“Punting the Pundits” is an Open Thread. It is a selection of editorials and opinions from around the news medium and the internet blogs. The intent is to provide a forum for your reactions and opinions, not just to the opinions presented, but to what ever you find important.
As most people know – certainly everyone with a car – oil prices have plunged in the last six months. [..]
At the same time, the dollar – by many accounts a “petrocurrency” in two solid senses – has been strong. Normally, when your currency is pegged to something and that something goes down, your currency goes down as well. Yet the dollar is strong, and among the currencies in the tank is the Russian ruble. Are these things connected?
At the other same time, the money-center “too big to fail” (TBTF) banks have gotten Obama, almost all Republicans, and most Democrats to whip for and approve the “Citigroup rider” – an amendment written by Citigroup itself – to put taxpayers back on the hook for that portion of their derivatives “plays” (bets) that the Dodd-Frank bill disallowed. Are these things connected?
What’s going on? No one knows for sure, but this certainly gets your attention, doesn’t it?
This piece is an attempt to wrangle many of the puzzle parts into some semblance of order. We’ll adjust our thinking as events evolve, so stay tuned. For now though, these are the dots I think are currently connected. They are many.
The official response to every jihadist-inspired terrorist attack in the west since 2001 has been to pour petrol on the flames. That was true after 9/11 when George Bush launched his war on terror, laying waste to countries and spreading terror on a global scale. It was true in Britain after the 2005 London bombings, when Tony Blair ripped up civil liberties and sent thousands of British troops on a disastrous mission to Afghanistan. And it’s been true in the aftermath of last week’s horrific killings at Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket in Paris.
In an echo of Bush’s rhetoric, the former French president Nicolas Sarkozy declared a “war of civilisations” in response to attacks on “our freedoms”. Instead of simply standing with the victims – and, say, the vastly larger numbers killed by Boko Haram in Nigeria – the satirical magazine and its depictions of the prophet Muhammad have been elevated into a sacred principle of western liberty. The production on Wednesday of a state-sponsored edition of Charlie Hebdo became the latest test of a “with us or against us” commitment to “our values”, as French MPs voted by 488 votes to one to press on with the military campaign in Iraq. To judge by the record of the past 13 years, it will prove a poisonous combination, and not just for France.
The president will deliver his State of the Union speech next Tuesday amid a new flurry of Republican attacks on Social Security. Will he stand firm and defend the popular program, or step aside and let the attacks continue? [..]
At a minimum, the president must take a firm stand against the Republicans by drawing a line in the sand and opposing any cuts to Social Security.
That’s not to say he will. He may remain silent on the issue, forgoing an opportunity to draw a sharp distinction between the parties. Or he may offer Republicans a new “Grand Bargain.” But that could create a rift with members of his own party, and would further weaken the once-striking political advantage his party once enjoyed on this issue.
Social Security is a critical issue for Americans. The Republicans’ unexpectedly fierce attacks on it offer the president an opportunity to set the political tone for the next two years. Next Tuesday we’ll see whether he seizes that opportunity.
The current American war in Iraq is a struggle in search of a goal. It began in August as a humanitarian intervention, morphed into a campaign to protect Americans in-country, became a plan to defend the Kurds, followed by a full-on crusade to defeat the new Islamic State (IS, aka ISIS, aka ISIL), and then… well, something in Syria to be determined at a later date. [..]
In the meantime, Washington’s rallying cry now seems to be: “Wait for the spring offensive!” In translation that means: wait for the Iraqi army to get enough newly American-trained and armed troops into action to make a move on Mosul. That city is, of course, the country’s second largest and still ruled by the new “caliphate” proclaimed by Islamic State head Abu Bakr alBaghdadi. All in all, not exactly inspiring stuff.
You can’t have victory if you have no idea where the finish line is. But there is one bright side to the situation. If you can’t create Victory in Iraq for future VI Day parades, you can at least make a profit from the disintegrating situation there.
Here in New York City, the past few weeks have been fraught. First, in early December, protesters took to the streets to protest a Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict a policeman involved in the choking death of African-American Eric Garner. The police were attempting to place Garner under arrest for selling loose cigarettes.
The protests made cops angry, especially because of certain anti-police chants and an assault during one of the demonstrations against two police lieutenants on the Brooklyn Bridge. But their anger escalated into fury on December 20 when two officers were gunned down in their patrol car by a seemingly deranged assailant from out-of-town who may have thought he was exacting revenge for police killings of African-American men. [..]
