<CharlieDigital/> Programming, Politics, and uhh…pineapples

15Feb/17Off

We Need to Stop This Administration Now

Posted by Charles Chen

Credit Zina Saunder, 2016

Dangerous Times Lie Ahead

The crux of my postulation is that Russia is using the US to ignite a war with Iran. You are sitting there asking yourself why that would be the case; after all, aren't the Russians and the Iranians allies?

Yes, this has traditionally been true, but since Obama took office, he has taken a completely different tone with Iran. Remember when he spoke to the Islamic world shortly after taking office?

In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically- elected Iranian government. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians. This history is well known. Rather than remain trapped in the past, I have made it clear to Iran's leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward. The question, now, is not what Iran is against, but rather what future it wants to build.

Yes, he brought sanctions on Iran to force their hand on their nuclear ambitions, but last year, he also upheld his promise and lifted sanctions on Iran, once again allowing Iranian oil back onto the open market and opening economic ties with Iran, including a multi-billion dollar deal with Boeing for aircrafts and parts.

What results is that Iran is now competing with Russian oil and natural gas in the EU market, where Russia is the number 1 supplier of coal, oil, and natural gas.  The amount from Iran is not what is significant but rather that for Russia to maximize their commodities, they need to disrupt the global supply and Iran presents the perfect opportunity for them to leverage the US -- given the right pieces in place.

Obama's Role

By all accounts, if you analyze the actions of Obama from the perspective of oil, you can only conclude that he has weaponized the price of oil. When he took office in 2009, the price per barrel of crude oil was around $100 and crashed due to the glut on the market after the recession, but climbed steadily as the global economy recovered.

In 2012, as the price of gas continued to climb, Obama threatened to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to shock the speculative markets. And then in 2014, the US sold 5 million barrels as a warning to the Russians:

The United States will hold the first test sale of crude from its emergency oil stockpile since 1990, offering a modest 5 million barrels in what some observers saw as a subtle message to Russia from the Obama administration.

The Energy Department said the test sale had been planned for months, timed to meet demand from refiners coming out of annual maintenance cycles. But oil traders noted that Russia's effort to take over the Crimea region from Ukraine has prompted calls for use of booming U.S. energy resources to relieve dependence on Russian natural gas by Europe and Ukraine.

Obama realized long ago that the price of oil could be weaponized to weaken our enemies. Russia, Venezuela, Iran, much of the Middle East -- if you drive down oil prices, you can gain the upper hand.

In the mean time, domestically, despite early indications that Obama would be a left leaning environmentalist (recall Palin's chants of "Drill baby, Drill!"), he has proven to be the exact opposite when it comes to domestic oil production. His EPA has taken no federal action on fracking, largely leaving it to states to impose their own regulations. This domestic boom served two purposes for him: first is that it aided jobs numbers and oil jobs are rather high income. Second is that it pushed down the price of oil as production ramped up, giving the US supreme leverage over traditionally tricky areas of the world. We've seen Venezuela practically collapse on itself as Obama -- a Democrat -- not Reagan, not Bush Sr., not Bush Jr, allowed US oil exports for the first time in 40 years in 2014.

There were surely many reasons for this; for Obama, it was surely bittersweet but ultimately beneficial for his geopolitical goals.

The Iranians Come Around

Not surprisingly, we see a corresponding collapse of oil prices in 2015 as a result of this and, not surprisingly, Iranians give in by July of 2015:

VIENNA — Iran and a group of six nations led by the United States reached a historic accord on Tuesday to significantly limit Tehran’s nuclear ability for more than a decade in return for lifting international oil and financial sanctions.

The deal culminates 20 months of negotiations on an agreement that President Obama had long sought as the biggest diplomatic achievement of his presidency. Whether it portends a new relationship between the United States and Iran — after decades of coups, hostage-taking, terrorism and sanctions — remains a bigger question.

The sanctions combined with the tumbling price of oil absolutely devastates the Iranian economy to the point that Liberals are calling him out for being too cold-hearted and punishing the average Iranian.

Obama achieved a flawless victory by getting Iranians to give up their nuclear ambitions and also punishing Russia for Ukraine by further pushing oil prices down; they would reach just under $30/barrel by the time Obama leaves office. You can bet that Putin and his inner circle are absolutely fuming.

But the Iranian resolution poses a different problem, especially for Russia. You see, for years, Iran, Iraq, and a handful of other oil producing countries have been planning a pipeline straight from Iran to the EU. Wouldn't you know it? That pipeline would have to pass through Syria and Turkey. It's known colloquially as the Friendship Pipeline:

The Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline (called the Friendship Pipeline by the governments involved and the Islamic gas pipeline by some Western sources) is a proposed natural gas pipeline running from the Iranian South Pars / North Dome Gas-Condensate field field towards Europe via Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to supply European customers...

A framework agreement was to be signed in early 2013, with costs now estimated at $10bn; construction plans were delayed by the Syrian civil war.

The pipeline would be a competitor to the Nabucco pipeline from Azerbaijan to Europe. It is also an alternative to the Qatar-Turkey pipeline which had been proposed by Qatar to run from Qatar to Europe via Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Turkey. Syria's rationale for rejecting the Qatar proposal was said to be "to protect the interests of [its] Russian ally, which is Europe's top supplier of natural gas."

It would be amazing; finally, a project that would unite a good chunk of the Middle East with a common goal. It would be an economic force that would even garner the interest of NATO as a critical piece of infrastructure for the economic well-being of the EU members. It would give them an option from the grasp of the Russians.

