Thursday, 28 August 2014

Ukraine: What next?

It has been obvious for several weeks that Russian leader Vladimir Putin has been actively supporting the separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine with weapons. It was reasonably clear that when the Malaysian airliner was shot down it involved a Russian antiaircraft system that had been moved into Ukraine, operated by quickly trained rebels, then quickly dispatched back into Russian territory when the rebels mistakenly targeted the commercial airliner.

Good intelligence information indicates that Russian artillery units have been active on behalf of the separatists, firing into Ukrainian territory from the Russian side of the porous border. In the last few days there have been documented cases of Russian units in armored cars crossing the border into Ukraine, both still images and video have been recorded. The Ukrainian Army has captured at least four active duty Russian soldiers.

In other words, Russia not only placed troops into Ukraine to take over Crimea, but is now actively attacking the sovereign state of Ukraine militarily. In response I see suggestions that additional sanctions should be imposed on Russia. I can think of one truly appropriate sanction that should be immediately imposed; Russia’s membership in the United Nations should be terminated, including their privileged role on the Security Council.

The following sections are from Chapter I, Article 2 of the UN Charter:

2. All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.

3. All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.

Russia is clearly operating in Ukraine in violation of the UN charter. In addition, when the UN was formed the Soviet Union was granted the highest membership status along with the United States, the United Kingdom, China, and France. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russian federation took over the Soviet membership on the presumption that the end of the Soviet Union and the creation of the Russian Federation was merely a name change. This was patently absurd, in 1945 the Soviet union was a significant power and rightly ranked with the other permanent members of the Security Council. Forty-five years later the one-time superpower had a withered dramatically. At that time there were 15 republics making up the Soviet Union, Russia is only one of those, further diminishing its stature. The Russian Federation was a grand new sovereign entity, carved out of Soviet Union but certainly not a successor. They should have been required to apply for membership as the new country that they were, and would certainly not have been given a permanent in the Security Council based on the situation in 1991.

If I Were King I would ask my economic advisors to evaluate the possibility of additional economic sanctions against the Russian Federation in response to their current disregard of international norms. But I would also direct my ambassador to the United Nations to demand the expulsion of the Russian Federation and terminate all treaties benefiting Russia that were simply inherited from the Soviet Union. Russia has had autocrats of various stature for most of its recorded history. Some of them were worthy and talented rulers by the standards of their time such as Peter, Elizabeth, and Catherine. Vladimir Putin is only a pale shadow of Russian emperors of the past, and acting as if the rules for invading foreign sovereign states had not changed since the days of Catherine the Great further diminishes him. The rest of the world should not treat Putin as the legitimate leader of a major power when he is no more than a kleptocratic spoiled child somehow in command of the Russian heartland. only when Russian troops have been with drawn from the Ukraine, Russian military support for the rebels has ended, and Crimea has been restored to its rightful place within a sovereign Ukraine should Russia’sĀ application to rejoin the UN be considered.

Everything Bad Is Good For You

Cover imageEverything Bad Is Good For You
Steven Johnson
Riverhead Books, Penguin Group, 2005, 238pp

Having misread a blurb regarding this book, I was hoping to gain support for my idea that the nutritional benefits of, say, butter and rice cakes are actually proportional to their levels of flavor. Sadly, I received no such reinforcement but I’ll stick with that belief anyway. What Johnson does advance in this book is the surprising concept that television, video games, and the Internet are actually making all of us smarter. As far-fetched as that might sound, he makes strong case.

He starts with games. As a boy Johnson deeply explored fantasy baseball games at a time when these were strictly on paper. He enjoyed analyzing the many factors that went into success of a player and a team, and the differences between various tools involved in his exploration. Touching on significant research he examines modern video games, the fact that they’ve forced the player to spend hours of time that isn’t particularly enjoyable simply learning the rules needed to complete the game. Johnson marvels at the growing complexity of video games from the likes of Pac-Man, for which a single page describing patterns to watch for was all the documentation extant, to Grand Theft Auto III, for which a 53,000 word “walk-through” exists that many find essential to playing the game. Where the cynic expected games to offer the path of least resistance to players, in truth they have become impressive challenges, much like the efforts he put into hypothetical baseball. Johnson applauds the devotion of what others see as slackers to learning and mastering the complexity of these games.

He then moves on to broadcast television. He recalls how Newton Minow, an FCC Commissioner, declared TV to be a “vast wasteland” in 1961. He looks closely at the growing complexity of prime time shows. He takes the police procedural genre for one set of examples, noting the absolute consistency and linearity of Dragnet (1951-1959), relating that Starsky and Hutch (1975-1979) introduced a second subplot, normally comic, to start and end each show while the bulk of the time was still spent on a purely linear story. Years later, in 1981, came Hill Street Blues, a program that routinely had six or eight simultaneous plots developing, some of which had started in previous episodes and some extending into future ones. This development was followed by other programs until the Sopranos routinely involved a dozen distinct threads with 20 or more recurring characters. (He doesn’t mention them, but two of the procedurals from Don Johnson that were followed in the royal rec room, Miami Vice and Nash Bridges, reinforce the idea.) In other words, during several decades broadcast television was changing from the most simple of entertainments to dramas nearly as complex as a novel.