The homicides and the Brooklyn Bridge assault are serious crimes. But here’s the thing: The right of free speech the police are angry about when it comes to the demonstrators is precisely the same right of free speech they’re using to harass de Blasio. And it’s that same ideal of free speech, no matter how noxious it might seem, for which those police in Paris died last week.
Last week, we shared a heart-wrenching tale: After barely escaping recent bush fires, koalas were so badly burnt that they needed special treatment to heal their paws — including hand-sewn cotton mittens to cover their dressings.
But because of the (unsurprising) viral nature of our post and others like it, the International Fund for Animal Welfare now has plenty of mittens. So now they ask volunteers to turn their attention to other animals displaced and injured by the fires.
Kangaroos, possums and wallabies have also been rescued, the IFAW writes on its blog, and many of the survivors are orphaned baby animals. The joeys need to be kept warm and safe in pouch-like environments (which, like diapers, need to be changed several times a day), so sewers wishing to lend a needle can use this pattern to help out.
With a looming showdown over net neutrality bumping up against his internet-heavy State of the Union address, President Barack Obama continued his weeklong dance with telecommunications giants on Wednesday in Iowa, unveiling plans to challenge state laws that limit the expansion of high-speed broadband access.
“In too many places across America, some big companies are doing everything they can to keep out competitors,” Obama said. “Today I am saying we are going to change that. Enough is enough.”
After privacy advocates pushed back on cybersecurity measures announced by Obama ahead of Tuesday’s speech before Congress, open internet advocates are already pleased with the president’s plan to write a letter to the Federal Communications Commission, asking the agency to look at how it can undo restrictions on municipal internet service.
Large telecommunications companies have aggressively lobbied to rein in the growth of these smaller providers. In 19 states, these efforts have proved successful, with laws in place to block, or slow the growth of, municipal internet service providers.
Holmes Wilson, co-director of the nonprofit digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future, told the Guardian that Obama’s broadband rollout is a “a wonderful and obvious step”.
“These prohibitions on municipal broadband were passed lightning-fast through state legislatures with tons of AT&T and cable company money behind them and they are blatantly anti-public,” Wilson said. “If the town wants to get together and try to do better than the local internet provider, why on earth would you want to stop that?”
The answer probably comes down to keeping zebras cool and fending off disease-causing insects that are more common in hotter climates, researchers reported Tuesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
This “stripe riddle” has puzzled scientists, including Darwin, for over a century. There are five main hypotheses for why zebras have the stripes: to repel insects, to provide camouflage through some optical illusion, to confuse predators, to reduce body temperature, or to help the animals recognize each other.
One is the “cooling eddy” theory. When air hits a zebra, the currents are stronger and faster over the black parts (since black absorbs more heat than white) and slower over the white. At the juncture of these two opposing airflows, little eddies of air may swirl and serve to cool a zebra’s skin.
The other idea holds that more stripes may be a barrier against disease, since disease-carrying biting flies, like horseflies, tend to like it hot. Experiments in the field have shown that biting flies don’t like landing on striped surfaces.
“Preliminary examination indicates that the animal may have been butchered by humans,” said Fisher. Bones show what look like tool marks, in places.
The bones are between 10,000 and 14,000 years old. Fisher said once they’ve been donated to the museum the exact age will likely be narrowed to within 200 or 300 years.
Mastodons, the distant relatives of elephants, lived 10,000 to 14,000 years ago. The animals weighed up to five tons.
There have been about 330 Mastodon bone sites confirmed by experts throughout the state. Most bones have been discovered in the southern half of the lower peninsula. Two sites have been confirmed in the last year.
The first verbal communications, which likely happened 2.5 million years ago, were likely about tool-making.
The study proposes that our human ancestors in the African savannah may have developed a primitive form of language so they could teach each other how to make stone age tools, a crucial skill for survival at the time.
The researchers came up with this conclusion after conducting experiments on teaching the art of Oldowan stone knapping. Starting 2.5 million years ago and for about 700,000 years, the Oldowan stone tools were used to butcher animals. Oldowan stone knapping involved creating butchering flakes by hammering hard rock against basal, flint and other certain types of glassy and volcanic rocks.
By experimenting with five different ways of teaching Oldowan stone knapping skills to over 180 volunteers, Morgan and colleagues found that using spoken communication rather than imitation, gestures or non-verbal presentation, obtains the highest volume and best quality of flakes with least wastage and in the least amount of time.
The murky origins of human speech have long baffled researchers. One of the main sources of confusion stemmed from the curiosity of monkey speech. Monkeys are capable of producing any number of human-like sounds, so called “precursors” to human speech. They can chortle with a speech-like rhythm. They can smack their lips together. And they can produce harmonic tones that almost sound like words. So, the thinking went, monkeys must represent an evolutionary stepping stone on the path to human speech.
