21
Oct
17

Iran, Iran So Far Away

“I never get too attached to one deal or one approach…I keep a lot of balls in the air, because most deals fall out, no matter how promising they seem at first.”   – Donald Trump, Art of the Deal

 

It looks like Trump is starting down the road of removing the US from the Iran nuclear deal. This is a deal in which Iran agreed to stop pursuing the development of nuclear weapons, agreed to limits on its enrichment and use of nuclear material, and agreed to neutral inspections in order to confirm these actions, in return for removal of nuclear related sanctions and movement toward normalizing relations with the US, Europe, and the rest of the world.  Most Republicans seem to support getting out of this deal, and it also seems that this is driven by their “base”. One may wonder, if there is a diplomatic deal with the purpose of stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons, then why would you be against that? (I’ll show my conservative readers the respect of assuming that they’re not against it simply because it came from the Obama administration, that they’ve actually considered what the deal may or may not do). I’ve thought about this quite a bit, and my conclusion (open to debate) is that there are a few basic misunderstandings regarding Iran and diplomacy in general that sway some people. Let me point out a few criticisms of the deal, and then explain where I think they’re wrong.

  1. We shouldn’t deal with terrorists/dictators, etc. – This attitude has come up frequently in US history, mostly because the US, to its credit, has very often had antagonistic relations with authoritarian or totalitarian governments, and with governments that support terror. Generally, we don’t like them, and they don’t like us. In my everyday life, when I think someone is a jerk, I try to avoid them. Countries can’t do that, at least not important countries. And Americans hate to hear it, but Iran is a very important country. They have a lot of oil, they sit right in the middle of the shipping lanes for other people’s oil, they carry a lot of influence with a very large worldwide religious community, they have important friends. Ignoring them will not ever make them go away. In WWII we sucked it up and worked with the Soviets to defeat Hitler. In the Cold War we managed to trust the Soviets enough to negotiate a number of nuclear arms deals. We worked with Communist China because it gave the Russians something to worry about. We have a huge amount of trade with Communist China today because it’s good for both countries. Being realistic about a situation does not mean that you’re giving up your principles. And like anything else that poses problems in your life, ignoring it only makes it worse.
  2. The nuclear deal is a bad deal because it doesn’t do anything to address Iran’s support for terror, or its meddling and supporting oppositions in Iraq, Yemen, etc. – It’s not supposed to. It’s a limited deal that addresses the issues of nuclear weapon development. If Iran lives up to its end of the deal, then only the sanctions related to nuclear programs are removed. All of the other sanctions stay in place. We can address those other problems separately. Anyone who does any negotiating in their everyday lives knows that you don’t throw out a deal just because you don’t agree on every single aspect. You figure out what you can say “yes” on, and then you build from there. This deal would actually make it easier to accomplish settlements of those other issues because we would have a history of success to build on, and a framework with which to work.
  3. It legitimizes the authoritarian government of Iran – Just the opposite. It legitimizes the moderate opposition to the authoritarian government in Iran. There are parties in Iran just like there are here, even if they’re not formalized like they are here. There are hardliners who think there is no possible way to work with the US. They call us the Great Satan. They support terror. They’re very strong in Iran and control a lot. Then there are a growing number of people, mostly the young, who think conflict with the US is stupid, and is a game they can’t win. They want to deal with us as they would any other country. They see the growth in nearby China and India and think, why don’t we have some customer service centers here? The Great Satan thing doesn’t play with them, because they just got out of college and it doesn’t help them get a job. A peaceful deal, would serve to undermine the hardliners’ image of the US as an irredeemable military threat. Believe it or not, people vote in Iran, for parliament and president. The religious leaders have a veto, and so they have the control, but they also came to power when the people rose up in a revolution and overthrew the old government. Suffice it to say that they are sensitive about the things that may rile up the people. If people are voting moderate representatives into their parliament, and moderate presidents into office, then they will get the message. Will they give up the game just like that? Of course not, there will be stiff resistance, but it will lead to progress.
  4. We can’t deal with them, they’re crazy – Wrong. They do a lot of things that we disagree with, but everything they do has a clear goal and if successful benefits them, or at least the higher-ups in the regime. That being the case, dealing with them requires that we have some kind of realistic idea of what their goals are. Why do they want nuclear weapons? Because they believe nuclear weapons are a guaranty against military invasion by the US. The primary motive of the regime in Iran is, as should perhaps be obvious, preservation of the regime. They will do things that protect the regime and make it more powerful, and they will avoid things that weaken the regime. Democratic reforms are perceived to weaken the religious authorities, and so they avoid them. Supporting terrorist organizations like Hezbollah in Lebanon extends there power further over the region. Nuclear weapons would do much to protect the regime. Nukes solve their problem of being so much weaker than the US. It’s the same reason North Korea got them.

This idea some people have that Iran would get nuclear weapons and give them to terrorists is ridiculous. Why would they spend so many years, go through the trouble and expense of sanctions, risk war with the US, all to get nuclear weapons, and then just give them away? If their goal is to protect their regime, then why would they give up their most powerful weapons to people who cannot be controlled, knowing that if that group uses the weapon, then of course the US would hold Iran responsible and would destroy the regime. It makes no sense at all.

So, if nuclear weapons would be so good for the regime in Iran, why would they agree to give up the program? They’re weighing the costs against benefits. Nukes are a guaranty against military invasion, but have a very high cost – economically, through the cost of the weapons themselves and the sanctions that come from them, and in damaging their relations with other countries that are against the spread of nuclear weapons. A deal that includes the US, Europe, Russia, and China, is also a good protection against invasion. It restrains the US by making us live up to an agreement and gives these other countries some say in any actions taken against Iran. It’s not a rock solid guaranty, but it’s pretty good and far more affordable.

  1. A deal with them doesn’t make any sense because they’re only going to cheat on it and get nukes anyway – This argument is based on the fact that Iran very often tried to cut corners and cheat when the international community was trying to get them to abide by nuclear non-proliferation programs for years. However, these were not agreements. It was basically the US and others informing Iran that they could not have nuclear weapons. Few self-respecting countries would feel obligated to live up to such programs unless compelled to. A deal in the form of an international agreement, recognized by the most powerful countries of the world is not only a good deal for everyone, it’s also a sign of respect. Iranians have a strong sense of identity, with a stress on their history. Americans tend to think of Iran one-dimensionally, only as revolutionary, theocratic Iran. This version of Iran is about 40 years old. Their sense of identity goes far deeper, back to ancient Persia 2500 years ago, when they were the largest and most powerful empire in the world. Of course, they understand that they are not so powerful now, but they’re not Bolivia either. They feel that when important issues in the world, or at least in the Middle East, are being decided, they have a right to be in the room. They’ll force the issue if they have to, by supporting terror or threatening oil supply lines, but they’d rather make a deal.

