Sunday, September 14, 2014

Neocolonialism in Berkeley


the Hovercam Solo 8 overhead scanner

Got the cardiac stress test results yesterday.  Negative.  I have been feeling the lifting of a weight I had not admitted to myself I was bearing.  I am now looking forward to a long and healthy​ life.

I have at last begun doing something about my diaries.  I brought them down from the attic.  45 volumes, penned over 50 years.  On the web I learned that the way I had dreaded scanning all those thousands of pages was stupid and wrong-headed.  It turns out that instead of the xerox machine-like lid-and-glass-plate​ flatbed kind of scanner I already bought for the task, there are overhead scanners.  The book lies flat on the table and the scanner is on a head 18 inches or so above.  Not only can the fancier ones be set to take a picture every so many seconds, they can also take a picture cued by my turning the page.   Which means the task is reduced to lying the diary on the table and turning the pages.

I also sent for a tsotske that fits flush in the pci-express slot on my elderly HP laptop and gives it two USB 3.0 input ports.  Which means that the laptop can now accept data as fast as the scanner can send it, and puts off the day when the laptop goes to Goodwill.    

​There is still no software that can recognize longhand and change it into text.  Only people can do that.  I have a list of typists in various poor countries like the Philippines who will gladly take my scanned .pdf's and return Word .doc files.

​For a generation I was unable to hire and exploit Mexicans to do work for me that I could do myself.  My then-fiancee Sheila finally overcame the residue of my socialist and Zionist scruples with the argument that the disparity of Mexican incomes and American ones like mine and the exploitation inherent in it, was part of the historical development of the two societies.  Remedying the disparity is to be worked out between the governments of Mexico and the United States, if at all, through mechanisms like NAFTA and that it was not my personal responsibility.  Further, the Mexicans in front of Home Depot needed the work and I needed the work done.  Eventually I relented, hired a bunch of guys to work on my house, and promptly got a lot more work done a lot faster than when I had been doing it all myself. 

Scruples, like hymens, once broken are not soon mended.

So once I have made .pdf files with the scanner, which should arrive in a few days, I will be able to send them as email attachments to poor people in remote lands.   For so many tenths of a cent per word, they will type them for me and send the product back to me, also as email attachments.  

I will send them files which they will process to a different kind of files and send back to me.  I expect to be able to pay them via Paypal.  How's that for good-old-fashioned neocolonialist exploitation in the Information Age?  I think Paypal will even do the currency exchange transaction as part of the payment transaction.

Still, the piecework rate I will pay, though paltry in the US, will be good pay in the country where it is done.  All the more for safe clean work that can be done at home while tending one's children.  It is my way of outsourcing carpal tunnel syndrome.








Friday, September 05, 2014

Why ISIS Might Destroy the Middle East Oil Fields

The Mad Hatter

It is not that ISIS has made any secret of their short term goals - to rule over all Muslim countries and for everyone not to their liking - Shias, Christians, Jews, Yazidis, Alawites - to be dead or enslaved.

Their longer term goals are usually ignored as just vague propaganda - a world Islamic state.  The risk is not that they might achieve it, but the steps they might take in trying to achieve it.

One is that they could take Baghdad.  The majority-Shi'ite majority Iraqi army showed no stomach for fighting and ran away leaving Mosul undefended.  It was hoped that getting rid of Prime Minister al-Maliki and his narrow Shi'ite sectarian government might improve things but the new prime minister seems little better.  If the Shi'ite - Sunni polarization continues, the Sunni tribes will be un-mollified and will either passively or actively support ISIS.   It is perfectly foreseeable that the Iraqi army would be no more successful in defending Baghdad than it was in defending Mosul.

If Baghdad were to fall, the civil war in Iraq would effectively be over.  ISIS would control the country except perhaps Kurdistan.  That would be a bad outcome but not one to make Americans put down the remote during football season.

