The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Monday, January 1, 2018
Current Affairs ... Foreign Relations/World Affairs ...

Recently I read something about the “Burning Man” festival and movement, about which I knew very little. So I did a search and read up on Burning Man, interested in seeing what the hub-bub is all about. To be honest, Burning Man is not my cup of tea – you’d need a bit more testosterone in your blood than I have to spend two weeks in the Nevada desert asserting your masculinity with survival exercises, construction projects, mystical chanting, mega-artwork, nude body painting, and games and competitions. E.g., one exercise involves man-to-man combat within a “thunderdome”. I don’t think I’d do too well with that.

In one of the articles that I came across, I saw photo of a typical Burning Man exercise – it involved a whole bunch of guys pulling on long thick ropes, moving a huge wooden replica of a Trojan Horse across the desert floor.  (Of course, once night comes, they burn the thing in front of everyone – what else would you do with a Trojan Horse at a “Burning Man” convocation?) That photo got me thinking about the original “Trojan Horse” concept – i.e., a gift that seems totally legit up front, but turns out to be a subterfuge, a disguise for a secret invasion by a destructive force. 
The whole Trojan Horse concept then made me think of modern international politics, i.e. what has been going on between the US and China over the past half century (see Council on Foreign Relations timeline). I.e., we were once sworn enemies, but in 1970, Nixon and Kissinger arranged for some ping-pong team games, Nixon went to China, and over the next few decades, we started trading with and investing in each other, more and more as time passed. By 2000, Congress and President Bill Clinton granted permanent trade relations with China, and thus in 2001, China joined the World Trade Organization. Between 1980 and 2004, U.S.-China trade rose from $5 billion to $231 billion; by 2006, China surpassed Mexico as the United States’ second-biggest trade partner; in 2015, China edged out Canada to become the largest partner. The average American consumer today is quite aware  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:01 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, September 12, 2017
Current Affairs ... Foreign Relations/World Affairs ...

There was some public debate recently as to whether America could continue its military presence in Afghanistan. President Trump decided to consult with his generals and then decided to keep us there and even add a few thousand troops. The idea is to shift away towards nation-building and re-focus on defeating terrorist threats to the West.

Various people are rather unhappy about US troops still being there after first being sent in late 2001 (following the Sept. 11 terrorist attack); they call it the “never ending war“. It made a fair amount of sense for US forces to root Al Qaeda out of its secure hiding spots in the Afghan mountains, right after we lost almost 3,000 lives from an Al Qaeda plot. However, a second phase of the Afghanistan mission eventually developed, focusing upon the pro-radical Islamic Taliban political / military movement in Afghanistan. This second phase focused both on degrading the Taliban’s military strength, and in denying its political strength by building an alternative nation-state more in keeping with western democratic traditions.

Unlike Al Qaeda, the Taliban, which had gained control of the Afghan national government, was and remains a home-grown movement focusing mostly on Afghanistan, versus international Islamic conquest as with radical group like Al Qaeda. The US under President Bush (the second) and then President Obama tried with some success to keep the Taliban from ruling Afghanistan. Doing so would help keep Al Qaeda or a similar radical Islamist movement (such as ISIS)  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:16 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, July 5, 2016
Current Affairs ... Foreign Relations/World Affairs ... History ...

I was listening to the Sunday political shows as usual, and many of the GOP politicians and pro-Republican commentators continued their standing criticism of the Obama administration for not using the phrase “radical Islam” (or “radical Islamic terrorism“). Recently, President Obama shot back at his critics, making his case for not publicly associating Islam with the violence and killing that ISIL and other terrorists who claim Islamic inspiration are doing.

In a nutshell, the President is trying to say that the terrorists are wrong in that they are not a legitimate part of the Islamic tradition. I sympathize with what Obama is trying to do through his cautious phrasing; but then again, Obama himself is not a Muslim (despite the efforts of many right-wing nuts to paint him as one), nor is he an Islamic scholar. I agree that it is good for the President to communicate to the vast majority of peaceful and patriotic Muslims in our nation and throughout the world that “we know you are better than that”. However, in choosing one’s words so as to make that implication, aren’t you also acknowledging those who believe that there IS a problem inherent to Islam as it presently exists, and that it is responsible for the rising levels of jihadist-inspired violence?

