Thinking Aloud: “The Rook”

July 1, 2015 by Darius 

If Robert Ludlam’s The Bourne Identity and Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series somehow had a child, it might be something like The Rook by Daniel O’Malley.

A woman recovers consciousness in a park, only to find herself with no memory and surrounded by dead bodies.  A letter in her pocket tells her she is a Rook, a top operative in the Checquy Group, a secret organization that has protected the British Isles from supernatural threats for centuries.  She, like many other operatives, has special powers along the lines of the mutants from X-Men.  And another member of the ruling circle is trying to kill her.

The Rook is perfectly entertaining as a mystery, but O’Malley’s sheer imagination makes the book extra-special.  Characters, from one person with four bodies (named Gestalt, of course) to someone who can sweat tear gas, are wide-ranging and fascinating to imagine.  The Rook also contains a lot of understated humor, from witty dialogue to the fact that Belgians get to be the bad guys (how often does that happen?).  Finally, O’Malley does a phenomenal job in making the world he creates in The Rook internally consistent, which is a nice cherry on the cake.

The plot moves from playful to creepy and back, and I can say with a bit of guilt that The Rook joined the select club of books that kept me up reading until the small hours of the morning, to the detriment of my productivity the next day. :-)

If you enjoy fantasy books, The Rook is simply not to be missed.


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News You Really Need To See: “The Bonds That Broke Puerto Rico”

“The Bonds That Broke Puerto Rico”

The New York Times, July 1, 2015, p.B1

When Puerto Rico’s governor told lawmakers and citizens on Monday that the commonwealth could not pay its $72 billion in debt, many wondered how a small, seemingly low-key American island in the Caribbean could have amassed a debt big enough to crush it.  The answer lies in a confluence of factors, including American investors’ desire to avoid taxes; the mutual fund industry’s practice of competing on the basis of yield; complacency about the practice of long-term borrowing to plug holes in budgets; and laws that supposedly give bond buyers ironclad guarantees.  That brew of incentives has produced truly staggering numbers.  On a per-capita basis, Puerto Rico has more than 15 times the median bond debt of the 50 states, according to Moody’s Investors Service.  The governor, Alejandro García Padilla, said on Monday that at the rate the debt situation is developing, every man, woman and child on the island would owe creditors $40,000 by 2025. … For years, investors were lining up to lend Puerto Rico money, so it was easier to borrow than to fix any number of financial or structural shortcomings. Many of the lenders were middle-class Americans who knew little or nothing about Puerto Rico, but simply opted for one of the many tax-exempt municipal bond funds that have become popular.  Such funds have appeared to offer both low risk and a tax shelter. … As if that wasn’t enough, Puerto Rico made borrowing even more attractive. Its constitution contains an unusual clause that requires general-obligation bonds to be paid ahead of virtually any other government expense. … The 2008 financial crisis hit the island hard, and even though the government sharply cut spending, laying off tens of thousands of public workers and privatizing marquee properties like the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan, tax revenue fell even faster.  The government filled budget holes by issuing more bonds. … In May, Puerto Rico made the remarkable announcement that its main pension system was down to just seven-tenths of a penny for every dollar the retirees are due.  A properly funded pension system has 100 cents on the dollar.”

Quickie analysis:  It’s amazing that nobody put a stop to Puerto Rico’s ridiculous financial practices long before we got to this point.

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Thinking Aloud: The Price of Unity

June 30, 2015 by Darius 

As Greece defaults on its debt and perhaps prepares to exit the Eurozone entirely, it is worth taking a moment to realize that this crisis is not unparalleled in history.  While many obvious differences exist, Europe finds itself in an analogous situation to the United States in the early 1780s.

After having won independence from Britain, the US colonies, now the United States of America, were far from united.  Each state controlled its own currency, the central government had no power of taxation, and the states had sharp regional differences in interests.  Europe today doesn’t have the currency issue, but the rest of the situation by and large holds true.

The main problem with the issue of Greece is that northern European taxpayers, primarily Germans, are not OK with simply writing off Greek debt in perpetuity, which seems to be necessary to put an end to the constant crises.  However, that’s precisely what the American states ended up doing.  Under the system of the Constitution, written in 1787, states pay taxes to the federal government, which then uses the money to fund the common good, including distributing money and other goodies to the states as needed.  In practice, tax revenues and government spending by state is very unequal.  Some states (like Delaware, New York, and Massachusetts) are perpetually funding other states (like Alabama, South Carolina, and Kentucky) to the tune of billions of dollars every year.  For more than 200 years now, the people of Delaware and New York have been OK with that: to the people in wealthy states, the money lost in taxes is made up for by various other benefits of having Alabama in the US, including territorial integrity, a friendly border, cultural identity, a say in Alabama’s internal affairs, and a nice beach for vacations.  Right now, Germany and other wealthy northern European countries are deriving similar benefits from having Greece and other poorer countries on the continent’s periphery remain in the union.  While Germany, understandably, doesn’t want to set a precedent for propping up every poor or profligate European relative indefinitely, perhaps the EU’s financing paradigm needs a rethink.

