Saturday, March 07, 2009

Unintended consequences: death by hyperthermia

Each year 15-25 kids die of hyperthermia when a child is forgotten and is left in a hot car. WaPo:
Two decades ago, this was relatively rare. But in the early 1990s, car-safety experts declared that passenger-side front airbags could kill children, and they recommended that child seats be moved to the back of the car; then, for even more safety for the very young, that the baby seats be pivoted to face the rear. If few foresaw the tragic consequence of the lessened visibility of the child . . . well, who can blame them?

Friday, March 06, 2009

Bear: age 16.9 months


Kicking the GM Bankruptcy down the road

GM now more open to bankruptcy after audit?

From the Australian News this several month delay has been a bit pricey:

The auditor's finding could also complicate GM's effort to get additional bailout loans from the US Government and other governments around the world. GM has so far borrowed $US13.4 billion from the US Treasury and has asked for as much as $US16.6 billion more. It is also seeking €3.3 billion ($6.5 billion) in loans from the German Government.

The collapse of the US by 2010

The AP reports:

Per Russian dean at the Foreign Ministry's school for future diplomats:

"I can see Russia from my house."

will become

"My house is in Russia."

Panarin argued that Americans are in moral decline, saying their great psychological stress is evident from school shootings, the size of the prison population and the number of gay men.

Saving Social Security

Rough Calculations. Rough in more ways than one. Looks like I’m down about 36% from my highs. Not quite accurate since it doesn’t allow for my contributions since the peak. I’m guessing that puts me down about 38-39% in real dollars. Good thing these windows don’t open.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Public Service

Sheesh. Time to get a gummint job.

From the Austin American Statesman:

About 450 city workers earn $100,000 or more in base pay. City Manager Marc Ott said Wednesday night that he is not yet prepared to begin cutting those salaries. That number would include 111 Austin Energy employees, 92 police officers, 43 firefighters and 30 in the water utility department.

But I really don’t have much problem with these guys:

Workers whose overtime and extra pay put them over six figures last year included a code enforcement inspector whose earnings soared to $157,192 from a base pay of $51,002, an Austin police officer whose $61,443 base salary increased to $114,943 and a paramedic whose pay went from $52,191 to $114,398, documents show.

Financial Crisis and Security Risks

Stratfor’s Report this week is a little self-serving but:

By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart

As anyone with a stock portfolio knows, it is a rough time for the markets. With many portfolios down 50 percent or more, this large loss of equity and wealth has been very difficult on individuals and corporations. The problems, of course, have not been confined to the stock markets. With property values plunging and variable-rate mortgages ballooning, many homeowners are also caught in a bad situation — the number of homeowners behind in their mortgage payments has been increasing and the number of foreclosures has grown. Unemployment is also an issue. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in January 2009 there were 2,227 mass layoff actions in the United States involving 237,902 workers.

Significantly, the financial crisis is not just restricted to the United States — it is a global event that is also having a severe impact on economies in Europe, Asia and the developing world. Things are tough all over, and this financial strain will create some large security problems for corporations and governments.

Threats to the Bottom Line

During times of financial hardship, companies often have to make cuts like the aforementioned layoffs. When companies plan cuts, they often focus on eliminating those corporate functions that do not appear to be contributing to the company’s profitability. And one of the first functions cut during tough times often is corporate security. A security department typically has a pretty substantial budget (it costs a lot for all those guards, access-control devices, cameras and alarms), and security is usually viewed as detracting from, rather than contributing to, the company’s bottom line. The “fat” security budget is seen as an easy place to quickly reduce costs in an effort to balance the profit-and-loss statement.

This view of security is due to a number of factors. First, it must be recognized that there are certainly some security programs that are indeed bloated and ill-conceived that have consumed far too many corporate resources for the results they produce. Furthermore, there is a long tradition of corporate security directors who are not good communicators and who do not take the effort to educate upper management about ways their programs contribute to corporate goals. However, even when a security director has an effective program and is a good communicator, it can be very difficult to quantify the losses that the corporation did not suffer due to the presence of effective security measures. The lack of losses and incidents due to a robust security program can be interpreted by some to mean that there is no threat to guard against. Indeed, effective security can make it appear that there is no need for security, a paradox we have also seen in the historical pattern of U.S. government security funding — a pattern that has resulted in a number of disastrous attacks against U.S. embassies.

In times of economic hardship, the relentless focus on operating expenses and even corporate cutbacks can lead to definite security challenges. As we discussed last November, one of these problems is workplace violence, but during times when people are hurting financially, issues such as employee theft, fraud and product theft by non-employees must also be carefully monitored.
However, while the theft of a tractor-trailer full of computers or flat screen televisions can quickly get someone’s attention, there is a far more subtle, and no less dangerous, threat lurking just under the surface. That threat is espionage — both corporate and state-sponsored.

