Bush and Obama get fair credit for destroying the Middle East — don’t forget Sykes and Picot


Click to enlargeGuardian/Getty

…First world war agreements cooked up in London and Paris in the dying days of the Ottoman empire paved the way for new Arab nation states, the creation of Israel and the continuing plight of the Palestinians. And if their memory has faded in the west as their centenaries approach, they are still widely blamed for the problems of the region at an unusually violent and troubled time.

“This is history that the Arab peoples will never forget because they see it as directly relevant to problems they face today,” argues Oxford University’s Eugene Rogan, author of several influential works on modern Middle Eastern history.

In 2014, when Islamic State fighters broke through the desert border between Iraq and Syria – flying black flags on their captured US-made Humvees – and announced the creation of a transnational caliphate, they triumphantly pronounced the death of Sykes-Picot. That gave a half-forgotten and much-misrepresented colonial-era deal a starring role in their propaganda war – and a new lease of life on Twitter.

Half truths go a long way: the secret agreement between Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot in May 1916 divided the Ottoman lands into British and French spheres – and came to light only when it was published by the Bolsheviks.

It also famously contradicted earlier promises made by the British to Sharif Hussein of Mecca before he launched what TE Lawrence called the “revolt in the desert” against the Turks. It did not draw the borders of Arab states – that came later – but it has become a kind of convenient shorthand for western double-dealing and perfidy.

And it was undermined too by the Balfour Declaration in November 1917 – mourned for decades by Palestinians remembering how “his Majesty’s government viewed with favour the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people” when Zionism was a novel response to European antisemitism and Jews a small minority in the Holy Land.

Looking ahead, officials in the UK Foreign Office are brainstorming anxiously about how to mark these agreements. It is far harder than remembering the first world war’s military anniversaries – Flanders, Gallipoli, the Somme – because while British and allied sacrifices and heroism can be celebrated and honoured, these were political acts that have left a toxic residue of resentment and conflict.

RTFA for a refresher course that may be a first-time for many this side of the pond. Useful details, innuendo and conspiracy – and one significant absence in my mind. Though the original characters in this drama were aware of the potential value of regional oil reserves, the history noted in the article makes no mention.

Here’s another article in the run-up to all this – that leads to notes like:

“In June 1914, just days before outbreak of war, the British Government, acting on First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill’s urging, bought the majority share of the stock of Anglo-Persian Oil Company and with it she took automatically APOC’s major share in Deutsche Bank’s Turkish Petroleum Company. London left nothing to chance.”

APOC now has a shorter name: BP

Storm pushes North Pole 50°F above normal = melting point


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A powerful winter cyclone — the same storm that led to two tornado outbreaks in the United States and disastrous river flooding — has driven the North Pole to the freezing point this week, 50 degrees above average for this time of year.

From Tuesday evening to Wednesday morning, a mind-boggling pressure drop was recorded in Iceland: 54 millibars in just 18 hours. This triples the criteria for “bomb” cyclogenesis, which meteorologists use to describe a rapidly intensifying mid-latitude storm. A “bomb” cyclone is defined as dropping one millibar per hour for 24 hours.

NOAA’s Ocean Prediction Center said the storm’s minimum pressure dropped to 928 millibars around 1 a.m. Eastern time, which likely places it in the top five strongest storms on record in this region…

As this storm churns north, it’s forcing warm air into the Arctic Circle. Over the North Sea, sustained winds from the south are blasting at 70 mph, and gusting to well above 100 mph, drawing heat from south to north…

On Wednesday morning, temperatures over a vast area around North Pole were somewhere between 30 and 35 degrees Fahrenheit, and for at least a brief moment, surpassed the 32-degree threshold at exactly 90 degrees North, according to data from the GFS forecast model.

❝“Consider the average winter temperature there is around 20 degrees below zero,” wrote…Jason Samenow on Monday. A temperature around the freezing mark signifies a departure from normal of over 50 degrees, and close to typical mid-summer temperatures in this region.

In other words, the area around the North Pole was about as warm as Chicago on Wednesday, and quite a few degrees warmer than much of the Midwest.

Nothing worth recording or evaluating if you’re on the Koch Bros. payroll. Or any other fossil fuel barons. The Republican version of Share the Wealth.

Republicans think everyone is doing well enough – so, cut off food stamps!

