Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Facing Up to Putin

 


Ukraine is not Poland.  Putin’s threat to take back all or part of Ukraine is somewhat different from a threat to take part of Poland or Hungary.  Poland, Hungary and other former members of the Warsaw Pact have a history of being independent countries for centuries.  For a thousand years, Ukraine has been more or less a part of Russia.  Under the Soviet Union, Ukraine was the “Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic,” while Poland and the other Warsaw Pact nations remained independent countries, even if in name only.   

The Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, were also SSRs which were part of the Soviet Union, like Ukraine, but they all have much longer and clearer histories of independence than Ukraine.  Putin was not pleased when the Baltic states joined NATO in 2004, and that may be one reason he is so determined not to see Ukraine follow in their footsteps.  Other former Warsaw Pact countries have joined NATO, such as Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania.  The populations of most of the countries of the Russian “near abroad” (countries that used to be part of the old USSR) are happy to be out from under Russia, but there are some individuals who still look to Russia nostalgically.  Russia’s relationship with some of the other “near abroad” countries that have not joined NATO is somewhat murky, such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and the various “stans,” Kazakhstan being the largest.  Turkmenistan became important during the American evacuation from Afghanistan. 

Ukraine’s independence, although it has been a fact for about twenty years, is somewhat like one of the United States, Texas or California, becoming independent. Of course, the Southern states tried this during the Civil War, and the European powers did not intervene to any great extent. 

The main concern in today’s world is that one country should not take another country’s territory by force.  This is exactly the kind of thing that the United Nations and NATO were designed to prevent.  We have had wars for independence and territory in the former Yugoslavia, in Africa, and in other parts of the world.  Ukraine is a somewhat unusual case, and for that reason it may not be a good place to draw a line in the sand that might lead to war.  Putin as posited several “red lines” that he will not tolerate crossing by the West.  Biden has replied that the US will not accept red lines.  However, it does not appear that Ukraine is an ideal place for the West to go to war with Russia.  Russia would be fighting on its own border; it has cultural ties to Ukraine, even if no legal claims.     

On the other hand, we should not appear to give permission to Putin to take part of Ukraine by force or threat.  To do so would appear like the appeasement that did not work with Hitler before World War II.  It might encourage Putin to assert more authority over other countries in Russia’s “near abroad.”  He is clearly nostalgic for the old Soviet Union and all the satellite states it controlled. 

On balance, it looks as if non-military means, such as sanctions, are the best response to Putin’s threats.  Sanctions of any kind are weak and unlikely to harm Putin personally, but they do show that we do not approve of what he is doing.  They may be enough of a nuisance to dissuade him from trying similar moves with other bordering countries.  If Putin expands his threats, then maybe NATO will have to return to its original role as a united front against Russia as it was against the old Soviet Union. 

We don’t yet know exactly what Biden and Putin said in their conversation.  Perhaps their conversation will help determine what our next steps should be. 


 

Putin threatened by working democracy in Ukraine

 

Monday, December 06, 2021

Biden Seeks Nuclear Waste Storage

 

Reuters reports that President Biden is seeking communities that would voluntarily host nuclear wast storage sites.  It’s unlikely that anyone will volunteer given the widespread opposition to nuclear power, but at least Biden is seeking a way to continue to produce electricity from nuclear reactors.  If America is serious about combatting global warming, nuclear power will be necessary.  This voluntary site would replace the Yucca Mountain site which has failed to get approval. 

Thursday, December 02, 2021

Blockchain vs Visa

 The Visa card processing system handles about 1,700 transactions per second. The Bitcoin blockchain can handle about 4.6 transactions per second.  Other blockchains, such as the Ethereum, may be faster but they still cannot approach Visa’s speed. 

Three components of blockchain play off against each other when you try to increase the speed of blockchains.  These elements are decentralization (how many computers maintain records), scalability (how fast each transaction can be processed), and security (how long it takes to verify a transaction).  Usually, to attempt to speed up a blockchain by changing how one of these elements works will adversely affect one or both of the others. 

A block in a blockchain contains a number of transactions.  Each transaction records the buyer, the seller, the amount, etc.  The initial Bitcoin block size was 1 MB, which could hold about 2,759 transactions.  One way to increase the speed would be to make the blocks bigger to hold more transactions.  Thus, processing one block would process many more transactions.  Another way would be to speed up the process of identifying the unique hash code of the block, i.e., Bitcoin mining.  Making the code less difficult might sacrifice security.  Another way would be to speed up the way that the computers maintaining the blockchain database are updated as new blocks are created.  If each of the computers maintaining the blockchain accounting data is not updated before a new transaction is processed, there might be a possibility for double spending. 

Various new coins have tried variations on these changes.  Bitcoin Cash enlarged the old Bitcoin block size, as did Dogecoin and Litecoin.  Technological increases in computer processing speed and data transmission speed would also increase the number of transactions handled without changing the Bitcoin algorithm.  The main downside of increasing processing speed by changing the verification process would be loss of security.  If data is not completely verified before a new transaction is entered, for example, a Bitcoin could be spent twice.    

