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Monthly Archives: November 2015

Why Black Friday is such a sign of the times As the middle class disappears, the rich go hiking and the poor fight over bargains.

By: Lloyd Alter –

bargains at best buy

Lining up for bargains, Thanksgiving 2015 (Photo: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

People are lining up today for bargains in many stores across America; Black Friday has even become an international phenomenon, pushed in Canada and the U.K. where it isn’t even a holiday. Some say the name comes from when stores are finally in the black, but according to some sources, (including MNN:)

“’Black Friday’ is the name which the Philadelphia Police Department has given to the Friday following Thanksgiving Day. It is not a term of endearment to them. ‘Black Friday’ officially opens the Christmas shopping season in centre city, and it usually brings massive traffic jams and over-crowded sidewalks as the downtown stores are mobbed from opening to closing.”

That was back in the ’60s when everyone hit the department stores. Much has changed in Philadelphia and elsewhere in the retail world. Some might look at the crowds fighting for bargains as a sign that people have too much money to waste, but perhaps there’s another way to look at it: People are chasing bargains because they have less disposable income than ever before. In fact, the census data bear this out:

census dataU.S. Census data show the middle class is shrinking. (Photo: U.S. census via New York Times)

For years up to 2000, the middle class shrunk because people were moving to the upper income group; then the middle class continued shrinking and the lower income group started increasing. The share of households in that middle class dropped from 55 percent in the ‘70s to 43 percent today. And as the New York Times notes, “Never before — since the Census Bureau’s data on household income began, in 1967 — has there been a decline in the share of households that qualify as high income.”

On Business Insider, Hayley Peterson describes how those middle income people “haven’t gotten a raise since 1999.”

After adjusting for inflation, U.S. median household income, at $53,657 in 2014, is still 6.5% lower than pre-recession levels in 2007, and 7.2% lower than its peak in 1999, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

This is having a big effect on how we shop and what we buy. There is a lot of really expensive stuff at the high end, and everyone else is chasing bargains and choosing cheaper brands. Middle-of-the-road brands are getting hurt. The head of Hershey’s called it “consumer bifurcation” (or as Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing explains, that’s “plutocrat-speak for “everyone is broke except the 1 percent.”)

While overall consumer confidence is trending up, lower income consumers continue to be fragile as income and wage growth has been minimal. Higher income and more confident consumers are driving premium growth, while cost-conscious consumers are driving the value segment.

Starre Vartan writes that “now that we can shop online, and we know the importance of shopping locally, and even buying less for the holidays … Black Friday seems like a lot of stress that’s just not worth it.” But lots of low-income people can’t easily shop online. They don’t have credit or they can’t be home for special deliveries.

It’s likely that Black Friday is going through its own “consumer bifurcation” — the upper income groups take REI’s advice and go outside and play, while everyone else fights over cheap TVs.

 

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The Turkey-Russia Confrontation Reminds Us: War Is Too Important to Be Left to Generals

The first thing to remember about the Turkish downing of a Russian fighter-jet is that it could just as easily have happened to an American aircraft. Yes, the situation in Syria is that complex; there’s plenty of risk to go around—and that’s before anyone starts putting “boots on the ground.”

Today, in the skies over Syria, the warplanes of at least half-a-dozen countries are flying combat missions: the US, Russia, Turkey, Israel, France, and, of course, Syria.

Air-traffic-control is hard enough to manage even in peacetime; it’s infinitely harder in a combat theater, where the various players have different objectives, as well as various levels of hostility, toward one another.

It’s worth noting that Russia and Turkey are historic enemies: They have fought no fewer than 12 wars over the last five centuries. So it wouldn’t take much to get them into a thirteenth conflict.

And now we have the casus belli, if the Russians want it: the downing of the Russian airplane. Moscow’s leader, Vladimir Putin, is plenty mad: He called the shoot-down “a stab in the back committed by accomplices of terrorists,” adding, “Today’s tragic event will have serious consequences for Russian-Turkish relations.”

Moreover, since Turkey is a member of NATO, a fight between Turkey and Russia would technically drag in the US and the 26 other NATO members. Why? Because under Article Five of the NATO treaty, an attack on one member-country is an attack on all.

In the midst of this high-stakes poker-ing, it’s a challenge to remember that the ostensible mission of all the countries involved is destroying ISIS. Indeed, any conflict among the air-powers is good news for the terrorist state, because if the big players fall into conflict with each other, then the decapitators of Raqqa can continue to do their evil thing.

So, for the sake of humanity—and to exact appropriate punishment on the masterminds of the Paris attacks, as well as other attacks—it’s best if Turkey and Russia step back from the brink of a confrontation that, at best, is a distraction and, at worst, could escalate into a major calamity.

But of course, we have to be realistic: In the current superheated environment, it will be hard for either Russia’s Putin or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan to back down. Once again, this is how new wars start, and we already have an old war, on ISIS, that we need to win. One war is enough.

For the rest of us, there’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that there are well-established ways of dealing with this sort of crisis. The bad news is that they require “leading from the front,” as opposed to “leading from behind.” And so President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, who have been passive to the extreme in the fight against ISIS—because the only “fight” that gets them energized is “climate change”—will have to rouse themselves to and convene a true council of war.

That is, all the big outside players—the US, Russia, Turkey, Israel, and France—would have to get together and coordinate their combat missions, at least enough to stay out of each other’s way. And yes, to the extent that the Syrian regime has air assets, either in the form of airplanes or anti-aircraft missiles, it would be helpful to have Damascus, too, as part of the parley.

