Sunday, October 19, 2008

Power Outage

The irony: Chargers game delayed due to power failure. (details)

I'm surprised that three helium balloons could cut off power for an entire football stadium, particularly one that seats about a quarter of Buffalo's population (attendance was 71,000).
Perhaps the balloon was released by terrorists? (I hear they're getting younger and younger)

New Bites

I've had more politics than bites on this blog so far (and no bytes at all), so here's a quick remedy.

First off, if you live in an area with Indian grocery stores (or any other ethnic grocery store really), find them and buy your spices there. You can buy about a pound of cumin for the same price as one of those "spice islands" bottles. $2-3 for a bag of cumin is reasonable.

Second, in lieu of a recipe, I'm going to offer a few tips on making stir fries, since this is a common way to make a really quick meal.
There are a few secret ingredients you can use to spice up a stir fry that is too bland. They are things that most people have around but don't immediately think of using.
First off, there's always brown sugar. Sugar is a natural complement to soy sauce, and works particularly well in dishes that are onion or pepper-heavy.
Second, any sort of sauce is a potential source of flavor. Hot sauce and Hoisin sauce work well in just about any dish. A dash of vinegar will add sourness and dryness.
Beer can work really well in some cases. The beer-soy sauce-sugar trifecta will work in most cases. Beer works best with veggies that absorb flavor: tofu, zucchini, onions, and mushrooms come to mind. The darker the beer the better, I find, but other flavors may add something to your dish.
Lastly, if you haven't already added cumin, what are you waiting for!

Enjoy, and I promise a real recipe next time.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Bailout Notes

I'm a little skeptical of the new proposed bailout. It may work, and Bernanke and Paulsen obviously understand the situation much better than I do, but it seems as though going to the "heart of the problem" may not be what's required in this situation.

The rationale behind the bailout is pretty straightforward: the financial system has been teetering on the brink of disaster because it's ultimately tied to these risky loans and securities that were worth less than people thought. If the government buys up all those loans, it should reduce uncertainty, since they will get a fixed price, and reduce the overall strain on the system.

However, the government doesn't pretend it can buy up all the bad debt, and the basic weakness of the plan is that it assumes that the heart of the problem is its source. An analogy here would be a set of dominos. If you figured out that the first domino to fall would probably be in the first 20, you could cut off those from the rest. Your whole structure of dominos would certainly be safer, but it wouldn't exactly be "safe".

It's the same way with the financial crisis. Our current financial system has created a surprising number of ways for money to get from "securities" (things like houses, the collateral behind the rest of the system) to "loans" (basically the exit of the money from the system). Part of the problem is that these elaborate systems were built on top of very small pieces of real value. It's clear that those systems need to be slimmed down now. The question is how to shrink them without collapsing the entire structure. At the moment, the Fed/Treasury are playing a large game of jenga where they decide which pieces would bring the whole thing tumbling down (i.e. the elimination of AIGs credit swaps).

Paulsen and Bernanke's gamble is that artificially restoring the value of the stuff at the bottom (i.e. houses) is the best hope for maintaining the rest of the structure. In other words, giving "bad loans" a stable value will restore some measure of confidence, and alleviate the current "credit crunch". As number economist bloggers have pointed out, this largely means buying these loans/securities at above market value. But the plan seems a little too reactionary, and has the wrong goals and objectives in mind.

The most straightforward problem with the plan is that Bernanke and Paulsen don't appear to have a firm grasp of the situation, and without a solid understanding they are likely to use most of the money they've been given ineffectively. First off, it seems strange to ask for money but no real legislation. However, given that legislation can shape the entire industry, while money can merely offer much-needed infusions at certain points, it seems that a combined approach would be much more effective.

The plan seems to be addressing the wrong problem. As I mentioned before, the plan is trying to stabilize a financial infrastructure that has already largely collapsed. However, it doesn't do much to insulate "main street" from "wall street". But it seems to me that the latter goal is more important at the moment. The basic functions of the financial markets are to distribute capital and allow borrowing/saving. Additional downsizing of the finance industry seems inevitable, no matter what the treasury does. In fact, it may be healthy in the long term for the weaker elements of the system to collapse. But the danger to the rest of the economic system is that people and companies will find it harder to borrow or save (although obviously there will also be a negative impact from people getting laid off and spending less). What's needed is a combination of legislation and funding that will accomplish this goal while avoiding more bad loans.

The last issue may at first seem to be a moral one: the plan seems to be helping the people who most contributed to this mess, rather than punishing them. Rescuing the economy is more important than trying to selectively punish people, but it does seem as though this plan is helping out the wrong groups. The crisis is going to lead to a reordering of the financial system, and this move by the Fed is going to impact what will stay constant and what will change. The Fed/Treasury's actions will probably have an unpredictable effect, and may do more harm than good in the long run. Or course, as public enemy #1 stated, "in the long term we are all dead".