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Panama Canal

 

In all the talk about infrastructure and supply chair shortages, nobody mentions the Panama Canal, which was a major infrastructure project and could help solve supply chain problems if could accept the large container ships used today.  

The many container ships anchored off the California coast are too big to go through the Panama Canal.  Since they are coming from Asia, any goods destined for the east coast or the mid-west have to be shipped across the country by rail or truck.  It would be more efficient and demand less transit within the US if the ships could reach New York or Baltimore on the east coast, but there is no easy way, whether via the Suez Canal, around Cape Horn or around the Cape of Good Hope. 

The Panama Canal was an amazing construction project which greatly facilitated shipping, but it has become dated and too small for the ships that carry most of the cargo today.  President Biden often talks about Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal; he should also recognize Teddy Roosevelt and his contribution to east-west commerce by overseeing the construction of the Panama Canal. 

Monday, November 29, 2021

Putin and Ukraine

 

Two recent articles on the Foreign Affairs website deal with the question of what Putin plans to do about Ukraine.  Will he invade or not?

·       Russia Won’t Let Ukraine Go Without a Fight

·       Ukraine in the Crosshairs

I think the first ignores the history of the relationship between Russia and Ukraine, while the second tends to downplay the importance of the history.  The second article refers to an essay by Putin on the history of the relationship, calling it “revanchist drivel.” 

There are several matters that may be prompting Putin to threaten to invade Ukraine. 

·       Putin see Ukraine as a historical part of Russia and does not want to see it move further toward the West. He may try to keep it physically under Russian control.   

·       Lukashenko, the Putin-supported president of Belarus is being challenged by a popular movement in Belarus. Putin may fear losing his proxy in Belarus as he did in Ukraine. 

·       Putin’s popularity and support are sinking in Russia as he faces opposition from Navalny and other challengers.  He may think a foreign success will strengthen his support within Russia. 

Ukraine and Russia

For the last thousand years, Ukraine has been an ethnic and geographical region, but not an independent country.  Kiev, founded around 500 A.D., was in many ways the first capital of Russia, before Moscow, founded around 1150, or St. Petersburg (1700). 

In his article, Putin says:

Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are all descendants of Ancient Rus, which was the largest state in Europe. Slavic and other tribes across the vast territory – from Ladoga, Novgorod, and Pskov to Kiev and Chernigov – were bound together by one language (which we now refer to as Old Russian), economic ties, the rule of the princes of the Rurik dynasty, and – after the baptism of Rus – the Orthodox faith. The spiritual choice made by St. Vladimir, who was both Prince of Novgorod and Grand Prince of Kiev, still largely determines our affinity today.

The throne of Kiev held a dominant position in Ancient Rus. This had been the custom since the late 9th century. The Tale of Bygone Years captured for posterity the words of Oleg the Prophet about Kiev, ”Let it be the mother of all Russian cities.“

 

Over the years, as Russia or Poland became more or less powerful and expanded or contracted, parts of Ukraine became more Russian or more Polish.  The western Polish parts tended to be Roman Catholic, while the eastern Russian parts were Orthodox Catholic.  After World Wars I and II, Ukraine became more fully Russian.  The Russian Communists made the Ukraine SSR one of the Socialist Republics which was part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  In 1954, the Crimea region was transferred from the Russian SSR to the Ukrainian SSR, probably to advance the career or Nikita Khrushchev, who was the party official responsible for Ukraine.  Thus, when the USSR disintegrated in 1991, Ukraine, including Crimea, automatically became a separate country for the first time. 

For the first few years of independent Ukraine continued as largely a satellite of the Russian Republic.  In 2004, however, a disputed election resulted in the Ukrainian supreme court overturning the election of Putin’s candidate, Yanukovich.  The opposition to Yanukovich created the Orange Revolution, which brought in opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko as the new president.   Yanukovich, however, returned to power as prime minister in 2006, and after a hiatus, again in 2010. 

Mounting opposition to Yanukovich was expressed in the Euromaidan protests in 2014 resulting in new elections and the election of Petro Poroshenko.  The ousting of Yanukovich, however, prompted Putin to annex Crimea, and return it to Russian rule.  American, Russian, and European political strategists have been involved in the various campaigns for president, including Paul Manafort, who was Donald Trump’s campaign manager for a while.  Manafort worked for the pro-Russian candidates.  In 2019 Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president, replacing Poroshenko.

In addition to annexing Crimea, Putin has used more or less covert military means to bring the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine back into the Russian orbit.  Pro-Russian Ukrainians, supported by covert Russian military, have fought against Ukrainian soldiers.  Reuters reported on November 23 that Russian-controlled forces in Donbas were increasing readiness and hold exercises.   The Atlantic Council reports that on November 15, Putin issued a decree removing trade barriers between Russia and the Donbas region, but not with the pro-Western parts of Ukraine.       

