Friday, November 27, 2015

Leading Figures in the Art World Support Palestinian Artist Sentenced to Death for Apostasy

In the wake of the Islamist terrorist attacks against civilians in Paris on November 13, various Muslim clerics and scholars have condemned that violence as “un-Islamic.”

Yet more important than condemning acts of terrorism committed by Muslims is they condemn the aspects of Islamic culture which produce terrorists. No single component of that culture is more deserving of condemnation than its unenlightened views on freedom of religion, freedom of conscience and tolerance for so-called heresy.

This Islamic backwardness comes into focus this week because a Saudi court sentenced an artist, Ashraf Fayadh, to death on November 17 “after he allegedly made blasphemous comments.”

“The General Court of Abha, a court in the south of Saudi Arabia, says that Fayadh made comments about God, the Prophet Muhammad, and the Saudi state during a group discussion in a cafĂ©, according to trial documents reviewed by non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“Global artists have condemned a Saudi court’s decision to sentence Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh to death.

“Artists and poets across the the U.K., North America and Africa—including British poet Carol Ann Duffy, Syrian poet Adonis and Saudi artist Ahmed Mater—have denounced the ruling by a court in Saudi Arabia on November 17 to sentence Fayadh to death, after he allegedly renounced the Islamic faith.”

The last sentence is key: The court wants him dead because he allegedly renounced the Islamic faith. Yet no Muslim clerics or scholars have spoken up to denounce this barbarity. Their silence is deafening.

It has been roughly 400 years since Christians gave up this sort of unenlightened practice. As far as I know, no Jew has ever been sentenced to death by a Jewish court for apostasy. Yet in Saudi Arabia and virtually every Muslim society, the idea that an individual has the right to make up his own mind regarding what he believes and what he does not is presently unthinkable.

If Muslim clerics and scholars would stand up and speak out and wholeheartedly endorse the notion that Muslim-born individuals have the absolute human right to choose their faith or to choose to have no faith at all, the culture within the Muslim world would change dramatically. It would create for the first time ever tolerance among the Arabs and other majority Islamic societies. 

That enlightenment would itself put out all the fires which are creating thousands if not millions of Muslim terrorists. Terror groups are all in their own way motivated by intolerance and religious hatred. But if Muslim clerics taught them to love thy neighbor, even if he has a different religion or even if he has renounced Islam, groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS would disappear overnight.

“Members of Saudi Arabia’s religious police—the Committee on the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice—originally arrested Fayadh on August 6, 2013, following a complaint made by a citizen. The court subsequently sentenced the artist in May last year to four years in prison and submitted him to 800 lashes.

“The court retried Fayadh earlier this month, after his appeal was dismissed by a new panel of judges in May 2014. The poet continues to deny making the remarks and says that another man attending the group, in fact, said it.

“Since the court handed the death sentence to the Palestinian artist, leading individuals from the world’s art scene have spoken out in condemnation against the charges.”

A second interesting aspect of this story is the notion that Ashraf Fayadh, the condemned artist, is a Palestinian. He was not born in Palestine or Israel. He was not raised there. He has not, as far as I can tell, ever lived there. His parents, or perhaps his grandparents, moved to Saudi Arabia before he was born. And so Mr. Fayadh was born in Saudi and raised in Saudi, but is not allowed to be a citizen of Saudi Arabia. 

This same story would be true if Fayadh had been born and raised in Kuwait, Jordan, the UAE, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq or any other Arab country. These are all places which claim their undying affinity for the Palestinian people. Yet none of them ever allows Palestinians—second, third or even fourth generation Palestinians—born in those countries to be citizens. They are permanently banished to second class status. And that makes plain the lie that they love the Palestinians. If they did, they would allow them first-class status as full citizens of their countries. Instead, they hold them down and often force them to live in refugee camps for 40, 50 and 60 years—with no end in sight. 

Thursday, November 26, 2015

"Outrage Mounts Over Trump’s Ridicule of Disabled Reporter"

From day one, political pundits have been predicting the demise of the Donald Trump presidential candidacy. Yet he not only seems to be doing well, leading in all of the polls of Republican primary voters, but each time he says or does something outrageous, he moves ahead of his GOP competitors even more.

Donald Trump might quote Mark Twain: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

The Donald’s latest offense was making fun of a handicapped New York Times reporter “who failed to corroborate the Republican presidential candidate's claim that Muslims in New Jersey cheered the toppling of the World Trade Center,” according to a report on

“… Trump … jerked his arms while imitating Serge Kovaleski, a journalist who suffers from arthrogryposis, a chronic condition that affects his movements.”

