Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Who wore it better??


Are Donald Trump and his rivals a big joke?

Candidate cookies

With the US presidential election just nine months away, and would-be candidates battling it out in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, American political satirist, PJ O'Rourke casts a scathing eye over the candidates hoping to make it to the White House. 
There's an American saying: "Anyone can become president." And in the 2016 election we've been trying to prove it.  The list of people running for president seemed to include everybody except Beyonce. And there actually was a rumour last October that Beyonce's husband, rapper Jay Z, might run.
The US presidential field has begun to narrow at last. Although, to judge by who's left, this is not because of quality control.
To the rest of the world Donald Trump seems like a joke. And, please, let's hope he is. Trump is a prank the American electorate is pulling on the American political establishment.

Donald Trump

Like many jokes, Trump is a manifestation of discomfort and anxiety. America is a pretty good place. By world-historical standards it's an excellent place. And yet, according to opinion polls, almost two-thirds of Americans think the country is "on the wrong track".
What has got Americans so worried? The technological revolution is unsettling. So are rapid social shifts involving everything from immigrants to gender roles and sexuality. The global economy is shaky. And America's political establishment is so bitterly divided that we can't get bipartisan agreement on whether the sun will come up. (Republicans call predictions of dawn "unproven climate change science".)
So, for a laugh, a lot of Republicans are claiming to support a cartoon character - an over-confident blustery bigot, a self-inflated one-man business boom who claims he can make a deal with the devil that will have the angels of heaven lining up to buy condos in Trump Tower Hell. Like many jokes, it's not all that funny.
Trump's Democratic Party opposite number is Bernie Sanders. Bernie repeats the pieties of the 1960s New Left with a straight face, as deadpan as Trump is clownish.

Bernie Sanders poster

Bernie seems a bit foggy on things that have happened since Woodstock, especially in the realm of foreign affairs. Bernie doesn't know the Berlin Wall fell and doesn't know he's still standing on the wrong side of it.
Most of Bernie's support comes from people who weren't born when his ideas were in vogue. They're too young to know that what Bernie says may sound like it makes sense during the dorm room bull session, but sooner or later you have to put the bong down and exhale.
For the rest of America what's not amusing is Bernie labelling himself a socialist. The word has a particular and peculiar meaning in the US. If you say "I'm a socialist," what Americans hear is, "I'm going to take your flat-screen TV and give it to a family of pill addicts in the backwoods of Vermont."
Bernie is not the right man to break America's political deadlock. It would be worse than electing Angela Merkel prime minister of Greece.
Then there are the serious candidates. Chief among them is Hillary Clinton. She has been seriously trying to become president, one way or another, since 1992.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary is a seasoned, pragmatic, centre-left candidate. Her nomination by the Democratic Party was supposed to be inevitable. But it turns out that "evitable" is a real word in the English language. I checked the dictionary. We should start using it.

In a year when Americans have been willing to go in any direction for the sake of change, Hillary is setting her course by the beacon of continuity, the Lighthouse of Sameness. She's pulling her oar in an opposite direction, the one rower facing the wrong way in the Viking longship.
Now that Ben Carson has faded, the seriously conservative candidate is Republican Ted Cruz. Dr Carson is a nice man. But he seemed to have no idea why he was running for president. GOP voters wanted him to go back to work as a neurosurgeon, perhaps removing Donald Trump's ruptured silicone brain implant that is endangering Republicans everywhere.
Ted Cruz wants a 10% flat-rate income tax. The US gross domestic product is $18tn. The US federal budget is $3.8tn. Suppose Cruz somehow lops $1tn off the budget. Suppose the 10% tax is somehow applied to the entire GDP. That still leaves a $1tn-plus hole in the national pants pocket.

Ted Cruz

In American politics, you mustn't say that hardline conservatives don't count. But you may say that they can't count. Cruz is also a hardline cultural conservative, vehemently opposed to gay rights, drug law reform and so forth. He's still fighting the Culture Wars. He's up on the front line bravely firing away without noticing that the other side has gone home to celebrate victory with legalised marijuana at same-sex wedding receptions.
The remaining candidates - all Republicans - are "The Muddle in the Middle."
Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie are seasoned, pragmatic centre-right candidates. And Carly Fiorina is the same, plus being a woman, minus the seasoning.
They all face the same problem as Hillary Clinton would, if Hillary were competing with five of herself. Jeb Bush is the "Great American Failure Story". Here's Jeb with all the Bush influence, all the Bush political connections, all the Bush campaign funding, and he can't get out of single-digit polling numbers. This would be almost impossible for the son of an oligarchic family anywhere else in the world. Isn't America a wonderful country?