What comes next however might.  Southernmost Iraq reaches the Persian Gulf, along the shores of which more than a third of the world's petroleum and gas are pumped and shipped.  Were ISIS able to advance against the small countries along the southern, Arab, coast of the Gulf, they could menace the oil fields from Kuwait to Oman.  This has been done before, by Saddam Hussein when he seized and annexed Kuwait.  Saddam's theory was that Kuwait was a province of Iraq and had to be reunited with the rest of the country.  That is what the First Gulf War, Desert Storm, the liberation of Kuwait, was about.  Had Saddam not been driven out, his army would have over-awed Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states on the Gulf, making them in effect Iraqi protectorates.

ISIS' pretensions are far grander.  Their claim is to all Sunni countries everywhere, starting with those closest to hand, those on the Gulf.  Clearly Saddam's plans were to control the export of oil from the Gulf to manipulate Western powers by controlling their energy supply.  And to enrich himself and Iraq with the proceeds of controlling those exports.  Saddam's objectives were the banal and familiar ones of wealth and power for himself and his country.

ISIS sees itself as a religious revival, a restoration of the greatness of the early Arab caliphate, and along with it, the destruction or at least humbling of the Infidel powers who have over-shadowed and oppressed the Muslim countries and Islam in general.

What they see as the sickness of Westernization - materialism, technology, consumerism, Western culture - can not be driven out by accumulating more wealth and with it more import of the trappings, culture, and thinking of Western society.   What religious puritans like ISIS want is not wealth but the austerity and virtue of the early Muslim conquerors of the 8th Century.

They want not to milk Western society of money with which to buy trinkets like Mercedes cars and private jets and MacBooks and iPhones but to rid Muslim society of such things entirely.   They can see as clearly as anyone that the reason Middle Eastern societies are awash in such things is precisely because they have the oil money to buy them.  One way to get rid of them is to get rid of the oil and thus of the money by destroying the oil fields.

They have not destroyed the few small oil fields they have captured thus far because they want oil revenues to buy arms and pay military salaries.  But it does not follow from that that when the scale changes to the vast oil resources of the Persian Gulf that their strategy will not change.  We see what use they have been able to make of looting a bank in Mosul.  Imagine them looting all the banks in Kuwait, Dubai, and the UAE.  Their military needs having been covered, their attitude toward accumulating oil revenues might become quite different than they have shown heretofore.

The other objective they have is not just to manipulate and humiliate the Western countries but to defeat them economically.  The same blow which would purify Muslim societies would also cripple Western ones.

There were temporary and partial restrictions of oil supply from the Persian Gulf in the 1970's after the Arab surprise attack on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur in 1973.  Israel defeated the combined Arab armies in spite of having been taken by surprise on their holiest holiday.  Arab impotence was followed by Arab petulance.  Having been being defeated in spite of their treachery, the Arabs vented their pique with the oil embargo of 1974.   Fluctuating high oil prices led to economic instability in the Arab countries and to inflation in the Western ones throughout the remainder of the 1970's.

That was when the Saudi Arabia, both the largest oil producer-exporter and the most politically fragile one, figured out that it was in their dynastic interests to keep production and prices stable.  Which matched Western interests.  So the Saudis came to be seen as allies and puppets of the West, particularly of the United States.  There have been no oil embargoes since.

The destruction of the Gulf oil fields would not just causes high oil prices, it would cause simultaneously high prices and outright lack of supply.  The world economy in the past few years showed its vulnerability to no worse a disaster than the floating of fraudulent mortgage-backed-securities on Wall Street.

The Persian Gulf countries, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, and Oman, have 40% of the world's oil production capacity and 55% of all proven reserves.  The abrupt removal of that much capacity and reserves from the world market would make the economic disruptions of 2008-2009 look small.  One could use the word "collapse" to describe the effect on the world economy, particularly on world trade.  The certainty that the removal would be permanent would compound the seriousness of the collapse.

Everywhere governments would be forced to institute systems of rationing.  Air travel both domestic and internationally would be severely curtailed by fuel prices and availability.  Commuting would wither and with it the prosperous suburbs surrounding every major city.  Trucking would become prohibitively expensive or impossible.  Goods would travel by ship and by rail.  Power plants that could would switch from oil to coal.  Those that couldn't would close, causing widespread and permanent power outages among peoples for whom, for generations, power outages have been momentary inconveniences, not permanent.  Large areas of the developed world would go off the grid.  People in once-rich Western countries would be reduced to kerosene lamps for lighting, and even kerosene would be expensive and hard to get.  Televisions, refrigerators, computers, and indeed all appliances, would become inert relics of another time.   So would private automobiles.

