Monthly Archives: April 2009

Swine Flu — Another excuse for trade protectionism

The mass media is chasing (or creating, depending on your point of view) the buzz about the big bad Mexican swine flu. The key here is that its new, not that its dangerous. It has killed a few tens of people, but a few hundred thousand people die every year from various strains of influenza and this is never considered particularly newsworthy and rarely is even mentioned in the media. This is a scary thing because it is not well understood and the news hopped on it right away — the exact opposite of what happened numerous times with new diseases which were both more deadly and more virulent in China because the Chinese have the ability to gag their media and almost every civilian international communication route as well thus preventing a buzz from ever getting a foothold. So the flu is new, not well understood, has no conclusive treatment at the moment, can be passed between humans and is proven to be lethal — at least proven to be lethal in the conditions of care which exist in a mildly socialized developing nation in the grips of a near civil war (something most folks tend to overlook).

Scary? Sure. Worthy of this amount of media hype? Not really. But there is not much else to talk about at the moment. The US hasn’t invaded anyone new in a few years despite how fun that can be, nobody has chopped up a bunch of kids for dinner in at least a month and the attention span the world’s journalists have for deeper issues is less than the amount of time it take to understand such things.

What is interesting to me is not the dynamic of media hype creation — this is a well understood phenomenon and extremely funny in its own way. But that is not what I’m writing about today. What is most interesting to me today is the way that various nations have elected to use the swine flu scare as an excuse for broad-sweeping agricultural protectionism, particularly against American agricultural exports, not so much against Mexican ones. It is an excellent tactic given the current overwhelming short-term desire to protect ones own industry sectors in the midst of a global economic downturn (despite the eventual ominous long-term global effectsof such moves).

Check for a wave of essentially protectionist embargoes largely aimed at the United States as well as possibly Canada, China, random South American countries experiencing otherwise unrelated trade disputes with a host of other nations such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and especially Argentia. If you wanted an excuse to enact an agricultural ban or even a trade or travel restriction of some sort this is an excellent one that will play so well in the media that is might even escape public mention.

A blatant example of media bias: Possible reasons

The AFP released an article today that was downright comical by any standard of journalism. For starters its was titled “Obama dominates in first 100 days” — a title more fitting a “news” release from Xinghua, Interfax, or KCNA (respectively the Chinese, Russian and North Korean state controlled media outlets). For finishers it was a long list of annoucements and proclamations, not an actual news story. It reads about the same way reading the entire full name of a small country’s king or spiritual ruler: “The Highest, Enlightened, Glorious, Holy Ordained, Swift, Strong, blah blah blah So-and-So who Vanquished the Zits of Belinda, Defeated the Gas Monster of Gastrous, etc.”. It is interesting to read for a very basic lesson in identifying propaganda.

But this release was from the AFP, not from a state-controlled news agency. How did this sort of glowing, propagandist story get published by Agency France Presse, and more importantly why? This release makes more sense in the context of a partial return to a US-Russia Cold War paradigm. To rehash briefly:

  • We saw the new Cold War start with the Russian desire to influence the outcome of the Kosovo question. They were against Kosovar independence for two reasons, one reason being strongly grounded an enduring need to resist the West and the other reason being related to slightly temporal Russian politics. The Russians had just endured the crash of the ruble, the decline and demise of their previously enormous empire and had slowly watched the West systematically subvert and slice away all of their historical geographical buffer zones as NATO expanded to include former Warsaw Pact members. Vladmir Putin had finally crushed the oligarchs in a definitive way and was in desperate need of a few issues to disagree with the West over — hopefully issues that would have something to do with Eastern Europe. The important thing was not that Russia had an acual beef with the US it was going to air in public, far from it, the real Russian problem with the US was that Russia wants control over its former empire, official or otherwise. The important thing Russia wanted to do was to be seen disagreeing with the US publicly over something, anything. Kosovar independence was that issue. The US was for independence so Russia needed to be suddenly and adamantly against it. This was a great issue because it did not really affect the balance of power in the world if Russia was ignored in the West, but Russian grumbling would definitely be heard and thought about very hard in East Europe. Russia also wanted to set an example against secessionism in principle because Russia had just dealt with the first Chechen War and was preparing for the second round.
  • We saw the Cold War II scenario pick up and take a few interesting and very nostalgic turns with the attempted assassination of Yushchenko in Ukraine (when he was the leading pro-West political candidate during the Orange Revolution) and later with the successful assassination of a former KGB/FSB operative living in England. It was clear the Russians were not just making noise, they were back at their old tricks again. Not only were they up to their old tricks again, they were still quite good at them. The transition from KGB to FSB was obviously not as problematic as the western media has made it out to be and the humint and operative espionage capacity of the FSB was clearly a force to be reckoned with. These particular incidents were widely reported but received in a strangely benign way by the public with few people drawing parallels — much less accurate connections — between the two incidents.
  • Another greatly overlooked but very important move occurred inspring 2008 with Bush’s state visit to Ukraine and extremely vocal support of Georgia, even going so far as to make a lot of noise about bringing Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. Because NATO works by consensus any member could block a move to include either one, and certainly Germany would feel different about bringing Ukraine or Georgia into NATO (a essentially anti-Russian alliance) than the US. Germany sits right next to Russia and has been invaded by them before. The military impotence of both Europe at large and Ukraine and Georgia in particular weighs heavily in the mind of the Germans. The Americans, on the other hand, feel much more confident poking Russia in the eye with such recommendations for NATO expansion. In short, for this particular reason this sort of NATO expansion is unrealistic (among other reasons: that is just Germany, many European states would vote against bringing Ukraine or Georgia into NATO, including Ukraine itself).
  • Cold War II was not so cold for a brief period right after this when Russia finally decided the time was ripe to retaliate in Georgia militarily and make a violent, bloody example of them to all other former Soviet states that they had better continue to toe the line when Moscow called for them to.
  • Things got increasingly interesting with the recent natural gas crisis over the winter of 2008-2009 — which is still potentially not resolved, thanks to Moscow keeping prices too high for Ukraine to realistically pay in any event and thereby keeping a hand on the natural gas politicla crisis button if they need it again…
  • We saw Russian direct military and political engagement with former Soviet client states in South America during the last half of 2008 and continuing today. This deserves a whole book of its own. Messing around in the US’s backyard is relatively cheap and is just that much more irritating for the US.
  • After the gas crisis achieved its aim of politically dividing Europe — Germany made a separate peace with Russia which throws another wrench in the works of European Union cohesion — we saw Russia take aim at the US directly with the Iranian nuclear issue and its link to East European anti-ballistic missile site establishment. The issue is untenable for both sides over the long term, which guarantees interesting politicking on both sides.
  • And finally… the most recent issue the Russians have been using to antagonize the US with is military supply routes to Afghanistan. Thanks to Pakistani instability there is no entirely safe way to get supplies from the portin Karachi to Afghanistan any longer, because the theater of operations (at least from the enemy perspective) has now expanded to fully include every part of Pakistan now. The other routes into Afghanistan would run through Russian controlled territory (make no mistake, Russia still bosses the Central Asian states around at will), Iran (interesting possibilities here over the mid-term), or China (increasingly weird possibilities over the mid-term).

So, now that we have a basic rundown on how we got to where we are, what does it mean? It means that the Russians and Americans are playing their old media tricks again. The Russians sent a media shot at the US and Europeans with an announcement two months ago that Spain and Russia had signed a natural gas supply deal. This struck me as very out of place at the time. Actually, I wanted to write a story about it but just didn’t have the time to research it properly or any place to write from, either. Basically it amounts to Russia trying to appear to hold a stronger position than they really do. At the time the US had purposely leaked a story about a letter from Obama to Medvedev about resolving the ABM issue in the context of a broader deal to shut down Iran’s nuclear program (Russia is the primary technology and nuclear fuel supplier for Iran — if anyone holds they keys, its them). The reasoning goes that without an Iranian nuclear threat the US does not need ABM sites in Eastern Europe, so Russia could relax. Around the same time Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had made some noise about linking the Afghanistan supply route issue and the ABM sites as well (much to the irritation/shock/fear of the Poles). The Russian response to this came at the press conference that was called for the Spanish-Russian liquid natural gas deal’s announcement.

The response from Medvedev was, in short, that Russia did not see it fit to link the issues in any way and that negotiations would have to continue as before. The question came at a weird time while the other reporters were asking questions about business issues and the economic impact of the Spanish-Russian LNG deal, etc. It just didn’t fit. But from a Russian perspective it did. The LNG deal didn’t make sense to begin with because the Russians have no means to produce, package or ship LNG to Spain. At the moment Spain does not have the ability to receive and covert LNG, either. So the whole deal is a sham deal which was created to make Russia appear to be in a stronger position than it really was. The message was that even Europeans states with can’t get Russian natural gas (because of simple geography) and lining up to get it somehow because hey! Russia is great! Let’s go Russian! In that sort of a media environment it is very fitting for Russia to make a public response to a seemingly unrelated and “unofficial” American proposal. The fact that it seems to come as an off-hand comment at a seemingly unrelated event further makes the US appear to be less important in the Russian’s eyes (it puts the fundamental forces behind American and Russian relations lower in importance than Spanish-Russian phantom gas deals) than they really are and makes Russia’s goals appear more important by contrast. This was a very common tactic during the Cold War and Russia has absolutely not lost its flair or ability in this area.

