Wednesday, March 26, 2014
It’s been a rough couple of months for the Ukraine although to be more accurate it could be said it’s been a rough couple of millennia for the country located in a no-man’s land between Europe and Russia whose fertile soil and lack of natural protective borders have long made it an attractive target and way station for invaders. Ukraine has been overrun time after time in its history. Mongols, Cossacks, Poland, Lithuania and Russia have all had turns conquering the Ukraine in prior centuries and Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union have had their turns in the 1900’s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine became an independent nation in 1990.
Over the last 25 years, Ukraine has been forging closer ties with the European Union and flirting with the idea of joining NATO. The last few times the flirting threatened to blossom into a romance, Russia asserted its influence by emphasizing Ukraine’s dependence on Russia for its energy needs in general and natural gas in particular. Ukraine is heavily dependent on Russia for its energy needs. It imports almost all its oil and natural gas as well as most of the nuclear fuel for its 16 nuclear power plants (not counting the disastrous Chernobyl facility that suffered a meltdown in 1986). In 2006 and 2009, Russia cut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine over price and repayment disputes. This affected the rest of Europe since 20 percent of all their natural gas is supplied by Russia through pipelines that pass through Ukrainian territory.
In 2013 Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ready to sign a trade pact with the European Union that would have brought $870 Million in duty fee reductions and even release his political rival Yulia Tymoshenko from the type of prison that all political opposition leaders tend to reside in that part of the world while they are in the opposition. Russia came up with an offer to buy $15 Billion of Ukrainian debt and offer a 33% discount on natural gas if Ukraine signed an agreement with Russia as opposed to the EU and the threat of significant natural gas increases if the offer wasn’t accepted.
Yanukovych signed the Russian agreement which sparked protests throughout Ukraine and the government reacted by passing an anti-protest law. This led to bloody protests and riots which caused Yanukovych to flee Ukraine for Russia. A new government has been formed in the Ukraine and Russia reacted by annexing and invading the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea using as a rationale the need to protect the Russian population and a hastily held vote which was overwhelmingly in favor of secession from Ukraine and joining Moscow. Crimea was ceded from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 and Russia has had a military presence there for over 200 years. The base on the Black Sea is Russia’s route to the Mediterranean Sea.
The United States and the European Union are trying to show they have a handle on the situation, but have been reduced to symbolic gestures like not holding a group meeting in Russia later this year and imposing travel restrictions and asset freezes on selected Russian and Crimea officials. Even these symbolic sanctions are more than what followed Russia’s 2008 invasion of their former client state of Georgia which was met by then President George W. Bush’s administration warning of deterioration in the two countries relationship and hinting at more severe consequences.
I have no idea who is right and who is wrong in the Russian-Ukrainian-Crimean situation. I don’t think much of the ‘instant’ vote of Crimea to secede from the union and the invasion on the pretext of ‘protecting Russian citizens and Russian speakers’, which sounds eerily similar to Nazi Germany’s rationale for taking over Czechoslovakia and Austria before World War II. On the other hand, the protests or riots that led to a new Ukrainian government seem a lot like a coup and makes a respectable rationale for Russia to invade in order to secure its naval base.
The US and Europe are saying all the right things but what will happen if Russia decides to similarly invade Estonia, Lithuania, or Latvia? Like the Ukraine, all three countries have a sizable Russian population but unlike the Ukraine, all three countries are members of NATO which theoretically obliges all the member countries to defend any member that is attacked. Vice President Biden was in Lithuania last week and said “The president wanted me to come personally to make it clear what you already know that under Article 5 under the NATO treaty, we will respond. We will respond to any aggression against a NATO ally." Biden didn’t say the United States would respond militarily - just that they would respond.
