Thursday, August 8, 2013

Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me, Again...and Again...and Again

According to RT (Russia Today), CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell told the Wall Street Journal that:
.....the toppling of Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria is the largest threat to United States national security and may help al-Qaeda acquire chemical weapons.
Speaking to The Wall Street Journal, [outgoing] CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell said the prospect of the Syrian government being replaced by al-Qaeda his biggest worry [sic].
Morell’s statement is especially surprising considering America’s official position on the Syrian civil war. US President Barack Obama and his officials have repeatedly called Assad a "dictator" who is responsible for more than 92,000 lives lost in a bloody conflict between government forces and rebels - some of whom are openly affiliated with al-Qaeda.  
Should the current regime collapse without a stable government to step up to the plate, Morell said the warheads being held by Assad may end up in the hands of America’s adversaries.
The US remains embarked on a plan that would aid Syrian rebels by way of supplying them with arms. With al-Qaeda extremists entwined in that same war against Assad, however, one wrong turn could cause the US to accidentally equip its most feared enemy.
The original Wall Street Journal version, "CIA Official Calls Syria Top Threat to U.S. Security" might be difficult to access due to their paywall, but the link is here, just for the record. Use your favorite method for getting around the paywall.if you're interested in reading the article.

Although the entire WSJ article is fascinating (Morell also talks about Iran and North Korea), here are a couple of snippets that leaped out at me:
Mr. Morell's stark assessment shows how much the U.S. has at stake as it reluctantly prepares to arm Syrian rebels in the coming weeks while continuing to confront an al Qaeda that has dispersed across the globe. His forecast is all the more worrisome because it comes from a top official who other officials say is skeptical of current administration plans to arm the rebels.
He [Morell] said there are now more foreign fighters flowing into Syria each month to take up arms with al Qaeda-affiliated groups, than there were going to Iraq to fight with al Qaeda at the height of the war there.
The Syrian government's weapons, Mr. Morell said, "are going to be up for grabs and up for sale" as they were in Libya. The violence in Syria has the potential to spill over into Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
And finally,
With al Qaeda, Mr. Morell said, the threat has morphed into one in which there is less of a risk of a strike on the scale of the 2001 attacks but a greater likelihood that diplomatic posts would be attacked.
Both the U.S. and al Qaeda have had their share of victories over the past decade. The U.S. has "significantly degraded" the group's capabilities in Afghanistan and Pakistan, he said. He didn't discuss the CIA's role in killing off so many al Qaeda leaders through drone attacks. 
"Al Qaeda has had its own victory as well," he said. "The dispersal of al Qaeda is their victory."
Not only has the group spread its ideology and geographic reach, he said, but it also has a less rigid command and control structure and less religious fidelity than in the past. That makes it more difficult for the U.S. to identify threats ahead of time.
"If we don't keep the pressure on them, they will reconstitute," he said. "I worry about complacency in the face of that."
You're entitled to your own opinion as to whether this "dispersal" of al Qaeda is an American foreign policy bug or a feature. Regardless, the United States has this distressing habit of invading countries/facilitating revolutions/giving material aid to rebel groups in the Middle East and Central Asia. Then - surprise! - our mortal enemies, al-Qaeda, rushes into the void, wreaks complete havoc and leaves utter devastation throughout the region, which, you guessed it, often results in blowback to the United States. Who in their wildest dreams could imagine that happening, over, and over, and over again? This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but think of the obvious examples of what's happened in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya, and Libya.

I don't quite know what to think of Morrell's remarks. He could be bringing some major policy disagreements into the open. However, his statement about the "dispersal" of al-Qaeda makes me think that he might be pushing a meme that the U.S. doesn't want (wink, wink) a weakened and chaotic Muslim Middle East.

In the meantime I'll be getting out a fresh scorecard, sharpening up my pencils, and keeping track of which U.S. actors are on which side of the Syria/al-Qaeda game.

Soft Drink Soda Pop

I was happy to help out a Tennessee transplant in my local grocery store's bottle return area recently as I helped her sort through her beverage containers for items that could be returned for bottle deposit refunds. I look at the subject of bottle returns quite fondly as I nostalgically remember the days of the real environmental movement. Unfortunately, from the pained look on the Tennessean's face, I could tell that she just thought of it all as one big giant hassle.

