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

Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Oh, JK had a good piece too.

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

The ol’ boss had a good – if typically verbose – piece in the NYT on Iran.

Short version: If we don’t want to help the bad guys out, then American leaders need to Shut The @#$! Up on the topic.

Breaking: Conservative Pundit Has Valid Point on Iran

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

The Grey Lady seems to have made a decent choice in their new winger columnist, Ross Douthat.

Writing on Iran he makes a number of astute historical points by way of talking about something I’ve noted before – an economic crisis is bad news for dictatorships. Battered by sanctions and without $100/bbl oil, Iran is not doing well financially. Freedom may be a luxury good – people who are starving are more concerned about their lunch box than the ballot box – but for a more advanced, well educated society if the economy takes a nasty turn into decrepitude there’s gonna be a looot of latent frustration.

Couple that with the fact that they had an opportunity to voice their preferences – and then had them bulldozed. Taking to the streets is then left as their only option. Dangerous times.

Weirdly Douthat observes that Obama’s plans – for health care, etc – are not actually the second coming of Trotsky. A sensible debating position that does not start with the assumption that my people are out to destroy the world? I might actually have to listen to him.

Of course, he’s sometimes a bit stupid, too.

Consequences pt II

Saturday, June 13th, 2009

The news looks like Scenario 2. The Grand Ayatollah blessed the results, which means there is no way that the government of Iran will ever willingly recognize a different result.

(breaking news – but might there be a chance the Ayatollah himself could be recalled? Wily old Hashemi Rafsanjani is the head of the group with the power to do so and has a bloody feud with Ahmadinejad)

Let’s assume the electoral coup succeeds.


1) Ahmadinejad remains in power, but is seen as illegitimate by whatever percentage of the population voted for “the other guy” + whoever gets angry with him.

2) Because of the overt intervention by Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader will himself lose legitimacy.

3) Brutal government intervention against street protests will further alienate people from the regime.

4) Government crackdowns are likely to keep the lid on protests. The whole authoritarian monopoly of power makes it hard for people throwing rocks to face down riot police dressed, according to reports, like spaceship troopers.

All in all, not a recipe for internal Iranian stability. Which could itself reinforce the belligerency of the regime in power – attempting to distract the people from internal problems by uniting against an outside enemy.

UPDATE – Looks like HR could be out. If so, that sounds like an escalation…

Elections have Consequences

Friday, June 12th, 2009

Iran voted today. Apparently heck of a turnout.

Crazy system over there – check out the bbc briefing for details. Given their card-carrying status as a member of the Axis of Evil, it is a suprise to a lot of people that they are – outside of Israel and Turkey – as democratic a country as there is in that bad neighborhood we call the Middle East. (But a shout-out to you, Acil al-Awadi!)

Looks like we don’t know what’s happened yet. Both sides are declaring victory, which suggests that the opposition made a decent showing. In the system over there the elections division is under the control of the president – which may make for interesting recounts. Faster than Minnesota’s, I’ll bet. Authoritarianism has its advantages.

Three possibilities:

Ahmadinejad wins, decisively. That would be a vindication of his policies of confrontation with the West, and probably a recipe for continuation of the status quo. Despite that, though, there appears to have been a record turnout and a high degree of interest,

It’s exceptionally close – or perceived to be so – then the legitimacy of the election will be called into question. The huge numbers who supported Moussavi – despite the state apparati arrayed against them – will be incensed. Signs of tampering in elections were core to the series of Color Revolutions, and if Moussavi’s voters think they were robbed, the mass demonstrations that impressed the world recently could escalate.

Enough of a win for Moussavi that he goes on to a final round and then takes the presidency would, I think, make for a moderate rapprochement. The sanctions that Ahmadinejad has brought on the country have angered a large swatch of the country, and some lightening of them will be core to a new administration. However, given the ultimate authority held by Ayatollah Khamenei, it would be unlikely that a true sea change could occur. Evolutionary change would still be very welcome.

A lot of frustration in Iran, a lot of repression. Given the right circumstances a velvet revolution is not impossible. From the outside – and with Iran, I believe even country experts are on the outside – authoritarian regimes can shift from iron to glass in a moment. Fingers crossed.

