Russian "prowess" in Crimea

There has been a flush of articles, Tweets, and assorted "analyses" proclaiming that the takeover of Crimea demonstrated the overwhelming strength and prowess of the Russian army.

Give me a break. An organized Boy Scout would have looked just as good.

Forget the fact that the takeover was completely unopposed. Take a look at the equipment that was being brought into the country by train. (Main battle tanks two generations old.) Think about the actual numbers of soldiers there (forget the wildly exaggerated claims of hundreds of thousands). Look at what they did, and how they did it.

Now compare that with any of the Russian takeovers during the Cold War. Or think about what a Chechnya-like resistance (let alone something on the scale of Iraq) would have done.

Great propaganda victory, no question. And the Russian special forces continue to be well-trained, professional, and creative. Crimea is a great lesson in how to win without really fighting, even a case study in how to do more with less. But a statement about Russia's military prowess?

Not so much.

The 7 stages of being pissed off

1. Throw coffee cup.
2. Break furniture.
3. Punch walls.
4. Seek medical attention. *
5. Chop wood with very shop ax.
6. Drink heavily.
7. Mutter to self in public places.

Note that you never really get over being pissed off; the rage just simmers down into a seething but only semi-coherent resentment.

* - Stage 6 can be substituted here.

Vanishing bookstores

Even in publishing's "capital"

It's pretty much old news that  bookstores are an endangered species, but for what it's worth, the NY Times has a story today on the shrinking number of bookstores in Manhattan.

The story primarily focuses on high rents, which is certainly an important factor, especially in New York. But there are other facets, including the reality that stores are limited in the amount of money they can charge for each book, and at the same time can't hope to draw mass crowds of customers at all times. Competition from on-line stores and e-books have steadily driven the unit price of books down in real terms, and while this has hurt authors most, bookstores are along for the ride. Even with a friendly landlord, the overhead for small businesses can be frightfully high.

From the NY Times:

Rising rents in Manhattan have forced out many retailers, from pizza joints to flower shops. But the rapidly escalating cost of doing business there is also driving out bookstores, threatening the city’s sense of self as the center of the literary universe, the home of the publishing industry and a place that lures and nurtures authors and avid readers.
“Sometimes I feel as if I’m working in a field that’s disappearing right under my feet,” said the biographer and historian Robert Caro, who is a lifelong New Yorker.

The full story.

In the story, an agent is quoted wondering why publishers don't have their own bookstores. At one time, this would have been considered monopolistic; there were also the objections from "customers" - bookstores - to contend with. But it will probably happen at some point in the not too distant future.

Pakistan and bin Laden

The Sunday NY Times has an excerpt from a new book by Carlotta Gall that outlines the close working relationship and even sponsorship of al Qaeda by Pakistan. This included protecting bin Laden.

From the article:
The Pakistani government, under President Pervez Musharraf and his intelligence chief, Lt. Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, was maintaining and protecting the Taliban, both to control the many groups of militants now lodged in the country and to use them as a proxy force to gain leverage over and eventually dominate Afghanistan. The dynamic has played out in ways that can be hard to grasp from the outside, but the strategy that has evolved in Pakistan has been to make a show of cooperation with the American fight against terrorism while covertly abetting and even coordinating Taliban, Kashmiri and foreign Qaeda-linked militants. 


While I realize that a lot of this has been well known to people who paid attention, I do have one question: Why did it take the mainstream media so long to publish a story like this?

That's not a criticism of the reporter, but the media bosses above her.And, to some extent, of American "officials" as well. Pakistan's "cooperation" in the wake of 9/11 has been far overvalued - even when the country actually helped the U.S.

I understand the role of "realpolitik" in the world; I just wish we played "real" more strongly than we play "politik".


Me: When did you come to bed last night?
Her: Late. Like three.
Me: 3 a.m.? Why?
Her: I was reading Wayne Dyer's new book.
Me: The one that knocked me off the best-seller list?
Her: Sorry . . .

On Google and copyright

Kurt Sutter tried to talk rationally about Google and copyright recently in a post on Slate. It didn't seem to go particularly well, at least to judge by the comments.

One of the difficulties in trying to have a reasonable discussion about the positive aspects of copyright and Google in the same paragraph is Google's image as a do-gooder. And a lot of good has come out of Google, et al, in terms of searches and accessibility. (And as an obvious full disclosure: I use a variety of Google services everyday, including this blog.)

But the situation is much more complicated than it's often made out to be.


Everyone is aware that Google has done amazing things to revolutionize our Internet experience. And I’m sure Mr. and Mrs. Google are very nice people. But the big G doesn’t contribute anything to the work of creatives. Not a minute of effort or a dime of financing. Yet Google wants to take our content, devalue it, and make it available for criminals to pirate for profit. Convicted felons like Kim Dotcom generate millions of dollars in illegal revenue off our stolen creative work. People access Kim through Google. And then, when Hollywood tries to impede that thievery, it’s presented to the masses as a desperate attempt to hold on to antiquated copyright laws that will kill your digital buzz. It’s so absurd that Google is still presenting itself as the lovable geek who’s the friend of the young everyman. Don’t kid yourself, kids: Google is the establishment. It is a multibillion-dollar information portal that makes dough off of every click on its page and every data byte it streams. Do you really think Google gives a shit about free speech or your inalienable right to access unfettered content? Nope. You’re just another revenue resource Google can access to create more traffic and more data streams.

