Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A cautionary tale:

FEBRUARY 25, 2014


Since Sunday, Ukraine’s new, built-in-chaos government has been chasing its ex-President Viktor Yanukovych around the country. He might be in Crimea; there was a helicopter and a convoy of cars, and, as the Times noted, “he was believed to have access to at least one yacht that might ferry him out of Ukraine.” He hasn’t been found yet; nor has the white Pomeranian dog in whose company he was last seen as he was leaving his very large home. This is the man who, when the weekend began, had been in charge of the country and its military. The catalogue of vehicles in which he may have fled brought to mind the closely watched trains that, twenty years ago, carried almost two thousand strategic nuclear warheads out of Ukraine, then a new country. They were being sent to Russia to be destroyed. The deal that made that exodus happen wasn’t easy; it took American brokering and a lot of money, and the burned-out barricades in Kiev and the uncertainty about who’s in charge makes one profoundly grateful for it. Better a loose President than loose warheads.
It’s worth looking back at how all this came about, and why the situation in Ukraine, as scary as it is, could be a whole lot worse. When the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics fell apart, not all of its nuclear weapons were within what’s now Russia. A lot of them were scattered in the republics that were spinning away. The Russian military (as it soon became) grabbed back the tactical, battlefield weapons, but the strategic missiles and their installations were trickier. And so Ukraine became the world’s third-largest nuclear power. Kazakhstan became a nuclear power, too; so did small, broke Belarus, which somehow found itself with eighty-one intercontinental ballistic missiles. (Kazakhstan also got the Baikonur Cosmodrome, which is why the country now has a space industry.)
It was not obvious where all these missiles would end up, particularly not in the case of Ukraine, which was stronger than the others and more sharply at odds with Russia; it thought it might find better friends. (Steven Pifer, of the Brookings Institution, has a useful review.) The new Ukrainian government also thought that Russia was not negotiating in good faith (from a certain perspective, it had absconded with Ukraine’s tactical warheads). Russia, meanwhile, suggested that the Ukrainians were not decent stewards of the weapons: they didn’t know how to take care of them, and they would deteriorate and turn into public hazards—“much worse than Chernobyl,” the Russian Foreign Minister said at the time. The disaster at Chernobyl had given the Ukrainians a look at a nuclear accident; it had also underscored a sense that Moscow was neglectful and mendacious. They also knew that I.C.B.M.s, even if they had no use for them, contained highly enriched uranium that was extremely valuable. And Ukraine needed money. In September, 1993, the negotiations between Russia and Ukraine fell apart.
The United States could have approached this in any number of ways. One might have been heedlessly, without a full understanding of the danger—gleeful about the spectacle, and glad to see the inheritors of the Soviet Union dispossessed of a few more bombs. We could have helped keep Ukraine a nuclear power, thinking that it would make the country, in some way, ours. Or we could have been excessively fearful, and supported Moscow’s contention that the Ukrainians had no right to these things, anyway, encouraging them to just go in and take them. This might have made the dissolution of the Soviet Union look a lot more like a civil war, in which our position was ambiguous. We could have postured, and lost the Cold War peace.
Instead, we offered two things. One was the Soviet Nuclear Threat Act of 1991, which was renamed Cooperative Threat Reduction two years later but is better known as Nunn-Lugar, after its sponsors. The program provided help and money—four hundred and forty million dollars the first year, a number that grew but never, compared with most defense programs, got all that big: a billion a year at most, and now it’s back to around where it started. It helped, for example, to pay the Ukrainians for the value of the uranium, fit up the train cars to carry the missiles, and destroy the silos. Throughout the former Soviet Union, it helped get nuclear scientists new jobs and security, so they wouldn’t end up working for whoever paid them. About seventy-six hundred warheads were eliminated with the help of Nunn-Lugar. These were potential strays. It is hard to think of money that has ever been better spent on defense.
But you don’t accomplish what Nunn-Lugar did just by waving dollar bills. For one thing, other actors have money, too. (“They’re broke, and these warheads were their best, their only chance to get hard currency quickly,” someone “close to the negotiations” told the Times during the talks with Ukraine in early 1994, in what could easily have been a description of why a terrorist ended up with a bomb.) Getting a deal closed between Ukraine and Russia took careful diplomacy. In January, 1994, Bill Clinton flew to Kiev, and then to Moscow, to sign a Trilateral Statement with Boris Yeltsin and Leonid Kravchuk, then the Presidents of Russia and Ukraine. It also helped that there were international structures Ukraine could accede to, and did, such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The Nunn-Lugar program is still active—it provided the umbrella under which Libya’s chemical weapons were destroyed—though Putin opted out about two years ago. As Stars and Stripes noted earlier this month, “The refitted U.S. merchant vessel MV Cape Ray is steaming toward the Mediterranean Sea to receive 560 tons of Syria’s most toxic chemical weapons. On board is a chemical-neutralizing hydrolysis system installed with funding from Nunn-Lugar.” There is, needless to say, a lot to be done.
What are the lessons for the current crisis, other than to be abjectly relieved that we don’t live in a world where nuclear weapons are even more loosely held than they are? One is to not disparage diplomacy, or treat it as a lesser form of foreign policy, or to think that there is no place for a calm middle. Another is to remember how human and fallible the actors are, and how much listening and getting a sense of their interests can help. Last week, President Obama saidthat it would be a mistake to see Ukraine and Syria as “some Cold War chessboard.” John McCain called him “na├»ve”—as if simply rushing in and talking loudly will keep either us or the Ukrainians safe. This is not a game, as fun as it can be for politicians to treat it as one. One of the frustrating elements of McCain’s complaints is his willingness to hand over weapons to people we don’t really know. Where do weapons end up when the people in control of them jump in a helicopter, a car, or a yacht and sail away to somebody else’s harbor?
Above: Ukrainian soldiers at a missile-launch facility in 1995. Photograph via Reuters.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Cost of Tea in DC


