Thursday, February 18, 2016

Lights Out--another unthought of danger

Inspired to read this book from Ted Koppel's appearance with Fareed Zakaria.  After finishing the book the acknowledgements provided some relevant commentary.  As a well known news correspondent and anchor for Nightline, Ted was well read and somehow stumbled on the idea that cyber attacks, particularly on the electric grid were one of the greatest dangers that we are the least prepared for.

Looking out his window one day he speculated on what he would do after a major cyber attack and realized that he would not be very good at hunting down nearby deer or wild turkeys and felt it was a hopeless situation.  Quoting Will Rogers, "we're all ignorant, just about different things" he decided with his skills and connections he would get the information and present it to the public.

Incidentally I recommend his acknowledgements as there are a lot of credit given to some people that made the book possible.  Many observations got my attention as supporting his main thesis, that we need to be better prepared for the future dangers brought on by the inter-net and our dependence on it.

Terrorism flourishes on disproportionate fear.  After 9/11 the air flight business suffered until after security measures were adopted and time had muted memory a little bit.  Now terrorists are picking softer targets and fear is spreading.  Ted Koppel has identified the electric power grid as a vulnerable target with very wide implications for the nation. We Canadians are obviously inter connected with the rest of North America.

The U.S. is the only country to have used a nuclear bomb in war and now tries to disarm the nuclear option. With Israel they are also the first to use cyber warfare this time against the Iranian nuclear program, now it seems they would like to cut cyber warfare;  Iran retaliated, but chose Aramco, a Saudi based oil company.  Obviously it is not necessary to be a super power to inflict devastating damage.  Korea took offense at a movie "The Interview" and used a cyber attack to stop its distribution.  They succeeded in publicizing some embarrassing gossip, but fortunately did not stop people from seeing the movie.  An earlier post:

In the United States, most electric power is privately owned. They are reluctant to share information and often have different priorities.  Almost daily we hear arguments about the conflict between security and privacy.  Ted feels if we understand the dangers we will realize we will have to give up some privacy to be safe.  The electric grid is very expensive and some of the critical elements would be difficult to replace plunging large parts of the country into a dog eat dog sort of world very quickly.

Ted was able to talk to many higher-ups in the government responsible for security.  The problem is there are so many vulnerabilities it is impossible to guard against all of them.  The subject of being prepared got his attention and he explored how Mormons prepare.  They had undergone a lot of difficulties before finding safety in Utah.   At the highest levels they have a plan to protect their members with a key part being communication.  They stockpile food and other taken for granted necessities and encourage their members to build their own stockpiles.  They also note skills so they can shift volunteers to where they are needed in an emergency.

A side issue was what would happen in a disaster when urbanites seek survival goods.  Ted discusses the gun culture and how many see having a gun and knowing how to use it as part of a survival plan.  When he first talked with Mormons he found that most were willing to share with non Mormon neighbours, even invaders.  Later he learned that Mormon leadership was acknowledging it might be a good idea  to have a gun, but so far not elaborating.

I was surprised to learn that Ted was raised during the London blitz and although he didn't understand it much at the time he was able to conclude that although difficult to prepare for it, there was some advantages in doing almost anything.  When the atomic and hydrogen bombs first hit public awareness there were a lot of ideas of civil defense until governments realized they were all impractical for an atomic war.  Eventually the idea of mutually assured destruction helped life go on without expensive civil defense projects.

Ted (and myself) worry that there is danger of  going down the wrong path.  He quotes H. L Mencken; "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong."   It seems politicians feel the use of fear is a great tool to get elected rather than identifying a problem and working out the best way to deal with it.  "Acknowledging ignorance is often the first step towards finding a solution."

Pearl Harbor was a big shock to the Americans, but they were quickly able to identify the enemy and start a counter attack.  A cyber attack can come from anywhere and is unlikely to be easily traced to the perpetrator.  Ted has identified a real danger and backed up his contention with some research.  He admits that there are so many possibilities of cyber warfare and our first experience could be very unexpected.  His underlying theme is we need to be better prepared.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The American Election just got more interesting with Supreme Court vacancy.

The death of Antonin Scalia  changes the election, making it more interesting.  When I say more "interesting" I am referring to a Chinese curse--"May you live in interesting times."  The government will be at least partially paralyzed until the situation with the Supreme Court is resolved.  The Republicans have declared they will fight any choice of Barrack Obama. and in fact are telling him he shouldn't try to do anything before the election.  This means court decisions of all sorts will defer to the lower courts whenever the Supreme Court votes 4-4 as will often be the case, particularly with difficult cases.

