• ZipDialog Roundup for Monday, March 27

    Topics and articles chosen with care. Linked articles in bold purple

    Blame game for health care continues. WaPo reports Trump blames Freedom Caucus and far right.  One member of the caucus, Ted Poe of Texas, resigns over health care failure.

    Comment: No news here, IMO. Everybody blames everybody. But the main things to notice are (a) how little of the blame is attaching to Trump and (b) how unprepared the R’s were to govern after 7 years of making this issue their top priority.

     Jared Kushner selected to lead a White House team to overhaul the federal bureaucracy  (Washington Post)

    The White House Office of American Innovation, to be led by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, will operate as its own nimble power center within the West Wing and will report directly to Trump. Viewed internally as a SWAT team of strategic consultants, the office will be staffed by former business executives and is designed to infuse fresh thinking into Washington, float above the daily political grind and create a lasting legacy for a president still searching for signature achievements. –Washington Post

    Comment: Kushner, age 36 and Trump’s son-in-law, is a rising power in the White House. Taking on an arteriosclerotic bureaucracy, where almost everyone has civil-service protections, will be an enormous challenge.

     After months of political difficulty, Germany’s Angela Merkel gets very good news from a state election, which her party won easily  (New York Times)

    Ms. Merkel is seeking a fourth term in national elections on Sept. 24, a race that has grown more challenging in recent weeks after her center-left rivals, the Social Democrats, unanimously selected a new candidate, Martin Schulz, to lead them into the fight. –New York Times

    Comment: Merkel’s long tenure as German leader has lent stability to Europe and the EU. 

     Uber suspends its self-driving car program until it figures out why one crashed in Arizona  (CNBC)

    The accident occurred when the driver of a second vehicle “failed to yield” to the Uber vehicle while making a turn, said Josie Montenegro, a spokeswoman for the Tempe Police Department.

    “The vehicles collided, causing the autonomous vehicle to roll onto its side,” she said in an email. “There were no serious injuries.” –CNBC

    Comment: Sounds like the Uber vehicles did not initiate the crashes, and it is unclear to me whether better tech and programming could have avoided them. That, I assume, is what Uber wants to figure out.

     Cities and monuments switch off electricity for “Earth Hour”  (Phys.org)

    Comment: And they all get to pin “I’m Virtuous” Merit Badges on themselves.

     Scientists Turn Spinach Leaves into Beating-Heart Tissue  (Science Alert)

    Current bioengineering techniques, like 3-D printing, can’t build the intricate, branching network of blood vessels that makes up the heart tissue. However, a team of researchers from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), University of Wisconsin-Madison and Arkansas Sate University-Jonesboro have successfully turned to plants. –Science Alert

    Comment: Popeye smiles.

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  • Anti-Missile Tech Keeps Getting Better: Israel’s Arrow System intercepts a Syrian Missile (UPDATED)

    As more and more bad actors get intermediate- and long-range missiles, the technology to intercept them becomes more and more important.

    The technology is significantly different from that used to intercept short-range missiles, which Israel’s Iron Dome has used successfully many times, protecting civilians living near the Gaza Strip.

    Israel’s Arrow Anti-Missile System is designed for these intermediate- and long-range threats. Last Friday, it was used for the first time in combat, against a missile fired from Syria, probably a Russian SA-5 (aka S-200).

    BBC report here: “Israel’s Arrow anti-missile system ‘in first hit'”  Times of Israel report here.

    What is the Arrow Anti-Missile System?

    Here is what Defense Industry Daily says:

    The Arrow project is a collaboration between Boeing and IAI [Israel Aerospace Industries] to produce the missile interceptors that accompany the required radars, satellites, command and control systems. . . .

    In general, the Israeli Arrow is a more advanced weapon than the Patriot and possesses far more range, undertaking high altitude interceptions and covering a wide area (est. 54 mile range, maximum altitude 30 miles for Arrow 2) as a Theater Missile Defense system. Unlike the USA’s THAAD, PAC-3, or SM-3 which all use “hit to kill” technology, Israel’s Arrow relies on a directed fragmentation warhead to destroy enemy missiles. –Defense Industry Daily

    Here’s a clear visual representation:

    The Arrow System and Israel’s Tough Neighborhood: Syria, Hezbollah, and Iran

    A skilled Israeli observer, Ofer Bavly, offers his concise observations on the Arrow system and its use to protect Israel against regional threats:

    On Friday night Israel for the first time launched an Arrow missile under operational circumstances. The event occurred as the Israeli Air Force was launching an attack on a convoy carrying long-range missiles and other advanced weaponry from Syria to the Hezbollah terror organization in Lebanon. While Israeli attacks on Hezbollah convoys are not a new phenomenon, Israel usually does not publicly admit such attacks and sometimes even denies them so as not to force the hand of Syria or Hezbollah in retaliation. This attack was different in that as the jets were making their way back into Israeli territory, Syria launched surface-to-air missiles at them. It is not common for Syria to try and shoot down Israeli jets. The Russian-made missiles that they launched, SA-5, are not modern or very efficient. As such, they did not at any time endanger the Israeli pilots. However, computer models tracking the missiles showed that they would be falling in Israeli territory, so the Air Force decided to intercept them using the Arrow missile. The interception was successful and was the first such operational interception since the Arrows came online. The system is designed to handle more modern and more efficient missiles including those that would exit the atmosphere and would be intercepted in outer space. Debris from the interception fell in two locations inside Jordan. Sounds of the explosions could be heard in Jerusalem and along the Jordan Valley.

    Although tested extensively on dummy targets in the past, this is the first time that the Arrow is used against an actual threat.

    The event is also significant for the fact that Syria tried to shoot down Israeli jets, a rare move which may signify that the Assad regime, now propped up and supported by Russia and Iran, feels emboldened enough to attack Israeli planes. This may be a step up in the level of Syrian belligerency towards Israel, which may affect future Israeli operations in the north, or it may be an isolated case. In any case, the use of SA-5 missiles which are relatively old and ineffective against modern jet fighters, may show that Syria does not have more advanced anti-aircraft missiles. So while the event revealed an important Israeli card, it also exposed the weakness of the Syrian army.

    –Ofer Bavly, private communication (published with his permission)

    Beyond the threat from Syria and Hezbollah lies a far bigger threat: Iran, which is working closely with North Korea to develop effective long-range missiles and, many fear, the miniaturized nuclear weapons to fit on them.

    UPDATE: Blake Fleisher on Missile Defense in Israel: From Reluctant Acceptance to Full Embrace

    Fleisher, a policy analyst at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (Washington), comments:

    Arrow was Israel’s first missile defense system and at the time the Israelis were skeptical about the project because it didn’t fit into their offensive doctrine.

    They supposedly took it on to benefit from US aid (Reagan’s SDI), but the catalyst was Saddam Hussein firing ballistic missiles in the 80s and 90s.

    Ironically, today Israel uses lots of missile defense and you can’t imagine the country without it. –Blake Fleisher, 

    For those interested in more detail, Fleisher recommends a study from the US Army War College:

    Jean-Loup Samaan, Another Brick in the Wall: The Israeli Experience in Missile Defense (PDF online here)

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    Thanks to

    • Ofer Bavly
    • Jay Tcath
    • Blake Fleisher
    • Robert Lieber

  • ZipDialog Roundup for Wednesday, March 15

    Hand-picked and farm-fresh–
    Linked articles in bold purple

    ◆ It’s the Ides of March

     Sometimes, you just need good news. Well, here it is

    McDonald’s employee, Pedro Viloria, jumps out the drive-thru window to save unconscious police officer.

    First-responders later revive her (Local 10 Miami)

    Comment: Mr. Viloria’s decency and quick-thinking saved her life.

     Trump’s Taxes (on Rachel Maddow): A Nothingburger

    Except for the destruction of confidentiality, which we all expect for our taxes

    Knowing they were about to be shown on Maddow, Trump released something just before she showed them, which she did in a breathless, hour-long pseudo-event. The “news” was so meaningless that some Democratic activists speculated in social media that Trump himself must be behind this. Unlikely, but a good indication of their impact.

    Slate, a reliable indicator of progressive thinking, called it “a cynical, self-defeating spectacle(Slate)

    Trump, of course, blasted MSNBC for revealing these 2 pages of decade-old documents. (Fox News)

    Comment: Maddow’s “revelation” was trivial, but we do have two legitimate interests here:

    1.  Office Holders’ Conflicts of Interest: We need to see Trump’s returns so we can judge questions about conflicts of interest
    2.  Confidentiality by public agencies and private professionals: We expect everyone’s taxes to be kept secret by the government and private tax preparers, legally bound to confidentiality

    We can–and should–demand transparency but we should be revulsed when public agencies or private tax preparers break bright-line fiduciary rules of confidentiality. Same for doctors’ responsibilities of privacy and confidentiality.