A spokesman for the NY Times is quoted as saying, "We're outraged that Donald Trump would ridicule the physical appearance of one of our reporters.”

Trump’s behavior fits his own pattern: He acts and talks like a typical 6-year-old child on the playground. He never really considers the other person’s feelings. He just sees something which strikes him as funny or wrong and he reacts without thinking. 

Psychologists say Trump has no filter, just like a little boy. Mature adults normally filter themselves. They learned to think before they speak when they grew up. Trump never had to grow up.

A widespread and well-earned criticism of most professional politicians is that they are overly filtered. Everything they do or say comes across as phony because they have lost the ability to give an honest answer to a question.

I think that is a good part of the reason Trump seems so attractive to so many voters: Whether you like what he says or not, he says what he thinks. He is genuine. The others are or appear to be frauds.

Jay Ruderman, who runs his family’s foundation which “works to promote more inclusive policies for people with disabilities,” condenmed Trump’s childishness for mocking the disabled reporter:

"It is unacceptable for a child to mock another child's disability on the playground, never mind a presidential candidate mocking someone's disability as part of a national political discourse. Our presidential candidates should be moral examples for all Americans and not disparage people with disabilities, who make up twenty percent of the American population.”

Yet really, would you expect a 6-year-old boy to set a moral example for all Americans? If so, you won’t vote for Trump.

Friday, November 20, 2015

All you really need to know about Bernie Sanders

In an article in The Atlantic titled, "How Bernie Sanders Explains Democratic Socialism," all you really need to know about Sen. Sanders is found in this sentence:

"Again and again, Sanders returned to his core message: In America the rich are too rich and opportunities for the middle class are few and far between." 

The basic idea is that the rich are not rich because they earned their money. Sanders's socialist ideology tells him they don't deserve it. The effectively stole it from those with less. And his message to those with less is just as clear: Elect me, and I will steal your money back from the rich and give it to you, because you deserve it.

Of course some rich people--mostly those who are connected to the government--are the beneficiaries of ill-gotten gains. But most rich people earned their money the old-fashioned way: They had talent; they looked for opportunities in the free market; they took risks; and they worked, and worked, and worked some more. Most often, they failed several times along the way, learning from their mistakes, before finally striking it rich, by providing a product or a service that others liked, wanted, needed or enjoyed.

That path is really open to anyone. However, insofar as the Sanders ideology takes hold, it will harm our society and make all of us poorer. It teaches those without that they are only poor because some rich guy is cheating them; and that there is no reason to work hard. After all, if you work hard and make a lot of money, you are a bad person and Bernie is going to take your money from you and give it to those who chose not to put in the same effort.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

How to defeat ISIS?

Frankly, I am not sure there is a way for the West to defeat ISIS which is worth the price in lives and treasure it probably would take. However, I am curious to know what other bloviators think our strategy ought to be. I found several online. Quite a large number of them call for an all-out ground war against ISIS. I chose three pieces to consider:

In Esquire magazine, Charles P. Pierce thinks the answer is to cut off their funds, particularly that coming from people who run countries, like Saudi Arabia, with which we are in league:

It's time for this to stop. It's time to be pitiless against the bankers and against the people who invest in murder to assure their own survival in power. Assets from these states should be frozen, all over the west. Money trails should be followed, wherever they lead. People should go to jail, in every country in the world. It should be done state-to-state. Stop funding the murder of our citizens and you can have your money back. Maybe. If we're satisfied that you'll stop doing it. And, it goes without saying, but we'll say it anyway – not another bullet will be sold to you, let alone advanced warplanes, until this act gets cleaned up to our satisfaction. If that endangers your political position back home, that's your problem, not ours. You are no longer trusted allies. Complain, and your diplomats will be going home. Complain more loudly, and your diplomats will be investigated and, if necessary, detained. Retaliate, and you do not want to know what will happen, but it will done with cold, reasoned and, yes, pitiless calculation. It will not be a blind punch. You will not see it coming. It will not be an attack on your faith. It will be an attack on how you conduct your business as sovereign states in a world full of sovereign states.

I suspect Mr. Pierce is completely wrong. In a sense, his analysis is Marxian: that everything comes down to money. ISIS does not require a lot of money. And almost all of the money it has now has been won on the fields of battle in Iraq and Syria by looting treasures and selling them. They are not dependent on Qatari bankers or Saudi financiers. Even if they lose their territory in Iraq and Syria, where they also control some oil and can turn that into cash, it just does not take much money at all to do most of the terrorism they are doing. In Paris, it took 8 men armed with automatic weapons. They probably spent less than $25 for every person they killed.

