Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Deportations rise under Obama

The increase hasn't been dramatic, but it's there, reporteth the Washington Post:

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency expects to deport about 400,000 people this fiscal year, nearly 10 percent above the Bush administration's 2008 total and 25 percent more than were deported in 2007. The pace of company audits has roughly quadrupled since President George W. Bush's final year in office.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Why drilling in American waters is good for the environment

As much as I despise big oil survives for it reliance on government transportation policies and not market forces, all things equal, I think it's best for the environment to drill in American waters. Why? Because if you don't, things like this happen:

BP will start deep-water drilling off the coast of Libya within weeks in spite of concerns about the UK group’s environmental and safety record after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster. [...]

Barack Obama’s imposition of a moratorium on deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico has highlighted the growing importance of new exploration across the Mediterranean. Diamond Offshore, a US deep-water driller, is moving a rig from the Gulf of Mexico to Egypt, while Australia’s APX started drilling last week between Tunisia and Italy. Shell plans to start exploring soon off western Sicily.

Italy has speeded up its procedures and granted 21 new exploration permits. New limits imposed on near-shore drilling in response to the Gulf of Mexico spill apply only to future operations and barely affect the most promising areas off Sicily.

With cash-strapped governments courting Libya’s oil-fuelled sovereign wealth funds, countries such as Italy, Greece and Malta – all within a radius of 500km (310 miles) of the Gulf of Sirte – have refrained from commenting on Libya’s plans.

However, environmentalists and politicians have expressed concerns. A proposal by Günther Oettinger, Europe’s energy commissioner, for a moratorium on deep-water drilling in European Union waters failed to get a response from Mediterranean states.

If a rig like Deepwater Horizon exploded and started spewing oil off the coast of Libya, I doubt it would be contained within three months. Apparently oil has been leaking into the Niger Delta for decades and shows no signs of slowing. It's possible that environmentally-minded northern EU countries would step in and force Gaddafi and Berlusconi to take an oil spill seriously, but if BP thought that way, I'm not sure they would have bothered moving.

Ted Haggard's new ministry

Ted Haggard, the disgraced Evangelical megapastor caught doing meth with a gay prostitute and last seen hocking debt reduction software, has started up a new church in his backyard. The whole article is almost too good to excerpt, but I'll try:

He acknowledged grave lapses of judgment in the episode he refers to as "my crisis." But Mr. Haggard also said that in his sorrow and shame, he accepted too much guilt after the scandal broke.

"I over-repented," he said. [...]

He portrays his encounter with the prostitute as a massage that went awry and said he doesn't have same-sex attractions. He dismisses as a "witch hunt" the findings of his former church that he engaged in a pattern of misconduct, including sordid talk and inappropriate relationships. (He said his only fault was cracking a few crude jokes.) [...]

Mr. Haggard plays up his new regular-guy image. At the picnic, he asked a friend whether anyone noticed he had said "hell" in the sermon—and not in a Biblical context.

"I cuss now," he said proudly.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Tea Party tacitly backs states' rights to gay marriage

I've written about the Tea Partiers' surprising amount of principles before, and it looks like they're at it again, bein' all principled and such:

While many conservative organizations immediately decried a federal judge's decision last week to invalidate the federal ban on recognizing gay marriages, tea party groups have been conspicuously silent on the issue.

The silence is by design, activists with the loosely affiliated movement said, because it is held together by an exclusive focus on fiscal matters and its avoidance of divisive social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Privately, though, many said they back the decision because it emphasizes the legal philosophy of states' rights.