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Joanika Davis relies on the $194 per month she receives in food stamp benefits every month to help her get by as she searches for employment.

But on Jan. 1, Davis is set to lose that financial lifeline — one of approximately 31,000 Louisianians set to suffer as a result of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s decision to reinstate the work requirement for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in his state.

SNAP rules typically allow full benefits to single able-bodied adults only if they have jobs or are enrolled in a job-training program. Otherwise, they may access food stamp benefits for no more than three months every three years. States with high unemployment can apply for a federal waiver…

Since the beginning of the Great Recession, nearly every state in the country sought and was granted a federal waiver at some point. But recently, a number of states with Republican governors have allowed their waivers to expire, citing improved economic circumstances and a desire to get their food stamp recipients back to work. Jindal, a Republican, allowed Louisiana’s waiver to lapse on Oct. 1.

Gotta love Republican morality. Yup, these folks sure are living high on the hog with them food stamps.

“We continue to seek opportunities for SNAP recipients to increase their self-sufficiency. Engaging in work activities is a key step in that transition,” said Suzy Sonnier, the head of Louisiana’s Department of Children and Family Services…

Spoken like a true conservative ideologue who never had to worry about finding “work activities” to survive the Great Recession.

And it is not only people in Louisiana who are losing out.

Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas and Wyoming have recently allowed the work requirement to be reimposed, leaving 28 states with their food stamp waivers intact in fiscal year 2016.

The people affected by the reinstatement of the work requirement tend to be among the poorest of the poor, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an economic think tank. In 2014 able-bodied, childless, unemployed adults on food stamps had an average of $2,200 in gross income, the center found…

In Louisiana, at least, the reimposition of the work requirement may prove temporary. John Bel Edwards, the Democrat who will succeed Jindal as governor on Jan. 11, has vowed to request a federal waiver on his first day in office

You might hope this is an example sufficient to seep into the brains of working folks throughout the Republican/Confederate empire and convince them to vote against the evil of two lessers. At least in state and local elections.

I’m not holding my breath, waiting.

Solar electricity from discarded car batteries

MIT researchers have developed a simple procedure for making a promising type of solar cell using lead recovered from discarded lead-acid car batteries — a practice that could benefit both the environment and human health. As new lead-free car batteries come into use, old batteries would be sent to the solar industry rather than to landfills. And if production of this new, high-efficiency, low-cost solar cell takes off — as many experts think it will — manufacturers’ increased demand for lead could be met without additional lead mining and smelting.

Laboratory experiments confirm that solar cells made with recycled lead work just as well as those made with high-purity, commercially available starting materials. Battery recycling could thus support production of these novel solar cells while researchers work to replace the lead with a more benign but equally effective material.

Much attention in the solar community is now focused on an emerging class of crystalline photovoltaic materials called perovskites. The reasons are clear: The starting ingredients are abundant and easily processed at low temperatures, and the fabricated solar cells can be thin, lightweight, and flexible — ideal for applying to windows, building facades, and more. And they promise to be highly efficient.

Unlike most advanced solar technologies, perovskites are rapidly fulfilling that promise. “When perovskite-based solar cells first came out, they were a few percent efficient,” says Angela Belcher…Professor in biological engineering and materials science and engineering at MIT. “Then they were 6 percent efficient, then 15 percent, and then 20 percent. It was really fun to watch the efficiencies skyrocket over the course of a couple years.” Perovskite solar cells demonstrated in research labs may soon be as efficient as today’s commercial silicon-based solar cells, which have achieved current efficiencies only after many decades of intensive research and development.

Research groups are now working to scale up their laboratory prototypes and to make them less susceptible to degradation when exposed to moisture. But one concern persists: The most efficient perovskite solar cells all contain lead…

Recognizing the promise of this technology and the difficulty of replacing the lead in it, in 2013 the MIT researchers proposed an alternative. “We thought, what if we got our lead from another source?” Belcher recalls. One possibility would be discarded lead-acid car batteries. Today, old car batteries are recycled, with most of the lead used to produce new batteries. But battery technology is changing rapidly, and the future will likely bring new, more efficient options. At that point, the 250 million lead-acid batteries in U.S. cars today will become waste — and that could cause environmental problems.