Two centuries ago, the brilliant French diplomat Talleyrand declared, “War is too important to be left to generals.” That is, generals, who tend to take the approach of, “Let’s knock the [bleep] out of the other guy,” are not that useful when the issue is channeling anger in a very specific direction—in this case, solely against ISIS.

So today, what’s needed, at the highest level, are purposeful politicos, who understand that Russia vs. Turkey is an unfortunate and unnecessary sideshow, distracting from the main mission—namely, annihilating ISIS.

To be sure, many will object to such a “summit conference.” As noted, the Russians and the Turks hate each other; the US doesn’t like the Russians; the Muslim powers loathe the state of Israel; and so on. So of course, it would be a challenge to get all the players around a table, refocused on the anti-ISIS mission.

Indeed, the situation is urgent, because if anyone’s plan for destroying ISIS includes ground troops, then the downside of making a mistake becomes all the more acute. “Ground-pounders,” after all, are far more vulnerable than “fly-boys.”

Once again, there’s little chance that Obama is capable of doing any of this diplomatic work—as we know, he would rather be smearing Americans. So perhaps one of the other countries will step in to mediate, cajoling the sextet of powers into some sort of working arrangement.

But let’s not give up hope on American leadership, post-Obama. And in the meantime, it would be nice to see one or more of the Republican presidential hopefuls show that they have a bit of Talleyrand in them.

 

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An ISIS defector explained a key reason people continue joining the group

By Jeremy Bender

isis militants islamic state

(Amwal al Ghad)
ISIS militants march in a military parade.

Despite ISIS’s claims of ruling over a Islamic “caliphate” in line with Sharia law, a large number of the group’s fighters joined for reasons having little to do with religion, according to a defector from the group that The Daily Beast’s Michael Weiss interviewed in Istanbul, Turkey.

Instead, people are joining the organization because they are desperate for money and are struggling to find a way to survive in Syria, where four years of civil war have decimated the economy.

The ISIS defector, who goes by the pseudonym Abu Khaled, spoke with Weiss about the group’s internal dynamics, and what it was like to live under ISIS’s rule.

According to Abu Khaled, a large number of people are joining ISIS because they need money. After joining the militants, people are paid in US dollars instead of Syrian liras. Abu Khaled said that ISIS also runs its own currency exchanges.

ISIS members receive additional incentives to fight for the group. “I rented a house, which was paid for by ISIS,” Abu Khaled, who worked for ISIS’s internal-security forces and “provided training for foreign operatives,” told Weiss. “It cost $50 per month. They paid for the house, the electricity. Plus, I was married, so I got an additional $50 per month for my wife. If you have kids, you get $35 for each. If you have parents, they pay $50 for each parent. This is a welfare state.”

And those financial benefits are not just limited to the organization’s fighters. According to Abu Khaled, any member of ISIS, ranging from construction workers to doctors, receives similar compensation. In war-torn Syria, these salaries are a powerful lure for people who might not otherwise be able to support their families — or for people just hoping to get rich.

“I knew a mason who worked construction. He used to get 1,000 lira per day. That’s nothing,” Abu Khaled told Weiss. “Now he’s joined ISIS and gets 35,000 lira—$100 for himself, $50 for his wife, $35 for his kids. He makes $600 to $700 per month. He gave up masonry. He’s just a fighter now, but he joined for the income.”

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Syria control map oct 2015

(Reuters)
Other Syrians who have fled from ISIS’s rule have corroborated Abu Khaled’s reports, confirming that one of the only ways to accumulate wealth and status under ISIS’s rule is by joining the organization. Yassin al-Jassem, a Syrian refugee from near ISIS’s de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria,shared his experience with The Washington Post.”There is no work, so you have to join them in order to live,” al-Jassem told the Post. “So many local people have joined them. They were pushed into Daesh by hunger.”

According to Newsweek, there is a widening gap in living standards for those under ISIS rule. Members of the organization have access to food, free medical care, and desirable housing. In contrast, people who aren’t ISIS members suffer under a barely functioning economy with rapidly increasing prices.

ISIS can afford to pay people seeking to join its ranks through four main sources of income: oil, the sale of looted antiquities, taxation, and kidnapping ransoms.

The militant group either controls or has an operational presence around a number of oil wells in Iraq and in the majority of oil-producing areas in Syria. This allows the group to earn a steady income from oil production and smuggling that helps it to continue its daily operations.

The New York Times estimates that ISIS can make upward of $40 million a month through oil-related activities. In a bid to cut the group’s income, the US conducted its first airstrikes against ISIS oil trucks on November 16.

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ISIS Islamic State Raqqa Syria

(REUTERS/Stringer)
Residents watch militant Islamist fighters taking part in a military parade along the streets of Syria’s northern Raqqa province on June 30, 2014.

ISIS’s main source of income is significantly more difficult for the US and other coalition partners to target by air. According to Foreign Policy, ISIS makes the majority of its money through extortion and taxation of people living under the group’s rule.

ISIS taxes nearly every possible economic activity, with the revenue ultimately covering the expenses of waging continuous war along multiple fronts. Foreign Policy notes that taxes are put in place for militants who loot archaeological sites. Non-Muslims must pay religious taxes, and all ISIS subjects pay a base welfare and salary tax in support of the fighters. All vehicles passing through ISIS territory — which may carry the only food available to those living under ISIS control — must pay taxes often totaling hundreds of dollars.

