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Belmont Club

No Deal — Yet

March 30th, 2014 - 6:28 pm

John Kerry announced that he would not discuss the future of Ukraine without its presence in negotiations. “Mr Kerry said he told Mr Lavrov that the US still considered Russia’s takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea region to be “illegal and illegitimate”.

He said he had stressed that no decision on Ukraine’s future could be made without Kiev’s involvement.

Earlier Mr Lavrov set out demands for a neutral and federal Ukraine.

Mr Kerry told a news conference in Paris: “We will not accept a path forward where the legitimate government of Ukraine is not at the table.

But Bridget Kendall, the diplomatic correspondent of the BBC says that despite the bold words and ostensibly having nothing to talk about Kerry and Lavrov did a lot of talking and the difference in the body language between the two foreign secretaries was suggestive.

Mr Kerry’s description of what should be up for discussion covered quite a lot on Russia’s wish list: rights for national minorities, language rights, the disarmament of irregular forces and inclusive constitutional reform, including – most importantly – the idea of federalising Ukraine.

No wonder Sergei Lavrov looked satisfied and called the talks “very very constructive”, while John Kerry just looked tired. It’s true the Americans are insisting that all negotiations must be subject to the approval of the government in Kiev – which has already dismissed the idea of federalism as unacceptable. But if the issue is on the table, from Russia’s point of view, that is the first step.

In other ways, too, Mr Kerry seemed less than forceful: Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s border were “intimidating” and “inappropriate” but he admitted they were on Russian soil so legally there could be no demand they were moved. And he made no American call for Russian troops to be pulled back in Crimea, or for the annexed territory to be returned to Ukraine. The impression left was that Washington is bending over backwards in its search for a diplomatic solution to stop this crisis getting worse.

Lavrov conveyed the impression that Kerry and he had discussed some things after all. Kerry was going to go and ask Kiev to quit persecuting Russian-speaking Ukrainians. “Lavrov said he and Kerry did agree to work with the Ukrainian government to improve rights for Russian-speaking Ukrainians and disarm ‘irregular forces and provocateurs.’”


Kerry Meets Lavrov

March 30th, 2014 - 1:13 pm

The scene is a familiar one. Two wizards parlay over the fate of their yokel followers. The yokels try to follow the converation. But it’s no use; they are shut out. No it isn’t the Gandalf-Saruman scene out of the Lord of the Rings. It’s the Kerry-Lavarov meeting in Paris, with the Eiffel Tower standing in place of Orthanc.  Barack Obama diverted John Kerry to the French capital so he could meet with the Russian foreign minister over Ukraine.

Sunday’s meeting follows an hourlong phone call Friday between U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin in which Obama urged Putin to withdraw his troops from the border with Ukraine. The Russian leader, who initiated the call, asserted that Ukraine’s government is allowing extremists to intimidate ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking civilians with impunity — something Ukraine insists is not happening.

Alarmed at the ‘threats to ethnic Russians’, Putin suggested rewriting the constitution of Ukraine — without Ukraine in attendance — to change things to his liking.  You would think such a suggestion would be out of the question. But Kerry is listening!

Lavrov made clear that Moscow believes a federation is the only way to guarantee Ukraine’s stability and neutrality.

“We can’t see any other way to ensure the stable development of Ukraine but to sign a federal agreement,” Lavrov said, adding that he understood the United States was open to the idea.

U.S. officials have been coy about their position on a federation and insist that any changes to Ukraine’s governing structure must be acceptable to the Ukrainians. Ukrainian officials are wary of decentralizing power, fearing that pro-Russia regions would hamper its western aspirations and potentially split the country apart. …

The plan that Kerry and Lavrov are discussing covers Ukrainian political and constitutional reforms as well as the disarmament of irregular forces, international monitors to protect minority rights and direct dialogue between Russia and Ukraine, according to U.S. officials, who say it has backing of Ukraine’s government.