From looking at this grid of states with bottle return laws, I noticed that the usual suspect progressive states all have bottle return laws along with a few states that might be outliers. The states with deposit laws include California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, Maine, Michigan, New York, Oregon and Vermont. The bulk of the bottle return laws were passed in the 1970's and into the 1980's until the movement lost steam. (Michigan voted for/implemented their law in 1976/1978, back when Michigan was still a progressive state.) Delaware passed a deposit law in 1982 but repealed it effective 2011. Hawaii admirably passed/implemented the final U.S. bottle return law in 2002/2005.

The state of Michigan generally has the highest overall deposit value in the country, at 10 cents per eligible container. (The state also has the highest return rate, with a 95.9% redemption rate.) This 10 cent deposit anomaly was immortalized in the famous Seinfeld episode "The Bottle Deposit" where Kramer and Newman attempted to drive a mail truck full of cans and bottles from New York to Michigan in order to illegally redeem the containers for the higher rate. On a more serious note, Michigan distributors lose $10-$13 million per year in illegal redemptions from freeloaders coming in from neighboring states per this Huffington Post article.

Bottle recycling is nothing new, per this The Atlantic Cities post. Apparently, soft drink bottles used to be expensive to produce prior to World War II, " bottlers used a deposit-refund system to ensure that consumers returned the bottles after use, and embossed the bottles with their logo and name as a means of claiming ownership" When more expensive methods of production were introduced after World War II, the deposit system was abandoned, which led to the "No Deposit, No Return" culture of the next several decades. According to the article,
We all know what happened next. We have seen the surprisingly unsettling picnic scene in Mad Men, in which Don Draper throws his empty beer can in the grass, while Betty cleans off the picnic blanket by shaking all the trash off onto the ground, like it was the most normal thing in the world. We have seen the Crying Indian shed his iconic tears over all the litter and pollution of modern civilization. The 1960s were not just a decade of economic growth and freedom for many -- they were also about discovering the environmental and social effects of this freedom. Environmental activists pushed back hard against the rising tide of litter, for instance pressuring Coca-Cola into offering a 5-cent deposit in 1971, arguing that producers should shoulder their share of the responsibility for a feared landfill crisis.
As a little girl in the 1960's and early 1970's, I saw all of the horrible trash that people left behind before the bottle law passed in Michigan. People used to throw their trash out their car windows onto my aunt and uncle's farm all of the time, so we had a tradition of picking up all of the trash on their property every year on Earth Day. To this day I always experience that sinking feeling in my stomach every Earth Day when I think of all of those days I couldn't play with my friends because I had to pick up trash. However, as soon as the bottle deposit law came into effect in Michigan, our annual Earth Day tradition ground to a halt. The improvements were immediate. People not only stopped throwing out soda pop and beer bottles, they drastically reduced all types of trash that they thoughtlessly threw out their car windows.

Per the official wording from the Michigan Beverage Container Deposit Law of 1976, (and as revised in 1988) beverage containers that can be returned for deposit refunds include ".....soft drink, soda water, carbonated natural or mineral water, or other nonalcoholic carbonated drink; beer, ale, or other malt drink of whatever alcoholic content; or a mixed wine drink or a mixed spirit drink."  Notice that the wording does not include fruit juices, iced tea, non-carbonated water and whatever other types of beverages are out there. I might be mistaken, but I believe these other types of beverages either didn't really exist in individual container form back in the 1970's or their numbers were extremely small.

Lawmakers (such as State Senator Rebekah Warren out of Ann Arbor) periodically try to introduce bills to expand the bottle law. This makes sense because lawmakers and Michigan voters didn't intend to have large amounts of beverage containers excluded from the law back in the 1970's. However, the grocery and beverage trade association lobbies are too strong and times have changed. Although the bottle law is still enormously popular with the Michigan public, the era of Michigan's progressiveness in the environmental movement has passed.

One reason I believe the law should be updated is that as it stands now, it's just too confusing for a lot of people. I could understand the Tennessee woman's confusion from my story up above, but I was shocked to find out fairly recently that a number of lifelong Michigan residents are also unsure as to what can and cannot be returned. I also found that this confusion cuts across several generations.