The Republicans have long said that the Democratic choices have been activist judges.  It is hard not to notice that Republican appointed judges tend to vote a certain way.  We all think the ideal judge is perfectly neutral. To be honest many judges do exhibit that virtue including even Supreme Court judges.  However there are many issues at stake that really test neutrality.

It was a conservative court that allowed George Bush (with fewer popular votes) to take over the government and appoint two more conservative judges, not to mention a fraudulent invasion of Iraq. That was a life changing decision.  It actually was precipitated when Florida amongst other states enacted voter suppression tactics.  That is another issue with input from the Supreme Court.

Other countries make definite laws to encourage more people to vote.  Republicans have long figured out that on average blacks and Latinos tend to vote Democratic.  They have taken a number of laws that make it more difficult for voters and resisted laws (such as weekend advance polls) that encourage working people to vote.  They have also noticed that released prisoners (who tend to be from minorities and lower classes) also tend to vote Democratic, and have passed laws to restrict their ability to vote.  The Supreme Court plays a very big role in who gets to vote and with how the votes are counted.  In the United States gerrymandering has been used by both parties and all voters lose.

Already an issue is campaign financing.  Who has the louder, more frequent voices is usually decided by who has the more money. The Supreme Court has determined corporations are entitled to free speech.  Some judges have assured us that money does not corrupt.  This is already an issue coming from Democrats, particularly with Bernie Sanders.

Other issues that will stir emotions include gay rights, abortion, immigration and climate change.  Even if you do not agree with a particular decision it is ideal to respect the people called upon to make it.

In a two party system with back and forth dominance it seems over time there could be a balance. A lifetime appointment throws an element of unpredictability.  A Democrat appointee might live longer than a Republican appointee or vice versa.   Or some one like Scalia might die unexpectedly close to an election.  

There is no guaranteed way to get a perfectly neutral court.  One of the problems is that the vast majority of voters really don't want one.  We all want decisions that favour our viewpoint and protect our perceived interests.  Some are concerned that they would lose leverage to exploit others.    At the moment the politics is so tense that it will be very difficult for a quick resolution.  Emotions will flare, but unlike in other years the Supreme Court appointment will be taken as an election issue in its own right.  Hopefully voters will realize it is in everyone's interest to take the emotions out of this most critical decision.  On the other hand it is hard not to see that monied and prejudicial factors will be part of the equation.

If one could accept that you cannot always get your way and that a neutral court is in every one's best interest how could you arrange it?  One idea might be to let each side nominate say 10 candidates each and then draw for the nine.  Sound unreasonable?  At one stage the constitution was worked on by a draw of ordinary people with the idea that vested interests would be minimized.  Another point might be that if you know it will be decided by a draw you will make more neutral nominations with the expectation that the opposition would do the same.  Ok maybe it is unrealistic.  How about the opposition chooses from your choices with the ninth being a draw.   Politics  even dirty politics) will surely play an outsized role.

I remember reading Plato's "Republic" which admittedly is remembered imperfectly.  His idea was that children would be raised in common as a way of minimizing family loyaliies.  At one early stage they would all be tested with some (the majority) being left to do the necessary labour.  A few years later after a chance to be truly educated then another test would be taken to separate out those who could strive to run business and those who would make the big decisions such as about the laws.    This way the laws would be not be decided by those with vested interests, but by those chosen for the best judgment.  Another idea that will never get off the ground, because we are most loyal to those closest to us in blood ties and that has been instrumental in human survival.

Some are advocating the decision should be deferred until after the next election.  That really is evading duty.  The Republicans have demonstrated they do not really respect the Constitution except when they think it serves their agenda.  The President is elected for four years and has duties that must be adhered to no matter the timing.  Obviously the opposition can play a role, but to deny the opportunity is not in the nation's best interest.  Playing with this situation can be counter-productive.  Let us hope the voters realize what is really in their best interests.

My conclusion is that no matter your preferences we are headed for "interesting times."  A great spectacle, but dangerous.  Let's hope some rationality survives.  A quick resolution no matter how desirable seems very unlikely.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


The U.S. primaries are starting to thin out the also rans.  New Hampshire will force some voters to re-assess their choices and some investors (and donators) trying to infuence the outcome will re-calculate where their money will have the best impact.  On the surface it seems we could end up with a contest between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, although there are a lot of dynamics that could change that.

Many commentators have suggested that both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have tapped into the feelings of anger. more effectively than the other candidates.

This year there is a lot of discontent among potential voters.  The important thing is to identify the real cause.  Some have identified it as too many Mexicans, too many Muslims, too many gay rights, Obamacare, the climate change hoax.  I hate to give them any credence, but obviously many do abide by such suggestions.