Deprived both of petroleum-based fertilizers and fuel for farm equipment, agricultural production would plummet.  Hunger would stalk once-rich lands.  The GDP of big Western countries could be cut by half or more.  The fact of the shortages being known to be permanent would mean that there would be no new investment in plant or equipment to help economies recover.  After the initial crashes would come not recovery but continued economic shrinkage as both supply and demand for goods and services continued to diminish as purchasing power shriveled everywhere.  

Unemployment, already stubbornly high in many Western countries, would rise to Third World levels and stay there or continue to rise.  There would be rioting and political instability even in Western countries with long histories of democracy.  In other countries things would be still worse.

That is what happened in the 1930's.  The Great Depression illustrated the fragility of the world economic system.  That collapse came about through internal instabilities in the capitalist system, without any external cause at all.  The downward spiral lasted three years.  In 1932 the cumulative value of the corporations on the New York Stock Exchange was 6% (not a typo - six percent) of what it had been at its peak in 1929.  Recovery was tepid and slow.

In the oil-exporting countries outside the Gulf:  Russia, Indonesia, 
Venezuela, Norway, Mexico, Nigeria, Angola, Brunei, there would be floods of wealth.  It would come both from the sale of petroleum to a world market starving for it and from the economic effects of breakneck development of new oil production.

Economic contraction in the West would be compounded by persistent waves of terrorist attacks against urban subway systems, power grid infrastructure, bridges and tunnels, airports, airplanes, freeway overpasses, ports, ships, and political institutions.

Governments would begin to print money to cover shrinking revenues and growing deficits.  They would call it "expanding the money supply".  Inflation and falling stock prices would destroy the value of savings and nest eggs.   Interest rates would rise to two and three digits figures as lenders moved to ever-more secure and ever-less productive places to put money.

Western governments would find their war potential curtailed.  Russia would continue to find excuses to annex one after another of the former Soviet republics.  NATO would become impotent to do anything about it.  As the Russian sphere-of-influence expanded into eastern Europe and the Balkans, into Turkey, and Central Asia, Putin's vision of a Eurasian union would begin to hove into view.  The only sand in Moscow's gears would be escalating terrorist attacks within Russia from its own large Muslim minorities.

The United States would, both from necessity and inclination, begin to turn toward a Tea Party-led soft isolationism.  American influence throughout the world would become as quaint a memory as the British Empire is today.

The Saudi regime and the other oil-supported monarchies of the Gulf would collapse quickly without oil revenues to smooth over and bribe away opposition.

The Islamic State, un-menaced by the US or other Western countries, would expand effortlessly throughout the Middle East as morally bankrupt regimes from Morocco to Oman, now also financially bankrupt, toppled one after another.  Israel would be besieged.  After repeated mob attacks and rioting, Muslim quarters in European cities would become something like fortified.  Within their closed ghettos, sharia would become the norm without much protest from distracted European governments.

That scenario, the purification of Muslim societies of paid-for Western influences, and inflicting catastrophe on the Western and world economies, is why ISIS might destroy the Persian Gulf oil fields if they get them.




Monday, July 28, 2014

Maybe Mossad, with a little help, with a little help, with a little hel-l-l-p-p from our friends

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the leader of Shas, the party of the Sephardic and Mizrachi (eastern) Jews

I am unclear on what is or was going on in Gaza that led to this war.
One theory is that Hamas started a war they could not win out of despair. The overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt meant that Hamas' supply of arms and goods to tax coming in through the Rafah tunnels from Egypt was cut off. ISIS had replaced them as the leading Salafist regime and had begun to establish the caliphate without them. Plus they were broke and becoming unpopular.

According to this theory they were suffering a crisis of relevance and decided that if they were going to go down they would at least go down swinging, that their world would end with a bang not a whimper. We can call this the pundit theory.

The alternate theory is based on the discovery of networks of tunnels into Israel and of intelligence that Hamas planned a huge attack by their guerrillas in fake IDF uniforms, and that the attack was planned for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, in September. According to this theory they were on the verge of a huge victory against Israel. We can call this the tunnel theory.