Sutter's article - which is an answer (more or less) to this one.

Sutter argues for voluntary agreements that might reduce traffic to pirate sites. I'm not sure what impact that will really have, but surely it's something worth trying.

It may be that we'll ultimately return to the situation of 15th and 16th century English poets - where writers and other artists earn their living by sucking up to rich patrons, rather than trying to attract attention and a few bucks from regular people.  Who knows - I prefer Shakespeare's plays to his sonnets, but not everyone would agree.

Justifying aggression

According to the NY Times:

“Crimea has always been an integral part of Russia in the hearts and minds of people,” Mr. Putin said in remarks that reached deep into Russian and Soviet history to justify the move.

Said move being the seizure of part of Ukraine.

By that logic, Tuscany belongs to me. As does my neighbor's Bobcat and shiny new chainsaw . . .

Fallout from Crimea

Forget non-proliferation

In 1996, Ukraine sent the last of its Soviet-era nukes off to Russia, completing an agreement that had been negotiated following the breakup of the Soviet Union and the establishment of Ukraine as an independent country.

How much different would the present crisis be if that had never happened?

Which brings us to the logical conclusion for any country in the wake of the current crisis: If you give up your weapons of mass destruction, you're liable to be bullied by any neighbor, declining world power or not, that can mass troops on or near your border. Iran appeared to draw that conclusion based on America's invasion of Iraq; now it's something no nation can afford to ignore. If you think the spread of nukes is a bad thing, the implications in eastern Europe and Asia ought to make you lose a lot of sleep for a good long time. No matter what happens with today "vote" in Crimea - and no matter what the West's ultimate response is - Russia's actions will affect geopolitics for a generation at least.

Paul Berman recently put the Ukraine into historical perspective in an article in the New Republic, with a (somewhat) optimistic spin:

We do seem to be on the brink of Cold War II, which might end up being a long affair. We ought to recall that Cold War I was, despite its reputation, not really a stable era. Russia in its Soviet and post-Soviet incarnations has never succeeded in establishing a zone of tranquility, except for relatively brief periods. The entire concept of Russian domination has proved to be a formula for repeated revolutions. The revolutions of the past took place in 1953, 1956, 1968, 1989, 2000, 2003, 2004, and 2014 (in, respectively, East Germany, Poland and Hungary, Czechoslovakia, everywhere, Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, and Ukraine). These events suggest a pattern, though, and maybe the pattern should be encouraged. The pattern is a generally eastward drift, and the purpose in encouraging it ought to be what used to be called, in language I never liked, regime change—achieved not of course by military adventures of our own but by the citizens of Moscow and St. Petersburg, aided by whatever peaceful support we can provide.



A little dark, but you get the point . . .

They say you can't judge a book by its cover, but the truth is, most of us do. It's the first and best advertisement for a book we see, and the reason most of us pick up a book by an author we're not familiar with.

The Dreamland series has been blessed with some great cover art. Our next book - due out Memorial Day, by the way - has this fantastic image as its base:

The image tells the key elements of the story: A conflict between the U.S. and Iran in which drones play a key role. (Which is why the title makes sense. By the way, it was our editor, Henry, who came up with the title. My record on titles in the series is so-so.)

This is the cover with all the words:

Germany, Russia, & the Ukraine

If the response to the Russian incursions in the Ukraine are economic - another way of saying impose sanctions rather than sending troops - it's Germany, not America, that will be the key player. Whether Germans want that role or not.

Russia is, at best, a minor trade partner with the U.S. - one reason that it's easy for Putin to use his caricature of America as a straw man to prop himself up. Germany, on the other hand, does significant trade with Russia. The relationship is certainly symbiotic - Russia supplies 30 percent of Germany's natural gas, according to some estimates - but given Russia's present economic shape, Germany has far more leverage than it seems ready to use.

In the years since the end of the Cold War - and more importantly the reunification of the country - German policy toward Russia has been mostly one of quiet engagement and occasional accommodation. That made sense in the immediate aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union; it helped encourage democratic reforms. But that period has ended - and in fact ended with invasion of Georgia by Russian troops in 2008. Indeed, it was that incident and the tepid Western response that in many ways set the stage for the present crisis.

To apply economic pressure, Germany and the rest of the western European countries have to do more than simply freeze a few bank accounts. They have to make a serious dent in Russia's revenues. A significant drop in oil and gas revenue would threaten Putin's regime far more than a democracy movement in the Ukraine; if you're going to apply economic pressure on him, that's how to do it.

The real problem is - what happens then? Does the West (and here the U.S. is a major player along with Germany) really want to take responsibility for the Ukraine's economy?

Call me cynical, but I don't see that happening. Just as I don't see Germany cutting its Russian gas purchases by twenty-five percent any time soon.