I boil it down to the status quo not being what it used to be.  The rich are getting richer and the poor, poorer with a big void developing in between.  Of course this is a bit over simplified, but the basic idea is encompassed in the statistics that demonstrate while productivity has gone up, the profits have not been shared proportionately.  Furthermore the people at the top are starting to assert themselves.  They believe they just have to be unshackled and everything will be ok.  They should not have to pay such a high percentage of their well deserved income, nor should they have to tolerate regulations that hem in their ability to generate more profits.  There are a lot of people trying to get a bigger piece of the pie or at least hang on to what they have.

Money talks.  Most of the viable candidates for president literally have a billionaire backing their efforts.  Donald Trump may well be a billionaire and can be self righteous about it.  In fact wealth can do great things; Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy are just two examples of wealth benefitting the masses. But it seems some billionaires think not only that they should have a right to pursue their dream of even more wealth, but that they should be able to tell others to do without.

The Media has a stake in all this.  They love to see expensive tv ads and a close race promises lots of those, especially when backed up by loose campaign finance laws.

Donald Trump certainly knows how to draw an audience.  I am astounded at how gullible people can be.  Shout a few derogatory remarks and many hold him in awe.  He doesn't take much trouble to explain himself, but easily assures people he is the best and can handle any difficulties very simply.

Bernie Sanders is not accepting Super Pacs or large donations.  Some of what he says is mocked by the establishment, but most of what he advocates such as single payer medicare and free tuition is accepted by other industrialized countries.  Basically he is fighting for the little guy, but in the end his approach might well be better for everyone.  No reflexive military response to international problems.  No abandoning people who can't afford an emergency.  Pay attention to what scientists have learned.  Our future is with youth being educated.

They each still have competition and could fall by the wayside.  Bernie just has one competitor,  Hilary Clinton but she has more connections.  Donald Trump has the advantage of a split opposition that still has a lot of egos that aren't ready to quit even if supporters tell them they should for the sake of the country.  One problem with the primaries as each candidate inevitably criticizes their opponents and some of that will carry forward and lot of bruised feelings will hamper future efforts.  So the longer they drag on the primary battles the harder it may be to win the grand prize.

One of my fantasies would be for Elizabeth Warren to endorse Bernie which I think would be a huge (and logical) step to the first Jewish president in American history.  He could reward her with Vice President or Treasury Dept, either of which might launch her to be the first female president of the United States.  Timing is important as decisions are being made and to some extent locked in.  But of course there is a risk as an endorsement might offend the other candidate.

Monday, February 8, 2016


After almost forty movies this year, including many very good ones such as "Birdman",  this is the first I felt compelled to review.  You might think that a Bollywood movie only reflects my bias, but honestly this has universal themes that will hit most of you.  Like many it has a touching romance and like a few others it has appeal to the intellect, but most of all it a great story about story telling.

It is very confusing at the beginning with elements that may not fit in with your first preconceptions.  Eventually the little streams will join together and make a lot of sense.  Flashbacks help bring the present into context.  Tells the story very well after getting your attention.

Most romance movies depend heavily on misunderstandings.  Most finding oneself stories depend on conflict within the self.  "Tamasha" illustrates both of these dynamics uniquely because it also encompasses the dynamics of story telling.

Imtiaz Ali, the director writer has done a lot of excellent movies such as "Jab We Met" "Rockstar" and "Highway."  It seems likely there are elements of autobiography.  Directing and writing are the two most creative jobs in a movie which is really a story with special effects.  In his commentary Imitaz tells us that one of the mechanisms of the story comes from his brother Arif, also a movie director who had a friend visiting a foreign holiday destination and to have more fun didn't want to give his name or learn the name of a romantic partner.

Ranbir Kapoor, son of Rishi Kapoor got off to a pretty good start in his movie career, but has run a few flops.  This movie should set him back on the right path.  Deepika Padukone has been doing very well and has even deviated off commercial movies to more artistic challenges with success.  The two were a couple a few years ago, but broke up.  Deepika once insulted Ranbir on a tv talk show in a very delicate manner.  However they really fit together very well--both loving and hurting each other.

One other actor deserves mention, Javed Sheikh who plays Ranbir's father.  He displays some subtle emotion when it makes a big difference.

A common thread throughout is story telling.  There is some sort of theatrical presentation at the beginning, but before long the camera switched to a scene with a young boy being enthralled by an older reluctant story teller who he pays.  At first the story teller recounts a tale from Hindu mythology and later of the ancient Greeks.  Later we hear references to Biblical stories.

In the romance Deepika is imagined as a bold thief with access to a fortune in gold.  Ranbir pictures himself as a spy chasing her.  Much later this plays into another connecting mechanism.