March 29th, 2014 - 4:18 pm

Sometimes we never see it coming. Kevin Flynn and Jim Dwyer of the New York Times listened to the last radio messages of firemen at the World Trade Center and noted the last transmission was ”Battalion 7 to Ladder 15”. “The voices, captured on a tape of Fire Department radio transmissions, betray no fear. The words are matter-of-fact. … There was no awareness of imminent doom.” Up until the last moment the firemen did not know the Towers were going to crumble under their feet. But can we see an earthquake coming? The most dreaded notion used in connection with the recent  5.1 magnitude quake in LA is ‘precursor’.  What can we make of this seeming prediction?

US Geological Survey seismologist Lucy Jones told Los Angeles Times that the 5.1 quake has a 5 percent chance of being a foreshock of an even larger quake. “There could be even a larger earthquake in the next few hours or the next few days,” Jones was quoted as saying.

Smithsonian Magazine calls Jones “the earthquake lady”.

Today Jones is among the world’s most influential seismologists—and perhaps the most recognizable. Her file cabinets bulge with fan letters, among them at least one marriage proposal. “The Earthquake Lady,” she’s called. A science adviser for the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena, Jones, 57, is an expert on foreshocks, having authored or co-authored 90 research papers, including the first to use statistical analysis to predict the likelihood that any given temblor will be followed by a bigger one.That research has been the basis for 11 earthquake advisories issued by the state of California since 1985.

But whether Jones can actually predict any earthquake meaningfully is open to dispute. When Jones predicts a quake she’s sure to eventually be right, in the way that one is always correct when pointing to someone and declaring “you will die”. Most everyone dies — eventually. And it’s easy to make a  statistical prediction.

With over 13,000 earthquakes around the world each year with a magnitude of 4.0 or greater, trivial success in earthquake prediction is easily obtained using sufficiently broad parameters of time, location, or magnitude. However, such trivial “successful predictions” are not useful.

But people don’t want to know about long-term odds. They want to know the day and the hour the Big One is coming so they can absent themselves from Los Angeles at that moment. As for overall risk, that has been priced into the real estate values already. Tokyo, for example, has extensive earthquake risk tables. (more…)

The Misfortunes of War

March 28th, 2014 - 8:49 pm

The New York Times reports an epic case of knocking on the wrong door:

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban assailants apparently thought they were attacking an unprotected Christian-run day care center. But they mistakenly burst into the compound next door, where an American government contractor’s employees were heavily armed and ready, according to accounts that the contractor and the Afghan police gave on Friday of a wild four-hour shootout here.

Don’t you hate it when that happens?

The residents in the group’s house included the two Americans and an Australian, a Malaysian and a South African, who was the group’s security adviser. The group runs agricultural and demining programs in Afghanistan, as well as in Israel, Croatia and Vietnam.

A spokesman for the Taliban, Zabiullah Mujahid, reached by telephone while the attack was under way, said the target had been “a church used to convert Muslims to Christianity.”

Mujahid said the Taliban had intelligence that the suspected underground church was celebrating its anniversary in Kabul, and the insurgents timed their attack to what they thought was that celebration.

There are no known churches in Afghanistan, where the practice of Christianity is outlawed and conversion of Muslims is a crime. Aid groups supported by Christian groups abroad have in the past been accused of being missionaries, and two were expelled by Afghanistan in 2010.


The Face in the Mirror

March 28th, 2014 - 3:00 pm

What’s old is new again. Michael Peck describes a 1964 Warsaw Pact plan to overrun Western Europe. They had planned to overrun France in a week. “Within a week, armored columns supported by paratroopers were supposed to blitz across southern Germany, cross the Rhine River and occupy the French city of Lyon, about 250 miles southeast of Paris.”

According to documents in the archives of former Communist Czechoslovakia, Czech and Soviet forces were supposed to take the southern German city of Regensburg on the first day of the offensive, known in military parlance as “D+1.”