On this latter theory, which seems better supported by concrete evidence, the last thing Hamas would have wanted would be to in effect invite the IDF to invade by beginning sustained rocket barrages against Israeli civilians. Yet that is what they did.

If we assume the IDF had knowledge of the tunnels but not of their precise locations they would have needed control of both ends of the tunnels in order to prevent the planned attack. They would have needed to invade Gaza.

But how could they have justified such an invasion solely on the basis of intelligence? The American non-existent WMD's fiasco in Iraq would have been clear in their minds. No matter what the intelligence was, it is hard to see how the cabinet could have gone ahead with an invasion seemingly unprovoked. Even if they had been right. found the tunnels, and presented the evidence, the outrage both abroad and in Israel over an unprovoked invasion would have been overwhelming.

On this theory the only thing that could have thwarted the Hamas attack would have been a prolonged rocket barrage from Gaza against Israel followed by an Israeli ground invasion. Which is just what happened.

Again there are two theories. One is that the head of Shas, Ovadia Yosef, is right and that the G_d of Israel has intervened to save the Jews. Another is that the head of Shas, Ovadia Yosef, is right and that the G_d of Israel has intervened to save the Jews by making the Children of Israel clever and resourceful people.
The fact that the only thing that could have saved Israel from a devastating attack and defeat is exactly what happened suggests that Mossad has one or more moles at the highest levels of the Hamas leadership.

Consider too that by now Iron Dome must have been tested extensively and been known to be effective. Which means that, still hypothetically, if one had been contemplating the costs of a Hamas rocket war against Israel, one would have known in advance that the cost in lives on the Israeli side would have been small or nil. And when compared to the cost in lives of not acting, of a mass attack by Hamas guerrillas wearing IDF uniforms within Israel proper, it would have been an easy decision to make. We can call this the Mossad theory
.
If this theory is correct then the current war is a pre-emptive one in the exact sense of the word, a war launched to prevent, to pre-empt, an attack by the other side.

The flaw in this theory is that it is just speculation and that it assumes facts not in evidence. It assumes that Hamas is rational, that it is unified, and that it is competent. On this theory, the effing moron theory, the Hamas leadership are effing morons and screwed up. As for the Israelis, everyone knows it is better to be lucky than to be smart. Maybe they just got lucky.




Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Bowe Bergdahl a Traitor? Guess Who Killed the Most Americans Ever?




[Robert E. Lee, traitor]



There is a lot of talk about Bowe Bergdahl leaving his post and possibly being a traitor and getting six American soldiers killed trying to rescue him.



Can you guess which person was responsible for the deaths of the most Americans ever? Please wait a moment and consider your possible answers before reading any further

.

No, it wasn't bin Laden, not Hitler, not Saddam Hussein, not Tojo.



It was Robert E. Lee of Virginia. Unlike bin Laden, Hitler or Saddam Hussein, Lee was a traitor. If you think that is harsh or unfair stop for a moment to look up the definition of the word 'traitor'. Go the URL line and type in "define traitor". See if you can see any way in which Robert E. Lee doesn't meet that definition, no matter which dictionary you use.

Unlike bin Laden, Hitler, and Hussein, Robert E. Lee was a US citizen. Worse, he was a graduate of West Point and when the Civil War began, was an officer in the United States Army. Which means he took the oath of office taken by every US Army officer from 1791 to 1950 in which he swore "true allegiance to the United States" and "to defend and protect it".  Leading armies against the United States, besieging Washington, trying to capture the President, causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, and trying to overthrow the US Constitution, probably doesn't qualify as paying "true allegiance".

In consequence of his treason, after the war Lee was tried and shot by firing squad. No, he was hanged by the neck until dead. Maybe he was imprisoned for life. No, that isn't it either. Actually, after his surrender he went home to his plantation in Virginia and lived peacefully there the rest of his life.

So when the question of Bergdahl's treason begins to emerge, remember that the rule he violated in practice reads "You shall not betray your country for any reason whatever (unless you come from a wealthy, old, aristocratic family with a town named after it, e.g. Leesburg, Virginia, pop. 42,616, in which case you will not even have to give your sword back).