How Tea Party Absolutism Cost The GOP A Huge Win On Entitlements

House Speaker John Boehner wanted to seal the so-called grand bargain, and was willing to reciprocate with the $800 billion in new tax revenues that the president sought in return. Democratic leaders were grudgingly willing to support Obama on what they feared was a lopsided deal for conservatives.

But the Ohio Republican, facing a tea party mutiny that threatened his Speakership, and loyalty issues within his own leadership team, was forced to walk away from the table. By many accounts, he was eager to make it happen, but the pressure from the anti-tax tea party movement was too strong to overcome. And so the deal was dead, never to be resurrected.

Nearly three years later, history suggests Boehner was right and the tea party was wrong. Republicans had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to capture their Great White Whale if they had compromised on taxes. (During the talks, Obama had upped his ask to $1.2 trillion in taxes, which Boehner said blew up the deal, but according to multiple accounts the president sought to return to the $800 billion offer.) It turns out Republicans were forced to soak up $650 billion in taxes anyway in the end-of-2012 fiscal cliff deal. Only they got nothing in return on entitlements.
As of this week, Obama has rescinded his offers to chop Medicare and Social Security benefits. The political landscape has changed, and the dream is over.

The president was resoundingly re-elected. The deficit has been cut in half and austerity-mania has fizzled. Health care cost growth has slowed. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party isrevolting against retirement benefit cuts. And as senior White House officials characterize it, the president is tired of extending unrequited olive branches to the GOP.

"[O]ver the course of last year," a White House official said, "Republicans consistently showed a lack of willingness to negotiate on a deficit reduction deal, refusing to identify even one unfair tax loophole they would be willing to close, despite the President's willingness to put tough things on the table."

In 2012, due to a mix of policy judgments and election-year considerations, Obama backed off his offer to raise the Medicare eligibility age to 67. And on Thursday, he came full circle by alsoabandoning his proposal to slow the rate of inflation for Social Security benefits via a policy known as Chained CPI, which he included in his budget unveiled one year ago this month.
The backtracking reflects a dramatic shift since 2011, when Democrats, spooked by their thrashing in mid-term elections, were willing to slash their party's most cherished achievements.

"The days of terrible grand bargains are gone for the foreseeable future," said an aide to a progressive Democratic senator.

Conservatives forced Boehner to squander a golden opportunity when it was within reach, in favor of a risky bet that they could stonewall Obama then, run the table in the 2012 elections, and get what they wanted without having to make significant compromises. They lost, and now there's not much left to do but go on the attack.

"This reaffirms what has become all too apparent: the president has no interest in doing anything, even modest, to address our looming debt crisis," Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Boehner, said after TPM reported Obama's decision to drop Chained CPI from his upcoming budget proposal. "With three years left in office, it seems the president is already throwing in the towel."

Democrats and liberal activists, who were mobilizing against Social Security cuts ahead of the 2014 elections, were thrilled. "The President has got the congressional Democrats' backs and has them in the front of his mind," said a Senate Democratic leadership aide.

So, what happens next? Few expect Congress to pass major bills before the November elections. And no matter the results, Obama insists he won't budge on entitlements without tax revenues in the mix, and Republicans are highly unlikely to go there. The GOP understands the difficulty of trimming entitlement benefits -- their push to partially privatize Social Security went nowhere in 2005 even though they controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress.