The Human-Intelligence Process

Espionage is always a problem corporations must face. Competitors, criminals and even foreign governments often seek ways to gather proprietary information from companies, sometimes to boost their own operational capacities (e.g., to apply critical or emerging technologies to their weapons programs) and sometimes to sell on the open market.

Once a company has been identified as having the information sought, the first thing the human-intelligence practitioner will do is look for weak links in the targeted company’s operations. If the required information is readily available, there is no need to undertake a time-intensive and costly operation to retrieve it. Indeed, it is shocking to see the amount of sensitive and critical information that is openly available on the Internet and in research libraries, or that is freely given out at technical conferences.

When open source collection efforts fail, more invasive measures must be employed. Sometimes the required information can be obtained via technical surveillance. A faulty information technology system, for example, can expose the company’s secrets via remote electronic intrusion conducted from a continent away. Other times, information can be obtained by eavesdropping on telephone calls made by corporate leaders or by using other technical surveillance measures.

However, technical surveillance has its limitations, and sometimes critical information must be obtained through human intelligence, which means obtaining the required data from an employee working within the targeted company. Due to human nature, human-intelligence practitioners use the same time-tested principles in the recruitment of corporate sources that they use when recruiting sources in the government sector. (The risks associated with obtaining unclassified proprietary information from private companies are often far less than those associated with obtaining classified information from government agencies or national research laboratories.)

The first step in the human-intelligence process is called spotting. This is when the human-intelligence practitioner attempts to identify those workers who have access to the required information. Then the practitioner conducts a thorough examination of the backgrounds and situations of the employees who have that access in an effort to determine which employee is most vulnerable to exploitation. Employees who are in dire need of extra cash to maintain extravagant lifestyles or to support drinking, drug or gambling habits, or those who are hiding extramarital affairs or other secrets that can be used for blackmail, make prime candidates. A background check might also reveal that a certain worker is angry with his or her employer over issues of salary or placement in the company. There also are employees who disagree ideologically with the product their company makes or the process the company uses to produce it. Finally, there are the employees whose egos are so big that they might be willing to risk committing industrial espionage just to prove they can get away with it. Robert Hanssen, an ex-FBI special agent accused of selling secrets to Russia, was motivated by the belief that he was above the system and could commit espionage without being caught.

Of the four major motivations for committing espionage — money, ideology, compromise and ego (known to security officials as MICE) — money has proven to be the No. 1 motivation, though two or more motivations can be used to turn an employee. More often than not, simple bribery is sufficient to obtain the desired information, especially if the employee is living beyond his or her means for one reason or another. Outside agents looking to turn an employee can also use blackmail (“compromise” in the MICE acronym). Demanding proprietary information in exchange for not exposing a personal secret, for instance, is a cost-effective approach that also allows the agent to return again and again to the same source. This method is a bit riskier, however, since it can cause more resentment than other means and make the source more likely to rebel. However, sexual entrapment and blackmail is still widely used as a recruitment tactic, one that has been used with great success in recent years by the Chinese government against targets such as Japanese and Taiwanese government officials, FBI special agents — and foreign businessmen.

Emphasizing the ‘M’

Once the practitioner has identified the weakest link, decided on the approach to take and made a specific plan on how to proceed, the next step in the human-intelligence process is to actually approach the employee and “pitch” him or her. This step is often a gradual effort to establish a relationship of trust between the practitioner and the employee, and contact can begin gradually with requests for small, seemingly harmless bits of information such as internal phone numbers. In this approach, known as the “little hook,” the employee is offered “gifts” in exchange for these favors. The requests gradually become greater in scope until the targeted information is obtained. Other times, the pitch is far more blatant and the human-intelligence practitioner does not take the time to establish a relationship or gradually recruit the target. Instead the practitioner makes a flat-out cash offer for the required goods or shows the target the evidence that will be used for blackmail.

In the current economic environment, with many 401(k) plans now more like 201(k)s, stock options severely underwater and homeowners facing foreclosure, cold hard cash — the M in MICE — is an even more attractive approach. In fact, with employees seeing their investment accounts decline dramatically, and perhaps even facing the possibility of home foreclosure, it is not at all unreasonable to anticipate that companies and foreigners will face a windfall of walk-in sources who will volunteer to sell critical information — and in such a buyer’s market, information can often be bought at fire-sale prices. Employees attempting to sell proprietary information are somewhat common; one of the most publicized examples of this in recent years was the disgruntled Coca-Cola Co. employee who was arrested in July 2006 after attempting to sell Coke’s recipe to rival soft drink company Pepsi.

