Friday, December 19, 2014

Casual observation

A lot of the same people who are now claiming that the normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba means that the Castros are "winning" are the people who were saying last year that Vladamir Putin was "winning" over Obama.

There are rarely, if ever, clear wins or losses in international affairs. Instead, I think we should look at any proposed policy in terms of which interests are advanced by that decision, weighed against the costs of those moves.

Too many commentators approach international issues by treating international leaders as if they are Hollywood celebrities. That is, they evaluate their performance exclusively based the image they project (who looks strong? who looks weak? etc.) rather than looking at how their action serves or sets back their countries' interests. In my opinion, the people take that approach that rarely know what they are talking about. They are the ones who tend to get sucked into cult of personality bubbles.

Who wins "The Interview"?

The consensus seems to be that by getting Sony to pull "The Interview" "the terrorists have won."

First, I am happy to see that, for the first time in a while, an incident that no one is blaming on Muslims is being referred to as "terrorism."

Second, you know who I think will win in the long term? Sony.

From what I can tell "The Interview" was not going to be a very good movie. I saw the Kim Jung-Un assassination scene, and it is terrible. Emails from Sony executives (which were leaked because of the hacking) showed that they had deep concerns about the movie because it was so bad. If "The Interview" had come out normally without all the kerfuffle, the movie probably would have been a loser for the studio and faded away fairly quickly. If it was remembered at all, it would have been seen as a pathetic attempt to generate controversy by depicting the death of an actual sitting leader to salvage an otherwise doomed film.

But now that is not what will happen. Sure, its premier has been canceled. But the film is now a symbol of free expression and resistance to terroristic threats. I am positive that the movie will eventually be shown. In fact, I expect, as do many others, that it will get a theatrical release. When that happens a whole lot more people are going to see the film when it is a way to make a statement about their commitment to free expression (not to mention a way for them to thumb their nose at a dictator that everyone loves to hate) than they would without the controversy. 

Apparently there are still some doubts whether North Korea was behind the Sony hack and made the threats that led to the cancellation of the theatrical release. But the U.S. government seems to think they are the culprit as does the public at large. If they are right and North Korea is responsible, this whole incident is not a victory for them. On the contrary, it makes North Korea look really bad to the rest of the world. It has generated a ton of publicity for "The Interview" and has guaranteed that it will not slip into obscurity as most films as bad as it sounds like it is usually do. The whole world can now watch the North Korean head of state get incinerated. Millions more will now watch than would have if the North Koreans had let it go.

In short, the film has become what its authors probably always wanted it to be--a movie with actual political importance--while it will also become what the North Koreans never wanted it to be: an opportunity for people throughout the world to cheer the death of their dear leader. Who is the real winner here?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Chocolution 50: Chocolate Amatller, Chocolate 70%

Hey don't I usually do this earlier in the week? Well, funny story: Sunday night, when I usually do my chocolate tasting, I got a stomach illness and vomited instead. While vomiting, I just wasn't in the mood to sample fine chocolates. So I didn't do it. I stayed home from work on Monday and felt better by Tuesday morning. Tuesday night I decided not to push it with a chocolate tasting, even though I was feeling pretty normal. Last night, I just forgot. Now it's Thursday, we have almost looped back to the next Sunday tasting. I need to eat chocolate... stat!!!

This one was really good. It is my favorite so far. I may have said that before, but it means more now, at tasting number 50 rather than some earlier number when the sample pool was much smaller. This is one I will definitely come back to. I only wish I knew about this Barcelona-based chocolatier when I was there in 2012.

Why such a good month?

I agree with Kevin Drum. Since the Democrats lost the 2014 midterms, Obama has been doing a bunch of things I approve of. I think the prevailing wisdom is that these are things he always wanted to do, but he was afraid of the damaging his chances or his parties' chances in some upcoming election. Once the 2014 midterms were over, he didn't have to fear such damage so he could finally act on principle.

I think that is probably right. I also think it doesn't totally make sense. Obama didn't act this way after his reelection in 2012 even though he would no longer have to face the voters. The story is that he still feared that his actions could damage the Democrats chance in 2014, so he held off until after that election. By that same logic, why isn't the President worried about damaging the Democrat's chances in 2016?  He won't be in office after 2016, so he doesn't personally have to deal with the consequences of that election. But presumably he does want a Democrat to succeed him and he would also want the Democrats to take back some seats in Congress (as they are expected to do).

On the other hand, I don't have a better story to explain his behavior in the past month. Maybe he does care about 2016, it's just that he also realizes this is his last chance to do some of those things before he retires from public office, so it's now or never. Maybe that is my better story.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Who is the more likely attention seeker?