According to Belcher, recovering lead from a lead-acid battery and turning it into a perovskite solar cell involves “a very, very simple procedure”…The simple procedure for recovering and processing the lead and making a solar cell could easily be scaled up and commercialized. But Belcher and Paula Hammond knew that solar cell manufacturers would have a question: Is there any penalty for using recycled materials instead of high-quality lead iodide purchased from a chemical company?

To answer that question, the researchers decided to make some solar cells using recycled materials and some using commercially available materials and then compare the performance of the two versions. They don’t claim to be experts at making perovskite solar cells optimized for maximum efficiency. But if the cells they made using the two starting materials performed equally well, then “people who are skilled in fine-tuning these solar cells to get 20 percent efficiencies would be able to use our material and get the same efficiencies,” Belcher reasoned.

The researchers began by evaluating the light-harvesting capability of the perovskite thin films made from car batteries and from high-purity commercial lead iodide. In a variety of tests, the films displayed the same nanocrystalline structure and identical light-absorption capability. Indeed, the films’ ability to absorb light at different wavelengths was the same.

They then tested solar cells they had fabricated from the two types of perovskite and found that their photovoltaic performance was similar…

Based on their results, Belcher and Hammond concluded that recycled lead could be integrated into any type of process that researchers are using to fabricate perovskite-based solar cells — and indeed to make other types of lead-containing solar cells, light-emitting diodes, piezoelectric devices, and more.

Long term, the approach continues be to find an effective, nontoxic replacement for the lead. Belcher and Hammond continue those studies. Meanwhile, their work has the potential of aiding in recycling toxic materials. RTFA for technical detail.

Obamacare’s individual mandate is working

The individual mandate is among Obamacare’s most hated provisions. About two in three of Americans think the requirement to buy health insurance is a bad idea.

But recent enrollment data shows that the mandate is working. The exact type of people the requirement was meant to target — young, healthy adults who might forgo coverage were it not for a government fine — signed up in record numbers this year.

Having a decent number of young and health people in the insurance pool is integral to making costs affordable for everyone, which is exactly why the mandate exists in the first place. And architects of Obamacare’s enrollment strategy say that talking about the mandate — something Obamacare supporters didn’t really start doing until 2015 — has been core to making it work…

❝”The first year we were concerned it would be interpreted as a negative message, possibly turning people off,” says Anne Filipic, who runs Enroll America, a national nonprofit focused on getting the uninsured signed up for the health law’s insurance expansion.

But 2015 was different. Survey research had shown that, despite the mandate’s unpopularity, reminding the uninsured of the fees they’d face for remaining uninsured was an excellent way to encourage them to buy coverage. The penalty rose from $95 in 2014 to $695 in 2016…

New data suggests the new message was successful. In 2015, people under 35 made up 35 percent of Healthcare.gov’s open enrollment sign-ups. In 2014, the number stood at 33 percent. What’s more: Healthcare.gov netted 980,000 new enrollees under 35 this year, a big increase over the 670,000 new sign ups last year…

❝”The increase in young people is very encouraging,” she says. “The fine is going up, and we’re three years into this now. So the repeated message, seeing friends and family get coverage, all those things are now starting to come together.”

Americans are funny. We’re supposed to hate government unless it benefits us directly. So, insurance – when required – is something we try to avoid even though we benefit as individuals as much as collectively by costs coming down as a result of a broader compass of coverage.

So it was with auto insurance. So it is with health insurance.

Now, if we can only get the cretins in Congress to move ahead on single-payer provisions and negotiated prescription prices.

Calamari bigger than your mouth? How about bigger than you?

Giant squid, the huge tentacled creatures that live in the dark ocean depths, were probably the inspiration for the legend the kraken and have remaind largely elusive for most of human history. The first images of a live giant squid were captured in 2004 and another became the first to swim into view on film in 2013. Even so, most specimens spotted have died, tangled in fishing nets. Last week, a giant squid made gentle mockery of decades of efforts to spot them when it swam into a harbor northwest of Tokyo.

A fisherman noticed the 12-foot-long giant squid swimming beneath fishing boats at the Mizuhashi Fisherina in Toyama prefecture…“Whereas the ones caught in fishing nets are mostly dead and their colors have already turned white, the body of the giant squid swimming inside the marina was red,” says Tatsuya Wakasugi, the marina’s manager.

The squid visited long enough for a diver to arrive and accompany the tentacled beast as it swam. The diver, Akinobu Kimura, filmed the encounter before ushering the squid back out toward the open ocean, reports Euan McKirdy and Junko Ogura for CNN.

