Friday, November 13, 2009

Terrorists Denounce Terrorism

The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group leadership has released a new set of guidelines for jihadi -- and they are a direct challenge to al Qaeda generally and Osama bin Laden particularly.

There have been moderate voices raised in the world of Islam denouncing terrorism, but for the LNG to make a formal declaration is especially significant, particularly given that group's own bloody past.

You can read the excellent CNN story here: New jihad code threatens al Qaeda

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What's Hun Sen Thinking, Anyway???

Whatever anyone thinks about former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin, even his supporters must be wondering just what Cambodian PM Sen was thinking when he invited Khun Thaksin to take up the parallel posts of economic adviser and adviser to the PM.

The question is especially pertinent now, a time when Cambodia and Thailand have a serious, ongoing quarrel about the border.

Maybe the Cambodians have some legitimate concerns about the border issues (and maybe not), but surely the wily Hun Sen knows that appointing Thaksin is throwing gas on the fire, even if Thaksin is able to provide the guidance he wants.

And it is an insult to Thailand. The Thai government has bent in a whole lot of ways to try to accommodate Phnom Penh's wishes, yet this is their reward.

I know two people who personally know Hun Sen, including one who serves as an adviser to the Cambodian PM (and whose wife serves as an adviser to hun Sen's wife). They both say (my friends -- I don't know the wife) that Hun Sen comes across as a perfectly polite, likeable individual.

I could sort of see it were Hun Sen to offer Thaksin sanctuary, given their close personal relationship (though even that would understandbly and utterly justifiably upset the Thai government, no doubt).

Hun Sen is difficult to pin down. A former major figure in the Khmer Rouge, he has managed to continue a prosperous (in more ways than one) political life, despite his debatable orgins.

Anyway, now the Thai government's panties are all twisted, and I don't blame them one little bit. An honest dispute about the border is one thing; a completely unprovoked and unnecessary slap in the face -- and make no mistake, that's what this is -- is an entirely different matter.

Some damage has been done already. I hope no more occurs, and that one damage has been done can be repaired. After all, the two kingdoms are neighbors, and it's nice for neighbors to get along. . . .

President Obama's Visit to Asia

U.S. President Obama is set to visit East and Southeast Asia. He will have summit meetings in Japan, South Korea, China, and in the context of APEC, Singapore.

Some regional papers are editorially questioning why the President didn't put Jakarta on his list of destinations, and there is some reason to wonder why he's not visiting (for now) the world's largest Muslim nation, one that has swiftly become a thriving democracy, and one in which he spent part of his childhood.

Well, those plaints are a bit misplaced. I'm amazed he's squeezing in as many stops and summits as he is, given the mountains of problems and cat fights he has back home. But I'm glad he's coming, and hope his entire trip turns out to have great benefits for all concerned.

I do hope that President Obama can find time to get back out this way by mid-2010 or so. Maybe he could aim to visit Indonesia, for starters. India and Australia would be high on my list were I his trip planner. It would be nice if he could pop by Bangkok while knocking around this part of the globe, but no national leader can be gone for any truly lengthy period of time, especially not the leader of any major country, which means not just the U.S. China's President Hu can't very well go sunbathe on Bali for a month, now, can he?

Of course, President Obama's detractors will be braying loudly, the most extreme probably set to speculate about to which country he will sign a surrender. Well, let the Mr. Corpulent Limbaugh and his ilk have their day; gets 'em good ratings from the wingnuts.

But back to the President's trip and his omission of Indonesia from his visits. Right now, the thorny problems of the location of a U.S. military air base and the related Status of Forces agreement loom at the top of the U.S.-Japan alliance, one of the most important for us and the world, we have. Then there is the situation involving the Fruitcake People's Democratic Republic -- North Korea. Whatever else Dear Leader Kim has achieved, he sure has managed to keep attention focused on his wretched country, including that of the world's major powers, even those not directly involved in the Six-Party talks.

Further, the President can't put off making a decision about what to do in Afghanistan much longer. He asked General McChrystal for a recommendation and got one, so he'll have to decide one way or the other -- soon. Like maybe next week or the week after.

