My wife and I were eating in our local taquería. They had the television tuned to Univision, as they usually do.

I saw a commercial for Microsoft Windows. From Microsoft, en Español.

Which was very strange to me, because when I was most familiar with Microsoft’s internal structure, I knew they had no Spanish-language product support.

According to this phone list at their web site, they still don’t. Moreover, Microsoft’s Spanish-language website isn’t based in the Western Hemisphere, but in Spain.

It continues to confound me how Microsoft can show such contempt to a large segment of the US market — one they’re advertising to, no less.

Don’t Fence Me In

Americans seem to get twitchy when their Executive has very mild instances of trespass. It seems like only yesterday when the White House had to deal with party crashers. Now it’s a man with a knife. Did he intend to use the knife? Hey, who knows… Although, if he meant Mr. Obama harm, it’s tough to see why he would have left “800 rounds of ammunition, two hatchets and a machete in his car,” when he went on his fence climb. Now, reportedly, the Secret Service wants to screen “tourists and other visitors at checkpoints before they enter the public areas in front of the White House.” Not that such a method would have had any effect on the intruder, but in these kinds of circumstances the syllogism is frequently, “We need to do something; this is something; therefore let’s do it.”

Like last time, Leopold Kohr hangs heavy in the air, writing in 1957 in The Breakdown of Nations:

A citizen of the Principality of Liechtenstein, whose population numbers less than fourteen thousand, (in 1957 when Kohr was writing) desirous to see His Serene Highness the Prince and Sovereign, Bearer of many exalted orders and Defender of many exalted things, can do so by ringing the bell at his castle gate. However serene His Highness may be, he is never an inaccessible stranger. A citizen of the massive American republic, on the other hand, encounters untold obstacles in a similar enterprise. Trying to see his fellow citizen President, whose function is to be his servant, not his master, he may be sent to an insane asylum for observation or, if found sane, to a court on charges of disorderly conduct. Both happened in 1950… You will say that in a large power such as the United States informal relationships such as exist between government and citizen in small countries are technically unfeasible. This is quite true. But this is exactly it. Democracy in its full meaning is impossible in a large state which, as Aristotle already observed, is ‘almost incapable of constitutional government’. (pg. 99-100)

What’s very strange is how, this time, many people (up to and including Congress) seem to want even more distance between the President and the people he serves, even more of a bubble cutting him (or her) off.

Of course, we’re a bigger country than we were even in 2009, so I suppose Kohr would not be surprised.

Is It Hot In Here?

I’ve been saying for years it’s a very curious thing US businesspeople are so averse to environmentalism in general, and mitigating climate change in particular. My reasoning is, almost all the measures to do such mitigation boil down to doing more with less — and isn’t that the classic definition of increased productivity, and thus profits?

Well, I now have some company in this view: the New Climate Economy Project, the International Monetary Fund, and an economist who’s won the Nobel that isn’t a Nobel.

A fairly interesting bunch with whom to kibitz.

Bitcoin Shakes Its Mighty Fist Again

From this LinkedIn thinly-veiled advertisement:

“Bitcoin is digitized money… Bitcoin is eliminating or dematerializing the use of physical money (bills and coins), even credit cards.”

My reply:

US Annual GDP: $15.68 trillion
Actual physical cash in circulation (M0): $4.1 trillion
“Dematerialized” money that circulates every year: $11.6 trillion, or 74% of GDP

There already is a dematerialized, digitized currency, one in wide circulation, and nearly universally accepted by the market. It’s called the US Dollar.

I know, I know… You’re all in favor of the free market. Right up until the market disagrees with you.

Oh, BTW:
Total value of circulating Bitcoin: $6.2 billion.
Percentage of the value of M0 dollars in circulation: 0.2
Percentage of value of US GDP ($15.68T): 0.03
Percentage of value of global economic product (given that Bitcoin isn’t tied to any one state, and thus competes in a global market) ($71.83T): 0.008

To rephrase a newspaper headline of the 1970s: “Free market to Bitcoin: Drop dead.”

The Worm Turns

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has a fascinating post up, “Why Russia calls a limited nuclear strike “de-escalation””.

See, the US (and NATO more broadly) developed the category of “tactical” nuclear weapons in the 1980s to counter perceived USSR conventional superiority. (Notably the Pershing II missile, from 1981-89.) The Soviets were having none of that — their stated policy was that any use of nuclear weapons would be considered a full-on strategic strike, and would be retaliated against accordingly.

In our time, though, the Russians are saying they might resort to tactical nuclear strikes, because of US conventional superiority, as demonstrated in Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.

“De-escalation,” indeed.

(h/t, Elisabeth Eaves, on Twitter.)

Iraq and a Hard Place: From the Archives

This piece was originally published in my LiveJournal on Feb. 10th, 2004. The timeline’s a little off, but ten years later, it’s not far from the target.

David Brooks has another dismal column in the New York Times today. But it ends on a hook that gives me a chance to go out on a limb.

