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Belmont Club

Is the Cold War Back?

November 19th, 2014 - 3:40 pm

“The nuclear gun is back on the table,” writes Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times. “Both in private and in public, Russia is making explicit references to its nuclear arsenal”.  Speaking of the new tensions with Russia, Angela Merkel said, “who would have thought that 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, after the end of the Cold War and the division of Europe, and the end of the division of the world into two blocs, that something like this could happen right in the heart of Europe.”

Anyone who thinks the East German population ended the Cold War is bound to be surprised that it’s started again.  The Cold War ended largely because the Soviet Union was unable to continue fighting it. “By the time the comparatively youthful Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary in 1985,  the Soviet economy was stagnant and faced a sharp fall in foreign currency earnings as a result of the downward slide in oil prices in the 1980s”.  In the evocative phrase of Le Carre’s novel, Russia House: “the American strategists can sleep in peace. Their nightmares cannot be realized. The Soviet knight is dying inside his armor. He is a secondary power like you British. He can start a war but cannot continue one and cannot win one. Believe me.”

Yet the bomb is back. Conflict is back. Putin warned that he won’t let the Ukraine defeat him. The Daily Beast says that the Eastern Ukraine is bracing for full-scale war. Some news outlets claim a lot of Russians are already dying in the Ukraine, shipped back secretly in trucks marked “Gruz 200″.

Families receive a soldier’s body for burial with information about the date of death, but nothing more — and the Russian government responds to questions by threatening to cut off death benefits or send family members to prison for national security violations.

The dying Russian knight, feeling no better than he did in the 1980s, has crawled back into his armor and picked up his rusty sword. Just as in Gorbachev’s time, Russia’s ruble is crashing, demolished by a rising dollar and falling oil prices — ironically caused by the domestic energy revolution in the United States which the Obama administration had no use for.

Jack Caravelli, formerly of the CIA, morosely concludes that “an era of unprecedented nuclear cooperation between the Cold War rivals is drawing to a close. Early this month Sergey Kirienko, who runs Russia’s state nuclear company, announced that in 2015 no new nuclear projects involving U.S. participation are ‘envisioned.’”

The Western Europeans are baffled.  MSN reports that “Europe, facing multiple threats, still isn’t spending on defense.” They can’t get their heads around the problem.

Donetsk is smack in the middle of Eastern Europe. Kobani is just beyond Europe’s southeastern edge, and thousands of radical fighters there come from Europe. The two hot spots span what military experts call the full spectrum of modern warfare, from the traditional Russian force to the far-too-common asymmetric threat of the terrorist Islamic State. Both represent very real and serious threats to European security.

Yet European militaries aren’t prepared to deal with either one, much less both. European security remains dependent on the might of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and NATO increasingly is dependent on the might of the United States. The European nations NATO was set up to defend contribute less and less to the organization.

Nor can the president. A poll among government workers found that “the Obama administration has no strategy for ISIS, the Pentagon is not leaving enough troops to protect Afghanistan and Congress isn’t qualified to keep watch over the military and intelligence services, according to survey of federal workers and troops at the Pentagon, and other national security agencies.”

In fact, political dysfunction ranks ahead of “international terrorism,” “a nuclear armed Iran,” and Russia, China and North Korea, in the minds of these respondents.

The list of mistrust in government leadership is long. Seventy-three percent think Obama does not have “a clear national security strategy.” Not just an ISIS strategy – but a strategy for all national security. Only 26 percent approve of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. And 20 percent of federal workers and troops surveyed think members of Congress are qualified to perform their oversight duties for national security.


The Split-Level World

November 17th, 2014 - 12:46 pm

It is a rich country with a poor southern neighbor.  Each year countless economic migrants attempt a desperate journey over arid terrain and fearfully cross the border fence in search of better jobs in the north only to add to a burgeoning population of illegal aliens.  In response the authorities have vowed to crack down on these migrants.  Early this year 250,000 illegals were deported.  ”Haggard and penniless,” writes the Economist,  they “are being dumped at the dusty and chaotic” border crossings by a government eager to reclaim jobs for its own citizens.

The rich country we are talking about is of course,  Saudi Arabia.

Oman, Yemen’s other neighbor, is also planning a border fence. “Following the conclusion of a secret bidding process, preliminary surveys along the fence line began earlier this year after Oman awarded a contract to an Indian development company, according to border officials. They estimate the construction process will be completed by 2018,” despite protests by environmental activists that the barrier will affect endangered species.