Mass layoffs also complicate the equation, especially when some of the employees being laid off have access to critical information. If measures are not taken to ensure that the information is protected, the information could easily find itself in the hands of competing companies or even foreign intelligence services.

Not Just a Corporate Concern

The current financial crisis — and vulnerability to espionage — is not just confined to the private sector. There are many federal government employees in the United States who have watched their investments in the stock-based funds of the government’s Thrift Savings Plan wither on the vine over the past two years, and judging from the performance of foreign stock exchanges, the investments of employees in other governments have followed suit. Additionally, government employees tend to live in places with very expensive real estate, like Washington, London, Paris and Tokyo. This means that a foreign intelligence officer armed only with a briefcase full of dollars, euros or yen can make a substantial amount of money. With many corporate security departments being cut to the bone, many internal security services focused on the counterterrorism mission and many law enforcement agencies chasing white-collar criminals, it is a good time to be in the intelligence business.

One day we will look back on this time through a counterintelligence lens and see that, although it was a time of bear stock markets, it was a tremendous bull market for practitioners of human intelligence.

This report may be forwarded or republished on your website with attribution to

Stewart excoriates CNBC

Update 3/10/09: Stewart had the Cramer part wrong, sort of. See here.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Alexander Hamilton and The Big Apple

Very interesting article (13 pp but worth it) on the symbiosis between His Excellency’s "my boy" and his adopted hometown of New York from City Journal:

The other Founders were Americans of a century’s standing, who fought the Revolution to defend liberties their families had claimed for generations. Washington and Jefferson, landed grandees, descended from seventeenth-century Virginians; Harvard-educated John Adams’s forebears settled in Massachusetts Bay in 1638. Such men were rooted Americans, living on land inherited from their fathers. Hamilton, by contrast, was a penniless immigrant from the West Indies; like so many New Yorkers, he had come here from elsewhere, seeking his fortune.

And he wasn’t just penniless. "My birth," as he delicately put it, "is the subject of the most humiliating criticism"—for he was, in John Adams’s acidulous taunt, "the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar." Nevertheless, as a prime exemplar of that American opportunity and enterprise he so fervently promoted, he rose to be the country’s second most powerful man. As Ron Chernow puts it in his indispensable biography, he served in effect as George Washington’s prime minister and head of government, directing his administration’s policy and molding the enduring institutions it created.

Islam in Russia

Mark Steyn at the Corner quoting/interpreting a Finnish newspaper article on Russian demographics (not a Finnish speaker, I have to trust him):

The last 20 years have seen major demographic changes in Russia. At the beginning of the 1990s, there were 149 million people in Russia. By 2007 the figure was seven million less. The population is falling by around 400,000 per year.

But the situation is very different in parts of the country with a Muslim majority. There the population is growing, and, for example, male life expectancy is significantly higher than in ethnic Russian areas. If demographic trends continue in the same way, by 2015 the majority of Russian army conscripts will be Muslims. By 2020 20 per cent of all Russians will be Muslims. And three decades later they will be the largest part of the Russian population.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Slate Editor David Plotz on reading the OT

I post this link and the quoted paragraphs not for the religious aspects dicussed later in the article (Plotz is an agnostic Jew) but for the aspects of the OT as literature.

When I was reading Judges one day, I came to a complicated digression about a civil war between two groups of Israelites, the Gileadites and the Ephraimites. According to the story, the Gileadites hold the Jordan River, and whenever anyone comes to cross, the guards ask them to say the password, shibboleth. The Ephraimites, for some unexplained reason, can't pronounce the sh in shibboleth and say "sibboleth" instead. When an Ephraimite fails the speech exam, the Gileadites "would seize him and slay him." I've read the word shibboleth a hundred times, written it a few, and probably even said it myself, but I had never understood it until then. It was a tiny but thrilling moment when my world came alive, when a word that had just been a word suddenly meant something to me.

And something like that happened to me five, 10, 50 times a day when I was Bible-reading. You can't get through a chapter of the Bible, even in the most obscure book, without encountering a phrase, a name, a character, or an idea that has come down to us 3,000 years later. The Bible is the first source of everything from the smallest plot twists (the dummy David's wife places in the bed to fool assassins) to the most fundamental ideas about morality (the Levitical prohibition of homosexuality that still shapes our politics, for example) to our grandest notions of law and justice. It was a joyful shock to me when I opened the Book of Amos and read the words that crowned Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

I probably shouldn't even post because of all the links to Slate's Blogging the Bible but loved the article and couldn't help myself. Tragically sad comments like this sum up his view:

You notice that I haven't said anything about belief. I began the Bible as a hopeful, but indifferent, agnostic. I wished for a God, but I didn't really care. I leave the Bible as a hopeless and angry agnostic. I'm brokenhearted about God.