The “act of war” (by ISIS) … demands of all NATO states a collective response under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. … The only adequate measure, after the killing of at least 129 people in Paris, is military, and the only objective commensurate with the ongoing threat is the crushing of ISIS and the elimination of its stronghold in Syria and Iraq. … To defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq will require NATO forces on the ground.

While I think Mr. Cohen is probably correct, there are some problems. Foremost is that, as a consequence of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, the most important NATO country, the United States, does not want to get into any more wars of that nature at the moment. Additionally, it’s probably true that a great number of other NATO allies will not be willing to put their men and materiel in harms way to defeat ISIS.

Secondarily, crushing ISIS on the ground won’t solve the larger problem of unpopular and illegitimate and inadequate governance in Syria and Iraq. In order to truly stabilize those nations in a way that does not just lead to more, violent uprisings by unhappy ethnic or religious groups the NATO countries would have to impose order and put in place a constitutional framework which functions for all the people in those areas. And as we have found in Afghanistan, that is much easier said than done. It was one thing to impose constitutional order on our much more civilized enemies at the end of WWII. But the cultures in Iraq and Syria are not nearly so civil. And if the deal looks bad for say, the pro-Iranian Shiites or Alawites in Syria, Iran and Russia are likely to aid them in a fight against the order we establish. Likewise, if the Kurds get a deal they can live with, look for the Turks to make a mess of things. Or if it the Sunnis don’t get what they want, they will either rise up on their own or turn to their allies in the Arabian peninsula.

Finally, even if NATO unanimously decides to take on this fight and is willing to stay long enough to impose order, it is improbable that ordinary Americans, Germans, Dutch, Italians, Spaniards and so on want to die for this cause and pay the vast amount of money it will take to do so.

Writing on, Peter Bergen puts together 10 ideas to defeat ISIS. His list amounts to using propaganda against them and doing more of what we are doing now: 

Here is an example of Mr. Bergen’s propaganda campaign:

Educate Muslim parents about the seductive messages that ISIS is propagating online. … Relentlessly hammer home the message that ISIS positions itself as the defender of Muslims, but its victims are overwhelmingly fellow Muslims.

And here is an example of where he thinks we need to be doing more of the same:

Keep up the military campaign against ISIS. The less the ISIS "caliphate" exists as a physical entity, the less the group can claim it is the "Islamic State" that it purports to be. … Applaud the work that the Turks have already done to tamp down the foreign fighter flow through their country to ISIS in neighboring Syria, and get them to do more.

While there is nothing to object to in Mr. Bergen’s “ideas,” they are all terribly uncreative and unpersuasive in terms of actually defeating this band of terrorists. What we are doing is clearly failing. Doing more of the same won’t work.

As far as propaganda goes, I think depending on the Western, Judeo-Christian leaders to direct this effort is pointless. What has to happen is for Muslim leaders the world over to join the cause against ISIS and other radical Islamists. Those leaders need to preach loudly and publicly against radical Islam. They need to change the cultures among their followers. They need to oppose violent jihad. When attacks like the one in Paris happen, they need to do even more: they need to lead public marches against radical Islamism.

For 50 or more years, Muslim clerics all over the world have been preaching in favor of violence against the West, against Israel and against those they deemed to be symbols of Western imperialism. That preaching has bred the culture of victimhood and intolerance which now produces terrorists in all Muslim countries and in all countries where large numbers of Muslims have moved. Unless Muslim preachers all over the Muslim and non-Muslim world start preaching agains violence by Muslims—including by Palestinians against Israel—their culture is going to include a substantial minority who are willing to kill, rape, maim and die in the name of Islam.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

How Australian English acquired its unique accent: Booze!

I tend to doubt this theory, but an Australian university lecturer says his country's accent came about as a consequence of that nation's earliest English-speaking settlers being drunk all the time:

In an impassioned call for Australian schools to teach verbal expression and delivery, Dean Frenkel, a public speaking and communication lecturer at Melbourne’s Victoria University, said “drunken Aussie-speak” was formed generations ago but has continued to be passed on to children by sober parents. “Our forefathers regularly got drunk together and through their frequent interactions unknowingly added an alcoholic slur to our national speech patterns… Aussie-speak developed in the early days of colonial settlement from a cocktail of English, Irish, Aboriginal and German – before another mystery influence was slipped into the mix.”