Shorter, but more heavily guarded is the Egypt-Gaza barrier. It’s the one you never hear about when news stories describe ‘conflict in the Middle East’.  But it’s a barrier all the same.

The Egypt–Gaza barrier refers to the steel border barrier along the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. Because it is essentially splitting the city of Rafah, the steel barrier is also referred as a separation wall.

In December 2009, Egypt started with help from the US, the building of a steel wall along the Gaza border. If it is finished, the wall will be 10-11 km (6-7 miles) long and extend 18 metres below the surface. The wall was to be completed in 18 months.[

On 29 October 2014, Egypt had begun demolishing homes along its border with the Gaza Strip as part of a planned 500m buffer zone that is intended to prevent weapons smuggling entering Palestine.


The Hippie Uniform

November 16th, 2014 - 4:27 pm

Through the modern miracle of the Internet it is now possible to buy hippie uniforms from China wholesale at “high quality and low prices”.  The phrase “hippie uniform” may sound like a contradiction in terms, but as the Washington Post’s article on mathematician Jonathan Touboul explains, it’s entirely natural. Most hippies are doomed to don — and to change — uniforms.

Touboul concluded that is because “hipsters” define nonconformity in terms of the ‘perceived mainstream’ and because of delays in rebellion toward it, they entered into oscillating states which effectively doomed them to uniforms.

The mathematician who proved why hipsters all look alike. What brain neurons tell us about the ‘hipster effect’ when all contrarians end up looking the same. …

His key insight is that people (and neurons) do not instantly perceive what is mainstream. There’s a delay. And in situations where the delay is large enough, the contrarians can inadvertently synchronize with each other.

The key parameters are perception and delay. It is the date you recognize something as square and the period thereafter when you decide to be ‘hip’. “What Touboul noticed is that if you increase the delay factor past a certain point, something amazing happens. Out of what appears to be random noise, a pattern emerges. All of the hipsters start to synchronize, and they start to oscillate in unison.”

Andrew Klavan noticed the same thing by observing the ratings of Lena Dunham’s show. It’s obviously a bomb, but the hipsters have declared it a hit. Why? Because they’re wearing a mental hippie uniform, and they have to stay in sync.  The Dunham show may be a stinkeroo, but that’s not the point. The real object is to know when to realize it’s from hunger. To recognize it too early carries just as much of a penalty as recognizing it too late.

The recent season finale of Dunham’s HBO show Girls garnered under 700,000 viewers which, by television standards, is essentially none. And yet if you read articles about her, you’ll find the show repeatedly described as a hit. Why do people describe it as a hit? Because even though it’s not watched by a lot of people, it’s watched by the right people. Who are the right people? The people who describe the show as a hit. There’s a reason this is called the Echo Chamber.


Promises, Promises

November 15th, 2014 - 2:48 pm

The primary ingredient for betrayal is trust. The most dangerous traitors are the people who are above suspicion. Heinrich Himmler, for example, approached the OSS in 1943 to explore the possibility of staging a coup against Hitler and making a separate peace with the Western allies. John Waller writing at the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence says that further exploratory talks begun in Sweden were vetoed by Wild Bill Donovan, the State Department and finally Franklin Roosevelt himself out of the fear that any such talks would shatter the Grand Alliance.

Stalin would find out, Roosevelt’s advisers argued, if he were to deal with Himmer. And indeed he would have, because the Soviet union had agents working at the highest levels in the Western alliance. (As a thought experiment consider if Stalin would have sold out Roosevelt if Himmler had offered him a similar deal.)

The Hewitt report that reached the president did not go into detail on the damage that such an operation posed for American and British relations with Stalin. The United States had an important stake in keeping Stalin friendly—certainly until the Japanese as well as the Germans were soundly defeated. Hitler’s last-ditch strategy as the Third Reich slid toward defeat would be an effort to break up the Grand Alliance that the West had with the Russians. Hewitt was, of course, oblivious to the several penetrations at top levels of the Western Allies by spies, such as British Secret Intelligence Service officer Kim Philby, who were keeping Stalin informed of efforts by Western intelligence to establish contact with the various factions of the secret German opposition. In fact, the US Department of State, faithful to the spirit of the Grand Alliance with the USSR, and doubtless fearing Stalin’s reaction if the OSS was caught dealing behind his back with Himmler, kept the Russians as well as the British generally informed of Hewitt’s talks with Kersten and Schellenberg.