Again, I don't want to get into theology, but I thought I needed to be fair to Plotz's position.

Russia’s Six Pillars

From Stratfor:

By Lauren Goodrich and Peter Zeihan

Under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, Russia has been re-establishing much of its lost Soviet-era strength. This has given rise to the possibility — and even the probability — that Russia again will become a potent adversary of the Western world. But now, Russia is yet again on the cusp of a set of massive currency devaluations that could destroy much of the country’s financial system. With a crashing currency, the disappearance of foreign capital, greatly decreased energy revenues and currency reserves flying out of the bank, the Western perception is that Russia is on the verge of collapsing once again.

Consequently, many Western countries have started to grow complacent about Russia’s ability to further project power abroad.

But this is Russia. And Russia rarely follows anyone else’s rulebook.

The State of the Russian State

Russia has faced a slew of economic problems in the past six months. Incoming foreign direct investment, which reached a record high of $28 billion in 2007, has reportedly dried up to just a few billion. Russia’s two stock markets, the Russian Trading System (RTS) and the Moscow Interbank Currency Exchange (MICEX), have fallen 78 and 67 percent respectively since their highs in May 2008. And Russians have withdrawn $290 billion from the country’s banks in fear of a financial collapse .

One of Moscow’s sharpest financial pains came in the form of a slumping Russian ruble, which has dropped by about one-third against the dollar since August 2008. Thus far, the Kremlin has spent $200 billion defending its currency, a startling number given that the currency still dropped by 35 percent. The Russian government has allowed dozens of mini-devaluations to occur since August; the ruble’s fall has pushed the currency past its lowest point in the 1998 ruble crash.

The Kremlin now faces three options. First, it can continue defending the ruble by pouring more money into what looks like a black hole. Realistically, this can last only another six months or so, as Russia’s combined reserves of $750 billion in August 2008 have dropped to just less than $400 billion due to various recession-battling measures (of which currency defense is only one). This option would also limit Russia’s future anti-recession measures to currency defense alone. In essence, this option relies on merely hoping the global recession ends before the till runs dry.

The second option would be to abandon any defense of the ruble and just let the currency crash. This option will not hurt Moscow or its prized industries (like those in the energy and metals sectors) too much, as the Kremlin, its institutions and most large Russian companies hold their reserves in dollars and euros. Smaller businesses and the Russian people would lose everything, however, just as in the August 1998 ruble crash. This may sound harsh, but the Kremlin has proved repeatedly — during the Imperial, Soviet and present eras — that it is willing to put the survival of the Russian state before the welfare and survival of the people.

The third option is much like the second. It involves sealing the currency system off completely from international trade, relegating it only to use in purely domestic exchanges. But turning to a closed system would make the ruble absolutely worthless abroad, and probably within Russia as well — the black market and small businesses would be forced to follow the government’s example and switch to the euro, or more likely, the U.S. dollar. (Russians tend to trust the dollar more than the euro.)

According to the predominant rumor in Moscow, the Kremlin will opt for combining the first and second options, allowing a series of small devaluations, but continuing a partial defense of the currency to avoid a single 1998-style collapse. Such a hybrid approach would reflect internal politicking.

The lack of angst within the government over the disappearance of the ruble as a symbol of Russian strength is most intriguing. Instead of discussing how to preserve Russian financial power, the debate is now over how to let the currency crash. The destruction of this particular symbol of Russian strength over the past ten years has now become a given in the Kremlin’s thinking, as has the end of the growth and economic strength seen in recent years.

Washington is interpreting the Russian acceptance of economic failure as a sort of surrender. It is not difficult to see why. For most states — powerful or not — a deep recession coupled with a currency collapse would indicate an evisceration of the ability to project power, or even the end of the road. After all, similar economic collapses in 1992 and 1998 heralded periods in which Russian power simply evaporated, allowing the Americans free rein across the Russian sphere of influence. Russia has been using its economic strength to revive its influence as of late, so — as the American thinking goes — the destruction of that strength should lead to a new period of Russian weakness.

Geography and Development

But before one can truly understand the roots of Russian power, the reality and role of the Russian economy must be examined. From this perspective, the past several years are most certainly an aberration — and we are not simply speaking of the post-Soviet collapse.