Thursday, August 14, 2008

GPS Surveillance by Police

This article discusses the use of GPS trackers by police. Basically, the question is whether police should be allowed to put GPS trackers on suspects' cars without a warrant.

If you take the position that there's nothing wrong with giving the police a little more power in order to better find criminals, which is a perfectly defensible position, then there seems to be little wrong with this approach.

If you have strong libertarian tendencies, then you might find this law alarming. After all, it opens up possibilities for large-scale surveillance (although cellphones already do this somewhat), and could definitely be used for political ends -- before the prostitution scandal Spitzer was already embroiled in a controversy about tracking Bruno, his main opponent.

Personally, I think that warrants should be required, since there is not a very strong case for warrantless tracking. The law on search and seizure requires investigators to get a warrant from a judge except in cases where urgency is required. There are very few situations I can imagine where warrantless GPS trackers would be necessary. Tracking with warrants is a valuable tool, and may find more use in police forces around the country.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Media, and a possible Aftermath

Things to Ignore in the Coverage:

1) Anything Russia says. Take note of it, perhaps, but they are basically just saying whatever they think will work. I've even become a little skeptical that the civvy toll is anywhere near 1500 -- even if it is accurate, it's likely Russia just made up that number to defend their incursion.
Of course, there is the possibility that Russia is taking the opportunity to pay back Georgia for its "genocide" before anyone can react. But given Russia's hand in starting this, it seems unlikely.

2) Any note of a "cold war mentality". The only people with a "cold war mentality" are the russia-mongers in the US who have viewed places like Georgia and Ukraine as anti-russia battlegrounds for years. Seriously, Russia realizes that the cold war isn't around anymore. The sooner we stop trying to link this stuff back to the war, the sooner we can understand what Russia is and isn't trying to do. The "cold war mentality" schtick is just a piece of anti-Russia rhetoric.

Those are my two pet peeves with the current reportage. That said, no one really knows what Russia's plans are, or what their attitude really is. Sure, there are a lot of educated guesses, and educated guessors, but these are mostly "see...I was right the whole time" sort of statements, since now that something's actually happening with Russia everyone wants to be right about it, and have their own theory ready about what this conflict shows.

Here's a hypothetical question: if Russia captured Georgia, what would the consequences be? A short-term economic embargo of Russia isn't really an option for Europe, which depends on it for natural gas. On the other hand, it's possible Europe could embargo everything else and cut back on its natural gas usage -- it's Russia's biggest market, so this would definitely be some sort of stand.

The problem is that the west, and particularly Europe, isn't used to making actual sacrifices, and this would be a real sacrifice. And the response would be somewhat disproportionate to the conflict itself -- neither Europe nor the US wants a return to a cold war-esque division of the world.

The other drastic option for a response would be to induct Ukraine into NATO in the next month or so. Again, this is the sort of "escalation" the US and Europe may want to avoid.

The last option? Doing nothing at all.
This is actually better than it sounds. If the US and Europe do something to deter Russia in eastern Europe and weaken it economically, but avoid escalation, it's possible that Russia will merely suffer undesirable economic consequences. Economic punishment seems to work best when it is subtle, almost offhand. The problem, though, is that any action by the west is going to be coupled with language that makes it seem like a major response.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

With Georgia having withdrawn from South Ossetia, it is possible that the conflict may be over. What's going to happen now is anyone's guess, since there seems to be no easy way to end the situation. It is not clear how the West is going to respond to Russia's actions, but it seems very likely that South Ossetia and Abkhazia will be even more independent, if not nominally so, after this week's action. This would be much less of an issue if "independent" didn't mean de facto Russian rule.

Some notes about after-effects:

There are a number of countries who have to be more worried about Russian aggression now, first among the Ukraine. But without dealing with that situation directly, lets ask what seeing this conflict would do for some hypothetical alternate Georgia. It would certainly strengthen Russia's hand, make military conflict less appealing, and create a certain amount of paranoia.
However, the real losers in this conflict have been the South Ossetians. Would they really provoke Georgia if it meant the destruction of their country? The exact situation in Georgia is unlikely to be repeated, but at the moment it seems as though Russia's allies suffered more than its enemies.

Was this situation exceptional? In many countries, rebellious regions are held in check by the government and don't have a Russia to turn to. On the other hand, the protection of Russia made South Ossetia more autonomous than, say, "kurdistan", Darfur, or even the FARC rebels.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

The conflict is now in its second day, and it looks as though Russia is clearly winning. Georgia withdrew from the capital of South Ossetia and called for a cease-fire, which is a little like crying uncle in this situation. That said, it's important to remember that the fact that Russia appears to be bombing civilian targets in Georgia proper doesn't necessarily effect the military situation on the ground there.