Robert Hanssen of the FBI and Aldrich Ames of CIA were in trust positions also, and sent many a man working for the United States to their deaths. Ames alone sold out 25 men and women to the KGB, some of whom were sentenced to vyshaya mera (the highest measure of punishment).

The Soviets released video of the arrest by the KGB of Dmitri Polyakov, “Soviet Major General, a high-ranking GRU officer … In the CIA he was known by code names BOURBON and ROAM, while the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) knew him as TOPHAT (Top Hat).”

Polyakov got the vyshaya mera, this time courtesy of Robert Hanssen.  But what goes around comes around.  Eventually the Soviet agents in America were identified by the American agents in the Soviet Union.  Treason goes in both directions.


The Strategic Failure of Barack Obama

November 13th, 2014 - 6:47 pm

“A gaffe,” Michael Kinsley once said, “is when a politician tells the truth.” Unfortunately for the Obama administration, Jonathan Gruber, an economist hired to design Obamacare, was fecklessly candid about how the Obama administration misrepresented their flagship program to the rubes.

Nancy Pelosi quickly stepped in to show him how pros do it by denying she ever met Gruber, though the Washington Post produced  transcripts of the former speaker copiously buttressing her arguments with references to Gruber.  The biggest laugh, however, came from Mother Jones, which writes that “the Supreme Court Might Gut Obamacare. Your State Could Save It.” This is a reference to King vs Burwell, the case which Paul Krugman declared no lawyer would take seriously and which is now scheduled to go before the Supreme Court.

Mother Jones explains King vs Burwell is nothing but a ‘law-o’, a ‘moops’. “The King plaintiffs base their argument on the fact that in parts of the Affordable Care Act, the text says subsidies will be available for people ‘enrolled through an Exchange established by the State.’ … Salon’s Simon Maloy calls the conservative case the ‘Moops’ argument,” because the law can’t ever mean what it actually says when that conflicts with what the president intends. Even so, Mother Jones argues the states can still save Obamacare if only Republican governors agree to offer subsidies should the Supreme Court decides the feds can’t.

What’s funny isn’t that the Republicans have discovered Gruber. The what’s really hilarious is that the Obama administration has just rediscovered the States,  the US Supreme Court and the Republican Party after a long period of ignoring them completely. Suddenly it’s “help! Save Obamacare!”. The biggest political weakness of Obamacare, which is only now becoming apparent  to Democrats, is that it was attempted on the back of a very narrow “progressive” consensus;  without a single Republican vote in either House, in the teeth of the fact that 36 states did not establish exchanges and on the assumption the Supremes would not dare to raise a hand against it.

The 2014 midterm elections finally collapsed the fiction that Obamacare is somehow the immutable ‘law of the land’.  Gruber’s frankness exposed the fact that the attempt to present an entire country with a fait accompli was really just a bunch of garbage cloaked by an elaborate deception operation.  At bedrock it hadn’t a strategic leg to stand on and was doomed to fail when someone called its bluff.

The biggest reason to focus on this problem is because president Obama is about to do the same thing again.  The New York Times reports that the president is planning to legalize up to 5 million illegal immigrants  in complete defiance of the Republican majority in both Houses and polls which show public hostility to such a move.

President Obama will ignore angry protests from Republicans and announce as soon as next week a broad overhaul of the nation’s immigration enforcement system that will protect up to five million undocumented immigrants from the threat of deportation and provide many of them with work permits, according to administration officials who have direct knowledge of the plan.

Asserting his authority as president to enforce the nation’s laws with discretion, Mr. Obama intends to order changes that will significantly refocus the activities of the government’s 12,000 immigration agents. One key piece of the order, officials said, will allow many parents of children who are American citizens or legal residents to obtain legal work documents and no longer worry about being discovered, separated from their families and sent away.

You can do these things with a strong consensus; and if the policy change pays off in ways that confirm its fundamental rightness.  But you can’t do it in the teeth of a contrary gale and not even break-even for the average man in sight.  Yet it’s deja vu all over again;  in amnesty we have a huge undertaking attempted on the narrowest  ’progressive’ consensus  advanced under  a deception operation with barely concealed contempt for the practical consequences  on the American people.  The presidential amnesty bids fair to repeat every mistake Obamacare made, and then some.


