Thursday, April 19, 2018

Afghanistan: Once Again a Pawn Between Two World Powers

by Jon Phillips
RESTREPO chronicles the deployment of a platoon of US soldiers at one of the most dangerous outposts in Afghanistan. This amazing documentary depicts a sad microcosm of that never ending struggle and how it effected a small group of US soldiers and their loved ones. Taking a 100,000-foot view is philosophical, but seeing the brutal reality of it grinding away at ground level is not.

We are still struggling in Afghanistan and now it increasingly appears that Russia may be arming the Taliban against the most recent quasi-stable government in Kabul -- one that we have supported since the US Invasion deposed the Taliban -- just as we armed the Mujaheddin against the Soviets and the regime they supported during the Soviet Invasion in late 1979.

The US has been at war in Afghanistan for 16 years and counting (the longest running war in US history by a wide margin — now under a third US President) with no end in sight. With the exception of the brief and brutal period of Taliban fundamentalist Islamic government following the Soviet withdrawal and the end of a brutal civil war that filled the power vacuum, Afghanistan has continually been at war since the 1978 communist coup. But the roots go back 5 more years to 1973 (I was 11 years old when this started) when Daoud Khan overthrew the feudal Monarch (his older cousin) in a bloodless coup and declared himself President of a Democratic Republic.

The feudal system created order by recognizing legitimacy of minor war lords (tribal chieftains more correctly) and their mountainous territories and strongholds, in exchange for homage and fealty to the Crown in Kabul. They met in a Loya Jirga to debate and decide the fate of their system and to endorse succession in the Monarchy (no divine right of Kings). Old fashioned, but effective, given the primitive circumstances on the ground in that complex geography.

Zahir Shah was, by common telling, a “good King”. Daoud was idealistic and thought he could drag Afghanistan into modernism. The sudden alienation of vassals and traditions, immediately resulted in a breakdown of the fragile order the Monarchy had managed, and within a few years, Daoud was overthrown and assassinated during a coup by a conjoined communist party (that also proposed to drag Afghanistan into modernity through Stalinistic methods). This provoked insurgency by the spurned vassals who entirely rejected the new regime and the never ending modern nightmare of Afghanistan began.

Two generations of men have been born and raised under arms. A third generation is starting. They know nothing but war. War without end. War funded by others and by opium cultivation. A few million people (the total figure is uncertain by plus or minus one million) have died in conflict since then, the majority of them have been non-combatants. Afghanistan is a small and extremely mountainous country that is sparsely populated mostly by traditional Islamic tribes. They have genes, religion and usually language in common. They are tough and self-directing people, befitting their rigorous geography. Their geography enhances their tribal sentiments by providing a natural maze of territories. In Europe, the closest topography is the region of the Alps, the high center of which is Switzerland. A country that even Hitler bypassed as too troublesome to take on.

Switzerland is divided into a Confederacy of many Cantons that are the remnants of small feudal lords (Germanic tribal chieftains). They’ve outlasted and fought off empires (the Romans, the Holy Roman Empire, the Hapsburgs, the Napoleonic Empire). Switzerland has been conquered several times, but never held for long by a central, let alone foreign, power. Only the Confederacy of geographically based Cantons has persisted (each one “democratizing” with modern development).

Unlike Switzerland, which has lots of water and related natural wealth, Afghanistan is arid and austere. It seems unlikely that a central federal or a foreign power can gain and maintain control very long under such conditions. It may be that feudalism is the natural course through which Afghanistan might find enough peace to develop its way out of endless war. But now it threatens to head back into the abyss of a geo-strategic contest between great powers.

I wonder if I will live long enough to see peace restored in Afghanistan and how that might happen. I can’t imagine the horror of being born and raised in the midst of perpetual warfare. Humans are even capable of “normalizing” continuous combat and others seem happy to use their country and its people as a battle ground in a proxy war.
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Jon Phillips is a Senior Nuclear Technology Expert at the International Atomic Energy Agency and Director, Sustainable Nuclear Power Initiative at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The opinions expressed here are his own.

