Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Persian Poker

President Obama was locked in a high stakes game of chess between the US and her European allies and the Iranians over the Iranian nuclear research program.  And any way you looked at the board, Obama was winning.  He had dabbled in dialog just enough to free himself from the accusations of unilateral arrogant war monger that (justifiably) dogged the Bush administration.  Then he went hard at Iran, meaning to apply as much political and economic pressure as he could deliver, short of an actual act of war like a blockade.  He worked with the Russians throughout the START negotiations, and he worked both with and around the Chinese, and all the momentum was moving his way.

Except there was one thing he didn't notice.  The Iranians weren't playing chess.  They were playing poker.  They sat back and waited for the hand they wanted to play, then they pushed in all their chips.  And as Obama sat, contemplating an increasingly favorable board, he suddenly discovered that all the action was on the poker table, and it was his play.

It will be hard for the UN to move forward on a sanctions resolution when the Iranians have just agreed to the American proposal.  It will be hard for the US to find a way to undo a deal they are not actually a central part of - the Turks hold the LEU in a kind of escrow, the Russians and the French deliver the 20% enriched uranium to Iran and take possession of the LEU, and if they don't deliver the 20% uranium the Turks merely return Iran's LEU.  In Europe, Russia and China they heave a sigh of relief as a sanctions resolution now would be tantamount to refusing to take Yes for an answer.

The interesting thing is that whether you believe the Iranians are working on a weapons program or not, the outcome is exactly the same.  Iran has repeatedly denied that they want anything but a civilian nuclear program, and the IAEA has been unable to find any evidence that they are in fact developing a bomb.  The US and Europe, along with the increasingly hysterical Israelis, have repeatedly accused the Iranians of developing nuclear weapons, in spite of the lack of empirical evidence.  In the face of those ongoing, unsupported accusations, even while denying them, the Iranians have had no choice but the play a defensive game as the demands for "punishing sanctions" become more strident.

So now, the UN will adopt a "wait and see" strategy on sanctions.  Iran will continue to enrich, both the 3½% LEU and the approximately 1 kg a month worth of 20% U235 they have been enriching since they were unable to fuel their medical reactor with fuel rods purchased on the International Market.  The US and Europe will make loud, angry complaints about deceit, dishonesty and the ever popular 'too little too late'.  The Israelis will make more explicit threats of war, but will have no real choice but to stand down while the international community is actively working with the Iranians on the fuel cycle.

The Iranians, by outplaying the US in much the way Ayatollah Sistani outplayed Bush on the first Iraqi elections, have bought another six months of peace.  Another Friedman Unit for reason to win out over the politics of fear.  Governments create and build up these boogymen in order to increase their political power among their domestic constituency - if it's not Saddam Hussein, if it's not Hugo Chavez, if it's not Mullah Omar, it can be Mahmoud Amedinejad.  They serve a purpose, but history keeps teaching us that the political game of the "existential threat" can get out of control pretty easily.  It's good to see the game get changed, at least a little.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Would you like a Unicorn with that?

I am amused.  Americans seem to become less realistic as time goes by.  They seem to believe that just because they want to be 100% safe 100% of the time, then that's the way things should be.  They seem to believe that they should have access to any and all services they might ever want, but these services should not cost them anything, and should never do anything they don't like.  This attitude shows up quite often in discussions of tax policy, and an even more fantastic version has popped up in the last couple weeks over the social networking site Facebook.

Part of it is that people are just inherently confused when they talk about privacy, particularly perceived violations of privacy.  Let's be clear - we all have information that we want to keep private.  This is perfectly reasonable.  It is a violation of our privacy if someone with access to that information takes it and uses it maliciously, or for their own profit.  But this entire construct is premised on our reasonable intent to keep that information private, and our reasonable expectations of how our information will be handled.  For example, let's say you have a health condition that you want to keep private.  If your insurer provides that information to your bank without your permission, you have every right to feel your privacy has been abused.  If you tell 100 random people on the subway, even if you exhort them to keep it to themselves, you cannot complain later that your privacy has been violated.  If you take out a billboard and list your health condition on it, you can no longer have any expectation of privacy.