Texas Tea Party…

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008

Since I have been thinking about the Russkis of late, some more thoughts on why we shouldn’t be worried about the Arctic Fleet’s joy ride to Venezuela

“Sustainability” is a real buzzword in the US these days- growth should not sew the seeds for our future destruction. Not a bad idea.

If there’s anything that meets the definition of unsustainable growth, though, it’s Russia. The intimidating growth in foreign reserves over the last decade, the 60% increase in GDP, the halving of poverty – all very daunting.

In that time, though, check out the increase in oil prices-

Oil Spot Prices

And the production level for Russia:

Soviet-Russian Oil Production

Multiply ‘em and it explains why they’ve been rollin’ in rubles.

But what happens when Russia hits peak oil (already there?) or we have a real green revolution? When the music stops, there’ll be hell to pay.

This is not a diverse economy, and Dutch Disease looks to be a big issue.

Apart from the host of governance (how’s that whole democracy thing goin’, fellas?) and corruption issues, there’s a lot of other reasons why Russia is a paper bear, and probably won’t really rate more than a crusty regional power for the foreseeable future. More on that tomorrow.

Anyway, about that trip to Venezuela? Nice this time of year, but the flagship Peter the Great may not make it. In 2003 Half a mil worth of parts were literally ripped off and sold. Interesting metaphor.

Terror from Toothless Animals

Tuesday, April 17th, 2007

As if there wasn’t enough to be afraid of in the world already, apparently ferocious attack anteaters can kill you.

In what one hopes is not a coordinated uprising, a zookeeper was killed by one of these sticky-tongued mammals.

Perhaps they’ve figured that eating 30,000 ants a day was a lot of effort, and animal protein is a lot more calorie efficient.

Lots of White Space to Fill

Wednesday, March 21st, 2007

As I’m writing my thesis, this is true in more ways than one.

But here it’s a map of the world that shades in where you’ve been. Some huge swaths yet to cover.

Percentage-wise, this one looks better.

You can create your own visited countries or states map too.

And now, a joke

Sunday, January 21st, 2007

That last post reminded me of one of my favorite Catholic jokes.

An angry mob surged around a woman cowering against a wall. As an adulteress, she was going to be stoned to death. (Ancient Judea or modern Pakistan? You decide!)

A man exuding charisma and peace walked into the crowd. Quieting them, Jesus said “Let the one among you without sin cast the first stone.” Much muttering, some grumbling, some nods of agreement. One by one, the crowd dropped their stones and wandered off.

As the group dispersed, one small woman remained behind with a very big rock. She tossed the heavy stone up and down, calculating the distance to the accused woman.

Jesus sighed, wandered over to the lady with the stone, and said “Mom, put down the rock.”

Surprise! You’re on Candid Camera!

Saturday, January 6th, 2007

PanopticonJust finished Michel Foucault‘s great book Discipline and Punish. The book narrates the history of punishment from gettin’ medieval on people’s asses to modern day imprisonment where even the death penalty itself is on the wane. (Can’t understand why anyone would think getting rid of that would be good idea after watching the bizarro Hussein execution.)

Anyway, one of the core concepts he describes is the Panopticon, a perfect Stateville Pen where all the inmates are locked up in a ring of cells under constant observation from a central tower.

The key is that the jailbirds cannot see into the tower. This means they may or may not be under observation at all times. Theoretically, you could leave the central tower unstaffed much of the time, as long as you caught any offenses from the prisoners often enough that they felt they were being constantly monitored.

“Panopticonism” is a term for this on a more general level. Or surveillance society, if you prefer. This was a core premise of 1984: the TVs could watch you, too. Maybe no one was. But you never knew, so you generally behaved as if they were.

Anyway, we’ve take a nice step towards this brave new world. In England (airstrip one?) they have been particularly aggressive with the use of surveillance cameras. Well, now Big Brother can talk back, too.

CCTV cams in UK, now with loudspeakers . From Engadget

Take the spy cams, and add the ability for people monitoring to talk back. Suddenly everyone realizes they actually are being watched sometimes.

Is this good? Bad? I don’t know. Potential implications are scary. Like so much of this stuff, it depends on the goodwill of the government sitting on the other side of the TV screens.

