Later On

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Archive for May 10th, 2019

Trump has the attention span of a gnat. It’s destroying our foreign policy.

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Anne Applebaum writes in the Washington Post:

“A few sharp victories, some conspicuous acts of personal bravery on the Patriot side and a colorful entry into the capital . . . We shall expect the first victory about the middle of July.”

Those immortal words of advice were given to William Boot, the accidental foreign correspondent who is the hero of Evelyn Waugh’s novel “Scoop.” They came from the fictional newspaper proprietor, Lord Copper, who wasn’t too worried about which side were really “patriots”; he just wanted a happy and rapid end. Waugh’s novel satirized the British press of the 1930s, their empty sensationalism and their disdain for reality. A similar spirit pervades the making of U.S. foreign policy today.

To see what I mean, look again at the extraordinary story published in The Post on Wednesday, describing President Trump’s loss of confidence in his administration’s policy in Venezuela. Since January, the president has been happy to play along with his national security adviser, John Bolton, and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo; together they persuaded him to recognize Juan Guaidó, president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, as the rightful president of Venezuela. But after Guaidó failed recently to bring the Venezuelan army over to his side, it seems the U.S. president, like Lord Copper, began to lose patience.

Now, according to The Post, he praises Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro as a “tough cookie,” he suspects Bolton is trying to drag him into a war, and he is persuaded by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the foreign statesman he most admires, that the United States should not “get involved” in Venezuela, except maybe to offer some humanitarian aid. Never mind that Russia has extensive military contacts in Venezuela, or that the Russian army conducted joint exercises in December with the Venezuelan army, precisely the people who refuse now to abandon a regime that has driven the country into poverty and despair. Trump accepts Putin’s version of events partly because he admires the Russian president, partly because he is ignorant, and mostly because the story has dragged on too long, the victory hasn’t arrived, and there is no “colorful entry into the capital” to show on the evening news.

This impatience has consequences. All over the world, the Trump administration is pursuing a range of policies: tweeting insults at Maduro, negotiating with a defiant North Korea, sending a small fleet of warships to the Persian Gulf to intimidate Iran. But the speed with which the president always sours on these efforts means they can never be part of any discernible strategy. Certainly they don’t reflect any coherent philosophy. Is the United States still in favor of promoting democracy, as some of the proponents of the Venezuela policy claim? Is the United States in the business of courting dictators, which is the essence of the North Korea policy? Does the United States want to flaunt its strength and make other countries afraid, which seems to be the point of the Persian Gulf fleet? Or is the United States now “isolationist,” which is why the administration is keeping silent about a new Russian offensive in Syria, the early stages of which Trump pushed back against in 2017?

A handful of sycophants is still trying to knit all of these policies into some kind of coherent argument — it’s all about “America First,” didn’t you know? — but the truth is that the United States is now in thrall to a president who will trash any of his employees’ initiatives if they don’t produce “wins” for his core television audience. North Korea has been hastily forgotten; the same fate awaits Venezuela and, if nothing happens, Iran. U.S. administrations have always had short attention spans, and the U.S. government has never had much of an appetite for drawn-out conflicts. But this administration has the attention span of a bored, petulant, channel-surfing septuagenarian looking for something juicy to watch on his extra-large screen. In other words, this administration has the attention span of a gnat.

Even in the best of times, the United States’ ability to influence events in faraway places is limited. The tools we have, from soft power and diplomacy to sanctions and bombing campaigns, are never guaranteed to succeed. The best strategies take years, even decades, to achieve anything at all: The Cold War was won, in part, thanks to small investments in the journalism of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, all of which would have looked like a waste of money in the 1960s, or even the 1980s. But successive administrations kept them up because they were part of a larger plan, and an international orientation that Democrats and Republicans alike accepted.