I Write The Songs

November 12th, 2014 - 2:10 pm

A literary reviewer  once described characters in play as hiding in a “frenzy of febrile activity”, substituting “action for knowledge”, “a constant buzz of chatter in order to avoid” answering real questions. He might have been talking about Hillary Clinton to whom the adjective “frenzied” might well have been applied. According to Megan Garber of the Atlantic, Hillary Clinton traveled 956,733 miles during her tenure as Secretary of State. From data provided by the Department of State, Garber says this equals:

• Total miles traveled: 956,733
• Which equates to this many times traveled around the circumference of the world: 38.42
• Total travel time, in hours: 2,084.21
• Total travel time, in days: 86.8
• Days of travel, in all: 401
• Which works out to: 1.099 years

And what did she achieve? When Tom Friedman  asked her what she had achieved (video below) she was at a loss for words.

But achievement wasn’t the point.  Activity was an end in itself. John Kerry is trying to break her record. He is traveling so hard that his plane broke down.

Since assuming office in Feb. 1, 2013, Kerry has juggled priorities amid a virtually non-stop travel schedule that has left many around him often exasperated and exhausted.

He has already overtaken his predecessor Hillary Clinton in his first year as America’s top diplomat, clocking up 519,136 miles (835,468 km) to 51 countries in 239 days, according to State Department figures.


Room 404

November 11th, 2014 - 2:52 pm

“The right to be forgotten,” according to Wikipedia, “is a concept … discussed and put into practice in the European Union (EU) and Argentina … from the desires of some individuals to ‘determine the development of his life in an autonomous way, without being perpetually or periodically stigmatized as a consequence of a specific action performed in the past’ … to the status of an international human right in respect to access to information.”

It asserts we have a right not to be inconvenienced by the past. Classifying the “right to be forgotten” as “access to information” is somewhat misleading, though. Unlike privacy which is an ‘access denied’ message the right to be truly forgotten is an edit of the past. It’s conceptually a delete operation.

After a video clip showing economist Jonathan Gruber describing the passage of Obamacare as based intentional deceit went viral, the University of Pennsylvania deleted it. The Daily Caller writes,

Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber had said at the University of Pennsylvania’s 24th Annual Health Economics Conference that it was a good thing that Americans never realized what was in the Affordable Care Act, because “the stupidity of the American voter” would have otherwise killed the law.

But for unexplained reasons, the University of Pennsylvania has pulled its video of the event, which took place in October of 2013. ”This video has been removed by the user,” a message now reads. “Sorry about that.” The video is still embedded on the conference page, but playing the video gives a similar error message.

One person who was angry to hear of the apparent cover-up was Bloomberg columnist Megan McArdle. “This is pretty shocking behavior by my alma mater,” she tweeted, “Why would @Penn pull down a public video that has political implications?”

Gruber’s message was unflattering. Avik Roy at Forbes writes: “Gruber made an argument that many of Obamacare’s critics have long made, including me. It’s that the law’s complex system of insurance regulation is a way of concealing from voters what Obamacare really is: a huge redistribution of wealth from the young and healthy to the old and unhealthy. In the video, Gruber points out that if Democrats had been honest about these facts, and that the law’s individual mandate is in effect a major tax hike, Obamacare would never have passed Congress.”

But since Obamacare is ‘progressive’ can’t we make the ugly past go away?  Obamacare’s proponents believe it was intended in virtue, however much it was conceived in sin. Or as Gruber put it: “Look, I wish Mark was right that we could make it all transparent, but I’d rather have this law than not.”  To argue  we have no right to know what Gruber said in Penn State seminars is to assert privacy. But that is not the same as asserting  Gruber said nothing. When Sheryl Attkisson says that “CBS News bosses purposely hid a clip of President Obama refusing to call the Benghazi attacks an act of terrorism in order to help him get re-elected” that’s not protecting classified information; that’s a delete operation.


Saving the Internet

November 10th, 2014 - 1:10 pm

ABC News says: “Net Neutrality: How President Obama Wants to Rescue the Internet”. Business Insider says, “President Obama wants to reclassify the internet as a utility, according to a new statement from the White House. This would allow the Federal Communications Committee to enforce heavier restrictions on it and protect net neutrality.”