Thanks to aging baby boomers, the programs will eventually have to be reformed -- Medicare is projected to be solvent through 2024 and Social Security through 2033. But don't expect structural changes anytime soon.

"If anyone was hoping for a serious budget [from the president] that did more than increase Washington spending and find new ways to tax job creators, it sure sounds like they'll be disappointed," said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Real Problem with Comcast Merger

[Amazing Comcast even tried this. It is a sign that government regulation appears as pliable as corporations have money to spend on politicians.]

The Real Problem with the Comcast Merger

Among household expenses, few things have risen quite as quickly as the cable bill. As recently as the nineteen-nineties, cable prices ranged from seven dollars to eleven dollars and fifty cents per month. After years of price hikes, a decent cable package is now over sixty dollars a month; the average cost is eighty-six dollars. Comcast, in 2013, collected about a hundred and fifty-six dollars a month on average, per customer—and some people are paying much more than that. Outpacing inflation, cable is now so expensive that it creates poverty issues: in poorer households it competes with basics like food, rent, or health insurance. If you wanted to help the poor, you could do worse than cutting cable bills.
It is in this environment that Comcast proposes to acquire Time Warner Cable. But the Federal Communications Commission, by law, is only supposed to approve the merger if it finds that it serves “the public interest.” Given recent history, and in today’s cable business, the public’s interest can be captured in two words: “lower prices.” The F.C.C., in fact, is supposed to ensure that cable prices are “reasonable.” Here’s a simple rule of thumb: unless the F.C.C. thinks that there is a realistic chance that the deal will reverse two decades of rising prices, it should stop the merger.
Comcast, in announcing its deal, has said nothing about how it might save consumers money. Instead, it calls the deal “an exciting opportunity” for its customers, promising “accelerated deployment of existing and new innovative products and services.” I suspect that I’m not alone in thinking that a lack of excitement isn’t what most customers call to complain about. Everyone, even people in the industry, knows that the prices are too damn high. But tellingly, nowhere in any of its materials does Comcast suggest a plan to do anything about it. So just what makes this merger in the public’s interest?
Defending the deal, Comcast’s C.E.O., Brian Roberts, relies on the wholly uninspiring argument that at least the merger won’t reduce existing competition (that is, from companies like Dish or FiOS). But even that’s not true. With a larger customer base and more buying power, Comcast would be left with several time-tested techniques for reducing competition and increasing prices. For Comcast, that’s the exciting part.
First, a key strategy, which Comcast has already used to great effect, is to either use ownership or exclusive contracts of important channels to freeze out rivals or increase their costs. In its takeover of the Philadelphia market in the early aughts, Comcast relied on local demand for Phillies, Flyers, and 76ers games to depress satellite competition and thereby maintain high prices. Comcast has repeated the regional-sports strategy across the country; if it gains unfettered control over Time Warner, Comcast can simply reuse the strategy in its new territories.
Second, the merger would leave Comcast in a better position to wage war on those annoying Internet firms like Netflix, YouTube, or Amazon TV, all of whom, by cable standards, deliver way too much stuff for way too little money. (Consider that Netflix's fee of $7.95 a month is what Comcast charges you to lease a modem.) The most straightforward tactic is to use Comcast’s increased power to demand special fees (technically a net-neutrality violation), or to make deals with Hollywood that starve its rivals of good or recent content.
Third, on the price-hike side, a larger footprint will yield interesting new ways to get more money out of broadband, which is already ludicrously profitable (it costs less than five dollars a month to provide, and is sold for between forty and sixty dollars a month). Adding data caps to Time Warner’s customers would be a nice place to start—as the phone companies have shown, overage fees are a sweet deal. Comcast’s larger size will make it easier to make expensive broadband the national norm.
The crazy part is that this deal would actually put Comcast in a position to lower prices, if it wanted to. It could use efficiencies of scale to cut the price and increase the speed of broadband. It could use its buying power to negotiate better deals with ESPN, Viacom, and other programmers, passing on the savings to customers. That’s what the company would do in a parallel universe where it faced actual competition. But passing on savings has never been part of Comcast’s business model, and, absent a corporate lobotomy, it may never be.
In short, the acquisition of Time Warner is brimming with tasty strategic possibilities for an enlarged Comcast. But one looks in vain for anything—anything!—for the consumer and the public. Even A.T.&T., when it tried to buy T-Mobile, had more to promise customers than this. It is the sworn duty of the Federal Communications Commission to stand up for the public; the public-interest standard cannot be satisfied by a few vague platitudes. Give us lower prices, or let’s block the deal.
Tim Wu is a professor at Columbia Law School and the author of “The Master Switch.” He has previously served as a senior advisor to the Federal Trade Commission; the chair of Free Press, an Internet advocacy organization; and a fellow at Google.
Above: Comcast C.E.O. Brian Roberts. Photograph by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Russian volunteers smuggle Sochi strays to a new life far from Olympics host city