There are other thoughtful commentators who take the position that although the great majority of Muslims do not support and generally oppose jihadist violence, perhaps they are not doing enough to discourage and stop those who become radicalized. Instead of having US government officials say in effect that terrorism is not a legitimate religious practice for those of the Islamic faith, perhaps we need  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:20 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Friday, December 11, 2015
Foreign Relations/World Affairs ... History ... Technology ...

I read up recently on international military news. Once you get past all the crazy, never-ending Middle Eastern stuff, you next get a big dose of bad news from China. You’d think that the main Chinese threat would be its huge army, but no more; times have changed. In the past few years, the Chinese have been designing and building an increasingly sophisticated network of high-tech satellites, drones, stealth planes, subs and missiles, with the intent of keeping the US Navy and any of its cronies (especially Japan) far away from its coastline. Thus leaving China to do as it pleases with Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, etc.

Until recently, the US Pacific Fleet, even with its huge sitting-duck aircraft carriers, could cruise the Taiwan Straits and South China Sea feeling relatively safe. The Chinese Navy generally couldn’t find our ships, as it didn’t have the sea-borne tracking and recognizance capacities that we do; and even if it could, it didn’t have enough modern subs and jets and destroyers to put up a credible challenge. That ain’t so today. What’s even worse, the Chinese now have missiles that can be launched by land or sea which are accurate enough (when coupled with a monitoring system of satellites and airborne radar drones and tracking planes) to hit a ship out in the open sea, thousands of miles away. Nuclear warheads are not needed; these missiles and their guidance systems are so good and so accurate that they can hit a carrier deck out in mid-ocean with a heavy conventional explosive warhead.

So, that’s a big headache for the US. And as if that weren’t enough, you can throw in what the North Koreans and Iranians are doing to develop long-range nuclear missiles, which in a few years could reach the US mainland. Yes, we are building anti-missile systems, but we are not sure if they are ready for prime time yet. As for the Chinese anti-ship missiles, the US Navy has  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:57 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Friday, November 27, 2015
Foreign Relations/World Affairs ... Politics ...

Back in December of 2006, I posted a blog here entitled “IRAQ: WHAT TO DO“. Basically, I said that the Bush Administration should give up on the idea of a unified Iraq and split the nation into a Shia nation in the west and a Kurdish nation in the north-east, with a rump state in the west (Anbar Province) as a semi-independent Sunni nation. I say semi-independent, because I envisioned this state to be in a loose confederation with the new Kurdistan. In effect, I proposed that the Kurds would share some of their oil revenues with the Sunni state and generally “keep an eye on it” so as to prevent it from falling into terrorist hands (back then, al Qaeda . . . or more accurately, al Qaeda in Iraq . . . which was destined to later become . . . well, more on that in a moment).

But of course, a partition didn’t happen. The dream of a unified Iraq was held onto by Bush and then Obama. Iraqi President al-Maliki, under pressure from Iran, decided that US military presence was no longer needed or welcomed, and Obama was more than happy to oblige him. Starting in late 2007 and ending in 2011, the US gradually withdrew all of its previously extensive military presence in Iraq. Negotiations with Maliki on keeping a residual US force of around 10,000 troops for training and intelligence broke down when the pro-Iranian / anti-US Sadrists in Parliament blocked such an agreement. Maliki politically favored the Shia factions over the Sunnis in a variety of ways, making the central government increasingly unpopular in the western provinces.

And then, al Qadea in Iraq morphed into ISIS, the Islamic State. A dormant form of political cancer suddenly grew and metastasized, as cancers often do. Had Obama pushed back more vigorously about keeping some forces in Iraq in 2011, we probably would have seen it coming much earlier, and President Obama may have avoided  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:41 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, September 20, 2015
Current Affairs ... Foreign Relations/World Affairs ...