Johnson sees the internet in the same light. Not only does it provide resources for enhancing other parts of life, including access to helpful information about video games and staggering amounts of discussion about television (look for the extensive analyses of both the drama and the medicine in House, M.D. that can be found on-line), but it has pushed us into a new way of learning. He quotes Steve Jobs as positing that the difference between television and the internet is the difference between lean-back and sit-forward media. But the whole book points out that we have been moving from the former to the latter in other pursuits.

Johnson asserts an underlying change that he calls the “Sleeper Curve”, an increase in societal mental acuity that is quietly enhancing the intelligence of just about everybody that participates in our increasingly-complex society. Where George Will sees “an increasingly infantilized society”, Johnson sees “a kind of positive brainwashing” in the same media that Will, and many other observers, deride.Watch Full Movie Online Streaming Online and Download

Despite watching this happen, I didn’t see what it really meant. Before getting too excited about your kids’ media habits, consider Johnson’s view and look closely at what is actually being watched. Odds are good that they are stimulating young minds rather than creating the zombies that so many parents fear are sitting on their sofas, when parents prefer more identifiable homework.

Alas, I’m not sure this helps me personally. I rarely watch broadcast television and the only game I seem to play is Freecell, which can be mastered in thirty seconds and I mostly use to let my brain wander without doing much of anything. Did you think that video games were just modern pacifiers? In most cases, as Johnson points out, the answer would be no, but in my case it’s true. I do think the internet has had a positive impact on my intellect, but I’m completely missing the benefits of games and TV.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Constitutional Right to Farm

Americans have a pretty reasonable set of rights vis a vis the government, I’d prefer the range were a bit broader but there’s no question that we’re well ahead of almost everybody else in the world. China and Russia may not like it, but their protestations that our rights are some “western conspiracy” are absurd, they grew directly from the early days of the Enlightenment. That may have started with English and French philosophes, but every part of that applies to humans in general rather than humans in a particular place.

One right that we are not guaranteed is a right to farm, but then there doesn’t seem to be a lack of farming, and the constraints on that activity are primarily economic rather than governmental, so it’s no surprise that James Madison didn’t include any reference to agriculture in the Bill of Rights, nor has any subsequent amendment. In Missouri, however, Amendment 1 is on the ballot. The heart of this would amend Article I, Section 35 of the Constitution of Missouri to read:

That agriculture which provides food, energy, health benefits, and security is the foundation and stabilizing force of Missouri’s economy. To protect this vital sector of Missouri’s economy, the right of farmers and ranchers to engage in farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed in this state, subject to duly authorized powers, if any, conferred by Article VI of the Constitution of Missouri.

That certainly sounds like something any Chamber of Commerce or state legislature would go along with, clearly a harmless bit of rural boosterism. Except that the organizers see it as a way to prevent regulation of agriculture, such as attempts by the much hated (at least in Missouri farm country) Humane Society of the United States to advocate rules on the amount of space and fresh air that laying hens must be provided. In North Dakota, the only other state with a similar amendment, there haven’t been any real changes as a result. (I learned of this issue from a New York Times article by Julie Bosman, “Missouri Weighs Unusual Addition to Its Constitution: Right to Farm” in today’s issue.)

But if they reject reasonable regulation of their operations, how far do they intend to go? Will they be spraying the wetlands protected for migratory birds with DDT? Allowing unimpeded fertilizer runoff into streams and rivers? Depleting aquifers for thirsty crops and leaving cities to live on Perrier? What about bringing back slavery? All of these are historically-accepted “farming and ranching practices” in the US.

The vote is tomorrow (5 August 2014), and the farm community has spent over a million dollars pushing it. It’s a primary in a non-presidential year so turnout will be low, hordes of angry farmers arriving at polling places on their tractors could put it over, despite the overwhelming opposition by just about every newspaper in the state.

If I Were King I’d just smile, knowing that much of the country’s strength, as the early leaders of the Enlightenment knew, is based on the ability of the citizens to organize and campaign to change the way they are governed. Regardless of who is in charge, or whether this is adopted at the polls, this case may make the farmers feel better but won’t change much.

Update – 6 August 2014 – Amendment 1 passed with a 50.1% yes vote. The Missouri secretary of state has until 26 August to certify the results, at which any person who voted against it can demand a recount based on the slim margin. I’m not sure whether to be appalled or amused at the possible legal antics to follow.