Now let's think about Facebook.  With over 400 million users, it's obvious that as a community we want an online network site like Facebook.  And we have made it repeated and emphatically clear that we are not willing to pay a monthly fee for that service.  But an operation like Facebook is a huge, complex, expensive business undertaking, and must be able to generate fairly large amounts of revenue in order to even exist.  To expect them not to try to find profitable ways to use the information they get from their huge user community is wildly unrealistic, indeed, if enough sources of revenue were closed off they would cease to be available for people to use.  And if you say another will spring up when they're gone, that's true, and they will have the same requirements for revenues and so will seek the same profit opportunities.

So if we want there to be a Facebook for us to use at no charge, we're going to have to be realistic about how they are going to use the information we provide.  So it's a valuable exercise to think about the data we provide, and how important it's remaining out of the hands of professional marketers and market researchers actually is.  If Facebook knows you like Radiohead and Cold Stone Creamery, do you REALLY care if they tell people that?  If so, you simply don't belong on Facebook - any social networking site is going to easily meet your definition of evil.  Most of the information we post on Facebook is highly banal, and it's exploitation by marketers is pretty harmless.

Which leads us to the other kind of information.  You're going through a divorce and ugly custody fight.  You have AIDS.  You're an atheist.  You would prefer this information remain private.  Well, here's the hard truth. It is YOU who is responsible for keeping your privacy private.  If you choose to post this type of information on Facebook, or any other internet site, you have effectively lost control of it.  It is out there, available, and subject to being read, viewed, captured, measured, counted, compiled and otherwise used.  But your privacy wasn't violated - you posted the information on the INTERNET!  You no longer can have an expectation of privacy - no matter what you hear, no matter what the site's privacy policy says, many things can and do happen and you can never get that information 'back'.

So the answer is simple.  Use Facebook, enjoy it, there's music and games and friends and events and laughter.  But remember:  Your privacy is YOUR responsibility - think about what you're posting before you post it.  If it's not something you'd be comfortable telling your boss, or the bus driver, or the cashier at the grocery store, you probably should think twice about posting it on the internet.  And the other stuff?  The bands and movies you like, the foods you eat, the games, the friends?   Maybe if you think about it, that stuff isn't quite so private after all...

Saturday, May 15, 2010


There was never a question about it.  If there was going to be a Television Series that credited Elmore Leonard as Executive Producer, I was going to watch that Television Series.  In the (inconceivable) case that it turned out to be awful, I would probably watch it anyway way too long, before grudgingly admitting it wasn't up to his masterful standards.

Justified isn't awful.  A nearly perfect combination of writing, dialog, casting and sense of place, it features the kind of interesting and colorful characters you would expect from Mr. Leonard, along with stories that move and dance and swirl gracefully amid dense layers of texture and sensation.

Timothy Olyphant OWNS the Raylan Givens character, playing it straight as a man barely if at all troubled by his own inability to temper his behavior to fit the requirements of his job or even the expectations of his community.  His frequently rueful recognition that what he is going to do (or has just done) will have negative consequences does not result in any consideration that another path was ever even possible - for him, it simply was not.  In deference to post modern story telling, nothing is black and white in Justified's world.  People are complex, motivations are chaotic, loyalties are murky and people don't always do what you expect them to.  The way people react to ever - shifting realities, sometimes in extraordinary ways, while remaining the banal creatures who love and hate and eat and fight, who cannot escape either their own history nor the events in their life that become their history has long been the staple that informs Leonard's novels with their richness and memorability.

Hell, even the theme song is like nothing I've ever heard before.  It's actually blend of bluegrass and rap they unsurprisingly call "Gangstagrass" and it sounds kind of like what you'd get if Leadbelly covered Rage Against the Machine.

Do yourself a favor.  Put your expectations in your pocket and check it out...

Friday, May 14, 2010

If Miranda is the Question, what is the Answer?

Over the last several months, there has been much tumult and outcry from the deep thinkers on the American Political Right over Mirandizing suspects arrested on terror charges, and predictably, the Obama Administration finds this manufactured political outrage persuasive.  Now, in reality we know that this comes from their desire to torture people who are not like them, and more importantly, are NOT them.  But let's take what they say at face value and think about the impact of Miranda on terrorism investigations.