All states economies’ to a great degree reflect their geographies. In the United States, the presence of large, interconnected river systems in the central third of the country, the intracoastal waterway along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, the vastness of San Francisco Bay, the numerous rivers flowing to the sea from the eastern slopes of the Appalachian Mountains and the abundance of ideal port locations made the country easy to develop. The cost of transporting goods was nil, and scarce capital could be dedicated to other pursuits. The result was a massive economy with an equally massive leg up on any competition.

Russia’s geography is the polar opposite. Hardly any of Russia’s rivers are interconnected. The country has several massive ones — the Pechora, the Ob, the Yenisei, the Lena and the Kolyma — but they drain the nearly unpopulated Siberia to the Arctic Ocean, making them useless for commerce. The only river that cuts through Russia’s core, the Volga, drains not to the ocean but to the landlocked and sparsely populated Caspian Sea, the center of a sparsely populated region. Also unlike the United States, Russia has few useful ports. Kaliningrad is not connected to the main body of Russia. The Gulf of Finland freezes in winter, isolating St. Petersburg. The only true deepwater and warm-water ocean ports, Vladivostok and Murmansk, are simply too far from Russia’s core to be useful. So while geography handed the United States the perfect transport network free of charge, Russia has had to use every available kopek to link its country together with an expensive road, rail and canal network.

One of the many side effects of this geography situation is that the United States had extra capital that it could dedicate to finance in a relatively democratic manner, while Russia’s chronic capital deficit prompted it to concentrate what little capital resources it had into a single set of hands — Moscow’s hands. So while the United States became the poster child for the free market, Russia (whether the Russian Empire, Soviet Union or Russian Federation) has always tended toward central planning.

Russian industrialization and militarization began in earnest under Josef Stalin in the 1930s. Under centralized planning, all industry and services were nationalized, while industrial leaders were given predetermined output quotas.

Perhaps the most noteworthy difference between the Western and Russian development paths was the different use of finance. At the start of Stalin’s massive economic undertaking, international loans to build the economy were unavailable, both because the new government had repudiated the czarist regime’s international debts and because industrialized countries — the potential lenders — were coping with the onset of their own economic crisis (e.g., the Great Depression).

With loans and bonds unavailable, Stalin turned to another centrally controlled resource to “fund” Russian development: labor. Trade unions were converted into mechanisms for capturing all available labor as well as for increasing worker productivity. Russia essentially substitutes labor for capital, so it is no surprise that Stalin — like all Russian leaders before him — ran his population into the ground. Stalin called this his “revolution from above.”

Over the long term, the centralized system is highly inefficient, as it does not take the basic economic drivers of supply and demand into account — to say nothing of how it crushes the common worker. But for a country as geographically massive as Russia, it was (and remains) questionable whether Western finance-driven development is even feasible, due to the lack of cheap transit options and the massive distances involved. Development driven by the crushing of the labor pool was probably the best Russia could hope for, and the same holds true today.

In stark contrast to ages past, for the past five years foreign money has underwritten Russian development. Russian banks did not depend upon government funding — which was accumulated into vast reserves — but instead tapped foreign lenders and bondholders. Russian banks took this money and used it to lend to Russian firms. Meanwhile, as the Russian government asserted control over the country’s energy industries during the last several years, it created a completely separate economy that only rarely intersected with other aspects of Russian economic life. So when the current global recession helped lead to the evaporation of foreign credit, the core of the government/energy economy was broadly unaffected, even as the rest of the Russian economy ingloriously crashed to earth.

Since Putin’s rise, the Kremlin has sought to project an image of a strong, stable and financially powerful Russia. This vision of strength has been the cornerstone of Russian confidence for years. Note that STRATFOR is saying “vision,” not “reality.” For in reality, Russian financial confidence is solely the result of cash brought in from strong oil and natural gas prices — something largely beyond the Russians’ ability to manipulate — not the result of any restructuring of the Russian system. As such, the revelation that the emperor has no clothes — that Russia is still a complete financial mess — is more a blow to Moscow’s ego than a signal of a fundamental change in the reality of Russian power.

The Reality of Russian Power

So while Russia might be losing its financial security and capabilities, which in the West tend to boil down to economic wealth, the global recession has not affected the reality of Russian power much at all. Russia has not, currently or historically, worked off of anyone else’s cash or used economic stability as a foundation for political might or social stability. Instead, Russia relies on many other tools in its kit. Some of the following six pillars of Russian power are more powerful and appropriate than ever:

(1) Geography: Unlike its main geopolitical rival, the United States, Russia borders most of the regions it wishes to project power into, and few geographic barriers separate it from its targets. Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states have zero geographic insulation from Russia. Central Asia is sheltered by distance, but not by mountains or rivers. The Caucasus provide a bit of a speed bump to Russia, but pro-Russian enclaves in Georgia give the Kremlin a secure foothold south of the mountain range (putting the August Russian-Georgian war in perspective). Even if U.S. forces were not tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States would face potentially insurmountable difficulties in countering Russian actions in Moscow’s so-called “Near Abroad.” Russia can project all manner of influence and intimidation there on the cheap, while even symbolic counters are quite costly for the United States. In contrast, places such as Latin America, Southeast Asia or Africa do not capture much more than the Russian imagination; the Kremlin realizes it can do little more there than stir the occasional pot, and resources are allotted (centrally, of course) accordingly.