This ad hoc war economy means that ISIS has little money to spend on improving the lives of those who are forced to live under its rule. But as Abu Khaled’s account confirms, it still finds the money for conducting military operations and incentivizing militants to join the group.

That money and the other benefits that ISIS fighters receive means that Syrians join ISIS out of desperation — and not necessarily out of religious or ideological conviction.

Pamela Engel contributed to this report.

NOW WATCH: President Obama: Syrian refugee rhetoric is a ‘potent recruitment tool for ISIL’

 

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Dalai Lama: Stop praying for Paris — humans created this problem and humans must solve it

The Dalai Lama speaks to Larry King on 'Larry King Now' on July 13, 2015. [Ora.TV]

 

Don’t pray for Paris — work for peace, he told Deutsche Welle, a German broadcasting company.

“We cannot solve this problem only through prayers,” the spiritual leader said. “I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.”

He added his hopes that the record violence of the 20th Century doesn’t continue to bleed into the current one.

“We need a systematic approach to foster humanistic values, of oneness and harmony,” he said. “If we start doing it now, there is hope that this century will be different from the previous one. It is in everybody’s interest. So let us work for peace within our families and society, and not expect help from God, Buddha or the governments.”

In what the Friendly Atheist described as sounding like Humanism, the Dalai Lama also said that much of the violence is over superficial matters.

“Furthermore, the problems that we are facing today are the result of superficial differences over religious faiths and nationalities,” he told DW. “We are one people.”

He also said he was leaving it up to the people of Tibet whether they wanted to continue having Dalai Lamas serve as leaders in the future.

“If the people think that this institution is no longer relevant, it should be abolished. I am no more involved in political matters,” he said. “I am only concerned about Tibet’s well-being.”

 

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More pics of ballsy topless Lebanese girls burning #ISIS flags…

521577_180023905482185_1539395733_nYou have to respect this kind of anger and self-assertiveness. The rest of the world may be afraid of ISIS, but these girls aren’t…

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A French Soldier’s View of US Soldiers

DoD Photo

A French Soldier’s View of US Soldiers in Afghanistan.

What follows is an account from a French ISAF soldier that was stationed with American Warfighters in Afghanistan sometime in the past 6 years. This was copied and translated from an editorial French newspaper.  Grammatical errors have been kept in-tact to preserve authenticity.

A NOS FRERES D’ARMES AMERICAINS

“We have shared our daily life with two US units for quite a while – they are the first and fourth companies of a prestigious infantry battalion whose name I will withhold for the sake of military secrecy. To the common man it is a unit just like any other. But we live with them and got to know them, and we henceforth know that we have the honor to live with one of the most renowned units of the US Army – one that the movies brought to the public as series showing “ordinary soldiers thrust into extraordinary events”. Who are they, those soldiers from abroad, how is their daily life, and what support do they bring to the men of our OMLT every day? Few of them belong to the Easy Company, the one the TV series focuses on. This one nowadays is named Echo Company, and it has become the support company.

They have a terribly strong American accent – from our point of view the language they speak is not even English. How many times did I have to write down what I wanted to say rather than waste precious minutes trying various pronunciations of a seemingly common word? Whatever State they are from, no two accents are alike and they even admit that in some crisis situations they have difficulties understanding each other. Heavily built, fed at the earliest age with Gatorade, proteins and creatine- they are all heads and shoulders taller than us and their muscles remind us of Rambo. Our frames are amusingly skinny to them – we are wimps, even the strongest of us – and because of that they often mistake us for Afghans.

And they are impressive warriors! We have not come across bad ones, as strange at it may seem to you when you know how critical French people can be. Even if some of them are a bit on the heavy side, all of them provide us everyday with lessons in infantry know-how. Beyond the wearing of a combat kit that never seem to discomfort them (helmet strap, helmet, combat goggles, rifles etc.) the long hours of watch at the outpost never seem to annoy them in the slightest. On the one square meter wooden tower above the perimeter wall they stand the five consecutive hours in full battle rattle and night vision goggles on top, their sight unmoving in the directions of likely danger. No distractions, no pauses, they are like statues nights and days. At night, all movements are performed in the dark – only a handful of subdued red lights indicate the occasional presence of a soldier on the move. Same with the vehicles whose lights are covered – everything happens in pitch dark even filling the fuel tanks with the Japy pump.Here we discover America as it is often depicted: their values are taken to their paroxysm, often amplified by promiscuity and the loneliness of this outpost in the middle of that Afghan valley.

And combat? If you have seen Rambo you have seen it all – always coming to the rescue when one of our teams gets in trouble, and always in the shortest delay. That is one of their tricks: they switch from T-shirt and sandals to combat ready in three minutes. Arriving in contact with the enemy, the way they fight is simple and disconcerting: they just charge! They disembark and assault in stride, they bomb first and ask questions later – which cuts any pussyfooting short.Honor, motherland – everything here reminds of that: the American flag floating in the wind above the outpost, just like the one on the post parcels. Even if recruits often originate from the hearth of American cities and gang territory, no one here has any goal other than to hold high and proud the star spangled banner. Each man knows he can count on the support of a whole people who provides them through the mail all that an American could miss in such a remote front-line location: books, chewing gums, razorblades, Gatorade, toothpaste etc. in such way that every man is aware of how much the American people backs him in his difficult mission. And that is a first shock to our preconceptions: the American soldier is no individualist. The team, the group, the combat team are the focus of all his attention.