Could this be the start of World War III? I don’t think so. I think it more likely a carving up of territories and a state of perpetual military tension along the lines of the George Orwell classic Nineteen Eighty-Four where Oceania, EastAsia, and EurAsia are in constant war with one, the other, or both. The United States and Europe effected regime change in Libya and helped with one in Egypt (and stood idly by as a second regime change in Egypt brought a more palatable result) with no Russian interference and were well on the way to doing the same in Syria until the Russians pushed back. Now it seems to be the Russians turn to grab bits and pieces for their empire. Will this show of Russian military might provide a reason for the Western nations to further beef up their defense budgets and continue the spying or data collection of internet and email and cell phone communications for the ‘greater good’ now that the threat of militant Islamic terrorism has faded enough into the background to create a demand for a scaled back military and less tolerance for spying? Sometimes I think Orwell was the 20th century Nostradamus.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was mocked by the Western press and his country painted as ‘backwards’ and ‘unenlightened’ during the recent Sochi Olympics for he and his country’s anti-homosexual views but in this case Russian President Putin tried things the ‘Western’ way by offering a valued trading partner a large financial incentive to keep them in the fold. I don’t see his 15 billion dollar offer to Ukraine much different than the 2 billion dollar public works project Republican Senator McConnell received for his home state of Kentucky in return for using his influence to deliver enough votes to break the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling last year. The big difference is that while the people of Kentucky seem to have no issue with their Senator trading his influence in return for some pork for their state, the Ukrainian people rioted against their leader taking the biggest offer on the table.
Wednesday, March 19, 2014
Please join me in welcoming back to the pages of the Broken Pawn the planet's most prolific beagle bloggers - Baxter and Daisy (Beagle) Anzis with their beagle-eye view of the world we live in.
And they need to save money with the unexpected expense we found out about last week. That’s right Baxter. The Casey’s General Store that we visit on our noon time beef stick walk raised the price of their Old Wisconsin beef sticks. And they were sneaky about it too! The container used to say 59 cents each and 2 for a dollar but now it says 59 cents each and save 10 cents on two. Hank said that now it costs 8 percent more for beef sticks at Casey’s and he’s sure all the other convenience stores are sure to follow them and raise their prices too.
I looked in the paper to see if there were any protests about the higher beef stick prices but all I saw were stories about tax increases, Daisy. That’s right, Baxter. The town is raising taxes (click here to read about it) because they aren’t getting enough money from the state. And the school board is raising taxes (click here to read about it) because the property values in town have gone down. Even the county is raising taxes (click here to read about it) because the values of the properties are down! If everyone’s property is worth less than before how come everyone is raising taxes, Daisy? Probably because no one knows how to spend less money except Hank and Kathy. They’re talking about taking more beef sticks from Aldi on our walks instead of going to Casey’s. That wouldn’t be so bad, Daisy. I love beef sticks from Aldi! YUM!! They are good Baxter, but not as good as the Jack Links and Old Wisconsin beef sticks we get on our walks and they're smaller. I WANT MY CONVENIENCE STORE BEEF STICKS!! I have an idea Daisy. As long as everyone else is raising taxes maybe we can raise taxes too! I wish we could, Baxter, but it doesn’t work that way. Only the government and the school board get to raise taxes – everyone else just gets to pay them. I don’t like taxes. And then I looked on the Internet to see if other cities are raising taxes and found out some more bad news. What kind of bad news? President Obama said that he wants to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour and he also want to give more overtime pay to salaried employees. What’s so bad about that, Daisy? Vince at the Jiffy can use more money and so can Jillisa at the Kum & Go. She is a supervisor and that means she has to work more than 40 hours a week all the time for no extra money. I like Vince and Jillisa. I like Vince and Jillisa too, but if they get more money it has to come from somewhere and it will probably come from higher beef stick prices out of Hank and Kathy's beef stick budget. If we could find a way to make some money, then we can help Hank and Kathy afford to pay more for our beef sticks.
Vince and Jillissa deserve a raise, but not if we have to pay more for beef sticks.
Maybe they can add more taxes on cigarettes and beer.
If I had my own country or town, I could raise taxes and set up traffic cameras to get beef stick money!
