The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

The IOC has to go

Jennifer Rubin says what I've been thinking:

I have never been a fan of the Olympics. Or, I should say, I have never been a fan of the International Olympic Committee.

An organization that rewards dictatorial regimes (Russia in 2014, and now China for the second time) with events that attract billions of eyeballs and sappy worldwide coverage — all while punishing athletes who stand up for human rights — is not apolitical or “promoting the Olympic spirit.” It’s making money off and providing cover for brutal regimes that use the Games to burnish their image.

To stage the Games in the midst of China’s genocide of Uyghurs and ongoing repression of Tibet and Hong Kong is an atrocity. To herald the spirit of sports in a police state that is clearly holding tennis star Peng Shuai captive — and worse, staged obvious PR stunts to clear China’s name — is simply grotesque.

The IOC exists to serve the IOC, using people's emotions about the Olympic Games to drive billions in revenue. The IOC's demands of host countries for this cycle shocked Norway into dropping out, "leaving Almaty, Kasakhstan and Beijing as the only remaining cities to host the event." And after the games this month, what will happen to the Olympic Village? Well, Sochi is a ruin; Rio's facilities have been stripped by looters; other recent host countries got half-billion dollar disasters instead of perpetual improvements.

I remember when Chicago put together a bid for the 2016 Games, but voters like me made it painfully clear to the City that we didn't want them here.

The IOC needs to go away, or at least reform significantly. I like the proposal to have the games in Greece permanently, but the IOC, accustomed to working with authoritarian regimes to get the perks of royalty for its management, will never accept that until people stop watching.

The measure of a dictator

Johns Hopkins University professor Eliot Cohen believes Russian President Vladimir Putin played a bad hand well, but that doesn't make him a genius:

Ukraine is a problem for Putin’s Russia not because it may join NATO, but because it is democratizing—slowly, awkwardly, imperfectly—and after 30 years of independence is constructing a new national identity. So, too, have the other former Soviet republics, a number of which (Azerbaijan, for example) have quietly sided with Kyiv. The aim of reconstructing if not the Russian empire, then a 21st-century version of it, is slipping out of Putin’s grip, and he knows it. In many ways, what we’re seeing now from Moscow is a spasm of atavistic postimperial assertion, which, rather like British and French intervention in Egypt in 1956, may begin well but will probably end poorly.

Western strategic clichés usually portray the Russians as incomparably deft chess masters, wily manipulators of the use of force to support policy, who consistently outplay their Western opponents. But that characterization is less true than one might think. Indeed, American and British intelligence were shrewd in warning of Russian false-flag operations and provocations and in naming a range of Ukrainian quislings who were being vetted to take power. These revelations are an antidote to the poisoned needles being prepared by the Russian secret services.

Armed forces reflect their societies, and although Russia is a lot better off than it was in the ’90s, it remains a society with poor public health; a crude, resource-based economy; and a deeply corrupt and self-seeking elite. Russia is also vulnerable to sanctions and cyberattacks. And at the top, the country is led by an aging dictator who does not hear many uncomfortable truths from advisers who know better.

The comparison he makes between Putin and Robert E Lee is instructive. At some point, Putin will make a mistake. Let's all hope NATO can use it wisely.

NotPetya was NotRussia, says court

Via Bruce Schneier, the New Jersey Superior Court has found that the NotPetya attack that disabled much of Merck's shipping network in 2017 was not an act of war by the Russian government, and therefore Merck's insurer may be on the hook for a $1.4 billion payout:

The parties disputed whether the Notpetya malware which affected Merck's computers in 2017 was an instrument of the Russian government, so that the War or Hostile Acts exclusion would apply to the loss.

The Court noted that Merck was a sophisticated and knowledgeable party, but there was no indication that the exclusion had been negotiated since it was in standard language. The Court, therefore, applied, under New Jersey law, the doctrine of construction of insurance contracts that gives prevalence to the reasonable expectations of the insured, even in exceptional circumstances when the literal meaning of the policy is plain.

The Court also noted that under New Jersey law, 'all risks' policies extended coverage to risks not usually contemplated by the parties unless a specific provision excluded the loss from coverage.

36 Group's article included the court order from December 6th. The ruling only applies to New Jersey, but I expect insurance companies will take hard looks at all of their "all risks" policies to see how much exposure they could have to another cyberattack. I suspect insurers will start demanding people protect their networks better, too, the way they have encouraged people to buy safer cars.

