The Putin Doctrine

When Russia moved in on Crimea, then stirred up pro-Russian demonstrations in eastern Ukraine, Vladimir Putin justified the actions based on his country’s responsibility to Russian-speaking people wherever they were.

Last week, along with other sane observers, the Economist dismissed the idea. But then, being from England and all, the editors took another look in this week’s issue.

On second thought, they rather liked the idea of getting back the United States, Canada, and Australia, along with a fair chunk of colonial Africa.

Redrawing the world map using the Putin Doctrine, Portugal reclaims Brazil and Spain regains Argentina plus most of South and Central America, including Mexico. The Vikings reconquer Scandinavia, Iceland, and Greenland, but nobody has much claim on the Finns.

Since Hindi and Urdu are both mixtures of Persian and Sanskrit, India and Pakistan lay claim to each other, as usual.

Putin may have a tough sell ahead.

How to Smuggle Water

This isn’t science; it’s arithmetic. My ancient TI30 calculator tells me that it takes 500 gallons of water to produce the beef for a Quarter Pounder at McDonald’s. God help us trying to find enough water to make a Big Mac.

It takes only 7 gallons to grow vegetables for your 3-ounce salad. So in terms of scarce water, a Quarter Pounder costs 70 times as much as a salad.

The raw figures were supplied by James McWilliams’ Op-Ed piece in Saturday’s New York Times. A shocking four million gallons of water are required to raise a ton of meat.

In the Imperial Valley of drought-stricken California, McWilliams reports, farmers use the water to grow alfalfa, most of which is then shipped to Asia as alfalfa hay to feed cattle.

By this route, the alfalfa growers are sending 100 billion gallons a year of California water to beef and pork eaters halfway around the world.

I’ve known serious thinkers who expect water wars in this century between the U.S. and Canada. As far-fetched as that may sound, it’s not nearly as crazy as exporting 100 billion gallons a year from water-starved California to the far-off fanciers of Kobe beef.

Our descendants will wonder — “What on earth were they thinking?”

Comes the Revolution!

These are parlous, nay, perilous times.

Yes, that’s redundant, but this is no time to worry about that when the next floodtide of protesters to engulf our innocent streets could be a rowdy mob of gentrified anarchists, undetectable in their unmussed coifs and clean fingernails.

Look at Italy!

Replacing Berlusconi’s self-dealing mess of a government, Mario Monti’s bespectacled cadre is referred to as the technocrats — credentialed financial experts who know how to revive an economy. Technocrats or not, they are certainly euphemists. They are calling their program “liberalization,” but that is not how it strikes their constituents.

Italian taxi drivers had a one-day strike and may have more, to denounce a plan to increase the number of taxi licenses. Try doubling the number of taxi medallions in New York City and see what happens.

Pharmacists stopped dispensing on Wednesday. Truck drivers stopped chugging for five days in protest of higher fuel prices, caused by a new excise tax.

Disclosure: I’ve never found out what an excise tax is.

Truckers’ blockades shut down auto plants and caused food shortages. There are reports that protest leaders in Sicily have links to the Mafia, as indeed what does not?

And lawyers – lawyers! – are planning a 2-day strike as soon as they figure out to whom they can bill the hours.

Monti says Italians have been paying hidden taxes on such services because of a lack of competition. That problem addressed, economists at the Bank of Italy claim that liberalization will add 11% to Italy’s GDP. But it will take 30 years to do it.

That should be time enough for striking seamstresses to knit a sock for the entire boot.

In this country, striking lawyers would sue everyone in sight and exact punitive damages for every squirt of pepper spray. I’d be especially wary of tort lawyers, innocently boarding a bus and then pushing a pastry into the driver’s face at 40 mph. (Yes, I know, but mob violence is seldom rational.)

And striking divorce lawyers? Whose side are they on? How can you take to the barricades when you have to stay married? And pick up the dry cleaning or host the book club?

Our pharmacists, cab drivers, and truck drivers will quickly be joined by enraged beauty queens, chambermaids (pots at the ready), and roughnecks – those teenage boys who play hooky to work on oil rigs.

Baristas will withhold their latte frescoes, and chandler shops at the marinas will empty of clerks.