 

Even if there are problems with this deal, and I don’t know that there are, a deal is generally the right move here. People these days seem to think only in military terms when they think of the US as being the most powerful country in the world. That is only one aspect of our power. We also have the most powerful economy, and the most influence diplomatically. By ignoring the last two, we are only taking powerful weapons out of our own hands.

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30
Sep
17

Form Over Function

The current hot topic, NFL players and owners kneeling or locking arms during the national anthem, and all of the outrage it has produced on one side and unqualified support on the other, unfortunately achieves nothing and only shows the shallowness of “debate” in America today. We have here two excellent subjects for conversation – the role and function of patriotic symbols in American life, and the question of whether or not minorities, specifically African-Americans, are treated fairly and equally before the law.  We are, as a country, ignoring those questions in order to vent our collective rage, each “side” for the other. So let’s go a little deeper.

I think a reasonable and honest person that sees the protests by NFL players during the national anthem would have to admit that the players are not protesting the anthem itself. They’re not trying to do away with the anthem or change it in any way. They’re using the time that the anthem is playing to try to raise awareness of a separate issue. Whether this is appropriate or not is legitimately wide open to debate. Personally, when I try to be logical about it I lean one way, and when I go with my gut I lean the other. However, rather than discuss the actual issue being protested (which unfortunately I think a lot of people would be hard pressed to identify) the conversation has been entirely about the form of the protest. Now, this may be the result of their choosing something so emotionally significant, something that was sure to sidetrack the argument; and if you feel that the anthem or the flag are so important that they are somehow off-limits, then maybe you’re right. Speaking only for myself, I wouldn’t use either as part of a protest. But, then again, I don’t really have any issues that are so pressing to me that I feel the need to make use of the nation’s most potent symbols.

People, and my impression is that this is true across the board, truly hate the level of rancor in “public discourse” today. I don’t just mean politics, but in the basic ways we communicate with each other. This will never, ever get better, unless we commit ourselves to getting past our initial emotional reactions to things and insist on deep consideration; not trying to get our politicians and representatives to act reasonably, but actually taking the responsibility to do it ourselves.

As I noted in the Facebook link, I’m going to comment on the current topic, if that’s what people insist on discussing. My feelings are:

  1. A truly patriotic American will show appropriate respect for the flag and the anthem as symbols of the freedoms that our country stands for.
  2. A truly patriotic American will respect the people actually exercising those freedoms more than the symbols, which are merely things that can only represent the freedoms.

The symbol is not the thing. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, but count to ten before commenting.

09
Sep
17

The Big One

“The United States has pledged to refrain from using nuclear weapons against most non-nuclear weapon states, but has neither ruled out their first use in all cases nor specified the circumstances under which it would use them. This approach [is] known as ‘calculated ambiguity’”.

-Congressional Research Service report 8/16/16

“You and me in a little toy shop, buy a bag of balloons with the money we’ve got.”

-Nena

 

Over the holiday weekend we heard reports that North Korea has now developed hydrogen bomb technology. But we’ve known they had some nuclear weapons for a few years now, so what’s the big deal?  I happened to be away with some friends this past weekend and in the few minutes of discussion that followed this news, before sneaking in one last beach day of the summer, it became clear that the qualitative difference between hydrogen bombs and “regular” nukes is not widely known. Nuclear weapons = bad, enough said.  Well, if you’re more curious than that, here’s a quick guide to what nukes actually are, and exactly how bad they are.

First, we have the most basic nuclear bomb, the fission bomb. This is Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and North Korea about ten years ago). You can build one of these in two different ways, using either Uranium (U-235) or Plutonium (Pu-239). Both of these are radioactive isotopes, meaning that they radiate neutrons as they deteriorate. When one of these neutrons collides with the nucleus of an adjacent atom, the atom splits into two or more smaller elements. The two or more new atoms are at that point very close to each other and are mutually repelled from each other by the negative charges of their electrons. This causes a very strong outward expansion, but on a very small scale. The “explosion” happens when you have a “critical mass” of the radioactive material, and what we’re looking for here is not so much the mass itself, but the density. The more loose neutrons you have flying around, and the closer together the atomic nuclei are, the more hits you’re going to get, leading to more neutrons, then to more hits, etc. This is the chain reaction that is the explosion.

The first method to achieve critical mass is called the “gun-type assembly”.  You have two separate pieces of fissile material (radioactive material that will react), one shaped as a solid cylinder, the other as a larger hollow cylinder. At detonation, you shoot the hollow cylinder toward the solid cylinder in such a way that they come together as one piece and the impact causes them together to reach critical mass. This is the design of the “Little Boy” bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. Its yield was 15 kilotons (which I’ll explain in a second) out of about 112lbs of uranium.

The second method is called the “implosion-type” weapon. You start with a lump of fissile material shaped into a perfect sphere. You then surround this sphere with conventional explosives. At detonation, you set off the conventional explosives in such a way that it compresses the radioactive material in the middle into critical mass, which then causes the chain reaction and explosion. This is the design of the “Fat Man” bomb used on Nagasaki. Its yield was 21 kilotons out of about 13.5lbs of plutonium.

These are your basic “atomic” bombs. You can see that the strength of them comes from the repellant forces of the atoms’ charges rather than any energy being release from the matter itself. This is the reason for the relatively low yields. (Side note: a kiloton is a measure of how strong the bomb is. One kiloton is equal to 1000 tons of regular explosives. Let’s make some comparisons. You’ve all seen the pictures of the federal building in Oklahoma City after the bombing. That was a concrete office building and it was completely destroyed. There were also 324 other damaged buildings in a 16 block radius. That was 7000lbs of explosives – 3.5 tons. Let me repeat that one kiloton is equal to 1000 tons. The Hiroshima bomb was 15 kilotons and Nagasaki was 21. As bombs got bigger, the yield would eventually have to be measured in megatons. One megaton is equal to 1000 kilotons, or 1,000,000 tons of conventional explosives. At one point the US deployed a 25 megaton bomb. The Russians, not to be outdone, tested but did not deploy the Tsar Bomba, which yielded between 50-100 megatons – so big it couldn’t really be measured.)