John Kasich

John Kasich is the very popular conservative governor of Ohio, a not-very-conservative state. Ohio is a microcosm of American conflicts - labour v management, nativists v immigrants, blacks v whites, Occupy Cincinnati v the 1%. They all hate each other, but they don't hate John.
Kasich beat an incumbent Democratic governor and was re-elected by a landslide. Before that he served nine terms shovelling important manure in the Augean stables of the House of Representatives - 18 years on the House Armed Services Committee and six years as chairman of the House Budget Committee. No wonder he's so far behind. Republicans are in no damn mood for competent, experienced politicians with broad popular appeal.
Chris Christie is a former US district attorney, a prosecutor famously tough on crime. He was elected the Republican governor in Democratic New Jersey because voters hoped he'd clean up corruption. Not for nothing was the TV show The Sopranos set in that state. Then one of Christie's top aides ordered lane-closing on the George Washington Bridge to Manhattan, causing huge traffic jams in Ft Lee, New Jersey, in order to punish the mayor of Ft Lee for not supporting Christie's gubernatorial re-election campaign.
"Bridgegate" was just the kind of thing that the Sopranos would do - if they used highway cones instead of guns.

Carly Fiorina

Carly Fiorina was the CEO of Hewlett-Packard, and the company's stock price fell more than 60% while she was in charge. I may forgive Carly, but my retirement plan never will.
Marco Rubio may emerge as the moderate Republican choice. He has a couple of things going for him.
Rubio is a Washington "outsider". Well, actually, he's a US senator. But he's missed a lot of senate votes, and I assume that was because, during the voting, Rubio was outside Washington. This counts.
And Rubio gets the Latino vote. In Cuba. If Cuba had political polls, Marco Rubio would be polling far ahead of Raul Castro in the Cuban presidential election, if Cuba had presidential elections.
What does the 2016 presidential campaign tell us about my country? What I hope is that it tells us America has a great sense of humor.
Of course there's always the possibility that Americans are serious about who they're supporting for president. In that case America has no sense at all.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

The EU says "let them in"

Syrians gather at the Bab al-Salam border gate with Turkey, in Syria, Saturday, Feb. 6
Turkey insists there is no need to let the Syrians in

Officials in the EU have urged Turkey to let in 35 thousand Syrian refugees trapped on its border at Kilis after fleeing fighting at Aleppo. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said there was a moral, if not legal, duty to provide protection.
Turkey says the refugees are receiving food and shelter inside Syria and there is no need to allow them to cross.

Approximately 35,000 Syrians have fled a Syrian government offensive on rebel-held positions near Aleppo in the last two days. Ms Mogherini said the EU was providing funding to Turkey to make sure it had the "means, the instruments, the resources to protect and to host people that are seeking asylum".


In November, the EU clinched a deal with Turkey, offering it $3.3bn to care for Syrian refugees on Turkish soil. Ms Mogherini's call was echoed by EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn and Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders, whose country currently holds the EU presidency.
"I look at these images of people standing at the Turkish border and I just wanted to underline the message that people who are in humanitarian need should be allowed in," said Mr Koenders.
However Kilis governor Suleyman Tapsiz said the move was not necessary.
"Our doors are not closed but at the moment there is no need to host such people inside our borders," he said. Turkey already hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees - 2.5 million.

In the past few days, the Syrian army - backed by Russian air strikes - has made a series of gains around Aleppo, Syria's largest city.
On Thursday, 60 donor countries meeting in London pledged billions of dollars to ease the plight of Syrian refugees. About 4.6 million people have fled Syria since the civil war began in 2011. Another 13.5 million are said to be in need of humanitarian assistance inside the country. How can we not help them ? How can we not offer them sanctuary just because a couple of terrorists got through, masquerading as refugees? Just screen them carefully like Canada does. These people are helpless victims. Whatever happened to compassion? We seem to have become a hardened and apathetic people.