The Bergdahls not having been among the signers of the Declaration of Independence as the Lees were, Bowe will have to take the consequences of his actions.  He has it coming and if he committed treason should be severely punished.

But when the braying begins and calls for trying Bergdahl for treason get louder, remember to ask those demanding it when they will outlaw the display of the Confederate flag and stop honoring the Civil War traitors.  Be as open-minded with their crappy lying excuses as they are with Bergdahl's crappy lying excuses.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

New Thoughts About Photography



I figured out today why all my pictures are so lousy.  I have been going on the theory that the object of photography is to get everything in focus.  It isn't. The object of photography is to get everything out of focus except the subject.

I have read about depth-of-field and assumed it was a study in getting as much as possible into the field. For single subjects one wants shallow depth of field not deep, so that everything behind the subject, and even things in front of it, are blurry.


Which explains why there is such a fetish about fast lenses with wide apertures. For otherwise identical lenses, the faster one might sell for four, eight, or ten times as much as the slower one. A Nikon 70-300mm f/2.8 VR (vibration reduction) lens sells for $2160. A Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR lens sells for $465, both from B&H of New York.


I had been told, and believed, that the purpose of fast lenses was to enable one to shoot in dimmer light. It isn't.  At least not primarily. The wider the aperture, the shallower the depth of field.  With a wide aperture lens, one opens to full aperture, focuses on the conductor, and voila!  Michael Tilson Thomas with his hair flying and each hair in focus and a bunch of soft focus or blurry musicians barely noticed behind him. With a slower lens one does the same thing and gets a whole bunch of people on a stage, one of whom might be Thomas.


Notice that the picture above is of Michael Tilson Thomas. Had it been taken with a slower, smaller aperture lense, the depth of field would have been greater and the guy behind Thomas would have been in focus too. Which would have made it a picture of both of them which was not what one wanted.


The problem here is that I am not about to spend two grand for a lens. Indeed, I am not crazy about spending four hundred odd dollars for one either.


Fortunately, depth of field shrinks with lens length. Wide angle lenses have deep fields. A longer, i.e. narrower field of view lens, also has a shallower depth of field at the same aperture. A 500mm lens has a much shallower depth of field at f/8 than a 35mm lens has at f/8. 


The problem is that telephoto lenses are prohibitively expensive. A Nikon 500mm f/4 lens costs a quick $8000.  It is 16 inches long and weighs over 8 pounds, not fun to hang from a strap around one's neck. The solution is thorough shopping. One can occasionally find an old Nikon 500mm f/8 reflex lens, which is not a lens at all but a parabolic mirror disguised as one. It is 7 inches long, fairly light, and can be had for about $200 if one can find one.


One should note that f/4 is not twice as fast as f/8 but four time as fast.  And by 'fast' we mean amount of exposure time to get the same exposure.  With a long lens this is a big deal because the longer a lens is and the narrower of an angle it sees, the more the jiggle of one's hands blurs the image.  Which is crucial if one is shooting hand-held.  But shooting handheld with that long a lens is folly.  One mounts the camera and lens on a tripod which holds it perfectly steady absent high winds or earthquakes.  So the four-fold difference in speed matters far less.


The great increase in "film" speed from ISO 400 in the old days to fancy modern cameras that shoot at ISO 25,600, or 640 times as fast, is more than 18 stops.  That diminishes the need for the lens to be so fast as to dim light.  There are still cavils about electronic "noise" at such high ISO's.  Since noise can now be fixed in software, the objections are now themselves just noise.


Which means that the remaining advantage of a fast lens is that it has a shallower depth of field.  Which as I realized today is all about picking out one's subject, not about shooting a black cat in a coal chute at midnight, as the saying is.


The best-known reviewer of lenses is a guy named Ken Rockwell and he dumped on the Nikon 500mm f/8 Reflex lens - because a) it is too light which makes the camera back-heavy, and b) because if there are bright things in the background blur, they will appear as blurry circles which is distracting.  Poor baby!  How could such terrible things happen to him?