I found that one source of confusion seems to be the term "soft drink". To back up a bit, I grew up in a time when all Michigan residents called soft drinks "pop", whereas other parts of the country call soft drinks "soda pop", "soda" or "coke". The term "soft drink" to me is a little too nonspecific, but I tend to equate "soft drink" with "pop". When I was a kid, when you drank non-alcoholic drinks out of a can or a bottle, you drank "pop", not orange juice or iced tea.

Now, there seems to be people of every age group who think of "soft drinks" and "pop" to be inclusive of all non-alcoholic beverages. To belabor the point a little more, I tell people that "soft drinks" and "pop" are drinks like Coke, Pepsi, 7-UP, Dr. Pepper, root beer etc. However, I get to the point when I think to myself "I can't believe I'm having this conversation" when I can tell that the person I'm speaking to has no understanding of iced tea and fruit drinks as not belonging in that category. (In my defense, Wikipedia defines soft drinks as being "....a beverage that typically contains water [often, but not always, carbonated water], usually a sweetener, and usually a flavoring agent......Fruit juice, tea and and other such non-alcoholic beverages are technically soft drinks by this definition but are not generally referred to as such.")

Even my brother is confused by the law, and if I thought really long and hard about it I'd be able to pinpoint the date the confusion began. One day one of his co-workers boasted that one of those automated bottle return machines accepted empty cans of iced tea even though 10 cent deposits aren't charged on those cans. My brother took the moral of the story to mean not that some manufacturer goofed, but that we should all stick every container we can find into those machines just in case they're accepted. This has been a sore point with my sister-in-law ever since, as she has to argue with him every single week about which containers get taken out to the curbside recycle bin and which get taken to the grocery store.

Idle Thoughts. If you're fascinated with the history of the Michigan bottle law act, you can read this nifty little write-up here.

I'm convinced that the Michigan voters approved the bottle law act in 1976 because a majority of old-timers voted for it. My parents could remember returning bottles back to their grocery stores when they were growing up, and were disheartened by all of the trash they saw on the roadsides during the throw-away days of the 1960's and 1970's. Younger people didn't necessarily spearhead the environmental movement back then. To large numbers of them, throwing trash onto the roadsides was a lovely little act of rebellion meant to shock their elders. (This is not to say that younger people were the only litterbugs. Every age group was guilty.)

Monday, August 5, 2013

Is Tamerlan Tsarnaev Timothy McVeigh's and Osama bin Laden's Love Child?

Tamerlan Tsarnaev
Tamerlan Tsarnaev certainly made sure he covered all of his bases when he left enough incriminating evidence behind to allow every single law enforcement agency in the State of Massachusetts to crucify him post mortem. According to the BBC,
The programme [BBC's Panorama] discovered that Tamerlan Tsarnaev possessed articles which argued that both 9/11 and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing were government conspiracies.
Another in his possession was about "the rape of our gun rights".
Reading material he had about white supremacy commented that
"Hitler had a point".
Tamerlan Tsarnaev also had literature which explored what motivated mass killings and noted how the perpetrators murdered and maimed calmly.
There was also material about US drones killing civilians, and about the plight of those still imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay.
The only thing missing from this story is a well-thumbed back-pocket copy of the "The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion" (Wait! That's already been covered.)

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Quick Takes on a Gorgeous Sunday

 "Detroit Workforce Agency Once Near Death Flourishing as Spinoff Nonprofit", Detroit Free Press. The article tells us how nonprofit Detroit Employment Solutions Corp, (a Michgan Works! agency) is successfully matching qualified workers with companies like Meijer and Ford Motor Company. However, I wish the article focused a lot more on how the agency is helping prospective employees gain the actual skills they need in order to land those jobs. According to this website the agency of course maintains job boards, screens potential candidates, sponsors job fairs and presents resume-building, job search and interviewing workshops. They also teach basic keyboarding and computer skills, offer career counseling and training opportunity guidance, and point workers to programs where they can continue their adult education and obtain their GED certificates.

Of course it's one thing to offer these programs: it's another thing to actually follow through. Let's hope that prospective workers are receiving what they need most, which is a friendly hand and a feeling that they are getting some individualized attention, which is sorely lacking in a world filled with endless online job application loops. In other words, I'm hoping this agency is doing a lot more than acting as traffic cops directing already-qualified workers over to potential employers.