So how do we get even bigger than an atomic bomb? We move on to hydrogen bombs, as the North Koreans have recently done. This begins with something called a “boosted fission weapon”. You take a normal implosion-type weapon and you inject some heavy isotopes of hydrogen (deuterium and tritium – the important thing is that they have extra neutrons) into the middle of it. When you detonate the plain old atom bomb, the extra neutrons from the heavy hydrogen causes extra nucleus hits and a more efficient chain reaction. Less of the material is wasted and the yield goes up. You can get up to a few hundred kilotons with this.

Next comes the big one. The multi-stage fusion weapon, also known as Thermo-nuclear. Thermo because this is actually what’s going on in the center of the Sun. With this one you want to think layers. You have the outer circle of conventional explosives. Under that you have a first layer of uranium. The conventional explosives compress the first uranium layer, which is then boosted by heavy hydrogen to make it more powerful. This first uranium layer is call the “pusher” because it shields, then compresses, then ultimately reacts with a second layer of uranium in the core, called the “spark plug”. When the uranium in the “spark plug” starts to react, it is boosted again by heavy hydrogen, and is so dense and efficient at this point that it creates an insane amount of heat. The core of this explosion is so hot that it begins to cause the deuterium and tritium hydrogen atoms to fuse together into helium. When this happens, the atoms are compressed so closely together that the force which normally repels two positively charged protons from each other is overcome by the extremely short range but very powerful nuclear force that keeps atomic nuclei together. The difference in these energy levels is then released as the explosive yield.

You can also understand this in terms of mass. Let’s say that hydrogen has a mass of 1 unit. If you take one hydrogen atom and combine it with a second hydrogen atom to get one helium atom, the helium atom does not have a mass of 2 units. It has a mass of slightly less than two units. The mass that is lost was converted to energy according to   If you take a very small amount of mass and multiply it by the speed of light squared, you get megatons.

 

That’s what’s going on in North Korea right now. They’re taking these extremely precise and difficult technological processes and trying to stick them on top of a missile. The difference between hydrogen bombs and “regular” bombs is a big deal. For example, if a Hiroshima style nuclear bomb went off in Boston, I would see it and hear it in Tewksbury, but I would probably be fine (as far as the explosion itself goes, ie I would survive the explosion and then die later of thirst or civil unrest). If a thermonuclear bomb went off in Boston, very few people reading this would be fine.

And so, unfortunately, you’re all on the watchlist with me now. Good luck at the airport.

27
Aug
17

Past Imperfect

“[Of each thing, ask] what is it in itself; in its own constitution? What is its substance and material? And what its causal nature [or form]? And what is it doing in the world? And how long does it subsist?”

– Marcus Aurelius Meditations, VIII. 11

 

Before and after last week’s various rallies, there has been a debate about removing Confederate statues, flags and other public memorabilia. This debate has been a particularly tough one to resolve, and surprisingly well reasoned on both sides. One side believes that such things should be removed as obvious reminders of an odious past wherein the government subjugated and enslaved a portion of the population based on nothing more than their race. The other side, while respecting the fact that slavery was an unredeemable evil, believes that the Civil War and Confederate cause are undeniable parts of our history, as bad as they were, and that removing these things makes no sense; that it is only the passions of the moment driving a dangerous destruction of our history. I honestly wasn’t sure where I was going to come down on this one. So, like Marcus Aurelius encourages above, I spent some time considering – what are these things? What is the nature of a monument? Why was it made, and what does it do? How long should we keep them around?

After some thought, I have to say that, in my view, the argument that destruction of Civil War Confederate monuments is a destruction of history is a false one. Monuments are not history; or if they are, they are very lazy history. Museums, books, and the classroom are where history is learned and passed down. The study of history is interactive. It is a “social” science. Statues stand mute. You may have ideas or opinions on a certain subject, and a statue cannot tell you when you’re wrong, whereas a book or a teacher can. As far as the study and preservation of history goes, monuments are unnecessary. Throughout 18 years of school, college, and graduate study of history, I never once visited a monument as part of the formal process. And I don’t feel that my education was incomplete.

But then again, that is just not what monuments are for. It’s a basic misunderstanding of what they are. As I stated, the purpose of museums, books, and schools is to preserve and teach. The purpose of monuments is to glorify and inspire. You put up statues of the heroes that you want people and society to emulate. Statues, counterintuitively, look forward, not to the past. That’s why the argument that removing Confederate statues will lead to removing statues of Thomas Jefferson, the Statue of Liberty, the Iwo Jima monument (and all the other ridiculous extremes people went to) does not logically follow. Thomas Jefferson said (as opposed to did) many things that we, as a culture, still believe in and want to emulate. For example, one of the basic ideas of the Declaration of Independence is that times change, and as they do, a community has every right to change the nature of their public institutions to align more closely with the spirit of the times. That’s why I think the putting up of and removal of monuments should be made at the lowest level of community that applies – because ultimately it will represent that community. But it should be understood by all that a statue or a flag will not represent the history or the past of the community, but what it is at present.

So now let’s take a quick look at the specific example of this past two weeks, the statue of Robert E. Lee in Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, VA.  First off, let me just say that having a park called Emancipation Park and the centerpiece of the park is a statue of Robert E. Lee is pretty schizophrenic and the simple fact of it makes a statement on its own. The decision to remove the statue was made by the town council, which I think is fully appropriate. It was not imposed on them from outside, it wasn’t the media pushing a liberal agenda on people who don’t want it; it was the people of that community deciding that this no longer represented them.

Why is that – because Robert E. Lee is evil? I don’t think so. Putting aside the fact that Robert E. Lee was a traitor that led an army against the United States in an effort to destroy it, I don’t really have a huge problem with him. I’m an American, and all Americans have a soft spot for the determined underdog. He was obviously an outstanding general, and had he taken up Abraham Lincoln’s offer to lead the Union army at the beginning of the war, he would have put it away a hell of a lot faster than any of the other dolts the federal army ran through before finding Grant. The only reason he didn’t is because he felt like he couldn’t bear to fight against his fellow Virginians. This sounds like a weak excuse to modern American ears, but of course we can’t picture a situation where our hometowns and the people we know would be in direct danger during a war. Imagine the president coming to you and saying that in order to save the country we need to destroy your home, most likely kill a bunch of your closest friends and possibly some of your family, and we need you to pull the trigger on that, your other choice is treason. It’s just not a black and white situation.