As it happens, every time Ann Coulter says something really outrageous, I think she is just doing it to get attention.

Normalization with Cuba and immigration law

Assuming normalization of relations with Cuba goes through, I wonder if that will lead to the end of the weird immigration policy we have for Cubans. Essentially under the "wet feet, dry feet" policy, any Cuban who makes it to U.S. soil is automatically legalized. There are no Cuban illegal immigrants in the U.S. because under U.S. law any Cuban here are automatically on a path to legalization (which would be called "amnesty" if it applied to any other Latin American nationality). Cubans are the only nationality that gets that benefit from the U.S. government. (Which is why I am continuously frustrated when the press treats Cuban-Americans like Marco Rubio as having some special insight into immigration policy).

Without the cold-war holdover relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, I don't see how Cubans' special treatment under the immigration rules can continue.


For my entire life, normalizing relations with Cuba has been something that was both an obviously right thing to do and something that would nevertheless never be done because it would be too politically toxic. But recently I have wondered if it really is as toxic as everyone seemed to believe. Does anyone other than the older generation of the Cuban exile community (and their stooges in Congress of course) really care about this anymore?

I guess we will find out soon.

On a personal note,I have probably missed my chance to ever visit the bizarro-isolated version of Cuba, where, I am told, the landscape is remarkably, and almost uniquely advertisement free. Or at least that is how someone who went on an illegal visit a decade ago described it to me. If normalization actually happens, Cuba will probably look like its neighbors in just a few years.

Ура! Google Translate қазір қазақ тілінен аударғанда!

I'm glad they added it. But I'm also a little surprised that it has enough speakers to make the cut.

We should be worried about Russia

Max Fisher is right. I see virtually no chance that Russia will start doing what the West wants because its economy going down the tubes. On the contrary, Putin will now have every reason to become more authoritarian and embark on more adventures to stick up for the rights of Russian people in the "near abroad" to bolster his popularity amidst his country's economic collapse.

Imposing another round of sanctions probably will do further damage to the Russian economy. But they won't work in the sense that they are not likely to make Russia act in the way that the U.S. government wants. On the contrary, the more the sanctions bite, the more Putin will be able to blame foreign powers for his country's woes and the more likely he is to actively defy Western powers as a way to bolster his standing with his domestic audience.

Because Putin has been cast as one of the bad guys in the American media's portrayal of international news (not completely unjustified, IMHO), it is inevitable that commentators will be crowing about Putin's comeuppance as the Russian economy deteriorates. But Russia's misfortunes are not going to make any of the West's issues any better, they will make things worse. Even if you put aside the suffering that ordinary Russians are going to experience (and the suffering of ordinary people in other former Soviet Republics, whose economy is closely tied to Russia's), the sinking Russian economy will pose some major challenges to the rest of the world.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Russia's oil economy

All day today commentators have noted that the Russian economy is doomed. They are probably right. At least in the next few months, I don't see how Russia can avoid a lot of economic misery. But there is one saving grace for the Russian economy: the break-even cost of extracting American shale oil.

The main reason that the Russian economy is tanking is because the price of oil is currently around $55 per gallon. Although few people think of Russia as having a hydrocarbon-based economy like Saudi Arabia, that is effectively what they are. Over the long term, Russia has two paths out of this mess: diversifying its economy so it is not so dependent on oil prices (which is really really hard, and may be impossible as long as it is under so many sanctions for its shenanigans in Ukraine), or for oil prices to go up. The latter will happen eventually, we just don't know when. Except that there might be something already at work that will bring oil prices up.

Part of the reason for cheap oil is that a lot of new oil is now available on the international market because of new oil production in the Alberta and in North Dakota. Those oil operations rely on newer (and more polluting) techniques like hydraulic fracturing (i.e. "fracking"). As a result, it cost more to extract that oil than it does to use an old fashioned well in the Arabian desert or the Siberian steppe. The break-even point for U.S. and Canadian shale oil varies by oil field, but the average is around $60 per barrel. The price of oil is already below that point, and if it falls below $46 per barrel, that would render virtually all North American shale-oil production unviable.

As the low oil cost continues, many if not all North American shale oil operations will go offline. (That is essentially what the Saudis are betting on right now) That will limit the supply of oil and cause the cost per barrel to go up, which will boost the Russian economy. The problem for Russia is that as soon as it goes above $60-80, the U.S. sources will go back online and Russia needs oil to trade at about $100 per barrel to pay its bills. So while the odds are good that North American sources will go idle, that probably won't be enough to entirely bail out Russia, although it may ease the pain a bit. What Russia really needs to get out of the woods is something else to happen to make prices really spike again. That could happen, but it is hard to see what would do it any time soon.