Brooks does a poor-man’s variant on a Bill Safire device, that of re-writing someone’s speech, or trying to get inside their thoughts. I kind of understand why Safire likes this device, as he’s a former speechwriter. If Brooks was a former novelist it might make a bit more sense. But as it is…

So the re-write in question is of Mr. Bush’s tongue-tied to the point of stream-of-consciousness interview with Tim Russert on Meet the Press. Here’s Brooks’ last paragraph, speaking as Bush:

“I could lose this election. I don’t know whether the American people are with me or not. But I know our hair-trigger reputation has jolted dictators in Libya, North Korea and elsewhere. I know that if in 20 years Iraq is free and the Arab world is progressing toward normalcy, no one will doubt that I did the right thing.”

Oh, yeah. God knows Mr. Bush’s behavior has caused a jolt in behavior from North Korea. So much so that history may well write, “George W. Bush — Father of the North Korean Bomb”.

But, as readers of this LJ know, I had a success rate of 63% when I made 8 predictions regarding the war in Iraq. The big score there: I predicted we would never find any WMD, because the Administration’s behavior makes it clear that not even they believe the weapons existed.

So, here’s that limb, complete with saw: Iraq will not be free in 20 months, let alone 20 years. 20 months would be… October 2005. Yeah, that sounds safe.

By October 2005, there will be one of four outcomes in Iraq:

* A weak but basically authoritarian regime is still in power, propped up by US troops. (The current status quo.)

* US troops are out, and there’s an Islamic theocracy. (This is the “democratic” option, and why, rhetoric to the contrary, we’re butt-scared about democracy breaking out in Iraq.)

* US troops are out, and there’s another Hussein/Mubarak/Somoza/arap Moi/Marcos/Diem/Musharraf mostly-“friendly” dictator installed.

* US troops are out, and Iraq has broken up into three countries — Kurdistan, “Iraq” (the Sunni enclave), and… Let’s call it Basrastan (the Shi’ite enclave). Basrastan would be an Islamic theocracy (again). Kurdistan may or may not be at war with Turkey. “Iraq” would have no oil, probably be secular, and possibly authoritarian again.

I’ll tell you the truth — I’m not sure which one is the “best” scenario here. But it’s where we’re going, as of this writing.

Now, all things are provisional, pending better data. It’s possible that somehow the Administration will start treating the situation with finesse and competence, and actually figure out a way to rebuild Iraq so that the Iraqis like and cooperate with us. To put John Kerry’s spin on it, they might stop fucking up.

What I see as more likely, though, is another Vietnam… But not the way that’s usually meant. I think what will happen is that regardless of the final outcome, we have so alienated the Iraqi people that some few will immigrate to the US and become incredibly prosperous, while the remainder stay at home and refuse to have anything to do with us for at least 20 years. Just like Vietnam. Or Iran. In fact, I think the US withdrawal from Iraq, if it happens before the election like so many seem to think it will, will look spookily like the withdrawal from Vietnam, people clinging to helicopters and all.

The Emperor Sans Chemise

From my comments to this post at The American Interest:

“President Obama views Putin as a leader who “was operating from a position of weakness.” This is right, but only if you take the long view: This type of regime is destined to fall eventually, but for the time being Putin has an 82 percent approval rating; he hardly looks or feels weak.”

No, Russia, and Poutine (I use the French spelling, because it more closely matches the Russian pronunciation) are incredibly, tactically weak.

Why did Poutine take Crimea? Because he wanted to protect the Black Sea “Fleet,” and thought it was a valuable enough asset to cause a fuss over. Have you looked at the Black Sea “Fleet”? It’s about the size of a single US Navy carrier group – minus the carrier, of course. Mark Galeotti has said he thinks it could lose a fight against the Italians. The fact that Poutine invaded another country to be certain to hold on to such an asset that is both so valuable to him he doesn’t feel he can afford to lose it, yet so weak it has no real tactical value, says volumes. It says his other assets are even worse.

The Russians fought Chechnya — and it took years to get to a standoff. The Russians fought a virtually disarmed Georgia — and it still took a week. And that’s before we talk about Afghanistan, which provides a fine illustration in the difference between withdrawing (what the US is doing), and retreating (which the USSR was forced to do, leaving tons of matériel behind).

Poutine is an Emperor without any clothes. And the photographs to match.


Here in Seattle, there is much talk about the recent City Council vote to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour.

That’s mostly a local issue, but one aspect has broader implications. Many franchisees of international brands – McDonald’s, Subway, Starbucks, etc. – are protesting they’re being treated as parts of their larger brands, rather than the small family businesses they see themselves to be.

This strikes me as wanting to have it both ways. They want the customer to think they’re part of the larger brand, even as they want the local authorities to treat them as the oppressed local little guys. Being largely an advocate for the customer, I find this curiously deceptive.

If what’s genuinely wanted is this mix of international brand and local affinity, perhaps renaming their businesses is in order. “Bob Smith’s McDonald’s,” “Gurinder Singh’s Starbucks,” and the like.

Don’t try to sell the big brand to the customer, and the small identity to the law. If you want both, do both.