"Home Modeling: What's It Worth?", Detroit Free Press. Along with the article, the link will take you to a slideshow with information provided by your-guess-is-as-good-as mine that will give you average remodeling costs for Michigan residents versus resale value for several popular home improvement projects. For example, a minor kitchen remodel costing $19,790 will add $11,943 in resale value.

A few commenters thought the costs seemed kind of high (I tend to agree). Unfortunately, unless I was hallucinating earlier in the day, the best part of the article was taken out. I could have sworn I read something to the effect that you don't make money when you remodel - you remodel so you can sell your home. If that had stayed in the article, that statement would have been enshrined in my Words of Wisdom Hall of Fame.

"Goldman Sued for Monopolizing US Aluminum Warehousing Market". Zero Hedge. Bully for Superior Extrusion and others for filing suit in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Michigan against Goldman Sachs, the London Metals Exchange and others for running aluminum monopoly warehousing operations in such a way that limited supplies and raised prices. At the heart of the suit are those bizarrely huge aluminum warehouses in the Detroit area that seem to run more on the Willie Wonka chocolate factory model, where aluminum goes in but seldom goes out, and workers spend more time moving aluminum back and forth between warehouses so the cartel can extract more rent fees than actually delivering the aluminum to paying customers.

"Kildee Praises $410 Million Settlement From JPMorgan Chase in Market Manipulation Case". The Flint Journal. I'm surprised the Detroit papers weren't all over this starting last May when the New York Times reported that JPMorgan stuck it to energy consumers in California and Michigan by devising “ 'manipulative schemes' that transformed 'money-losing power plants into powerful profit centers,' " , and lying under oath to cover their tracks. Instead, the Detroit papers opted to mostly publish Associated Press retreads like this one here.

Although all reports state that the energy prices were manipulated in California and Michigan, it appears from reading both the Flint Journal and the AP/Detroit News article referenced above that $1 million will be refunded to customers who are served by the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, which services customers in Michigan and 14 other states. This Forbes article also reports that $125 million in "unjust profits" will be returned to customers in California and Michigan.

I'd feel a lot better if Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, Governor Rick Snyder, the Michigan Public Service Commission, local newspapers, or somebody would announce they were investigating this, give us more particulars on what happened in Michigan, give reasonable assurances that authorities will be on the lookout in case this happens again, and ensure that customers who were overcharged are the actual ones who get refund checks or credits on upcoming bills.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Time to Cut the Cord?

Our Time Warner (Bright House) Cable household can't get CBS without rabbit ears right now because the two media giants are in the midst of a serious financial dispute. Other markets that have gone CBS-dark besides Detroit include New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Boston, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Denver.

It's amazing how you never know which media conglomerates own which networks until it all goes blank. Besides CBS itself, the other affected networks include The CW, Showtime, TMC, Flix and Smithsonian. About the only regular programming I watch on CBS is Hawaii Five-0, but I'm not sure I'll be watching it in the upcoming season simply because the plot lines have become way too tedious. Otherwise, I do watch a lot of the network's sports programming with the rest of my family. I indulge in The CW once in a while because it's home to my favorite TV show, Supernatural. And the other cable channels? A few of them are premium channels that I'm not paying for, while the others fall either into the They're Not In My Cable Package or the I Didn't Know They Were In My Cable Package categories.

My husband and I are reluctant to drop cable any time soon, since we suspect the only reason our sons visit us on weekends is to watch our sports channels. Having said that, if we keep losing channels periodically because of these squabbles, it'll make it a lot easier for us to cut the cord once and for all.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Know-Nothings in Benghazi

U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens
CNN has an interesting story out about a whole lot of people who aren't talking about what happened in Benghazi, Libya on the night of September 11-12, 2013, when an American compound was attacked resulting in the death of four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