But Lee was also a very intelligent man, and he couldn’t possibly have been under the impression that the war would be interpreted any other way than for or against slavery. And he was not pro-slavery. He was personally in favor of freeing slaves and ensuring a level of civil rights for them, though with legal limitations during the period of blacks’ “education.” He owned no slaves on his own account, he inherited some from his wife’s father and freed them all within a few years. Years before the war he was known to speak personally against slavery, writing “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country.” Though he never spoke out openly against slavery, perhaps because his status as a commissioned officer of the US Army prevented him from speaking publicly on political issues. After the war he was eventually pardoned, and did what he could to reconcile the south with the rest of the country, accepting invitations from then President Grant to visit the White House, as a way of leading by example.  He also served as president of Washington University (now Washington & Lee University).

So, what a great guy right? Statue worthy? Well, the problem is that this statue is something different. It’s not a relic that was put up during the war to commemorate sacrifice or something like that. It was put up in 1924, during the darkest days of Jim Crow laws and the violent suppression of African Americans’ civil rights, depriving them of the right to vote, the right to proper education, to basically any of the protections and services that a free person is entitled to expect. The intention of this statue, and the other Confederate monuments, most of which also just happened to be erected during this time, was to inspire an inordinate pride in the white population, and to signal to the black population that the federal government might say you have certain rights, but you still live in a place where we run things. That’s why it seems to me that people who want to preserve these monuments as history, have unfortunately already forgotten the history that these monuments represent.

As I said before, though, times change. And so, the way a monument was intended, may not be the way it is seen today. That’s why the community itself needs to be the deciding factor. Only a community can decide what does or doesn’t represent them, and how they want to be seen by others. But the decision has to be based far more on deep consideration than on fear – fear of the past, or fear of its destruction.

 

Just to show again that this is a difficult question, and one that can be understood in different ways, someone sent me the link below for an opinion piece written by a current congressman who also happens to be Native American. It’s an interesting view from someone that admits he may have a right to object to the statue of Andrew Jackson, for example, but feels that we get more out of a constant reminder of figures from our past, than we would from constantly updating or revising the physical expressions of it (paraphrasing).

http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2017/08/21/congressman-native-american-when-political-correctness-runs-amok-erasing-our-history-doesnt-change-it.html

20
Aug
17

Real News

Did you trust the media coverage of the rally in Virginia last week? Of course, many people don’t trust the media to report the baseball scores in an unbiased way right now. As we all know, this week Trump made his statement about both sides being responsible for the violence in Virginia last week, noting that there were good people and bad people on both sides. Judging by Facebook and my own personal conversations I’ve had with people I know, the reaction to these statements is either that they were a balanced way of holding both sides to account for bad behavior (minority opinion) or that they were flagrant racism.  I figured we were going to see pretty much the same reactions to whatever was about to happen at this rally in Boston, and having kind of committed myself to my vast and loyal following on this blog, I figured I would head into town and see what there was to see (leaving my pregnant wife and brand-new car at home). So, what did I see, Nazis or liberal toughs cracking down on free speech?  Neither really.

Well, there’s no qualification to not having seen any Nazis. There weren’t any. The notices for the “free speech” rally were clear that some white supremacists were slated to attend, but apparently declined in light of more pressing engagements elsewhere. And ANTIFA beating up conservatives and burning flags? Nope.  Obviously, Boston is a big place and I didn’t see everything, but I did move around quite a bit for about 2.5-3 hours, talked to some people.  The feeling I got was closer to a concert or festival. There were musicians playing, people brought their kids out. I don’t think the cops wanted a bunch of those carts all over the park in the middle of the crowd, but if sausage guy was out there he would have been making a killing. I was in front of the Star-Market next to Fenway when the Sox won the series back in 2004 and I was in FAR more danger then.  I guess I’ll just run through what I saw.

I took the T in and got off at State Street. Its maybe two blocks away from where everything was happening and there was no indication at all that anything was going on.  After last week’s events in Virginia and the buildup I saw online, I was expecting a warzone, and it was just kind of a nice little Saturday.  I walked over to the park and there were a lot of people, but it wasn’t particularly crowded yet. One of the “anti-hate” groups was just starting to march down through the park from the state house to link up with the other group coming in from Roxbury. It was very orderly. There were people acting as sort of “marshals” for the march, staying out to the side and keeping people on the right route and making sure everyone stayed on the concrete paths and didn’t stray into the grass. These marshals had on reflective vests and most covered their faces with handkerchiefs or doctor’s masks. That wasn’t really necessary and as the day went on most of them took them off, but I guess if you’re expecting Nazis it’s better safe than sorry.

I followed along as they made their way over by the Civil War memorial (Union) and as we came over the hill I saw them; ANTIFA! There were about 15 of them, dressed in all black and talking among themselves. There were a couple cops standing nearby, also talking among themselves. The most threatening thing about them is that they all wore facemasks. One guy wore a Soviet flag as a cape. There was a guy in a Captain America costume, but I don’t know if he was with them or just mingling. Everyone gawked and we just continued past. At the base of the hill the group stopped before linking up with the other march and chanted for a little while, and a lot of people were looking around and asking each other questions like “Where are all the Nazis?” confused and honestly a little bit disappointed.