Friday, April 13, 2018

TALKING PAPER: Addressing Gun Violence in America

Problem

More people in the United States are killed, or kill themselves by firearms than in any other advanced country in the world. There are more mass shootings in America than in any other country in the world.

Factors

The 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban outlawed 19 types of military-style assault weapons, but expired in 2004 and was not renewed.

In 1996, Congress effectively blocked government agencies from data collection and research on gun violence.

The AR-15 semi-automatic, assault-style rifle has been used in five of the six deadliest mass shootings in the last six years in the U.S.

Gun laws and their effective enforcement vary from state-to-state, background checks are uneven, and the FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) is flawed.

Recommendations

Make mandatory reporting by states and federal agencies to the NICS of all required data on those prohibited from purchasing firearms, including those adjudicated to be mentally ill, and increase incentives and/or penalties for compliance or non-compliance.

Establish a national universal background check system that effectively closes the gun show and on-line purchase loophole.

Promulgate standardized national qualification requirements and waiting periods for firearms purchases.

Impanel a “firearms policy advisory committee” to develop a comprehensive report for Congress on firearm purchase and ownership policy changes aimed at both keeping firearms out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them, and reducing the confusing, bureaucratic hassle of purchase and ownership for law-abiding citizens.

Fund research by the CDC into firearms related death and injury, as the major health crisis it is.

Background

The Epidemic of Gun Violence in America

More Americans have died from gunshots in the last 50 years than in all of the wars in American history.

More people in the United States are killed, or kill themselves by firearms than in any other advanced country in the world. Compared to other such countries:
  • Gun homicide rates were over 25 times higher
  • For young Americans 15- to 24-years-old, gun homicide rates were 49 times higher
  • Gun suicide rates were 8 times higher
  • Unintentional gun deaths were over 6 times higher
Gun homicide is the 3rd-leading cause of death for American men 15 to 29.

There were 61,527 incidences of gun violence in America in 2017 (not including suicides), accounting for 15,593 deaths, an average of 1300 per month. There were 346 mass shootings.

There are more mass shootings in America than in any other country in the world.

There are twice as many suicides by gun in America as homicides, and suicides are a leading cause of death in America (see chart). More than a third of women who commit suicide use a firearm; over 55% of men use a firearm.



Firearms and Gun Control

The 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban (FAWB), signed by then President Clinton, outlawed 19 types of military-style assault weapons. A clause directed that the ban expire in 10 years unless Congress specifically reauthorized it, which it did not.

Going back to 1982, more semi-automatic handguns have been used in mass shootings than semi-automatic rifles, like the AR-15. However, the AR-15 has been used in five of the six deadliest mass shootings in the last six years in the U.S.

Under federal law, one must be 21 to buy a handgun from a firearms dealer. Eighteen year-olds can buy an AR-15.

Gun laws and their effective enforcement vary from state to state. There is a 3-day waiting period in Florida to purchase a handgun, but no waiting period to purchase an AR-15 -- the weapon used in the MSD High School mass shooting on February 14, 2018.

The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (Brady Act) of 1993 mandated that Federal Firearm Licensed (FFL) dealers run background checks on their buyers.

In 1998, the FBI launched the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) “to instantly determine whether a prospective buyer is eligible to buy firearms.”

Background checks are only required if a firearm is purchased through an FFL, which includes retailers and some individuals. Background checks are not required if a firearm is purchased online, through a gun show, or through some private sales. A recent estimate is that 22% of sales take place in this way. Some states (including Washington) have passed new laws expanding Brady background checks to all gun sales.

Mental illness in and of itself is not necessarily a disqualifier for firearm purchases. Furthermore, reporting on mental illness by states to the NICS is voluntary, and spotty.

Washington Gun Laws

Washington gun laws require a 5-day waiting period before purchasing handguns. No such waiting period is required for semi-automatic rifles, such as the AR-15.

