Friday, 27 February 2015

Jihadi John

Jihadi John, most notorious of the ISIS beheaders, has been identified as Mohammed Emwazi, a 27-year-old Kuwaiti immigrant to the UK who lived in West London, studied Computer Science at Westminster Univerity and was already well-known to MI5 and the UK police.

Mohammed at work 

Presumably he is a reasonably intelligent man and one has to wonder what has provoked his murderous occupation.

It is being claimed by CAGE UK, the group which represents former detainees at Guantanamo Bay, that Emwazi was systematically harassed and assaulted by MI5 in order to coerce him into working for them. His tale of woe is documented here.

The story bares some resemblance to that of the "emir" of ISIS himself, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who seems to have been a mild mannered history teacher until he spent a couple of years in an American concentration camp, picked up during the second Gulf War.

Yet again we seem to have made rod for our own backs.

Relatives of the beheaded want him captured but it goes without saying that the absolute last thing the authorities want is Emwazi back in the UK and testifying in a Court of Law. No, they just want him dead, so likely that is what will happen.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Greece coming to an inflexion point

It's all coming to a head in Greece. They are borrowing to service their €316bn national debt and also borrowing to keep their retail banks funded as Greek citizens withdraw their savings; borrowing from the "troika" of IMF, ECB and EU. About one third of all savings has been withdrawn so far; the withdrawal rate is about €400m per day but is actually tapering off a bit.

The Greek government has €3.3bn left on its line of credit at the troika.

So the Greeks have about a week to ten days before they hit the buffers. Then the Greek government has two options: 1) agree to German demands and ramp up the austerity and the credit limit will be raised, or 2) keep their election pledge to end austerity and the credit card will be torn up.

They do have one tiny glimmer of good news: they have abolished their primary deficit so they do not need to do any new borrowing to fund their day-to-day expenditure. Of course, they still need to sell new bonds to replace old ones that are maturing, ie, roll over the current debt, and they do need to borrow to pay the interest on the existing debt.

It's beginning to look like they will take option two.

At which point they will default on their national debt; stop paying the interest or even redeeming bonds when they mature. This is the "big stick" they have to wave at the world. But it's not a massive stick - the world can sustain a loss of €316bn. The downside to defaulting on the debt for the Greeks is that their High Street banks will run out of cash almost immediately, and without money modern society closes down pretty much immediately.

The "right" move after taking option two would be to leave the euro. The problems here are: it doesn't look like they've made any preparations to leave, printed up a new currency etc, and in fact the Greek people want to stay in the euro; understandably, no one wants their good money taken away and replaced with bad money.

But leaving the euro would solve the absence of cash problem, and would allow devaluation which would kick start the economy. As this blog has mentioned before, the Greeks are very lucky in that their main foreign-exchange earning assets are inexhaustible; these being: sun, sand, sea and culture. Tourism is the bulk of their GDP (plus some  shipping and a few olives) and when Greek holidays become cheap people will flock to Greece (just like they are not flocking to Switzerland anymore.)

So if we're looking at a hurried, unplanned "Grexit" it's going to be messy. Without a new currency ready to roll they will have to impose withdrawal limits at the banks and capital controls to stop money leaving the country. For a time bills will go unpaid and salaries will not arrive.

Ironically, to prepare for this, it would be best to max out the credit card before pulling the plug. The more cash in the economy the better it will survive when the ATMs run dry. So the Greeks should take that last €3.3bn before saying so long suckers, we're leaving.

Then one must ask, once the credit card has been torn up what other sticks do the troika have? And the answer is basically, none. They could in theory threaten to kick Greece out of the EU itself, but realistically they are not going to do that. So the Greeks could be sitting pretty a few months down the line - effectively debt free, no possibility of acquiring new debt, its own currency so all liquidity problems solved, and a buoyant tourism-fueled economy taking in euros and giving change in "new" drachmas.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Pas devant

Samsung have issued a warning about talking in front of their smart TVs.

It seems their voice-activated, net-connected televisions do not behave quite as expected. You would expect that the TV would listen to its owner's voice, understand the commands and carry out the ordered actions, such as changing channel or downloading a movie.

But, no, actually the voice command is sent through the internet connection to an unnamed 3rd party voice-recognition supplier which converts the sounds to a computer language which is then passed back up the line to the TV set which then does the requested action. Which is long-winded but OK, until you realise the TV does not know what is a command and what is not and so passes everything it hears that might be a command to the 3rd party to see if translates to a command it should obey.

The net result is that the 3rd party is collecting a lot of private conversations and possibly some "useful" telephone banking type information.

Probably there is some sort of scandal waiting to happen here, although this blog is not sure what, maybe a back-channel to the NSA, effectively every home so equipped is bugged.

Of course if you have got a mobile phone you are already bugged. The intelligence services can switch them on remotely without any on-screen indication that they are transmitting (except perhaps the battery running down rather fast.)

Friday, 6 February 2015

Burning man

The West has been widely horrified at the burning to death in a cage of Jordanian air force pilot Muath Safi Yousef al-Kasasbeh who ejected from his rather decrepit ex-Belgian air force F-16 when it suffered a mechanical problem while he was bombing Islamic State (IS) positions near Raqqa in Syria.

Raqqa, a disputed city in the north of Syria, is now the effective capital of the Islamic State.

Of course IS claimed to have shot him down with a heat-seeking missile, but that is not generally accepted. Far more likely is a fault forcing him to ditch. The Jordanian army seems to have made a failed attempt to rescue him.

Pilot: Burning, full video here.

Two questions present themselves: why did IS burn him rather than behead him, and why is the world so upset about it?

The burning is most likely because that is what he had been doing to other people. He had been bombing the city and doubtless he burned many people to death - so they executed him in the same manner rather than the more usual beheading.

He was put in an orange jumpsuit because that is what the Americans do to their Islamic prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

And the fury of the West stems entirely from class. Al-Kasabeh was a pilot, therefore an educated man with a job respected in the West. We could imagine being him. We do not really identify with the goat-herders that constitute most of the victims of IS. He was also more European looking than the usual victim, which gets him more airtime than the two Japanese recently killed. Essentially our fury stems from his being one of 'us'.

Which is nonsense of course. Every person values their own life and their death should be lamented to the same degree. But that is not the way of the Western media.