Talking to myself about foreign policy, US politics, technology, &c.

Ending Cruel and Unusual Punishment in US Prisons

May 4th, 2010

One of the most nightmarish things that happen in the US is prison rape. Think about it: people who are are reliant on the government for their protection are routinely raped – in one prison in Texas, 1 in 6 every year.

That should not happen in the most backward of third world countries (excuse me, LDCs.) It is appalling that it happens all the time in the US.

These criminals were sentenced to time in prison, not to be raped. Pretty clearly a violation of the Bill of Rights.

We are coming up on the deadline for implementing changes under the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act. AG Holder’s obviously got a lot on his plate right now, but this is a real chance to end a fundamental injustice.

Hat tip: Cliff Schecter

In Defense of the Dollar

April 22nd, 2010

This made me laugh out loud.

In mocking the eminently mockable Sue Lowden (formerly a serious contender for Senate in Nevada) TPM had this gem in a financial analysis of moving to chicken-funded health care:

Of course, it should be noted that chickens are only one of many commodities, and are thus only one component of a barter economy — for example, Tennessee state Rep. Mike Bell (R) has referred to Mennonites paying for health care with vegetables. There are also the options of beef, pork, turkeys, sugar, metal ore, or even finished products like iPods or gasoline. What would really help here is if there were some kind of single, universally accepted commodity, which could be used as a medium of exchange for all the others…

Plus the new Benjamins are really cool.

Hooray for the Fed.

Best news I’ve heard out of KG

April 12th, 2010

He’s the anti-Rahm, but I can’t say how delighted this excerpt from a Times story made me.

Edil Baisalov, Ms. Otunbayeva’s chief of staff, dismissed any threat of a civil war in Kyrgyzstan. … Mr. Baisalov [is] a civil society activist who returned from exile in Sweden to join the new government.

Edil has spent years fighting for legitimate representative government in Kyrgyzstan as head of the NGO “For Democracy and Civil Society.” For his troubles he has been threatened and attacked.

To have him in such a high-ranking position in the interm government gives me great hope that this unfortunate little country will genuinely democratize.

Kyrgyz Spring Riot Season Looking Ugly

April 7th, 2010


Emergency in Kyrgyzstan as Police Fire on Protesters –

No Nukes is Good Nukes

April 5th, 2010

One of the interesting aspects of world nuclear politics is that the United States has never renounced our willingness to use Nukes as “first strike” weapons. That is, every President has the power to push the Big Red Button and end the world without first having been nuked ourselves.

Dr. Strangelove is not impressed.In his quest for a world free of nuclear weapons, President Obama has taken
another significant step on top of the successful New START treaty – he has put limits on when the US would irradiate other nations. The Grey Lady has the scoop.

For the first time, the United States is explicitly committing not to use nuclear weapons against nonnuclear states that are in compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, even if they attacked the United States with biological or chemical weapons or launched a crippling cyberattack.

If you’re a country toying with the idea of getting your hands on the Bomb – or simply a poor country trying to decide whether to sanction those who are – the glaring hypocracy of the Great Powers has to rankle.

According to the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the declared nuclear power states are supposed to negotiate towards “cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.” This hasn’t happened very much.

If the big boys are keeping their big nukes, it makes you feel more vulnerable.

This is of course doubly true since most of those powers with nukes have never agreed to not nuke a country that doesn’t have them. So Mutually Assured Destruction might seem to be the only sensible defensive plan from a game-theoretic point of view.

Anyway, with Obama’s declaration, those incentives shift a bit. The US will not nuke you if you attack us, even if you use chemical or biological weapons. (Wearing my other hat I have to snicker at the “crippling cyberattack” coming under the same rubric as, say, massive chemical attacks.

Unless, of course, you are outside of the framework of the NPT. Then we can bomb the living $#!+ out of you.

Pakistan – Bright spot for democracy?

April 5th, 2010

Weird. Looks like Pakistan is about to make some significant constitutional changes that should advance the power of Parliament significantly.