You can see how to the Russians, who export no cars, no electronics, no clothing, no food, no anything but oil, weapons, drugs (heroin), and alcohol; this is a Big Fucking Deal.  They will do anything, including helping Erdogan and getting a tight grip on the Syrian conflict, to ensure that this pipeline cannot come to fruition.

Of course, this implies that Turkey is also in on this with the Russians since that pipeline either terminates at a Syrian port or goes through Turkey straight into the EU. And of course, this is more than likely as the Russians are surely backing Erdogan. Erdogan's moves are practically right out of Putin's playbook. Recall that the Turks shot down a Russian jet. What came of that? Nothing. What is the lives of two pilots compared to the billions at stake?

Obama's biggest mistake is not sensing this and stepping in to disrupt Erdogan's power grab (admittedly, probably too "dirty" for his tastes) and immediately crushing Assad.  Had he assisted Iraq and Iran in securing a throughway for this pipeline to Europe, we could be looking at a very different Middle East 10 years down the line.

The Russian Gambit

So not only has Obama crushed the price of oil, coordinated sanctions on Russia for their role in the Ukrainian conflict, he also allowed Iranian oil to hit the open market and further put a cap on upwards pressure on oil prices. Furthermore, Iran doesn't play ball with OPEC after years of being locked out of the oil markets:

Less than six months after the lifting of Western sanctions, Iran is close to regaining normal oil export volumes, adding extra barrels to the market in an unexpectedly smooth way and helped by supply disruptions from Canada to Nigeria.

But the development will do little to repair dialogue, let alone help clinch a production deal, when OPEC meets next week amid rising political tensions between arch-rivals Iran and oil superpower Saudi Arabia, OPEC sources and delegates say.

The Russians are not happy about this because not only are they under Western sanctions, but the price of oil is collapsing and the US managed to pull it off without seemingly much effort.  Putin is likely even more incensed by the fact that he played his part by agreeing to sanctions on Iran which, in his plan, would have taken their supply off the market and been a boon for Russia; he mis-played his hand and Obama won. By 2016, the Ruble has basically collapsed and the Russian economy is looking pretty bad:

Low oil prices and international sanctions have crippled Russia’s economy. The country has been operating at a deficit since 2012, and its Reserve Fund is slated to run out by 2017. Last week, the World Bank warned that the poverty rate in Russia is rising sharply.

Read that paragraph carefully; do you see an important date? If Hillary Clinton comes into office and brings forth another 4 years of Obama policies with regards to Russia, the Russian oligarchy will collapse as the economy is left in tatters; there will open revolt as the people start to feel the economic sting.  They are in a no-win situation in Syria because they lose if they give up and they lose if Clinton wins and they stay engaged.

The Russians have one shot and one shot only: they need to get someone on their side into a position of power in the US; they need to be able to peddle their influence to lift the sanctions and, more nefariously, cause the price of oil to rise.  Remember how Obama weaponized the price of oil by driving it down through his geo-political actions?  If you're a country that heavily relies on oil exports to prop up your economy like the Russians, you weaponize by increasing the price.  Now there's really only two ways that the price of oil can go up: the first is that there is a global economic boom that drives up consumption of oil. The second is to disrupt the supply of oil on the market. The first is hard since some rich people have to give up some money (taxes, wages), but the second is easy: they are going to let Iran get slaughtered.

To achieve this, they will need a very easily compromised candidate. Kasich? Cruz? Graham? Bush? None of those guys can be compromised easily because they are principled and despite their disagreements with Democrats, still believe in rule of law, the Constitution, and the world order we live in. Guys like Cruz graduated from Harvard law; they're not stupid. Donald Trump on the other hand...he could be had.

We now know that there is a Trump Dossier from a highly trusted former MI6 source that basically outlines how Trump has been compromised by the Russians. The Russians used this dossier, but more importantly, they used Trump's ego to egg him on. It is likely that they promised him nothing more than their aid in pursuit of the prestige of the office and not even any piece of the bigger pie. In exchange, the Russians get to install key actors in the Trump administration: Manafort, Carter Page, Bannon, Flynn, Tillerson whom will be the real power centers and call the shots.

If we examine the actions of Trump like the pedalling of Ivanka's brand or the doubling of fees at Mar-a-Lago, do these actions seem like those of a man who just hit the jackpot with Russian petro-Rubles? Or do they seem like those of a man trying to make a buck? This is the sad/scary part: Donald Trump is not in on the Big Game.

The Price to Pay

What is the price for the Russians to achieve this? Surprisingly low. Through their experience with the invasion of Ukraine, their assistance of Erdogan in Turkey, and of course their historical propaganda wars, they only need a relatively small investment to win this. Hackers, fake news sources, bots -- all cheap compared to American tactics.  Where Bush spent trillions to install democracies, Russia likely spent far, far less to fight an information war using America's own cracks in its democracy.  The Russians prototyped the campaign with Brexit and then applied the refined tactics to the US.  They used the disaffected white male to achieve their goals by pushing propaganda and stoking racism, nationalism, and hatred.  They hit the jackpot to end all jackpots: full control of all three branches of the US government.

However, they will need to pay big bucks for a few insiders in Washington.

Guys like Flynn, Tillerson, and Bannon are surely "in". I'm not convinced that guys like Chaffetz are "in"; Chaffetz is entirely fungible, a tool that happens to align with their goal.

After the Trump victory, as we now know, there were immediate contacts with Russian counterparts by Flynn, which lead to his abrupt resignation on February 13, which caps an amazingly idiotic set of actions starting from the call itself to statements that implicate the whole administration since Pence is also pulled in now based on conflicting statements.