Russia and its enablers

For all of the chest thumping and breast beating rhetoric about the Ukraine and Russia, few people are actually looking at the interrelation between Russia and Western monied interests that have acted as something of enablers for the present regime.

There are exceptions. Here's an excerpt from an article by Anne Applebaum in Slate:

American readers may not realize the extent to which millionaires and billionaires from the former Soviet Union dominate the London art and property markets. Some of that money represents oil profits. But some of it comes from theft.
That tacit decision to accept all Russian money at face value has come home to roost in the past week. Some of the general European reluctance to apply economic sanctions to Russia is of course directly related to the Russian investments, interests, and clients of European companies and banks. But in fact, the laundering of Russian money into acceptability, in both Europe and the United States, has had far more important consequences in Russia itself.

I wouldn't go as far as Applebaum in saying that the U.S. and Europe are complicit in the invasion or even the bullying that is part and parcel of present Russian foreign policy, but Americans and especially Europeans are definitely making money from Russian corruption and thievery. And Europe - Germany especially - can put far more pressure on Russia economically than most people seem to think.

In the end, Russia as a country isn't going to benefit from Putin's foreign policy, let alone the thievery behind it. The country is now essentially a petro-economy, selling natural resources while failing to invest the proceeds in sustainable industries. The real danger is that Russia - a land of vast human resources and creativity - will sink into a Third World-like hole, becoming a North Korea with oil. I don't think that's going to happen - Russians are far too savvy, resourceful and, yes, cynical about their leaders - but the direction of things makes that an unfortunate possibility.

Russia vs. . .  Italy?

From the Washington Post:

Q. How strong is Russia’s Black Sea Fleet?
A. As a war-fighting force, it’s not particularly impressive. Its main vessel was basically built to fight other ships and so is only useful in fighting a naval war. It’s got the Moskva, an aging guided-missile cruiser; a large anti-submarine warfare cruiser — very dated; a destroyer and two frigates, which are more versatile; landing ships; and a diesel attack submarine. It’s not a particularly powerful force. The Italian navy alone could easily destroy it.

I'm not quite sure who gets the worst of that comparison. As for what it says about the Ukrainian navy . . . explained . . .

. . . and a fairly decent overview of the book business at the New Yorker here.


 Publishers’ dependence on Amazon, however unwilling, keeps growing. Amazon constitutes a third of one major house’s retail sales on a given week, with the growth chart pointing toward fifty per cent. By contrast, independents represent under ten per cent, and one New York editor said that only a third of the three thousand brick-and-mortar bookstores still in existence would remain financially healthy if publishers didn’t waive certain terms of payment. 

Ukrainian fantasies. . . 

Apparently not content with the bang up job he did as Jimmy Carter's national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski now advocates sending U.S. airborne troops to eastern Europe so Russia knows . . . what, exactly?


. . . Much depends on how clearly the West conveys to the dictator in the Kremlin — a partially comical imitation of Mussolini and a more menacing reminder of Hitler — that NATO cannot be passive if war erupts in Europe. If Ukraine is crushed while the West is simply watching, the new freedom and security in bordering Romania, Poland and the three Baltic republics would also be threatened.
This does not mean that the West, or the United States, should threaten war. But in the first instance, Russia’s unilateral and menacing acts mean the West should promptly recognize the current government of Ukraine as legitimate. Uncertainty regarding its legal status could tempt Putin to repeat his Crimean charade. Second, the West should convey — privately at this stage, so as not to humiliate Russia — that the Ukrainian army can count on immediate and direct Western aid so as to enhance its defensive capabilities. There should be no doubt left in Putin’s mind that an attack on Ukraine would precipitate a prolonged and costly engagement, and Ukrainians should not fear that they would be left in the lurch.
Meanwhile, NATO forces, consistent with the organization’s contingency planning, should be put on alert. High readiness for some immediate airlift to Europe of U.S. airborne units would be politically and militarily meaningful. If the West wants to avoid a conflict, there should be no ambiguity in the Kremlin as to what might be preciptated by further adventurist use of force in the middle of Europe.
Op ed piece in Washington Post.

So let's see if I can understand this. The U.S. (and Europe) have to show they're serious about Russia's attack in the Ukraine by putting troops on alert that they never intend to use, and which they shouldn't use . . . and if Russia brushes away the obsolete and very under-prepared and under-armed Ukraine military, we should help the Ukrainians by giving them money and aid that they will be in no position to use, having already been rolled over by the Russians. And let's avoid embarrassing the Russians all the while.

Brilliant. No wonder the Carter administration achieved so much in foreign affairs and national security.

Civilian drones explained

. . . That would be the aircraft, not the people working behind the counter at DMV.

The FAA recently corrected a number of myths about civilian UAVs, starting with the (clearly erroneous) myth that low altitudes are not regulated by the FAA and ending with a correction on the estimate of how many drones will operate in the near future (not nearly as many as you've heard).

Item (they call them UAS, not UAVs):
There are a lot of misconceptions and misinformation about unmanned aircraft system (UAS) regulations. Here are some common myths and the corresponding facts.