Among the four basic points of the president’s plan are no blocking websites for certain users, no throttling (creating a fast and slow lane), more transparency between consumers and Internet service providers and no paid prioritization to move to the front of the line.

Michael Powell, president and CEO of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association and the former chairman of the FCC, said in a statement he was surprised Obama had waded into the debate. Powell’s group is the primary lobbying force of the cable industry.

“We are stunned the President would abandon the longstanding, bipartisan policy of lightly regulating the Internet and call for extreme Title II regulation,” Powell said. “The cable industry strongly supports an open Internet, is building an open Internet, and strongly believes that over-regulating the fastest growing technology in our history will not advance the cause of Internet freedom.”

This issue will be cast in terms of the cable companies vs the world, between unregulated oppression and regulated liberty. But that may be, as the president is fond of saying,   ‘a false choice’. One major reason why ‘freedom through government’ doesn’t always work as advertised is regulatory capture.


Missing Man

November 8th, 2014 - 8:15 pm

German Chancellor Angela Merkel described the Fall of the Berlin Wall a quarter of a century ago as “a miracle”.

(Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Saturday an irrepressible yearning for freedom brought the Berlin Wall tumbling down 25 years ago and called it a “miracle” that the Cold War barrier was breached without a shot being fired.

Speaking on the eve of Sunday’s celebrations to mark the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s collapse, Merkel said Germany would always be grateful for the courage of East Germans who took to the streets to protest the Communist dictatorship.

The BBC dwells on the festivities marking the event, saying “concerts and exhibitions are being staged in the city … white balloons marking a stretch of the wall will be released to symbolise its disappearance,” like a magic trick happened that night a quarter century ago. Frauke Lüpke-Narberhaus, a reporter for Spiegel Online, who was born in 1983, sets down her memories of the event; she remembers two young East German soccer players who stayed at her family home before reunification and their surprise at eating Nutella.

But none of these articles  mentions “Ronald Reagan” nor for that matter  Margaret Thatcher or Pope John Paul.


Seeking Mount Doom

November 7th, 2014 - 3:18 pm

The BBC says that a huge series of law enforcement raids have shut down Silk Road 2.0 and 400 other sites belonging to the “Dark Net”, which is an unlisted part of the global network.  The raid claimed to have interrupted the trade in weapons, drugs and human traffic conducted through these channels.

The sites operated on the Tor network – a part of the internet unreachable via traditional search engines. …

It was the operation last year to take down the drugs marketplace Silk Road which was the first major success in the battle against criminal use of the dark net.

Now this much bigger operation involving global cooperation amongst law enforcement agencies sees that battle taken to a new level, with Silk Road 2.0 amongst 400 sites closed. …

The BBC understands that the raid represented both a technological breakthrough – with police using new techniques to track down the physical location of dark net servers – as well as seeing an unprecedented level of international co-operation among law enforcement agencies.

The basic defense of Tor is what is called ‘onion routing’.  Conceptually it is like a clandestine network of cells. Traffic travels between the cells through a series of hops which are cut-outs. However, the successes scored by this latest raid are not as revolutionary as the BBC makes it seem. Tor had a number of known weaknesses, including susceptibility provided by traffic analysis techniques. The security it provided was not provided in principle, but only relative with respect to the correlation of the attack and defense.

The term “onion routing” refers to application layers of encryption, nested like the layers of an onion, used to anonymize communication. Tor encrypts the original data, including the destination IP address, multiple times and sends it through a virtual circuit comprising successive, randomly selected Tor relays. Each relay decrypts a layer of encryption to reveal only the next relay in the circuit in order to pass the remaining encrypted data on to it. The final relay decrypts the innermost layer of encryption and sends the original data to its destination without revealing, or even knowing, the source IP address. Because the routing of the communication is partly concealed at every hop in the Tor circuit, this method eliminates any single point at which the communication can be de-anonymized through network surveillance that relies upon knowing its source and destination.

The BBC notes that like IP itself, Tor was originally developed by US defense agencies, before others discovered its utility and used it for their own purposes.  ”Tor’s users include the military, law enforcement officers and journalists – who use it as a way of communicating with whistle-blowers – as well as members of the public who wish to keep their browser activity secret.”