Honestly, I was quite shocked; up to this point, I felt that they would not let him fall because he was "in" and huge liability if cut loose; they misread his qualifications and his shrewdness. But perhaps they have a different view of him now: that he's a straight up idiot. After all, only an idiot would think that diplomatic communications were not being monitored in the age of WikiLeaks and the NSA. The heroic Sally Yates had warned the Trump administration as early as last year. Will Flynn talk and spill the beans? I doubt it; my guess is that his life and the life of his family is at stake given how good the Russians are at "suiciding" people.

Now they are turning the same tactic on Europe to fracture the EU to increase their bargaining power.

Setting the Stage

Now we get to the role of Bannon. In an unusual move, Steve Bannon -- a man with no qualifications for the position -- is placed as a principal on the National Security Council. Why does Bannon -- a story teller, a master of the narrative, a liar -- need a seat at the table that discusses key intelligence and policy decisions? What purpose could he have in that role?

The answer is pretty straightforward: his role is to use the intelligence to craft a story in much the same way the Bush administration crafted the story for the invasion of Iraq. Remember our friend Nigerian Yellowcake? Yes, Steve Bannon's role is to precisely create another incident that will allow war with Iran.

With this in mind, now think carefully about the travel ban and what the ultimate goal is. Surely, Bannon, et al are not dumb; they know that it will not pass muster and will not pass the SCOTUS if it were to come to it. But that's not the point; the travel ban is a sleight of hand that serves two purposes: the first is to rile up the extremist Muslims and show them that America is who they thought they were. The second is far more nefarious: it is a setup to knock down the judiciary, moderate Republicans, and Democrats.

Steve Bannon and Flynn were likely -- my guess -- working out how to allow another 9/11 to occur. You see, they need one to trigger a war with Iran. Flynn -- the perfect, rabid dog for this role -- was ousted from the Obama administration in 2014 because he took a far too aggressive stance on attacking the Muslim world:

Flynn said he favored a more aggressive approach to defeating ISIS than that of the Obama administration. He repeated his hard-line approach at the Republican National Convention in July.

He went on to criticize the Obama administration for reducing the United States’ influence in the world, worrying about being politically correct and acting too hesitantly when it came to using military force.

Bannon, the story teller, is the second piece of the puzzle.

They will then fabricate or twist intel or just make up a narrative that the perpetrators of some horrific event would have been stopped had everyone listened to Trump and upheld his ban.  The fabrication has to be so good that it will cause Republicans and Democrats to forget the disaster of Iraq and vote to authorize war with Iran; they will shame moderates, Democrats, and those paid liberal protesters into supporting a war by pointing to their resistance to Trump's ban.  Of course, this is why they need a storyteller of the caliber of Steve BannonAl Jazeera has it right on: Trump and company are seeking a 'Reichstag Fire':

Donald Trump and his top Islamophobe nomenklatura gathered at the White House, now led by the militant crusader Stephen Bannon, are on a desperate lookout for their "Reichstag Fire" and their favourite propaganda outlet, Fox News, is franticly searching for it - even in Canada.

"Reichstag Fire" was an arson attack on the Reichstag, the German parliament, in Berlin on February 27, 1933. The incident was soon abused by Adolf Hitler and his gang to demand a suspension of civil liberties in systematic preparation for his putsch for total fascist power.

It has already started. Trump has slapped new sanctions on Iran:

President Trump’s decision Friday to quickly slap new sanctions on Iran after it conducted a ballistic missile test signals the hard turn the new administration intends to take with Tehran.

It capped a week in which the fiery rhetoric from Team Trump highlighted rising tensions between the two countries.

The new sanctions were cheered by Republicans, who had pushed former President Obama to respond more muscularly to Iran’s provocations.

And the Iranians are getting sucked in:

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Friday that Iran President Hassan Rouhani "better be careful" after Rouhani was quoted as saying that anyone who speaks to Iranians with threats would regret it.

If you still support the Trump administration at this point, ask yourself: do you want a war with Iran? I want to make it clear, I'm not making an argument for Clinton; I'm making an argument against Trump and his crew.  I would prefer anyone at this point: Graham, Kasich, Romney, Bush, Cruz, Rubio -- heck, even Ben Carson (yuck!) -- any one of these guys will not lead us into war with Iran with malicious intent.

Mikhail Gorbachev has it right in his December piece in Time magazine:

Politicians and military leaders sound increasingly belligerent and defense doctrines more dangerous. Commentators and TV personalities are joining the bellicose chorus. It all looks as if the world is preparing for war.

For any real American, it should no longer be about God, guns, gays, abortion, and taxes; the future of our nation is in serious jeopardy if we engage in another war with Iran. Another trillion or more in debt, American lives, Iranian lives, the high cost of oil...now is the time to put aside some of our differences and get Congress to act to prevent this scenario from unfolding!

Jason Chaffetz has basically come out and stated that there's nothing to see here, nothing worthy of investigation.  And thus the pieces are now set: it will be  the Republican brigade in the legislature and the executive versus the judiciary, the press, and the CIA and NSA.  And it looks like there is hope that the latter is now trying to gain the upper hand.  The longer the Republicans in Congress delay action, the worse this is going to look for them as more and more information starts to leak from the CIA and NSA.

Some Food For Thought

Mar-a-Lago:

Trump's trips to Mar-a-Lago are seemingly innocuous. I don't want to talk about his time spent golfing or his cheap attempts to make a buck, but I want to propose that he is intentionally allowing Russia to listen in on diplomatic discussions. He held a meeting with Shinzo Abe regarding recent North Korean aggression in an open air setting. The dining area was lit only with flashlights so they needed to use their phones -- you know, those things that everyone uses as a camera these days -- to read documents. This is intentional because they are now aware that all communications from the White House and Air Force One are bugged by the CIA and NSA once Sally Yates warns them about Flynn; this is a ploy to circumvent this.