The first question we must ask is "does advising a suspect of his Miranda rights prior to interrogation have a negative impact on the government's ability to gather information?"  My assumption would be that at some point or another everybody has seen enough American television to be able to recite the Miranda warning right along with the arresting officers.  It is inconceivable to me that anybody arrested in the US, particularly an American citizen, would be unaware of his right to avoid self-incriminating statements and his right to request an attorney.  I bet you'd be hard pressed to find a six-year-old who couldn't recite the Miranda warning just as precisely as the Pledge of Allegiance.  Is it really a reasonable belief that a terror suspect would be unaware of his Miranda rights, and that somehow, by invoking them you provide him with a tool he didn't previously have?  That seems unlikely to me, but if this was a serious argument it would not be hard to establish whether or not this is actually the case.

But even setting that aside, if you think about the actual conditions being discussed here, Miranda serves only one purpose - that is to ensure that statements made during the post-arrest interrogation are admissible as evidence in court when that day comes.  There are really two possible conditions in the case of a suspect taken into custody in the immediate aftermath of an attempted terror attack.  Either he is a hardcore terrorist, trained in his craft, indoctrinated in his worldview and deeply committed to his actions, or he is a wannabe, an exploited kid with a head full of ideology and a heart drenched in fear.  If he is the latter, professional interrogators will quickly and effortlessly gain his cooperation, because they know precisely how to exploit the fear and helplessness of a suspect in their custody.  If he is the former, he will either resist or lie, or possibly an even more effective combination of both.  In either case, there seems to be no real reason to believe that explaining the suspect's rights under Miranda will have any impact upon the outcome of the immediate interrogation.  Rather it appears to be another red herring the Right uses to keep the administration appearing soft and indecisive.

Ultimately, this is another disingenuous argument that really isn't worth having, but once again, until President Obama is willing to say no to the fascists on the extreme right wing, it's the kind of argument that will continue to lend credibility to their un American, anti-democratic fever dreams.  They would like to erode constitutional guarantees of civil liberties into a set of suggestions, to be applied or ignored as it suits them.  It's especially tragic that they lack the historical awareness to recognize the likely consequences of these policies.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

It's all Greek to Me

So they reached an agreement to fund Greece's debt to the tune of about 150 Billion Euros.  Krugman says that should be sufficient, and a sovereign default is likely to be avoided.  I'll take him at his word.  Me, I'm more interested in the reaction of the average Greek-in-the-street.  And in the streets is pretty much where we're going to find him.

At some point, due to political cowardice, a dysfunctional legislature and a delusional, illiterate electorate, the US is going to default on her debt.  This will happen in the middle future, perhaps 2020 or 2025, but it will happen.  Why?  Because no effective action is politically possible in the US until it becomes an overarching crisis, requiring immediate and massive action.  That's just the way we roll here.  USA!  USA!

Um, anyway, yeah.  Sovereign default.  What happens is you get funding and an opportunity to "restructure" your debt, but the people providing the relief will insist that you do things that protect their investment.  Not your people, not your democracy, not your sovereignty, THEIR money.  And you agree, because if you don't take the deal you're stuck with NO ability to borrow money, and everything just grinds to a halt.  And that's even worse.

But, as you've been told ad infinitum, Americans are a special people.  They've been cheerleaders to a foreign policy of exported violence on a large scale because they've never had tanks in their neighborhoods, firefights in their schools, and death squads in their homes.  They don't understand the local consequences of things like air strikes and SpecOps raids, mass detentions and political prisoners.  This is the same thing.  Americans will want the international monetary support, but they will be unwilling to accept the concomitant rule set.  Once again, they will demand the funding without the austerity commitments.  But this time, they won't have the option to insist.

When the US goes into default, the nations and agencies providing the funding to keep the government afloat are going to insist that the US get her financial house in order.  That means bringing home the troops, shutting down the empire, ending the subsidies, curtailing the support for all sorts of programs.  For the first time in memory, the American people are going to have to make it on what they do, what they produce, what they actually contribute.

