2015/06/05

Mad Max: Fury Road


Very cool! Takes place entirely in a desert except for a few spots here and there. No real buildings anywhere and the one tree we see in the whole film doesn't survive (not that anyone wanted to destroy it, but hey, y'know?). Lots and lots of specialized vehicles and as no one wanted to fall off or get left behind, it was kind of like it was taking place at sea, with a few islands every now and then. And yes, I've seen all three of the earlier episodes.

2015/05/20

Between rock and hard place


Senator John McCain (R-AZ) complains about Obama's approach to ISIS. Problem is, McCain is in kind of a bind. On the one hand, Iran is acting against ISIS on the ground in Iraq. ISIS is a truly awful, terrible outfit that commits atrocities. We're conducting active hostilities against them, bombing them very frequently. Iran is the entity we're negotiating with about their not-yet-built nuclear weapon and is supporting many not-friends in the Middle East. Iran is also actively conducting hostilities against ISIS (A point that Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) appeared to be very confused on a while ago). McCain wishes to replace Iran in Iraq with American “boots on the ground,” but Americans are very unenthusiastic about getting back into a war in Iraq. A Quinnipiac University poll (18-22 Nov 2014) asked respondents: "Do you think the United States military should have combat troops on the ground in Iraq or not?" The response was that only 37% of the public is in favor of that, 55% said no. 
 
Speaker of the House John Boehner is also very unhappy and is also in a bind. He's very unhappy with the draft AUMF that President Obama has proposed for authorizing a war against ISIS. Also, “For years, Boehner and other GOP leaders have complained that Obama is an out-of-control tyrant, hell-bent on ignoring the Constitution and amassing excessive power in the executive.” So, Boehner's statement on the situation is: “President Obama should scrap his war powers request to fight Islamic terrorists and go back to the drawing board, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Tuesday.”

But why is the President the one who has to “go back to the drawing board”? Why can't Congress draft and pass its own AUMF? There's no obvious reason that anyone is able to see for Congress to delegate this job to the President. Yes, it's a difficult process, with lots of clashing priorities. That doesn't get Congress off the hook. Boehner is a Speaker “with a large majority in the House at his back and a longing for historical significance in his heart, Boehner is determined to be remembered by history as someone who did something.” But in order for a legislator to be remembered as a significant figure, that means doing the hard work of governing, not just slacking off and expecting others to do your work for you.

ISIS and Iran and the unwillingness of the American people to re-engage in Iraq makes for a tough, hard-to-resolve situation. It's not difficult to see that there are no quick and easy and simple, expedient answers. It appears that the Republican Congress and Senate are both so used to simply saying “No” to everything, they've forgotten how to do the hard work of governing.

2015/05/02

Avengers – Age of Ultron


Very cool! In the first Avengers movie, someone ran a property insurance program to see how much money would be needed to reconstruct New York City after all the events in the movie occurred. They figured about $160 billion would do it. Later, for Man of Steel (Superman), they ran it again and figured it would take about $700 billion. For Avengers – Age of Ultron? Whooo-weeee!!!!! Dunno, but it would add up to WAY more! Civilian casualties? There would have been some, but the heroes make very determined attempts to see to it that casualties would be minimal. 


I described how an old comic series featured an Iron Man who assumes the role of the villain (Machine Man takes place in what was then the far, far future of 2020) and someone asked if the comics featured anyone going the other way, from villain to hero. As a matter of fact, this second Avengers movie features just such a transformation.


Interesting changes in some of the characters from the way they are in the comics. The changes to their powers and origins are minor, but make good dramatic sense.

2015/04/28

Bush speaks on Obama's Mideast policy


G.W. Bush “at first remarked that the idea of re-entering the political arena was something he didn’t want to do.” His first impulse was the correct one. He really should have stayed quiet.