A current bill before the Washington Senate, SB 6620, would require the same background check procedures to purchase semi-automatic rifles as is currently required for handguns, and would raise the age for purchase to 21.

The Washington Senate passed SB 5992 on February 27, 2018, banning bump stocks, an accessory that allows semi-automatic rifles to simulate automatic fire.

In 2016, Washington voters approved Initiative-1491, Extreme Risk Protection  Orders. It is now  7.94 RCW. It temporarily prevents individuals who are at high risk of harming themselves or others from accessing firearms by allowing family, household members, and police to obtain a court order when there is demonstrated evidence that the person poses a significant danger, including danger as a result of a dangerous mental health crisis or violent behavior.I-1491 passed 70% to 30% state wide, but by narrower margins in the 4th Congressional District. WA is currently one of only five states to have adopted such “red flag” laws.

In 2014, Washington voters approved I-594 by a vote of 59% to 41%, Universal Background Checks for Gun Purchases. The measure applies currently used criminal and public safety background checks by licensed dealers to all firearm sales and transfers, including gun show and online sales. The measure was defeated in the 4th CD, 42% to 58%. An opposing measure, I-591, which would have prohibited the restrictions imposed under 594, was defeated state wide, but approved 56% to 44% in the 4th CD.

Lack of Data and Research Impede the Development of Comprehensive Strategies to Reduce Gun Violence

In 1996, a Republican-controlled Congress in effect banned research on gun violence by cutting the CDC’s funding by the exact amount that was used for gun-related public health research at that time. In 2015, a GOP-led panel blocked a proposal within the House Appropriations Committee that would have reversed the ban.

The newly passed Omnibus Spending Bill H.R. 3354, says the CDC can't use taxpayer funds to promote gun control, but also states the CDC can still conduct research. It remains to be seen whether funding for such research will be provided.

The government’s antipathy towards gun violence research has cast a pall over topic as a health issue. In relation to mortality rates, peptic ulcers are researched more than gun violence. Gun violence research was the least-researched cause of death and the second-least funded cause of death after falls.

Without better data on guns, gun owners, gun deaths, gun injuries, the nexus of mass shootings and mental illness, guns and gangs, the “gun culture,” and any number of other factors, the explosion of proposals for curbing gun violence that come after yet another incident of carnage is essentially shooting in the dark.

What We Know

Too many states, and some federal agencies (e.g., military) fail to submit records to the FBI’s NICS that establish someone is prohibited from owning a firearm under current law, either due to criminal history or adjudicated mental illness.,

Universal background checks appear not to be enforced aggressively in some states (including Washington). Eleven states and the District of Columbia have adopted universal background checks.

Straw purchase of firearms is a significant source for illegally acquired firearms, defeating the purpose of background checks.

Mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent less than 1% of all yearly gun-related homicides, and perpetrators of mass shootings are unlikely to have a history of involuntary psychiatric hospitalization (their illness has not be adjudicated). Thus, databases, such as the NICS, intended to restrict access to firearms and established by firearm laws that broadly target people with mental illness will not capture this group of individuals.

States with right-to-carry (RTC) concealed handgun laws have seen an increase in violent crimes by 13 to 15 percent within 10 years of the law’s enactment.

The Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act, H.R. 38, passed on Dec 6, 2017, amends the federal criminal code to allow a qualified individual to carry a concealed handgun into or possess a concealed handgun in another state that allows individuals to carry concealed firearms. Rep. Newhouse (R-WA4) was a co-sponsor.

Twenty-three states have adopted “stand your ground” laws since Florida implemented its law in 2005. A study released in 2016 showed that the implementation of Florida’s stand your ground law was associated with a 24.4% increase in homicide and a 31.6% increase in firearm-related homicide.

Washington State law (RCW 9A.16.060), includes a “Castle Doctrine,” which permits the use of deadly force under certain circumstances, e.g., against intruders, but is limited to real property, such as one’s home, yard, or private office; there is no duty to retreat.

