Good-bye 2017. Hello 2018!

And there it goes, the year that was 2017.

Happy New Year, everyone.

How does one become a better person (‘mensch’)? asks the Süddeutsche Zeiting newspaper. Many people want to, but do not know exactly how to.  Well, it does take conscious effort, but it’s not complicated. ‘You just have to start’, says the author.

Saturday/ Veterans Day

It’s Veterans Day in the United States, and we honor our veterans that had served in the armed forces, some 20 million of them.

Today marks the 99th anniversary of the end of World War I, also called the ‘Great War’, and the ‘War to End all Wars’ (if only that could become true).  Major hostilities of World War I were formally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

I am not a combat veteran – but I did serve in the South African Air Force, for two years. (The SA Air Force was active in WWII, the Korean War, as well as the South African Border War in Angola, 1966 – 1989). This 1986 picture is from my candidate officers’ training course, a four-day field exercise that we called ‘Operasie Gogga’ (loose translation: ‘Operation Nasty & Ugly Bug’). Look for me in the middle of the picture, to the right, and below the blue ‘Castle of Good Hope’ star on the helicopter. The helicopter is a French-made Alouette III, and was taken out of service in the South Africa in 2006, after 44 years.

Wednesday/ where is Uzbekistan?

Uzbekistan is one of the five ‘Stan countries from the former Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The text describing the recent history of Uzbekistan is from the CIA World Factbook.

New York City suffered a terrorist attack by an Uzbek national (in the USA since 2010) on Tuesday that left 8 people dead and 11 injured.

Vox.xom reports this attack is one of several recent ones by Uzbeks: in Istanbul, St Petersburg, Stockholm and now New York City.

So left me look again where Uzbekistan is, I thought.  Well, it’s one of the ‘Stans, about the size of California, pop. 29 million, native language Uzbek. It is doubly landlocked (two border crossings needed to get an ocean). The only other such country is tiny Lichtenstein. Economic prospects for young people are generally bleak, and President Shavkat Mirziyoyev sure has a lot of work to do to make life better for its citizens.  He did send a letter of condolence to President Trump today with a promise to assist in any way he can with the investigation into the attack.

Friday/ where to build Amazon HQ2?

Calgary stenciled messages with chalk onto the pavements in Seattle. (‘Pow day’ is short for powder day, when several inches of new, loose and fluffy snow on the slopes makes for a great ski experience).

Amazon is looking for a North American city for a second headquarters (HQ2), and Thursday was the last day for submissions.  The company will reportedly spend $5 billion and bring 50,000 jobs to the winning city. Critics say it’s a race to the bottom (determine who will give up the most tax & other incentives), and that cities should be careful what they wish for (an Amazon HQ2 could bring increases in real estate prices, traffic problems).

Forbes magazine lists the top contenders as: Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Pittsburgh and Toronto.  We will have to be patient. The decision will only be made sometime in 2018!

The city of Birmingham, Alabama, put several giant Amazon packages around downtown as a PR campaign for their bid for HQ2.

Sunday/ massacre in Las Vegas

From the New York Times, compiled by Quoctrung Bui and Margot Sanger-Katz. Assault weapons should be banned, as should high-capacity magazines.

A gunman sprayed 22,000 country music concert goers with bullets from machine gun fire from his Las Vegas hotel room on Sunday night at 10.08 pm, for almost  10 minutes.

The sheriff from Clark County in Las Vegas just had a news conference (Monday morning), said the ‘body count’ was up to 58, maybe 59, then corrected himself and said ‘number of deceased’.  Well, it’s a massacre, and the body count as of now is 58, with 515 wounded.   The gunman  was a 64 yr old white male, US citizen – they usually are white males & US citizens, the gunmen in these frequent events in the United States. He used bullets designed to do maximum damage. He then committed suicide.  The President called it an ‘act of pure evil’ and offered his condolences.  The gunman’s brother could not point to anything that triggered him. Congress is not expected to anything, at all.

Graphic from the New York Times. The shooter was on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel.

 

Thursday/ Canterbury earthquakes update

I thought I would check back on Christchurch, New Zealand, since it’s been some six years since the city had been hit with a series of severe earthquakes that killed 185 people. Wikipedia says that following the earthquakes, over 1,500 buildings in the city had been demolished or partly demolished by September 2013.  In the years that followed, the city has been experiencing rapid growth, with the central city rebuild, which is outlined in the Christchurch Central Recovery Plan, starting to ramp up.  I see that residents in the eastern suburbs of Christchurch feel a little left behind in all the recovery efforts, though .. and that ‘distress or anxiety associated with ongoing aftershocks, being in a damaged environment and surrounded by construction, additional financial burdens and loss of recreational and cultural facilities were the top four stresses for people in the city’.