I’m not proposing that Europe unify into a single country like the United States.  That’s for Europe to decide.  However, if Europe wants to be united in the Eurozone, it must reconcile itself to the fact that not all parts of the continent have ever been and are ever likely to be equally successful economically.  As the US example shows, there is no reason unequal financial givings and takings cannot be a long-term amicable arrangement.


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News You Really Need To See: “Salafism: Politics and the Puritanical”

“Salafism: Politics and the Puritanical”

The Economist, June 27-July 3, 2015, pp.38-39

Were it not for his bushy beard and trim moustache, Nader Bakkar could be mistaken for one of Egypt’s secular liberal politicians.  The young spokesman for the Nour party is tolerant, reasonable and smart—he is about to begin a fellowship at Harvard. … But his facial hair conveys a different message.  Mr Bakkar and his party adhere to the ultra-conservative brand of Sunni Islam known as Salafism. … [S]ome think Salafism is the fastest-growing Islamic movement.  It is also growing more diverse.  All Salafists take a fundamentalist approach to Islam, emulating the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers—al-salaf al-salih, the ‘pious forefathers’—right down to their facial hair.  They reject religious innovation, or bida, and support the implementation of sharia (Islamic law).  Salafist scholars, though, are far from homogeneous, expressing different views on everything from apostasy to activism.  Most notably, many Salafists now engage in politics despite a tradition of quiescence.  But with little to show for their efforts, they must decide whether to push on, withdraw or pursue politics by other means, such as war or terrorism. … But most Salafists shunned politics.  The movement is often broken down into three categories.  The most infamous are the jihadists, who are but a tiny minority.  The most numerous are the purists (or quietists), who believe that politics undercuts the sovereignty of God and is therefore best avoided.  Like the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, most bend a knee to Muslim heads of state, no matter how awful, in order to avoid creating fitna, or chaos.  Activist Salafists, those involved in politics, make up the third group.  Their number swelled in the aftermath of the Arab spring, when the boundaries between politics and religion blurred… The Nour party, which grew out of the Salafist Call, the country’s main Salafist organisation based in Alexandria, won over 20% of the seats in parliament in the [Egypt’s] first free election. … The purists can also find support for their rejection of political engagement in Tunisia, the only democracy to emerge from the Arab spring. … Unhappy with the secular direction of the country, and with little voice in politics, many Salafists have turned to protests and violence, at home and abroad.  The perceived failure of political engagement by Salafists risks benefiting the jihadists.  Tunisia is now the largest source of foreign fighters for IS.”

Quickie analysis:  A fascinating look at the ebb and flow of Salafism in politics throughout the Middle East.

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Thinking Aloud: “Health Needs of Populations Displaced by Conflict and Political Upheaval,” Part II

June 29, 2015 by Darius 

[Last week, I attended the Middle East Institute’s conference “Cut Off from Care: The Health Crisis of Populations Displaced by Conflict.”  The most informative panel was “Health Needs of Populations Displaced by Conflict and Political Upheaval.”  Yesterday I shared the comments of Andrew Harper, head of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ office in Amman, Jordan, and Leonard Rubinstein of Johns Hopkins University.]

Zaher Sahloul of the Syrian-American Medical Society spoke of conditions on the ground in Syria.  The Syrian-American Medical Society is itself an amazing organization.  It is composed of Syrian-American doctors (according to Sahloul, fully 1% of doctors in the US are of Syrian descent) who have gone back to Syria to treat the victims of war.  Before the conflict started, SAMS had one permanent employee and an annual budget of $70,000, mostly focusing on small charity events in Syria.  Currently, SAMS works in five countries and has an annual budget of $24 million.

According to Sahloul, before the war, the Syrian medical system was a leading light in the region, on par with or better than the health systems of other middle income countries.  Polio, for example, was eradicated in Syria in 1999.

However, Sahloul said a greater percentage of Syria’s people have been impacted by the current conflict than the people in any other country in any other conflict in the last century.  The health effects have been disastrous.  Polio, eradicated in 1999, reappeared in Syria in 2013.  In the last four years, the life expectancy in Syria has fallen by 20 years, from 76 to 56.

Sahloul said there are 640,000 people in Syria under complete siege, cut off from food, water, and medical care except via smuggling.  Many of these besieged people are in Syrian cities.  Aleppo, for example, Syria’s largest city before the war, is now only accessible via the Turkish border.  There is no longer a single functioning CT scanner in all of Aleppo.  Field hospitals are often deliberately targeted by the regime, so they are hidden and operated in secret.  Recently, many field hospitals have been constructed literally underground to avoid barrel bomb attacks.