Monday, April 9, 2018

How can I explain the perception of an aeai to a biological intelligence?

N .K. Jivanjee, a Generation Three Aeai, attempts to explain to Najia Askarzadah, a biological being, how to think of a sentient artificial intelligence ("aeai"), in Ian McDonald's extraordinary novel, River of Gods: August 15, 2047 -- Happy Birthday, India.
 

How can I explain the perception of an aeai to a biological intelligence? You are separate, contained. We are connected, patterns and levels of subintelligences shared in common. You think as one thing. We think as legion. You reproduce. We evolve higher and more complex levels of connection. You are mobile. We are extended, our intelligence can only be moved through space by copying. I exist in many different physical spaces simultaneously. You have difficulty believing that. I have difficulty believing in your mortality. As long as a copy of me remains or the complexity pattern between my manifestations endures, I exist. But you seem to think that we must share your mortality so you must exterminate us wherever you find us.*
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*Aeais higher than level 2.5 (able to pass the Turing test and imitate humans) are banned, and their destruction ("excommunication") is the responsibility of "Krishna Cops."

Friday, October 13, 2017

Make America Fail Again


Issue: Consumer Protection — Dodd-Frank Repeal

House Republicans voted June 8, 2017, to repeal Dodd-Frank financial regulations. The House approved the Financial Choice Act, which scales back or eliminates many of the post-crisis banking rules. Rep Dan Newhouse (R-WA4) voted for the Act.

Background

Following the financial crisis of 2008, Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act to “promote the financial stability of the United States by improving accountability and transparency in the financial system, to end ‘too big to fail,’ to protect the American taxpayer by ending bailouts, to protect consumers from abusive financial services practices, and for other purposes.”

Dodd-Frank called for a host of new regulations and regulatory and watchdog agencies, including the Financial Stability Oversight Council, the Office of Financial Research, and the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection.

Dodd-Frank also included the so-called Volcker Rule, which prevented government-insured banks from making risky bets with investments. The rule stems from the 1933 Glass-Steagall act, which separated commercial banks from investment banks in order to protect people’s bank accounts from risky investments. It also created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which insures bank deposits. Glass-Steagall was repealed in 1999 under Bill Clinton.

Among other things, the Financial Choice Act:

— repeals the Volcker Rule, which prevents government-insured banks from making risky bets with investments

— deletes a requirement that retirement advisers put their clients' interests ahead of their own

— undercuts the authority of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

— exempts payday and car title lenders from any regulation

— eases “stress test rules” designed to ensure bank liquidity

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The right of the people to peaceably assemble

Donald Trump’s diatribe against NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem is the height of hypocrisy. Trump recently pardoned Joe Arpaio, found guilty of criminal contempt for violating the 4th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution. Arpaio trampled the significance of our flag in the desert sands of his Arizona “concentration camps.”

As appalling as Trump’s pardon of Arpaio is, the growing likelihood that Trump conspired with Russia to swing the 2016 election his way, is a traitorous repudiation of the very foundations upon which our Republic is based, and over which our flag flies.

I stand for the National Anthem. I proudly fly my flag. My respect for the flag, inculcated in me over my 20 years of military service, is based on what the flag stands for — the values, and beliefs, and behaviors that we share as Americans. One of those values is an abiding respect for the Constitution, under which, “the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition for a redress of grievances,” is protected.

Where was Donald Trump when the American Flag flew over the battlefields of Vietnam — on the sidelines. Go there now, Mr. Trump, and hear the petition of the aggrieved.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Republicans Rush to Kill More Americans

Yeah, yeah, I know. The headline is inflammatory. Exemplary of "Yellow Journalism." The difference is that in their rush to pass a "repeal and replace" healthcare bill before their "budget reconciliation" waiver expires September 30th, Republicans are demonstrating once again that they could care less about how many Americans will die because of inadequate healthcare. So, the end result of what the Republicans are doing is, in effect, killing Americans.