A. R. Rahman, known to North Americans for the Oscar winning music in "Slumdog Millionaire"wrote the music. He has written some of the best music ever written for movies.  The music in "Tamasha" is good, but not his best.  I did add one song to my iTunes collection.

Interesting locations.  A major part is in Corsica where the two main characters meet and enjoy the land and seascape.  Other scenes included Kolkotta, Delhi, Simla and Tokyo (where rain cut down the scenery they wanted).  Overall the cinematography is excellent.

The book "Catch 22" was the mechanism to allow them to reconnect.  The man brought a copy to Corsica with a book store mark and  he commented on where he got it.  A few years later it enabled the woman to find our hero in a different city.

This is a very visual movie with lots of ingenuous settings.  Many details are used to make a point, some of which you will catch easily, but others you will appreciate more with a subsequent viewing.

In Bollywood stories are told with scenery, music, dance and of course words.  The viewer will see that based on his story telling talents the hero gains more tools over time.

Story telling is important to us all.  I remember writing about how important stories are to selling products and ideas:  see People don't buy statistics at least not until after they hear the story.  The best story tellers use all sorts of tools when they get the opportunity.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Iowa, the process begins

As a Canadian I have no say in the American Presidential campaign, but the whole world has a stake in the final result.  The final result is more than just who becomes president, and includes the makeup of the Senate and the House of Representatives.  Together they will set the laws and even determine who interprets the law.  They can all have a huge impact on the rest of the world.  I don't pretend to understand all the details of the process, and I suspect few Americans do either.  As with anything similar, a lot of preparation has gone on for this contest and will continue with adjustments.

Iowa seems a strange place to begin the formal process.  It is more rural, less diverse and apparently has a higher percentage of evangelicals than most states.  All these factors colour the result, but more importantly help set the wheels in motion.  Farm subsidies are a bigger issue than elsewhere and candidates have to address this concern.  Interestingly the big Republican winner, Ted Cruz is against subsidies to the ethanol growers, but tempers it a bit by refusing subsidies to other energy providers to even the playing field.  Less diverse people and more evangelicals puts greater emphasis on the issue of abortion and same sex marriage.  Candidates often find themselves locked into positions that might not carry as much weight in subsequent elections.

Being the first chance to gain attention the Iowa caucuses can be critical to many politicians.  The outstanding example is Jimmy Carter who was basically an unknown former governor of Georgia.  He identified Iowa as critical to gain public awareness and build momentum.  Far ahead of the Iowa caucuses he devoted a great deal of time to understand what Iowans were concerned about and cultivated contacts.  He also was able to boast about his zero based accountng that was demonstrated early in his campaign.  Although he didn't win Iowa he got national attention and was able to build on it.  It hasn't always worked out that way for everyone as many have been able to overcome losing in Iowa (even badly) to win the final prize, but it is now seen as a necessary credibility step.

This all gives Iowa greater power than their small size would normally give.  Many citizens take the responsibility seriously and candidates are forced into  explaining themselves to large numbers of small groups.  They offer what many consider an archaic process that differs for Republicans and Democrats.  I don't totally understand it, but was struck by what I know about the Democrat caucus system.

Each candidate is given a space that others can go to register their support.  There is even a spot for the uncommitted.  After each candidate has a representative speak on their behalf the assembled voters get to make a choice.  Any group that has less than 15% overall is broken up and forced to go to another group.  Sometimes the uncommitted are able to dominate, but they also are split up if they fail to reach 15%.  Many of us in multi party systems end up voting strategically, but in reality we are guessing with skimpy information.  In Iowa it is pretty clear amongst the Democrats which candidate is dominating and which might benefit from some support.  After some jockeying a decision is made and I think in some instances it must be more satisfying than attempts to strategize votes in other jurisdictions.

With the results in, the dynamics are changing already.  Although the rest of the race to the White House has different rules it is normal for some losers to give up.  Behind the scenes some financial donators are making decisions as well.

There were a few surprises, but not totally out of line with predictions.  In many ways I am very unimpressed with the voters response, but then they probably don't think much of my reasoning.
Donald Trump to a great extent coasted on his tv reality show and some bombastic declarations.  He was defeated by a narrow minded focused, Ted Cruz who understood the importance of hard work and organizing.  As a Canadian I would like to interject that Trump's assertion that Cruz might be disqualified for his Canadian birth was very unfair.  That little bit of doubt probably encouraged some marginal Cruz supporters to look elsewhere.  I think originally the Constitutional requirement of natural American birth was to protect the new democracy against foreign born aristocrats. Nonetheless it is a stupid law that hurts everybody.  All voters deserve to get the best person available.  Also don't forget the Constitution left out women and slaves as voters.

