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Wednesday, February 27, 2013


Media-Whore D'Oeuvres


"The shooting clattered on for 30 minutes, residents of this dusty town say, and when it ended, four militants holding a German engineer hostage were dead. So were the engineer, and four innocent bystanders.  In vast West Africa, a new front-line region in the battle against al Qaeda, Nigeria is America's strategic linchpin, its military one the U.S. counts on to help contain the spread of Islamic militancy. Yet Nigeria has rebuffed American attempts to train that military, whose history of shooting freely has U.S. officials concerned that soldiers here fuel the very militancy they are supposed to counter. It is just one example of the limits to what is now American policy for policing troubled parts of the world: to rely as much as possible on local partners. The U.S. and Nigerian authorities don't fully trust each other, limiting cooperation against the threat. And U.S. officials say they are wary of sharing highly sensitive intelligence with the Nigerian government and security services for fear it can't be safeguarded. Nigerian officials concede militants have informants within the government and security forces.For the U.S., though, cooperation with Nigeria is unavoidable. The country is America's largest African trading partner and fifth-largest oil supplier. Some 30,000 Americans work here. Nigeria has by far the biggest army in a region where al Qaeda has kidnapped scores of Westerners, trained local militants to rig car bombs and waged war across an expanse of Mali the size of Texas. Last month, al Qaeda-linked extremists' attack on a natural-gas plant in faraway Algeria left at least 37 foreigners dead.In Nigeria, a homegrown Islamic extremist group loosely called Boko Haram has for years attacked churches and schools. The name translates as 'Western education is sin.'" (WSJ)


"The supremely confident billionaire hedge-fund manager Bill Ackman has never been afraid to bet the farm that he’s right. In 1984, when he was a junior at Horace Greeley High School, in affluent Chappaqua, New York, he wagered his father $2,000 that he would score a perfect 800 on the verbal section of the S.A.T. The gamble was everything Ackman had saved up from his Bar Mitzvah gift money and his allowance for doing household chores. 'I was a little bit of a cocky kid,' he admits, with uncharacteristic understatement. Tall, athletic, handsome with cerulean eyes, he was the kind of hyper-ambitious kid other kids loved to hate and just the type to make a big wager with no margin for error. But on the night before the S.A.T., his father took pity on him and canceled the bet. 'I would’ve lost it,' Ackman concedes. He got a 780 on the verbal and a 750 on the math. 'One wrong on the verbal, three wrong on the math,' he muses. 'I’m still convinced some of the questions were wrong.'
Not much has changed in the nearly 28 years since Ackman graduated from high school, except that his hair has gone prematurely silver. He still has an uncanny knack for making bold, brash pronouncements and for pissing people off. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the current, hugely public fight he and his $12 billion hedge fund, Pershing Square Capital, are waging over the Los Angeles–based company Herbalife Ltd., which sells weight-loss products and nutritional supplements using a network of independent distributors. Like Amway, Tupperware, and Avon, Herbalife is known as “a multi-level marketer,' or MLM, with no retail stores. Instead, it ships its products to outlets in 88 countries, and the centers recruit salespeople, who buy the product and then try to resell it for a profit to friends and acquaintances." (VanityFair)


"The mystery of John Boehner’s sequestration strategy — What are they thinking? How do they imagine it will work? — is slowly coming into focus. Viewed as a plan to accomplish some policy end, it makes no sense. But that doesn’t seem to be its main intent. Boehner’s plan seems mainly designed to keep John Boehner from losing his job. In that sense, and in that sense only, the logic holds. The first thing to understand is how crazy the Republican strategy is as a partywide approach. Sequestration is automatic cuts to spending, but only to the parts of the federal budget that Republicans hate the least. Their least favorite part of the federal budget — anti-poverty programs — is exempt. Their second least-favorite part — broad social insurance programs, meaning Medicare and Social Security — is also exempt. What’s being cut is discretionary government spending, which Republicans dislike in theory but not so much in practice, and defense, which they quite like.
Obama is proposing to replace these cuts with a mix of cuts to social insurance and reduced tax deductions. So break down the deal into two parts. In one part, Republicans would get to cancel out the defense cuts in return for reducing some tax exemptions. Depending on how much a given Republican likes defense or hates making the rich pay more taxes, that trade is anything ranging from a win to a medium-size loss. The second part of the deal involves canceling out the domestic discretionary cuts and replacing them with cuts to Social Security and Medicare. That is a major win for any Republican. Republicans hate social insurance way more than they hate highways, food inspectors, national parks, and the other mundane government functions in the discretionary budget. What’s more, the social insurance cuts are designed to save a lot more money over the long run than they would over the next ten years, which means Obama is offering to cut spending by a far greater amount over ..." (NyMag)



"The Mayflower Madam opened the door to her New York apartment. Inside, it was clearly more Mayflower than madam. Old family heirlooms include an inlaid mahogany secretary, two 18th-century family portraits of children and a Dresden clock. The former debutante Sydney Biddle Barrows, a scion of Philadelphia’s aristocratic Biddle family, has called this rent-controlled, $1,800-a-month, three-room Upper West Side apartment home since before her 1984 arrest for running a pricey prostitution service. Her guest had come early, so she was still wearing shorts and her glasses.'You always expect that extra 20 minutes to get yourself together,' she said pleasantly.
The settee on which the guest perched has sentimental meaning, too. 'My girls used to sit on that sofa,' Ms. Barrows said nostalgically, as if having been in her former line of work were the most natural thing in the world. One cannot but marvel that Barrows still looks remarkably like she did when she burst on the scene at 32 as New York’s best-bred madam, appearing on the front pages of newspapers in handcuffs. When her Pilgrim lineage came to light, the tabloids had a field day. “It was very difficult when it first happened,” Ms. Barrows recalled. 'I was used to people liking me, and all of a sudden there were people out there who didn’t even know me who disliked me.' The Social Register dropped her. Candice Bergen played her in a made-for-television movie.An antique silver chest sits in the living room in front of a marble mantelpiece for a faux fireplace. 'There is no other pattern like that,' she said of the custom-made silver flatware. It was created for her great-great-grandmother by Samuel Kirk, the famous 19th-century Philadelphia silversmith. 'My mother didn’t want it,' she said. 'How lucky is that?' Of a nearby grandfather clock she said, 'Oh that,' waving dismissively, 'I bought it myself.' Like any WASP worth her weight in single malt, Barrows sees buying one’s own furniture as tacky." (Observer)