Now there is no plan; there is only whim and instinct. There is no international orientation either, just a series of hasty unplanned, unexamined decisions, followed by Twitter tantrums. A wise administration would have . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

10 May 2019 at 8:46 pm

The female palmate octopus is striking; the male, not so much

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This is a photo from “Winners of the 2019 BigPicture Natural World Photography Competition.” This is the second of a whole series of striking photos, but this one in particular caught my eye. The description by Alan Taylor in the Atlantic reads:

Aquatic Life Finalist. Looking lavish and looming large are key survival strategies for this female palmate octopus. While males of the species are dwarves, measuring only about 15 millimeters (less than an inch) in length, fully grown females often stretch up to 2 meters (6.6 feet [more than 130 times as big as the maie – LG]), trailing eye-catching membranes from two of their elongated arms as they cruise the open ocean. When threatened, a female will extend her skirtlike membrane and wave it like a billowing banner. This dramatic display increases the size of her silhouette and is often enough to deter predators. In the face of a fiercely determined attacker, however, the octopus can quickly detach parts of her membrane along visible “fracture” lines and send a distracting chunk spiraling through the water like a bullfighter’s cape, giving her time to make her escape.

Written by Leisureguy

10 May 2019 at 4:10 pm

Posted in Daily life, Science

Inside Facebook, the second-class workers who do the hardest job are waging a quiet battle

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Facebook is really wearing out its welcome by showing a very ugly side. Elizabeth Dwoskin reports in the Washington Post:

The thousands of people who do the bulk of Facebook’s work keeping the site free of suicides, massacres and other graphic posts are not Facebook employees. As contractors employed by outsourcing firms, these content moderators don’t get Facebook’s cushy six-month maternity leave, aren’t allowed to invite friends or family to the company cafeteria, and earn a starting wage that is 14 percent of the median Facebook salary.

But for the past seven months, roughly a dozen moderators in the United States have been spearheading a quiet campaign inside the social media giant to air their grievances about unsatisfactory working conditions and their status as second-class citizens. The contractors, who have not previously spoken publicly about their efforts, are using their access to Facebook Workplace, the social network’s internal communication system, to wage their battle. The moderators, who work for Facebook through their employer, Accenture, have also been having heated conversations with Accenture management over working conditions.

In the posts and conversations, the contractors have protested micromanagement, pay cuts and inadequate counseling support while doing some of Facebook’s most psychologically taxing jobs. Thousands of employees have seen or commented on the Workplace messages, according to a Washington Post review of them.

A counselor in Austin, who is one of five on staff for roughly 450 moderators spread across several offices in the Texas capital, said the job could cause a form of post-traumatic stress disorder known as vicarious trauma.

“I mean this non-facetiously: why do we contract out work that’s obviously vital to the health of the company and the products we build?” a full-time Facebook product manager who read one of the letters on Workplace asked his colleagues in a chat thread.

In becoming more vocal, moderators are starting to recognize their centrality to the reputations of some of the world’s wealthiest companies — and expanding a conversation about labor rights to a workforce that has historically operated in the shadows. Facebook, Google-owned YouTube, and Twitter uphold content moderation as a key component in the fight against abuse of their services by actors such as Russian operatives and violent extremists. In the past couple years, the companies have hired through outsourcing firms thousands of moderators, who watch or read traumatic posts about suicides, mass murders and child pornography, and must quickly make a decision about whether to leave them up or take them down based on whether they violate the companies’ policies.

“[Facebook CEO Mark] Zuckerberg talks about us all the time, but then we’re not even on his payroll,” one moderator involved in posting the letters said in an interview.

Tech giants don’t include moderators or other contractors such as bus drivers and cafeteria workers in their official headcounts, though all contractors make up at least 40 percent of the workforce at companies such as Google and Facebook. And until recently, operations involving moderation were so secretive that none of the companies that use these workers disclosed site locations and names of outsourcing firms. That secrecy, also enforced through strict confidentiality agreements that prevent workers from talking about the job, posting about work locations or inviting visitors to the office, increases the sense of isolation among moderators — though companies say it is for their own safety because the decisions they make are controversial.

