-wrapped cigarettes called bidis, as well as regular and e-cigarettes. Both those numbers are the lowest on record, the agency said.

"This is unimaginable, extraordinary progress," said Matthew Myers, president of the nonprofit Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, noting that almost 30 percent of young people smoked cigarettes in 2000. "This is a change of a cosmic nature that has the potential to dramatically impact lung cancer, heart disease, asthma and other problems."

Posted by orrinj at 6:34 AM



PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP had almost certainly never heard the name Aaron Zebley before the announcement that the former FBI agent was joining the special counsel investigation into ties between Trump's campaign and Russia. But to those who have followed the arc of the bureau during the past twenty years, Zebley's is a name that underscores just how far-reaching and dogged--and potentially long--the probe will likely be.

Just ask Steve Gaudin's ex-girlfriend.

She wasn't at all happy when Zebley, her boyfriend's FBI partner, called at 3 one morning in August, 1999. Despite all of Gaudin's international travel, chasing al Qaeda long before the terrorist group was a household name, he and his girlfriend had managed to settle down in New York City and carve out a life together in between his overseas terrorist hunts. The couple was even looking forward to an imminent, albeit brief, summer vacation.

But then came the call from Zebley.

"I've found Ali Mandela," Zebley said, excitedly. Mandela, the fugitive terrorist suspected of helping execute the previous year's bombings of US embassies in East Africa, appeared to still be on the continent, he told Gaudin. Somewhere in South Africa. They had to leave immediately.

Angry at yet another sleepless night--and vacation--ruined by the bureau's demands, Gaudin's girlfriend gave him some advice: Don't bother coming back.

But that was just the way it was for the elite agents on one of the FBI's most storied squads. Nothing could come between them and their search for justice.

The details of that trip--and the subsequent capture of one of America's most wanted terrorists by Zebley and Gaudin--help illuminate the makeup of the special counsel team that former FBI director Robert Mueller is assembling. It's a team that contains some of the nation's top investigators and leading experts on seemingly every aspect of the potential investigation--from specific crimes like money laundering and campaign finance violations to understanding how to navigate both sprawling globe-spanning cases and the complex local dynamics of Washington power politics.

Given that Donald hates the FBI and the Justice Department, how can anyone who has worked for either be impartial?  

Posted by orrinj at 6:13 AM


This Father's Day, Remembering A Time When Dads Weren't Welcome In Delivery Rooms (DEENA PRICHEP, 6/18/17, NPR)