     Failure to pass healthcare could jeopardize other big elements of Trump agenda, says Washington Post

    Comment: Exactly.

    That’s why the Administration and Republican leaders will push so hard for it. But there is a lot of resistance on the right (about locking-in health-care entitlements) and understandable concern that weakening those entitlements would kill the bill in the Senate, where it needs votes from centrist Republicans.

    The WaPo is right in saying a lot hinges on this, beyond healthcare itself.

     A microwave can’t spy on you (yet), but plenty of other internet-connected appliances can  (Popular Mechanics)

    Comment: I’m not just depressed about the spying. I’m depressed my appliances are smarter than I am. Except my blender. I am smarter than my blender.

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  • ZipDialog Roundup for Thursday, March 9

    Hand-picked and farm-fresh–
    Linked articles in bold purple

     “Economy is emerging as the untold story of Trump’s first 100 days” and much of it is about the prospect of cutting red tape (NY Sun)

    By every measure, the United States has been sinking into economic mediocrity over the last decade because of excessive regulation.

    When President Obama took office in 2009, the United States ranked third among all nations as a place to do business. Since then it has plummeted to eighth, according to the World Bank. Why? Eight years ago, it took 40 days to get a construction permit in the United States. Today, it’s double that.

    Regulatory overkill started long before Mr. Obama. But Mr. Donohue calls the last eight years a “regulatory onslaught that loaded unprecedented burdens on business and the economy.”

    The Heritage Foundation, which grades nations on economic freedom, now puts the United States 17th in the world, our lowest-ever ranking. That’s below Chile, and former Soviet states like Estonia, Lithuania and Georgia. –Betsy McCaughey in New York Sun

    Virtually the same story appears in Forbes, quoting top hedge-fund manager David Tepper on the growth impact of deregulation (Forbes)

     “FBI prepares for new hunt for WikiLeaks’ source” It is a very big deal (Washington Post)

    The FBI has begun preparing for a major mole hunt to determine how anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks got an alleged arsenal of hacking tools the CIA has used to spy on espionage targets, according to people familiar with the matter.

    The leak rattled government and technology industry officials, who spent Tuesday scrambling to determine the accuracy and scope of the thousands of documents released by the group. They were also trying to assess the damage the revelations may cause, and what damage may come from future releases promised by WikiLeaks, these people said. –Washington Post

    The Wall Street Journal says the focus will be on CIA contractors

     The depths of depravity: ISIS terrorists, dressed as doctors, attack a major hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, killing 30 or more (CNN)

     Cloud computing services: Can Google complete with Amazon and Microsoft? They’ve spent $30 billion trying and they are “making some undeniable progress,” according to Business Insider.

     Uber gets permit to test autonomous cars in California, one of 20 companies now testing there. Uber is also testing self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh. (PC World)

     

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  • ZipDialog Roundup for Tuesday, March 6

    Hand-picked and farm-fresh–
    Linked articles in bold purple

     The new healthcare bill, replacing Obamacare, has been introduced in the House. Keeps several key (and expensive) features of Obamacare and adds tax credits (direct cash payments) to help poor pay for coverage. No mandates.

    • As specialists begin offering detailed commentary, I will include summaries.
    • As political battlelines form, I will include stories and excerpts.

     Robert Osborne, warm and knowledgeable host of Turner Classic Movies, dead at 84. (New York Times)

    He got us excited and reawakened to the greatest stories ever told with the most charismatic stars in the world. –Steven Spielberg on Robert Osborne

     Self-driving bus with no backup driver will soon be on the road in California. Part of a pilot program. (Reuters)

    The bus project in San Ramon, at the Bishop Ranch office park complex, involves two 12-passenger shuttle buses from French private company EasyMile.

    The project is backed by a combination of private companies and public transit and air quality authorities, with the intention of turning it into a permanent, expanded operation . . . .

    California legislators late last year passed a law to allow slow-speed testing of fully autonomous vehicles without steering wheels or pedals on public roads, with the Bishop Ranch test in mind. –Reuters

     South Korea receives US missile defense system, strongly opposed by China  (CNN)

    Comment: Quick heads up for Beijing: A lot more of this is coming, including stronger US-Japanese ties, and you know why. It’s your wingman in Pyongyang, plus your own aggressive moves in the South China Sea. The THAAD missile system is, of course, solely to defend against North Korean missiles. China has a large arsenal that could overwhelm it.