Rockwell, being a well-known reviewer, gets his lenses free from the distributors. So the $7800 difference in price matters not at all to him. He does note in passing the same thing I found, that the mirror lens, because the light does not pass through any glass, is sharp and free of distortion.

Why I Love and Respect the New Yorker


Hertzberg



Beck

[I do not know how to get these two pretentious meatballs on the same 
line because I know bubkes about editing HTML.  Any help?]

I have just now read Hendrik Hertzberg's Comment in the November 29 "New Yorker", titled "Puppetry".

Hertzberg's screed is an attack on Glenn Beck for trashing liberal billionaire and full-time enemy of Israel,  George Soros.  That Beck is a buffoon does not make Soros not a villain.  Nor does it make Hertzberg not Beck's mirror image.

I found it interesting that Hertzberg suggests that George Soros is NOT an enemy of Israel.  And calls Glenn Beck's implication that he is, "lies told by innuendo".  Which curiously is precisely what Hertzberg himself did in implying the reverse.

For this we have not Hertzberg's or Beck's groundless assertions, but Soros's own admission in action.  Soros was recently revealed to be the main funder of J Street, an organization which claims to be friendly to Israel but opposes it in everything and sides with the Arabs in every case.

Soros and J Street's founder both concealed and both explicitly lied in public about J Street being primarily funded by Soros.  The reason for the lying was that both recognized that if Soros were seen as behind J Street, that J Street's pretense of friendliness toward Israel would be seen as laughable by anyone familiar with Soros.

The depth of Soros's animosity can be seen in how easily his reputation could be diffused by a gift of a few million dollars, a pittance to a billionaire, to an Israeli university or hospital or orphanage.  But he can't do it for the same reasons the King of Saudi Arabia can't -- because he really and truly hates Israel including its universities, hospitals, and orphanages.

Which Hertzberg knows full well.  Which makes him, like Beck, a liar by innuendo.

It is a curious feature of mirrors that they reverse left and right. Which is why, when Henrik Hertzberg looks in the mirror, he sees Glenn Beck.

The Wild Swan Chase

Summer 2009

My friend Larry called me from Butte. Time to get to Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge by the end of September, early October for the migration of the trumpeter swans. Thousands of them, the largest and heaviest of flying birds, would pour into the NWR and out, on their way to southern feeding grounds.

He was having new windows installed and would meet me there in a few days. Since I was already in eastern Oregon loosely on my way to Butte to see him anyway, I went there. The first town in Montana is MonIda, a semi-ghost town. I was going to make mock of its name but upon recalling our Mexicali and Calexico, thought better of it.

The trip from MonIda and the interstate to the wildlife refuge was 31 miles up a bad dirt road. The suspension on the bus is unaccountably rigid so I drove between 12 and 18 miles an hour the whole way to avoid shaking it and myself apart.

Along the way I was several times favored with sights of small herds of pronghorns, formerly known as pronghorn antelopes. Some astute morphologist determined that they are not taxonomically antelopes. So calling them pronghorn rather than pronghorn antelope has become a point of pride among the sort of people who insist on 'bison' rather than 'buffalo' (me) and 'city' rather than 'Frisco' (you). They are lovely animals with high contrast brown and white patterns on their bodies.

Upon arrival there of what was left of me in what was left of the bus, the NWR headquarters were closed because it was Sunday. I repaired to an otherwise empty campground among groves of stunningly golden aspen by the shore of Upper Red Rock Lake.

The next morning I set out on a constitutional to walk the four miles back to the ranger station.  I saw the swans, only two.  They were clearly guarding something on the far side of their pond, surely their nest.

The American West is still the place to be.



Gunfire in the Kingdom

It occurred to me recently how convoluted our relationship with Saudi Arabia is.

The fighting in Libya has stopped the flow of Libyan sweet light crude to European refineries. Which could have caused shortages and a price spike (Which implies a certainty of brevity. If the fighting continues it might become a price hike.) This is even though Libya produces only 2% of the world's oil.

The Saudi government announced that it would increase production to compensate for the loss of Libyan production. Which made the world's stock markets calm and ended the several days of market sell-off caused by the fighting in Libya.