(2) Politics: It is no secret that the Kremlin uses an iron fist to maintain domestic control. There are few domestic forces the government cannot control or balance. The Kremlin understands the revolutions (1917 in particular) and collapses (1991 in particular) of the past, and it has control mechanisms in place to prevent a repeat. This control is seen in every aspect of Russian life, from one main political party ruling the country to the lack of diversified media, limits on public demonstrations and the infiltration of the security services into nearly every aspect of the Russian system. This domination was fortified under Stalin and has been re-established under the reign of former President and now-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. This political strength is based on neither financial nor economic foundations. Instead, it is based within the political institutions and parties, on the lack of a meaningful opposition, and with the backing of the military and security services. Russia’s neighbors, especially in Europe, cannot count on the same political strength because their systems are simply not set up the same way. The stability of the Russian government and lack of stability in the former Soviet states and much of Central Europe have also allowed the Kremlin to reach beyond Russia and influence its neighbors to the east. Now as before, when some of its former Soviet subjects — such as Ukraine — become destabilized, Russia sweeps in as a source of stability and authority, regardless of whether this benefits the recipient of Moscow’s attention.

(3) Social System: As a consequence of Moscow’s political control and the economic situation, the Russian system is socially crushing, and has had long-term effects on the Russian psyche. As mentioned above, during the Soviet-era process of industrialization and militarization, workers operated under the direst of conditions for the good of the state. The Russian state has made it very clear that the productivity and survival of the state is far more important than the welfare of the people. This made Russia politically and economically strong, not in the sense that the people have had a voice, but in that they have not challenged the state since the beginning of the Soviet period. The Russian people, regardless of whether they admit it, continue to work to keep the state intact even when it does not benefit them. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia kept operating — though a bit haphazardly. Russians still went to work, even if they were not being paid. The same was seen in 1998, when the country collapsed financially. This is a very different mentality than that found in the West. Most Russians would not even consider the mass protests seen in Europe in response to the economic crisis. The Russian government, by contrast, can count on its people to continue to support the state and keep the country going with little protest over the conditions. Though there have been a few sporadic and meager protests in Russia, these protests mainly have been in opposition to the financial situation, not to the government’s hand in it. In some of these demonstrations, protesters have carried signs reading, “In government we trust, in the economic system we don’t.” This means Moscow can count on a stable population.

(4) Natural Resources: Modern Russia enjoys a wealth of natural resources in everything from food and metals to gold and timber. The markets may take a roller-coaster ride and the currency may collapse, but the Russian economy has access to the core necessities of life. Many of these resources serve a double purpose, for in addition to making Russia independent of the outside world, they also give Moscow the ability to project power effectively. Russian energy — especially natural gas — is particularly key: Europe is dependent on Russian natural gas for a quarter of its demand. This relationship guarantees Russia a steady supply of now-scarce capital even as it forces the Europeans to take any Russian concerns seriously. The energy tie is something Russia has very publicly used as a political weapon, either by raising prices or by cutting off supplies. In a recession, this lever’s effectiveness has only grown.

(5) Military: The Russian military is in the midst of a broad modernization and restructuring, and is reconstituting its basic warfighting capability. While many challenges remain, Moscow already has imposed a new reality through military force in Georgia. While Tbilisi was certainly an easy target, the Russian military looks very different to Kiev--or even Warsaw and Prague — than it does to the Pentagon. And even in this case, Russia has come to rely increasingly heavily on its nuclear arsenal to rebalance the military equation and ensure its territorial integrity, and is looking to establish long-term nuclear parity with the Americans. Like the energy tool, Russia’s military has become more useful in times of economic duress, as potential targets have suffered far more than the Russians.