Mr. Frenkel suggests that Aussies don't use the muscles in and around their mouths, and as a result they don't articulate certain vowels and consonants the way other English speakers do:

“The average Australian speaks to just two thirds capacity – with one third of our articulator muscles always sedentary as if lying on the couch; and that's just concerning articulation,” he wrote. “Missing consonants can include missing ‘t’s (impordant), ‘l’s (Austraya) and ‘s’s (yesh), while many of our vowels are lazily transformed into other vowels, especially ‘a’s to ‘e’s (stending) and ‘i’s (New South Wyles), and ‘i’s to ‘oi’s (noight).”

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

More proof that eating sugar is bad for your health

Many studies in the past 10 years have shown how eating less sugar will lead to weight loss in people who are obese. This Forbes story regards new research by Dr. Robert Lustig of UCSF:

A new (study) in the journal Obesity goes a little further by trying to tease apart the difference between cutting out sugar and losing weight. It argues that sugar isn’t bad because it makes you gain weight. It’s bad because it brings about other, more sinister changes to the body – metabolic changes that are distinct from weight. ...“This study definitively shows that sugar is metabolically harmful not because of its calories or its effects on weight; rather sugar is metabolically harmful because it’s sugar,” said study author Robert Lustig. “This internally controlled intervention study is a solid indication that sugar contributes to metabolic syndrome, and is the strongest evidence to date that the negative effects of sugar are not because of calories or obesity.”

Dr. Lustig showed this by examining what the effects of a sugar-free diet would be over nine days without having his obese test-subjects lose weight. The only control variable was the absence of sugar. They did not go on a calorie restrictive diet or increase their levels of exercise:

At the end of the nine days, the kids’ metabolic parameters did shift significantly: Their average diastolic blood pressure decreased by 5 mmHg; their triglycerides were lowered by 33 points; their LDL (“bad”) cholesterol went down 10 points; insulin levels were reduced by a third, and fasting glucose and liver function tests improved. “All of the surrogate measures of metabolic health got better, just by substituting starch for sugar in their processed food – all without changing calories or weight or exercise,” said Lustig. “This study demonstrates that ‘a calorie is not a calorie.’ Where those calories come from determines where in the body they go. Sugar calories are the worst, because they turn to fat in the liver, driving insulin resistance, and driving risk for diabetes, heart, and liver disease. This has enormous implications for the food industry, chronic disease, and health care costs.”

Friday, October 23, 2015

Stocks are on the rise

In a column I wrote for The Davis Enterprise, published Nov. 26, 2014, I noted this: "On Friday, the S&P 500 index closed at 2,063.5, an all-time high."

From that date until Aug. 17 of this year, that large stocks' index stayed in a relatively narrow, 155.5 point trading range: from a low of 1,972.74 on Dec. 16, 2014 to a high of 2,128.28 on July 20, 2015. And then the bottom seemed to fall out of the S&P.

In one week in August, the index lost 229.3 points. On Aug. 18 it sold for 2,096.92; on Aug. 25 it was down to 1,867.61. All of the year's gains had been wiped out, and it was worth 90.5% of what it had been when I wrote that Enterprise column.

Much of the worry had little to do with the performance of the U.S. economy or our interest rates. It was a combination of the troubles in Europe and the declining growth rate in China. Events abroad threatened profits for American companies. But since its bottom two months ago, the S&P 500 has incrementally climbed back to where it was last November -- albeit with some big down days thrown in.

As I am writing, the index is selling for 2,065.9, almost exactly what it cost on Nov. 26, 2014. On the one hand, that represents nine months with zero gains. On the other, it is a market which has regained the confidence it had at the end of 2014, and perhaps that suggests it is poised to climb some more the last few months of 2015.

According to an article in USA Today, the optimism in stocks the last several days has largely been fueled by news from Europe and China: 

Thursday’s rally was driven by a surprisingly strong profit report from burger giant McDonald’s and hints from the European Central Bank that more stimulus could be on the way to boost flagging eurozone growth. Those drivers built on prior ones, namely the belief that the Federal Reserve will hold off on interest rate hikes until 2016 and the fact China’s economy did not implode.

An interesting, and I think important question, is how the stock market itself and the economy more generally in 2016 impacts the election hopes of each party. I would think that a strong, or at least stronger economy would serve to benefit the Democratic candidate, as long as she (Hillary Clinton?) embraces Barack Obama's economic platform. Most voters are less likely to throw out the party in power when the economy is in good shape. But no matter how strong the economy is or is not, what counts is perception. If Mrs. Clinton wants to run on the Obama economy, she will need to convince the voters that it is good. And at the same time, the Republican nominee (Donald Trump?) will do everything he can to make voters believe that the economy is in terrible shape, no matter what the stock market or other indicators suggest.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Why so many kids today have food allergies? Maybe our tests are the problem

Perhaps one reason why there are far more children today diagnosed with food allergies, especially peanut allergies, is that they have symptoms of another ailment, are then tested for food allergies, and they test positively, but it is a poor test.