I think the bottom line, now, is that everyone is scared of Russia and it's ruthless thug, Putin, who is aiding and abetting Assad  by putting Russia's considerable military force behind his genocide.  If America and Russia come to a Mexican stand-off over Syria, anything could happen.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Hillary and Bernie clash in first one-on-one debate

US2016 banner
Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have clashed over Wall Street and foreign policy, in the Democratic presidential candidates' first one-on-one debate. Mrs Clinton cast him as an idealist who will not get things done and Mr Sanders accused her of being too tied to the establishment to achieve real change.
The TV debate in New Hampshire was their first since the Democratic race was whittled down to two this week.
The former secretary of state said Bernie Sanders' proposals such as universal healthcare were too costly and unachievable. And she went after her rival aggressively over his attempts to portray her as being in the pocket of Wall Street because of the campaign donations and the fees she had received for after-dinner speeches.
"It's time to end the very artful smear that you and your campaign have been carrying out," she said.
Mr Sanders, a senator of Vermont, used a favourite attack line against her, that she backed the Iraq War, but she questioned his foreign policy expertise.
The debate comes five days before the second state-by-state contest in the battle for the presidential nominee, in New Hampshire on Tuesday.

Other highlights include:
  • She represents the establishment, I represent ordinary Americans, said Mr Sanders
  • By standing up to big money interests and campaign contributors, we transform America, he said
  • Mrs Clinton was asked to release the transcripts of all her paid speeches - she said she would look at it
  • He demanded the break-up of the big banks but she said her regulatory policies would be tougher on Wall Street
  • Asked what she stood for, she named clean energy, the affordable care act and getting paid family leave
  • He said he was stronger because "Democrats win when there is large turnout" and he could enthuse young people
Despite the tensions over policies, the debate ended on a warm note, when Mrs Clinton said the first person she would call would be Mr Sanders, if she won the nomination.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders

Black Holes Explained in Ninety Minutes

1 February 2016
Prof Stephen Hawking is delivering the BBC's 2016 Reith Lectures on the topic of black holes.
Based on his second talk, and with animation by Aardman Studios, this is a 90-second explanation of why black holes may not be as black as they appear.

Thanx BBC

Zika virus pregnancy case confirmed in Spain - first in Europe

Aedes aegypti mosquitoes inside a lab
Zika - a mosquito-borne virus - has been linked to babies being born with underdeveloped brains
Child with microcephaly
Dejailson Arruda and his daughter Luiza, who was born with microcephaly

Spain has confirmed that a pregnant woman has been diagnosed with the Zika virus - the first such case in Europe.
The health ministry said the woman had recently returned from Colombia, where it is believed she was infected.
Zika, which is spreading through the Americas, has been linked to babies being born with underdeveloped brains.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the microcephaly condition, linked to the mosquito-borne virus, a global public health emergency.
The WHO on Thursday also advised countries not to accept blood donations from people who had travelled to Zika-affected regions, the AFP news agency reported.
The link between Zika infection and microcephaly has not been confirmed and the risks at different stages of pregnancy are unknown."

'No spreading risk'

In a statement the health ministry said the pregnant woman was diagnosed as having Zika in the north-eastern Catalonia region.
It did not release the woman's name, saying she was one of seven confirmed cases in Spain.
It said two more patients were in Catalonia, two in Castile and Leon, one in Murcia and one in the capital Madrid.
"All are in good health," the ministry added.
It also stressed that "the diagnosed cases of Zika virus in Spain... don't risk spreading the virus in our country as they are imported cases".

  • Brazil says a national mobilization day will be held on Saturday, during which thousands of soldiers and state employees will work to eradicate mosquitoes in homes and offices.
  • The outbreak is being discussed by health ministers from 14 South American countries who vow to take action to eliminate it
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos says he expects a rise in Zika cases
  • The WHO expresses fears over the reported sexual transmission of the Zika virus in Texas
  • Florida Governor Rick Scott declares a public health emergency in four counties with travel-related cases of the virus, while ordering state officials to increase mosquito control efforts in heavily populated locales including Miami and Tampa

What are the symptoms?

Deaths are rare and only one-in-five people infected is thought to develop symptoms.
These include:
  • mild fever
  • conjunctivitis (red, sore eyes)
  • headache
  • joint pain
  • a rash
A rare nervous system disorder, Guillain-Barre syndrome, that can cause temporary paralysis has been linked to the infection.
There is no vaccine or drug treatment so patients are advised to rest and drink plenty of fluids.
But the biggest concern is the impact it could have on babies developing in the womb and the surge in microcephaly.

What is microcephaly?Graphic showing babies' head size

It is when a baby is born with an abnormally small head, and their brain has not developed properly.
The severity varies, but it can be deadly if the brain is so underdeveloped that it cannot regulate the functions vital to life.
Children that do survive face intellectual disability and developmental delays.
It can also be caused by infections such as rubella, substance abuse during pregnancy or genetic abnormalities.