I’m so good looking I could have a TV show. I saw Hank watching this show where this guy helps bars that are going out of business. I’ve seen him watching that show too! It’s called ‘Bar Rescue’ and the guy’s name is John Taffer. Every week John spies on a bar using hidden cameras and then he busts in and starts yelling and cursing at the owner and the employees. I could do that! Then somebody has a meltdown and starts yelling back and then somebody gets fired. After everyone calms down, John changes the bar menu and the food menu and takes all the workers away somewhere to show them how to make the new food and drinks. While everyone is away, John has his friends completely remodel the bar and has hundreds of people come to the bar for a grand reopening. The grand reopening is always a success and then everyone hugs because John has turned the bar into a money making operation! John leaves and next week he goes to a new bar. We could start a show called ‘Beef Stick Convenience Store Rescue!’ Each week we could go to a convenience store and get some beef sticks. If the beef sticks are out of stock or take too long to get or don't taste good, then we can bark and howl at the owner and the employees. After everyone calms down then we can change the layout of the convenience store by putting the beef sticks in the window so everyone can see them. Or we could tell the owner to put the beef sticks in the back so the customers buy more items on the way to or from getting their beef sticks. We could recommend an outdoor beef stick kiosk with a wide variety of beef sticks! Then we can have the entire convenience store remodeled and everyone will hug us…wait a second…where are we going to get the money to remodel the store? I don’t have any money for remodeling or a grand reopening…I know - Maybe we can start our own country and raise taxes, Baxter!
We need to set up a beef stick sampling station right outside this door!
This store on the right has no customers but when we're done they'll be THE beef stick destination in town!
Wednesday, March 12, 2014
“It ain’t over till it’s over” Yogi Berra
I watched the movie ’12 Monkeys’ on Sunday night. It was an amazing movie with some of the same time travel concepts as ‘Looper’ with people from the future heading into the past to alter the present which will affect their present which is in the future since they are in the past but will be the present once they return to the future…I’m sure you get the idea. The movie got me thinking about what I would tell my past self if I could go back in time and what I would like to be told when I was younger and I came up with the two quotes at the top of the post.
In the first quote, Jesus tells his apostles that as they go forth to spread the gospel that this they shouldn’t even retain a speck of dust on their feet of those who reject what they say. Matthew:10:14 says ‘It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city’. When I hear this phrase used in a biblical context it is generally used by people who are believers as a reason to avoid non-believers or at least believers who don’t believe like they believe.
I don’t try to judge people on whether they believe like I believe and I don’t try to avoid anyone because of it in any case. What I get from this verse is that if people don’t want you around (‘not receive you’) the best thing to do is get away from them, get far away from them, and stay far away from them (‘shake off the very dust from your feet’). The other practical advice I get from this verse is that when you’re done with an activity or a group or a job (with or without recriminations) make a clean break, shake the dust off your feet, and get on down the road to the next city or adventure.
At first blush, the second quote may not seem to be a match to the first one but to me they are very compatible. While the first quote tells me to make a clean break when I’m done or not wanted, the Yogism tells me that as long as you are involved in the group or activity you are obligated to give your best effort because ‘it ain’t over’. One of Yogi’s less quoted sayings is ‘But when it’s over, it’s over!’ and that’s where everything comes together for me – when it’s not over do the best you can and when it’s over shake the dust from your feet and move on.
I didn’t learn this by reading or thinking – I learned this by experience. When I got fired from my job at the Roy Rogers fast food restaurant (a long story for another day), I used to head over to the restaurant after I got done with my new job to hang out with my old friends. What it took me quite a while to realize was that these were indeed my old friends and that it made them uncomfortable to have me at their place of work since I was no longer one of the gang. It was over and I didn’t recognize it. Since then I can count on one hand the times I visited a place I used to work after I stopped working there. I’ll have lunch or emails with an old co-worker or even take an old employer’s money for doing some work but I don’t visit because I don’t belong there anymore.
My friend Keith was laid off by the Salvation Army last week. Keith was the at-risk youth director and ran the thrift store among many other functions. I don’t know why he was let go but I do know the Salvation Army was short of their fundraising goals and there was talk of reducing staff if they didn’t reach it. Keith had been on the job for eight years and for a lot of people he was the face of the Salvation Army. He was who I talked to when I wanted to hold a tournament or the alarm wasn’t set or I needed anything else. Everyone was in shock when they heard but none more so than Keith was both times I saw him while he was cleaning out his office during chess club.
Aside from being in shock, Keith seemed more worried with how things would run without him than what his next job would be. He told me that he went to the store over the weekend because the staff didn’t know how to operate the machine that bales the donated clothes and some other equipment.