This is exactly what happened in Dallas to “a 15-month-old girl—her stomach, arms and legs swollen and her hands and feet crusted in weeping, yellow scales.” She “was rushed to the emergency room at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.”

When eliminating the foods the child had tested allergic to did not clear up her illness, a more sophisticated test was employed. And it showed the girl did not have any food allergies.

“To her mother's astonishment, the toddler showed no adverse reaction to any of them. After a few days of steady nourishment and a course of antibiotics to clear her skin of various infections, she was released from the hospital into a life free of food restrictions.”

According to this piece in Scientific American, the problem is with false positives in the most-used food allergy tests:

Common skin-prick tests, in which a person is scratched by a needle coated with proteins from a suspect food, produce signs of irritation 50 to 60 percent of the time even when the person is not actually allergic. “When you apply the wrong test, as was the case here, you end up with false positives,” says pediatric allergist J. Andrew Bird, who co-authored a paper describing the Dallas case in 2013 in the journal Pediatrics. And you end up with a lot of people scared to eat foods that would do them no harm. Bird has said that he and a team of researchers found that 112 of 126 children who were diagnosed with multiple food allergies tolerated at least one of the foods they were cautioned might kill them.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

NYT: "The Asian Advantage"

Why do Asian-Americans have so much success? As Nicholas Kristof understands, it is a simple formula: hard work, strong families and passion for education.

That is it. Yet, Kristof tries to complicate matters by suggesting that others -- well, at least blacks -- cannot emulate this model, because he says they are victims of racism and "marginalized." Kristof ignores the obvious: If blacks followed the same formula that Asians and Jews and several other groups in the U.S. have followed, any racism they faced would not matter and their success would stop them from being marginalized.

In the end, Kristof's conclusion is patronizing. He might not have intended it, but his suggestion that "others" are holding back blacks makes it clear that he does not think blacks are capable of overcoming obstacles like other groups have done.

Here is Mr. Kristof's conclusion:

To me, the success of Asian-Americans is a tribute to hard work, strong families and passion for education. Bravo! Ditto for the success of Jews, West Indians and other groups that have shown that upward mobility is possible, but let’s not exaggerate the lessons here. 

Actually, Nick, that is just what we need to do. We need to start preaching to all people the success formula, and stop telling them that their failure is someone else's fault. We also should be giving poor young people who grow up in broken homes a big financial incentive to put off having kids until they are established and capable of supporting themselves.

Why should the success of the children of Asian doctors, nurtured by teachers, be reassuring to a black boy in Baltimore who is raised by a struggling single mom, whom society regards as a potential menace? 

Because Asians, almost all of whom came to America destitute, have shown that discrimination is no barrier to success if you have a strong family, you work hard at school, and you have a passion for education. That would be the lesson to those blacks who fail, except folks like Kristof want the message instead to be, "You have no chance to succeed, because some people are racists. So go ahead and have out-of-wedlock births, drop out of school, and fail economically your entire life. After all, it is someone else's fault, not yours."

Disadvantage and marginalization are complex, often deeply rooted in social structures and unconscious biases, sometimes compounded by hopelessness and self-destructive behaviors, and because one group can access the American dream does not mean that all groups can. 

That is total nonsense. Look at all the blacks who do succeed in the United States. Almost all of them follow the simple formula of family, hard work and education. It is unbelievable that this message is not being hammered home to the millions of blacks who are failures.

So, sure, let’s celebrate the success of Asian-Americans, and emulate the respect for education and strong families. But let’s not use the success of Asians to pat ourselves on the back and pretend that discrimination is history.

This is just wrong. We need to stop focusing on discrimination, as if in our society what others think can hold back those who work hard, who have strong, traditional family values and who have a passion for educational achievement. The surest route to ridding our society of lingering discrimination is that exact formula. The worst avenue is to emphasize that the formula cannot work for poor blacks because others don't think highly enough of them. The truth is that Americans think highly of those who are high achievers.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

NYT: "Carly Fiorina Really Was That Bad"

Anyone remotely interested in the campaign of Carly Fiorina for president ought to first read this biting, yet entirely reasonable column about her by Steven Rattner in the New York Times, where he explains that Mrs. Fiorina was a failure in business:

"Americans should pause on her biggest professional credential for our highest office: a short, disastrous stint atop one of America’s iconic technology companies, Hewlett-Packard. The clearest measure of her performance — and the report card preferred by Wall Street — is H.P.’s stock price, which dropped by 52 percent during her tenure of almost six years."