Is it a coincidence that they fired the White House cybersecurity officer?

It must be extremely irritating for the Secret Service to watch their Commander in Chief actively passing information to the Russians (and who knows who else) right under their noses.  It's no wonder the US intelligence community is starting to leak on Trump; the entire upper echelon of the administration is compromised to the fullest (with the exception of dimwits like Betsey DeVos).  I wonder if McConnell and Ryan are compromised.  It is quite amazing that Ryan's support never swayed from Trump.

Arming Taliban:

If you've not been following, you may have missed the recent testimony from top American commander Gen. John Nicholson that there is evidence that the Russians are arming and training the Taliban in Afghanistan:

The top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, stopped short of detailing everything the U.S. knows about the Russian return to Afghanistan in an appearance before a Senate panel last week. But he did confirm some lawmakers' accounts of what U.S. intelligence has established about the relationship.

"If Russia is cozying up to the Taliban — and that's a kind word — if they are giving equipment that we have some evidence that the Taliban is getting ... and other things that we can't mention in this unclassified setting? And the Taliban is also associated with al-Qaida? Therefore Russia indirectly is helping al-Qaida in Afghanistan," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

"Your logic is absolutely sound, sir," Nicholson said.

"I think it's to undermine the United States and NATO," Nicholson said.

I add this because it should be clear: the Russians are not our friends.  Repeat after me: they are not our friends.

Global Warming:

I have a hunch -- just a hunch -- that the whole Republican stance on the "global warming is a hoax" deal is actually driven by the Russians. It's not that every Republican is being paid off by Russians, but that there is infiltration at high levels of Republican leadership that shape the agenda and messaging. After all, reduction in consumption of oil and coal is bad business for the Russians who really only export coal, oil, natural gas, vodka, and gnarly dashcam videos.

NAFTA:

Trump's opposition to NAFTA is quite strange on the surface given that free trade is traditionally pro-commerce, pro-business and a stance of the Republican establishment. After all, if you can move your manufacturing to Mexico, you can defang the unions. I don't believe for one moment that Trump actually cares about American jobs; he's simply proven too self absorbed. The threat of a NAFTA repeal has also righly pissed off many businesses (agri-business) and Trump supporters like farmers who rely on NAFTA sanctioned visas for seasonal workers. Even CEOs of restaurant chains are probably quite upset as they brace for increased prices for avocados, tomatoes, limes, you name it.

After all, Mexico is one of the world's largest exporters of flat screen TV's and the source for 45% of tomatoes consumed in the US. It's really going to piss off a lot of businesses big and small that typically support Republicans.

However, if you put it within the framework of what I've highlighted above, it all fits together: Mexico and Canada are the #1 and #2 importers of crude oil to the US, accounting for about 35% of all oil consumed in the US. What happens if there is a 20% tariff on those imports of oil?

Coal:

Americans have it all wrong on Democrats and coal. If you look at the table of solid fuel suppliers to the EU, the US has climbed steadily to third place. Yes, while domestic consumption of coal has declined, we've exported more and more coal to the EU.  Obama isn't as green as the masses think he is.

Iran:

I beg of you, watch this Rick Steves documentary on Iran.  Iranians are good people; they are a natural ally for the US in the ME: relatively stable government, highly educated populace, home of the Green Movement, itching to liberalize, receptive to American goods (see Boeing deal), and despite our differences, worked out this nuclear issue.  Yes, they fund groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, but these are largely regional agitators that are vying for control of land and not Islamic jihad as we see from the radical Wahhabists from Saudi Arabia who fund madrassas all over the world and support Al Qaeda and the Taliban.  It makes no sense to align with the Saudis but not the Iranians.

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14Feb/17Off

5 Questions Any Critical Thinker Needs to Ask Themselves on US-Russia Relations

Posted by Charles Chen

Hmmmmm.....

1) What is Trump's motivation for wanting better relations with Russia?

2) Why hasn't he promoted better relations with China? Iran?

3) What is Russia's goal in Syria? Why are they engaged in Syria, which is not even on their border?

4) Now bring it back to the first question: how do better US-Russia relations aid their goal in Syria?

5) And final question: how does that affect our traditional allies - EU and NATO?

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10Feb/17Off

The Russian Long Game

Posted by Charles Chen

If you only read one crazy Trump-Russia conspiracy theory, read mine 🙂

Politicians and military leaders sound increasingly belligerent and defense doctrines more dangerous. Commentators and TV personalities are joining the bellicose chorus. It all looks as if the world is preparing for war.

Mikhail Gorbachev - Time Magazine, January 16, 2017

Right at this moment, the government of the United States is plotting how to start at least one war, but probably two.  The reason?  Oil.  Specifically, the value of oil and its importance to the Russian financial situation and geo-political power.

Global Oil Chokepoints - I've highlighted some key regions; keep in mind as you read on.

EU sources of energy imports.

All the pieces seem to align.

It seems like a priming of the conditions for oil assets to skyrocket. The problem is that there's more supply than there is demand right now so even if Russian sanctions are lifted, it does little to help the situation in Russia...unless the price of oil can be inflated somehow by disrupting supply or increasing demand. Increasing demand is hard; economies have to grow, the middle class has to be enriched, people have to buy things -- super complicated economics that will require the world's wealthy to give up some of that wealth. But disrupting supply.....