(6) Intelligence: Russia has one of the world’s most sophisticated and powerful intelligence services. Historically, its only rival has been the United States (though today the Chinese arguably could be seen as rivaling the Americans and Russians). The KGB (now the FSB) instills fear into hearts around the world, let alone inside Russia. Infiltration and intimidation kept the Soviet Union and its sphere under control. No matter the condition of the Russian state, Moscow’s intelligence foundation has been its strongest pillar. The FSB and other Russian intelligence agencies have infiltrated most former Soviet republics and satellite states, and they also have infiltrated as far as Latin America and the United States. Russian intelligence has infiltrated political, security, military and business realms worldwide, and has boasted of infiltrating many former Soviet satellite governments, militaries and companies up to the highest level. All facets of the Russian government have backed this infiltration since Putin (a former KGB man) came to power and filled the Kremlin with his cohorts. This domestic and international infiltration has been built up for half a century. It is not something that requires much cash to maintain, but rather know-how — and the Russians wrote the book on the subject. One of the reasons Moscow can run this system inexpensively relative to what it gets in return is because Russia’s intelligence services have long been human-based, though they do have some highly advanced technology to wield. Russia also has incorporated other social networks in its intelligence services, such as organized crime or the Russian Orthodox Church, creating an intricate system at a low price. Russia’s intelligence services are much larger than most other countries’ services and cover most of the world. But the intelligence apparatus’ most intense focus is on the Russian periphery, rather than on the more expensive “far abroad.”

Thus, while Russia’s financial sector may be getting torn apart, the state does not really count on that sector for domestic cohesion or stability, or for projecting power abroad. Russia knows it lacks a good track record financially, so it depends on — and has shored up where it can — six other pillars to maintain its (self-proclaimed) place as a major international player. The current financial crisis would crush the last five pillars for any other state, but in Russia, it has only served to strengthen these bases. Over the past few years, there was a certain window of opportunity for Russia to resurge while Washington was preoccupied with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This window has been kept open longer by the West’s lack of worry over the Russian resurgence given the financial crisis. But others closer to the Russian border understand that Moscow has many tools more potent than finance with which to continue reasserting itself.

This report may be forwarded or republished on your website with attribution to

Monday, March 02, 2009

New-fangled casinos

Have you been to a casino lately? I visited one several weeks ago for the first time in fifteen or twenty years.  They've made some substantial changes over the years.  I wasn't ever very fond of casinos, so I'm not the best judge, but these changes didn't seem like an improvement to me:
  • the slot machines no longer have handles to pull; instead, you push a button and the results are a digital display (i.e. there's nothing mechanical that spins around before stopping);
  • the slot machines don't take coins or coin-like tokens; you swipe a paper card (mag stripe); I don't know what happens if you win, but obviously, no outpouring of coins;
  • the roulette "wheel" doesn't turn; instead, lights just move around the wheel and come to a stop.
How is a gambler (excuse me, "gamer") supposed to have any confidence that the games are legit? Outcomes are obviously digitally determined and odds can be affected with a couple key strokes.  
There is still plenty of SMOKING.  So we didn't stay long enough to check out blackjack and craps tables.  I wonder if they still have humans dealing paper cards/rolling dice.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Paul Harvey

I have mixed feelings because he reported too often and too fast upon things he wasn't up on. But, Dad loved him so I post this RIP.

From USA Today:

Paul Harvey, the news commentator and talk-radio pioneer whose staccato style made him one of the nation's most familiar voices, died Saturday in Arizona, according to ABC Radio Networks. He was 90.

He was the uncle of the wife of probably the most influential spiritual advisers of my life so I'm even more conflicted.

I already miss the voice. I remember listening to it while travelling to or from vacations while trying to sleep under the rear window of my dad's Impala forty years ago.

Re: Blog Integrity and "If that is true"

I'm wondering if "If that is true, and I'm skeptical, then..." would be enough of a caveat. If I posted something probably wrong but too funny or otherwise outrageous not to post with that caveat, I could sleep.

I would post the retraction/correction later if it were confirmed to be untrue, of course.

Well, I say that...maybe I would. If a totally frivolous subject matter, I might not. Also, there probably has to be some kind of time frame to be considered. If I made an errant post about Katrina, I'm not going to correct.

I'd love to have Miguel back, too.

Blog integrity

Blog integrity matters to me. I don’t want to post anything untrue. When I get a fact wrong, I want to be corrected, so I can post an update and offer an apology. (I’m speaking for myself, but I believe that everyone who posts here has the same ethic and in fact have demonstrated that commitment to truth here.)

In November, I posted an entry about a Sarah Palin story that had been reported in the mainstream media. I’ve learned that it was this post that led to our blog brother Michael opting to end his participation here. Specifically, it's my understanding that he felt he couldn't participate in a blog that perpetrated a falsehood and perpetuated it in the face of the truth. I, for one, miss Michael here and would like to coax him back. I don't think I committed the ethical violation he thinks I did.