So, the groups linked up and marched up past where the underground parking garage comes up and over to Beacon St. As far as I could tell, that was the end of the march. Everything broke up into smaller groups to listen to speakers. I think a lot of people had a number of reasons for being there, but I was trying to figure out what most people were mainly there for. I have no idea how to estimate these things, but from looking around I would guess that about half the people there were for Black Lives Matter as their primary focus, and the other half there for a general demonstration against hate speech.  When the fascists failed to arrive, the BLM people became much more the focus of events. There were two main areas of speakers in the common. I walked back and forth checking them out for a while and both of them had only BLM speakers. The crowd did thin out a little after this, since my impression is that a lot of people were there against hate and discrimination generally, and not necessarily to support one specific movement. That’s not to say no one was listening; I mean that only a few hundred people were actively taking part at any one time rather than 20k that came out to begin with. I was moving around trying to see as much as I could, so I didn’t listen to everything, but I certainly didn’t see or hear anything from that group that I though was anti-police. Of course, BLM being what it is, they spoke against unfair treatment and the far greater likelihood of a black person being shot by police than a white person, but also differences in the quality of education received by kids in poor black neighborhoods, and other community/race issues. Agree with them or don’t, all I want to say here is that I personally saw several thousand that were peacefully trying to get attention for their cause through normal democratic means. Maybe there are a bunch of violent ones out there, but I’m telling you that they were either not there, or chose not to make themselves known. In fact, there were many police walking around the area in teams, talking to people and generally getting along. No one was hassling them.  There was a big reserve of bike cops right in the middle of the park, maybe 50 of them, and they would send out teams from there to check out spots where someone was getting loud or if they thought someone was drunk, but people were taking pictures with them and it was more or less friendly. (Side note that this just made me think of – this was by far the largest crowd I’ve ever seen in Boston where the majority of people weren’t drunk. I don’t recall seeing anyone I thought was drunk at all in fact, though the smell of marijuana was of course a prevalent.)

Perhaps on purpose, in the interest of using a diversion, when the first BLM speaker started and the biggest crowd was listening in the park, the police took the opportunity to send four officers in slightly more substantial equipment to escort one single “free speecher” who had somehow become separated and left behind the lines by his comrades, up Beacon to the state house. This was the one single time in the day that I thought something bad might happen.

A few people noticed and started to walk next to the cops asking questions about this guy. In hindsight, if I was the police I would have said this guy was sick or something and we were taking him to get help, though he was wearing a Trump t-shirt (which oddly didn’t seem to be the problem because I saw a number of people with Trump/conservative stuff all over the place without an issue, including one guy with a “Hillary for Prison! 2016” t-shirt animatedly talking about the recent performance of the Red Sox) but instead they just pushed away the few people that came close and got a little louder telling them to stay away. In fairness, these four cops with maybe 10,000 people on the other side of the fence were probably really nervous, and maybe I would have done the exact same thing. But what ended up happening is that people heard the cops yelling and started to investigate. Then other people saw a group of people going that way and just followed to see what was up. Very quickly there was a large crowd following along, with the police quickly moving this kid (slightly older than college age I’d say) to the side of the road and pushing him along faster, with the kid inside their circle doing his best to maintain a pretty serious stink-eye at the crowd. Some people in the crowd were chanting “Shame! Shame!” at the kid. I didn’t see anything overtly violent, but if I was the police I would definitely have felt that the crowd was dangerous and threatening. I wasn’t even on the receiving end and I still felt it was getting dangerous. To their credit, the BLM people and some of the “marshals” I saw earlier rushed up and tried to get between the crowd and the police and they were yelling at people “Do not engage with him![ie the kid]” over and over. But of course some idiot threw a water bottle at the kid and immediately a squad of motorcycle cops shot up Beacon behind us with the sirens and lights going and held back the crowd while the first group pushed the kid up a side street before they could even get to the state house. They did get him away from the crowd and got him to a back door of the state house. Once they were around a corner, the motorcycle cops said it was fine to follow and go wherever we wanted, the kid must have been inside. So the crowd followed to see what would happen, if anything.

It was at this point that I did see some people trying to start trouble. As the crowd followed up the side street toward the state house there was a group of people, maybe 15 or 20 young men, the oldest about 25 years old, pushing their way to the front of the crowd swearing at people and trying to get everyone riled up. (I hadn’t really noticed how weird it was to be in a public place in Boston and not hear any swearing at all until these guys got going.) They were jumping up on stoops along the way and were yelling anti-police stuff and telling people we were going to storm the state house.  I’m bad at estimating, but I would say there were probably 250-300 people going down this street, which was pretty thin, with these couple guys bouncing around. When we got to the back door of the state house the crowd bunched up and there was a line of police in some beefier gear. Everyone stopped and just looked around and waited for something to happen. Some of these kids pushed up to the front and were yelling at the cops, while others climbed onto stoops and balconies and yelled from behind the crowd. Most people around me were more confused than anything. A lot of people were asking if this was where the Nazis were, they heard yelling and just figured.

There’s a big arch in the back of the state house and under it a police armored car started edging out and laying on the horn. Behind it a different set of police came out of the state house in the real deal riot gear – shields, helmets with hard plastic fronts, batons – and started jogging up toward the crowd. It was like a spell was broken. I would say the feeling of the crowd was “Wait a minute, we’re not here to mess with the cops, screw these idiots”. The crowd didn’t just disperse, it was like it deflated.

Some of you may feel like I’m contradicting what I said earlier about there not being any evidence of people looking for violence. Maybe I should qualify that by saying that there wasn’t anyone related to any group in particular that was looking for trouble. Most of these guys didn’t have on shirts, the others didn’t have any slogans on their shirts, they weren’t carrying any signs, they weren’t shouting anything related to any group just general incitement. The only people I could say for sure were related to any group, BLM in particular, were actively trying to keep people away from them and were apparently acting in some kind of “official” capacity because they came flying over from the speech area as soon as they saw the crowd on Beacon. Weirdly, that small group of ANTIFA had migrated over toward the state house, but didn’t move when they saw the crowd. They were just kind of hanging around smoking cigarettes.

Even with ANTIFA the only openly violent signage I saw was from three kids dressed all in black with big clunky boots and cargo pants (maybe I can get some help here, I’ve heard pseudo-military civilian gear like this referred to as “tactical”, is this an appropriate use?). There were two guys and a girl and each had a sign saying something like “The only good Nazi is a dead Nazi” and “Its ok to kill Nazis”. Physically at least, these kids were the opposite of threatening. They probably weighed 200lbs between the three of them, with their boots on. They were no older than 20 and the two guys were in the throes of acne that looked like it needed urgent medical attention. While the crowd was moving toward the state house they were sitting on the curb playing with their phones. If I was a radical anarchist I would have almost thought it was cute, but I’m solidly Gen X enough to shake my head at these Millennials. Christ, are you guys here to beat up Nazis or text each other about it? Stop worrying about when Kayden’s mom is coming to pick you up and go stomp something. Look at those boots, there’s not a scratch on them!

Sorry.  Millennials. Ugh.