"What’s next after the Oscars? More Gatsby, of course. 'The Great Gatsby,' featuring Leonardo DiCaprio and coming in May, will be the fourth, or by some counts the fifth or sixth, movie version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel about the illusion created by false wealth in the 1920s. The corollary to the “The Great Gatsby” in the literature of economics is another old 'great,' 'The Great Crash 1929,' by the economist John Kenneth Galbraith. Galbraith’s narrative, like Fitzgerald’s, is subtle, conjuring complex characters. Yet the effect of both books is the same: to display the 1920s as a decade full of false numbers and false people, reckless pilots who caused an economic wreck so catastrophic it necessitated 10 years of Depression. And Galbraith assigns the pivotal role of the heedless Daisy Buchanan to Calvin Coolidge, the 30th U.S. president:'President Coolidge neither knew nor cared what was going on,' Galbraith writes. In other words, the 30th president was the one to fall asleep at the wheel of our economic car. Since Galbraith published 'Crash' in 1954, a series of scholarly works have shown this line of reasoning to be about as substantial as a champagne bubble. As early as the 1960s, for example, Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz posited that monetary policy was the crucial force in the Great Depression. Their 'A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960' mentions Coolidge precisely once, in a footnote." (Amity Shlaes)


"AMID the chaos of Italy’s election night, with projections contradicting exit polls and partial results confounding projections, three facts stood out. The first was the spectacular advance of a movement spun out the internet just over three years ago, which is fronted by a comedian and has no comprehensive plan for running the country. The Five Star Movement (M5S), founded by Beppe Grillo in 2009, secured the ballots of roughly one in four of the Italians who voted, more than went to any other party. It was an astonishing result that will dismay chancelleries and scare markets, all the more so because of the second fact. This was that, because of Mr Grillo’s success, neither of the two main alliances (of centre-right and centre-left) obtained an outright majority in the upper house, the Senate. Though at least one M5S official was not prepared to rule out a deal with one of the other coalitions, Mr Grillo himself however was adamant: there would be 'no stitch-ups and no little stitch-ups,' he declared. This is crucial to Italy’s stability because, unlike many other countries, the two chambers of its parliament have equal powers. Without control of both, a government cannot legislate. The third fact was that, in both houses, Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative alliance ran the centre-left far closer than had been expected. With all but a tiny percentage of the ballots counted, it looked as if the centre-left would win the lower house by less than half a percentage point, and despite a fractionally higher proportion of the vote, slightly fewer seats in the Senate.The likely outcome bore witness to the inaccuracy of the polls (including those conducted on the very eve of the election) and Mr Berlusconi’s brash campaigning skills. But more than anything else it was testimony to the effectiveness of a highly questionable pledge. The former prime minister promised not only to abolish, but give back the revenue from an unpopular tax on primary residences imposed last year by Mario Monti’s outgoing 'technocratic' government. Mr Berlusconi has claimed, improbably, that he can offset the impact on Italy’s public finances with the proceeds of a deal with Switzerland on cash stashed away there by Italians. It is precisely the kind of fast-and-loose approach to the government’s accounts that explains why investors are so wary of Mr Berlusconi and alarmed to see him climb back out of what had seemed like his political grave." (Economist)


"As Iran met in Kazakhstan this week with members of the UN Security Council to discuss its nuclear program, researchers announced that a new variant of the sophisticated cyberweapon known as Stuxnet had been found, which predates other known versions of the malicious code that were reportedly unleashed by the U.S. and Israel several years ago in an attempt to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. The new variant was designed for a different kind of attack against centrifuges used in Iran’s uranium enrichment program than later versions that were released, according to Symantec, the U.S-based computer security firm that reverse-engineered Stuxnet in 2010 and also found the latest variant. The new variant appears to have been released in 2007, two years earlier than other variants of the code were released, indicating that Stuxnet was active much earlier than previously known. A command-and-control server used with the malware was registered even earlier than this, on Nov. 3, 2005. Like three later versions of Stuxnet that were released in the wild in 2009 and 2010, this one was designed to attack Siemens PLCs used in Iran’s uranium enrichment program in Natanz. But instead of changing the speed of spinning centrifuges controlled by the PLCs, as those later versions did, this one focused on sabotaging the operation of valves controlling the flow of uranium hexafluoride gas into the centrifuges and cascades — the structure that connects multiple centrifuges together so that the gas can pass between them during the enrichment process. The malware’s goal was to manipulate the movement of gas in such a way that pressure inside the centrifuges and cascade increased five times the normal operating pressure. 'That would have very dire consequences in a facility,' says Liam O’Murchu, manager of security response operations for Symantec. 'Because if pressure goes up, there’s a good chance the gas will turn into a solid state, and that will cause all sorts of damage and imbalances to the centrifuges.' The new finding, described in a paper released by Symantec on Tuesday (.pdf), resolves a number of longstanding mysteries around a part of the attack code that appeared in the 2009 and 2010 variants of Stuxnet but was incomplete in those variants and had been disabled by the attackers." (WIRED)

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