It might also bankrupt Ace American Insurance Co., but that won't change the follow-on effects of this ruling.

Monday, Monday

The snow has finally stopped for, we think, a couple of days, and the city has cleared most of the streets already. (Thank you, Mike Bilandic.) What else happened today?

Finally, Weber Grills apologized today for its really unfortunate timing last week, when it emailed thousands of customers a recipe for BBQ meat loaf—on the day singer Meat Loaf died.

Really good Russia analysis

Russian-American journalist Julia Ioffe recently interviewed Russia expert Fiona Hill for Puck. It's worth a read:

Do you think Putin’s going to invade Ukraine? And if so, what form would it take?

I do. I think it’s really the form that it’s going to take. There is still a chance that he won’t, right? And we have to really keep on going with diplomacy. But Putin has run a risk now. He said he’s going to do all of these things. He said he’s not going to invade Ukraine, but so what? They’ve said that the last time and the last time and the time before that. So we don’t buy that one. But he can’t be caught out as bluffing. If we call his bluff, he has to do something, because otherwise none of his threats are credible. He has to do something, and they’ve said “military-technical response.” They’ve been shooting down satellites. There was this cyberattack. They’re showing that they could do an awful lot more. 

The thing is, he’s got no one to stop him at home. He’s got no press resistance at all, no opposition. He’s got everybody running around with their heads cut off abroad. So unless there is a unified pushback, he can do things in the manner of his choosing. I know there’s a lot of East Europeans and a lot of Ukrainians saying, Oh, this is just a bluff, he keeps doing this. But you know, the more they say that also, the more likely it is he’ll do something to teach them a lesson.

People I talk to in Moscow, as well as some in the U.S. government, say that some of this is a product of Putin’s COVID isolation for the last two years; that he barely sees anyone because to see him, you have to quarantine for two weeks; that he’s not getting good information. Do you think that’s plausible?

I think it could be, honestly. I really do think that there’s something strange going on there. He seems more emotional, more focused. Maybe he’s been sitting there, stewing the whole time about this. There’s a good case to be made for that because it’s very strange. There are many people, myself and others, who have followed Putin for his entire time in the presidency and we’re all sort of wondering whether there’s something else going on. Is something wrong? Has this made him confront his mortality? There are other changes around him. Lots of people did get sick around him. Does that make him feel that time might be ticking, in ways we would never have credited?

Those two have more expertise about Russia than exists in Foggy Bottom right now. The whole interview is worth reading.

Invading a region with a glowing history

The shortest path from Russia to Kyiv passes through the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which has suddenly become very popular with Ukrainian army troops:

In one of the incongruities of war, that makes Chernobyl an area that Ukraine thinks it needs to defend, forcing its military to deploy security forces into the eerie and still radioactive forest, where they carry both weapons and equipment to detect radiation exposure.

Two months ago, the government deployed additional forces into the area, because of increased tensions with Russia and Belarus, a Kremlin ally whose border is five miles from the stricken reactor and where Russia has recently moved troops.

Before the Russian buildup, the main security concern in Chernobyl was illegal mushroom picking and collection of scrap metal, activities that risk spreading radiation outside the zone. Police also regularly detain thrill seekers entering illegally for sightseeing.

I wonder how the Russian people would feel if their brothers and sons marched through heavily-irradiated forests towards a dubious war with the West?

The line Boris Johnson crossed

Boris Johnson attending a holiday party the night before Prince Philip's funeral outraged the UK because no one hates anything more than moral hypocrisy:

Moral hypocrisy — behaving badly while simultaneously hectoring the rest of us to do good — evokes a level of anger that neither lying nor wrongdoing bring out on their own, studies have repeatedly found.

Mr. Johnson’s real sin, in this telling, was pushing Britons to go without for the common good, all while his office held events that violated this spirit of shared sacrifice and, by risking viral spread, undermined its effect.

As if to underscore the backlash that such transgressions can bring, the tennis star Novak Djokovic simultaneously faces, after his own long record of controversies never quite catching up with him, severe professional damage over accusations that he fabricated or obfuscated in his application for an exemption to Australia’s Covid vaccination requirement.