No spar varnish for hedge fund managers, no sail stitchers, no offshore money laundering or anonymous financing for outsourcing. Far fetched? Look what happened in Italy when just one cruise ship captain staged a walkout.

Armed to the teeth, periodontists will march on Medicaid offices, and dude ranch operators will ride into town demanding tax deductions for outward bound business conferences while a walkout of church organists leaves congregations sitting in unearthly silence, listening to their own sneezes.

Look, if you want seriously scary issues that tie your alimentary canal in knots, you’ve come to the wrong web log.

All the Pigs in China

When I was a little guy, most of what I knew came from comic books. There were Classic Comics, of course, but I preferred the ones that featured sensational disclosures.

I can’t recall the titles (Fantastic Facts Comix? Extreme Eons?), but in one of them I discovered that it was the Chinese who invented sitting down. Another one had the story of a Chinese farmer whose pigsty and barn burned down 7,000 years ago. They had his name and everything.

In tears, the farmer stroked the carcass of his favorite pig, but it was still so hot it burned his fingers, which he reflexively stuck in his mouth.

Eureka!

That was the first anyone knew that pigs were edible and that, actually, they taste much better than they look. It didn’t occur to me to ask why the farmer had a pigsty in the first place if nobody knew that.

What reminded me of this long lost repository is that this week the Chinese government announced it would release some of the National Pork Reserve. They’re fighting inflation, and pork prices are up 38% this year.

A National Pork Reserve?

We have a Strategic Oil Reserve, the Army and Air Force reserves, a Federal Reserve, and our banks have reserves – or used to. We have national parks but no national porks.

The Chinese have 220 million tons of frozen pig meat. It’s a sacrosanct priority because their people eat half the world’s pork, and a shortage could bring down the government.

In the U.S., pork bellies are traded on the Chicago Board Options exchange, but those are futures contracts. It’s the mere expectation of bacon they’re dealing in, and the only pigs on the trading floor are human.

But then we do have Congress.

The Chinese freeze their pork reserve, so its shelf life is about four months. In Washington, the pigs are running hog wild, and the pork goes on forever.

Worse, it’s costlier than Kobe beef, and none of it is palatable.

Inveigling Invigilators

There’s good news, bad news, and no news. Today’s no-news item is that kids have been cheating on tests.

In an age when highly visible cheaters include such towering monuments of rectitude as senators, congressmen, bankers, evangelists, governors, and titans of industry, kids have even more alibis than usual for cutting some corners.

And new technology is facilitating their clandestine efforts with smartphones to trade answers, tap Wikipedia, or carry digital photos of leaked tests.

Worse still, says the Economist in their latest Technology Quarterly, cheaters include some teachers, even invigilators.

Invigilator? It means a proctor — no, not someone who uses a proctoscope – there’s a limit to how far even a hardcore cheater will go to conceal the crib notes. An invigilator keeps vigil to monitor the test-takers and prevent cheating. But even the invigilators – who are usually teachers – can be tempted to fudge when their next raise may hinge on how well their students fare on a test.

Given these crosscurrents, there’s now a technological arms race between the test writers and administrators on one side and the students who take, say, entrance or scholarship exams.

Companies like Prometric –- and Kryterion, which administers tests online but can’t seem to spell its own name — have been developing software that spots suspicious patterns, and they deploy cheater-beater search bots to patrol the web for leaked test questions.

Prometric – which has 5,000 test centers worldwide — detects so much cheating that in an average week it has to investigate 20 of its facilities and shut down 5 of them permanently. Even at centers that survive investigations, they often fire administrators and invigilators for lax security or bribe-taking.

Those are clear violations of the Invigilatric Oath.

Send in the Clown

We note that Texas governor Rick Perry, who has insisted for months he would not run for president (as if anyone had asked), is now saying he might entertain that intoxicating possibility.

And we think we know why.

In 10-1/2 years as governor, Perry has dragged down the Texas public schools – already dismal under George W. Bush — to depths that challenge Mississippi for the national dunce cap. The state now ranks 38th in spending per pupil and is looking for drastic cuts even to that level of criminal negligence — though of course there’s ample funding to teach creationism.

So now you know why Texas is called the Lone Star State. Only one kid in its history has ever come home with a star on his forehead.