For self-evident and not-so-self-evident reasons, I'd like to see the President visit Thailand, too. Thailand has been one of our staunchest allies anywhere for decades, most notably during the Vietnam War. Yes, the Kingdom benefitted enormously from our military presence here, not least from the soldiers who came on leave here (and many times ended up marrying a local lady, and sometimes making their lives here thereafter). But Thailand provided us a giant "aircraft carrier" from which to launch aerial assualts against the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. I feel we owe it to the Thai people to show them respect of a visit from my President. Of course, I'm biased in favor of the Thai people, but I'm not going to apologize for loving the country that has given me so much these past 15+ years.

All that said, maybe Thailand can't be on President Obama's must-see list in the near future. But let's say this: "Please come sometime during your term, Mr. President. Even if just for a day."

Anyway, I'm damned glad the President is tending to some important business in this part of the world, both for the bloddless pragmatic reason that we have one hell of a lot of interests here and the human reason of promoting people-to-people relationships.

Look at what President Nixon accomplished with his extraordinary visit to China -- Commie China. Who else but a staunch anti-communist could have pulled it off?

I applaud anytime it's appropriate, something like I salute a brave fallen -- enemy -- soldier. Not, I hasten to add, that I regard President Nixon as an enemy, no matter how much he went on to disgrace himself and his office.

3G Services, and the Internet, in Thailand

Read a news story today that the TOT (Telephone Organization of Thailand) is set to let five local companies launch #G services -- in Bangkok, at least -- early next month.

That'll be great . . . if  it happens.

This service has met with many delays, and not just those imposed by the necessity to install the necessary infrastructure.

More than one government agency, which the TOT is, has some jurisdiction in this, nd not all have signed aboard for the proposed service, so I simply don't know if the service will really and truly be introduced anytime soon, though I hope it is.

One really intriguing aspect of the story is that prices could be up to 10 times less than current ones -- and current prices, especially in contrast to those of just a fes years ago are quite reasonable now, at least in my opinion. For instance, when I arrived in the Kingdom in mid-1994, the cheapest rate to call the U.S. was THB32.50 per minute, or US$1.30 at the then-exchange rate. Todfay, I can call the U.S. 24/7 for a flat THB5.00 per minute, a tiny fraction under US$.15! And the top rate way back when was a wallet-killing THB82.00 per minute, or US$3.28! Today's rate is under 5% of that previous top one. Heck, when I got my first hand phone back in the Age of Dinosaurs, I was paying THB5.00 per minute for local calls, so I'm sure not complaining now.

Internet service here, however, is an entirely different kettle of fish. It's extremely uneven in terms of speed. I essentially couldn't get on anywhere without repeated efforts and, I suspect, a lot of luck. And this is in spuite of the fact that True Internet customers with a 512kbps pacjage -- including me -- got a free upgrade to 3 mbps, 6 times faster. Chucle, chuckle. Right.

My friends who don't use the Internet (and in most cases, can't even turn on a computer) make fun of me for whining about this, pointing out that until not much more than a decade ago, we didn't even have stuff like e-mail. And that's true. But in my mind, that mockery is akin to that of someone who insisted on continuing to walk or ride a horse after the car came into use when Mr. Cowboy would mock a car-owning friend for complaining his car had some mechanical problem. In fact, it's same-same, different age.

And, no doubt, as technology moves forward and enters into our daily lives, we'll have complaints we can't even imagine now. Sure, our friends who live in a sod hut in the middle of the prairie can laugh at us for moaning about our utility bills and so on -- but we don't freeze in winter and burn up in summer, nor do we have to walk a mile to the nearest creek to fetch water and bathe, now, do we???

Though Thailand is light years away from being the technology hub it would love to be, credit must be given for the almost unthinkable strides the country has made over the past decade or so. I remember when the first Internet cafe opened here in Bangkok; it caused a huge sensation. Now there are more Internet cafes than there are bars, and that's saying something!!!