(This is the main area where I’d like to comment. Anyone with a passing knowledge of Kipling knows the lines from Chant Pagan: ‘If your officer’s dead and the sergeants look white/remember it’s ruin to run from a fight./ So take open order, lie down, sit tight/ And wait for supports like a soldier./ This, in fact, is the basic philosophy of both British and Continental soldiers. ‘In the absence of orders, take a defensive position.’ Indeed, virtually every army in the world. The American soldier and Marine, however, are imbued from early in their training with the ethos: In the Absence of Orders: Attack! Where other forces, for good or ill, will wait for precise orders and plans to respond to an attack or any other ‘incident’, the American force will simply go, counting on firepower and SOP to carry the day.

This is one of the great strengths of the American force in combat and it is something that even our closest allies, such as the Brits and Aussies (that latter being closer by the way) find repeatedly surprising. No wonder is surprises the hell out of our enemies.)

We seldom hear any harsh word, and from 5 AM onwards the camp chores are performed in beautiful order and always with excellent spirit. A passing American helicopter stops near a stranded vehicle just to check that everything is alright; an American combat team will rush to support ours before even knowing how dangerous the mission is – from what we have been given to witness, the American soldier is a beautiful and worthy heir to those who liberated France and Europe.

To those who bestow us with the honor of sharing their combat outposts and who everyday give proof of their military excellence, to those who pay the daily tribute of America’s army’s deployment on Afghan soil, to those we owned this article, ourselves hoping that we will always remain worthy of them and to always continue hearing them say that we are all the same band of brothers”.

We seldom hear any harsh word, and from 5 AM onwards the camp chores are performed in beautiful order and always with excellent spirit. A passing American helicopter stops near a stranded vehicle just to check that everything is alright; an American combat team will rush to support ours before even knowing how dangerous the mission is – from what we have been given to witness, the American soldier is a beautiful and worthy heir to those who liberated France and Europe.

To those who bestow us with the honor of sharing their combat outposts and who everyday give proof of their military excellence, to those who pay the daily tribute of America’s army’s deployment on Afghan soil, to those we owned this article, ourselves hoping that we will always remain worthy of them and to always continue hearing them say that we are all the same band of brothers”.

Everyone complains about the quality of ‘the new guys.’ Don’t. The screw-ups of this modern generation are head and shoulders above the ‘high-medium’ of any past group. Including mine.So much of ‘The scum of the earth, enlisted for drink.’

This is ‘The Greatest Generation’ of soldiers.

They may never be equaled.

Original Article in French HERE

 

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Syria Op-Ed: Talking to Assad is Necessary, But It Does Not Make Him “Respectable”

ASSAD KERRY 2010

by Scott Lucas

PHOTO: President Assad with US Secretary of State John Kerry

 


When politicians insist that negotiations about Syria’s future must include talking to Bashar al-Assad, do they make him respectable?

That depends on your definition of “respectable”.

Does talking mean that politicians acknowledge him as an essential player in any effort to resolve the Syrian crises? Yes.

Does talking mean that they accept him as the legitimate President of Syria? Definitely not. Assad is going to be involved in any transition, but his personal destiny is another story.

In 2012, about 100 states already declared Assad to be an illegitimate representative of Syria. Since then, the President has been politically isolated, except for the ties to Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah on which he depends.

However, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s offensive — both in diplomacy and military intervention — is a new development in the intractable 4 1/2-year conflict. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s statement that the West would have to talk to Assad to resolve the crisis made headlines, but she was only following up on the statement of US Secretary of State John Kerry who said that Assad’s removal would not have to be immediate. Even Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a visceral foe of his Syrian counterpart, said that Assad could be part of a transitional process.

None of this will make Bashar al-Assad respectable, but international politics are driven by interests and rarely by morals. It is in the interest of many players to find a solution for the Syrian conflict – or at least move towards it, and the announcement of possible talks with Assad simply reflects that reality. As unbearable as it may appear to talk to Assad — the President who is responsible for the majority of the 300,000 dead and 11 million displaced Syrians — on equal terms, there is no alternative.

As uncertain as all variables in the Syrian conflict are, one thing is certain: There will be no development towards a silencing of weapons as long as Assad can call himself “Syrian President”. But holding discussions with someone is not equivalent to supporting him.

Those talks will not take place in isolation from the battlefield. Asked how Riyadh would respond to Russian airstrikes, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said, “You’ll see.“

Whether that is going to be an increase in the supply of arms and financial aid to Syria’s rebels or more radical steps such as circumventing the embargo on anti-aircraft missiles is guesswork. However, it is certain that those powers backing the opposition will strengthen its military capacities in some way. Already that supply has helped rebels blunt the multi-front regime offensive — supported by Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iranian-led units, and Russian air cover — with TOW anti-tank missiles, inflicting significant casualties on a Syrian military which lacks manpower.

The military pressure on the Assad regime is not likely to decrease, but that only bolsters the necessity in the long-term of negotiations to ensure the survival of military and economic groups who are currently propping up Assad.

In early September, the UN envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, presented a plan for a “Transitional Governing Body“ including representatives from the government, the opposition, and civil society. Assad could take the role of a “ceremonial Head of State“, but without executive powers, while 120 members of his inner circle would be barred from public office.

Russia, Iran, and the opposition all prevented consideration of the plan. However, the political dynamics might be different if the proposal came from the Syrian business and military elites.

Assad’s rule is based on the binding of the existence of those elites to the President’s survival. But restarting dialogue could send a signal to those elites that Assad is not essential for their future, and conversely that failure to distance themselves from Bashar could be their demise.