Among Silicon Valley firms, Facebook in particular has recently made efforts to improve conditions for moderators, including guaranteeing access to counseling services for workers worldwide, allowing unlimited “wellness time” during which workers can receive counseling, and instructing outsourcing firms not to pressure moderators to meet quotas. (The moderators interviewed by The Post say that in practice, their wellness time is far more restricted and that constant measurement for accuracy is as pressurizing as a quota.) The company employs four psychologists globally who design “resilience” programs for moderator mental health.

“Finding the right balance between content reviewer well-being and resiliency, quality, and productivity to ensure that we are getting to reports as quickly as possible for our community that is reporting content or might need help is very challenging at the scale we operate in,” Facebook spokeswoman Carolyn Glanville said. “We are continually working to get this balance right and improving our operations.”

Accenture said in a statement that it regularly offers content moderators opportunities to advance and wage increases. “We proactively take input from our people and use that input to help shape their experience — and we work closely with Facebook to address,” Accenture said. “As a talent and innovation-led organization, helping our people achieve their aspirations is a priority.”

Facebook is under pressure to

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Written by Leisureguy

10 May 2019 at 9:10 am

What Mueller Found on Russia and on Obstruction: A First Analysis

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Scott R. Anderson, Victoria Clark, Mikhaila Fogel, Sarah Grant, Susan Hennessey, Matthew Kahn, Quinta Jurecic, Lev Sugarman, Margaret Taylor, and Benjamin Wittes write at Lawfare:

Really the best day since he got elected,” said Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counselor, about a day on which 400 pages dropped into the public’s lap describing relentless presidential misconduct and serial engagements between his campaign and a foreign actor. The weeks-long lag between Attorney General William Barr’s announcement of Robert Mueller’s top-line findings and the release of the Mueller report itself created space for an alternate reality in which the document released today might give rise to such a statement. But the cries of vindication do not survive even the most cursory examination of the document itself.

No, Mueller did not find a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, and no, he did not conclude that President Trump had obstructed justice. But Mueller emphatically did not find that there had been “no collusion” either. Indeed, he described in page after damning page a dramatic pattern of Russian outreach to figures close to the president, including to Trump’s campaign and his business; Mueller described receptivity to this outreach on the part of those figures; he described a positive eagerness on the part of the Trump campaign to benefit from illegal Russian activity and that of its cutouts; he described serial lies about it all. And he described as well a pattern of behavior on the part of the president in his interactions with law enforcement that is simply incompatible with the president’s duty to “take care” that the laws are “faithfully executed”—a pattern Mueller explicitly declined to conclude did not obstruct justice.

The Mueller report is a document this country will be absorbing for months to come. Below is a first crack at analyzing the features that are most salient to us.

The report answers a great many questions, resolving a raft of concerning issues that had cried out for public resolution. Some of these questions it resolves in Trump’s favor, thereby reducing the long list of concerns that reasonable people will harbor about the president. But by creating a rigorous factual record concerning both Russian intervention in 2016 and presidential obstruction of the effort to investigate that intervention, the report poses other questions acutely. Most importantly, it poses the question of whether this conduct is acceptable—not whether it’s lawful or prosecutable or whether the evidence is admissible, but whether as a nation we choose to accept it, and if not, what means we exercise to reject it. Mueller is not a political figure, but the record he has created puts these fundamentally political questions squarely before us.

Before turning to what’s in the Mueller report, let’s pause a moment to note something that’s not in it: classified information. The document contains no so-called “portion marking,” which denotes classified material. While it describes sensitive intelligence matters, it does so in an unclassified manner. What’s more, it is almost entirely devoid of discussion of the counterintelligence equities at issue in the Russia matter. This is a prosecutor’s report, focused entirely on application of fact to criminal laws and to assessment of whether legal standards were met. The report indicates that the counterintelligence components of the investigation remained with the FBI, with Mueller’s office passing counterintelligence material produced over the course of the investigation back to the bureau. This is a document summarizing a criminal probe and the thinking of the prosecutors who ran it—not a document describing the management of threats to the country.

Like the report itself, we begin with Mueller’s resolution of matters related to Russia.