But then there was the problem of the great ape. The great ape, which includes gorillas and orangutans and has closer evolutionary ties to humans, could not make like the monkey. As far as researchers knew, it couldn’t make any sounds that sounded like human speech. Its sounds seemed to be emotion-based or involuntary: the “grumphs, gorkums and grumbles,” as told in a new study. That left an unexplained gap of some 25 million years between the monkey speech-rhythms and humans.
They were perhaps missing an orange, 50-year old orangutan named Tilda. Tilda is a very special ape, for she can do something that has never before been witnessed in a great ape. She can make noises that sound just like talking. The animal, housed at Cologne Zoo in Germany, can click her tongue and smack her lips to make the letters “t,” “p” and “k.” She can also murmur vowel sounds like some sort of invented language out of a science-fiction movie.
A problem with the heat exchanger could cause ammonia to leak into the water loop and then into the American segment of the space station.
The space station consists of two essentially independent segments, one built by Russia, the other by the United States and other nations.
The astronauts put on gas masks, moved into the Russian segment and closed the hatch.
After sifting through the measurements, the managers at mission control let the astronauts return. But then air pressure in the American segment also started to rise. “If you’re leaking ammonia into the water loop and it eventually finds its way to the cabin, you would expect the cabin pressure to go up,” said Michael T. Suffredini, the manager of the space station, in an interview on NASA Television.
The crew evacuated to the Russian segment a second time.
Nonessential systems were turned off to avoid the possibility of overheating but were later gradually restarted.
“Everything is looking pretty normal right now,” James Kelly, an astronaut at mission control, told Barry Wilmore, the station commander, in an update after 8 a.m. Eastern. “It’s a little more positive than we thought before.”
The State Board of Education voted 6-to-2 to withdraw its altered version of the Next Generation Science Standards, which were developed by 26 states, including West Virginia. The changes had been quietly made by a member of the West Virginia board before it adopted the standards in December.
The board voted to revert to the original standards, which emphasize the scientific consensus on human activity as a cause of climate change, and will adopt those standards after a 30-day comment period, said Gayle Manchin, the board president and wife of United States Senator Joe Manchin III.
“We listened, we learned and, well, I think, grew in our knowledge and understanding,” Ms. Manchin said in an interview. “We all knew at the end of the day more than what we did at the beginning – and that’s what I’d hope for for our students.”
White House officials on Wednesday announced plans to impose new regulations on the oil and gas industry’s emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. The administration’s goal is to cut methane emissions from oil and gas production by up to 45 percent by 2025 from the levels recorded in 2012.
Environmental advocates have long urged the Obama administration to target methane emissions, and the rules would be the first to do so. Most of the planet-warming greenhouse gas pollution in the United States comes from carbon dioxide, which is produced by burning coal, oil and natural gas. Methane, which leaks from oil and gas wells, accounts for just 9 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas pollution – but it is over 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, so even small amounts of it can have a big impact on global warming.
“This is the biggest opportunity to curb climate change pollution that they haven’t already seized,” said David Doniger, director of the climate and clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group.
The oil and gas industry has pushed back against methane regulations, insisting that new rules could stymie a booming industry and that voluntary industrywide standards are sufficient to prevent methane leaks.
The US government has basically declared war over the Sony hacking, offering full-throated support for the beleaguered embarrassed company. Why this one — rather than the countless hacks of corporate networks (including those where credit card data and personal information were compromised) — remains a mystery.
The end result has been a call for more government intrusion and a reanimation of CISPA’s lumbering corpse. “Share with us,” says the government. “Gird yourself for the cyber Pearl Harbor,” say its supporters. “Let us handle it,” say those whose desire for expanded government power exceeds their crippling myopia.
Yeah, let’s do that. Let’s allow the government to set the rules on cybersecurity. Let’s give agencies like the DHS — which can’t even be bothered to secure its own assets — more leeway to investigate and react to cyberthreats.
This is the agency tasked with securing federal assets and ensuring the safety of not only government employees, but Americans in general. And it can’t do it. In fact, it can’t even begin to do it.
Despite being specifically directed by 2002’s Federal Information Security Management Act (FIMSA) to periodically assess risks, report on them and DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT, the agency has managed to blunder into 2015 with no specific plan to tackle cyberthreats to the federal buildings under its protection.
And, while the President and those pushing the revived CISPA seem rather keen on “sharing info,” it’s a one-way street, apparently. The DHS can’t even be bothered to share with other government agencies.
