Friday, October 24, 2014

Does the IRS need a shake-up?

That's what some of its employees and ex-employees say. They say that, despite their being an IRS Whistleblower Office, the IRS bosses "intentionally undermined the authority" of it. Furthermore, the bosses are accused of "deliberately" facilitating multibillion-dollar tax giveaways avoid taking action "in cases involving billions in corporate taxes due." As a result, they claim that the large corporate taxpayers are favored over everybody else.

They are asking Congress to audit the IRS.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

UNC comes clean

Over the past few years, there have been more than a few claims that athletes at UNC received favorable treatment. In fact, the treatment was so favorable, that the athletes did not have to go to class. An administrator created a paper world which showed athletes attending and passing courses. Surprisingly, this went on for 18 years and at least 3,100 students benefited from these paper classes.

Thus far, four employees have been fired and five more disciplined because of their roles. 

This is another indication of the primacy given to college athletics rather than to college education.

Another Secret Service Faux Pas

It looks as though that some members of the  Secret Service feel a strong pull to defend a fellow employee, so strong that they have to leave the White House. Sometime in 2011 an agency employee was in a dispute with a neighbor. The neighbor was arrested and the employee took out a protective order. She also told one of the higher-ups in the agency about her problem. The higher-up did help her by sending two agents to her home. Unfortunately, these agents were at work protecting the President and/or the White House. These agents visited the neighbor on at least five days, one of these visits lasted eight hours. The neighbor did not live next door to the White House. Her home was "a 50-minute drive (without traffic) from the White House". 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

What's going on in Canada?

On Monday, two soldiers were run over in a suburb of Montreal. One died. Today, the Parliament in Ottawa was attacked by at least one gunman and another soldier was killed.

Have the terrorists concluded that Canada is more vulnerable than the U.S.? If so, Canada will soon correct them of their wrong conclusion.

Some photographs

The Natural History Museum of London has an annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition. Here are some of the winners:
 The Grand Winner


Courtesy of Business Insider

Cluster Bombs

You never stop learning. Today, I learned about cluster bombs, which appear to be especially destructive weapons. Basically, the cluster bomb is made up of many bombs - it could be hundreds - combined into one package. The package breaks up before it hits the ground so that the individual bombs explode over areas as large as a football field. But not all of the bombs do explode; some essentially become land mines.

They have been used since WWII; the U.S. used them in Iraq and Afghanistan. 114 countries have signed a 2008 treaty banning cluster munitions. China, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States have refrained from signing the treaty.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Terrorism in America

The beheadings performed by ISIS are considered particularly gruesome. Yet. similar crimes by Americans against Americans seldom hit the front page. Micah Zenko believes that "We treat "terrorism" in the common vernacular differently because it is ascribed to foreigners who are unlike us, whereas similarly savage behavior conducted by fellow Americans is a reflection of us."

He talks about three particularly heinous crimes that occurred recently in this country: a beheading in Oklahoma, a grandfather in Florida killing his daughter and all six of her children (ages 11, 9, 8, 5, 4, and 3 months), and a technician in Illinois who selectively severed data and communications cables, destroyed computer equipment, and wrapped gasoline-soaked towels around additional cables and set them on fire resulting in an estimated loss in economic activity of $123 million.

The greatest threats by country

Vox has summarized a recent Pew survey in which people in 44 countries were asked what they considered "the greatest threat in the world" from a list of five possible answers: religious and ethnic hatred, inequality, AIDS and other diseases, nuclear weapons, and pollution/the environment.

First, they presented the countries where each of the five categories above were considered the greatest threat.

Then they listed all of the countries they surveyed. We, the US, are pretty evenly split between seeing religious and ethnic hatred, inequality, and nuclear weapons as the biggest threats.

The nose can be related to the spine

In 2010 Darek Fidyka was paralyzed from the chest down in a knife attack. He now can walk after scientists transplanted cells from his nasal cavity into his spinal cord. The secret is that some cells in the nose regenerate throughout our adult life. The scientists moved some of these cells from his nose to his spine.