Graphic from the Seattle Times that shows that shallow earthquakes in urban areas (such as in Christchurch in 2011) are the worst. Best I can tell, the ‘Shaking Severity’ and Magnitude ratings go like this: 4-Light, 5-Moderate, 6-Strong, 7-Very Strong, 8-Severe, 9-Violent.

Tuesday/ ‘Rocket Man’ and Maria

All right .. I know there are on-going wars and catastrophes in the world, but it was still a day filled with unsettling news.  I woke up at 7 am to President Trump’s bombastic speech at the United Nations. A little restraint, Mr President? Why (again) call Kim Jung-un ‘Rocket Man’?

 

Then reports of the 7.1 earthquake near Mexico City came in, with buildings that collapsed and 150 reported dead so far.

Hurricane Maria has been in the news the last few days, striking Dominica (pop. 73,543) today and projected to make landfall in Puerto Rico (pop. 3.4 million) with Category 4 winds on Wednesday morning.

Finally, back in the category of man-made disasters, there is another effort underway from the Republicans in the United States Congress to shove the country’s healthcare system off a cliff (the Graham-Cassidy Bill).

_________

Update Wed 9/20: The death toll in Mexico City rose to 245 on Wednesday.  No casualties reported so far from Puerto Rico, but the entire island is without power.

Monday/ the horrors of the Vietnam War

I have started to watch a 10-episode Vietnam War documentary, currently airing on the public television channel PBS, here in the United States.

Long ago in South Africa on Friday nights, I would watch a TV series about the war, called Tour of Duty, but dubbed into Afrikaans as Sending Vietnam (Mission Vietnam). Best I can recall, this was in 1993 & 1994.  At the end of each episode, ‘Paint It, Black’ would play – a song by the Rolling Stones that describes extreme grief and loss.  No doubt: it pointed to the post-traumatic stress that soldiers and civilians alike, had suffered (still suffer?) from the war.

From ‘Paint It, Black’ (The Rolling Stones, 1966) :
‘No more will my green sea go turn a deeper blue
I could not foresee this thing happening to you
If I look hard enough into the setting sun
My love will laugh with me before the morning comes ..’

From the PBS website. I have watched episodes 1 and 2, so a long way to go! Episode 2 ended with the assassination of JFK in 1963. That’s President Lyndon Johnson (left) and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in the picture for Episode 3.  The documentary is hard to watch at times: Episode 2 had footage of the Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức who burned himself to death at a busy Saigon road intersection on 11 June 1963 (to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government).

Wednesday/ to freeze or not to freeze?

Seems to me there is basically a free-for-all policy in place, as far as access to an individual’s credit information, held by the three big agencies Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. The DEFAULT should be that the information is NOT ACCESSIBLE, and that the individual gives APPROVAL for access to the information. Right now, a criminal anywhere in the United States can open a credit card in my name (with stolen information), without me getting notified by snail mail here in Seattle, or by a phone call, or by an e-mail or a text message. Is this 2017? (Yes). Do we have the technology to protect our financial information a lot better? (Yes).

The latest massive internet security breach here in the United States involves a credit ratings agency called Equifax.

1. On July 29,  Equifax discovered that 143 million records of personal data (credit card numbers, social security numbers, dates of birth and first name, last name) were stolen.
2. Equifax waited six weeks to publish this information. (By the way, it seems that their Apache web server software was to blame.  A patch had been issued in March for a vulnerability, but the patch was not applied).
3. The emergency-information website that they then had set up, looks like the site that a scammer would use to get one’s social security information.  Oh boy.
4. The stolen information could be used MANY YEARS from now by criminals to get credit cards, tax refunds, commit Medicare fraud – who even knows what else.
5. Three Equifax executives sold shares worth a combined $1.8 million just a few days after the company discovered the breach.

Some observers say this could finally bring to an end the ubiquitous use of social security numbers as a personal identification number in the United States. (It was never intended to be used for that; only for citizens to record and obtain their social security benefits).   I already try to keep a sharp eye on my credit card transactions, but feel I now have to figure out if I need to put a credit freeze on my accounts at the three credit ratings agencies.  A credit freeze is the nuclear option for protection, but also blocks anyone to access one’s credit history.  So for new credit, or a new job, or signing an apartment lease or a buying a new car with financing, one would have to lift the freeze, which takes time and money.  But surely that is far less of a convenience than getting one’s identity stolen?

9/11

One World Trade Center (also known as Freedom Tower) is the main building of the rebuilt World Trade Center complex in Lower Manhattan. Construction started in 2006 and was completed by July 2013. The 9/11 Memorial plaza is shown below. Picture: DON EMMERT/Getty Images

It’s hard to believe that it has been 16 years since the terrible events of Sept 11, 2001. A lot happened in the 16 years, of course.  There was the invasion into Iraq in 2003, justified with questionable intelligence by the Republican administration. Bin Laden would finally be tracked down and killed in May 2011, in Abbottabad, Pakistan.  And who would have thought that the war in Afghanistan would drag on to this day? September 2014 was supposed to mark the end of combat operations there, but the Afghan army just could not wipe out a resurgent Taliban.