God help any citizens of a new, fully technologically empowered Stalin or Hitler. Individual human control would be possible on a level unimaginable to the totalitarian states of the early 20th century.

New Years Resolution: Blog Every Day

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2007

And eat more alfalfa.

Dateline check: Jan 3rd.


Well, that one failed fast.

Dangers of Late-Night Typing

Monday, December 11th, 2006

Ever been half asleep and talk to someone, only to find that gibberish comes out? Makes sense at the time, but you note that the more you try to explain it the funnier it appears to your not-to-courteous audience?

I was trying to transcribe some notes and found that there are in fact outer bounds on how late one can continue working without a unilateral strike by the more relevant parts of your brain.

Quotes from my notes:

Iraq does not want or need nuclear weapons related to the project. From as strict sensible national system, you should sign up to the next nickname for my parents.
But meanwhile, the klepto-economy seems to be doing fine by the guy next to me.

They started correctly, but what they say about my state of mind after that is unclear. Who puts a hyphenated word like klepto-economy into a half-asleep sentence? And who is the guy next to me, anyway?

I Feel Great – and now I’m counted.

Sunday, December 10th, 2006

Truly fascinating site someone pointed to out to me recently – We Feel Fine. Their automatons scan the Internet for blog posts that have the sentence “I feel…” and then log the feeling and everything they know about the individual.

Astonishing type of social voyeurism and a way to let the fun of serendipity guide you to new things to read. An alternate indexing system, too. Google doesn’t have a thing on this.

Plus it’s just a purty interface.

But the most interesting phenomenon you can tease out of We Feel Fine is that the Internet is aggregating huge amounts of personal information. In text form. Which can be searched. And counted. And we can draw from the relative anonymity of these personal observations aggregate data that provides really interesting insights on human nature.

Watch this space- there’s gonna be types of sociological, psychological and anthropological research that can take place in this that we can’t even imagine today. Particularly as more and more of our ephemeral private conversations become public property.

Why does Fiji have an army?

Tuesday, December 5th, 2006

So there was another putsch in Fiji of all places.

It’s beautiful, relatively prosperous, and has colossal sums flowing in through tourism. It’s one of the most developed of the wee tiny island states. Everyone loves Fiji. So why does this country need an army? Who’s going to invade Fiji? Maori raiders? Captain Cook? The only barbarians that come through are the Fosters-swilling Aussie party boys.

I heart Costa Rica. This pretty and reasonably successful little country dropped its army in 1949, and they’ve been doing great. Who’s gonna invade them? Think of Costa Rica and what comes to mind is pretty beaches and leatherback turtles. If Nicaragua got uppity and tried to invade, everyone in the world would send troops to defend the poor lil’ guy. And the turtles.

So why doesn’t everyone do the same? Developing countries in 2004 paid an average of 14.5% of their budgets on defense*. Now some countries actually have scary boogeymen to defend against, but what better way to say to the rest of the world “I’m a good guy! Protect me!” than unilaterally disarming? Then dump your money into health and education and outgrow your rivals. Nothing like thumbing your nose at them from inside a lovely new BMW.

English Language fact of the day: a group of apes is called a “shrewdness of apes.” Thought I should share.


Tuesday, November 7th, 2006

The early, early exit polls look good, but those mean precisely nothing. I shut down the John Kerry office in 2004 celebrating our clear and overwhelming victory – as judged by the exit polls. Time will tell, but I don’t know if my fingernails will last the night.

For those curious…

tenterhook |ˈten(t)ərˌhoŏk | noun historical a hook used to fasten cloth on a drying frame or tenter.

Go work for the election.

Tuesday, October 31st, 2006

Things are particularly busy right now, hence the dearth of posting.

But I hear there’s a big election coming up. A bunch of us went to doorknock for CT-02, which looks to be (like many of them) a very tight race. There’s a heck of a lot of opportunities to upset applecarts this election, and many Republicans teeter on a knife’s edge.

You might be able to make the difference to tip the scales. Find a local campaign, give money to candidates, and most importantly give some of your time. Check out ActBlue to get some good info. Or sign up on MoveOn’s brilliant Call for Change campaign. (I’ll post about that later, because I think it shows the power of the Internet to mobilize.)