Yoo distances himself from what the Senate Torture Report says

Shorter John Yoo: You never should have paid attention to those legal memos I wrote.

(via Memeorandum)

The creepy world we live in

I did a search for "Kazakhstan flag" under the google shopping tab to get that last link in the below post. Ever since then, just about every blog I visit has an ad that looks like this:

or this:

Independence day

Today is the anniversary of the day that our adventures in Kazakhstan began and ended, and also marked the beginning a new kind of adventure in my life. Coincidentally, it is also the anniversary of the day that Kazakhstanis' adventures with an independent Kazakhstan began.

Our new house has one of those brackets by the front door designed to hold a flag. Several of our neighbors use it to fly a United Statesian flag, one flies a Swedish flag, and one had a rotation that seems to include the United Statesian, Pennsylvanian, Israeli, UN, and Earth flags. I had this secret plan to get my hands on a flag of Kazakhstan to fly today. The plan was so secret, however, that I never quite got around to the getting my hands on that flag part. Which is really no excuse, not these days. I mean, that kind of thing used to be hard and now it really is not. Maybe next year.

Previously on Каучуктан жасалған Құбыршек: -1, 0, 1, 2, 3

Monday, December 15, 2014

Not to excuse this particular server

It has been obvious for a while that system used by a lot of restaurants and bars that permits the server to make up a nickname for a customer to make sure that the customer gets the right order is a P.R. disaster waiting to happen. I'm surprised that more businesses don't get rid of it. Or at least make sure that the nickname doesn't appear on the receipt that the customer gets.

What is really pathetic is the demand for an apology

This new pattern of police demanding apologies when someone publicly expresses an opinion on a topic in national news I find really disturbing. That's not what the police are supposed to be doing.

I understand how police officers might feel embattled right now, with all the stories of police abuse coming out and the negative press that follows. But in the end, their primary purpose is to protect people's rights. That includes speech about police misconduct, even if the police in question believe that the message in question is fundamentally misguided.

ADDING: What Digby said:
This self-righteous defensiveness just exposes them as the kind of thin-skinned, unprofessional authorities with little regard for citizens' constitutional rights that has people up in arms in the first place. Failing to treat the police with the respect they believe they deserve is not against the law. At least not yet. 

Nominations Cruzing through the Senate

I really don't get Ted Cruz. He is supposedly a smart guy, but he does these spectacularly stupid things, like engineering last year's government shutdown, and now giving the Senate the chance to confirm 24 Obama nominees whose nominations had been held up by the Republican party. Is the guy really just not as smart as his reputation suggests? Or is he such an ideologue that he doesn't give a shit about the actual effects of his actions, so long as he is grandstanding about some topic that his base cares about.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Over optimistic

Putting aside the very real issue of whether the Iranian leadership would ultimately agree to a nuclear deal to end the sanctions, an even bigger hurdle is whether the U.S. Congress would ever agree to lift them if such a deal ever does happen. I think the chances of that are practically nil, even if Iran agrees to everything the U.S. wants. The bottom line is that Iran has been so thoroughly demonized to the American public for the past 35 years, it would be political poison for an American politician to publicly agree to ease up on Tehran.

So yeah, I feel a little sorry for these people.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Want a sign that the Russian economy is spiralling down the tubes?

As of yesterday for the first time ever, the Russian Ruble is now worth less than the Kyrgyz Som. Kyrgyzstan is a former soviet republic, so its currency was originally created out of the Soviet Ruble, with an initial exchange rate of 1 Ruble to 200 Som. In 1993 the Soviet Ruble was replaced with the Russian Ruble on a 1-to-1 basis. That Ruble was replaced by the New Russian Ruble in 1998, with 1000 old Rubles for every new Ruble.

If currency value had remained stable over the past 22 years, the Som would be worth 5 current Russian Rubles. Instead they are close to parity. (It's also worth mentioning that the economy of the Kyrgyz Republic is teeny tiny compared to Russia's.)

Is it really feeding?

Since I learned this week that anal rape with a feeding tub is called "rectal feeding" I have wondered if the victim gains actual nourishment from the process? Is the word "feeding" just a sick euphemism, or is it actually a way to feed someone, albeit the worst way you could imaginably do it.

Oh come on

If you really believe they are "abhorrent," you would have no problem ruling it out in the future.