Obvious comparisons for this conflict are the Balkan wars and the recent Israel-Hezbollah conflict. In the Balkan wars, our strategy of less-than-discriminite bombing and support for the rebellious militias effectively destabilized the regime (or at least it did eventually). Russia appears to be hoping for something similar here. It basically wants to make an example or Georgia so that the other nations on its borders think twice before risking any sort of conflict. Russia's attitude and propaganda often take the theme of "payback for Kosovo", and there are clear parallels between the two situations.

I mention Israel because their basic plan for conflict seems to be pushing forward with ground troops while bombing civilian structures (not necessarily people, but power plants, etc.) in order to try to force the situation. This tactic doesn't always work for Israel because the forces they are fighting are not directly accountable to civilian populations. But it might work for Russia, which is more subtle about it and also is facing a democratic country. That said, this approach is being criticized by the international community, because it goes far beyond the bounds of just protecting South Ossetia.

Georgia probably was not expecting this harsh a response, and seems to have been hoping to roll through the region before Russia could react. Because they were hoping for that sort of result, their approach was not geared towards limiting civilian casualties, but instead it looks likely that they decided to just bomb anywhere Russian/Ossetian forces could be. I am not claiming that casualties are a high as is being reported, or that Georgia is wholly responsible, merely that they probably went for speed rather than precision, and thus caused a lot of damage in order to weaken the Russian defenses. Again sort of like Israel-Hezbollah, which was last summer's largest conflict.

Regarding military predictions, I don't know of anyone who can really say much more than "Russia is winning". A brief look at Georgia's military equipment shows that they're mostly using old soviet stuff, while Russia is using some newer equipment. This obviously puts Georgia at a slight disadvantage, but I hear the soviet stuff is dependable, and it's unclear how much of a difference the technological discrepancy makes. The Russian air force certainly has an upper hand, and that seems to be making the difference. But I don't think Georgia is about to roll over, and they could conceivably fight back if a ceasefire does not happen soon.

One last comment, mostly unrelated, is it might be hard for the Democratic peace theorists to explain this one away. Obviously, this is not a particularly immediate question, though.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Russia-Georgia Observations

There are so many angles on the Russia-Georgia situation that it's hard to know where to begin.

This is a very inconvenient conflict for nearly every major country in the world. The US and Europe were trying to include Georgia in NATO, Russia is obviously involved, China must be really ticked off at having its Olympic Ceremony overshadowed. This last point is a bigger deal than one might think at first. China had been getting mostly negative press, but the Olympic ceremony was going to be the start of a period of more positive coverage. Instead, the conflict will dominate headlines for the next week or more.

Russia's spin on the matter has been that it is defending South Ossetians, just as NATO defended Kosovo. Of course, Russia has vigorously suppressed it's own separatist movement in Chechya. I'd guess that Russia will end up downplaying this perspective in favor of the one it has vigorously pursued since the end of the cold war, namely that it has the right to intervene in countries to protect its "citizens". However, what it will do with the "citizens" streaming across the border is unclear, since Russia generally likes to keep its citizens in their home countries.

Georgia, on the other hand, was hoping to put an end to the issue and perhaps also regain South Ossetia's natural resources at the same time. It probably would not have been a pretty takeover, but probably better for the civilian population than being caught in the midst of a war between two militaries.

An added wrinkle is the fact that Georgia's military has had some training from the US and experience in Iraq, where it currently has 1000 members (although it's probably cycled more of its military through the country). Their assistance in Iraq strengthened the case for joining NATO, and also would have been useful counter-insurgency training, had they taken South Ossetia easily.

So what's going to happen from here? It really depends on what the rest of the world does. A ceasefire is possible. But even if there isn't a ceasefire, international pressure might limit Russia's options. If this is a land battle, Georgia's well-trained and reasonably large force has a good shot at holding out, and if the conflict drags out long enough its closeness to the conflict should be a major advantage once weather conditions deteriorate. However, if Russia is allowed/decides to aggressively bomb targets in Georgia, it adds a whole new dimension to the conflict and raises the possibility of international military intervention.

It's a tricky conflict, and the best way to "resolve" it might even be to hope someone wins in the next week. Diplomatic resolution would be complicated, since restoring the status quo would be a victory for Russia, and only a temporary solution, while if Russia pulls out the province would be easily overrun. However, Georgia's military situation is stronger than it might seem, and it is hard to just who will win this battle.

Also, there's an interesting contrast between German news sites and British, American, French, etc. "Der Spiegel's" main article is about "Thousands Flee...", and other german newspapers also seem more focused on the "human aspect". This is an interesting contrast with other countries, which tend to put the prospect of war first and foremost.