The wave’s trending our way, and it’s a lot more fun to go with the wave than against it. I’m a bad surfer, but I do know that much. There’s a possibility for a once-in-a-generation shift now, so make sure you do your part.

Sci-Fi Science

Thursday, October 19th, 2006

Eventually we’re going to figure out some way to get everything that anyone’s imagined in a science fiction story. Looks like we’re a step closer to Romulan cloaking technology today:

Scientists Create Cloak of Invisibility

Mad skillz scientists have figured out how to make something (nearly) invisible to microwaves. Apparently if you can do that it’s possible to do the same thing to light waves. Practical applications are doubtless a looong way off, but pretty amazing nonetheless.

I Heart the Constitution (or: Constitutions which ARE worth the paper they are printed on for $600)

Wednesday, October 18th, 2006

Lately folks have been harshing on the US constitution. There’s a lot of flaws in it, of course, but cut it some slack: for a docentenarian, it’s aging pretty well.

Bear in mind that this lil’ guy was (after that of the Dutch Republic) the first written constitution in the world, and the oldest currently in use. In the meanwhile, the French are on their fifth.

Also, despite the justified hagiography of the Founding Dads, bear in mind that the Constitution was (as everything) the outcome of a political process – and faced another grueling one before adoption. To get the small states to buy in, they crafted the Connecticut Compromise with equal representation in the Senate.

So all those whining about how the Senate is antidemocratic need to remember a) this is a Federal Republic, and States do and should matter, and b) Would you have preferred to have stuck with the Articles of Confederation?

Or perhaps you’d like to go with the European Constitution – all 265 pages of it.


Tuesday, October 10th, 2006

So apparently the North Koreans went nuclear.

About a year ago I discussed a tentative agreement that had been negotiated with North Korea. As I pointed out, the devil was in the implementation details. Apparently there simply wasn’t any implementation at all, which makes that easier.

Today the Grey Lady headlines “Test Byproduct: Quick Scramble to Point Fingers” about the struggle to pin the blame for the North Korean test on the Dems or Reps.

Well, let’s see a time line:
2000 – Bush elected. North Korea has no nukes.
2004 – Bush re-elected for 4 year term.
2006 – BOOM! [ed. note: apparently that maybe should be boom]

The answer is left as an exercise for the reader.

The Paperless Office

Thursday, October 5th, 2006

Wired reports that online readership for newspapers has risen by a third in the last year. So maybe we’re not all becoming media illiterate. On the flip side, paper subscriptions are down – NYT off 5.8% in the last year. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, though. Eventually paper in any form will be history, I suppose. We just need to have the proper reader.

Though, in matchup number 428 today, a friend with a dead tree planner/calendar again beat my techno-solution in speed of reference. So we ain’t there yet.

I certainly get a lot more news consumed online than I ever have in paper form. Now I read the NYT every day, when before it might have been twice a month.

Of course, if you want a real online paper experience, you should check out the newest copy of The Fletcher Ledger. It’s up and looks really good.

The Weirdness of Kyrgyzstan, Part I

Tuesday, September 26th, 2006

Lil’ Kyrgyzstan ain’t in the news very often. However, when it is, it’s often for the weirdest reasons.

First the government PNG’d a pair of US diplomats this summer. That is, the Kyrgyz gov’t declared them Persona Non Grata, diplospeak for “get the hell out of town.” It’s the biggest gun a government can use against foreign diplomats in their country, since throwing foreign government reps into dungeons or beheading them has been considered gauche since the early modern period. Their crime? Obscure, but possibly simply working with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that were engaged in political activism – which in an open society should not be a problem. My friend in the embassy thinks that it’s perhaps simply a matter of an incompetent Kyrgyz government not really aware that they were overreacting and that they made themselves look stupid. Still, weird.

Then several weeks ago a member of the US military based at Manas air force base was apparently kidnapped or mysteriously disappeared from ZUM, a ridiculously overpriced department store in the middle of the capitol, Bishkek. She was found days later far away with her long blonde hair cut and dyed and a story of being forced out at gunpoint. The facts are still really murky, and I don’t know that there has ever been a good explanation in the press.

But the strangest is working through the pipe right now. I’ll post that story tomorrow.

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