Results of the Russia Investigation

Consistent with the special counsel’s mandate, the first volume of the Mueller report focuses on “the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.” Toward this end, its first two substantive sections go into depth on Russia’s “active measures” social media campaign, as well as the “hacking and dumping” operations through which it accessed and disseminated private emails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and others. Both provide a fascinating account of Russian influence operations, but neither adds much to the indictments that the Mueller team has previously filed against involved persons. Instead, the important element of Volume 1 is the discussion of “Russian government links to and contacts with the Trump campaign”—or the possibility of what some might describe as “collusion.”

As the report is careful to explain, “collusion” is neither a criminal offense nor a legal term of art with a clear definition, despite its frequent use in discussions of the special counsel’s mandate. Mueller and his team instead examined the relationships between members of the Trump campaign and the Russian government through the far narrower lens of criminal conspiracy. To establish a criminal conspiracy, a prosecutor must show, among other elements, that two or more persons agreed to either violate a federal criminal law or defraud the United States. This “meeting of the minds” is ultimately the piece the Mueller team felt it could not prove, leading it not to pursue any conspiracy charges against members of the Trump campaign, even as it pursued them against Russian agents.

This conclusion is far from the full vindication that chants of “no collusion” imply, a fact driven home by the detailed factual record the Mueller report puts forward. In some cases, there was indeed a meeting of the minds between Trump campaign officials and Russia, just not in pursuit of a criminal objective. In others, members of the Trump campaign acted criminally—as evidenced by the guilty pleas and indictments that the Mueller team secured—but did so on their own. At times, these efforts even worked toward the same objective as the Russian government, but on seemingly parallel tracks as opposed to in coordination. None of this amounted to a criminal conspiracy that the Mueller team believed it could prove beyond a reasonable doubt. But the dense network of interactions, missed opportunities, and shared objectives between the Trump campaign and the Russian government remains profoundly disturbing.

This report shows that the Trump campaign was reasonably aware of the Russian efforts, at least on the hacking side. They were aware the Russians sought to help them win. They welcomed that assistance. Instead of warning the American public, they devised a public relations and campaign strategy that sought to capitalize on Russia’s illicit assistance. In other words, the Russians and the Trump campaign shared a common goal, and each side worked to achieve that goal with basic knowledge of the other side’s intention. They just didn’t agree to work toward that goal together.

Importantly, the report includes several areas in which the Mueller report really does meaningfully exonerate the Trump campaign.

First, while the report notes that some Trump campaign members shared tweets from Internet Research Agency (IRA)-controlled accounts and even agreed to assist in promoting IRA-devised rallies, the special counsel investigation did not conclude that any official of the Trump campaign was aware the solicitations were coming from foreign persons. Being duped is not the same as committing a crime, and Mueller conclusively puts to rest the question of whether the Trump campaign was somehow aiding the Russian social media operation.

Second, the Mueller report answers lingering questions about a number of previously reported events about which people harbored reasonable suspicions. The Mueller team examined the reported contacts between campaign members, including Jared Kushner and Jeff Sessions, with Sergey Kislyak at the Mayflower Hotel in April 2016 and found that the conversations were brief and nonsubstantive, and took place in public. Similarly, Mueller examined contacts between then-Senator Sessions and Kislyak at Sessions’s Senate office in September 2016 and determined that the two did not discuss anything related to the election. That is consistent with Sessions’s account of the matter and effectively clears him on the question; nothing untoward seems to have occured.

Additionally, the special counsel’s office describes a set of interactions between campaign members—in particular, Kushner—and the head of a D.C.-based think tank, the Center for the National Interest (CNI). The investigation found no evidence that CNI facilitated back channels between the campaign and the Russian government.

Finally, the special counsel’s report puts to rest suggestions that the Republican National Convention platform on Ukraine was altered at the direction of Trump or Russia. While Trump advisor J.D. Gordon did champion an effort on behalf of the campaign to soften a proposed amendment to the Republican Party platform on supporting Ukraine against Russian aggression, the report makes clear that Gordon was not directed to seek the change by Trump. He did so after deciding that the change would better align the platform with Trump’s stated policy.