Check out these pictures from last year’s Tribute in Light memorial in Lower Manhatten. The lights were switched on for tonight, as well.

The ‘Tribute in Light’ memorial shines in Lower Manhattan on the night before the 15th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks. (WABC Photo/Mike Waterhouse)

Thursday/ Harvey moving on

Tropical storm Harvey moved on from Houston, finally – to dump rain on the city of Beaumont, and on to the states of Louisiana and Tennessee.  (Rescuers in Houston still tried to reach homes block by block place today, fearing that people have been left behind in homes). An estimated 100,000 homes have been flooded. For people that can get to their homes, the immense clean-up effort has started.  Lots of incredible pictures, of Texas’s Flood of a Century – no, Flood of a Thousand Years, say some – have been posted by the Weather Channel, here.

The storm still made a lot of trouble in the city of Beaumont to the east today, knocking out its water supply system, with no repairs possible before the waters recede, and basically flooding the entire city (pop. 118,000).

Once a semblance of normality has returned to Texas, and especially the city of Houston, some very hard questions will have to be answered.  How to pay for all the repairs and reconstruction? Should new zoning laws be passed? What can be done infrastructure-wise?

This debris removal guideline graphic by the Federal Emergency Management Agency shows what the sidewalks will look like outside tens of thousands of homes in Texas. An estimated 70% of damaged home owners have no flood insurance.    

Wednesday/ no soup for you

‘We now have a president who can’t get the head of Campbell Soup to the White House*’, says Gail Collins in an editorial in the New York Times.  (Gail also pointed out that at his train wreck of a press conference on Tuesday, Trump asked the stunned reporters “Does anyone know I own a house in Charlottesville?  I own actually one of the largest wineries in the United States. It’s in Charlottesville.”).

*Business leaders disbanded two CEO councils created by the White House on Wednesday, in a move to protest Donald Trump’s failure to adequately condemn the violence in Charlottesville.

Campbell’s soup received a medal of excellence at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle, which became a central feature on the label. In 1962 Andy Warhol produced “Campbell’s Soup Cans,” 32 silk screened paintings, each representing a flavor from the brand’s condensed soup line. I like this work of art a little better (I think it’s simply a combination of individual Warhol works of art), with the colors added.

Tuesday/ Trump, at his ugliest (so far)

I like this tweet ..  (Hurry up with that investigation into the collusion with Russia, Mr Mueller. There are so many reasons to impeach this President, but Russia is at the top of the list).
.. and this one. “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” – Nelson Mandela

It was really extraordinary today, to see the President of the United States shouting ‘Excuse me, excuse me!’ repeatedly, every time as the press corps erupted with questions, while he went on and on with outrageous statements, challenges and insults (‘i like to have the facts’, ‘fake news’, ‘dishonest’).

He reiterated what he said on Saturday, blaming ‘both sides’ for the violence in Charlottesville (after he cleaned up some of it on Monday).

From today’s on-line edition of the New York Times.

Sunday/ what’s that flower?

What’s this pretty little flower’s name? It’s an aster, the genus is Kalimeris, from the sunflower family. It was first described in 1825 by the French botanist Alexandre Henri Gabriel de Cassini.

Some of the new additions to my garden are finally blooming: my reward for keeping them watered during the dry spell we had this summer.

I used a picture of one of the pretty new flowers, to test one of the visual recognition smart phone apps that helps identify plants by their flowers. This one is called myGardenAnswers, but there are several others such as Plantnet, LeafSnap, NatureGate and iPflanzen.

This app’s name is myGardenAnswers. From left to right – 1. I selected the photo option. 2. The picture top right is from my garden. Yes! The image matching engine found a match. 3. More information about the aster (kalimeris). Hmm, yes. Better keep the soil watered, it’s needs moisture in the ground!

 

Saturday/ a bad day for the United States

A procession of young white men carrying tiki torches, staged a demonstration on Friday night in Charlottesville, Virginia (117 miles south west of Washington, DC).  They were protesting the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in a park.  (Robert E. Lee was a Confederate General in the Civil War).  There were more demonstrations and counter-demonstrations on Saturday, and skirmishes between the two groups got out of hand quickly.  A 20-yr old white nationalist rammed his Dodge Charger into a crowd of counter-demonstrators, killing a woman and hurting 19 people. Not much later, a police helicopter crashed in the area, killing two state police helicopter pilots.

President Trump was remarkably bland in his comments about the events that he read from a script (‘we condemn the violence and bigotry on many sides, on many sides’). This from a president that never seems to hesitate to attack, and call out, anyone from Kim Jong-un, politicians and cabinet members, including Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell and his own Attorney General Jeff Sessions – hey, anyone that offends him.  Conclusion: he is not offended by white nationalists.