Given that Saudi Arabia is thus in effect the guarantor of the stability of the world's oil supply, it is a friend and supporter of by far the world's biggest oil importer, the United States. Our economy depends on them. Those old enough to remember the oil embargo of 1974 (Brought on by Arab fury with Israel for having treacherously survived their surprise attack in the Yom Kippur War by fighting back and winning.) understand the potential disruption of our economy of an embargo that could not be called off if their regime were overthrown or crippled by prolonged civil war.

"Disruption" in this context means losing our jobs, our businesses going under, and the price of gasoline tripling.

In this context it is well worth noting that today police fired over the heads of demonstrators in the city of Khatif in the oil-producing Shi'ite majority east of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is the staunchest of Sunni regimes yet the eastern provinces, those on the Persian Gulf, the ones with the oil, are Shi'ite. The relationship between Sunni and Shi'ite in Saudi Arabia is no worse than that between whites and blacks in Mississippi in 1951. Everybody is polite but...

And now Saudi Shi'ites have heard of freedom riders in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya. The Soviet Union was rumored to have instructed the American Communist Party to put its few pitiful resources toward helping the Civil Rights movement embarrass the United States in the 1950's and 1960's. So too, it is rumored that Iran, a major Shi'ite power directly across the Gulf from the Saudi oil lands, and a perennial rival and enemy of Saudi Arabia, may have a hand in agitating protests against the Saudi regime.

In both cases there is no proof. But in both cases, one would be astonished if it hadn't happened.

In return for protecting our economy, and with it our hegemony, the United States protects Saudi Arabia from its neighbors. The first Gulf War was at least as much about protecting Saudi Arabia from Saddam Hussein's Iraq as it was to recover Kuwait from them. Our navy patrols the Persian Gulf, our carrier groups control the Indian Ocean beyond the Gulf. Which is to say our helicopters and troops stand ready to destroy any Iranian attempt to invade Saudi Arabia.

If you think that is a fantasy scenario, imagine if the American protectorate did not exist. Saddam Hussein would not have stopped with Kuwait. His armies would have marched all-but-unopposed to the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf. Now that Saddam has died cursing, "spies, traitors, and the Persians", those very Persians would be only too glad to do exactly the same thing today.

Were they able to do that, Mahmud Ahmadinejad would control just over half of the world's oil supply.

That is why we maintain such a large navy when no other country has a comparable one. It isn't there to fight other navies as in World War 2 and the Cold War. It is there to control coastlines.

So the United States and Saudi Arabia are cooperative allies. They are guarantors of our economy. We are guarantors of their security.

ON THE OTHER HAND

There are Muslims throughout the world, most of them poor and living in poor countries. And in every country poor people are hard-pressed to educate their children. Everyone wants their children to be able to read, do arithmetic, post on Facebook. Much of the Muslims in the world cannot afford to provide even that much schooling to their children.

But the Saudi kingdom can. And does. All over the world are Muslim sectarian schools called 'madrassas'.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Why Exactly Should We Worry About the Russians Taking Crimea Back?




Ukraine is not all Ukraininans.  More than a a quarter of the population speaks Russia and identify themselves as Russians.  Much of the east of Ukraine has Russian speaking majorities ranging from 55% to the high 90's% in places like the Crimea.  The west and center of the country is all Ukrainian-speakers, the majority of the population.  Until a 1954 decision by Nikita Kruschev, the Crimea was part of Russia, not of the Ukraine.  The reasons if any for this decision are lost in the maze of byzantine post-Stalin succession politics.

Election maps follow the language and ethnic identity maps closely.  In the recent election Russians voted for Yanukovich and most Ukrainians voted for Yulia Tymoshenko.   The election of Yanukovich was marked by Russian financial support, by Putin campaigning in person in Ukraine, and by widespread vote fraud.  When Tymoshenko cried foul and denounced the election as fraudulent, Yanukovich put her in jail on trumped-up charges.

Ukraine had been well on its way to being delivered economically in a package with a bow on it to the European Union and politically and militarily to early recruitment into NATO.

Yanukovich promptly voided the agreements that were to begin the long period of integration of Ukraine into the EU and instead signed agreements binding Ukraine economically to Russia, particularly of import of Russian oil and gas at below-market prices.  This was very much the opposite of what the Ukrainian majority, longing to escape the centuries-long domination by Russia, wanted.

