Friday, February 23, 2018

'Toontime: Dying by the Gun

credit: Tim Eagan

Only a demented individual, or souless sycophant, or both would seriously propose that the solution to 'Mericas mass homicide problem is to turn schools into locked-down gulags and expect educators to also function as armed guards. How can any learning take place in a constant atmosphere of fear? To do so would constitute a cynical betrayal of generations to come in the name of profit, NOT the 2nd Amendment. Schools are supposed to prepare functioning citizens (something they already do not do very well), not serve as an armed daycare center.

credit: Pat Bagley, Salt Lake Tribune
Wackydoodle sez: Wha we hav hera is a fayure to communcate!
It is not only domestic policy in which the Trump Circus gets failing marks. The arrogance of USA's foreign policy was on display in the Korean Peninsula this week. At an Olympic venue, Vice President Pence refused to greet the sister of North Korea's autocrat who was sitting one row behind the VP. The snub was duly noted and North Korea cancelled a secret meeting that was supposed to take place between Pence and North Korean officials. Marine General 'Mad Dog' Mattis rightly told Congressional inquisitors that if you do not fully fund diplomacy, "I'll have to buy more ammunition." Marines have a way with words.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

COTW: More Weird Weather

While the Pacific Northwest deals with late winter snow storms, people in the eastern half of the country are asking if they can wear shorts to work. Look at this incredible chart:

credit: The Atlantic

The red area indicates temperatures above the historic average temperature for February 20th. Boston hit 50℉ at night, the highest February night temperature ever recorded. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh also recorded record high temperatures. Two weather systems, a large high over Georgia and a cold front pushing warm air eastward are contributing to the balmy weather. However, warmer winters are one of the predicted symptoms of global warming. Winters in Burlington, Vermont are now seven degrees warmer than in 1970. The last three years have been the warmest ever recorded. These warmer winters may appear as earlier springs. Trees have already started to blossom in Virginia and West Virginia. Cold snaps are now fifteen times less likely to occur than a century ago. Enjoy! It may be the best aspect of weather change man has created.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Russian Scion Squeals

The son of a Russian oligarch named in the Steele Dossier, Alex van der Zwaan, 33, has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in the Russian Connection investigation. That is a felony offense; van der Zwaan is a lawyer and Dutch citizen. He admitted lying in federal court on Tuesday about his discussions with then campaign official Rick Gates shortly before the 2016 election. He also admitted to deleting emails sought by investigators. His plea puts pressure on the former campaign officials, Gates and Manafort, to 'come clean' concerning their dealings with high-level Russians seeking to influence the election outcome on behalf of Trump¹. Both of those gentlemen have pleaded not guilty to money laundering and other crimes related to their influence peddling for a Ukrainian political party². Van der Zwann worked for the powerful Washington, DC law firm of Skadden, Arps before he was fired last year.

In another investigation development, former Trump advisor Sam Nunberg is expected to meet with the Special Counsel's office tomorrow. Nunberg received his fifteen minutes of fame for his quotes in the Michael Wolff expose of the Trump administration. There he is quoted as calling the President an "idiot", and recalling difficulty explaining the Constitution to the deranged occupant of the Room Without Corners: “I got as far as the Fourth Amendment before his finger is pulling down on his lip and his eyes are rolling back in his head," Wolff writes of Nunberg's recollection.

¹Jeffery Toobin writes at the New Yorker: "To date, the most direct evidence that they did [collude with Russians to influence the election] is a result of connections forged in the lead-up to the 2013 Miss Universe contest. On June 3, 2016, Rob Goldstone, Emin Agalarov’s [Russian pop star] publicist, e-mailed Donald Trump, Jr., offering damaging information about Hillary Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Donald, Jr., replied, “If it’s what you say I love it.” Six days later, Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner, the candidate’s son-in-law, and Paul Manafort, then the chairman of the campaign, welcomed a group of visitors to Trump Tower led by a Russian attorney named Natalia Veselnitskaya. In July, 2017, the Times informed the White House that it was working on a story about that meeting. The President and his advisers, who were returning from a trip to Europe aboard Air Force One, prepared a misleading statement about the purpose of the meeting, asserting that it had been a harmless discussion of adoption policy."  

Trump's wanting to get close to Russian moneyed interests was primarily for financial reasons. He had been attempting to break into the real estate game in Moscow for at least a decade prior to the election of 2016. He was shunned by conventional western sources of financing due to his string of bankruptcies in the 90's and his failed "Trump Vodka" licensing deal in '07. The 2013 Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow was his opportunity to make a connection with billionaire Moscow real estate developer Aras Agalarov. His son, Emin performed at the Pageant, and the Agalarovs hosted the world televised event. One of the attendees was Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, a notorious Russian businessman accused of running a money laundering operation from an apartment in Manhattan's Trump Tower. Trump's desire to build in Russia continued during his run for pubic office. In 2015, Felix Sater, a Trump business partner and stock defrauder made a proposal for a potential office tower in Moscow. Trump signed a non-binding letter of intent to license the Trump name to the project. In an e-mail sent at the time to lawyer Michael Cohen, once known as "Trump's pit bull", Sater wrote, “I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected. Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putin's team to buy in on this.” Braggadocio from a shady businessman? You decide. Before you do, take note Trumpty has yet to enact sanctions against the Kremlin, which Congress overwhelmingly approved last year.