I’ve had a lot of people ask me over the years about situations where they want to leave their job or stop some volunteer effort but feel duty bound to continue because they have skills and knowledge that aren’t easily replaced. Over the years I’ve honed my answer to a fine point and I told Keith what I’d tell anyone : “If you got hit by a truck tomorrow and died do you think the thrift shop wouldn’t open and they’d tell their customers that Keith got hit by a truck so we have to go out of business? No! They would keep going. It wouldn’t be easy and they wouldn’t know how to do a lot of things and they would make a ton of mistakes. But they would muddle through all their mistakes and keep going because they wouldn’t have a choice”. I think Keith took what I had to say in the spirit that it was offered and I know he is going to find a place to continue his work with at-risk youth because that’s what he is driven to do.
I’m sure Keith would have liked more than a week’s time to transition and pass on his knowledge. I think a clean break is the best kind of break and the gaps in knowledge will be quickly filled in. I designed and laid out our church’s newsletter for eight years and when I decided to stop doing it (in the face of some criticism). I sent an email saying that the issue I had just completed would be my last and invited no discussion on the subject. That was four years ago and if I had offered to stay on until someone else stepped up to take on the task I have no doubt that I’d still be putting it together. But someone did step up and the newsletter is still being published.
So these are the two things I would tell myself if I could go back in time like Bruce Willis did in ’12 Monkeys’. I don’t know which is more implausible: whether I could ever go back in time or whether my past self would actually listen.
Normally this is the part of my blog where I'd show off a one-minute chess game I'd recently won and make a joke about wanting to tell my past self about this game and I would except that I've given up one-minute chess for Lent. I haven't given up chess for Lent and have been following the Reykjavik Open in far away Iceland. If you remembered that I wrote about International Master John Bartholomew's incredible play last year (here is the post) you've earned some Broken Pawn bonus points! John isn't at Reykjavik this year but I have been able to follow the games of two other players whose have very bright futures : World 10-year old champion Awonder Liang from Madison Wisconsin who played in Okoboji last year and Marshalltown last month and will be at Okoboji again in April and Richard Rapport from Hungary, the world's top rated player under the age of 18. With one round to go, Awonder has 4 wins, 4 losses, and one draw and is playing to his status as a FIDE master. In this game Awonder accepts wrecked pawns in return for a central pawn majority and continually grinds his opponent until he gets a winning endgame:
Rapport has an energetic playing style and is constantly searching for active piece play. Rapport lost on the top board to tournament leader Chao Li yesterday but held to his uncompromising style even when playing for the tournament lead. Here are two of his wins:
Wednesday, March 5, 2014
Even though the film only grossed $25 million in the US it grossed another $100 million dollars overseas which combined with DVD sales and rentals made it a financially successful film. I guess the reason for that is that while Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger are on the tired side as action heroes in the United States, they are still big stars in other countries. Or it could be that other countries spend more on movies than Americans.
Whatever the reason of the international success of Escape Plan, I was looking forward to watching this movie. Not only did it star two of my favorite actors in the lead roles it had as one of my all-time favorites in the supporting cast: Vincent D’onofrio, best known as the iconic Detective Robert Goren of the late and lamented Law & Order: Criminal Intent. The movie starts out with Stallone locked away in what appears to be a maximum security prison idling away the hours in his solitary confinement cell wadding up pieces of toilet paper and tearing apart his chocolate milk containers but just a few minutes later he escapes from his cell using the same toilet paper wads and chocolate milk container. He then proceeds to break out of the entire prison when a nearby car explosion creates chaos in the yard.
It turns out that Stallone is none other than Ray Breslin, the man who wrote the book on prison security and who currently makes a living by inserting himself into maximum security prisons so he can highlight their weaknesses by breaking out of them. D’Onofrio plays his partner Lester Clark who seemed underutilized in this film and his only character quirk is that he slathers himself in hand sanitizer at every opportunity. No sooner than Breslin has escaped from the prison he and Clark are offered five million dollars by the CIA to have Breslin attempt to escape from a prison that is so secret no one knows where it is or who is in it. Breslin agrees after taking a number of precautions (an implanted tracker device and a safeword) to ensure that he will be able to get out of the unknown prison in case he fails. As arranged, Breslin is kidnapped and drugged but finds himself in the prison with his tracking device removed and a warden that doesn’t recognize his safeword. In fact the warden knows who Breslin is and even has a copy of his prison security textbook on his desk because the entire prison is modeled after Breslin’s guidance to make it escape proof.