Let’s start with the underlying facts about that Sarah Palin story. (I know, I know... it feels like such ancient history.)

Actually, there were two mainstream media stories on the topic. First, there was Story A. On Nov. 5, 2008, Fox News and others reported that according to unnamed sources within the McCain campaign, Sarah Palin did not know that South Africa was a country and that she didn’t know which countries were part of NAFTA.

Story B came out a few days later stating that Martin Eisenstadt was the source for Story A.

Then, on Nov. 10, the news came that Martin Eisenstadt was a prankster; he had no connection to the McCain campaign. This meant that Story B was a hoax. In some news accounts, the distinction between stories A and B was blurred, giving the impression that Story A had also been proved a hoax, whereas really only Story B was disproved by the revelation of Eisenstadt’s true identity. Fox still stands by Story A: they have sources, still unnamed who are not Martin Eisenstadt, who claim Sarah Palin didn’t know the countries in NAFTA.

Now, turning to my blog entry about the story...

On Nov. 5, I posted this

This is phrased in an “if this is true” construction. Set that aside for the moment (I’ll come back to it) and take the post as a pronouncement of the truth of the story. On post date, Nov. 5, I had no reason to believe it wasn’t accurate; there had been no reporting counter to it. And I don’t think anyone thinks it wasn’t OK to post it the day I posted it.

In the following days, when the Eisenstadt hoax was perpetrated and uncovered, the news stories were fuzzy. It wasn’t clear to me then whether the hoax was limited to Story B (the identity of the sources) or if Story A was also a hoax. Michael’s interpretation was that Story A was a hoax.

On Nov. 11, Michael posted on it, citing Hot Air.

Michael also commented on my post, wondering if we could agree that my post should be retracted and quoted this text:

He says there’s no way she didn’t know Africa was a continent, and whoever is saying she didn’t must be distorting “a fumble of words.” He talked to her about all manner of issues relating to Africa, from failed states to the Sudan. She was aware from the beginning of the conflict in Darfur, which is followed closely in evangelical churches, and was aware of Clinton’s AIDS initiative. That basically makes it impossible that she thought all of Africa was a country._On not knowing what countries are in NAFTA, Biegun was part of the conversation that led to that accusation and it convinces him “somebody is acting with a high degree of maliciousness.” He was briefing Palin before a Univision interview, and talking to her about trade issues. He rolled through NAFTA, CAFTA, and the Colombia FTA. As he talked, people were coming in and out of the room, handing Palin things, etc. She was distracted from what Biegun was saying, and said, roughly, “Ok, who’s in NAFTA, what the deal with CAFTA, what’s up the FTA?”—her way, Biegun says, of saying “rack them and stack them,” begin again from the start. “Somebody is taking a conversation and twisting it maliciously,” he says.

Michael provided no link to this. The quoted source, “Biegun”, wasn’t familiar to me and the text included no explanation of who he was. Given the absence of background info, I admit I didn’t pay any attention to it. That was an error on my part and I apologize. In preparing this post, I Googled the text from Michael’s comment to see if I could determine where it came from and I learned that it came from a National Review story and that Steve Biegun was involved with briefing Palin during the campaign.

So there was and there remains a discrepancy between professional media reports: a) Fox has two unnamed sources that say Story A is true; and b) National Review has a named, credible (as far as I know) source that says that Story A is not true. What’s an amateur blogger to do with such a situation?

Sure, one should be skeptical of unnamed sources. Someone may be lying or they may have misinterpreted something Palin said during debate prep. (Of course, the Watergate story was revealed by unnamed sources while others who were on the record lied to cover the story up.) It’s also possible that all the sources are telling the truth and both Fox and National Review are correct; maybe Biegun didn’t converse with Palin on these topics until after the unnamed sources had had a first discussion with her about them during which she learned some things.

Given the muddiness of the situation, I don’t think I had an ethical obligation to update or retract my post about the Palin Story A (and I did not post on Story B, so had nothing to correct in that regard). I’m open to input from my blog brothers on this, though. If we have a rule that we need to post on every competing version of stories we post about, I think we may have a lot of remedial blogging to do.

Yet another issue raised by my post is one of construction. I framed my post with an if-this-is-true format. It was a hedge, because I had some skepticism about whether it could be true. Michael made the case, using a hyperbolic example, that couching a post in an “if it’s true that...” construction doesn’t cure the post of being unethical if the “that” is untrue. I think he's generally right about that; and I agree that correction is warranted when it turns out to not be true. I do think, though, that hypothetical questions (that are by definition in an “if true” format and typically conjure something not true or not proven) are useful in finding the limits of others’ positions.