Sunday, January 31, 2016

Arlington church sponsors scholarships for students in Belize (Central American country)


Today, at a regular worship service, the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA presented some testimony from last June’s Mission in Belize (drama blog from Nov. 4, 2012 for the “Soulfire” concert and short film on the mission). There will be a concert Feb. 20 to raise money for the scholarships for the mission.

The scholarships appear to assist students in Belize in finishing high school and going to college, possibly to become teachers.  Four people from 2015 discussed the program and last year’s experience.

I do have the impression that Belize and Panama are much more stable than other Central American countries, as real estate companies try to sell condos for people retiring there (with lower cost of living).  I am familiar which churches that have placed volunteers in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and even El Salvador, as well as Kenya and Liberia in Africa.  It’s pretty obvious that some of these countries have become very dangerous, especially for those under college graduation age, without major sponsorship and security preparation.
 
Trinity has the “Easter Chapel Mountain” behind it, and the snow is already gun on the sunny slope. That 450-foot-high peak seems to be where Accuweather estimates winds speeds for Arlington; the hill protects the houses to the East from the worst of the thunderstorms,

Thursday, January 28, 2016

AC360 interviews American student imprisoned for a month in Iran after arrested while reading Farsi newspaper; Rezaian returns


On AC360 last night, Anderson Cooper interviewed student Michael Trevithick, who described being held in a prison in Iran for more than a month.  He was accused of spying for the US and trying to overthrow the government, for carrying ordinary printed literature.  
   
He was suddenly released to Swiss diplomats after existential threats.
  
He had gone to Iran in 2010 and had worked in Afghanistan. He had been studying Farsi.  The political climate had thawed somewhat with Obama’s deal on nuclear materials.  He was reading a newspaper with anti-America sentiment and anti-foreign ideology when he was whisked off the street and arrested.  

Update: Jan 29

Dana Milank writes in the Washington Post writes about the return of Jason Rezaian from Iran.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Is Fukushima still leaking dangerously?


Truthout, in a story by Jahr Damail, reports that radioactive water still leaks from Fukushima into the Pacific Ocean, and that some radiation will eventually reach the US.
   
However, Taylor Wilson reports  that concentrations of most short-lived isotopes are not detectable in the US according monitoring done in western Nevada while maintaining that significant Cesium 134 and 137 did go into the ocean near the plant (and putting this all together, still could be leaking).
 
Some countries, such as France, have successfully switched to large use of nuclear power.  Wilson maintains that small (underground) fission reactors could help make the grids more resilient from disruption (presumably solar storms and terror)  and could be much safer than earlier reactors.
 
Back in the late 1970s, through the “Understanding” group, I knew a woman who went around the country in a caravan opposing nuclear power (and this was before Three Mile Island).  Even then, I wondered about the wisdom of “one issue activism”.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

New York Times hits Syrian refugee crisis with book-length article Sunday


Eliza Griswold has a feature story in the Sunday New York Times (in the Review section, I presume; with the blizzard, I don’t have a physical copy), “Why is it so difficult for Syrian refugees to get into the U.S.?

The booklet-length article starts with an account of a Syrian family suddenly caught in the crossfire of the Assad regime’s “protecting itself” after years of stability and prosperity.  Homes and businesses were raided without evidence of wrongdoing, sometimes because of rumors of activities of distant family members.



So far, 2,647 people (in a few hundred families)  have been settled out of 4.5 million potential refugees.  The article describes the vetting process in detail, and the effect of 9/11 and then of the Paris 11/13, where apparently one or more terrorists masqueraded as Trojan refugees.  The volume of the Syrian refugee crisis became apparent in early 2015, but the terror component didn’t take told with public fears until after the France attack.  It even is beginning to look like the Paris attack was partly deliberately motivated to provoke reckless statements by right-wing Americans seeking political office, especially Donald Trump.
 