The prison is a multistory array of Plexiglas cells suspended in midair with masked armed guards watching over every prisoner. Breslin makes the acquaintance of Emil Rottmayer (played by Schwarzenegger), who is being held because he knows the whereabouts of the secretive European master criminal Mannheim and is periodically grilled for the information he possesses. Breslin eventually realizes that this prison isn’t meant to house criminals – these inmates all have enemies that are paying to keep them locked away and that means that someone is paying for Breslin’s incarceration as well.
Breslin and Rottmayer form an alliance with Javed (leader of the Muslim inmates) and the trio works together and manage to find out where the prison is, get a message to Mannheim, and manufacture a prison riot in order to make their escape. I don’t want to give away too much of the ending but you can rest assured that Arnold shoots a big gun at some point, Breslin beats up some prison guards, and both get to exact some revenge on the prison guards and the person who paid to keep Breslin in prison forever.
The reason I wanted to see this movie was to catch some Stallone and Arnold movie action but except for the big escape at the end there was very little action to be had in this flick. Thanks to the miracle of HGH Stallone can get away with looking like an action figure at 67 and realistically holds his own when he battles the prison guards but at 66 Arnold must be off the juice – he wore long sleeve shirts the entire movie and didn’t get into any physical confrontations except for the occasional sucker punch.
The movie was entertaining enough if you like watching Stallone and Arnold doing their Stallone and Arnold thing but plot wise there were lots of problems with the premise. Let’s say you have unlimited funds and you have a big enemy of yours at your mercy – why are you going to pay to have them put into a super-secret prison when you can easily have them killed (after all you did capture them so you could put them in this prison)? Prison warden Hobbs is told by Breslin's patron to break him and never let him out of the prison so he has his guards beat him up at every opportunity but wouldn't it be simpler, safer, and easier to have Breslin assassinated or have an ‘accident’? Rottmayer needs to be alive because he supposedly has information about the mysterious Mannheim but what about the hundreds of other prisoners? I never understood why they were being kept alive and even if they all had information that still doesn’t explain the need to keep Breslin around.
The other thing I didn’t get about the super prison is if you have a prison with a Plexiglas cell for each prisoner to ensure isolation and visibility what are all these prisoners doing outside their cells en masse for meal and together time? The prisoners have all congregated into gangs, fights between rival factions are commonplace, and there are plenty of chances to Breslin, Rottmayer, and Javed to get together and plot a prison riot and even smuggle a homemade 16th century version of a GPS outside the prison to find out their location. Don’t forget, this is a secret prison and the people who run it are being paid handsomely to keep their inmates from escaping. And of course there are surveillance cameras and microphones everywhere except the doctor’s quarters where all the drugs, scalpels, and needles are held. At times I thought I was watching a remake of ‘MacGyver’ meets ‘Hogan's Heroes’.
If you are lukewarm towards Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger this is not the movie for you. There is only a little action and watching Stallone and Arnold outwit their prison masters is a pretty big stretch. While I did like watching Stallone channel his inner ‘MacGyver’, Arnold was just a big guy in a prison and did very little that I would find Arnold-like. Even Arnold's signature humor was AWOL with his best line being 'You hit like a vegetarian' after taking a punch from Stallone. The major supporting actor is Jim Caviezel as Warden Hobbs who plays his part with the requisite meanness but all the holes in prison security unintentionally make him out to be a village idiot and very hard to take seriously in his battle of wits with Stallone. I enjoy watching Stallone in almost any film so I found the movie to be a decent couple of hours of ‘escapism’ for my $1.50 rental fee but I’m counting it as a blessing that I didn’t get the chance to pay $15 plus popcorn at the movie theatre or I may have had a different opinion entirely.
Speaking of escapes, I played this one minute chess game on the Internet Chess Club just before leaving for work on Monday. Once I got the advantage, there was no escape for Humberto and I’m thinking I would have made a decent prison warden.