Protests among the Ukrainians grew and grew, inspired perhaps by Tahrir Square in Cairo.  After a massacre of more than a hundred people, they overthrew Yanukovich and established a Ukrainian government.

Within days Russian troops entered Ukraine and occupied its southern peninsula, the Crimea.  Crimea is almost all Russian-speaking.  The minority there are not Ukrainians but Tatars, descendants of the Mongol invaders of the 13th Century.

On the face of it the Russian invasion and occupation of the Crimea is an outrage.  It is an aggression against an unaggressive neighbor.  And most important in Washington it is a breach of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum under which Ukraine gave up its Soviet-era nuclear arsenal in return for its borders being guaranteed by the US, Britain, and Russia.

With Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus all governed from Moscow, the Soviet Union was a world-spanning colossus.  Russia alone without the Ukraine and Belarus is still a major power but not a rival of the US.   Most of its economic clout comes not from the productivity of its economy but from its ability to export oil and gas.  This makes it powerful but only in the way that OPEC countries are powerful - with only a single lever to push.

Belarus today is much smaller than Ukraine in both area and population and under its retrograde Lukashenko dictatorship is an economic basket case that is a major liability to any country seeking influence there.

Ukraine however is five times as populous as Belarus and about a third as populous as Russia itself.   It has enormous resources of coal, iron, agricultural lands, and Black Sea ports.  Much of Soviet heavy industry was concentrated in Ukraine's Donets Basin - the Ruhr of the Soviet Union.  It is still there though increasingly obsolete.

Russia and Ukraine together can be a major world power that could rival even the US.  Russia alone cannot.  So the stakes are very high.  One might even say that as Ukraine goes, so goes the future of the world.  Europe, the US, and the world generally all have reason to care deeply what happens in Ukraine.  Our interest is not just the sympathy we would have for any people trying to overthrow an oppressor.

But what is our interest in the Crimea?  As the current train of events shows the presence of a large Russian minority which in many places constitutes a territorial majority, destabilizes the Ukraine.  A Ukraine in which a large majority are Ukrainians and those owing loyalty primarily to Russia are a small majority, is more likely to be stable and unified than a Ukraine riven by ethnic and political divisions.  The more Russians Ukraine can unload, the more likely it is to succeed as a a stable nation-state.

While territorial dismemberment is not what any country wants, it is likely in Ukraine's long term interest for the Crimea to return to Russian control.  Without a large disaffected minority within its borders it can join the European Union and NATO.  Without a large Russian minority it will be less subject to interference in its internal affairs by Russia.  Ukraine needs more Russians the way Israel needs more Arabs.

Russia already has a large military presence at the port of Sebastopol in southern Crimea, both troops and a navy base ceded by treaty.  One way to get the Russian military off Ukrainian soil is to cede them the territory they are on and be done with it.

Ukraine does not need the Crimean port because it has a much bigger Black Sea port at Odessa, itself a half-Russian city









Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Henry Ford was Right



History was my undergraduate major.  I have been fascinated by history all my life, since I first realized as a boy that what is is only a moment appended to what has been.  

But I am belatedly coming to the conclusion that that notion is wrong.  What the world has now become so dwarfs and outstrips everything that has gone before as to make history essentially trivial and irrelevant.  

Modern Rome is twice the size and population of Imperial Rome and modern Italy has almost as many people as the whole Roman empire at its height.  Yet no one speaks of the "Grandeur" of today's Italy.

Modern Athens is tens of times more populous than ancient Athens, has abolished slavery, enfranchised women, is also a democracy, has near-universal literacy, has far higher living standards, longer life expectancy and so on.  Almost all Greek-speaking people live in a united polity instead of in perennially warring city-states.

Modern China is a colossus both in area and population compared to even the greatest of its earlier dynastic incarnations.  The same is true of other great empires of the past - Mexico, Egypt, Peru, Turkey, Spain, Iran, even Britain.  

I have come to the conclusion that the past was small and primitive in every way compared to modern times and, if we are frank about it, has little to teach us.

Our study should be not the past but imagining and planning the future of this brave new world.  Ford was right.  History is bunk.