Another camera person captured the diver and the squid interacting from the surface…

RTFA and watch the second video, too. You don’t see the size comparison until you’re almost halfway into the video.

Thanks, Ursarodinia

“Affluenza” teen and momma busted in Mexico

A Texas woman and her son, a teen known for invoking an “affluenza” defense after a deadly drunken driving wreck, held a sort of farewell party before fleeing his probation, driving to the Mexican border and trying to disguise themselves…

Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson said 18-year-old Ethan Couch and his mother, who were detained Monday in the Pacific Coast resort city of Puerto Vallarta, planned their disappearance.

“They even had something that was almost akin to a going-away party before leaving town,” he said.

Couch was on juvenile probation for the wreck that killed four people when he was 16. During the sentencing phase of his trial, a defense expert argued that his wealthy parents coddled him into a sense of irresponsibility — a condition the expert termed “affluenza.” The condition is not recognized as a medical diagnosis by the American Psychiatric Association, and its invocation drew widespread ridicule.

Anderson said an arrest warrant would be issued for Couch’s mother, Tonya Couch, on charges of hindering an apprehension. A prosecutor says that during a hearing next month they plan to ask a judge to transfer Ethan Couch’s case to adult court…

Ricardo Ariel Vera, the representative of Mexico’s immigration institute in the western state of Jalisco, said the mother and son were being held at immigration offices in the state capital, Guadalajara, and would be returned to the United States aboard a commercial flight to Houston sometime Tuesday…

Couch was apparently trying to lie low; a photo distributed by the Jalisco state prosecutor’s office show him in detention with his blond hair dyed black and his normally blondish beard a light brown.

Anderson has said he believes the two fled in late November after a video surfaced that appears to show Couch at a party where people were drinking. If found to be drinking, Couch’s probation could be revoked and he could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.

Couch was driving drunk and speeding on a dark two-lane road south of Fort Worth in June 2013 when he crashed into a disabled SUV off to the side, killing four people and injuring several others, including passengers in Couch’s pickup truck.

Throw the key away. Put mom in a cell down the hall. Sentence their lawyers to work at honest jobs.

Graduation rates rise, knowledge skills decline – what’s wrong with this picture?


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A sign in a classroom here at Berea High School, northwest of downtown in the largest urban district in the state, sends this powerful message: “Failure Is Not an Option. You Will Pass. You Will Learn. You Will Succeed.”

By one measure, Berea, with more than 1,000 pupils, is helping more students succeed than ever: The graduation rate, below 65 percent just four years ago, has jumped to more than 80 percent.

But that does not necessarily mean that all of Berea’s graduates, many of whom come from poor families, are ready for college — or even for the working world. According to college entrance exams administered to every 11th grader in the state last spring, only one in 10 Berea students were ready for college-level work in reading, and about one in 14 were ready for entry-level college math. And on a separate test of skills needed to succeed in most jobs, little more than half of the students demonstrated that they could handle the math they would need.

It is a pattern repeated in other school districts across the state and country — urban, suburban and rural — where the number of students earning high school diplomas has risen to historic peaks, yet measures of academic readiness for college or jobs are much lower. This has led educators to question the real value of a high school diploma and whether graduation requirements are too easy…

The most recent evaluation of 12th graders on a national test of reading and math found that fewer than 40 percent were ready for college level work. College remediation and dropout rates remain stubbornly high, particularly at two-year institutions, where fewer than a third who enroll complete a degree even within three years…

RTFA for all the usual excuses, all the rationales consistent with a society run by beancounters. The value of what you get in return is rarely considered. Not only by the politicians. Parents and teachers get – and deserve – their share of stick.

“Social pass” is a beloved pair of words here in New Mexico. Purportedly liberal politicians say students should be moved along even if they can’t pass tests demonstrating basic skills. You shouldn’t harm their tender little souls – with standards. Nothing new about that. I first ran into students graduating from good schools in wealthy communities who were functional illiterates – over 50 years ago. Now, it’s everywhere.

Beancounters are even more in control. That includes some local teachers unions run strictly for job protection instead of contributing to standards that aid children in learning how to learn. Get past all of that and you have to deal with the current crop of fools calling themselves conservatives who believe education was best before we had public schools.