They would then vault over the Rhine in less than a week, and reach the French city of Besancon—about 150 miles northeast of Lyon—by D+8, before pushing on to Lyon itself.

The plan called for the Czech First and Fourth Armies to strike southwest from Czechoslovakia into West Germany, in conjunction with the Soviet Eighth Guards Army on their northern flank and the Hungarians to the south. Airborne troops would seize crossings over the Neckar and Rhine Rivers.

To pave the way for the advance, the Peace Loving socialist nations involved in the offensive would have cleared away opposition with tactical nuclear weapons.

“Altogether the operation will require the use of 131 nuclear missiles and nuclear bombs; specifically 96 missiles and 35 nuclear bombs,” the plan states. “The first nuclear strike will use 41 missiles and nuclear bombs. The immediate task will require using 29 missiles and nuclear bombs. The subsequent task could use 49 missiles and nuclear bombs. Twelve missiles and nuclear bombs should remain in the reserve of the front.”

Could the Warsaw Pact have done it? We know now they considered it. The only thing stopping them really would have been the United States. Maybe the Warsaw Pact looked at the USA and said, “nah”.  And so the advance West never started; on that rested the Long Peace, in whose afterglow we survive to this day.

A new realization of the American role in preserving peace has returned to Western Europe on the heels of the Syrian and Ukranian debacles.

The U.S. military’s gradual, 20-year drawdown in Europe looks to be abruptly ending as the Russian invasion of Crimea casts a spotlight on U.S. European Command and fuels calls for reshaping the military mission there after decades of post-Cold War calm.

President Obama met with NATO leaders in Brussels on Wednesday and sought to reassure the 28 allied countries in Europe of U.S. military support in the event of further Russian aggression.

“We have to make sure that we have put together very real contingency plans for every one of these members, including those who came in out of Central and Eastern Europe,” Obama said at a news conference in Brussels on Wednesday.

The old ‘I reject unproven missile defense sytems, stop all future combat weapons and zero out our nuclear weapons’ line seems to have lost some of its gloss.  Recently Obama gave a speech in Europe with less than a rousing reception.


Yee Gads

March 27th, 2014 - 1:38 pm

“State Sen. Leland Yee withdrew from the California secretary of state race Thursday, one day after his arrest on public corruption charges,” according to SFGate.

Expanding Access To Our Democracy

Expanding Access To Our Democracy

This followed a chorus of calls from California Democrats demanding Yee’s resignation because he was ruining the brand. “California Democratic senators – wary from months of scandals – called for the immediate resignation of state Sen. Leland Yee, saying Wednesday that charges of gun trafficking and public corruption leveled against their colleague are ‘appalling’.”

“I want Leland Yee gone,” a furious Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg said of the San Francisco Democrat who is a 2014 candidate for secretary of state. Steinberg said he is immediately removing Yee from all committee assignments.

Steinberg’s reaction to the latest scandal – the third to hit the headlines this year – represented a departure from earlier calls for justice to play out after the conviction of state Sen. Rod Wright of Baldwin Park (Los Angeles County) on voter fraud charges. The Senate leader took a stronger position after the arrest of state Sen. Ron Calderon of Montebello on bribery charges this year by calling on the Los Angeles County Democrat to resign or be suspended.

Both of those legislators are on a paid leave of absence pending the legal completion of their cases.

Steinberg said Yee faces charges that “create a huge cloud over the institution.”

“Obviously, he can’t come back,” said Steinberg, who then added, “well, if he’s acquitted he can.”

The Sacramento Bee wrote that Yee “had few close ties”. “Yet Yee has been viewed as a somewhat isolated legislator during his nearly dozen years in the Assembly and Senate. A refrain Wednesday among people speaking privately was that Yee plays things close to the vest and regularly left his colleagues unsure of his true feelings.”  Which is to say now that Leland has been busted that nobody wants to acknowledge knowing him.