So that’s all good news for Trump. Reporting on these matters had accurately described these events as having occurred, but the Mueller report should end speculation that they were evidence of collusion or anything untoward.

The rest of the report is far less rosey for Trump World.

While the report does not find criminal conspiracy between Trump associates and Russia, it describes a set of contacts that may not involve chargeable criminality but might reasonably be described as “collusion.” In some of these cases, there was a clear “meeting of the minds”—or an effort to establish one—between members of the Trump campaign and agents of the Russian government, but the object of that agreement was not a federal crime. If these episodes fall short of a criminal conspiracy, they nonetheless reveal an alarming reality.

The report details numerous contacts during the presidential campaign, some of which are well known—for example, the cases of George Papadopoulos and Carter Page, two low-level recruits to the Trump campaign’s foreign policy team who became the focus of efforts by Russian agents to cultivate a relationship. A higher profile case is that of Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort. The report describes Manafort’s extensive ties to Russia in detail, ties he cultivated through his prior work for Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska and the former Russian-backed government in Ukraine. Throughout his time with the Trump campaign—Manafort resigned in August 2016 but continued to advise the Trump campaign through at least November—Manafort maintained consistent contact with his “longtime” associate Konstantin Kilimnik, a Ukrainian who, according to the report, “the FBI assesses to have ties to Russian intelligence.” Kilimnik attempted to have Manafort pass along a peace plan for Ukraine that Manafort acknowledged to be friendly to Russian interests, though the Mueller team was unable to identify evidence that Manafort did so. Manafort in turn instructed his deputy Rick Gates to provide Kilimnik with polling data and other information regarding the Trump campaign’s electoral strategy, which he understood would be passed on to Deripaska and others.

A particularly troubling example is the protracted negotiation over the Trump Tower Moscow project, in which President Trump was personally involved. In September 2015, the Trump Organization, acting through attorney Michael Cohen, restarted negotiations over a possible Trump Tower project in Moscow that had fallen through several years prior. Trump himself signed a letter of intent for the project in October 2015, on the same day as the third Republican primary debate. One of Cohen’s interlocutors on the deal, businessman Felix Sater, repeatedly raised the possibility of using the deal to enhance Trump’s electoral prospects. In January 2016, Cohen reached out to Russian officials in an attempt to contact Russian President Vladimir Putin and secure support for the project, which ultimately resulted in an invitation for Cohen to visit Moscow to discuss it. Cohen also raised the prospect of Trump himself visiting Russia to discuss the deal, once in late 2015 and again in spring 2016—a possibility that Cohen indicated Trump was open to if it would facilitate the deal. Neither trip came together. Cohen ultimately pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about how long into 2016 the Trump Tower Moscow project was negotiated and Trump’s personal knowledge of it.

There are other examples too. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and it’s interesting.

Written by Leisureguy

10 May 2019 at 8:57 am

Leviathan for a big day

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Leviathan is a resonant name for me. In my sophomore year it was the subject of my annual essay (the book by Hobbes, that is), and I also love the shave soap. My EJ synthetic did its usual fine job on the lather front, and then my RazoRock Game Changer cleared the stubble easily and comfortable. The handle, you note, is smooth, but it’s not for me a problem, and of course the ribs help with a secure grip. A splash of the aftershave—and I’ll again mention my practice of always giving a good shake to aftershave splashes before opening the bottle, to ensure a good mix—and the day begins.

Today will include a trip to Murchie’s, a landmark destination for tea drinkers, and it’s just a door or two away from Munro’s Books, a landmark destination for book readers, particularly those who like Alice Munro’s fiction. (The bookshop’s founders are Jim Munro and his first wife Alice Munro, who began writing after reading some of the books being sold and deciding that she could write better than that.)

Written by Leisureguy

10 May 2019 at 7:46 am

Posted in Daily life, Shaving

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