Speeches were still being made when I left. People were still milling about, but otherwise not much was going on. So, conclusions: The anti-hate/BLM groups were entirely peaceful. Out of 20,000 people I would say there were maybe 100 tops that were any degree of threatening or violent. Which is amazing because if you pick any 20,000 people out of the city of Boston at random, I would expect far more than that. Go to a Red Sox game, people are awful. We don’t know too much about the “free speech” group because only about 40 of them showed up. They talked to each other in the park bandstand for a little while and then they got escorted out by police.  The Nazis, white supremacists, fascists, etc. got wind of the city’s reaction to them and stayed away. Would they have been violent? I guess we’ll never know. But, and this is my personal opinion here, I don’t think you can be a non-violent Nazi or white supremacist. The whole basis of the group is the violent suppression of other groups. It’s like saying you’re a non-violent member of Al-Qaida; you believe in and support what they do, but you haven’t actually blown anything up yet. It’s ridiculous.  Anyway, it’s just as well they didn’t show up. The only good Nazi is a Nazi that stays home and freely expresses his beliefs in online forums and a lame-assed newsletter.

The winners of the rally:

  1. Best sign: “Alt-Right-Delete”
  2. Best t-shirt: A plain white shirt that says “Fake shirt, sad.”
  3. The guy dressed as Captain America. He wins.
06
Aug
17

Arising From Complications

With the recent failure of the senate Republican health care bill, there has been a lot of commenting on health care – how bad it is, how good it is, what should be done, what shouldn’t be done. Trump says we should let ObamaCare fail through its own problems. Is that going to happen? Even Democrats say there are plenty of problems with ObamaCare, but that we should just work on fixing them rather than dismissing the whole system. Even though most Republicans at the time it was originally passed said that we should not have a universal healthcare system, that it was not economically feasible, the platform now is to repeal and replace, meaning that even without ObamaCare, some kind of universal system should apply. So, what are these problems? Where do they come from? Are they fixable or will the system fail?

It seems odd after eight years of his constant presence on TV and in the news, but you might remember how Obama kind of came out of nowhere. Before his speech at the 2004 DNC pretty much nobody had ever heard of him. But man could he give a speech. Whether you were behind him or saw him as a dangerous threat, all could feel that this was someone of consequence. He made a ridiculously short run from Illinois state senator to US senator to president. His admirers would say that this was due to the inspirational force of his vision for the country. But most detractors, and even some supporters, hesitated, thinking “wait a minute, this guy has no experience…with anything…at all.” And that view is completely legitimate. Obama was fairly young and had almost no experience managing anything except his own image.

In his first two years in office in particular, this caused a lot of problems, to add to the problems we were already facing, a recently disintegrated economy for example. It’s great, and necessary, for a president to have a vision for the country, ideals to stand behind and lead from.  But the US government is pretty big. Just the white house staff itself is massive. People disagree and sometimes don’t get along. In such cases Obama’s style early on was always to try to build consensus. He would exhaust all sides of a problem and try to get all participants in meetings to agree on a course of action. When it wasn’t possible, he often pushed off decisions, trying to let people cool off and come back at it fresh.  Finding consensus is great, it’s the best way move forward, if it’s possible. But sometimes, when all sides have been heard and common ground can’t be reached, the boss needs to step in and be the boss. Early on, Obama was reluctant to do this (oddly since many of his detractors painted him as some kind of tyrant, a more realistic criticism early on would have been to call it weak leadership). This reluctance to force an issue, would sometimes lead to his ideas being watered down, or guided away from his original intentions by more forceful personalities in the administration like Larry Summers or Rahm Emmanuel. Sometimes his vision would be lost, some might say to political reality, some might say to lack of assertiveness.

Obama’s original idea for healthcare reform, greatly influenced by a friend and close advisor Peter Orszag, was to focus on evidence-based medicine. Some background – In 1967 a Dr. Jack Wennberg at Dartmouth College began doing research using newly available data from the recently formed MediCare and MedicAid programs. These huge programs provided an amount of data, across geographical region, that had never been available before. His research was to track the medical outcomes of various procedures and treatments across geographical areas. He discovered that while the effectiveness of some procedures (back surgeries being one major example) did not vary from place to place, the rates of those procedures did vary. He found that the number of procedures done in an area were not usually tied to the demographics of that area, but rather to the number of practicing doctors offering the procedure in that area. IE a certain percentage of people in any given place will have back problems, but areas with more back surgeons will have more back surgeries, and this was not correlated with the number of people or rates of success. The research indicated that doctors have a tendency to recommend the testing, treatment, and procedures that they themselves specialize in, and that this is not tied to the necessity of the treatment or the likelihood of success.  Wennberg founded the Dartmouth Atlas Project to study and promote evidence-based medicine, which is to say the use of treatments that actually work and are necessary, rather than what can be profitably billed.  His goal of course was greater efficiency and the good of his patients.  But there’s more to it.

Billings for expensive, and unnecessary, treatments go to average people and insurance companies. Greater costs increase the risk that insurance companies see, which drives up premiums. Aside from saving patients the pain and suffering coming from unnecessary treatments, evidence-based medicine would result in savings for insurance companies and the patients themselves.  Obama and Orszag saw in this an opportunity not just for something that was good in itself, but as a way to build something better – a complete reform of the healthcare system.

Their idea, in a very quick review, was to have the government promote (some might say enforce) evidence-based medicine by regulating what would be reimbursable by MediCare. They would tie payments from MediCare to the use of evidence-based medicine. In their view, this would simply be an understanding that if the government is going to pay for a treatment, there needs to be some kind of reasonable expectation that it has a chance of being effective. People would receive better treatment, insurance companies would have less risk and could lower premiums. Many doctors would, of course, resist this, seeing it as the government looking over their shoulders and dictating how they should be treating their patients. As a trade-off, part of the reform process would include a reform of the laws guiding malpractice suits, giving doctors extra protection. This would lower doctors’ malpractice premiums, and be economically good for their professional liability insurance companies (a different set of insurance companies). But why would anyone care about saving insurance companies all this money and risk? They’re already making tons of money. They’re big boys, they can take care of themselves. Well, the last part of the agreement would be that by lowering the amount of risk insurance companies have on their books, and most likely increasing their profits, the government would then get the insurance companies to agree to extend coverage to riskier parts of the population, who would not have had coverage before. The plan was to use the reform to provide better treatment that made more economic sense, and then use the profits to finance an extension of coverage to everyone.