According to Sahloul, currently, almost all Syrian refugees are Sunni Arab.  It is entirely possible, though, that later in the conflict, there will be a wave of minority refugees (e.g., Alawites, Kurds, Druze, Christians).  It isn’t at all clear how mainly Sunni host countries and NGOs will react.  For the moment, though, Sahloul considered Turkey to be the model country for its response to the refugee health crisis.

Sahloul also spoke of the ethical issues of operating in Syria.  Doctors and other health personnel are deliberately targeted.  How can an organization like SAMS ask them to remain in Syria to treat desperate people but put their own lives at risk in the process?

Tragically, according to Sahloul, the biggest cause of death for Syrians has not been the regime or any of the rebel groups.  The biggest cause of death has been preventable noncommunicable diseases made fatal by the destruction of the health system.  Patients on dialysis or undergoing chemotherapy before the war have been unable to continue their treatments and died as a result.  Normally trivial medical problems like appendicitis have become fatal because patients are unable to undergo any surgery at all, no matter how routine.  These people are not included in the death toll of the Syrian war.  Yet their lives have been lost just the same.

You can probably understand why this was perhaps the most heartbreaking panel I’ve ever attended.


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News You Really Need To See: “Assad Chemical Threat Mounts”

“Assad Chemical Threat Mounts”

The Wall Street Journal, June 29, 2015, p.A1

U.S. intelligence agencies believe there is a strong possibility the Assad regime will use chemical weapons on a large scale as part of a last-ditch effort to protect key Syrian government strongholds if Islamist fighters and other rebels try to overrun them, U.S. officials said. … Last year, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad let international inspectors oversee the removal of what President Barack Obama called the regime’s most deadly chemical weapons.  The deal averted U.S. airstrikes that would have come in retaliation for an Aug. 21, 2013, sarin-gas attack that killed more than 1,400 people.  Since then, the U.S. officials said, the Assad regime has developed and deployed a new type of chemical bomb filled with chlorine, which Mr. Assad could now decide to use on a larger scale in key areas. U.S. officials also suspect the regime may have squirreled away at least a small reserve of the chemical precursors needed to make nerve agents sarin or VX.  Use of those chemicals would raise greater international concerns because they are more deadly than chlorine and were supposed to have been eliminated. … A new intelligence analysis suggests Mr. Assad could use those chemicals as a weapon of last resort to protect key installations, or if the regime felt it had no other way to defend the core territory of its most reliable supporters, the Alawites.”

Quickie analysis:  A rather literal poison pill, if true.

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Thinking Aloud: “Health Needs of Populations Displaced by Conflict and Political Upheaval,” Part I

June 28, 2015 by Darius 

Last week, I attended the Middle East Institute’s conference “Cut Off from Care: The Health Crisis of Populations Displaced by Conflict.”  The most informative panel was “Health Needs of Populations Displaced by Conflict and Political Upheaval.”  Over the next two days, I’ll share the panelists’ comments.

Andrew Harper, head of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ office in Amman, Jordan, said the often-deliberate destruction of the entire health care infrastructure in Syria means that even if peace were to occur tomorrow, refugees would not be able to return.  Currently, Syrian refugees are putting enormous pressure on the health care systems of Jordan and other refugee host countries.  According to Harper, 8% of Syrian refugees in Jordan have suffered major conflict-related injury.

Harper said providing health care to refugees is easier when the refugees are in organized camps.  However, 85% of Syrian refugees in Jordan are not in camps.  Furthermore, although the Jordanian government offered free primary and secondary medical care to Syrian refugees until late last year, the Jordanian government has amended its policies to require refugees to pay the uninsured Jordanian rate for services.  Medical costs for refugees are still heavily subsidized, but because many refugees are not allowed to work in Jordan, the costs are often out of reach.  Refugees’ access to medical care in Jordan has fallen as a result.  Even more soberingly, Harper said that since the change was made, more Syrians have returned to war zones in Syria because they are unable to afford care in Jordan.

In conclusion, Harper said the entire global humanitarian system is at the breaking point.  Specifically, he said the system for humanitarian assistance is bankrupt.  The UN and other organizations simply cannot keep going back to the same set of donors and host countries for more money.  While discussing the UN response to the unmet needs of refugees, Harper said, “Let’s not kid ourselves.  We don’t have the money.”

Leonard Rubinstein of Johns Hopkins commented on attacks on health workers.  According to Rubinstein, there have been 271 deliberate attacks on 202 medical facilities in Syria, almost all perpetrated by the regime.  He said this statistic is almost certainly underreported.  Rubinstein also said many Syrians don’t go to health care facilities at all because they feel the facilities are too dangerous due to the fact that they are targeted.

However, Rubinstein also pointed out that attacking health care workers is not unique to Syria or even to war zones.  He said that medical personnel have been targeted and criminalized for treating people in Bahrain, Egypt, and Turkey, among others.  Shockingly, the US is not an exception: under US law, providing health care can be considered and prosecuted as material support for terrorism.  As a bare minimum, Rubinstein strongly urged all developed countries to ensure their compliance with international law on the targeting of health workers.


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