     Big new Exxon investments in chemical and oil refining plants. $20 billion, 12k permanent jobs, plus 35k construction jobs building the plants in Texas and Louisiana (Reuters)

    The plants had been planned for some time but their scope has grown significantly.

     New findings from the University of the Obvious: “Sex might make you happier at work, study says”  (New York Daily News)

    The U of O always does great work.

     

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  • ZipDialog Roundup for Wednesday, February 22

    Hand-picked and farm-fresh–
    Linked articles in bold purple

     Two fascinating articles by Paul Roderick Gregory investigating Russian hacking (Forbes.com)

    The media’s focus on Trump’s Russian connections ignores the much more extensive and lucrative business relationships of top Democrats with Kremlin-associated oligarchs and companies. Thanks to the Panama Papers, we know that the Podesta Group (founded by John Podesta’s brother, Tony) lobbied for Russia’s largest bank, Sberbank. “Sberbank is the Kremlin, they don’t do anything major without Putin’s go-ahead, and they don’t tell him ‘no’ either,” explained a retired senior U.S. intelligence official. According to a Reuters report, Tony Podesta was “among the high-profile lobbyists registered to represent organizations backing Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich.”  …

    That’s not all: The busy Podesta Group also represented Uranium One, a uranium company acquired by the Russian government which received approval from Hillary Clinton’s State Department to mine for uranium in the U.S. and gave Russia twenty percent control of US uranium. –Paul Roderick Gregory for Forbes

    Gregory is a professor of economics at the University of Houston, specializing in Russia, and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution

     “Actually, Sweden is having big trouble with Mideast refugees,” writes Rich Lowry, who focuses on economic issues rather than crime  (New York Post)

    By welcoming a historic number of asylum-seekers proportionate to its population, Sweden has indeed embarked on a vast social experiment that wasn’t well thought-out and isn’t going very well. The unrest in the Stockholm suburb of Rinkeby after police made an arrest the other night underscored the problems inherent in Sweden’s immigration surge.

    Sweden’s admirable humanitarianism is outstripping its capacity to absorb newcomers. …

    There’s a stark gap in the labor-force-participation rate between the native-born (82 percent) and the foreign-born (57 percent). As the Migration Policy Institute points out, Sweden is an advanced economy with relatively few low-skills jobs to begin with. …

    The fiscal cost is high. According to Swedish economist Tino Sanandaji, the country spends 1.5 percent of its GDP on the asylum-seekers, more than on its defense budget. Sweden is spending twice the entire budget of the United Nations high commissioner responsible for refugees worldwide. Pressed for housing, Sweden spends as much on sheltering 3,000 people in tents as it would cost to care for 100,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan. –Rich Lowry for New York Post

    ◆ There is better news from Sweden: “Confused Randy Elk Mounts Wooden Elk in Swede’s Garden” (The Local, Sweden)

    Actual quote from the article:

    “I shouted at him ‘get lost’, but he didn’t give a toss,” [79-year-old Ove] Lindqvist said, explaining that the elk only left once it was content. –The Local

    Apple iPhones working for real-time facial recognition to log in  (Fox Tech)

    Amid rumors that the iPhone 8 will incorporate advanced facial recognition features, the Hebrew-language website Calcalist (via Times of Israel) is reporting that Apple recently acquired Realface, an up-and-coming Israeli startup with impressive real-time facial recognition software.

    Lending credence to rumors that the iPhone 8 may forgo the use of Touch ID in favor of facial recognition, Realface’s software is said to be sophisticated enough such that it can reliably be used as a foundation for mobile-based biometric authentication. –Fox Tech 

    The Times of Israel story on the buy-out is here.

    Israel is a high-tech powerhouse, and Apple has moved to capitalize on those capabilities, purchasing four Israeli high-tech firms in recent years.

     Kenneth Arrow, a Nobel Prize economist and a true great, has died, aged 95  N (New York Times)

    When Professor Arrow received the award in 1972, [Paul] Samuelson wrote, “The economics of insurance, medical care, prescription drug testing — to say nothing of bingo and the stock market — will never be the same after Arrow.”