Democracy doesn’t begin and end with elections. Changes like this that make Parliament more powerful and the President more accountable are a critical piece to provide the checks and balances to keep a government in line in between elections.

It’s awfully nice to see glimmers of progress in a corner of the world that seems to provide unrelentingly grim news.

Most impressively, the Pak President is pushing this package. Which will reduce his power. Maybe Mr. Ten Percent isn’t all bad.

And we’re back!

April 1st, 2010

April Fools’ seems an appropriate place to come back online.

I’m doing most of my blogging at my new home ( so things might be a bit light here, but for things of a more political nature or unrelated to international connection policy issues I’ll try to keep ‘em going here.

Ross Douthat: Not That Dumb

December 26th, 2009

The NYT’s conservative columnist continues to impress me with being, well, sane. I know the bar is a bit low, but hey, you work with what you’ve got.

Today’s piece talks about Obama as “an ideologue and a pragmatist.”  This is, I think, exactly right. Obama ran on an inspirational platform of change – but if you examined it closely (and, as a guy working for Hillary at the time, I certainly did) the actual policies were very sensible and moderate ones.

One quibble: Douthat says that the President has “governed as a conventional liberal who believes in the existing system, knows how to work it and accepts the limitations it imposes on him.” I’m certain that Obama does not “believe in” the routinization of the supermajority requirements in the Senate. Imagine a world in which Obama was negotiating a compromise between Ben Nelson and Bernie Sanders, rather than Ben Nelson and, um, Ben Nelson.

Merry Christmas!

December 25th, 2009

To all my loyal readers (Hi Mom!) I wanted to wish you and your families and friends a very, very happy Christmas or solstice-time holiday of your choice. Hope you’re enjoying it with excessive amounts of consumption and surrounded by festive holiday feelings.

Hooray for DC

December 16th, 2009

DC passed gay marriage today. Interestingly, they expect over the long term most participants to be couples from out of the district traveling to get married.

Now that’s a destination wedding I can get behind – traveling to a destination where it’s possible to have a, well, wedding.

Another small step; at least that’s another 63 sq. miles of justice. And maybe all the homophobic members of Congress  will become a little bit more aware of how gay couples are just like straight couples.

December 12th, 2009


The vast majority of people who hire in Congress put zero value on outside experience or expertise. This sucks and make for bad policy. Also, everyone else needs to go find a job so they stop applying for the ones I want, mmmk?


My Dean is Cooler than Your Dean.

December 10th, 2009
Steven Bosworth, Dean Extraordinaire

Steven Bosworth, Dean Extraordinaire

Yup, the Fletcher School’s Dean Stephen Bosworth is pretty badass. Admittedly he hasn’t solved the intractable problem of the Hermit Kingdom yet, but I’m sure he will soon.

Meanwhile, I’ll just enjoy seeing video of a guy I had pizza with splashed all over CNN.

Some complain that he should have stepped down as dean when he took this role. Pffft. The job of a dean at a place like Fletcher, as with a college president, is to look cool, increase the visibility of the school, live in a big house, and beg for your living.

Definitely doing well on the visibility front.

Cyberwar: Science Fiction or Threat?

December 7th, 2009

digital-platic-soldiersThe National Journal recently ran an article on American cyberwar strategy. It’s full of a lot of gee-wizzary (the military infiltrated Iraqi cell phone networks!) and ominous threats (the bad guys will destroy our financial system computers, which will be like the recent crisis, except without the inconvenience of foreclosures!)


Cyberwarfare is sexy and scary. People know they use computers every day, and they understand that everything from refrigerators to cars has one.* It just makes sense that our society could be destroyed by malevolent hackers from Russia or China – or perhaps even by Al Qaeda, though I doubt most of the caves in the Preghal Mountains have wi-fi currently.

There are two reasons why cyberwarfare, while important, shouldn’t be keeping granny up at night.

The Internet is a constant battlefield. This is a good thing.