One hopes that if California's Prop 19 passes and there's a California vs. federal government showdown over legalized marijuana, the Tea Party will side with California, or at least not touch the issue.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Drugs in North Korea

An excerpt from this New Yorker article, available only to subscribers:

Many of the teen-agers, Song-hee included, didn't go to school regularly and often hung out at home. Sometimes they did drugs, usually the cheap amphetamine known as "ice," which was produced in North Korea and was readily available. If one of them had electricity, they would gather at that person's house to watch pirated DVDs smuggled in from China. It is illegal in North Korea to watch foreign DVDs, and radios and televisions are set to government stations. Nevertheless, illegal DVDs were easy to find in Musan. "I saw a lot of Chinese films, Indian films, Russian films," Song-hee told me. "We watched action movies and sometimes porn. Only American and South Korean movies we couldn't get. You could really get in trouble for having those."

Song-hee was a relatively well-off 17-year-old from a city near the Chinese border, but not well off that white rice with a fried egg on top was eaten more than a dozen or two times a year.

North Korea is a notorious exporter of (meth)amphetamine, but this still surprised me. Especially the implication ("usually the cheap amphetamine...") that there are other drugs available.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Russian media and the spy story

It looks like the acerbic Yeltsin years were a rare glimmer of press freedom, as Putin's Russia has descended back into authoritarianism:

On Russia's main national state-run television channels, the spy story led broadcasts only on the first day the news broke. The reports, delivered in a neutral manner, focused on official statements from Russia and the U.S. As both the Kremlin and the White House played down any impact from the scandal on relations, it faded from newscasts in Russia. The reports that did run adopted the ironic tone set by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who joked about the cloak-and-dagger nature of the accusations in a meeting with former President Bill Clinton.

"Americans Don't Understand Who the FBI Has Caught," was the July 1 headline in the official Rossiiskaya Gazeta newspaper on a story about reports in the U.S. that questioned whether the accused spies had obtained any sensitive information.

Meanwhile, the public apparently has a sustained interest for the story, as the WSJ's chart indicates that online searches about the scandal haven't abated since the story broke a week ago. Broadcast TV is by far the most common source of media in Russia, and the government generally doesn't try to censor smaller news outfits and those existing only online who repeat stories (though it does come after their reporters).

Interestingly enough, Russia Today – the government's English-language channel shown abroad – has maintained focus on the story, which seems like an obvious (but effective) way to portray Russian media and society as open:

One Russian state-run network has stayed with the story: Russia Today, the Kremlin's English-language news channel mainly distributed outside Russia. "Ever since the first reports....this has been the top story on RT," Margarita Simonyan, Russia Today's editor-in-chief, said in an email. "More than 250,000 people have watched RT videos about the spy scandal on YouTube," she said.

Drug smuggling in 1970

From a Time article published in 1970 about Americans locked up abroad for drug smuggling:

Often the youthful smugglers are suckers from the start. In Lebanon, tourist guides around Baalbek's famous Roman ruins sidle up to adventurous-looking American kids and sell them not only cheap hash but identical cheap cardboard tourist suitcases to carry it in. Airport customs officials are so familiar with the suitcases that they almost yawn as they arrest the tourists who show up with them.

Then there's this:

Beirut's notorious Sands prison, where seven Americans are currently awaiting trial, is filled with rats, homosexuals and filth.

Planting the Disney seed in China

Whoa, so this headline from the Financial Times is pretty weird – "Disney to expand language schools in China" – but the cynical take on it is even weirder:

The growing Chinese middle class means there is no shortage of parents willing to pay $2,200 a year for tuition of two hours a week. But the schools also enable Disney to forge a bond with a new generation of consumers who may be unaware of the company’s characters and stories.

The president of Disney Publishing Worldwide tries, unconvincingly, to downplay that part:

“We wouldn’t enter this business just to use it as a marketing tool to get Disney in front of people,” he said. “But there’s no doubt that a side benefit is broader exposure to Chinese consumers and to build familiarity with the rich heritage of Disney storytelling.”

Government media controls and quotas restricting the number of films shown in cinemas have prevented Disney from establishing its brand in China in the way it has in Europe and the US.

The success of the programme has convinced the company to explore other markets. “The next 12 months will be focused on rapid expansion [in China],” said Mr Hampton. But it was also “a very exciting time to invest in Brazil”.