But there was another group in the white house that felt differently. They felt that this idea had too much focus on the economic side. The drive should be for universal coverage first, and forget about the hospitals that are overcharging and the insurance companies profiting off premiums. They saw the issue as a moral one, and while the economy was crashing and people were out of work, working with insurance companies to increase their profit was immoral, no matter what the end goal was.  And Obama was by no means unsympathetic to this view. A moral argument carried a lot of weight with him.

Add to this the fact that selling the original plan would be extremely politically difficult, and not just from republicans opposing it for party reasons. Doctors would oppose it for fear of the regulations and government interference in treatment. Health care providers would oppose it because it would reduce the lucrative billings going out for treatment that may not pass muster, plaintiff attorney firms would be opposed to malpractice reform, and those firms put tons of money up for candidates that work against it.

In the face of this resistance, and in the interest of trying to find consensus between the two groups, some aspects of the original plan began to be dropped, watered down. With the recent economic crash, there may have been enough political support to push through the original view of health care reform, but as time went by this weakened. By the time the bills were actually being put together, Obama had put a lot of his political capital and energy into the process, and his name was irretrievably tied to it. He could not afford to not pass some kind of healthcare bill. And so, it was back to his go-to move – making a hell of a speech, painting an inspirational vision with a strong moral argument, ie everyone deserves health care insurance coverage. Effectively, the effort was no longer in favor of health care reform, but for health insurance reform, without an emphasis on the economics of the problem. He was able to put together enough votes to pass this, and here we are today. But mandating that everyone have insurance made little economic sense, and this has caused the problems we’re seeing now. By forcing insurance companies to accept more risk, they have no choice but to raise premiums or pull out of unsustainable markets.

So instead of focusing on repeal, which is clearly unpopular, why don’t Republicans just point out these problems, most of which are acknowledged by Democrats. Republicans could be making endless speeches on the failures of the Obama administration in this area, pointing out the downsides that were not considered, pointing out specific solutions that can be done to fix the system and they can be the heroes.  Well, there are plenty of political reasons why they can’t do that – free market ideals, the opposition of lobbyists, etc. But one thing that would be hard to get around is that the plan that actually might work, is the un-watered down, uncompromised original idea of health care reform – make hospitals do what works, pay for what’s reasonable, and pass on the savings.  It’s probably a non-starter to argue with Republicans that the problem with ObamaCare is that it’s not Obama-y enough. But maybe they can take comfort in the fact that the one to blame for that is the man himself.

If you find any of this interesting you should check out – “Confidence Men” by Ron Suskind.

15
Jul
17

The Russians Are Really Good At This

Counter-Intelligence   noun coun·ter·in·tel·li·gence \ˌkau̇n-tər-in-ˈte-lə-jən(t)s\:  organized activity of an intelligence service designed to block an enemy’s sources of information, to deceive the enemy, to prevent sabotage, and to gather political and military information      – Merriam-Webster dictionary

“There is no such thing as a former KGB man.”          – Vladimir Putin

 

If you’re only watching the news on TV, or only reading one newspaper, then you probably have no idea what’s going on between the Trump administration and Russia, or indeed if there is anything going on between them.  I’m sure you’ve seen some headlines, repeated every 20 minutes or so, with basically no in depth coverage. Anyone who knows me knows that I am definitely NOT of the opinion that CNN is fake news, but by persisting with such incomplete coverage, they are making the charge much easier to believe. People might think that there is nothing to the reports, because the reports themselves are so thin.  Well, if you’re curious, then here’s a quick, open-source intelligence briefing for you. I don’t claim to be any kind of insider, but this information is out there and supported by multiple sources from both sides of the spectrum. Some of the sources I used are, in no special order: LA Times, Fox News, NY Times, NY Post, Washington Post, Department of Justice releases, the CIA website, the FBI website, Yahoo News, Politico, and more.  This may be a little choppy because a lot of things happen concurrently, so I’ll try to just lay out the facts chronologically, and then I’ll give what I think are reasonable conclusions.

1975-1991 – Vladimir Putin works in the foreign intelligence section of the KGB, monitoring and compiling information on foreign parties in Russia and Eastern Europe.

1986-1988 – Rinat Akhmetshin serves in the Soviet military, transferring afterward to the Second Chief Directorate (Counter-Intelligence) of the KGB. After presumably leaving the KGB he moves to the United States and becomes a permanent resident, eventually becoming a citizen in 2009. He works based in Washington DC as a lobbyist, promoting Russian interests with members of Congress.

2009 – Sergei Magnitsky is a Russian lawyer and auditor. He is working with Hermitage Capital Management, an American owned investment firm specializing in investing in Russia. In 2009 he alleges that he has uncovered corrupt practices and collusion between Russian government officials and organized crime. When these allegations are made, Bill Browder, the American co-founder of Hermitage, is deported and the Hermitage offices are raided by the Russian police. They seize a large amount of material including financial information on several Hermitage businesses. Magnitsky claims that he has uncovered proof that the seized information and material was then provided to organized crime members who used it to undermine and then take over three Hermitage companies. They then forged contracts creating a fake debt of $1billion held by Hermitage. These contracts were submitted to local judges who authenticated them. Then it was fraudulently claimed that this debt caused the businesses to become unprofitable and a $230 million tax return was paid out to them.

When Magnitsky traces the contracts and money and exposes the scheme, he is arrested and charged himself with tax evasion and fraud. He is found guilty and sent to Moscows Butyrka prison. He dies while in prison. The prison authority reports that he died of a heart attack, but a later investigation found that he had been beaten to death.

The US government passes the Magnitsky Act, putting sanctions on certain Russian individuals, companies and organizations suspected of corruption, money laundering, and human rights violations.

2010 – Peter Fritsch and Glenn Simpson found a company called Fusion GPS as a public relations and research firm offering expertise and influence in the media industry. In a few years of operation the company becomes known for political and economic “opposition research”, ie digging up dirt and doing smear campaigns.

2013 – Rob Goldstone, owner of Oui 2, a music PR firm, is hired by Donald Trump to work on the Miss Universe competition. In 2013, the competition is hosted in Moscow by Aras Agalarov, a Russian oligarch and close associate of Vladimir Putin. From 2013 on, Aras Agalarov serves as a go-between for communications between Trump and Putin. Oui 2 now represents Emin Agalarov, Aras’s son, an Azerbaijani singer/songwriter.