Russian volunteers smuggle Sochi strays to a new life far from Olympics host city

 February 12, 2014, 10:37 AM  Washington Post

Stray dogs brought out of Sochi by activist Yulia Krasova wait to be transferred to the car of fellow activist Igor Airapetyan at a rendezvous point in Tuapse, Russia. AP
 The purple Chrysler PT Cruiser sped through the night, barreling around rain-slicked hairpin curves on a clandestine rescue mission. It was 3 a.m. Ahead glared the harsh lights of a security check point. Sochi was 60 miles behind. This was the outer edge of the“Ring of Steel” guarding the Olympics, and the Chrysler was aiming to get past it, to break free into the vast Russian countryside that lies beyond.
The back of the car was crowded with uneasy, bewildered passengers. Most were drooling out of anxiety. One had thrown up several times, but at this moment of truth she reassuringly laid her right front paw on the shoulder of the human sitting in front of her.
The car sped past the police.
Six more lives were saved.
Okay, the Ring of Steel isn’t actually designed to keep cars or people — or dogs — on the inside. It’s supposed to keep unwanted, unaccredited and unwelcome visitors out. But that’s why the Chrysler had to make this trip, along the mountainous Black Sea coast that runs northwest from Sochi.
The 2014 Winter Games have made the packs of stray dogs wandering on the streets of Sochi and around the arenas more visible and vulnerable than ever. The city tried to step up its years-old effort to get rid of the canines, with exterminators shooting poison darts at any loose dogs they found. That provoked dog lovers to escalate the resistance.
On this night, the Chrysler had a rendezvous with volunteers from Moscow, who had just driven 1,000 miles to Tuapse, which was as far as they could legally go without Olympics credentials. They planned to fill their vehicles with dogs and then turn right around and drive 1,000 miles back, delivering these Sochi strays from seemingly certain extermination.
The transfer had been arranged on the Olympics end by Dina Filippova, a 28-year-old part-time lawyer in Sochi who quit a job in construction management when she realized she cared more for dogs than buildings.

“I found six puppies in the park across the street,” she said. “I didn’t know about the shooting then. I thought dogs lived happily on the street.”

She found out otherwise. Sochi has a large and continually replenished population of strays, and for seven years the city had just one dog policy: paying exterminators to kill them.

Filippova joined with other advocates in a bid to save as many dogs — and cats, too — as possible. Filippova and a friend are lodging 24 dogs in temporary foster homes for $150 a month, plus food and medicine, paid for by donations. She has four dogs in her own apartment. Over the past two years, she said, she has helped rescue 500 canines.
“Mostly we rescue dogs in trouble — dogs who have been abused, or have been in an accident, or puppies without their mothers, or dogs in a dangerous place,” she said. In other words, dogs living in a place where someone might call in the exterminators.
On the Moscow end, the indefatigable road warrior is Igor Airapetyan, 41. In January, he drove down from Moscow and took 11 Sochi dogs back with him. On Monday night, here in Tuapse, he and three co-conspirators took the six dogs from the Chrysler — one of them pregnant — and 18 others from four other cars.

Airapetyan loads stray dogs into his car. AP
“If somebody doesn’t do it, nobody will do it,” Airapetyan said, before he started hefting one mangy animal after another into the back of his Korean minivan. “This won’t solve the problem, but we’re trying to attract attention to it. And a life is a life. Saving even one life is important.”
Dog advocates point out that the culling of strays in Sochi was happening long before the Olympics began to take shape. But they’ve been happy to exploit the publicity that comes with the Games.
Nadezhda Mayboroda, 39, a private tutor who opened her own shelter on a steep hillside outside town, with more than 100 dogs in residence, agrees that neither dog-lifts nor shelters will solve Sochi’s dog problem, which requires a concerted sterilization effort. But the efforts do help.