Fiorina did one big thing at H.P. and it was a huge disaster:

"The most ruinous aspect of Mrs. Fiorina’s tenure was her decision to acquire another “old tech” hardware company, Compaq Computer Corporation, instead of moving more heavily into services and software, as IBM did."

Virtually everyone who has examined her years as the C.E.O. of H.P. agrees she was terrible:

"Investors were so down on her that H.P.’s shares jumped by almost 7 percent on the day of her firing. And in ensuing years, she appeared on several “worst C.E.O.” lists, including those of CBS News and USA Today. In 2009, Portfolio magazine ranked her the 19th worst C.E.O. of all time and described her as a “consummate self-promoter” who was “busy pontificating on the lecture circuit and posing for magazine covers while her company floundered.” 

Despite being an utter failure, the idiots on the H.P. Board of Directors who hired her and later fired her paid her millions of dollars to leave that company after she ruined it:

"She banked $21 million in severance payments as part of the more than $100 million in compensation she received during what one critic called her “destructive reign of terror” (which included pushing for H.P. to acquire five corporate jets.)"

Mr. Rattner exposes the fact that Mrs. Fiorina was not just a failure as the C.E.O. at H.P. She also played an important role in destroying Lucent Technologies, a spin-off company of A.T.&T., previously known as Bell Labs:

"Less attention has been paid to her time at Lucent Technologies, where she rose through the marketing ranks, learning the sales techniques that she is now putting to good use on the stump. Soon after she left, Lucent veered off a cliff, and while she was never the chief executive, part of the company’s collapse stemmed from overly aggressive sales and loans to financially shaky customers made under her supervision."

It is especially odd that anyone thinks Fiorina is qualified to be president, given that she failed in business and has no experience in elective office:

"The lack of public service or sustained business success makes Mrs. Fiorina unqualified for the nation’s highest office. By comparison, Mitt Romney had built an extraordinarily successful investment firm and served for four years as governor of Massachusetts."

Monday, September 28, 2015

NYT: "Shell Exits Arctic as Oil Slump Forces Industry to Retrench"

Royal Dutch Shell ended its expensive and fruitless nine-year effort to explore for oil in the Alaskan Arctic on Monday in another sign that the entire industry is trimming its ambitions in the wake of collapsing oil prices. ... At a time when global markets are glutted with oil, it also confirmed major oil companies’ increasing willingness to turn their backs on the most expensive new drilling prospects in the Gulf of Mexico and suspended plans for new projects in Canada’s oil sands. Shell spent more than $7 billion on its Alaska venture.

When oil was selling for $100 per barrel, drilling in the Arctic likely made sense. Since oil has hovered around $45 per barrel -- West Texas Intermediate crude closed today at $44.47 on the NYMEX -- it is not viable.

What this decision by Shell tells me is that economists inside Shell -- and likely inside other oil majors -- now believe that crude oil is likely to stay under $50/bbl for a long time, perhaps several years. If they believed that in 2016 WTI crude would be $90 or $100/bbl or more, they would be willing to drill for oil in remote places today, even with the price much lower. It is the fact that they don't believe oil is going up in price in the next year or two that is causing them to stop drilling in marginal locations.

The industry has cut its investments by 20 percent this year and laid off at least 200,000 workers worldwide, roughly 5 percent of the total work force. At the same time, companies have retreated from less profitable fields in places like the North Sea, West Africa, and some shale prospects in Louisiana and North Dakota.

What's interesting about the oil bust is how it negatively effects certain oil-reliant economies and that in turn depresses demand for other market goods and thus harms global growth. I had never contemplated that until this bust. What I was well aware of is that, when the global economy is going strong and demand for oil outpaces supply and oil prices rise dramatically, the result is harm to ongoing growth, even enough to cause a recession. The money that would otherwise be going into more consumption, housing, savings and investment ends up going to pay for higher priced oil, gasoline, airplane fuel, diesel, etc.

In between -- I am not sure the exact number -- there must be a healthy price of oil, where it is high enough for the producing regions to profit and spend, yet low enough that it is not draining the income of the consumption regions of the world. At $45/bbl, the price is too low and the effect is harmful to demand. 