In contrast, the Obama administration strategically crushed the price of oil:

Obama viewed the price of oil as a strategic tool to weaken our enemies. Lower the price of oil and lower the influence of countries like Venezuela, Russia, and oil producing countries in the Middle East. When he took office, the price of oil was $102/barrel. When he left, it was in the mid-thirties. Those last four actions if evaluated by themselves, would seem to be typical liberal causes; but in the context of his administration's actions (or non-actions) on oil drilling, they were part of a coordinated effort to weaken the influence of oil prices on geo-politics. By crushing the price of oil, it would naturally slow down demand for "Drill baby, drill". What happened to ANWR, the topic du jour of 2008? Nothing because the glut of oil in the world destroyed the need for ANWR drilling; why drill in Alaska when you can drill in Oklahoma and the Dakotas at a cheaper price? Crushing the price of oil and adding sanctions to Russia weakened Russia tremendously from a geopolitical and financial standpoint.

Once this framework is established, a lot of odd actions by Trump start to make sense.  Consider the case of Ford, who manufactures their best selling vehicle -- not just their best selling vehicle, but the best selling vehicle in the US -- in the USA.  Why would Trump give them heat for moving production to Mexico?  Well, the production they were planning to move to Mexico was for their compact cars which have lower prices and lower margins than their pickups and SUVs.  What happens if you force that manufacturing back to the US?  Suddenly, the price of compact and midsize cars go up and the price of an SUV or a pickup becomes more attractive.  And guess what?  You'll consume more oil.

Putin is playing a brilliant long game. Weakening the EU, weakening the US, weakening institutions that the West has relied on like the UN and NATO. Destabilizing Syria. I think Ukraine was the moment that he knew he was going to win (they shot down a commercial jet liner for crying out loud!).  Ukraine was their test bed, their pilot for how to execute a mis-information and propaganda campaign both in Western media and on the ground with those supposed separatists.  Brexit followed and then the US. Hillary Clinton totally discredited...on what basis (hey Mr. Chaffetz, how about we restart those Bengahzi hearings until Hillary's in jail -- she's a criminal, right?!  Her crimes are surely not absolved because shes lost the election and I'd be quite upset if Trump pre-emptively pardoned her after all those hearings and no conviction)? EU is becoming more and more nationalistic and fracturing. Russian geo-political victory is now in full swing. Price of oil is up to $50/barrel today. A "terrorist attack" from "Iranian nationals" or "an Iranian supported cell"? $100/barrel crude. Boom.

With that context, this visa ban is a sleight of hand that the media has fallen for; it's a set up to topple the judiciary, the media, and the moderates - Democrats and Republicans alike.  We all know that it's not constitutional.  We all know that it will fail at the SCOTUS; no one in the Bannon cabinet believes that it will pass the test.  But that's not the point; the point is to use this to discredit the judiciary and the "liberals" who are right now protesting against this by letting an attack happen (again, why else do you need Bannon to control the flow of intelligence?) and then using that as pretext to start a war.  Remember the last time this happened?

Obama played the long game and played it well. The difference is that he played it at a policy level. The brilliance of Putin's Russia is that they know they cannot win at this level -- they don't have the allies to do so -- so they have chosen instead to turn the power (or should I say weakness) of Democracy on itself and use nationalism, racism, and ignorance to power their agenda. Had Brexit lost, had Hillary won -- world looks very different for the next 10, 20 years.  We're talking about coal and oil again when we should be talking about solar and wind.  We're talking about a $20+bn wall instead of an $20+bn invested in an upgraded electrical grid.

While Americans were arguing about abortions and guns and fake promises of American manufacturing jobs and calling a 30 year public servant a Wall Street profiteer and criminal....and then actually voting for a Wall Street profiteer and super corrupt candidate, Russia pulled off a brilliant coup to leverage the most powerful country on the face of the planet to ply their agenda.

It is likely that Bannon will have a key role in instigating or facilitating the events that will unfold; why else would one place an unqualified individual to lead a national security council but to allow manipulation of intelligence and keeping professionals and adults out of the fold.  He will have more power and leeway to control the narrative and shape the story; after all, he is a master story teller -- a craftsman of alternative facts -- not a foreign policy or intelligence wonk.  Not by a cosmic light year.

Chumps like Jason Chaffetz are so blinded by the short game -- small ball -- that they don't see their critical part in the bigger picture of global politics.  They are tools, pawns to be used and discarded in this game.  He won't survive the next election, but he's already served his agenda anyways and can otherwise be sacrificed.  He wasn't in on the game anyways, he was playing Chutes and Ladders while Putin was playing Chess.

So what can be done at this moment in time?  The only hope is that Congressional Republicans pursue the Russian connections with as much fervor as they did Hillary's supposed criminal acts in the attacks on the consulate in Benghazi.  Get Steve Bannon as far away from controlling the flow of intelligence as possible; he has no business in intel.  2018 is too late to wait for an opportunity to flip the House or the Senate; the administration and the Russians will be opportunists, using any incident to drum up the machinery of war.

25Sep/12Off

Obama’s Address to the UN Assembly

Posted by Charles Chen

A great speech; too much to quote:

It is time to marginalize those who, even when not directly resorting to violence, use hatred of America or the West or Israel as the central organizing principle of politics, for that only gives cover and sometimes makes an excuse for those who do resort to violence. That brand of politics, one that pits East against West and South against North, Muslims against Christians and Hindu and Jews, can't deliver on the promise of freedom.

To the youth, it offers only false hope. Burning an American flag does nothing to provide a child an education. Smashing apart a restaurant does not fill an empty stomach. Attacking an embassy won't create a single job. That brand of politics only makes it harder to achieve what we must do together, educating our children and creating the opportunities that they deserve, protecting human rights and extending democracy's promise.