It's true that he cannot walk without aid; he uses something called a frame in England. It took about three months before Fidyka began to notice changes in his body as his left thigh began putting on muscle. Three months later he took his first steps along parallel bars, using leg braces and the support of a physiotherapist. Two years after the treatment, he can now walk outside the rehabilitation center using a frame. He has also recovered some bladder and bowel sensation and sexual function. He works hard: he exercises five hours per day, five days a week.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Janet Yellen provides some numbers of inequality in America

From a speech at the Boston Fed:
“The wealthiest 5 percent of American households held 54 percent of all wealth reported in the 1989 survey. Their share rose to 61 percent in 2010 and reached 63 percent in 2013;"
“The lower half of households by wealth, held just 3 percent of wealth in 1989 and only 1 percent in 2013. To put that in perspective…the average net worth of the lower half of the distribution, representing 62 million households, was $11,000 in 2013.”
“This $11,000 average is 50 percent lower than the average wealth of the lower half of families in 1989, adjusted for inflation.”
A “major source of wealth for many families is financial assets, including stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and private pensions…the wealthiest 5 percent of households held nearly two-thirds of all such assets in 2013…”

The Rhetoric of Terrorism

Tomis Kapitan reminds us that words have consequences. A word that is particularly popular these days is "terrorism". The way it is used prevents a considered, thoughtful analysis of the reasons underlying a particular terror. For example, the President has said that ISIS "is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.” While ISIS has done some inhumanly disgusting things, do they really have no goal other than killing people? Would it not be wise to find out what their goals really are? Might this knowledge not enable us to 'fight' them better and more rationally? Without such knowledge are we not aggravating the situation?

Should we also not look at ourselves? Is our bombing of residential districts, schools and hospitals in the name of fighting terrorism not itself terrorism, when most of the victims are innocent civilians? 

Kapitan's conclusion:
In condemning terrorism, we think of it as something to be eliminated at all costs. Yet, in sanctioning the use of modern weaponry to achieve this end, regardless of its impact upon civilian populations, we are effectively advocating the very thing we condemn, and this is closer to doublethink than we should ever wish to be.

Fulfilling our obligations

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Embezzling from the Vatican Bank

Monsignor Nunzio Scarano was a top accountant at the Vatican Bank. He is now on trial for money laundering in what he says was an attempt to help a friend. He also helped himself while at the Bank; an Italian judge calculated Monsignor Scarano’s wealth at more than $8.2 million, though the Vatican paid the priest just $41,000 a year. He owned a 17-room, $1.7 million house in Salerno.

But, as we know, the Vatican Bank has not exactly been a paragon of virtue. Pope Francis has replaced most of the executives and staff at the Bank.

Head of the Charles Regatta

The weather was perfect yesterday and the photos of the river and Cambridge are delightful.  This is the biggest two-day rowing event in the world. It attracts 11,000 athletes and 400,000 spectators.

A Liberian Point of View re Ebola

Friday, October 17, 2014

The UN speaks out against bulk surveillance

Ben Emmerson QC, the UN’s special rapporteur on counter-terrorism, has issued a report detailing how much monitoring the UK and US do via their bulk surveillance programs. As we know, bulk surveillance indiscriminately swallows up digital or telephonic communications data. Emmerson feels that this technology violates people's right to privacy.

Emmerson also castigates security programs which take “secret control over servers in key locations” and by impersonating websites “inject unauthorized remote control software into the computers and Wi-Fi-enabled devices of those who visit the clone site”.

Mistakes in dealing with ISIS?

Steven Walt lists what he thinks are the major mistakes we are making re ISIS:

Mistake No. 1: Exaggerating the Threat
ISIS is a regional problem, yet many of our leadership talk about their atacking us tomorrow.

Mistake No. 2: Squandering U.S. Leverage
"A recurring problem in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy has been the insistence that no problem can be solved if Uncle Sam isn't leading the charge. The more Washington promises to do for them, the less our local partners will do for themselves."

Mistake No. 3: Failure to Set Clear Priorities
"Is it more important to defeat IS, remove Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria, or keep Iran isolated and halt its nuclear program forever? Because these goals are inherently contradictory"

Mistake No. 4: Assuming Others Share Our Worldview and Our Interests 
"A perennial failure of U.S. diplomacy is the tendency to think our interests and our worldview are unquestionably correct and that only our worst enemies are going to disagree with us."

Mistake No. 5: Overpromising and Underachieving
"Here's one big lesson we might draw from our past follies: Most people don't like being told what to do and how to live by a well-armed and heavy-handed foreign invader, especially when that invader doesn't speak their language, doesn't understand their culture, and when its invasion has killed some of their relatives, disrupted their economy, and destroyed existing political institutions. Under these conditions, some of those angry people will organize resistance, and because it's their country, they are likely to fight both fiercely and effectively, even if they are badly outgunned. A second lesson: An armed force is a crude instrument that can destroy but not build, and it is no substitute for effective governance.

Finally, if our primary concern is U.S. security, Washington ought to direct the billions we are currently spending on bombing IS to making sure its recruits can't return home to cause trouble here."