This would not be the first time in history that an effective coup was spurred by the urge to survive among the elites. For that to happen in Syria, these groups need the assurance of diplomatic talks. Otherwise the elites will be stuck, for better or worse, with Assad. And for the foreseeable future, everyone else will be stuck as well.

 

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How to Develop the Situational Awareness of Jason Bourne

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There’s a scene at the beginning of The Bourne Identity where the film’s protagonist is sitting in a diner, trying to figure out who he is and why he has a bunch of passports and a gun stashed in a safety deposit box. Bourne also notices that he, well, notices things that other people don’t.

That superhuman ability to observe his surroundings and make detailed assessments about his environment? It’s not just a trait of top secret operatives; it’s a skill known as situational awareness, and you can possess it too.

As the names implies, situational awareness is simply knowing what’s going on around you. It sounds easy in principle, but in reality requires much practice. And while it is taught to soldiers, law enforcement officers, and yes, government-trained assassins, it’s an important skill for civilians to learn as well. In a dangerous situation, being aware of a threat even seconds before everyone else can keep you and your loved ones safe.

But it’s also a skill that can and should be developed for reasons outside of personal defense and safety. Situational awareness is really just another word for mindfulness, and developing mine has made me more cognizant of what’s going on around me and more present in my daily activities, which in turn has helped me make better decisions in all aspects of my life.

I’ve spent months researching and talking to experts in the tactical field about the nature of situational awareness, and below you’ll find one of the most complete primers out there on how to gain this important skill. While the focus is primarily on developing your situational awareness to prevent or survive a violent attack, the principles discussed can also help hone your powers of observation in all areas of your life.

How to Develop Situational Awareness

Many of the resources out there on situational awareness say it can be cultivated by generally keeping tabs on your surroundings — “checking your six” and “keeping your back to the wall.”

This definition isn’t wrong. That’s exactly what situational awareness is: knowing what’s going on by scanning your environment. But I always found this explanation lacking. What exactly am I looking for? How do I know if I’m paying attention to the right things? Are there behaviors or warning signs of an imminent threat that I should know about?

Today we’re going to start by discussing the general principles of increasing your observational abilities, and then dive deeper into situational awareness itself to answer these important questions.

Observe + Orient = Situational Awareness

The thing that helped me finally understand situational awareness was framing it within the OODA Loop. For those of you who haven’t read my in-depth article on this important cognitive tool, here’s the CliffsNotes version:

The OODA Loop is a learning system and decision-making process that was first laid out by Air Force fighter pilot and military strategist John Boyd. The four steps of the OODA Loop are Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. In a head-to-head competition, like air-to-air combat, a violent confrontation in a parking lot, or even political contests, the person who can cycle through the OODA Loop the fastest wins.

Obviously, the Observe step in the loop is what most people associate situational awareness with.

But it’s the second step in the OODA Loop – Orient — that answered my questions about what developing situational awareness actually involves. Orientation tells us what we should look for when we’re observing, and then puts those observations into context so we know what to do with the information.

So Observe + Orient = Situational Awareness.

But how can we become better observers so that we can improve our situational awareness? And how should we orient ourselves so that we observe the right things and understand the context for what we’re seeing?

Observe: Stay in Condition Yellow 

In his seminal book, Principles of Personal Defense, gun-fighting expert Jeff Cooper laid outa color code system to help warriors gauge their mindset for combat scenarios. Each color represents a person’s potential state of awareness and focus:

code

For optimal situational awareness, Cooper recommends that we always stay in Condition Yellow.

Condition Yellow is best described as “relaxed alert.” There’s no specific threat situation, but you have your head up and you’re taking in your surroundings with all your senses. Most people associate situational awareness with just visual stimulation, but you can also learn a lot about a particular scenario from the sounds (or lack thereof) and even smells in the environment.

Even though your senses are slightly heightened in Condition Yellow, it’s also important to stay relaxed. By adopting a calm demeanor, you won’t bring any unnecessary attention to yourself. If you look antsy and your head is swiveling frantically while you scan your surroundings, people are going to notice you. Additionally, staying relaxed ensures that you maintain an open focus, which allows you to take in more information about what’s going on around you. Research shows that when we get nervous or stressed, our attention narrows, causing us to concentrate on just a few things at a time. A narrow focus can therefore cause us to miss important details in our environment.

tiger

Situational awareness isn’t just for times when your enemy is of the human variety…

Look up from your smartphone, don’t zone out, open your eyes, ears, and nose, and calmly scan your environment to take in what’s going on.

Besides staying in Condition Yellow, here are a few more tips to improve your observational abilities:

Put yourself in a position for optimal observation. To achieve effective situational awareness, you need to be able to observe as much of your surroundings as possible. Positioning yourself in obstructed spots will inhibit the flow of information coming in. For example, something might be in your way that prevents you from seeing a bad guy enter a theater or restaurant. You also don’t have eyeballs in the back of your head, so you can’t see what’s going on behind you.

So whenever you enter an environment, put yourself in a position that will allow you to see as much as you can. My buddy Mike Seeklander at Shooting Performance recommends finding a place where you can view all or most of the exit points, and that allows you to put your back to the wall. This position readies you to make a quick getaway, and eliminates the possibility of failing to see a threat materialize behind you.

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Granted, this isn’t possible in all situations. You don’t have much control as to which table a restaurant hostess seats you at on a busy night, and you’d likely get a lot of strange looks if you stood with your back in a corner while you’re waiting in line at Five Guys. So do your best within the given circumstances. In that busy restaurant, you might not have control of your table location, but you can choose which seat you take. Pick the chair that gives you the best view from your table. When you’re standing in line at a fast food restaurant, just nonchalantly look around and take in the scene.