Victory At See

March 26th, 2014 - 3:34 pm

The administration has mastered the art of declaring  victory at will. Not that it means anything, but it sounds good. Obamacare, which has missed one deadline after another and has promised not to extend yet again … has extended yet again. As Avik Roy at Forbes wrote “Though the Obama administration repeatedly insisted that its March 31 enrollment deadline for Obamacare’s first year was “firm,” many observers predicted that the administration would combat lagging sales of health law-sponsored insurance plans by extending that deadline. Sure enough, on Tuesday night the White House indicated that it would be postponing that drop date in order to squeeze as many people as possible into the program.”

Count on them to let you down. HHS said they didn’t even have the power to do it. But now they’ve done it, on an “honor basis” without a deadline too.

On March 11, Julie Bataille, the appropriately-surnamed spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said that “we have no plans to extend the open enrollment period. In fact, we don’t actually have the statutory authority to extend the open enrollment period in 2014. …

Under the new rules, people will be able to qualify for an extension by checking a blue box on to indicate that they tried to enroll before the deadline. This method will rely on an honor system; the government will not try to determine whether the person is telling the truth. … According to a Health and Human Services official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about decisions that have not been made public, an exact time frame for this extension has not been set, and it will depend in part on how many people request it. Nor have officials decided precisely how long people will have to select a health plan after they get the extra time.”

Not that it matters. Sixty percent of uninsured don’t even know about the deadline and more than half have decided not to sign up anyway, according to the Kaiser Health Foundation.  It is as if even the lowest income people in America understand that Obama’s deadlines have all the rigidity of a rubber band.

But if the Obama administration has a problem observing its own deadlines, it is nothing to the contempt with which foreign enemies treat his Red Lines. The New York Times says the challenge now is for President Obama to regain his credibility somehow. “While President Obama insisted again on Tuesday that the West would not recognize the annexation of Crimea, officials in the United States and Europe have privately concluded that Crimea is lost and that the real challenge is stopping Russia from further destabilizing Ukraine.”

Ivo H. Daalder, a former ambassador to NATO under Mr. Obama and now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, said the fate of eastern Ukraine, not Crimea, should be the priority for the administration now. “If the basic question is whether we focus on Crimea or focus on the next thing, the right thing to do is to focus on the next thing,” he said in an interview. …

The administration cannot admit that publicly, however, because it would be taken as a sign of capitulation. … In The Hague, administration officials repeatedly sought to avoid saying directly that the United States and its allies had accepted the annexation as a fait accompli. A senior administration official who briefed reporters on Monday under an agreement that he not be identified said Mr. Putin could incite more serious sanctions by trying to stir trouble inside Ukraine.

So they pretend they’ve won, even though they know they’ve lost and are reduced to searching for ways in which Putin can be induced to believe him next time.


The Manhattan Project

March 25th, 2014 - 3:02 pm

Washington Post editorial editor Fred Hiatt hopes that president Obama will re-think his foreign policy after a series of failures, though deep down he conceded that Obama probably wouldn’t. Hiatt asks the rhetorical question: “defeat can lead to defeatism, or it can lead to constructive rethinking. Which path will President Obama take after setbacks overseas?” And he provides his own answer. Neither. It will lead to complete denial and more wishful thinking.

The instinctive White House response will be to head into the political bunker: to deny that it ever displayed isolationist tendencies while painting critics as wild-eyed warmongers. This reflexive belligerence is understandable given that Obama’s political enemies will happily use overseas setbacks to score points.

No sooner were they uttered than Hiatt’s predictions appeared to come true. “During a press conference today in The Netherlands, ABC’s Jonathan Karl asked President Obama if he thought “Mitt Romney had a point” when he said in 2012 that Russia was America’s “number one” geopolitical foe.” But if Karl thought Obama would graciously admit to being wrong, Karl thought wrong.  The president said Romney was more mistaken than ever.