So you Cave People go right ahead and laugh . . . while you're out trying to kill a bear or deer to make yourself a blanket against the winter's snow and cold - - and see who gets the last laugh! :-)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Wingnuts & Co. Are Fast Becoming Nazis

The President and Eric Holder are Black Panthers? -- well, according to one wingnut I just read, absolutely.

And the lady police sergeant who shot and stopped the Army major at Fort Hood ought to be brought up on charges for not killing him on the spot? Excuse me, since when were cops required to do double-duty as cold-blooded murderers? But so another wingnut holds.

Oh. I forgot. We're a white, Christian, God-fearing nation -- to hell with every other American who has been here as long or longer than us. Kill 'em. Jail 'em. And get that damned n****r out of the White House before he betrays us to Somalia or someone.

Excuse me while I puke.

Wanna bitch? Go to Langley and bitch they (1.) knew months ago Mr. Major Nut was trying to contact al-Qeada but they saw fit not to pass it along to the Army and (2.) they reportedly refuse to brief the appropriate congressional intelligence committees about the situation.

"Refuse? REFUSE? Your butt's fired, and your agency's shut down. We'll start from scratch, but don't you bother to re-apply."

Reminds me of when "The Agency" saw fit not to tell President Bush that, um, oh, maybe Saddam didn't have weapons of mass destruction after all -- despite the President demanding of the Director of the day in the final hours before he (Bush) ordered the invasion to bring him absolutely up to date.

But apparently such a briefing was above the President's security-clearance level and pay-grade. After all, he was only POTUS.

Let me stop so I can go puke some more.

Okay, back. No doubt the wingnuts love this stuff.


Monday, November 9, 2009

Mojo and Space Exploration: Washington Has Lost the Plot

For anyone unfamiliar with the term "mojo," one definition is "the magic touch." Another way to put it is the title of the splendid 1983 movie "The Right Stuff" about the U.S. manned space program.

And to be an astronaut (or cosmonaut or taikonaut), a person has to have it. Even people with advanced degrees who are in excellent physical condition with thousands of hours flying jet fighters sometimes come up short of mojo, of The Right Stuff.

Happily, none of our astronauts (or Russian cosmonauts or Chinese taikonauts) have turned out lacking, to the best of my knowledge. And that applies to current space farers, those who crew the International Space Station, fly in the American Space Shuttle fleet, and ride up in Russian Soyuz space capsules. And, of course, the two flown-in-space-already Chinese taikonauts.

You know it's dangerous, this business of blasting off into space, even into the lowest of low-Earth orbits. The fatal fire in Apollo 1, the near complete loss of Apollo 13 (though those three astronauts narrowly escaped back to Earth from the Moon), and the deaths of two entire shuttle crews all testify to that for the Americans, as does the undisclosed number of Russian cosmonauts who met their ends pushing the envelope into what the famous television and movie franchise "Star Trek" famously and memorably calls "Space: The Final Frontier."

But our space farers still have it, as I said.

But what's happened with NASA???

Well, as an avid and constant follower of space exploration, I'm convinced that NASA, and it counterparts in other countries, still would have the required mojo -- if they had clear missions with proper funding. My concern, as an American, is particularly with NASA, of course.

When President Bush directed NASA to get us back to the Moon by 2020, I was thrilled speechless. But one little critical detail escaped my attention at the time: a mission was given -- but no money to execute it.

Whose fault was that? The President's? Our Congress? NASA's top leaders? Bureaucrats?

I don't know. But my money's on the President, Congress, or both. I doubt NASA's bosses would willingly take on more than the agency could accomplish with available resources. As for bureaucrats, when the program is big enough -- and colonizing the Moon is pretty damned big, by any measure -- bureaucrats can and do get squished.

And now NASA has been left slowly twisting in the wind, a day late and a dollar short. It can't possibly keep the Space Shuttles flying and the International Space Station orbiting beyond their present use-by dates, and begin to establish a long-term presence on the Moon, and venture beyond the Moon -- the asteroid belt? one of Mars' tiny moons? Mars itself? -- when it's got a beer budget and a champagne assignment. Or series of wanna-do stuff, I should say.