So now we are back at the ridiculously happy-face Obama story from AFP. This makes perfect sense as a sort of flat response to the Russian media plays they have made lately. It is important to remember that the power of a political player is at least about half derived from how important and powerful he makes himself appear. The Russians, Iranians, Chinese, French, Germans, hell, everybody was banking on the idea that Obama would basically be a pushover. Bush’s presidency was defined by the Jihadist War. He didn’t start it, but it sure fell in his lap. He was put into a position where a “strong, decisive” leader was needed, a position where bold mistakes can merely be made up for by more boldness. He did as well as he could in that role and played an incredibly nuanced and deep game which advanced American interests in every area. Picking up such a deeply engaged and diverse game is difficult, however, and that is why Obama has elected to hire on most of Bush’s acting staff members to work in his own administration (as I have discussed elsewhere).

Part of the reason Obama was elected was that he portrayed himself domestically as a listener, a problem solver, someone who reaches out at tries to create consenses among adversaries. This message resonated very strongly with the American public at that particular time and was a wiley tactic to get into power. Now he is in the position of power he was seeking, but his campaign tactics and message made him look like a pussy by foreign political standards of today. Consensus builders do not make people like Vladmir Putin quake in their boots, but subtle threats from Bush at least made him listen and take the man seriously. Obama now must kill this image of himself as a pushover if he is to play the game of nations he signed up for. So we havea long list of somewhat ridiculous pro-Obama stories coming out of the media. It is not just a case of media bias in favor of Democratic patry members. Certainly that plays a part, but the stronger force here is Western general interest. If the Americans seem week or impotent right now the “West” in general has a lot to lose potentially. This is one of those interesting periods in history where the balance of power could — at least temorarily — shift, so everyone his holding their breath.

In politics reality is not as important as the ability to shape perceptions of reality. That is really what is going on with this story, as well as with Bush’s NATO expansion talks, Medvedev’s Spanish natural gas deals, Chinese domestic economic dialogue, American domestic economic dialogue (much humor), European domestic economic dialogue (much more humorous), and European-American international economic dialogues (downright the funniest stuff in ages). In the end, the utility of announcements and the utility, factual accuracy, or even practicality of an announcement’s underlying meaning or referenced action are two entirely different things and should be evaluated independently.

I appologize for the lack of structure in this article. I did not do any pre-writing at all because this AFP article just made struck me so funny that I felt like writing a piece on it right away.

The International (ザ・バンク): Another Misdirected Media Swing

I just saw a movie today titled “The International”. It was a fairly typical dark cabal conspiracy storyline with an equally typical open ending designed to leave us feeling a bit hopeless to see the “bad” world ever change for the better. We can see a conscious effort in this movie to blame the ills of the world on the international banking community, which is merely a reflection of the current public craze over banking conspiracy theories.

The fact of this movie (and movies such as “Syriana” before it back when it was popular to demonize the big bad government involvement with oil instead) represents how little the public (and entertainment industry) understands power, politics or money. I find this sad in a way. Anyway, the movie was made fairly well, though they could have used a few more tactical advisors — I could sharpshoot it all day long, but in the end it was a story that was told a certain way, so whatever.

The real issue I would like to shine a light on here is how misunderstood the world of power really is. In the end banks do not run much of anything. They are facilitators of power, not the creators of power. Politics will always trump economics because politics is grounded in raw physical power (see Russia for an example of this). It would be an interesting exercise to go around anywhere in the world (contrary to popular belief Europeans are every bit as ignorant as Americans and Asians are generally apolitical to begin with) and ask middle-class people to describe Comminism, Fascism, Capitalism and give a general definition of the word “economy”.