Belarus

Alexander Lukashenko has been Russia’s strongman in Belarus since Belarus became independent in 1994.  He had managed to keep politics relatively quiet until the 2020 election, when protests erupted, somewhat like those in Ukraine in 2004 and 2014. The protests have been led by a blogger, Sergei Tikhanovsky, and presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.  Lukashenko cracked down hard on the protesters with beatings, arrests, and torture.   Lukashenko remains in control, but his 2020 election is not recognized by the UK, the EU, or the US because of election fraud. 

The opposition to Lukashenko, may have Putin worried that he is in danger of losing his man in Minsk, like he lost his man in Kyiv/Kiev.  He may think that some kind of military showing in Ukraine will make the Belarussians think twice about following the Ukrainian example. 

 

Putin’s Hold on Russia

Putin still has a strong hold on Russia, but opposition to him is growing, or at least becoming more visible.  His poisoning and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny and the crackdown on the opposition Navalny led indicate that he is worried.  He may think that an exercise showing Russian military strength in Ukraine would help cement his leadership position in Russia.  Putin would see it as a restoration of Russian greatness, and he would expect nationalist Russians to see it that way as well. 

 


 

Monday, November 22, 2021

Carbon Trading at COP26

 

The carbon trading plan set up by COP26 seems to be vague.  In the reports of it, I don’t see any numbers about how it would work in detail.  The main issue seems to have been how much money would be given to poor countries as part of the arrangement.  The new UN-backed trading system would coordinate with existing carbon trading arrangements, but with no accounting standards that I see described. 

There does not appear to be any enforcement mechanism.  It is basically an undertaking by the governments to “do good” by trading carbon emissions for carbon reductions.  I suppose this is nice, but what we really need is a carbon tax.  We need an agreement that emitting a ton of carbon dioxide will cost x agreed dollars paid into a fund with some kind of agreed distribution system.  Alternatively, the emitter could do something that would absorb the ton of CO2 he emitted, such as plant trees.  It sounds like some countries and localities have trading/tax plans like this, but they are not widespread, and so far, not very effective. 

From my point of view a carbon tax is necessary because it makes it more economically feasible to develop nuclear energy to reduce carbon emissions.  Nuclear power plants are expensive and not competitive with old-style coal and gas power plants, but a real carbon tax would make it more expensive to burn fossil fuels, and would make nuclear more competitive.  The more EVs get their power from nuclear, the less global warming gas is released.  Of course, this true if they are powered by solar or wind, but so far solar and wind are unable to meet the demand. 

Of course, most environmentalists hate nuclear power, but they must decide if they are willing to bring about global warming by running their EVs on coal and gas.  I think that nuclear energy can produce electricity safely, and the environmentalists’ fear of it is not based on science, but prejudice and ignorance. 

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Ice Ages and Climate Change

 Earth has experienced a number of cooling and warming cycles in the last few billion years.  According to Wikipedia, there have been at least five major ice ages in Earth’s history, the first starting about three billion years ago.  The most severe occurred about 300 million years ago.  Earth is currently in an interglacial period, with the last glacial period having ended about 12,000 years ago. 

Scientists posit a number of causes for the cycles of heating and cooling of the Earth, although none seem to be definitive.  Over this period continents and seas have moved.  Land has been covered more by vegetation (darker and heat absorbing) or more by ice (reflecting heat away from Earth).  Many other factors have played roles.  But the main takeaway is that Earth has heated or cooled due to natural cycles for billions of years.  Certainly, the huge increase of manmade carbon dioxide will be important to what happens in the next cycle, but so will natural causes.  Earth has not had a fixed average temperature over its lifetime.  Some scientists think that at one time Earth may have been a “snowball” completely covered in ice. 

In an opposite process from ice ages, is the creation of fossil fuels under what is now desert.  Fossil fuels are remains of dead plants, often found now in places were few plants grow today.  The biggest oil fossil fuel reserves are in Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United States, and Iran.  The largest coal reserves are in the US, Russia, China, Australia, and India.  The vegetation that became these fossil fuels grew in lush, swampy forests, which no longer exist in those locations. 

Although the issue does not come up often in discussions of climate change, we are depleting our deposits of fossil fuels very quickly in relation to the millions of years that it took to create them. 

The other non-renewable source of energy is uranium.  The World Nuclear Association estimates that uranium should be available as a fuel for centuries to come.  It is the 51st most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, about the same as tin.  A lot of processing is necessary to turn uranium into reactor fuel, but a lot of processing is also necessary to turn petroleum from the ground into usable fuel.   

Climate will change.  We have limited control over how it will change.  We should certainly devote our efforts to getting it to change in a good direction.  Mankind can adapt, but we are used to living within a relatively small temperature range.  It would be more pleasant to continue to live within that same temperature range.