Hone your observation skills by playing the A-Game. Mike plays a game with his kids called the “A-Game,” or Awareness Game, to help them (and himself) strengthen their observational skills. To play, when you go into a business, make note of a few things about your environment: the number of workers behind the counter, the clothing and gender of the person sitting next to you, how many entry/exits there are, etc. When you leave and get into the car to head home, ask your kids questions like “How many workers were behind the counter?” “Was the person sitting next to us a man or a woman?” “What color was his/her shirt?” “How many exits were there?”

It’s fun to play, but more importantly it’s training your kids (and you) to be more mindful of their surroundings.

Master memorization. Another fun activity that will help improve your situational awareness is to practice memorizing things. Bourne knew all the license plate numbers of the cars outside the diner. You can gain this skill by practicing with a deck of cards, or strings of numbers. Here’s a guide on how to gain the ability to memorize anything you want.

Orient: Baselines, Goals, and Action Plans

Being more observant isn’t enough to master situational awareness. You have to know what you’re looking for, and then put that information into context so it has meaning and becomes actionable. That’s where the Orient phase comes into play.

The Orient step provides three things to help us achieve situational awareness: 1) baselines and anomalies for our particular environment, 2) mental models of human behavior we should look for, and 3) plans of action depending on our observations.

Establish a Baseline Wherever You Go

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Every environment and person has a baseline. A baseline is what’s “normal” in a given situation, and it will differ from person to person and environment to environment. For example, the baseline at a small coffee shop will usually entail people reading a book or working on their computer or speaking in hushed tones with their friends. The baseline at a rock concert would be loud music and people looking at the stage while either jumping up and down to the music or swaying their bodies to the beat.

We establish baselines so that we can spot anomalies. According to Patrick Van Horne, situational awareness expert, instructor of the Marine Combat Profiling system, and author of Left of Bang, “Anomalies are things that either do not happen and should, or that do happen and shouldn’t.” Anomalies are what direct our attention as we take in our surroundings and what we need to focus on to achieve situational awareness.

So the first step in orienting ourselves is to establish baselines so that we can direct our attention to anomalies. How do we do that on the fly? Van Horne suggests that you mentally ask yourself these questions every time you enter a new environment:

  • Baseline Questions: What’s going on here? What’s the general mood of the place? What’s the “normal” activity that I should expect here? How do most people behave here most of the time?
  • Anomaly Question: What would cause someone or something to stand out?

Behavioral Clusters to Look For

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Our inability to pay attention to everything all at once makes it impossible to obtain complete situational awareness. The human mind can only handle so much information at a given time. Thus in the domain of personal safety, where things unfold quickly and seconds are often the difference between life and death, how we direct our attention is paramount.

So we need to focus on a few things at a time that provide the most bang for our attentional buck. And we do that, Van Horne argues, by relying on heuristics. Heuristics are quick and dirty problem-solving and decision-making mental shortcuts our minds use to figure things out when minimal information is available and time is limited. Decisions made from heuristics aren’t always perfect, but in the context of your personal safety, they’re usually good enough.

In Left of Bang, Van Horne lays out six domains of human behavior that Marine Combat Profilers use on the battlefield in order to quickly determine whether someone is a friend or foe. To get an idea of what civilians should look for in everyday situations, I interviewed Van Horne for this article. He told me the most important category of clues is what he calls kinesics, an area of behavior that involves people’s conscious and subconscious body language.

Within the domain of kinesics, three clusters of body language are of particular interest for situational awareness. They are: dominance/submissive behavior, comfortable/uncomfortable behavior, and interested/uninterested behavior.

Dominance/submissive behavior. Generally, most people try to get along with others, so for the most part people act in accommodating and submissive ways. Van Horne writes that dominant behavior “is an expression of the limbic system’s fight response” and often manifests itself in “gestures and postures that make a person look larger to intimidate ‘smaller’ individuals into submission.” Smaller vs. bigger here doesn’t just apply to physical size, however, but also relates to relative positions of power.

Because most people get along to get along, dominant behavior often constitutes an anomaly, and the person displaying it deserves more attention. If someone acts in a pushy, authoritative, or overbearing way, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a threat; context matters. You’d expect a boss to act dominant in relation to their employees and the employees to act submissive to their boss, but seeing extreme dominant behavior exhibited by a customer towards an employee isn’t as common. That’s something to keep an eye on.

Comfortable/uncomfortable behavior. Most people are going to look relatively comfortable in most situations. Think about a bus or a subway ride — passengers generally appear pretty relaxed while they stare out the window or read a book. If someone looks uncomfortable, that’s an anomaly that warrants extra attention, but it doesn’t mean they’re necessarily a threat. They could be distressed because they’re late for work or maybe they just heard some bad news about a relative. Again, it’s just something to keep your eye on.

Van Horne says that a common display of uncomfortable behavior you’ll see from individuals up to no good is that they’re “checking their six.” This is when a person looks over their shoulder to see what’s behind them or generally scans their surroundings. People who are comfortable generally don’t do this because they don’t feel any threat. So if you see a guy looking over his shoulder a lot when he should be standing there aloof, that’s an anomaly that should get your attention.

Now obviously, “checking your six” is something that situationally aware good guys do too. If you’re doing it right, it shouldn’t be noticeable to others, but it takes practice, and some guy with his head on a swivel might still be green. But until you verify that through further observation, be suspicious.