Stray dogs begin a new life at Nadezhda Mayboroda’s private shelter on a hillside in Sochi. The Washington Post
Last week, Mayboroda’s shelter started to receive financial support from Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who had a hand in Olympics construction. Also, the city, taking note of unflattering news reports about killing dogs, is building its own small showcase shelter next to hers, and has asked the exterminating company to catch and deliver live animals to fill it.
But Mayboroda wonders whether the effort can be sustained past the Olympics. “You won’t change the situation in one month or two,” she said.
Mayboroda echoed a notion common among Russians: that dogs are innocent and shouldn’t be made to suffer because of the cruelties and negligence of human society. Caring for dogs can seem like an outlet for a more general frustration with life here.
“I don’t need money. I don’t need anything. I just love animals,” said Nina Stoyanovski, a volunteer at the shelter. “It’s what my soul needs. I can’t bear to see them die.”
On the drizzly and deserted street corner in Tuapse, dawn was still hours away. Under a lone streetlight, Airapetyan held a smallish dirty-white mongrel and began nuzzling her, his nose to her ear. She nuzzled back, and then he said that he was going to adopt her, to live with him at his home 15 miles south of Moscow.
Through social media, he had already found families willing to take the other dogs in — Krasnodar, Voronezh, Lipetsk, Tver and even St. Petersburg, another 400 miles beyond Moscow. It was going to be a long trip back.
Filippova said Airapetyan provided strong references when he first proposed the dog-lift in January. She was satisfied that the first batch had been well taken care of.

Supplies of dog food and medicines donated by Muscovites await transfer to cars that can take them the last 60 miles into Sochi. The Washington Post
This time, he brought a large load of donated dog food and medicine for the local volunteers to take back to Sochi with them. He also brought a dog — a ferocious Doberman pinscher making the reverse journey, sent by a St. Petersburg family to its owner in Sochi. Vladislava Provotorova, a 31-year-old dentist, got the Doberman into her Toyota Camry, which is equipped with a barricade between the front and back seats, and sped off down the coast. The Chrysler followed close behind. Local license plates assured their passage back through the Ring of Steel.
A gray dawn had broken by the time the partisans caught sight of Sochi.
Airapetyan weighed in 24 hours later on Facebook — still on the road, men and dogs tired and thirsty, miles yet to go.
Natasha Abbakumova contributed to this article.

Correspondence: CandySwipe to Candy Crush

Open letter to who wants to cancel the registration of the CandySwipe trademark.

Dear King,

Congratulations! You win! I created my game CandySwipe in memory of my late mother who passed away at an early age of 62 of leukemia. I released CandySwipe in 2010 five months after she passed and I made it because she always liked these sorts of games. In fact, if you beat the full version of the android game, you will still get the message saying "...the game was made in memory of my mother, Layla..." I created this game for warmhearted people like her and to help support my family, wife and two boys 10 and 4. Two years after I released CandySwipe, you released Candy Crush Saga on mobile; the app icon, candy pieces, and even the rewarding, "Sweet!" are nearly identical. So much so, that I have hundreds of instances of actual confusion from users who think CandySwipe is Candy Crush Saga, or that CandySwipe is a Candy Crush Saga knockoff. So when you attempted to register your trademark in 2012, I opposed it for "likelihood of confusion" (which is within my legal right) given I filed for my registered trademark back in 2010 (two years before Candy Crush Saga existed). Now, after quietly battling this trademark opposition for a year, I have learned that you now want to cancel my CandySwipe trademark so that I don't have the right to use my own game's name. You are able to do this because only within the last month you purchased the rights to a game named Candy Crusher (which is nothing like CandySwipe or even Candy Crush Saga). Good for you, you win. I hope you're happy taking the food out of my family's mouth when CandySwipe clearly existed well before Candy Crush Saga.

I have spent over three years working on this game as an independent app developer. I learned how to code on my own after my mother passed and CandySwipe was my first and most successful game; it's my livelihood, and you are now attempting to take that away from me. You have taken away the possibility of CandySwipe blossoming into what it has the potential of becoming. I have been quiet, not to exploit the situation, hoping that both sides could agree on a peaceful resolution. However, your move to buy a trademark for the sole purpose of getting away with infringing on the CandySwipe trademark and goodwill just sickens me.

This also contradicts your recent quote by Riccardo in "An open letter on intellectual property" posted on your website which states, "We believe in a thriving game development community, and believe that good game developers – both small and large - have every right to protect the hard work they do and the games they create."

I myself was only trying to protect my hard work.

I wanted to take this moment to write you this letter so that you know who I am. Because I now know exactly what you are. Congratulations on your success!

Albert Ransom
President (Founder), Runsome Apps Inc.

[I'm thinking maybe Mr. Ransom should consider changing the name of his game to "Dumb Candy Crush" to get the protection of the copyright exclusion for parodies.]