Republicans can use a special “budget reconciliation” procedure to advance repeal legislation with 50 votes only until the end of September. So they’re going full speed ahead and "damn the submarines," or in this case, regular order, reasoned dialogue, CBO analysis, and the health of the American people.
 
According to the Washinton Post, "The latest Obamacare overhaul bill gaining steam on Capitol Hill slashes health-care spending more deeply and would likely cover fewer people than a July bill that failed precisely because of such concerns. What’s different now is the sense of urgency senators are bringing to their effort to roll back the Affordable Care Act, with only a dozen days remaining before the legislative vehicle they’re using expires.”

The bill penalizes states that expanded Medicaid (read “Blue States”) giving them less money, while giving more money for states that didn’t (read “Red States”). Cut could be anywhere from 35% to 60%. Washington State could be cut over $3 billion.

The bill once again attacks the Affordable Care Act's “essential health benefits,” provision, the baseline services insurers must cover. "That means there will no longer be a rock-solid prohibition on charging higher premiums to people with preexisting medical conditions, although states would need federal waivers.”

The Graham -- Cassidy (Bill Cassidy, R-LA) bill basically puts governors in charge of doling out healthcare. As of 2016, 34 states were run by Republican governors. And Republicans control both the House and Senate in 32 states. So, we can see where Americans’ healthcare is headed if this bill passes.

Speaker Paul Ryan said he would bring the bill to the House floor without plans for a conference committee, and before a full CBO analysis. Why? Because this is all about politics. Candidate Trump picked up the Republican "repeal and replace" mantle and has lambasted republicans for not getting it done. He knows it's red meat for his base, and Republicans want the "win" for the president and the Grand Old Party. If millions of Americans lose coverage (32 million by some counts), and millions die because they lack access to healthcare, so what? They're dying anyway as a result of hurricanes and other extreme weather events that aren't due to human-caused climate change.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Model Truth Telling

A talk by Carl Baker at the March for Truth
Pasco, Washington, June 3, 2017
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Our founding document begins with the idea that power in this country is held by the people.  That we are to govern ourselves. And that the government that we have built is our tool that we use to govern ourselves.

I know that many of you think that the government that we have today is no longer responsive to the people. That it's been corrupted. And I agree. But I contend that the core idea of self-governance cannot be removed. It is still present.  The constitution still starts with "We the People". And we can return our government to its proper role as a servant to the people rather than as a tool for their exploitation.  The tools are there if we will do the work. And we are doing the work. We are marching and protesting and organizing and running for office.  And we are calling and writing and emailing and talking to our elected representatives and reminding them that they work for us.

And I'd like to add to this work by asking that we take a minute to ask how we got here. To step back in time and consider the historical context in which the words "We the People" were originally penned. Because this was a unique time in the history of the world. We've labeled it as the Enlightenment. And it was a time in which the thinkers of the day were recognizing the importance of the idea of truth. That it was possible (even easy) to be fooled about what is and isn't true about the world. And that it mattered. That if you believe things that are not true about the world, you have no defense against behaving in ways that cause harm to yourself or to others.

René Descartes quote "Cogito ergo soom" is an important element of the early Enlightenment. These are words that many of us have heard many times. But what do they mean?  They translate to "I think, therefore I am".  But that's hardly helpful, is it?  What is Descartes doing here? He seems to be making an argument, the conclusion of which is "I am".  How is this any kind of satisfactory or sensible conclusion?  "I am"?  I mean, of course you exist. How is this a question?

The answer is that these are the words of a man seeking to know the truth. A man who was so obsessed with finding the truth that he was determined to make no assumptions. To question everything. Including his own existence.

This idea that the truth matters pervades the Enlightenment. One might say that it is the Enlightenment. And it forms the basis of all of our intellectual enterprises. In science, and mathematics and philosophy and history and other endeavors we find this dedication to the truth.