Yeah, we could go with robotic missions, and certainly there are many excellent reasons to continue those, whatever's decided to do regarding the next two or three decades' manned space exploration. There are compelling examples of the value of unmanned craft. Among the best-known are the Hubble Space Telescope, which has brought the universe to tens of millions for the first time, often enthralling them with its spectacular images. Then there are the extraordinary twin Mars rovers, each with an initial mission of 90 days -- and that was a keep-our-fingers-crossed hope: five years on, they're still functioning, even if one is stuck in the sand. The list goes on, and includes the venerable two Pioneer spacecraft launched to cruise in space forever, now well beyond the orbit of Pluto, the outermost planet. (I still am unpersuaded by the arguments to demote it from planetary status.)

Yes, when we look at the total price tag, the number is big: NASA needs about $3 billion extra per year just to fly the Shuttle a little longer and get a crew back to the Moon -- but by about 2025, not 2020. But think of it another way: that works out to roughly $10 per year per American.

Besides, why not push for the commercialization of near-space even harder, so private companies can take over stuff like ferrying astronauts up to the ISS and resupplying it? That could be part of an international effort -- after all, the ISS itself is run (and funded by) a consortium of 16 nations, though that group is led by the U.S.

Of course, it's not simply a question of Washington opening up the spigot -- not when politicians are involved, which of course they are. Each wants the biggest slice of the pie to go to his district or state, even if that means paying a vastly inflated price -- gotta keep the voters happy, the rest of the country be damned, you know?

It doesn't help that some folks, both in and out of government, feel the space program is nothing more than (1.) a terribly expensive boondoggle (2.) whose funding could be better used to fund programs here on Earth, (3.) which translates to pork and payola for politicos and their pals (4.) and which utterly ignores the countless benefits we Earthlings have gotten as a direct result of the space program -- both its manned and unmanned missions and the related research.

Of course, even politicians can sing more than one song. If a vote comes up for some launch site in, say, Virginia (there is one), just ask a Florida CongressCritter or Senator about that -- he or she will scream bloody murder; after all, think of the jobs that could go to Cape Canaveral. Wanna move Mission Control out of Houston to some other state? -- well, better duck; I bet every single member of the Texas delegation would be reaching for their six-shooters.

Sure, Representatives and Senators are supposed to represent their respective districts and states first -- but I grew up believing that elected officials of our national government are also supposed to consider the national benefits (or negatives) as national representatives.

Silly me.

NASA had mojo right up through the end of the Apollo program (the final flights of which President Nixon canceled, by the way). The space shuttle program has been plagued before the first shuttle even flew with cost overruns -- enormous ones -- and, once it began flying, serious safety concerns. (See: Space Shuttle Challenger, January 28, 1986 and Space Shuttle Columbia, February 1, 2003.)

But how many ships and sailors were lost at sea, especially during the Age of Exploration? Our astronauts know, way down in their bones, that when they strap on a towering rocket ship to blast themselves into space, there's a very real risk their ride will be one-way, a very brief, as in the case of the Space Shuttle Challenger, which explode a mere 73 seconds or so after liftoff.

And what's happened to our spirit? Our ancestors had mojo when they boarded tiny, rickety ships to cross the Atlantic, as did their descendants who pushed the Westward Expansion across the continent? Sometimes, we seem like "America, the Land of the Scared and Sissys." No wonder our politicians pander to us. . . .

On Politicians and Hypocrisy

Anyone following the U.S. cat fight regarding health care reform proposals knows the fight has been long and bitter -- and it's not over yet. The House narrowly passed its version over the weekend with a 220-215 vote; the Senate is up next. If the Senate approves a version -- a very, very big "if" -- then a joint committee of the two chambers will hammer out differences, after which both chambers will vote one way or another. Should the legislation pass, it will be up to President Obama to sign it into law, which of course he badly wants to do, as this was one of his main campaign planks.

There's plenty of room for many legitimate concerns in this debate, regardless of where one stands on it at the end of the day. It's a dead certainty that neither of the extreme ends of the political spectrum will be satisfied; on the left are those that want to see so-called "single-payer health care," period, i.e., government-run health care, while their mortal opponents on the far right want government to stay entirely out of health care.