I’m not feeling entirely optimistic about the Iran nuclear deal. Sure, there are a lot of good things to be said about it; avoiding a nuclear holocaust in the Middle East would be quite an accomplishment for civilization (the word “holocaust” itself has its ultimate origins in the ancient Middle-Eastern Hebrew language, i.e. “olah” meaning burnt offering). Still, I wish that Obama, Kerry and the Dems were totally honest about what the JCPOA agreement with Iran ultimately is: i.e., a huge bet that politics in Iran are going to fundamentally change over the next decade, such that the pro-western urban secularists will take charge as the mullahs and the Revolutionary Guard fade into a genteel irrelevance, sort of like the British monarchy. Unfortunately, we’ve been waiting for an Iranian regime change to happen since the last days of Jimmy Carter.

My heart really hopes that Obama is right and that an opening to the urban secularists by the USA will finally put them over the top in Tehran. But my head and my knowledge of history, however limited, is a bit more cynical — it’s a big crap shoot, a real “Hail Mary” pass. I guess that we shall find out how it goes.

The JCPOA has a lot of very optimistic supporters in the liberal big media, not surprisingly. A typical supporter is Tom Friedman of the NY Times, who focuses on the Middle East. I must give Friedman credit for hinting in one of his recent articles that he too realizes that Iranian regime change is a necessary condition for the agreement to really work as the Obama Administration hopes. Friedman was in a bit of a whimsical mood  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:04 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, July 4, 2015
Current Affairs ... Economics/Business ... Foreign Relations/World Affairs ...

One of the biggest world-news items over the past few weeks has been a new flare-up of the whole Greece-versus-the-rest-of-Europe (but mostly Germany) thing. As with most big issues, this thing is all about money. Lot’s of money. In a nutshell, Greece borrowed too much of it from the European Union, and now can’t pay it back. So what happens next? Greece is part of the EU. Should it be kicked out? If allowed to stay, should it be punished, or sympathetically helped to resolve its underlying problems?

You’d think that sympathy and addressing underlying problems would be the right way to go. But a lot of people think that Greece hasn’t been such a good member of the Euro Union, that it has built up a lot of bad habits and has been lying and otherwise acting in bad faith, and now needs to suffer a bit so as to discourage other members of the Union from ever trying anything like this (and dissuade the Greeks from ever thinking about it again). This is approximately the same rationale that underlies all criminal law. I.e., people don’t always act nicely, and nations don’t either. So they sometimes need to be roughed up for a while; once they’ve shown that they’ve learned their lesson, the Union can get more lenient about getting them back on their feet (i.e, give them significant debt forgiveness).

I’ve read a number of articles on the situation over the past few days, and I’m going to cite some that I’ve found interesting. First off, Bloomberg has a good overview of the whole situation, not surprisingly; if you want to understand something about big money, Bloomberg is  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:00 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Thursday, February 26, 2015
Current Affairs ... Foreign Relations/World Affairs ...

The cover story in the March 2015 issue of The Atlantic is entitled “What Does ISIS Really Want”. I have the issue on my kitchen table (yes, a old-school paper magazine), but haven’t read the article yet. However, I did come across a good summary today on the Atlantic web site by none other than the article author himself, Graeme Wood.

If I’m reading him right, Mr. Wood is trying to drill down past the “western enlightenment” analysis regarding the social and economic conditions that arguably lead to political extremism and violence, and see just how serious ISIS is about its religious ideology. He seems to be saying that we do in fact need to take seriously the notion that ISIS finds its inspirations in existing (if not entirely mainstream) strains of the Islamic tradition. Although the Islamic mainstream is peaceful and tolerant, the ISIS viewpoint was not made up on the fly for entirely political and sociological reasons; Mr. Brown says that it is not a laughable misrepresentation of historical Islam. And that fact makes it all the more dangerous and powerful.