So, why is the DHS so bad at this? It would seem to be two things: the DHS is too big to move at the speed the threat mandates and it’s always someone else’s job. Because it has failed to take charge of the situation (despite a federal mandate and a 2013 presidential policy directive [p. 8-9]), no one seems to know what to do, how to do it or even who should do it.
This is the government that wants the nation’s companies to “partner up” against cyberthreats and cyberterrorism: the same government that can’t even ensure its own infrastructure is protected. And no one cares because compromising control systems doesn’t make for very sexy copy or hawkish soundbites about being “tough on cybercrime.
The government doesn’t have the skills necessary to ply its wares in the cybersecurity business. If it can’t lock down its own assets — despite seemingly limitless funding and manpower — it has nothing to offer the private sector but intrusiveness and harmful regulation.
Now, if you’re a fan of bad news, you’re going to love the worse news. The fight over who should head up the government’s War on All Things Cyber doesn’t put the DHS at the front of the list — but it’s not because the agency clearly can’t handle the job. It’s because agencies that are even more intrusive than the DHS want a piece of the action, namely the FBI and the NSA. If either of these two end up in that position, expect to find domestic surveillance rules relaxed. The latter agency defines cybersecurity as “peeking in at everyone,” which is at odds with those on the receiving end (US companies) who believe being secure means removing backdoors or otherwise locking everyone out, not just the “bad guys.” That isn’t going to sit well with the FBI and NSA — one of which believes no one should be able to “lock out” law enforcement and one that intercepts hardware and inserts backdoors when not deploying malware for the same purpose. So, the DHS may be the lesser of three evils, if only because its incompetence exceeds its reach.
The law that entropy always increases holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations – then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation – well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.
Two months after the death of her half-sister, Queen Mary I of England, Elizabeth Tudor, the 25-year-old daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, is crowned Queen Elizabeth I at Westminster Abbey in London.
Elizabeth I (7 September 1533 – 24 March 1603) was Queen regnant of England and Queen regnant of Ireland from 17 November 1558 until her death. Sometimes called The Virgin Queen, Gloriana, or Good Queen Bess, Elizabeth was the fifth and last monarch of the Tudor dynasty. The daughter of Henry VIII, she was born a princess, but her mother, Anne Boleyn, was executed two and a half years after her birth, and Elizabeth was declared illegitimate. Her brother, Edward VI, bequeathed the crown to Lady Jane Grey, cutting his sisters out of the succession. His will was set aside, Lady Jane Grey was executed, and in 1558 Elizabeth succeeded the Catholic Mary I, during whose reign she had been imprisoned for nearly a year on suspicion of supporting Protestant rebels.
Elizabeth set out to rule by good counsel, and she depended heavily on a group of trusted advisers led by William Cecil, Baron Burghley. One of her first moves as queen was to support the establishment of an English Protestant church, of which she became the Supreme Governor. This Elizabethan Religious Settlement held firm throughout her reign and later evolved into today’s Church of England. It was expected that Elizabeth would marry, but despite several petitions from parliament and numerous courtships, she never did. The reasons for this outcome have been much debated. As she grew older, Elizabeth became famous for her virginity, and a cult grew up around her which was celebrated in the portraits, pageants, and literature of the day.
In government, Elizabeth was more moderate than her father and siblings. One of her mottoes was “video et taceo” (“I see, and say nothing”). This strategy, viewed with impatience by her counsellors, often saved her from political and marital misalliances. Though Elizabeth was cautious in foreign affairs and only half-heartedly supported a number of ineffective, poorly resourced military campaigns in the Netherlands, France and Ireland, the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 associated her name forever with what is popularly viewed as one of the greatest victories in English history. Within 20 years of her death, she was celebrated as the ruler of a golden age, an image that retains its hold on the English people.
Elizabeth’s reign is known as the Elizabethan era, famous above all for the flourishing of English drama, led by playwrights such as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, and for the seafaring prowess of English adventurers such as Sir Francis Drake. Some historians are more reserved in their assessment. They depict Elizabeth as a short-tempered, sometimes indecisive ruler, who enjoyed more than her share of luck. Towards the end of her reign, a series of economic and military problems weakened her popularity to the point where many of her subjects were relieved at her death. Elizabeth is acknowledged as a charismatic performer and a dogged survivor, in an age when government was ramshackle and limited and when monarchs in neighbouring countries faced internal problems that jeopardised their thrones. Such was the case with Elizabeth’s rival, Mary, Queen of Scots, whom she imprisoned in 1568 and eventually had executed in 1587. After the short reigns of Elizabeth’s brother and sister, her 44 years on the throne provided welcome stability for the kingdom and helped forge a sense of national identity.