And a low oil price is likewise a sign that demand is generally weak for all products. At established levels of production, consumers just cannot buy up as much oil as is being produced. So the price will fall until producers stop drawing so much crude from the ground.

United States oil companies have decommissioned more than half of their drilling rigs over the last year, and production is beginning to drop in the United States. Even exports from Saudi Arabia are beginning to ebb because of a glut in its Asian markets. “The decision by Shell to abandon its Arctic drilling program for now primarily reflects the realities of lower global oil prices,” said Michael C. Lynch, president of Strategic Energy and Economic Research, who advises oil companies and investment banks.  “When prices go down the oil industry shortens their list of projects in development by removing the most expensive ones.” This year, industry executives expressed hopes that the oil price, which has fallen more than 50 percent to below $50 a barrel since last summer, would recover before too long. But in recent weeks, a growing number of executives have warned that the downturn could last well into 2016 and perhaps beyond, especially if the Iran nuclear deal leads to a flood of new oil on world markets. With demand dwindling, the current 94 million barrel a day oil market has roughly 2 million barrels in surplus supply.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

"Year of SDPD body cameras yields surprises"

After having police officer body cameras in place for one full year, the San Diego Police Department has issued a report regarding how the technology affected police behavior and activities. This comes from a story in the San Diego Union Tribune:
San Diego police officers outfitted with body cameras have received fewer complaints from the public but have also used more force — a finding that surprised department leaders. ... Complaints against officers fell 23 percent between July 2014 and June 2015 and instances of force increased 10 percent in the same time period, the report said. ... A 2012 study of the Rialto Police Department, which was at the forefront of the body camera trend, found there was a 60 percent decrease in use-of-force incidents after cameras were deployed. ... That was not the case in the San Diego study where use-of-force instances increased 10 percent between July 2014 and June 2015, compared to the year before. ... Although use of force climbed, the report found that both complaints against officers and allegations made against officers fell after body cameras were put into use. A complaint can include more one allegation. Complaints fell 23 percent, while allegations fell 44 percent. ... The report revealed a sizable drop in the number of allegations that weren’t sustained, from 19 to 3. With the help of body cameras, investigators can more easily determine what happened during an officer’s interaction with a citizen, which is good news for everyone, Zimmerman said. 

My suspicion is that having body cameras will result in fewer bogus complaints by citizens against the police and fewer bogus reports by cops. Perhaps the reason that use-of-force incidents increased in San Diego is that, prior to having body cameras, some cops were using force but not reporting it, because they were unsure if it was justified.
It seems to me no bad (other than the expense) can come from having cameras in place. The questions seem to revolve around what to do with the videos after the incident. Should the general public or the media be able to see these videos in every case? Should the cops see the videos before they write up their reports?
My view is that the police officer involved and his superiors and the civilian interacting with the police officer should always have the right to see the video. And if the civilian involved does not object, the public should have the right to petition to see the video, just like in a public records request.
A side issue--which is discussed in the U-T article--is how officers can better deal with civilians suffering from psychiatric issues. I would think those are among the hardest for any cop to resolve; and often, because crazy people can become violent, the most likely to result in deadly force if things escalate. I don't know the answer to this issue. The use of body cameras won't solve the psychiatric interactions for cops. However, employing mental health professionals to work with the police on these cases--as most agencies in Yolo County are now doing--seems like the best approach to me.
Along those lines, Chief Zimmerman is quoted in the U-T article saying, “This first year of data all seems to suggest that (body cameras) aren’t the end-all solution to all social issues. We are going to need to enhance other current strategies that are effective, such as our psychiatric emergency response teams … our homeless outreach team … and our crisis-response team officers.”

Monday, September 7, 2015

"The decline of play in preschoolers — and the rise in sensory issues"

This blog post in the Washington Post well describes a phenomenon of parents, hoping to give their kids the best chance in life, controlling their kids so much that the children fail to learn the social skills and leadership which comes from free time, where children play with each other, make up their own games and parents are out of the picture.
What Angela Hansom describes about her relationship with her daughter, where she was overbearing and pushy with regard to academics--after all, what parent does not want his kid to be best in his classroom--is equally played out with parents who are obsessed with making their kids into sports stars or musical geniuses or beauty pageant queens:
Like many other American parents, I had an obsession: academic success for my child. Only, I was going about it completely wrong. Yes, my daughter would later go on to test above average with her academic skills, but she was missing important life skills. Skills that should have been in place and nurtured during the preschool years. My wake-up call was when the preschool teacher came up to me and said, “Your daughter is doing well academically. In fact, I’d say she exceeds expectations in these areas. But she is having trouble with basic social skills like sharing and taking turns.” Not only that, but my daughter was also having trouble controlling her emotions, developed anxiety and sensory issues, and had trouble simply playing by herself! Little did I know at the time, but my daughter was far from being the only one struggling with social and sensory issues at such a young age. This was becoming a growing epidemic. A few years ago, I interviewed a highly respected director of a progressive preschool. She had been teaching preschoolers for about 40 years and had seen major changes in the social and physical development of children in the past few generations. “Kids are just different,” she started to say. When I asked her to clarify, she said, “They are more easily frustrated – often crying at the drop of a hat.” She had also observed that children were frequently falling out of their seats “at least three times a day,” less attentive, and running into each other and even the walls. “It is so strange. You never saw these issues in the past.”