My response then continues to be what I believe today: Russia’s actions are a problem. They don’t pose the number one national security threat to the United States. I continue to be much more concerned when it comes to our security with the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.


O’Brien Versus Holmes

March 24th, 2014 - 2:22 pm

Auden noted that the world doesn’t stop or even pause when a man dies, not even when the deceased is a great poet. That is a depressing thought to some. But the same thing is true when great advances are made in cosmology. The momentous event leaves no mark; nothing changes in ordinary life.

A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

Journalists are trying to frame news that an inflationary model of the early universe has found empirical confirmation. “The Bicep2 (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarisation) telescope at the Amundsen-Scott polar base in Antarctica had found conclusive evidence for the existence of gravity waves,” writes the Telegraph. This new evidence implies that creation was much more fecund than at first thought.  We may live not in the universe, but in a multiverse.

The existence of gravity waves is the “smoking gun” for the controversial theory of cosmic inflation, the idea that right at the start of the universe, nearly 14 billion years ago, everything underwent a colossally fast period of expansion – the “B of the Bang”, if you like.

If cosmic inflation, which we need in order to explain several weird facts about our universe, is correct, then this provides strong support for the notion of the “multiverse”; the idea that what we see when we look up at the night sky is but a gnat on the back of the elephant that is the true totality of creation.

The existence of gravity waves is strong evidence that “our” universe may not only exist alongside an infinite number of parallel worlds, but may itself be infinite in extent, containing endless copies of our galaxy – and indeed our world and you and me – located countless trillions of light years apart.

As National Geographic put its, “essentially, in the models favored by the BICEP2 team’s observations, the process that inflates a universe looks just too potent to happen only once; rather, once a Big Bang starts, the process would happen repeatedly and in multiple ways.” It wasn’t just a Bang, but it was a chain of Bangs, as if someone had strung an infinite length of det cord in every direction to produce a giant sequence of creation.


The Men Who Fell To Earth

March 23rd, 2014 - 12:03 am

It must be one of the most exclusive clubs on earth.  Wikipedia lists five people who have fallen from airplanes without parachutes and survived. Each is a proof that unlikely events happen. They appear to fall into two categories. The first is World War 2 bomber crewmen and the second is women who fall out of passenger jets.

That there should have been survivors among World War 2 bomber crewmen is probably the result of a huge sample size. Thousands of airmen fell from the skies in that great conflict. Inevitably some of those by incredible luck would come off alive.

Ivan Chisov was a navigator on a Soviet Airforce Ilyushin Il-4 bomber. German fighters shot down his plane at 23,000 feet and “with the battle still raging around him, Lt. Chisov intentionally did not open his parachute… however, due to the thin atmosphere at that altitude, he lost consciousness on the way down and was unable to pull the rip cord.” He hit the edge of a snowy ravine at an estimated speed of somewhere between 120 and 150 miles per hour and was back flying in three months.

Alan Magee survived a 22,000 foot fall from his B-17 in 1943. On his 7th mission German fighters shot off his bomber’s wing. “Magee fell over four miles before crashing through the glass roof of the St. Nazaire railroad station. Somehow the glass roof mitigated Magee’s impact and rescuers found him still alive on the floor of the station. … Magee was liberated in May 1945 and received the Air Medal for meritorious conduct and the Purple Heart. After the war Magee earned his pilot’s license and enjoyed flying. He worked in the airline industry in a variety of roles. He retired in 1979 and moved to northern New Mexico.”

Nicholas Alkemade was in a Lancaster raiding Berlin in 1944 when a JU-88 night fighter shot his plane down. “He fell 18,000 feet (5,500 m) to the ground below. His fall was broken by pine trees and a soft snow cover on the ground. He was able to move his arms and legs and suffered only a sprained leg.”

The women had equally remarkable stories. Two women fell from the highest and lowest heights respectively.  Unlike the bomber pilots, it is hard to ascribe the monopoly of women survivors in this category to anything but random probability.