The US has maintained a policy where it is difficult for non-profits, faith-based groups, and individuals to do much (legally) for refugees other than give money to reputable charities, and even some of these are controversial.  In the past, “memorandum of understanding” orders (as with the Mariel boat lift from Cuba in 1980 and Soviet Jews in the early 1990s) have allowed more personalized assistance.  That sounds like a very difficult sell this time.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

William White, international banker, predicts another 2008-like crash for entire world economy, based on unstable debt outside the West


William White, of the OECD, believes that the world economy has become dangerously unstable, with a likely wave of bankruptcies, according to an article by David Scuitt in an Australian business journal Jan. 16, here. He seems to take aim at the “rent-seeking” class of people who own assets (equities and bonds) that they actually think are “worth something”.



Other nations seems to be repeating the behavior that the US saw in 2008.

The UK Telegraph has a version of his theory written up by Ambrose Pritchard-Evans .

He does think that FDR-style infrastructure projects, producing real wealth, are in order.  How about tending to the security for the world’s power grids.
 
White had predicted the Lehman crash back in 2008.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Mosquito-borne Zika virus raises some old public health chestnuts


The appearance of Zika virus, an RNA virus being transmitted in Brazil by mosquitoes, but originally imported from Africa, has raised some old chestnuts about public health.

The disease resembles dengue somewhat, and is usually a mild illness transmitted to tissues through various lymphatic cells.  But it might lead to encephalitis, or particularly to severe brain birth defects in newborns, so the main danger would be to pregnant women.

The New York Times has a big story by Simon Romero.

But Wikipedia also notes that it is possible that Zika might be sexually transmitted.  That raises a dangerous idea from the 1980s that the right wing sometimes tried to make about AIDS and HIV, that sexual (male homosexual) activity could amplify it, and then, for all we knew, insects might pick it up and transmit it to the general population.  That didn’t happen.  But the gay paper, Charles Ortleb’s “The New York Native” floated a theory in the early 1980s (before HTLV-III was fully accepted) that an arbovirus, African Swine Fever, could be involved, and that the USDA was doing experiments with it in a secret facility on Long Island.

Update:  Jan. 28, 2016

The Washington Post has a 70-second "what you need to know" video here. The virus apparently does cause brain damage in the unborn child, and this seems to have happened numerous times in Brazil.  One country is encouraging women not to have children until 2018.  The virus is spread only by mosquitoes.  It is likely to cause no or mild symptoms in healthy adults.  It might be possible for it to spread by mosquito from one infected person to another, so you can imagine the public health "morality" scenarios about wearing long pants and long sleeves near infested areas.   So far there are few cases in the US, none acquired here.

Update: Feb. 3, 2016

A case of sexual transmission has been reported in Dallas (BBC story).  Blood donors who have traveled in infested areas or believe they could have been exposed are asked to self-defer for 28 days. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

Sobering conversation about encryption back doors and national security at an EFF dinner party Saturday; more on oil prices


On Saturday, at a supper party near Dupont Circle in Washington at a bar called Maddy’s, for members of Electronic Frontier Foundation in the area (after a Shmoocon conference), there was some discussion about the “back door” issue and encryption and its use by terrorists.

The general remark was that a “back door” alone would not stop very determined terrorists anyway, while exposing law abiding Americans to hijacking or snooping by the same determined criminals or terrorists.  It’s rather the mirror image of the gun control debate.

One person had served in the Army in intelligence in the 1990s, and suggested that the critical element of stopping major attacks is human intelligence, both domestic and overseas.  You still need the people skills of 60s and 70s Cold War spy movies, especially those in black and white (like those with Richard Burton).  But another element is deep cultural understanding, and “imagination”.  US government efforts to counter ISIS propaganda does not work with “troubled” youth because our world has become meaningless to them.

As for the Iran prisoner-release-lift-sanctions deal announced Saturday afternoon, there is some sense that the Europeans are motivated by the economy (and weak stock market).  Iran represents new investment opportunities if it can be stable.  In the short run, though, Iran will depress oil prices even further.  Here’s Bloomberg’s latest video on falling oil prices.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Washington Post asks if squirrels are a bigger threat to power grids than terrorists or hostile foreign states; is this playing Jonathan Swift?


On p. A14 of the Washington Post, Thursday January 14, 2016, Andrea Peterson writes a sidebar story, “To protect the power grid, better watch the rodents”, or “Are squirrels a bigger threat to the power grid than hackers?
 