The difference between the world of cyberwarfare and kinetic warfare is that the Internet is a hot battlefield where combat is happening around the clock. As you’re reading this brilliantly-crafted post, your Internet connection has probably been probed by automated bots looking for weaknesses in your computer.

Hacking technology is rather democratic; anyone can find a security hole, and many people then can automate taking exploiting it and turning your computer into a zombie spreading the infection to others.

High-profile targets are as much a juicy treat for amateur hackers looking to claim a scalp as for nasty foreign governments; there are some truly brilliant people out there attempting to do so every day.

Governments are likely to be full of scarily brilliant-er people who are well-paid and perhaps even get nice benefits. So the PLA cyberwarfare squad is likely to be better than an angsty 20-yr old hacker, but if the latter gets to the hole first he wins, the company learns, and everyone else starts patching.

Rebooting is easier than rebuilding.

The most spectacularly successful hack that I can remember is that of the Brazilian power grid (if it was in fact true.) But remember that we have done that to ourselves, too.

As we all experience with galling regularity, computers crash and components fail. This is something that system operators prepare for and expect. A successful hack that knocks a computer offline – a worst case – is not fundamentally different from the hard drives going kablewy. Any sysadmin worth his birkenstocks better be prepared for that.

A couple thousand-pound bombs do the job a lot more completely.

This is not a clarion call for complacency. There are serious threats from hackers, but they aren’t apocolyptic Collapse of the Western World Followed By Zombie Invasion scenarios some would suggest.

I’ll talk more about that in a latter post.

Here’s the message of today’s story: If you don’t want the bad guys to win, keep your computer patched and behind a firewall, mmmmkay? But don’t panic. Until the machines get smart enough to turn on us.

Of course, we’ve been able to control coffee pots for a while.

Sprint Sees You When You’re Sleeping…

December 5th, 2009

cellphoneofprovidenceSprint has provided location updates on cell phone clients 8 million times in the last year.

Presumably most of these were from a small percentage of the people targeted, but still the general idea is incredibly troubling. Clearly there were not 8 million warrants issued for this information. Instead, it appears that law enforcement was able to make automated requests against the Sprint database – just computer-to-computer information exchange.

The monstrous deluge of useful data that can be captured in our Internet-ed society has a pair of repercussions. First, we can capture far more information about people now than was imaginable even 15 years ago. Second, we as consumers tend to de-value our privacy.

There was a study a few years back that demonstrated that the average person would give a tremendous amount of virtual personal information up to a corporate entity for a low-value tangible item. I seem to remember a cheeseburger.

The datamining possible with current technologies has huge repercussions we have only begun to wrestle with. You want to pull up a Google map of all the foreclosed-upon properties in your area? You can do it. You want to pull up the names and addresses of everyone who signed an anti-gay rights petition? You can do that too. Information like this used to be practically secret because of the difficulties of obtaining it.

We’re broadcasting more information about ourselves, and at the same time more of the general information about our lives is online and accessible.

Sun CEO Scott McNealy said a decade ago: “You have zero privacy. Get over it.”

I don’t want to get over it. I want there to be privacy laws to protect me from companies like his, and like Sprint.

Facebook in the Kingdom

December 4th, 2009

jeddah-fbSaudis outraged over the government response to devastating flooding in Jeddah are rioting in the streets.

OK, no, they aren’t. But they are protesting on Facebook.

Another example of how the opening of digital agora for conversation can have an impact; people are able to share their opinions, organize, and mobilize. Skills people learn and networks they develop will grow and expand over time.

This isn’t all negative for an authoritarian government; one of the problems with an ossified and autocratic bureaucracy which has little more than a nodding familiarity with its own subjects is that there are few routes for people to communicate problems.

Even indolent, corrupt groups like the Saudi royals want to be able to find out and fix problems; if things like FB provide a route for them to find out about the proverbial potholes then the people will be less likely to, say, overthrow them and string them up from a light pole.