An investment for Robin Hanson

InTrade.com's got a contract on its own existence that last traded at 94.9, redeemable for 100 if InTrade.com is still "open for business" by the end of 2010. (InTrade pages are hard to link to, but you can find it by going to intrade.com, clicking "InTrade.com" under the "The Prediction Markets" heading in the left-hand column, and then clicking on the one contract listed.) Each contract pays out $10 if it's successful and charges $0.10 as commission for in-the-money predictions, meaning that if InTrade's still in business, you paid $9.49 for something that would be worth $9.90, for an annualized return of 9.11%. And with the bid at 90 and the ask at 94.9, there may be room to negotiate. Does Robin Hanson's portfolio average 9.11%, and if not, why hasn't he invested yet?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Obama aides get no invites to teachers' union conventions

Quoteth the NYT:

For two years as a presidential candidate, Barack Obama addressed educators gathered for the summer conventions of the two national teachers’ unions, and last year both groups rolled out the welcome mat for Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

But in a sign of the Obama administration’s strained relations with two of its most powerful political allies, no federal official was scheduled to speak at either convention this month, partly because union officials feared that administration speakers would face heckling.

Normally I'd take this is a good sign, but unfortunately, from what I understand of Obama's education policy, the teachers are being misled by a PR machine. He's big on bashing unions in public, but has no problem saddling up to them in private. Then again, despite allowing the DC voucher program to die and showering public schools with cash as "stimulus," his $4.3 billion Race to the Top program has been pissing off teachers unions, so maybe he is doing something right?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

SVR defector/double agent may be at heart of Russian spy bust

With the recently busted Russian spy ring collecting no information of actual value and having no real access to policymakers, I often asked myself how they got caught in the first place. Stratfor (search for the article title on Google to access for free) thinks it has the answer:

The criminal complaint did not suggest how the U.S. government came to suspect these people of reporting back to the SVR in Russia, although we did notice that the beginning of the investigation coincides with the time that a high-level SVR agent stationed at Russia’s U.N. mission in New York began passing information to the FBI. Sergei Tretyakov (who told his story in the book by Pete Earley called “Comrade J,” an abbreviation of his SVR codename, “Comrade Jean”), passed information to the FBI from the U.N. mission from 1997 to 2000, just before he defected to the United States in October 2000. According to the criminal complaint, seven of the 11 suspects were connected to Russia’s U.N. mission, though evidence of those links did not begin to emerge until 2004 (and some as late as 2010). The timing of Tretyakov’s cooperation with the U.S. government and the timing of the beginning of this investigation resulting in the arrest of the 11 suspects this week suggests that Tretyakov may have been the original source who tipped off the U.S. government. So far, the evidence is circumstantial — the timing and the location match up — but Tretyakov, as the SVR operative at Russia’s U.N. mission, certainly would have been in a position to know about operations involving most of the people arrested June 27.

This poses another question, though: if the Russians knew he defected and knew knew that he knew about the illegal program, why didn't they dismantle it? I can think of a few explanations: they didn't know he knew, they're incompetent, or they're playing a deeper game and did this all on purpose.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Loyalty to the Russian Federation?

While I understand the motives for most of the recent Russian spies – basically, money and power – what I can't understand is Juan Lazaro's insistence that he's still loyal to "the Service" (i.e., the SVR, or the Foreign Intelligence Service):

He allegedly told federal agents that he was not born in Uruguay, that "Juan Lazaro" is not his real name, that his house in Yonkers, New York, had been "paid for by the 'Service' and, although he loved his son, he would not violate his loyalty to the 'Service' even for his son," he said after he waived his Miranda rights, prosecutors say.

What values exactly is he staying loyal to? As heinous and murderous as the Soviet Union was, at least they had nice platitudes that you could pretend they upheld. But the Russian Federation? What, does he just really hate Georgians or something?

My best guess is that it's just a bargaining tactic, but it sure would be odd if he really truly believed in Putin's Russia.