Texas ranks 45th out of 50 states in SAT scores. In the percentage of adults who have finished high school, the state is dead last.

It’s a strategy. They’ve engineered a dropout constituency of voters so ignorant they’ll elect the likes of George Bush and Rick Perry.

According to Bob Moser in The Nation, Texas also ranks last in children’s access to healthcare. Evidently last isn’t bad enough — now they’re looking for ways to slash that woefully inadequate budget as well.

They’re not last in everything, though. Texas ranks third in teenage pregnancies. It has the nation’s highest percentage of people without health insurance and the highest rates of clean water permit violations, toxic emissions, and hazardous waste spills.

In tax breaks for luxury yacht owners, Texas is second, and they’re hoping to leapfrog Florida with some even more obscene new tax breaks.

All this plus various other forms of corporate coddling – and the closing of nursing homes, school programs, and mental health centers – produced the “Texas Economic Miracle.” Running for re-election, Perry bragged about the $9 billion surplus the state had amassed to ward off any future financial downturns. But apparently some creationist from the School Board had done the math.

After the election, the $9 billion surplus evaporated and was replaced by a $23 billion shortfall.

So Perry’s posse is at it again – what other vestiges of civilization can we obliterate in the name of deficit reduction?

The answer is implicit in Perry’s new interest in running for president in 2012. He thinks of himself as a super-hero. Like a dark twin of the Lone Ranger or Nanny McPhee, surveying the ruins of a once-great state, he pronounces:

“My work here is finished.”

And there are 49 more states out there waiting to be trashed.

Election 2010: Jerry’s Law

We were driving back from the golf course last week and I was complaining, as usual, about the stupid things other drivers were doing.

“Just remember,” said my friend Jerry – a PhD in mathematical demystification – “the average IQ is 100.”

Then the election. People were frightened and angry, unemployment was 9.6%, housing prices and sales were still cratering – and the average IQ was still 100.

That’s an average of 112 for Democrats and 88 for Republicans (62 for Rush Limbaugh fans), pending a more precise quantification from Jerry.

Needed Now – a Gulf States Bailout

To save our south coast — and his own presidency — what Barack Obama should be launching right now is a regional WPA project, Roosevelt style.

Call it Gulf States Recovery, or Gulf States of America.

Hundreds of restoration and public works projects, large and small, are needed. And displaced fishermen, beachfront tourism employees, and many others will need the work.

Congress need not disgrace itself again, wasting precious weeks preening, posing, and logrolling the details. Just appropriate $20 billion dollars – NOW.

The states and cities can work out the details about where the money is most needed and best used.

The cost would be a minor fraction of what we paid to bail out AIG — and BP, Halliburton, et al can be assessed (or sued, or nationalized) to recover much of the money instead of adding it to the deficit.

In the meantime, what the Federal government can do is to provide a Peace Corps type of organizational structure to enlist volunteers from across the country. Volunteers and workers can stay in the hotel rooms left vacant by tourists.

People need help. Not eventually – right now. And others would love to help if there were a way to do it.

All they need is a mobilization vehicle and (just keep Rahm Emanuel out of it) some real leadership.

‘Yikes!’ in Any Language

This isn’t new, but it’s timely again. Latest emergence is from New Zealand by way of London to Dick Dell in Chicago – and thence to The Horse.

Update on Security Levels:

The English are feeling the pinch in relation to recent terrorist threats and have raised their security level from “Miffed” to “Peeved.” Soon, though, security levels may be raised yet again to “Irritated” or even “A Bit Cross.” The English have not been “A Bit Cross” since the blitz in 1940 when tea supplies all but ran out. Terrorists have been re-categorised from “Tiresome” to a “Bloody Nuisance.” The last time the British issued a “Bloody Nuisance” warning level was during the great fire of 1666.

The French government announced yesterday that it has raised its terror alert level from “Run” to “Hide”. The only two higher levels in France are “Collaborate” and “Surrender.” The rise was precipitated by a suspicious fire that destroyed France ‘s white flag factory, effectively paralyzing the country’s military.

Italy has increased the alert level from “Shout Loudly and Excitedly” to “Elaborate Military Posturing.” Two more levels remain: “Ineffective Combat Operations” and “Change Sides.”