The International comes most recent in a long line of movies which misinterpret the nature of the world for the audience and — intentionally or not — miseducate the public on social issues. Every such movie focuses on a single issue which is assumed to be negative and proceeds to deliver event after event — flimsy and contrived or not — which make it appear as though world events all pivot around this one issue. In Lord of War the issue was guns. In Syriana it was oil. In The International it is mysterious and ill-defines “international bankers”. There are hundreds of movies of this sort, and naturally if the logic of them held then they are all wrong. Which is proecisely correct: they are all wrong. The logic that gun dealers are the big evil of the world is entirely reversed in The International, where the bankers are the ones making decisions about who gets what and where. In Syriana it is big government involvement with the energy business that pushes the chess pieces around.

Which one is it? If we were to ask a typical person they would likely quickly answer “all of them” and in an effort to explain that answer generate a grand unifying conspiracy theory of the first rate. The problem is that it is none of them. Every one of these films, though highly entertaining (I especially enjoyed the style of Syriana and Lord of War had its moments) suffers from the same critical flaw: they reverse the causes and effects of power and decision making.

It is merely in the nature of man to struggle and want more. We fight. It is simply what mankind does. Therefore war exists. The first war was not precipitated by the construction of the first weapons, rather violence has always been a brutal and cold fact of life on this planet and humans used their minds to develop more advanced ways to win — because winning is what humans must do to survive. Even our more primitive primate cousins have tribal wars, the main difference is they do not punch nice neat holes in one another, they rip each other limb from limb and tear chunks of flesh out with their teeth. The very movie industry which produced the movie Lord of War is protected and safe itself from war because the world it exists in is protected by the largest, most numerous, most advanced armory in the world.

Oil does not make countries and economies move, rather those structures require motion and have been in motion long before the invention of the internal combustion engine (and will be in motion long after that design — and oil — is outmoded). Oil facilitates a ready and easily distributable means for motion and is therefore big business — not the other way round which would state oil is big business and therefore motion. As mentioned before, humans are survivors. If oil is needed by a group with money and money is needed by a group with oil, then those two will naturally begin trading, generally with no thought to differences in ideology. Both feel they are getting the better of the deal. Culture and geography will determine who will eventually win whatever conflicts will arise between the two — and to be sure, conflicts will arise because both societies are made up of people and people will always struggle against one another.

Banks do not make the decisions that make the world go around. The decisions are made and there is a value in facilitating such decisions. Whenever those decisions involve the movement and mass conversion of financial instruments of any kind there is a need for banking services. The banks did not create the underlying social structures of power, they are merely working for the people who actually have the power to make decisions. A bank does not tell a client what to do, and the idea that the control of debt generates a leveraged position over men of power (as the movie The International directly suggests) is ridiculous, because while bankers are holding paper, it is entirely within the ability of a man of power — who is holding weaponry — to tell the banker where to shove that paper. For a recent example of this see Ecuador’s recent default on national debt. The banks lost their shirts on that, but they are powerless to do anything about it because Ecuador has a military under its control and the banks have financial advisors and accountants under theirs.

My whole point here is to draw attention to the reverse reasoning which is so common and really clouds the waters of common understanding of the world. This mistaken reasoning is what gives so much room to filmmakers to influence public opinion, whether they intend to or not. People do not stop learning, they just stop realizing it after they leave school. Everything you read, see or hear is a tool of education and mental imprinting. This is not to say that there is a conspiracy going on or that you should be afraid (though there is definite media bias in many cases), but rather that we should be conscious of the fact that we are educating ourselves every day by what we choose to allow our brains to consume. We must guard against being loose-minded or allowing ourselves to have too relaxed of a mental posture because it allows us to accept, for example, a movie producer’s (mis)interpretation of the world’s serious issues instead of actively thinking and developing our own.

I haven’t forgotten about my Obama series. I am still working on the Afghanistan piece, actually, but was bogged down for several months by uneccessary distractions at work.

The Decision to Make a Documentary

I am finally back home and I am finally prepared to re-engage the wired world. It has not gone unnoticed that I stopped writing for two months and it is commonly understood by the (very) few who follow my site that whenever I stop writing it is simply because I can’t keep up with my real life, what is going on in the world and writing about it all at once.

So, I am back home and have a little time and a little money. The money part is easy to explain: there is almost nothing worth buying in the region where I work, so it is easy to save money. The reason I have time on my hands is that I have been invited to do some proper adventuring again but this will take a little over a month to materialize and might not at all. So I’m on standby and will sit still for over 30 days, and that brings me a rare chance to do something I’ve always wanted to do, make a documentary about exercise and diet.