And to discover the truth, we've built institutions dedicated to finding it. Human institutions that try to compensate for our tendency to fool ourselves.  Systems that try to winnow the good ideas from the bad.  Institutions in which ideas are put forward and examined and corrected or discarded. And these systems allow us to make progress toward learning what's true. They are human institutions and subject to human failings, but the do make progress.  Over time, slowly and clumsily, they fumble along and bad ideas are discarded and good ones retained.

So this is where we come from. This well-motivated, high-minded passion for the truth has brought us these clunky, ponderous, failure-prone, but ultimately effective institutions that help us find what is and isn't true about the world.

And this actually pretty good, right? Because by figuring out what is and isn't true about the world, we've come to understand that:

You shouldn't invest with Bernie Madoff.
It's not ok to own black people as property.
Vaccines do prevent disease and don't cause autism.
We can have an adverse effect on our environment.
We can fix the problems that we cause to our environment.
It's really true that we are exploiting immigrants and not the other way around.

The idea that I'm sneaking up on is the idea that our government shares its heritage with our other truth-seeking institutions. That it is one of these cumbersome, ponderous, adversarial, failure-prone, but ultimately effective processes for uncovering the truth.  And yet, today, we live in a world of "post-truth politics".  A world of "alternative facts".  A world in which the President of the United States can contradict himself multiple times within a single sentence, and it's considered normal.

So what do we do about this? Well, get out your smartphone or tablet, because the "ask" is coming up. Or you can respond on paper later at that table over there. But here's the idea. We're going to start by modeling the behaviour that we want to see in our elected representatives. We'll adopt the idea that the truth matters, and we'll act on it. This is actually the hard part. Because if the truth matters, our own ideas about it have to take second place. When we present an idea, and someone challenges it, we have to ask "could they be right?"  "Am I wrong about this?".  And when we're shown to be wrong,  we have to correct ourselves. Which is something that humans have a huge psychological resistance to. Especially at first. But it gets easier with time.

Here is what the research suggests we need to do to get people to do

- fact-check information before believing it
- share only verified, trustworthy information
- retract information that they shared that proved false
- encourage others - even your allies - to avoid sharing false information
- defend others - even your opponents - when they share true information
- ask others to retract false information
- celebrate when others acknowledge they are wrong

So we model the behavior. And we ask others to do the same. Including our elected officials. And we hold them and ourselves accountable when we fail. We start with ourselves and our local officials and we move to state and federal officials and we change the culture. We discard "post-truth politics" and "alternative facts" as failed ideas and we return the truth to its rightful place in our political system.

So if you're on-board with this idea, I'll ask you to go to Protruthpledge.org and take the pledge. Do the things I've talked about and the longer list of things that are on the website and the posters at the table.  And once enough of us have done this, we can go to our local elected officials and ask them to sign on. Point out that their constituents care about the truth and that we want our officials to do the same.

An important element of this project is that there is an accountability aspect to it.  We're asking those who have taken the pledge to be public about it. And substantive violations can be reported to the organization for evaluation and corrective pressure applied. This won't apply as much to individuals, but more to elected officials.

This effort needs volunteers and organizers as well. If you're willing, you can help recruit others to sign on. You can lobby your elected officials to sign on.  You can be part of the organization promoting this culture shift. There are places on the website to volunteer to be part of the effort in various ways. Or you can just sign up.

I'll close with a quote from a Facebook comment by a friend of mine named Mike Blackford: "We must always remember that the behavior of free people in a democratic society can only be controlled by the manipulation of what they believe.  A totalitarian regime doesn't need to be very concerned with what people under their control believe because their behavior is directly controlled. A theocratic regime imposes itself upon what the people are allowed to believe and often punishes heresy with death.

When the very nature of Truth itself is under attack, and facts are buried under a pile of lies, falsehoods, deceit, myths, and frauds, and when hypocrisy is rewarded while integrity is assaulted, our liberties in a democratic society are in serious jeopardy.  Those who peddle falsehoods and lies are enemies of our democracy itself."