    Professor Arrow — a member of an extended family of distinguished economists, including Professor Samuelson and Lawrence H. Summers, the former Treasury secretary and adviser to President Barack Obama — generated work that was technically forbidding even to mathematically oriented colleagues.

    But over the decades, economists have learned to apply his ideas to the modern design of insurance products, financial securities, employment contracts and much more. –New York Times

    The extended obituary concludes with a wonderful story about his prodigious, wide-ranging learning:

    Eric Maskin, a Harvard economist and fellow Nobel winner, told of a good-natured conspiracy waged by junior faculty to get the better of Professor Arrow, even if artificially. They all agreed to study the breeding habits of gray whales — a suitably abstruse topic — and gathered at an appointed date at a place where Professor Arrow would be sure to visit.

    When, as expected, he showed up, they were talking out loud about the theory by a marine biologist — last name, Turner — which purported to explain how gray whales found the same breeding spot year after year. As Professor Maskin recounted the story, “Ken was silent,” and his junior colleagues amused themselves that they had for once bested their formidable professor.

    Well, not so fast.

    Before leaving, Professor Arrow muttered, “But I thought that Turner’s theory was entirely discredited by Spencer, who showed that the hypothesized homing mechanism couldn’t possibly work.” –New York Times

     

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  • ZipDialog’s Roundup of News Beyond the Front Page . . Saturday, February 11

    Hand-picked and farm-fresh–
    Linked articles in bold purple

     Trump rejects Tillerson’s choice for No. 2 at State, Elliott Abrams  Tillerson wanted Abrams, an experienced strategist who had served in the Reagan Administration and in a more senior position under George W. Bush. Abrams had attracted opposition from both left (predictably) and some on the right for too close to neoconservatives and interventionists. (New York Times)

    Mr. Trump had a productive meeting with Mr. Abrams on Tuesday, according to a White House official and a person close to Mr. Abrams. But after it took place, Mr. Trump learned of Mr. Abrams’s pointed criticisms of the president when he was running for president, the administration official said. Among those criticisms was a column headlined “When You Can’t Stand Your Candidate,” which appeared in May 2016 in The Weekly Standard.  –New York Times

    Comment: Trump’s decision appears to be based on personal pique and disloyalty, not policy issues, but we will learn more over the next few days.

     Newly-confirmed Sec. of Education, Betsy DeVos physically blocked from entering Washington, DC, elementary school (WJLA, ABC7)

    The Washington Teacher’s Union organized a gathering outside of the school, but were not among the protesters who blocked her. –WJLA

    She eventually made it into the school.

    Comment: The Teacher’s Union peaceful protests are fully protected by the First Amendment. They are fine, whether you agree with their viewpoint or not. By contrast, the others, who tried to block DeVos entry and enter her car, deserve full-throated condemnation.

     Trump has very positive meeting with Japanese PM Abe, says US committed to defense of Japan (Reuters via CNBC) The US defense commitment represents a significant change from Trump’s rhetoric as a candidate

    At the same time, Pres. Trump had a positive phone call with China’s leader, Xi, reaffirming Washington’s traditional “one-China” policy.

    Comment: These are significant, positive steps to stabilize both deterrence (protecting Japan) and diplomacy (discussions with China).

     Michael Barone is worried–and for good reason–that liberals are not condemning street violence in the US

    The response of liberal politicians? So far as I know, there has been almost none. At the Powerline blog John Hinderaker links to a Grabien video showing Democratic politicians and celebrities making statements that some may take as endorsements of violence, such as Sen. Tim Kaine’s urging followers to “fight in the streets.” I suspect he would claim that he was speaking metaphorically and only urging peaceful protest. But it would be nice if he could find time to condemn the violence we have seen at Berkeley — and which is increasingly unsurprising on our college and university campuses, which have become the part of our society most hostile to free speech. Michael Barone on Berkeley riots in the Washington Examiner

    Comment: My answer to Barone’s question: Liberal politicians probably do care, but they care more about their political standing. That means they do not want to alienate the highly-mobilized left, much of which supports the violence or is simply too cowardly to speak out again it.

     To help build its self-driving cars, Ford spends $1 Billion to buy majority stake in Silicon Valley startup (Detroit Free Press)

    Comment: Ford is buying the expertise of Argo AI’s founders and their robotics expertise. Ford has already made considerable progress on its “virtual driver system”

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