I can remember a big afternoon outage in north Arlington around 2010, on a clear, calm day, when the explanation as “animal on a power line”.  And the big outage in the northeast in August 2003 was due to bizarre accidents in Canada and Ohio.

The article points out that the recent incident in the Ukraine (Jan. 6 story) is the first known major cyber attack on a power grid.

However, as I have documented on the Book Reviews blog (most recently January 10, where I reported a conversation with CNN’s Tom Foreman on the subject) potentially existential threats exist from terror EMP attacks (which can be nuclear or conventional), very large solar storms, and (I think less likely) organized cyberwar (the subject of Ted Koppel’s recent book “Lights Out”).

Peterson’s story says that the threat to the grids does get discussed on Capitol Hill.  A major issue is that most large transformers are made overseas and are not easily transported.  (This was even a problem in Virginia restoring power in some areas in 2003 after Hurricane Isabel.)  The major news outlets, including the Washington Post (not just The Washington Times) and New York Times (as well as CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, Vox, etc) ought to start covering the issue systematically.  The Cato Institute should have a forum on it.  Innovation (like some proposals of Taylor Wilson) and investment (like libertarian Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel) become relevant.
 
In the meantime, it’s interesting how sudden drops in oil prices (and deliberate overproduction by some non-democratic countries) can be almost as disruptive economically as were the shortages and embargoes of the 1970s.  But I’d take oversupply any day over scarcity.


Friday, January 8, 2016

China, a "communist" country, matters more to American financial well being than we want to admit


Does China’s stock market really matter that much?  After all, a lot of have seen “net worth’s” tumble a lot this week.

Any everybody says, the market continued to tumble today despite a good jobs report because, well, China.

Matt O’Brien in the Post WonkBlog talks about the silly circuit breakers, and also notes that the real problems are that policymakers are likely to fumble the whole economy, which is not so dependent on the market.

Nevertheless, it’s strange for retirees to see their nest eggs affected by what a communist country does.

Andrew Walker of the BBC offers a perspective, and notes that Soros says that China is facing a financial liquidity crisis soon that has parallels to the US 2008 crisis, here.

Donald Trump says, "China is not your friend" and wants tariffs on imports from China.
 
The WSJ says that investors got lazy in the last minutes of Friday's session and gave shares away because they didn't want to worry about the weekend.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Russian hackers may have caused power outages in Ukraine, demonstrating cyberterror; China's off-shore kidnappings


Russian hackers may be responsible for a several hour power failure in parts of Ukraine Dec. 23, according to a news story by Ellen Nakishima. The incident is one of the first reported where malware actually caused transformer load problems leading to outages.

Power was restored in a few hours, but authors ranging from Ted Koppel (“Lights Out”) to Byron Dorgan (“Gridlock”) have argued that cyberattacks (which might come from inside jobs or devices as well as Internet) could shut down parts of power grids for months.

And the Washington Post has an editorial about probable kidnappings of booksellers in Hong Kong by mainland China. That’s interesting – physical book burning seems to be back, even in the Internet age, and China is setting a dangerous precedent by kidnapping people outside its mainland.

Update: Feb. 1, 2016

Fred Hiatt has a column in the Washington Post, p. A17, "China's critics aren't safe anywhere", reporting on off-shore kidnapping in Vietnam (near the Chinese border, where a critic was lured from Canada) as well as Thailand and Hong Kong. What about American bloggers traveling legally in China?

Friday, January 1, 2016

Conservatives have a good point in decrying European "no go" zones


The Washington Times published a major commentary Dec, 29, by Daniel Pipes, “The danger of partial no-go zones”.  The article discusses areas in some European cities (especially Paris and maybe Brussels) where police intervene little and advise non-Muslims to avoid.   There is the idea that zones could become “autonomous” and try to impose Sharia law within their boundaries.  Pipes also sees this as the West indicting its own civilization. He writes “If the deadly triad of imperialism, fascism and racism represent all that the West has to offer, no wonder immigrants to Europe, including Islamists, are treated as superior beings due supine indifference.” Individualism comes with its own karma.