...when you strip all away, people everywhere long for the freedom to determine their destiny; the dignity that comes with work; the comfort that comes with faith; and the justice that exists when governments serve their people and not the other way around.

The United States of America will always stand up for these aspirations for our own people and for people all across the world. That was our founding purpose. That is what our history shows. That is what Chris Stevens worked for throughout his life.

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18May/11Off

Introducing GameTime – Real Time Collaboration for SharePoint

Posted by Charles Chen

Background

Since 2005, I've been thinking about building a web-based, real-time collaboration solution.  Back in those days, I had just discovered AJAX.NET (before ASP.NET provided an implementation of AJAX) and I had drawn up a design for a chat-centric collaboration platform.  My friend and co-worker Dan Chawner would sit in adjacent cubicles and exchange IMs over MSN Messenger as we worked on projects.  I thought: "wouldn't it be great if I could actually do things with these IMs instead of copying/pasting them?"

Over the years, that design languished as I moved on to other interests.  When I first saw Groove (before Microsoft purchased it) and Wave, it brought back memories of those designs.  Wave, in particular, was very close to what I had imagined building (albeit without all of the crazy in-line edits and what not).  I had kind of given up the idea after not being able to find any direction myself on how to make such a tool useful.

Experience

It turns out what I needed was more experience -- both technically and professionally -- to finally put it all together.  One thing that I've learned in the last few years of working with SharePoint is that it's generally a really cumbersome platform for collaboration when left to it's own devices.  It's great for:

  1. Storing documents
  2. Finding documents you've stored
  3. Storing lists of things
  4. ???

Everything else?  I guess it's kind of mediocre.

And yet, organizations -- multi-billion dollar organizations -- depend on SharePoint as a platform for collaboration, communication, sharing information, and in general, getting things done.

This is what experience has taught me as I sat through scrums watching folks update list items, as I dealt with the deluge of emails sent "Reply All" trying to figure out the status of tasks, and as I dealt with communicating effectively as a part of a team of remote consultants.

There are real inefficiencies when you try to use out-of-the-box SharePoint for scenarios which it was not designed and it's not a terribly useful platform for collaboration so much as it is for storage and retrieval of information (and even some would debate how well it's designed for those purposes....).

The question we set out to answer is how can we make the SharePoint platform more efficient for collaboration?  How can we help teams that work with remote members collaborate and communicate effectively?  How can we make SharePoint more than just a document and information repository?  How can we enable SharePoint to deliver notifications and updates in real-time?

Opportunity

Right before Christmas, my wife was put on strict bed rest at home carrying our daughter, Charlotte (she was deemed a high risk pregnancy as we've lost three other fetuses in two prior pregnancies).  At first, I considered taking the 6 week unpaid family leave.  But our due date was at the end of April; that would hardly get me through February with my vacation days.  I knew I had to quit and tough it out for at least these 4 months to make sure that we carried this baby to term.

This is when I finally put two-and-two together: I had to use this one opportunity to take a risk, go all-in and try to manifest this idea that I've been carrying around with me for years.

The Result

We've been "dogfooding" it for over a month now!

What came out of this process is GameTime, a real-time collaboration solution built on SharePoint and the same underlying technology in Google Wave, XMPP.  In one sentence?  It's Campfire for SharePoint.

At the core of GameTime is the concept of a "Huddle" where team members come together around a web-based chat interface.  But it's more than that; we've integrated it with SharePoint document libraries and lists to create a context for real-time collaborative efforts right in SharePoint.  Each Huddle is composed of collaborators, documents, milestones, and tasks -- the essentials of any collaborative effort and it's all wired up to react in real-time.

When a document is checked out in SharePoint, a real-time notification shows up in the chat stream and the document is updated in the Huddle.  When a new task is created and assigned, a real-time notification shows up in the chat stream and the task is added to the Huddle.  When a user comes into the Huddle, a real-time presence notification is sent and the user's status is updated immediately in the Huddle.

GameTime finally gives SharePoint users an actual reason to be in the SharePoint environment outside of point interactions (for example: trying to find a document); it gives SharePoint a central role in day-to-day collaboration instead of being just a storage repository that is called upon once in a while.  But even more importantly, perhaps, is that it adds a real-time element to SharePoint.  No more waiting for email notifications.  No more playing email-tag to get the status of tasks.  No more waiting for someone to check documents in/out.  You can see SharePoint activity in real-time right from your Huddle.

This short demo video should give you an idea of the functionality and capabilities of the product (this video represents about 60% of the current functionality):

Now the Hard Part

It's taken the small team of John Peterson (and his alter ego "Tyrone Engels") and myself nearly 4 months of work to get GameTime to this point and just this week, we've started our first AdWords campaign -- a great milestone.  The challenge of spreading the word and getting our first sale is now before us so indulge me with this shameless plug!

If your organization runs SharePoint 2010 (Server or Foundation) and you're interested in trying out that real-timey goodness of GameTime, fill out our contact form and get your first 10 licenses, free.  You can also use the form to schedule a live demo in our hosted environment.  I truly believe that you'll be sold once you experience it, live.

The Future

While we're focused on getting our first sale, we've started to plan for upcoming tradeshows and we've started to develop our next set of features.  These include:

  • Higher level, real-time dashboards built off of the same platform
  • Mobile integration for Android, Blackberries, iPhones, and Windows Phone
  • Chat and real-time notifications everywhere in the SharePoint environment -- get immediate notification of changes anywhere you are SharePoint.

So head over to our web site: http://thinktastic.com and contact us to get a fully featured trial license!