The Department of Justice and US Attorney for the Southern District of New York bring a case against a company named Prevezon Holdings (US v Prevezon). Prevezon is a Russian owned holding company based in Cyprus. The case is brought after some of the money from the Magnitsky affair is traced to Prevezon’s transactions in New York City real estate. Prevezon is partly owned by Pyotr Katsyv, a personal friend and close advisor of Vladimir Putin, and executive of the Russian state-owned railway system. Prevezon is run by his son Denis Katsyv. As part of the case, Preet Bharara, the US Attorney for SDNY charges Denis Katsyv with laundering money from Hermitage Capital, and with being in violation of the Magnitsky Act.

A law firm called Baker, Hofstetler is hired to defend Prevezon and Katsyv. Another Baker, Hofstetler client is Glenn Simpson of Fusion GPS. Through this connection, Fusion is hired for “public record litigation support”. Their actual work is generating bad press on the case, and against Russian sanctions in general. Part of their work is a smear campaign against Magnitsky. One of the attorneys working for the defense is Natalia Veselnitskaya. Part of the defense, and Fusion’s, challenge is to dispute claims of human rights violations by various groups. Leaders from some human rights groups that take an interest in the case are reportedly contacted by Veselnitskaya and threatened with “investigation” by the FSB (the Russian state security organization, ie the new KGB). She makes it clear to them in no uncertain terms that she is connected and they’re on thin ice. Funds for the defense are provided by the Russian government and are described as “unlimited”.

A lobbying firm is also hired at this time by the Russian government to lobby Congress to get rid of the Magnitsky Act sanctions.  The lobbyist working on this case is Rinat Akhmetshin. When the House Foreign Affairs Committee asks Baker, Hofstetler for a briefing on the involved parties, the briefing is done by Akhmetshin, with Veselnitskaya in attendance.

2015 – US District Court for Washington DC brings a case against a group of Russian hackers alleging corporate espionage against a US company called International Mineral Resources. Akhmetshin is alleged to be running the operation.

January 2016 – A story is released that there is a dossier of damaging information on Donald Trump originating from his stay in Moscow in 2013. US intelligence confirms that the dossier was created by Fusion GPS and is most likely “kompromat”, compromising information (or disinformation) strategically released by Russian intelligence to influence or discredit a target. The Director of National Intelligence finds “with high confidence” that the operation was personally directed by Vladimir Putin. One of the sources for the “information” used by Fusion GPS is Rinat Akhmetshin.

May-June 2016 – Akhmetshin travels to New York for the release of movie he helped produce, as part of a local movie festival, which portrays the negative effects of Russian sanctions. Veselnitskaya travels to New York on a short term visa, presumably to work on the defense of the Prevezon case. Rob Goldstein contacts Donald Trump Jr. (they know each other from Miss Universe) and tells him that his friend Emin Agalarov knows some people who may be able to provide some damaging info on Hillary that will help the Trump campaign. (Quick recap: Emin Agalarov, son of Aras Agalarov, oligarch and Putin friend, who used to pass information between Putin and Trump, has some information that may help Trump’s campaign.)

First week of June 2016 – Donald Trump makes a number of campaign speeches stating that his team is about to uncover some damaging info that will incriminate Hillary Clinton, and he should have some bombshell news in the next week or so.

June 9, 2016 – Trump Jr. goes to the meeting in New York with Kushner and Manafort. The Russian friends of Agalarov are Akhmetshin and Veselnitskaya. Akhmetshin states that a “packet” was given to Trump Jr., but after some discussions about the purported Hillary info, the Trump party was no longer interested and left.

Second week of June 2016 – in campaign speeches Donald Trump now states that he will not be releasing the damaging Hillary info at that time, but there will likely be something in the future; no specifics.

June 15, 2016 – Democratic National Convention files and emails are leaked by a group of hackers that is later tied to Russia.

Through the rest of 2016 to the election, information is continually released regarding Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party. Intelligence services conclude that Russia is behind the “meddling.”

March 2017 – Shortly after inauguration President Trump fires Preet Bharara as US Attorney for SDNY.

April 2017 – Representative Dana Rohrbacher (R-CA), who has a reputation as the most pro-Russian member of Congress, travels to Europe purportedly to explore the question of legalizing marijuana. While there, he meets in the lobby of the Berlin Westin Grand hotel with a Russian individual to discuss the Prevezon case and the Magnitsky Act. The Russian is Rinat Akhmetshin.  Soon after, speaking to the press about the case and specifically about Bill Browder (deported by Russia, co-founder of Hermitage, partner of Magnitsky) he states “I think we’ve been sold a bill of goods.  This could well be a situation where you’ve got an American billionaire (Browder) who’s been unable to manipulate the situation in order to protect his own activities. That may be the case. I’m not making that charge.” (More than a dozen independent intelligence and law enforcement services from around the world investigated the incident and all came to the same conclusion, supporting Magnitsky’s allegations.)

May 2017 – Rohrbacher meets with Akhmetshin again, this time in his office in DC.

May 12, 2017 – The newly appointed US Attorney for Southern District of New York, direction by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, settles the Prevezon case for $5.9 million. (Recap: the case alleging laundering and fraud of $230 million, and which was about to lead to the seizure of $20 million in New York City real estate assets, was settled for $5.9 million)

 

These are all facts, but they lead to questions. I’ll give you my take.

Was the Trump dossier legit?  Almost definitely not. Was there damaging info on Hillary being provided to Trump? Probably not, though hackers did release info generally.  The damaging info against Hillary and the damaging info against Trump were a “carrot” and “stick” used to influence and undermine a target – Trump.

Was this whole thing a Russian intelligence operation?  There’s plenty of this still to come out, and plenty of info we’re not privy to, but lets consider where some things stand.

-Huge corruption case was settled for short money, without the naming of any Americans involved in the corrupt New York City real estate deals. This is good for Russian interests and for any Americans that may have been involved with large, questionable real estate deals in New York City.

-The Russians’ preferred candidate won the election.

-Members of the current administration have been implicated, and the credibility of the administration undermined. This can be expected to lead to reduced effectiveness with Congress and the American public.

-Any Russians that took part in this have avoided any legal ramifications and all activities, while suspicious, are deniable.

-Any compromising information that does exist is retained for future use.

 

You really have to tip the hat to the Russians here. They are much better at this kind of stuff than we are.