My idea is straightforward. I believe the movie Super-Size Me to be greatly biased and founded on dramatic presentation and playing the small (and supposedly noble) advocate against a great evil empire rather than a real documentary based on truth. Further, I have witnessed the human body do some pretty amazing adaptations and firmly believe that exercise is generally more important than diet in determining health given that the diet is not absolutely extreme in nature. It is important to note here that the guy in Super-Size Me deliberately restricted himself from performing any exercise and also deliberately over ate at an astounding rate. This was done with the specific intent of getting fat, and therefore reduces his conclusion to a non-shocker: “I over ate and become a fatass.” That is absolutely no McDonald’s fault. He could have done the same thing eating couscous and bananas, but his movie was a targeted attempt to attack McDonald’s, corporate America and make things appear a specific way.

So I am starting with the hypothesis that fatasses are fatasses because they eat too much and that no specific food, company, economic model, or nation is to blame for lazy, incompetent living. I hold that McDonald’s is not the absolute diet devil that Super-Size Me makes it out to be (and other fast food, but McDonald’s specifically was attacked by the movie, so it will be my example as well) and also hold that many parts of the First World are experiencing an epidemic of lazy butter beast inflation (not just America). I should also state here that I can’t stand lazy people and if you fail at life so badly that you can’t control your own weight then we should just let you die and be rid of you.

But I am getting rantish now. I will stop and save it for later.

What I propose to do is to eat exclusively from McDonald’s for 30 days straight and document the experience and demonstrate that it will not severely reduce my athletic performance. My vehicle for this athletic demonstration will be the sports that I engage in as a regular hobby: ass-whipping (and getting my ass whipped on occasion). I enjoy wrestling, jiu-jitsu, Muai Thai and MMA intensely as a participant and train every chance I get. I will continue with my typical set of training routines including running, weight lifting, combatives (of various types), eating shitloads and sleeping — the only component that will be different from my normal training days will be that every calorie will come from McDonald’s instead of my own cook pots.

I also absolutely do not accept the flimsy argument that poor people are fat because McDonald’s is the only food they can afford and will demonstrate that it costs far more to eat from McDonald’s than it does to eat real food from the ordinary grocery store. Poor people tend to be poor because they make poor money decisions, such as eating at McDonald’s thinking they are saving a buck in addition to a host of other bad decisions — such as letting their kids be raised by the TV, letting their kids pursue early acquisition of diabetes (by being little fatasses themselves), joining Amway thinking they will really break out, and spending money on things poor people really don’t have room in their budget for such a gambling, alcoholism and smoking.

I should add that I have never been an advocate of steroid use or even of sports supplements. Steroids work, very well, but I just do not consider the cost, risk, and unknowns to be worth the trouble. I also do not like needles and am scared to put stuff in my body that I’m not 100% sure about. I know a lot of people who have used steroids and they certainly get results with the proper (extreme) workout routines and (equally extreme) diet, but there is a lot of shakey stuff out there and it just scares me. I have always been proud of owning everything I’ve gained on my own and really do not stand to gain much from gaining more muscle super fast. And this brings me to supplements. I never take supplements because I have never found them to work — at least for me. If someone takes steroids maybe they actually need the extra nutrients supplement drinks, bars and goo give you, but in the end supplements are just food that has already been eaten for you. And I like eating. I have always found that steak, eggs, salad, rice, etc. work far better for me, taste a lot better and are far less expensive. The only supplement I ever take, and will continue to during this 30 days, is a single multivitamin per day. I should also state that I am very experienced in gaining and losing weight and personally do not find it very difficult to do because I already have a healthy routine of exercise established and have learned how to set reasonable fitness goals — a fact I have the US Army and the jiu-jitsu tournament community to thank for. I am always gaining or losing weight. It does require discipline (more at some times than others) but it is a habit now and  easy to discipline myself for because I work out every day, feel it every day in my body and enjoy thinking about it and what my next goal is and how far I have to get there.

So all that blather being said in a highly unorganized and ineffective way, I am going to start filming my experience soon and eventually create a spot on this website to post it and the results with all the statistics and data necessary to fully explain what happened to me, how long it took, how I felt and how much it cost me compared to eating real food. I do not have a sponsor and likely will never get one so this is going to be a bit on the ghetto side of documentary making until I learn what I’m doing with the camera and with editing. I’ve never even given an on-screen interview but I know I will have to narrate at some point in this project.

This has been an idea I’ve been wanting to do for a few years but just never found the time. Now I’ve got the time and its on.

Give this some time to materialize. It will take a while, I’m sure.