Filed under: News, SharePoint, XMPP No Comments
11May/11Off

When Life Gives You Lemons…

Posted by Charles Chen

I love this photograph from the The Big Picture blog:

The caption for this photograph:

Cyril Forck, 90, catches a small perch fish from his backyard deck, which is usually 50 feet away from the edge of the Mississippi River, on Mud Island in Memphis, Tenn. May 4. (Lance Murphey/AP)

The flooding, loss of lives, destruction of homes and livelihoods is certainly terrible, but I guess it's important to keep your spirits about you!

31Jan/11Off

Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan on Regional Politics

Posted by Charles Chen

I caught an interview with Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan this morning while listening to the BBC World Service.

Aside from being extremely well spoken, he expounded upon the issues in the region in a very straightforward manner, something that seems to be very exceptional from leaders in the region (or maybe the West just doesn't get enough exposure to the political workings of the leaders in the Middle East...).

Anyways, it's a great listen as he brings up many great points on the topic of democratization, political unrest, economic disparity, poverty, and human rights in the Middle East with a surprisingly Western flavor.

Filed under: News No Comments
21Sep/10Off

Commentary on “Frankenfish”

Posted by Charles Chen

The news media has recently been abuzz about about this so-called "Frankenfish".

It's been puzzling to me what the hullabaloo has been all about.  The fact of the matter is that humans have been altering the genetics of just about everything we eat for centuries (millennia?).

Those navel oranges you eat? They're all genetic clones of a single mutation that occurred in the 1800's and every navel orange since has been grown via cutting and grafting techniques. Most cultivars of avocados are also grown via cutting and grafting of a single plant with a desirable genetic mutation.  That bread you eat? It's probably made from wheat that's been bred and cross-bred for resistance to certain strains of fungi and resistance to insects.  The corn that you eat (and all of the byproducts made from that corn)? It's been bred, cross-bred, and selected for desirable traits for centuries.

Humans have been manipulating the genetics of the food that we eat and disrupting or enhancing the natural reproductive cycles of plants and animals alike to breed for desirable traits like pest resistance, drought resistance, fatter meat, leaner meat, tastier meat, greater milk production, faster growth, sweeter fruit, and so on. And when genetics aren't enough to get the desired results, humans aren't shy to rely on other aspects of science like artificial steroids, hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and so on. All of which make it into our waterways and our digestive systems.  I'm not saying that these are "good", but that the food supply that you already eat from is hardly free from human intervention.

The rampant and unjustified fear around genetically modified food is symptomatic of a culturally ingrained distrust of science (maybe it stems from religiosity...) and a general ignorance about agriculture and the long history of selection and crossbreeding for genetic traits. Certainly, we can't simply take AquaBounty's word, but we can approach this rationally and study the science and study the data to ensure that indeed, the inserted genes do not have an undesirable side effect in humans and that the environmental impact will be safe.

In the big picture, this type of science is needed if we wish to responsibly address the growing population of the Earth. Our natural resources aren't getting any more bountiful, yet the human population continues to grow, devour, want, and so on. If genetic modification can help yield greater harvests from the same land, if genetic modification and result in the decreased use of pesticides or fungicides or herbicides or fertilizer, if genetic modification can make farm raised fish profitable and thus help the recovery of wild salmon stocks, if genetic modification can help feed the growing population of the Earth and decrease famine and hunger, then I ask why should we not embrace this science and find solutions that work?

It recalls the criticism that Norman Borlaug's work received:

Borlaug's name is nearly synonymous with the Green Revolution, against which many criticisms  have been mounted over the decades by environmentalists, nutritionists, progressives, and economists. Throughout his years of research, Borlaug's programs often faced opposition by people who consider genetic crossbreeding to be unnatural or to have negative effects.

And yet, Borlaug's work has arguably saved billions of lives:

Borlaug received his Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics from the University of Minnesota in 1942. He took up an agricultural research position in Mexico, where he developed semi-dwarf, high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties.

During the mid-20th century, Borlaug led the introduction of these high-yielding varieties combined with modern agricultural production techniques to Mexico, Pakistan, and India. As a result, Mexico became a net exporter of wheat by 1963. Between 1965 and 1970, wheat yields nearly doubled in Pakistan and India, greatly improving the food security in those nations.  These collective increases in yield have been labeled the Green Revolution, and Borlaug is often credited with saving over a billion people worldwide from starvation.

Of course, there are many that decry humanitarianism as being far from the objectives of AquaBounty; they say that AquaBounty is only in it for greed, for money, for profit.  But then I have to ask: what commercial fishing or farming operation isn't in it for money and profit?  Even that mom & pop organic farm down the street is in it for profit.  It's the very basis of the capitalistic system: do more, cheaper, faster, more efficiently.  There's no such thing as food production that doesn't follow this basis (with few exceptions like the production of fine liquors or wines, for example).

Certainly, there are pitfalls and certainly, there are dangers. However, the reality is that many wild fish populations are being fished to the edge of extinction or will be fished to the brink of extinction if we don't take responsible action today. That includes developing better systems of quotas and monitoring of natural populations, decreasing pollution in our waterways, and developing alternatives that can alleviate the strain that commercial fisheries place on these populations.  In the broader picture, if we also consider land based crop farming, improving efficiency through genetic engineering may be necessary to curb deforestation and the continued destruction of natural habitat while still meeting the nutritional needs of a growing population.  Borlaug developed a hypothesis with regards to the importance of increasing yields through science:

The large role he played in both increasing crop yields and promoting this view has led to this methodology being called by agricultural economists the "Borlaug hypothesis", namely that increasing the productivity of agriculture on the best farmland can help control deforestation by reducing the demand for new farmland. According to this view, assuming that global food demand is on the rise, restricting crop usage to traditional low-yield methods would also require at least one of the following: the world population to decrease, either voluntarily or as a result of mass starvations; or the conversion of forest land into crop land. It is thus argued that high-yield techniques are ultimately saving ecosystems from destruction.