But talk about hypocrisy in the extreme. Sure, the Left would *love* to have universal, government-sponsored health care -- so long as someone else pays for it. (That means you and me, not him or her.) And sure, the  Right would love for government to stay out of health care . . . except for programs such as Medicare -- a government-run medical program for older Americans -- and, more to the point and more hypocritically, the top-flight health care provided to all members of Congress.

The Right has provided far more sound-bites during this veritable war than has the Left (but don't worry; the Left will get its chance, if not on this issue, then another one). For instance, one Republican member of Congress has rather famously viscerally opposed health care legislation -- but the other day boasted how he loves the medical care available to him in the U.S. Capitol building -- health care paid for by the American taxpayer. In other words, what this Congresscritter would call "socialized medicine" or "communist medicine that takes away our freedoms!" (Even some of his fellow members of Congress and others in his party have been reported as hanging their heads and rubbing their brows.)

Then there's the hoopla about what former Vice-Presidential candidate and Alaska governor Palin dubbed "death panels" -- panels, she claimed, manned by government bureaucrats who would tell us to "pull the plug on Granny." Never mind that the proposed panel's actual purpose is to examine the effectiveness of different approaches to a given medical problem to try to rank them by effectiveness in context of a variety of factors, including, yes, costs. But the panel, if instituted, will have no authority to impose a given course of treatment; in fact, such authority will be explicitly denied it.

Besides, insurance companies already do this -- as they should. What are they supposed to do? Write each possibility on a piece of paper, collect the slips, stir them up in a hat, and have a lottery, in effect, to decide???

But "death panels" has a splendid ring to it that any other description lacks.

Not that some Democrats haven't made their own bids for sound-bite fame and glory, mind you. One representative said -- on the floor of the House, no less, that the Republicans' proposal is for sick Americans to just "DIE!" (his emphasis).

What crap.

The guiding principle for way too many folks, both in and out of Congress, is this: "My mind's made UP!!! -- Don't confuse me with the FACTS!!!"

Yeah, no need for either extreme to bother themselves with those pesky little critters, "facts." They might borrow from President Clinton's campaign slogan, "It's the economy, stupid" re-cast as "It's the votes, stupid."

Do I know how to fix our increasingly dysfunctional and increasingly expensive heakth care system? -- nope. We spend about double per capita compared to what other industrialized nations spend on their citizens, yet we rank somewhere around 16th (last I read the other day) in quality of medical care. So, something's wrong. And that's not even mentioning the roughly 46 million Americans with no medical insurance.

No matter what we do, someone's going to get slammed. But no one wants to talk about that -- a medical care version of Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," so to speak. (That's not an endorsement of the former Vice-President's environmental views, just a theft of his book's memorable title.)

In other words, no compassion for the poor devils slammed by whatever some faction supports. Hell no -- let hypocrisy rule the day.

Just like always.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Blogger Rewards and the U.S. Government

The U.S. government's Federal Trade Commission has turned its attentions to bloggers who review or endorse products and services; also of interest are the ads that appear on some blogs; Google's Adsense is one wildly program that attempts to display ads relevant to your postings -- and you get (a very little) commission if a visitor initiates and completes a purchase starting from your blog.

The FTC apparently thinks there's a danger some readers won't realize the commercial relationship between you, the blogger, and your reader. I guess the folks at FTC think all bloggers are (1.) wealthy enough they don't even want to make money from their blogs and (2.) an alarming number of blog visitors might be fooled.

Before I go on, here are the URL's to the story that first alerted me to the new rules, which take effect this coming December 1st, and to the FTC announcement on its website:

FTC Takes on Pay-per-Post

FTC Press Release

Some of the concerns of the FTC do make sense. For instance, here's one point from their press release:

[A]dvertisements that feature a consumer and convey his or her experience with a product or service as typical when that is not the case will be required to clearly disclose the results that consumers can generally expect. In contrast to the 1980 version of the Guides – which allowed advertisers to describe unusual results in a testimonial as long as they included a disclaimer such as “results not typical” – the revised Guides no longer contain this safe harbor.