Bush relied on an old friend, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), for advice on how Obama should have dealt with the Iraqi insistence that the US should have stuck to the originally schedule of withdrawal by the end of 2011, as the agreement Bush and the President of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, specified back in 2008. Bush suggests that Obama could have renegotiated that agreement to allow a least a substantial contingent of US troops to remain. But Global Policy cited three works, all from 2006, showing that Iraqis in general had a very negative opinion of seeing permanent US bases in Iraq. It's highly unlikely that Iraqis would have changed their minds by 2011 as US troops had made themselves very unpopular during their stay there and the Iraqi people were given no reason to want to see them staying on. Did the surge have a dramatic effect on convincing Iraqis that Americans were good guys? No, the surge temporarily quited things there, but there were no serious political changes afterwards.

Also, reconstruction was a complete and utter bust. Just a few months after the war of 1991 with the US and a coalition of nations, the evil dictator Saddam Hussein completed “bubble-gum and scotch-tape” repairs to his country's infrastructure, but the American reconstruction effort after the invasion of 2003 was a complete waste.

Virtually every senior Iraqi, in sharp contrast, said the decade-long U.S. occupation was beset by huge misspending and waste and had accomplished little. The biggest footprint Americans left behind, most of these Iraqi officials said, was more corruption and widespread money-laundering. Such a huge investment "could have brought great change in Iraq," Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said, but the gains were often "lost."

How reliable is Graham for policy analysis? Well, in November 2014, CNN asked him to respond to the report on Benghazi put out by the Republican House Intelligence Committee. Basically, the report said he was completely wrong on everything he had said about the case. He got very heated about a very secondary issue concerning talking points that were put out later and made stern and angry pronouncements based on that. This is hardly unusual for Graham, as in his public career, Graham has rarely been correct on any matter of substance.

Bush said he views the rise of the Islamic State [IS, ISIL or ISIS] as al-Qaeda’s 'second act' and that they may have changed the name but that murdering innocents is still the favored tactic.

First off, “murdering innocents” is hardly a tactic unique to al Qaeda. That alone does nothing to connect the two groups. As a blogger points out in Informed Comment:

Like Al-Qaeda and other militants, ISIS offers a militant warped and distorted Salafi ideology/religious rationale or rationalization to justify, recruit, legitimate and motivate many of its fighters. Much of what they do violates Islamic law, its unabashed acts of terrorism: slaughter of civilians, savage use of beheadings, killing of innocent Muslims and Christians. While there are similarities between ISIS and other terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda in their ideological worldview and tactics, there is also distinctive difference. ISIS seeks to create a state, to occupy and control areas, to govern, not just to dream of or speak of but to create and impose their version of a transnational caliphate, with its harsh version of law and order. At the same time, they are far more ruthless in driving out, suppressing and executing Shiah and Kurds, Sunni imams/religious leaders and others who disagree, as well as minorities such as Christians and Yazidis, demanding conversion to their warped and extraordinarily violent brand of Islam. Having populations forced to publicly pledge their allegiance (baya) to the caliphate in exchange for which they are offered security, a mafia like version of “protection” and social services.

So no, ISIS is a very distinct and separate group from al Qaeda.

Yes, under Bush, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad was captured. But,

...where Bush officials brazenly dismissed law as an inconvenient obstacle and sought to deal with suspects outside the law, Obama has said that the struggle with Al Qaeda must adhere to our nation’s first principles. He argues that the rule of law lends our struggle legitimacy and helps to isolate and defeat our enemies.

Obama has fallen short on applying these principles, but he has adhered to them far better than Bush ever even tried to.

Did Bush's policies decrease terrorism around the world? Actually, according to the Center on Law and Security at the NYU School of Law, terrorism increased under Bush sevenfold. Plus, if one is interested in holding back Iran and keeping Iran from territorial expansion, taking out Saddam Hussein of Iraq was a pretty terrible move. For all of Saddam's faults, and he had many, Iraq was a stable state that stood fast against Iran. Now, of course, the need to combat ISIS has opened up room for Iran to operate in Iraq. In a piece about a proposed bill to aid forces in Iraq that are friendly to the US, The Guardian points out that

Those Shia militias, many of which are sponsored by Iran, have played key roles in fighting Isis, to include spearheading the recent monthlong battle to retake the Sunni city of Tikrit.

Here's an interesting comment:

[Bush] said that if you have a military goal and you mean it, “you call in your military and say ‘What’s your plan?’ ” He indirectly touted his own decision to surge troops to Iraq in 2007, by saying, “When the plan wasn’t working in Iraq, we changed.”