Will it be a problem?  We'll have to see, because it's an irreversible course at this point.  We might learn a great deal from the Greeks, and the Portugese and even maybe the eternally sunny Spanish.  What level of depredations will they be able to force their people to swallow before blood runs in the streets?  Is there breathing room between what the IMF and the Eurozone requires and the violent collapse of the Grecian state?  Will the suffering be just enough, or will it tip over into something people who have come to expect a certain level of services are simply not willing to accept?

Because I can tell you this.  Americans will accept all manner of draconian government edicts, from torture to warrentless wiretaps to extra-judicial murder.  But they will NOT accept you telling them there are things they can't buy, and there are things they are simply going to have to do on their own.  And unlike Greece, in America there's that small matter of half a billion firearms just floating around.  When Americans get scared and hungry, blood is going to flow in a way we've just never seen before.  Think Rwanda with SUVs and machine guns. On the other hand, the rest of the world might very well welcome this outcome....

Mailing it In

What was that...thing they tried to terrorize us with in New York last night?  Honestly, have the terrorists begun recruiting at special needs schools?  They aren't improving with practice, in fact, at the rate they're regressing, they're going to be jumping out of tiny cars in giant shoes and big red noses squirting us with seltzer bottles before much longer.  Osama must be deeply embarrassed.

Propane tanks, check.  Gasoline, check.  M80s.  What the fuck?  Look, I don't want to say anything that would actually help these clowns, but it's pretty obvious they're beyond any kind of help whatsoever.  Hell, I was building more reliable, effective and lethal devices before I was ten.  The thing about a car bomb is you've got all kinds of time to put it together, and then it's just a matter of parking and walking away.  The device doesn't have to be hastily constructed, or poorly designed.  There's just no tactical threat until its time to actually deploy it.

Gasoline, as an initiator, is a fine idea.  But you need the fumes, not the liquid.  Spread it around, poke a bunch of holes in the plastic bottles, let the whole car fill up with heavy, gaseous, highly flammable fumes.  That's what's going to get you that big, hot fireball.  And propane tanks are serious, there's a lot of energy in there, but they are metal tanks designed to actually reduce the likelihood of explosion, so it should be pretty obvious that you need to break the integrity of of the tank in order to weaponize it.  A small tamped black powder - based bomb will do that nicely if your local procurement folks can't get their hands on some Primacord.  But come ON.  M80s as your primary?  Who's idea was that, Dennis the Menace?  What did you think these firecrackers were going to do?  Did you ever think about going out in the desert and doing a test?  You're building a BOMB, fer crissakes, not trying to scare away the evil spirits.  Sheesh.

First there's Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian supervillain who attempted to terrorize America by setting fire to his own junk, and now we have the Bozo Jihadi show trying to blow up New York with firecrackers.  Frankly, I'm a lot more afraid of the gangbangers in the apartments to my east than I am of these idiots.  Until they figure out how to produce something on the order of, say, those goofy kids at Columbine, I don't think I'll be losing a whole lot of sleep...

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Giants

Seems as if the process and goals set out by Brian Sabean two years ago have been reached.  The pitching continues to be awesome, the starters and even, for the most part, the bullpen.  The hitting has improved to become "JUST good enough" to deliver the starters three, four, even five runs to work with.  And so far, that's been enough.  All the pre-season worries about the defense were overblown, these are professionals who have been playing this game their entire lives, and sure, they'll kick a few and even blow a few games, but it's not enough one way or another to derail a season in the NL West.   The depth is a problem, and that's already beginning to show, but when Freddie Sanchez comes back up to solidify the middle infield, a lot of these challenges will become manageable.  Of course, if Sanchez can't stay healthy, it's a pretty serious problem, as it costs the Giants real hitters when they need Rohlinger or Downs in the infield.

But it doesn't seem like there's anybody in the west that can run with the Giants, starting pitching being the factor that it is.  And this has got to represent a real concern for the other divisions come September, because in a short series with days off (due to TV and revenue considerations), the Giants staff is pretty hard to bet against...