The incident has become a flashpoint in global debates over vaccine rules. But it has also inspired fierce anger perhaps in part because, like Mr. Johnson, Mr. Djokovic was seeking to benefit from society’s compliance with those rules, which made Australia safe enough to hold the tournament in which he was scheduled to play. And he has done it while bending or breaking those same rules to satisfy his own desires to avoid the vaccine and travel freely.

They're both reprehensible people. I'm glad they finally got people to understand that to the point where their careers will suffer.

Happy 2nd Covidversary! And 5G...

Yes, today is the second anniversary of the first confirmed Covid-19 case popping up in Washington State. But that's not what this post is about.

No, instead, I want to highlight two articles about why airlines really do not like 5G mobile networks—at least, not the way the US implemented them:

“TO BE BLUNT,” reads a statement from ten U.S. airline executives, “the nation’s commerce will grind to a halt.” That was in a letter sent to the White House, the FAA and the FCC. “Unless our major hubs are cleared to fly,” it continues, “the vast majority of the traveling and shipping public will essentially be grounded.”

There’s perhaps an element of hysteria and hyperbole in play here, as you’d maybe expect. But there’s also a big problem, and unless things are quickly worked out, the potential does exist for massive flight disruptions.

Most of the issue revolves around a cockpit device known as a radar altimeter (sometimes called a “radio altimeter”). Unlike the plane’s primary altimeters, which measure height above a particular barometric pressure level, the radar altimeter measures height above the ground itself. Essentially it bounces a signal off the terrain below and determines its vertical distance, displayed in feet.

What this interference would actually look like, I’m not sure. Would it be some transient flickering? A failure of the instrument? Whatever it might be, the implications of an outside signal messing with this data, when you’re low over the runway in the fog or blowing snow, hardly need explaining.

The FAA has published a list of at-risk runways; there are hundreds of them. Pilots may not land on these runways during low-vis conditions that require a radar altimeter — i.e. Category II or III approaches — without a special authorization. That authorization comes in the form of something called an “alternative means of compliance,” or AMOC. Two types of radar altimeters commonly installed on Boeing and Airbus models have been judged safe for operation into certain runways. For now, however, this AMOC clearance applies only to around 20 percent of the country’s busiest airports.

The entire thing is a mess. And we saw it coming. Airlines, along with pilot unions and other industry groups, have been sounding the alarm on this for the better part of two years.

How did this happen? Well, the previous administration didn't believe that governments should interfere with business, so no one at the FCC (which approved the 5G implementation) discussed it with anyone at the FAA until the FAA blew a gasket. And yet, in other countries, 5G rollouts haven't caused any of these problems. Maybe because the other countries, with their functioning governments, got the implementation right:

The French antennas have permanent safeguards in airport buffer zones that provide more protection than the US ones. Further, the French antennas near airports have to be tilted downward to reduce interference, and the French antennas have far less power. Not mentioned here but also notable is that in Europe, the C-Band spectrum is in the 3.4 to 3.8 GHz range, so it’s further away from the range that radio altimeters use.

The FAA has a handy infographic explaining this in more detail:

It must be nice to live in a country with a functioning government.

Update: The Times columnist Peter Coy has more about the previous administration's political infighting that led us here.

Civis romanus sum

A grand jury convened by the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York has indicted four Belarusian security officials for air piracy:

In response to a purported bomb threat, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, Belarus’s authoritarian president, sent a fighter jet on May 23 to intercept the Ryanair Boeing 737-800 carrying some 170 passengers from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania — among them the journalist, Roman Protasevich. The forcing down of the plane and his seizure led to international outrage.

The bomb threat was a fake, orchestrated by senior Belarus officials who were seeking to detain Mr. Protasevich in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, the indictment says.

The move was seen as a marker of how far Mr. Lukashenko, with the support of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, was willing to go to repress dissent in his country.

The criminal complaint acknowledges that the incident occurred "out of the jurisdiction of any particular State or district of the United States," but 49 USC 46502(b)(2)(A) gives the United States jurisdiction over any unlawful seizure of an aircraft when a US national is onboard. This comes by way of the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Seizure of Aircraft, which the US signed in September 1971 and, here's the thing, Belarus signed on December 30th of the same year.