So Bush says that leaders should listen to the military, which is all very fine and well, but Bush's military leaders actually disagreed with the surge. As Commander in Chief, Bush insisted on it anyway, as was his right, but this is a case where Bush very clearly departed from his own advice. Reporter Bob Woodward reported that, on “60 Minutes” in September 2008, "The records of the joint chiefs show that the idea of five brigades came from the White House, not from anybody except the White House."

In the same month, presidential candidate Barack Obama admitted that the surge was indeed succeeding. What was clear was that a reduction in violence was occurring. But why that reduction was occurring had to do with the Sunni Awakening (Al Qaeda was overdoing the violence and alienating Sunni Iraqis), Muqtada al-Sadr decided that his Mahdi army should cease operations and the US was paying many groups of guerrillas to fight on the side of the US. Unfortunately, the whole political purpose of the surge was never carried out and no political transformation ever took place during the “breathing room” that the addition of five brigades were supposed to have secured for Iraq's leadership. Thus was set the stage for the rise of ISIS.

Putin’s domestic popularity comes from his control of Russian media, according to Bush. "Hell, I'd be popular, too, if I owned NBC news," he said.

Actually, Bush claimed in 2002 that Saddam Hussein had kicked out UN arms inspectors in 1998. What actually happened was that Clinton wanted to bomb Iraq, told the UN inspectors to leave for their own safety and, when the bombing was over, Saddam refused to let inspectors back in. Pretty much the entire US media dutifully repeated Bush's lie that Saddam had kicked out the inspectors, which of course, had the added advantage of making Clinton look weak and helpless in retrospect. Bush may not have formally controlled the media, but he had virtual, de facto control anyway.

After it became clear that Iraq didn't have any weapons of mass destruction, Bush claimed several times that Saddam Hussein was given a choice prior to the invasion of 2003, to let in weapons inspectors or to be invaded. Bush maintained several times that Saddam refused to let the inspectors in and so sealed his fate. But everyone knew that wasn't true. Inspectors came into Iraq and inspected everything they wanted to. But the press corps permitted Bush to lie unchallenged.

So I'm really not sure what Bush's problem with the press corps is. They permitted many lies to go unchallenged. Their discipline did break a few times, notably in the case of Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, but by and large, they maintained a rigid, lock-step discipline and didn't permit themselves too much independence.

No, if Bush became unpopular, that was due to his staggering ineptitude and horrible policies, not because the press was biased against him. I remember reading back in early 2009 that several Bush Administration members got together and talked over old times. They identified four disasters, 9-11, the invasion of Iraq, New Orleans/Katrina and the collapse of the housing bubble that resulted in the Great Recession. Problem is, in all four cases, Bush and his people had a great deal to do with either initiating the disaster or in not responding properly. In none of the cases could they plausibly claim to have been innocently taken by surprise. No, if Bush is regarded today as something you'd scrape off of the bottom of your shoes, his own actions had everything to do with that.

2015/04/13

PA Senator on nuclear deal with Iran

In "Have a vote on Iran deal," Senator Toomey states: "President Obama wants to remove American economic sanctions from Iran in exchange for Iran's promises to delay its pursuit of nuclear weapons."

Incorrect. The outline of the deal so far calls upon Iran to freeze their development of a nuclear weapon, not to simply delay it. Yes, the deal is for "only" ten years, but the deal can easily be renewed or extended. It is highly premature to state that development will pick up where it left off upon the expiration of the ten-year period.  

"Can Iran be trusted to keep any deal?" Negotiations on a basic framework took as long as they did precisely because both sides mistrust each other and both sides wanted to make verification as foolproof and as airtight as possible. 

Let's consider the list of charges that Toomey makes: that allegedly demonstrate that we're settling for far too little: 1. That Obama previously said he wouldn't anything less than complete dismantlement of Iran's nuclear program, 2. That the US and UN both previously insisted that Iran must surrender all of its centrifuges, 3. That Iran must ship all of its enriched uranium out of the country, and 4. That the facility at Fordham was supposed to be destroyed.