On the flipside, someone acting comfortable when everyone else is uncomfortable would be an anomaly. One of the ways law enforcement was able to identify the Boston Marathon bombers was that they noticed in surveillance footage that the men looked relatively calm while everyone else was running around in a panic. The reason they looked calm was because they knew the explosion was going to happen and thus weren’t surprised by it, while everyone else was caught off guard.

Interested/uninterested behavior. Most people aren’t paying attention to their environment. They’re too caught up in their own thoughts or whatever it is they’re doing. So individuals who are showing interest in a particular person or object that most people wouldn’t be interested in is an anomaly that warrants further observation.

These three body language clusters establish baselines for every situation in which we find ourselves and allow us to direct our limited attention towards things that are potentially more important and/or dangerous. If a person’s behavior across these clusters fits the baseline for that particular circumstance, you can pretty much ignore them. If their behavior doesn’t fit the baseline, they’re an anomaly and you should observe them more closely.

Other Behavioral Threat Indicators

Besides the above three kinesic clusters, Marine Combat Profilers are taught to look out for a couple other behaviors that could apply to civilian situations as well:

Shifty hands. Military and law enforcement officers typically check the hands first on any person with which they’re engaging. This is for two reasons. First, “checking the hands of a person ensures that the person is not holding a weapon and is not preparing to strike,” writes Van Horne. Second, hands often telegraph hidden nefarious intentions. People who are concealing something they don’t want discovered, like a gun, knife, or stolen object, “will often touch or pat that area on the body where that object is concealed, as if to ensure the object has not been lost or is still hidden from view.”

“Acting Natural.” It’s difficult to “act natural” when you’re not completely focused on whatever it is you’re really supposed to be doing. People “acting natural” will appear distracted and over- or under-exaggerate their movements. Insurgents in Afghanistan will often try to act like farmers, when they’re in fact attempting to collect information on U.S. military patrols. Marine Combat Profilers are trained to look for these “farmers” who appear to be trying too hard.

Have a Plan of Action Based on What You Observe

You visit your favorite coffee shop and a bad guy with a gun decides to drop in as well. But because you’ve followed the principles above, you’re the first to see him as a threat. Great. But what are you going to do about it? Seconds matter here. You don’t have time to formulate a well-thought-out plan. What’s more, the stress of the event will muddle your thinking and decision-making.

In addition to asking yourself the baseline and anomaly questions every time you enter an environment, Van Horne suggests you ask yourself a third question: “What would I do if I saw an anomaly?” In other words, come up with an action plan.

So let’s go back to the coffee shop example. Let’s say the anomaly for which you want to create an action plan is “guy comes in with a gun.” The best course of action in this scenario depends on a few things. And knowing what those few things are requires you to be situationally aware. If the robber came in from the front door and you’re near the rear exit, your best action would be to book it out the back door right away. On the other hand, if he entered through the back exit near you, according to the Department of Homeland Security, your best action would be to immediately close the gap between him and you and incapacitate him.

Establish baselines. Look for anomalies. Have a plan.

That’s what situational awareness comes down to.

Situational Awareness as a Preventive Tactic

Animals are creatures of opportunity. They’ll typically only attack another creature if they look vulnerable. Lions will go after younger, sicker, or older gazelles because they’re easier to catch. The same goes with humans. Criminals are typically going to go after a person who looks vulnerable, whether the victim is physically weaker or will simply be easy to catch off guard.

Practicing situational awareness goes a long way in keeping you from appearing like an easy target. When you’re out and about, look alert. Get your nose out of your smartphone. When you’re walking back to your car at night, have your keys at the ready and constantly scan your surroundings. The less vulnerable you look, the less likely someone is going to mess with you.

Here’s another tip on not looking like a victim, from the guys at Sage Dynamics: Alwayskeep a tactical flashlight on you and bust it out at nighttime. Having a light allows you to better observe in the darkness, but it can also act as a deterrent to would-be bad guys. Because law enforcement officers are usually the only ones shining flashlights down alleys and under cars, if you’re shining your light as you walk to your destination or back to your car, the bad guys are probably going to think you’re a cop and will likely just leave you alone. If worst comes to worst and you do end up getting jumped, you can use the tactical flashlight as a defensive tool by blinding your would-be attacker with the bright beam or even hitting him with the beveled edge that’s often built into the handle. 

Practice, Practice, Practice

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Situational awareness is a mindset that you have to purposefully cultivate. You want to get to the point that it’s just something you do without having to think about it. To get to that point, you have to practice it regularly. Starting today, consciously remind yourself to look for entry/exit points whenever you enter a new building. Start observing people and establishing baselines and generating possible anomalies while you’re at work, at the gym, or on a date. And then start coming up with action plans on what you would do in that specific situation if you see a possible threat. Don’t be paranoid, just mindful. Do that day in and day out, and situational awareness won’t be something you have to intentionally think about, just something you do naturally. And not fake farmer natural, but Jason Bourne natural.

Until next time, keep your head on a swivel, check your six, and keep your back to the wall.

Oh, and stay manly!

__________________________

Further Reading and Resources on Situational Awareness

Left of Bang by Patrick Van Horne and Jason A. Riley. Patrick has spent his career researching and teaching situational awareness to Marines through the Marine Combat Profiling system that he helped create. This book, coupled with the articles at his site cp-journal.com and a personal interview with him went a long way in helping answer my questions.

www.cp-journal.com. This is Patrick’s company website. He has tons of free content that provides insanely useful information on developing your situational awareness. If you’re looking for something more structured, he also offers online courses.