² Manafort had one of the usual motivations to parlay his Russian & Ukrainian connections to the benefit of the political  campaign he was managing: money.  He was deeply in debt to a Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, for a $18.9m investment gone bad.    His private life was also in shambles as revealed in a host of messages to his adult daughter hacked by irate Ukrainians that posted them on the "dark web".  His daughter wrote at one point, “My dad is in the middle of a massive emotional breakdown.” Manafort, according to emails to a colleague saw the Trump campaign as a way of "getting whole".  He joined Trump's campaign in March 2016.  His history as a "hustler" and corrupter of the system, however, goes back to the 70s.  See the details here.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

France Decides to Give Wolves a Chance

Despite unhappy farmers, the French government has decided to let returning wolves prosper, a little. Wolves were wiped out in France in the 1930's, but in the 90s wolves from across the Alps returned to repopulate the country. Currently there are about 360 wolves living in France; the government will let that population increase to around 500 by 2023. Wolves are a protected species under the Bern Convention to which France is a party.

Non-lethal means of guarding livestock, mostly sheep, has been demonstrated to be viable.  Guard dogs are effective in deterring wolf attacks on sheep, as are shepherds in the area.  Penning ewes that are about to lamb also reduces mortality.  Hunters will still be allowed to cull 40 wolves this year, the same as in 2017. [photo]  That rate could increase if predation becomes more pronounced in future years.  The government has sent specialist teams into the Alps to hunt wolves deemed to be a problem. Last year a reported 12,000 sheep were killed by wolves.  Farmers are compensated for each confirmed predation; the bill amounted to €15m in 2012.  A wolf tracker says the wolf is well adapted to its environment, intelligent, with superior senses, so it is not surprising the wolf is making a comeback in parts of Europe where it was eradicated. There are now wolves among the vineyards of the Champagne region, and there are wolves 160km (100 miles) east of Paris. When it learns something, it remembers the lesson and teaches it to its offspring.  Conservationists advocate return of the wolf, an apex carnivore, as necessary to reestablish balance in nature disturbed by man.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Feeling Blue in the Age of Trump

The world's happiest nations index came out this week and it is no surprise that the United States in not among the top ten. Given that it has the highest rate of school shooting violence in the world one would expect the US to be lower than 13th.*  What is important to human happiness apparently is social equity.  All of the top ten countries are homogeneous nations with strong social safety nets.  Denmark is at the top again after being displaced by Switzerland last year, followed by: Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia and Sweden.

Researchers found that happiness can be explained by six variables: gross domestic product per capita; healthy years of life expectancy; social support; trust (as measured by perceived absence of corruption in government and business); perceived freedom to make life choices; and generosity (as measured by donations).  GDP, which is endlessly touted in the US as the key to "the pursuit of happiness" alone is not enough to make the "American Dream" come true for a substantial number of citizens. Says Professor Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which produced the report in association with the UN,“The predominant political discourse in the United States is aimed at raising economic growth, with the goal of restoring the ‘American dream’ and the happiness that is supposed to accompany it. But the data show conclusively that this is the wrong approach.”   Other experts spoke out against the "tyranny of the GDP" which ignores the quality of life's many aspects.  Poverty, war and crisis is a key condition shared by the ten unhappiest nations: with Yemen, South Sudan, Liberia, Guinea, Togo, Rwanda, Syria, Tanzania, Burundi and the Central African Republic at bottom of the list.

A good example of what can happen to a country's well being is Greece.  It saw the largest drop in happiness from 2005 to 2015 when its financial meltdown began in 2007 and economic austerity was imposed from without.  Three financial bailouts, widespread distrust in authority, and corruption are associated with a diminishing sense of well-being among its citizens.  In contrast, Japan experienced an in increase in relative happiness despite the Fukushima nuclear disaster because of the outpouring of generosity and cooperation which helped affected citizens rebuild their lives.  Dr. Henry Sachs from Columbia University helped edit the report and wrote, “The libertarian argument that economic freedom should be championed above all other values decisively fails the happiness test: There is no evidence that economic freedom per se is a major direct contributor of human well-being above and beyond what it might contribute towards per-capita income and employment.  Pope Francis in his widely acclaimed encyclical, Laudato Si agrees with that assessment.  A world of continuing economic expansion based on technological improvements that neglects biological needs and planetary health is doomed to eventual failure.

*the [dis]United States has a gun homicide rate that is 25.2 times higher than the rest of the high-income world.  Its gun death rate is exceeded by underdeveloped Central American countries like El Salvador, which are plagued with civil unrest and criminal gang violence.