Europe – life, and politics, at a slower pace

December 3rd, 2009

The United States of Europe have been born. Huzzah! Or perhaps just huh. Another step on the road to ever closer union and all, but jeez they’re being dull about it.

The President of Europe chairman of the European Council is a haiku-writing Belgian waffle. The Foreign Minister coordinator of the common foreign and security policy is a non-entity with foreign policy chops that just edge Sarah Palin by a nose.

*shrug* That’s the way they roll over there, I guess. Papering over the fact that Brussels is acquiring real power by putting weak individuals in there. We get George Washington, they get a guy who enjoys meditative retreats at monasteries. Having the Mayor of Snoresville running the show makes the bigwigs in France, Germany and England feel more comfortable, I guess.

It’s also worth pointing out that unlike the Prez/PMs of the other countries, the EU president is not directly elected. Not even indirectly, as in our own goofy system.

Was at a talk today by János Martonyi, once and (probably) future Foreign Minister of Hungary. He talked in part about this “democratic deficit” in the EU and how some of the dislike for Brussels is due to the lack of direct connection to the voters. If there’s a problem in an EU country, national politicians make it the fault of those damn dirty bureaucrats in Brussels. If there’s something good that comes from the EU itself, national politicians will  claim the credit.

Not highly functional, but hey, they’ve been limping along in the right direction for the last 50 years, so I guess they know what they are doing. I’m just not expecting any strong leadership from them, even on looming disasters on their doorstep.

I guess like any adolescents they are rather moody, introspective, self-conscious, and feeling awkward about their recent growth spurt. As long as they don’t start listening to crappy emo music.

One step sideways, one step forwards

December 2nd, 2009

DC today voted 11-2 to permit gay marriage in the District. I like my new homeland. (Voting no: Marion Barry, who opposes it on moral grounds. *Snicker*)

Meanwhile, the New York Senate voted in a shockingly lopsided tally to oppose gay marriage. I do not like the Empire State.

There’s been so much change on this issue over the last year that it’s hard to divine any real trends. Maine, and CA a year ago, were a real kick in the teeth. At the same time, all the polling and trends go in the right direction, and once a state approves gay marriage – and the good citizens realize that disasters of biblical proportions do not result – it is there to stay.

This will be the work of years, but we will get there. I would bet that by 2025 the Supreme Court will find restrictions on any two people choosing to get married to be unconstitutional, wiping prohibitions out in the states where they still exist, presumably the deep south.

Easy enough for the straight white guy to say, it will happen. And at some point we will train our children to be ashamed that America was ever homophobic.

Royally Cool Science

December 1st, 2009

L0012087 A double sheet showing various ophthalmology instrument

Fantastic gift from the Royal Society of England, the oldest group of scientists in the world: they have started putting up their back archives of seminal research papers on a special historical timeline.

Here, for example, is an account of using willow to cure fevers from the charming days when their journal was called Philosophical Transactions. Later we figured out it was in fact salicylic acid in the bark that did the trick. And here’s the first two they’ve released, a grisly pair of experiments on puppies. Different kind of bark, I guess.

A lot of gems there, and I’m sure many more to come.

Just browsing a few highlights of the extraordinary discoveries of the last centuries has to make you pause and wonder at what the scientific method has done for the human race. (Reminder: scientific method = idea, test to prove, have another person repeat test. New idea that builds on the first, lather, rinse, repeat. Next thing you know: 3D TV!)

Of all the things that scary me about modern political discourse in America, one of the most frightening is the idea that science has become a partisan thing, as if one gets to choose one’s facts. I guess when it’s considered a bummer that the president is smart, this is where you end up.

Why I Love Index Mutual Funds

November 30th, 2009

Because the casino aggregate index always wins. Check out Drum’s article.

In Azerbaijan, the Law is an Ass

November 12th, 2009

Two young political activists in Azerbaijan were given two years in prison on trumped-up charges after posting a sardonic video mocking the government with a man in a donkey suit.

Working in human rights can be pretty depressing. I don’t really have anything witty or wise to add to the sad case.

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