The establishment was relieved to learn one of their favoured candidates, Marco Rubio finished third.  This will allow voters and financiers to consolidate their efforts and resources against the outsiders Trump and Cruz.  A year ago it was assumed by many that Jeb Bush would be able to represent establishment Republicans, but I think the Iowa results make that much more difficult.  Others will soon be weighing whether it is worth the effort.  Becoming president isn't the only motive as national attention can result in a political appointment, a tv contract a lobbying position or selection as the Vice President nominee.

The Republicans were able to tap into a well of fear and ignorance.  That is compounded by the size of the field meaning that each candidate tends to try to outdo their opponents in sensational claims.  It is true that the American economy is a big letdown for many voters and that international conflicts are scary, but they overlook who is responsible for that and who has been mopping up the mess much better than his predecessor.  In eight years a lot is forgotten, but the origins of much that is wrong in America was brought about by policies, decisions and people that associated with Republicans and which they wish to continue.  Obamacare, a big step in the right direction is denigrated (I think that is the right word) and too many people accept the Republican view.  A decision to go to war with Iraq was one of the most stupid and deceitful decisions ever with very long lasting consequences.  Giving rich bankers and investors less regulations resulted in a major disaster for which others paid the price.

There is more to the economy than just regulations or the lack thereof.  The global economy  works best for rich investors who can shift money and manufacturing facilities easily to co-operating jurisdictions for more profit.  We are also at a point where machines can produce more goods than people can.  For some investors they are able to take advantage of this and for the most part seem unconcerned about who they are displacing.  There have been small attempts to adjust, but they are resisted by those at the top of the food chain.

Over on the Democrat side it became obvious they have a two way race, casting aside Martin O'Malley, an intelligent individual but without a national profile  He never really had much of a chance to make himself and his ideas known on a national scale, but at least he made it to the debating platform.  Others dropped out and others decided not worth the effort.  Senator Elizabeth Warren and Vice President Joe Biden are out of the running, but may get a significant appointment if their party wins.

There is not as much difference between the two remaining Democrat candidates as there are between either one of them and the Republicans, but there is a difference.  Bernie Sanders is characterized as an idealist and it is unusual for an idealist to make it this far.  Usually they have to compromise more than Sanders has so far.  Like Trump he is also tapping into a great discontent in the American population, but I think he has identified the causes better than anyone.  He may not be able to implement his ideas, but likely would bring us closer to a fairer society.  Clinton positions herself as practical.  She knows that Congress will be difficult to work with and promises she will get results incrementally.

Perhaps as the fields narrow down the important issues will be discussed in a more reasonable manner.  Republicans reflexively deny climate change, a stance that still carries a lot of weight, but is slowly fading.  Obamacare needs to be improved not abolished.  Immigration (including refugees) needs to be reformed.   Inequality will inevitably get worse until there is either a violent revolution or a collapse of society.

Campaign finance over rides everything.  No prospective politician will get very far without large amounts of money.  They will have to spend a great deal of time and effort to get the money and perhaps even more critical, compromise.  One example is Marco Rubio getting money from a casino owner who is demanding favourable treatment for Israel which may not be in America's best interest.  Energy companies are huge donators who want to maintain their status quo.  Investors donate to give themselves favourable treatment.  It seems most of those willing to contribute to a campaign want something that is not in the best interest of the rest of us.

The media sees the whole process as an opportunity.  The news creates interest and they tend to treat it as a horse race or a platform for sensationalism.  Most importantly they can get a lot of advertising revenue.  They certainly can and do often distort things.  CNN highlighted a weak moment of Howard Dean that helped undo his campaign, but had little to do with what he offered the country.   If they would just highlight candidate distortions and falsifications they would be rendering a public service, but they tend to just skim over the issues.

Will the Americans end up with the best result under their system?   We may never know what dedicated servant who is knowledgeable and exercises good judgment under stress would have come forward if it had been easier.  We can get only those who muster the resources to put on a good show.

The idea of starting with Iowa is not all bad as it forces candidates to talk to more actual voters.  That gives hard workers a chance to create awareness.  Part of the problem is the length of the voting, starting with the primaries and also including the national campaign.  It is a huge country and it takes time to cover it all, but there is another dynamic that cuts that down.  Many states already give the appearance of giving their voting delegates to one party or the other which means both parties feel little need to cater to them instead putting their resources where the outcome (as determined by history and polls) is undecided.  There is a trade-off between the expensive time required to make a case and the scope of the voters concerns.  There is no perfect system, but it is due for a study.