Why would the US and its negotiating partners have decided to not press for any of these? Obviously, because these objectives were going much too far for the leverage we had and pushing for complete victory would have left us with fists holding empty air.

Yes, sanctions got Iran to the table, but other nations are perfectly happy to cancel those sanctions, deal or no. Senate interference that insists on going for maximalist objectives will simply give Europe and China and Russia an excuse to discard sanctions and resume trade. Sanctions have limited effectiveness and we have a limited time period in which to use them. 

What Senator Toomey appears to want to do is to use a limited tool that's only of so much use as though it was an unlimited tool that will effortlessly achieve everything we want. Failing that, Toomey seems perfectly willing to discard the deal framework that Obama has so painstakingly built and to simply go back to square #1, with absolutely nothing having been achieved.

2015/04/03

Cleopatra – Vivien Leigh

So, having watched the Claudette Colbert 1934 version of Cleopatra and the Elizabeth Taylor 1963 version, I saw that TCM was showing the Vivien Leigh 1945 version, so I went ahead and taped it. At first, having listened to the book-on-tape Cleopatra: A Life, I griped about historical inaccuracies, but then I found a source that gave me a quickie biography and realized that, actually, none of the movies were all that fussy about precise historical details.

Each era takes from the story what's important to them. In 1936, Cleopatra was a wily and shrewd manipulator; in 1963, the film focused on Mark Antony's (Richard Burton's) obsessive love for Cleopatra; in 1945, the film focused on Cleopatra's childlike nature (She was after all, 21 years old to Caesar's 52) and Caesar's wise, fatherly affection for her (In reality, she had been the effective ruler of Egypt since the age of 18 and she had a son with Caesar nine months after meeting him) calls to mind the shows Father Knows Best (before my time) and My Three Sons (I remember watching this).

Apparently, there's a Cleopatra film in development today and Angelina Jolie is scheduled to star in it. What would a film about her be like today? My guess is that it would focus on her executive abilities (which were considerable, she'd spend a few hours each morning hearing cases and issuing decisions) and she'd probably be portrayed as quite determined to pursue whatever goal she had in mind that day.

2015/03/26

Expanding on a Faceboook post

The post describes a new proposed law, that rules separating your employer from you social media accounts should be relaxed. I very strongly oppose doing that.

Back in the Navy, my shipmate was having trouble at work. Our supervisors talked to him about it. He let slip something about his family causing him problems (Personally, I didn't like his wife and thought she was part of his problems at work), so our supervisors followed up and asked him lots of questions, questions that he complained to me about.

I felt bad for him, but also felt that he opened himself up by mentioning his family in the first place. That gave our supervisors a legitimate reason to pursue the matter further.

The WaPo piece quoted here says: "...if say an employee is making slanderous statements about their employer in social media, that the employer has the right to know that.” But why do employers need to know about statements you make on private parts of your social media account? I agree with the statement, but only up to a point. Employers are properly concerned with the public, openly accessible part of your social media account. Yes, having privacy on social media is a two-way thing. If you're not publicly slagging your employer, they have no reason to go into your Facebook or other social media accounts.

But if they feel you're slagging them, then they should have to prove that. They shouldn't simply be given the benefit of the doubt. And no, I don't feel that just because you work with children or for a church or religious group, that the rules on social media should be relaxed and that employers should be able to snoop into your accounts.

Citizens who wish to keep their social media accounts private from their employer should be given the benefit of the doubt and should be shielded from snooping employers. But yes, if an employer has evidence that you're bad-mouthing them or are engaged in immoral activities, then yes, the employee opens themselves up to investigation.  

Update: Just to expand on the privacy issue, I completely agree with this piece in the Inky, that when one posts test questions and/or answers on social media in a manner that's accessible to anyone, no, it's really not a question of privacy. It's not even a question of whether we rely too much on test scores (I think we do), but whether charter schools can legitimately monitor social media and take action on cheating. Yes, I think it's entirely legitimate for them to do so.

If people were truly keeping this information private, if students could only access it via a secure password, that is, that they were members of a defined group, then there might be some privacy argument. But no, if test questions are being posted publicly, then those posting them have no reasonable expectation of privacy and should expect to be found out and pursued.