The Germans also increased their alert state from “Disdainful Arrogance” to “Dress in Uniform and Sing Marching Songs.” They also have two higher levels: “Invade a Neighbour” and “Lose”.

Belgians, on the other hand, are all on holiday as usual, and the only threat they are worried about is NATO pulling out of Brussels .

The Spanish are all excited to see their new submarines ready to deploy. These beautifully designed subs have glass bottoms so the new Spanish navy can get a really good look at the old Spanish navy.

Americans meanwhile are carrying out pre-emptive strikes on all of their allies, just in case.

New Zealand has also raised its security levels – from “baaa” to “BAAAA!”.

Australia, meanwhile, has raised its security level from “No worries” to “She’ll be alright, mate”. Three more escalation levels remain, “Crikey!”, “I think we’ll need to cancel the barbie this weekend” and “The barbie is cancelled”. So far no situation has ever warranted use of the final escalation level.

The Evil Twins

A few days ago, Steve Alber asked in an e-mail why we hadn’t posted our revulsion over Pat Robertson’s and Rush Limbaugh’s characteristically creepy opposition to helping Haitians after their earthquake. We asked if he would take on that task himself, and lo and behold, he’s done just that – as follows:

*

In a world populated by the likes of James Inhofe, Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes, Carl Rove and their simian ilk, it’s not surprising to find a lot of ideas that make you shake your head and regret that abortion isn’t retroactive. But every now and then, one of more of their number does something that’s so offensive and so egregious I figure I have to comment or I can’t live with myself.

And thus it is with les freres ideologique Rush Limbaugh and Pat Robertson

Their tandem performances after last week’s Haitian earthquake left me positively slack-jawed in the wake of their stupidity, cynicism and sheer unvarnished hatred. Limbaugh started the ball rolling by telling his cadre of prognathic-jawed baboons that, “We’ve already donated to Haiti … it’s called the Federal Income Tax …” and that “… any donations sent to the Red Cross through the White House will end up in Democratic campaign coffers.” Then I heard Robertson explain the earthquake thus: “It’s what Haitians get for making a pact with the devil. True story.”

After I picked myself up from the floor, lamenting that these two – what are they? people? – were actually possessed of human DNA, I decided to go through a little analytical exercise to determine who was worse. (It’s what you do on a cold winter night when you can’t help other people who are being crushed to death by slabs of collapsing concrete.) And it occurred to me in a flash that, Robertson was far and away the most offensive, and here’s why.

Rush Limbaugh is a professional hate machine.

He’s a drug-addled gas bag with sinister motives, a low IQ, greed beyond avarice, and a questionable education who’s found a way to parlay hatred into $33 million a year. His success is more a comment on our society that it is on him, so the venomous rubbish that drips from his lips is pretty much beyond his control. (This doesn’t excuse his cretinous mouthings, it just explains them.) Blaming him for being an asshole is sort of like blaming someone with a cold for sneezing.

But Pat Robertson? Ah! … he’s another story.

Pat is smart, really smart. After all, the man graduated Magna Cum Laude from Washington & Lee, then got a law degree from Yale. In fact, he’s so smart that he couldn’t possibly believe a word he says because he knows it’s bullshit; and thus, he’s turned hypocrisy into an art form – and a well-paid art form at that. Which makes his pronouncement about the “pact with the devil” so cynical and such an obvious act of pimping to the people who send him money, that in a truly civil society, he’d be drawn and quartered. Except he says things like that because he knows that the only thing that will happen is that his coffers will swell. So he can spend the rest of his life propagating more of the out-and-out claptrap that’s already made him a multi-millionaire at the expense of the stupid, the lonely and the desperate. To quote Jim Murray, the late Los Angeles Times sportswriter, “You can’t keep a bad man down.”

To sum up, Limbaugh’s hatred is drug-induced reflex; Robertson’s is calculated. Advantage: Robertson … and isn’t it a fucking shame?

Lost in all this, of course, is the real-world suffering of millions of people who would simply like to have gotten on with their lives, and who did nothing to provoke nature’s scourge. And this, in the final analysis, is Limbaugh’s and Robertson’s greatest legacy of hate: forcing the media – and you and me – to focus on the irrelevant instead of the victims.

– Steve Alber