There's also a concern that a blogger and an advertiser may have a commercial relationship of some type that a reader "would not expect," in the words of the press release.

Those of you who aren't based in the U.S. and maybe don't write about U.S.-related subjects anyway may snort and think you're free of worry.

Well, maybe not; read on.

Disclaimer: I'm NOT an attorney nor in any way at all formally qualified to interpret laws in any jurisdiction. Therefore, I assume no responsibility for your interaction with the laws of any and all jurisdictions. (This sort of "Keep-me-out-of-trouble" statement is absolutely essential these days.)

I'm not sure how this might work, but let's say you stay in a property owned by the Hotel XXX international chain on your holiday to Bali. And let's say Hotel XXX has one or more properties in the U.S. And let's further say the chain's website allows booking into any of its properties anywhere in the world by anyone located anywhere who has computer and Internet access -- and that person books a stay in the U.S. outpost.

If I'm understanding this development properly, should the above scenario happen *and* you get any sort of material reward for it -- a commission, goods-in-kind, and so on, then you must explicitly disclose you will accrue said benefit should your visitor click on through and (in this example) book a room.

Irksome to have to disclaim here, disclaim there, disclaim, disclaim, disclaim everywhere, isn't it?

There's another aspect that occurred to me that the story and press release don't mention: U.S. taxes. You can be 100% certain that should you receive any material reward for carrying an advertisement, endorsing a product or service in your blog, or both, and that reward comes from anyone or any company based on U.S. soil, then the friendly folks at the U.S. Internal Revenue Service will want to know about that. And they may want a piece of your pie. Or they may not; perhaps there are minimum amounts you must surpass before being liable for any tax. Again, I'm not a lawyer so don't know. Heck, even if I *were* a qualified tax attorney, I'd be unsure, most likely, as even top experts squabble about the meaning of the tax code all the time.

Predictably, and, in my view, quite understandably, just about All Bloggers Great and Small are objecting to this, seeing it as an infringement on free speech. (Apologies to the late but still wonderful author James Herriot for appropriating his books' titles.)

There's another potential point of trouble I thought about. Let's say I find some great ethnic restaurant in Podunk, Texas and write a rave review. But I didn't identify myself to anyone in the restaurant. However, the owner runs across my review then on my next visit happens to recognize me, and gives me some portion or perhaps all my meal free, as a token of gratitude for the review.

Do I need to yank out a Blackberry and post that right away, or at least rush to the nearest computer I can access and do so? Or does the legal principle of "ex post facto" apply? That principle holds that a person who does something that's perfectly legal today then next week the government passes a new law making that action illegal henceforth, the person who did it a week ago can't be dragged into court over it -- the law is ex post facto, or "after the fact." Or that's how my untrained mind grasps the concept, anyway.

My brain hurts; this stuff is downright tiresome, wearying.

Long-time readers of mine know I do go a considerable extra mile to clarify my relationships with the subjects of anything I write, if that's somehow worth mentioning. Just last week in a column I do at another URL I had two or three stories in which I decided to point out I wasn't getting one darned thing for writing what I wrote. On the other hand, if I do get some benefit for a piece I write -- even if that benefit isn't even offered until "ex post facto," I mention *that.*

Further, a number of times I've been asked to visit and review some place, mostly restaurants and bars, in exchange for free food, drinks, or both. But my personal rule is to decline the offer. I may well visit then write about the place -- but I won't accept whatever was offered, insisting on paying my bill. Why? Because I don't want to feel beholden. The owner or manager will feel cheated if I get something free then write anything negative. But if there are negatives, I intend to mention them (within the limits of various libel laws, that is, regarding which I err well this side of caution.)

Fact is, a great many bloggers won't ever be bothered by this, since they often make little or no money or any other reward. And that's likely true of bloggers based on U.S. soil who write exclusively about U.S. stuff.

BUT -- but -- these new rules do cast a pall on the blogosphere, and they do open the door a crack further. And that's always worth watching.

Monday, November 9, 2009