According to CNN's August 1, 2013 story (first link above),
Sources now tell CNN dozens of people working for the CIA were on the ground that night, and that the agency is going to great lengths to make sure whatever it was doing, remains a secret.
CNN has learned the CIA is involved in what one source calls an unprecedented attempt to keep the spy agency's Benghazi secrets from ever leaking out.
Since January, some CIA operatives involved in the agency's missions in Libya, have been subjected to frequent, even monthly polygraph examinations, according to a source with deep inside knowledge of the agency's workings.
The goal of the questioning, according to sources, is to find out if anyone is talking to the media or Congress.
It is being described as pure intimidation, with the threat that any unauthorized CIA employee who leaks information could face the end of his or her career.
 Later on the article states:
In the aftermath of the attack, [U.S. Rep. Frank] Wolf said he was contacted by people closely tied with CIA operatives and contractors who wanted to talk.
Then suddenly, there was silence.
"Initially they were not afraid to come forward. They wanted the opportunity, and they wanted to be subpoenaed, because if you're subpoenaed, it sort of protects you, you're forced to come before Congress. Now that's all changed," said Wolf.
Lawmakers also want to know about the weapons in Libya, and what happened to them.
Speculation on Capitol Hill has included the possibility the U.S. agencies operating in Benghazi were secretly helping to move surface-to-air missiles out of Libya, through Turkey, and into the hands of Syrian rebels.
Surely the U.S. has had enough time to come up with a plausible cover story by now. About all I can say is, stay tuned for further developments.

The Rubes Are Catching Up

According to Bloomberg, "Al-Qaeda Backers Found With U.S. Contracts in Afghanistan". Insert your favorite conspiracy theory _______here_______.

The article starts out:
Supporters of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan have been getting U.S. military contracts, and American officials are citing “due process rights” as a reason not to cancel the agreements, according to an independent agency monitoring spending.
 The U.S. Army Suspension and Debarment Office has declined to act in 43 such cases, John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction [SIGAR], said today in a letter accompanying a quarterly report to Congress.
“I am deeply troubled that the U.S. military can pursue, attack, and even kill terrorists and their supporters, but that some in the U.S. government believe we cannot prevent these same people from receiving a government contract,” Sopko said. 
You can read SIGAR's 236-page report here and Sopko's summary of the report here. Whether you think the United States is actively in cahoots with al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership, or just keeps making silly mistakes in the Muslim world, anyone would be hard pressed to come up with very many success stories in the region. I wish I'd kept the link, but several months ago I read of a serviceman's account of how he was leaving Afghanistan to head back to the U.S., and he experienced a lengthy delay because it would have been too dangerous to deal with Taliban checkpoints on the way to the airport! WTF? What the hell are we doing there if after an entire decade we can't even get to the airport?

I'm also looking at this rash of prison breakouts over the last few weeks that occurred in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan. Peter Bergen from CNN has a good summary of the Iraq and Pakistan breakouts here, although he's a little light on the details regarding the Libyan breakouts. It seems pretty well established that al-Qaeda was behind the Iraq and Pakistan prison breaks (with an assist from the Taliban in Pakistan), though it's not so easy to figure out what was happening (or come up with a palatable narrative) in Libya. The first reports out of Libya were that most of the 1,000 -1,200 escapees were "facing serious charges" and a "small number of people" were thought to be "supporters of Col Muammar Gaddafi". The New York Times and Fox News came out with articles that talked about how the prison escapes happened against a backdrop of massive protests involving political assassinations and discontent with the rising influence of the Muslim Brotherhood within Libya. So, in other words, one of these jailbreak stories is not like the others.

We should also look back into our memory banks at how the Egyptian leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Muhammed Morsi, and some of his compatriots had their own miraculous prison escape back in 2011, around the time Hosni Mubarak was losing his grip on Egypt.

When you take into consideration that the Syrian rebels are not exactly plowing through to an early victory, it can't be too much of a stretch to think that our "enemy" escapees in Iraq and Pakistan (at least), along with their rehabilitated Taliban and al-Qaeda brethren in Afghanistan, might join up with some of our "friendlies" in Syria to overthrow a nasty Assad regime - and, oh, while they're at it, advance U.S. interests at the same time.

I don't quite know what to think about all of this talk today about the U.S. State Department issuing travel alerts for Americans traveling in "......the Middle East, North Africa and beyond in the coming weeks...." while "....the U.S. government prepared to close embassies and consulates in the region Sunday as a precaution". Usually when we receive all of this advance warning nothing much happens. However, others are pointing out rumors that Israel might be preparing to strike Syria in the near future, while Zero Hedge quips that a nice little war might be just what U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke needs as "....a very simple and elegant solution to declining defense spending, one which has been used time and again in US history when the US government needed to provide the Fed with more securities (i.e. deficit) to monetize...."

Isn't realpolitik nifty?