“Toward a Theory of Situation Awareness” by Dr. Mica Endsley. Dr. Mica Endsley is the Chief Scientist at the U.S. Air Force. While Dr. Endsley’s paper is pretty technical, she does a fantastic job explaining the minutia and nuances of situational awareness that helped clarify a few things for me. I highly recommend you check it out.

Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making by Gary Klein

The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker

 

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Need A Mid-Career Jumpstart? HIRE YOURSELF!

help wanted


Consider The ‘Entrepreneur Lite’ Option

The traditional career path is dead.

With rapidly changing technology and a global economy, the average company and employee in the United States continue to come to terms with the new normal.

Workers aged 50 and older who lost their jobs during the recession were 20 percent less likely to become re-employed than those 24 to 34, according to the Urban Institute. And, unemployment doubled for workers 55 and older between December 2007 and March 2012.

It’s not just factory jobs that have gone, it’s also a wide range of middle-class, white-collar jobs that are letting go of their experienced people,

Gone are the days when you could expect a job out of college to last an entire career. The new normal is, for many, a very cobbled career trajectory. Unfortunately, there are many talented, middle-aged professionals who are getting lost in the new shuffle. However, many are cutting their own new path.”

We call it “entrepreneur lite” – a franchise option that fast-tracks people to business ownership without the requirement of a brilliant idea.

In franchising, someone has already dreamed the big dream, figured out how to make it work, and marketed and sold their way into a well-defined niche. Now they’re looking for an investor and partner in building on that success.

Is the entrepreneur lite career path right for you? There are many things to consider, including  five Cs, which summarizes as:

• Capital: Most franchise companies require a minimum level of liquid capital. A number of costs beyond the initial fee need to be considered when you’re investing in a franchise. There will be legal fees, rent, royalty fees, and equipment and inventory to purchase – to name some costs. Keep in mind that there is a ramp-up period with any business. You need enough money to cover your expenses during this time when more money will be going out than coming in. Meanwhile, the ordinary expenses of life continue.

• Capacity: You must have a certain level of business acumen. As a business owner, you must understand people and how to motivate, lead and support employees. Experience in sales and operations management is a plus. It takes strong leadership skills to build a business and develop a reliable staff, and savvy hiring skills will save you from costly mistakes.

• Cooperation: A franchisor will have a detailed plan for you to follow—and they need to know you will embrace that plan in a spirit of cooperation. They want to feel confident that you’ll follow their procedures and systems to create a consistent product and service upon which they can build their brand.

• Character: Franchisors expect the people with whom they partner to operate with honesty and integrity. As a franchisee, you will be representing the brand, and franchisors will take a close look at how well you will do that. A company may do a background check on their candidates to make an assessment of this quality.

• Customer satisfaction: Warren Buffett famously said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” Think about your own shopping and service provider experiences and how those interactions have shaped your opinion of businesses. Everyday transactions can earn your repeat business—or ensure you won’t be back. Do you have the desire and passion to create a superior customer experience? A franchise needs to ensure that you will take good care of customers.

 

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The Biggest Financial Mistake At The End of the Year

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By Marc Sarner

As the end of the year approaches we make plans to spend time with family and friends. Where are we going for Thanksgiving? Are we traveling somewhere for Christmas?

I find that many people think about their investments and reevaluate goals. However, they don’t think to examine whether or not they can convert part of their IRA to a Roth IRA with little or no tax liability.
That’s right. It is possible that you can convert your IRA with no tax consequence.

If you are having a low-income year or are in retirement and have a large IRA balance, it is possible for you to convert part of it without incurring tax consequences.

Why would you want to convert to a Roth IRA? Here are a few advantages to the Roth:

•  Withdrawals from a traditional IRA are taxed because you were able to defer taxes on that money when you made contributions to your account. Withdrawals from a Roth IRA aren’t taxed because the deposits into the account weren’t tax deductible.

•  Any growth in a Roth IRA is tax free as long as it has grown for at least five years.

•  With a traditional IRA, when you reach age 70½ you must begin withdrawing a certain amount each year whether you want to or not. That’s called the Required Minimum Distribution. But with a Roth IRA, there is no Required Minimum Distribution so even at 70½ you can withdraw as much or as little as you like.

 You want to make sure you are talking to your tax specialist or a seasoned experienced advisor when looking at these options. One thing you can do is have them do a mock tax return to see the effect.

Why haven’t you heard of this before from your advisors? If you think about it, tax professionals are reacting to the previous year’s income and transactions. They are paid to do taxes.

Advisors are hired to manage money and plan.  When was the last time your advisor looked at your tax return to see how much money they can save you? This really isn’t an area they specialize in and they aren’t paid by you to focus on it.

For pre-retirees and retirees, planning for retirement is more than picking investments that fit your goals. Retirement planning is about becoming financially independent. Including Roth IRA conversion as part of your end of the year game plan could save you thousands in the long run.

 You have until Dec. 31 to convert. If you end up doing too much, you can always re-characterize or reverse the transaction come tax time.  However, if you don’t do enough, you can’t do more conversion.

About Marc Sarner

As president of Wake Up Financial and Insurance Services, Inc. (www.wakeupretirement.net) for nearly two decades, Marc Sarner provides retirement solutions for retirees and pre-retirees that focus on reducing taxes, increasing income and managing risks. He earned his Bachelor of Business Administration from California Polytechnic State University.

 

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