No, it’s not Nazi Germany in the 1930s. White nationalist demonstrators with their tiki torches, reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan, with its long and infamous history of violence,  on Friday night in Charlottesville, Va.

 

Thursday/ would I qualify for immigration?

I took the quiz that shows the Trump administration’s proposed new points system for legal immigration.  I wound back the clock to the time when I had first arrived in the USA, in 1995.   It would have been tough: I had no money to invest, no Nobel Prize, and no Olympic Medal. Zero points for all those!

Aw .. I would have needed a boost of 3 points to qualify.  Those last three categories are killers (Nobel Prize/ Olympic Medal/ serious money to invest); I scored 0 on all of them.  HOWEVER – I may have been a little tough on myself in the Job Offer category.  If those dollars for the salary brackets are 2017 dollars (not 1995 dollars), I would have scored 5 points for my 1995 job offer, and would have make it to a score of 32.

Wednesday/ Google: you’re fired

Bloomberg’s Emily Change interviewing James Damore after he had been fired from Google.

I am fascinated by the Google engineer that published a ‘manifesto’ stating that biological differences between men and women ‘explain’ the gender imbalance in Google’s workforce (70% of Google coders are male).  Now fired, he says he feels betrayed by Google, and that they seemingly do not support diversity of opinions.  Well. So let’s say he has a point (re: diversity of opinions).  But why risk your (dream) job by circulating a memo going against your company’s stated diversity culture, with debatable scientific evidence, with trigger words that automatically link baggage to your statements, that you have no control over?  Why step into that minefield at this time – when the US Dept of Labor is challenging Google in court for not being fair to women?  Why invite infamy for your company’s reputation and brand, and as for one’s personal brand, risk being seen as so selfish and so arrogant, that no manager will ever put you onto his or her team?  Did he not see that coming?    

Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s e-mail memo to the staff about James Damore’s inflammatory memo.

Tuesday/ ‘fire and fury’

Yes, this is a real picture: of a French nuclear test in 1970 in French Polynesia in the Pacific. It really does look like the end of the world.
Stamps issued by North Korea to celebrate their missile launches. All propaganda, of course, but makes me wonder if they are hard to get a hold of (and if it would be wrong to buy them for my collection!).

Well .. forget “shock and awe”. (That ill-conceived war in Iraq really did not end well – and has it really ended?)  Today we were told we may have “fire and fury, like the world has never seen” by the President of the United States.  The scary thing is that of the nine nuclear powers (mentioned in Monday’s post), the US is the only country without a system of checks and balances at the top of its launch process. The President of the United States is the only person in the world with the sole authority to launch a nuclear strike.  Seems to me it’s time that the generals, leaders in Congress and every sane person in power redouble their efforts to ratchet things down.

Friday/ Trumpwatch update

Newsweek: “Donald Trump is bored and tired,” the cover reads. “Imagine how bad he’d feel if he did any work.”

Another week packed with political news. Monday saw the firing of White House Director of Communications Anthony ‘The Mooch’ Scaramucci (after his savage expletive-filled rant to a journalist became public). Scaramucci was fired by new Chief of Staff John Kelly that replaced Reince Priebus.  For now, Trump stopped disparaging Attorney General Jeff Sessions (for recusing himself from the Russia investigation).  Trump reluctantly signed into law new sanctions against Russia.  He had no choice: Congress approved the law by veto-proof majorities.

Special investigator Robert Mueller impaneled a grand jury, the next step in his investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russia connections.  Trump and his defenders continue to say it’s a witch hunt; his lawyer even saying ‘we have no reason to believe he (Trump) is under investigation’.  Well, time will tell.  Mueller has assembled an all-star team of 16 lawyers with extensive experience in financial fraud and money laundering.  He has issued subpoenas to the White House for documentation on disgraced ex-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.  (Flynn was on the Turkish government’s payroll, and failed to disclose he was a foreign agent).  What else? Oh, transcripts of the embarrassing phone calls Trump had with the Mexican President and Australia’s Prime Minister were published.  (Telling the Mexican President that New Hampshire is ‘a drug-infested den’. But yes, the calls should not have been leaked). Then in public, Trump called the White House ‘a dump’ – only to flatly deny that he said any such thing, later in a tweet.   The President of the United States.

Thursday/ flying like a Boeing

Who says one cannot have fun, planning an 18 hour test flight? Boeing mapped out a giant 787 route across 22 states for an overnight test flight.

Flight tracking site FlightAware tracked the round-trip test flight for a new 787 from Boeing field that landed there on Thursday morning. The nose of the airplane points to Washington State, and the tail to South Carolina, where Boeing also has a manufacturing plant.