As far as I know, this sort of thing did not exist when I was a kid. But once it gets going, it creates a momentum of its own for all parents (save perhaps poor parents who are often far less driven in this manner). If the neighbor kid is getting special coaching in baseball, and your kid wants to play baseball, your kid will be disadvantaged if he also does not get special coaching. Likewise, if dozens of children at your child's school are taking extra classes and getting help from tutors and so on, how will your kid be able to keep up with the others if he too does not get that extracurricular help? Because so many kids are now pushed in one respect or another to excel in a specialized area, it seems very tough to remove this parental behavior from our culture.

Friday, September 4, 2015

"The Arab world’s wealthiest nations are doing next to nothing for Syria’s refugees"

The Washington Post has an excellent story regarding the poor performance of the wealthiest Arab countries when it comes to the plight of Syrian refugees:

The world has been transfixed in recent weeks by the unfolding refugee crisis in Europe, an influx of migrants unprecedented since World War II. … A fair amount of attention has fallen on the failure of many Western governments to adequately address the burden on Syria's neighboring countries, which are struggling to host the brunt of the roughly 4 million Syrians forced out of the country by its civil war. … Less ire, though, has been directed at another set of stakeholders who almost certainly should be doing more: Saudi Arabia and the wealthy Arab states along the Persian Gulf. As Amnesty International recently pointed out, the "six Gulf countries -- Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain -- have offered zero resettlement places to Syrian refugees." 

The nearest neighbors--Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon--have in fact accepted many thousands, though far short of what Turkey has done. However, it's not clear those countries were being humane or generous. It's more the case that they could not control their borders and had no choice as thousands of people flooded out of Syria.

With regard to the oil-rich Gulf states, it does not surprise me that these emirates would not help their fellow Arabs. Kindness and accommodation do not seem to be a part of that culture. Even if they consider a foreign Arab a brother or a cousin, their willingness to really help him seems to be very limited.

The story of the Palestinians would seem to contradict that conclusion. In the late-1940s, tens of thousands of Palestinians fled their homes in the wake of the pan-Arab war against Israel. The Palestinians ran to other Arab countries and were taken in as refugees. By having very large families, those tens of thousands are now several million people, third, fourth and fifth generation refugees.

It's been nearly 70 years since Israel became an independent Jewish state, and yet those Palestinians who fled to Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and other Arab countries are almost all still living as refugees. They have rarely been integrated into the host Arab land and made normal citizens. Despite the fact that they speak the same language, are mostly of the same Muslim faith and have similar traditions in terms of family structure, food and other cultural values, they have been left to rot in ghettoes called refugee camps. 

While the rich Arabs could have given them a leg up and funded a program to integrate the refugees, so they would not be dependent on U.N. handouts, as most still are to this day, the Arabs have largely exploited the refugees as a symbol in their ongoing war with Israel, rather than treating them humanely. The idea is to maintain the fiction that thousands of Palestinian refugees, living in camps in Kuwait, for example, will some day return to Palestine, once the Arab nations collectively destroy Israel. But that fiction cannot be upheld, if the Palestinians, nearly 100% of whom were born in other Arab lands, like Kuwait, were allowed to become, say, Kuwaitis.

And a consequence of that discrimination has been a profound hatred of the host countries by the Palestinians who have not been allowed to integrate. This was seen in the coup attempt against the King of Jordan by Yassir Arafat in 1970, when Palestinians and Jordanians were attacking one another savagely. It was seen again during the Lebanon civil war in the 1970s, culminating in the mass murder of Palestinians by Lebanese Christians, who viewed the "refugees" as disloyal. And it was seen again when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and the Palestinian "refugees" sided with the Iraqis. Once the U.S. drove Saddam back to Baghdad, the Kuwaiti response was to kill hundreds of "disloyal" Palestinians and expatriate most of the rest.