Of course, many intelligent people here in the US want to think that this really isn’t about religiously-inspired belief. We just can’t believe that anyone in the modern world would accept the notion that God demands an extraordinary level of purity, one that requires violence and death to achieve. In order for the many to be saved, some (“the wicked”) need to die. No, it just can’t be that anyone living today would think that . . . it has to be poverty, historical exploitation by the west (motivated by oil), brutal dictators who were supported by the US and its European allies . . . Recall the recent TV interview statement by State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, who asserted that a primary motivation for people to join ISIS is the lack of job opportunities in Middle Eastern countries.

Good old Tom Friedman, the self-appointed Middle East guru of the NY Times, today weighed in on what ISIS is, and what problems need to be solved in order to stop it. In a column entitled “ISIS Heads to Rome“, Friedman takes an “all of the above” approach. He asserts that ISIS is led  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:33 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, December 20, 2014
Art & Entertainment ... Current Affairs ... Foreign Relations/World Affairs ...

Here’s a quick “current affairs” P.S. to my reflections on Interstellar (posted 10 minutes ago). Speaking of movies, North Korea has turned a “middling” political comedy film into a potential blockbuster for Sony, its producer. Yes, I’m taking about “The Interview“. As you know, the film plot involves a fictional US CIA attempt to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un by recruiting two unwitting journalists who arranged an interview with him. The film was supposed to be released on Christmas Day in theaters nationwide, but got pulled after government or military agents from North Korea hacked Sony’s computer system in retaliation for the movie’s “insult to the dignity of the great leader”.

I have no sympathy for Kim or his stooges. However, what does bother me about all this is that Sony and the theater industry picked Christmas as the release date. According one of the mini-reviews, this film “follows the hysterically violent misadventures of idiotic talk-show host Dave Skylark and his underachieving producer, Aaron”. Another review notes that the film contains “crude and sexual humor, nudity, some drug use and bloody violence”. Is that where our nation is right now? A violent film about a political assassination is considered to be a “Christmas film”? I mean, couldn’t they have waited until New Years in order to respect a major religion’s celebration of the birth of its “prince of peace”? Would Sony be so insensitive as to release a comedy about political violence in Saudi Arabia or Egypt at the start of Ramadan?

So, thanks Kim Jong-un and his hacking squad. I darn well know that they weren’t defending the sanctity of the Christ-child’s birth by taking down part of the Sony network, but you never know when an evil force might remind us that we are not entirely free from evil either.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:10 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Monday, July 28, 2014
Current Affairs ... Foreign Relations/World Affairs ... Public Policy ...

Unless you are a doctrinaire liberal or conservative, the unaccompanied child crisis at the Mexican border is a real quandary. On the one hand, you want to sympathize with a humanitarian crisis involving perhaps a hundred-thousand unaccompanied teens and pre-teens showing up each year at the US border seeking a better life. They are coming primarily from nations with high rates of drug trade and gang activity, and thus high rates of violence (primarily Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador).

On the other hand, perhaps the conservatives do have a point when they attribute the crisis to President Obama’s non-enforcement amnesty policies towards illegal aliens, especially illegal children. These policies were publicly announced in 2012 (certainly with political motivation – i.e., to minimize Republican inroads into the Hispanic voting block by figures such as Suzanna Martinez, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, and thus preserve the large Hispanic electoral margins which Democrats increasingly depend upon). Therefore, most Hispanic populations north of Cape Horn have become aware of them. It certainly seems plausible (but not yet fully proven) that many Central Americans believe that if someone can get across the border, they will likely be allowed to stay, especially a child from one of the nations south of Mexico (who are subject to legal judicial process before being sent back, unlike Mexican children, who can be deported immediately; and interestingly, the number of unaccompanied Mexican children crossing the border has actually decreased in recent years).

An alleged USDHS report indicates that about half of the new wave of children at the border are males 13 to 17, with the balance a mix of teen females (many pregnant) and toddlers of both sexes down to 2 or less. The liberal / progressive press keeps emphasizing the terrible, violent conditions in the places where this new wave  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:29 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
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