I deem these fish safe until the science tells me otherwise. For all intents and purposes, they've only inserted genes from two other fish species (one of them being another type of salmon!) for their desirable traits; hardly worth the shock response and uproar over these GM salmon. The "Frankenfish" label is completely based on ignorance and stoking the fears of the ignorant.

9Apr/10Off

Obama Increases Funding for Prompt Global Strike

Posted by Charles Chen

Bear with me here for some politics 😉

Caught an interesting article last night regarding increased investment in a new weapons program to complement the decrease in the nuclear arsenal.

Prompt Global Strike (wiki)

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/36253190/ns/us_news-washington_post/

The administration has asked Congress for $240 million for next year's Prompt Global Strike development programs, a 45 percent increase from the current budget. The military forecasts a total of $2 billion in development costs through 2015 -- a relative bargain by Pentagon standards.

Nuclear arms have formed the backbone of U.S. deterrence strategy for six decades. Although the strategy worked during the Cold War, military leaders say they need other powerful weapons in their arsenal to deter adversaries who assume that the United States would refrain from taking the extreme step of ordering a nuclear strike.
"Deterrence can no longer just be nuclear weapons. It has to be broader," Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a leading proponent of Prompt Global Strike, told a conference last month.

Some U.S. military officials say their current non-nuclear options are too limited or too slow. Unlike intercontinental ballistic missiles, which travel at several times the speed of sound, it can take up to 12 hours for cruise missiles to hit faraway targets. Long-range bombers likewise can take many hours to fly into position for a strike.
"Today, unless you want to go nuclear, it's measured in days, maybe weeks" until the military can launch an attack with regular forces, Cartwright said. "That's just too long in the world that we live in."

This is encouraging and I like it. After reading some of the comments on CNN.com on the new START treaty, I started to wonder if some of those posters lived in the same reality. A lot of folks seem to be stuck in the Cold War mentality.  Today, our economy is deeply intertwined with that of China and our European allies depend heavily on Russia for oil, natural gas, and Russia's vast diamond supply (well, and hot women, too).

The problem with a nuclear arsenal as a deterrent is that it has no effect in an asymmetrical war against a stateless, nationless, enemy; the enemy already knows that we can't and won't use them due to the collateral damage to civilian populations and nuclear fallout that would result.  Prompt Global Strike gives us the ability to deliver munitions with the same expediency as ICBMs do without all of the nasty side effects. Effectively, it becomes a weapon that we can actually deploy and use rather than a stockpile of nuclear arms that I simply cannot foresee us ever using.

However, it's not without its own dangers (at least until a proper protocol is designed):

Although it is technically simple to replace nuclear warheads on a missile with conventional ones, Prompt Global Strike has been dogged by a significant problem: how to ensure that Russia could tell the difference if a launch occurred.

Because it's basically a modified ICBM with a non-nuclear warhead, new protocols are needed to ensure that launching one of these isn't going to trigger an accidental nuclear response. The article mentions some options on the table including lower trajectories, higher trajectories, pre-launch communication with nuclear powers, etc.

Many have decried the START treaty as "weakening" the US.  However, this fails to consider that the US and Russia today hold over 90% of the worlds nuclear armaments and the new START treaty reduces this from 2200 to only 1550 - still plenty to flatten most of the world's major cities.  Ultimately, as Air Force General Kevin Chilton says, the Prompt Global Response missile system gives "an additional weapon in the quiver of the president to give him options in time of crisis today, in which he maybe only has a nuclear option for a timely response."

The wiki article has some pretty gnarly details on how it can be deployed:

  • Ballistic missiles, based on either the ICBM or SLBM
  • Hypersonic cruise missiles, such as the Boeing X-51
  • Air launched missiles
  • Space based launch platforms

Very interesting indeed. As a Command in Chief, working in concert with Gates to realign our military spending and investments in addition to changing our international persona (especially in predominantly Muslim nations and with our European allies), Obama has been miles ahead of Bush in my book.

11Feb/10Off

Google Buzz > Facebook

Posted by Charles Chen

Well, at least for me (and I suspect many others).


I caught Pete Cashmore's analysis:



There are arguably better video sites than YouTube and better photo hosts than Photobucket, but network effects tend to trump technical prowess in the social networking realm.


Google Buzz certainly isn't groundbreaking, but it will achieve critical mass virtually overnight. Thanks to integration with Gmail, the new tool is in the eye-line of the millions of users who obsessively check their inboxes for new mail. ComScore pegged Gmail at 176.5 million unique visitors in December.


But I think he just narrowly missed the mark, at least for me.  One critical difference is that because Buzz relies on your Gmail contacts, it creates a more focused social network; in other words, these are people that you actually communicate with already and thus content in Buzz seems to be much more relevant and interesting than Facebook.


Consider someone like my sister.  She has 643 friends in Facebook.  The question is what % of those people does she actually communicate with on a daily or even weekly basis?  How many of those people are just incidental contacts?  How many of those people are just sort of there? How many of those people does she actually care about?  How many of those people would invite her to their wedding?  I would guess that it's somewhere around 10-20%.


By integrating with Gmail, Google's big win is that your network is based on people that you actually communicate with.  In my opinion, this makes the social network more valuable and the information much more relevant.  Integration with a mail client will help the adoption rates for sure, but I think that the big win that will carry it forward as a success -- at least for users like me, who don't use Facebook as a network building or discovery tool -- is that the quality of content is much improved over Facebook.