I doubt that any of the defendants will avail themselves of the American justice system voluntarily. But the SDNY has issued arrest warrants for them, and I expect Interpol will get the warrants soon. And guess what? Belarus is a member of Interpol.

This indictment also won't bring down Lukashenko's government, especially not with Russia's dictator Vladimir Putin needing a pliant Belarus to maintain his own internal power. But the four guys who actually carried out his illegal orders might wind up leaving Belarus in someone's diplomatic bag.

Is the Covid test plan a stealth argument for single-payer? One can dream

New Republic Natalie Shure points out the absolute, crashing idiocy of getting private health insurance companies involved in procuring free Covid testing, because their whole reason for being is to prevent the efficient procurement of health care:

This rollout will be a disaster. And really, that should have been obvious: There’s a reason that the Covid-19 vaccines, monoclonal antibody treatments and antiviral drugs have been made free at the point of use, rather than routed through private insurers. It’s because the insurance industry is structurally incapable of achieving anything universally or efficiently.

That’s not hyperbole, it is by design: The role of private insurers within a for-profit multi-payer system is to restrict access as a gatekeeper, determining who is entitled to use which healthcare services and how much they pay for this. To keep these obligations profitable, they employ an army of claims assessors to argue with you, erect arbitrary hoops for providers and patients to jump through to prove you actually need certain care, raise copays and deductibles as high as possible, and foist as much of the paperwork as possible onto patients.

Insurance companies play the single ghastliest role in a legendarily ghastly healthcare system: Whatever invective you can hurl in Big Pharma’s direction, they at least produce something we actually need. Health insurers offer no value whatsoever; they have nothing to do with care itself and if the industry vaporized completely tomorrow, no one would mourn its demise—we’d all be better off. We’re maddeningly stuck with them for now, owing to a host of reasons ranging from inertia to political capture by industry.

[T]his is an object lesson: We’re in the hands of an industry that was never built to serve patients, a problem which no regulatory tweak will ever fix.

Yes, this is true. I learned that early in my career, leading to a long-standing policy of never working for a health insurer in any capacity.

Let me catalog some of my own experiences when big health-insurance companies have claimed to pay me to write software:

  • The first time, a major health-insurance company hired me to write software using a then-current technology, but the project wasn't ready to start, so they involuntarily put me on a team working with obsolete technology and a process so stultifying I didn't actually get to write code. I literally picked up my signing bonus on the way to several interviews in New York, and quit the day I got back. The entire division got dissolved about a year later.
  • Well into my professional career, I went to another major health-insurance company along with 8 other developers and managers, but under the aegis of a moderately-big consulting firm. The on-site project cost the client of about $150,000 per week. Of course, they couldn't get us network access or even a project charter. After about a month and about $750,000 spent, the company cancelled the project. I never even found out what software they proposed to build, had they gone through with, you know, building it.
  • More recently, a major health-insurance company hired me through a recently-acquired subsidiary as the 6th member of a team writing software in a language less than 3% of software developers ever use. I only took the gig because the subsidiary claimed a level of autonomy from the parent company it did not, in fact, enjoy. It occurred to me less than a week after starting that if the product we were building worked, it would undermine one of the key revenue streams of the parent company. Nevertheless, they hired a new developer to the team about every three weeks (despite an admitted 6-month ramp-up time in the language and product), at an average all-in cost of $18,000 per month per developer. I left after three months, as the team grew past 12 people and yet only completed about 5 function points a week.
    The parent company killed not only the project but also the entire acquired company about two years later. The software never shipped, though I did hear they had completed about half of the planned function points.
    On my way out the door I asked my manager what it said to him that the parent company didn't care about burning $200,000 a month on software that he and I both knew a couple of us could build in a garage in four months. He didn't say anything, but Upton Sinclair did*.

You may not see the connection between these failures, or why I jumped ship so quickly the third time, but it's actually really simple. In all three cases, the companies needed to show their shareholders ongoing investments in technology, and needed to show the general public plans for really great tools to make people's lives better any day now. But the best way any of these companies could have made anyone's lives better would be for the US government to obviate their health divisions by paying for our health care directly.

According to the World Bank, the US spends 17% of GDP on health care, behind only Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands (combined populations: 72,000). The first OECD countries on the list are Switzerland (11.9%), Germany (11.4%), and France (11.3%), all of which have vastly better outcomes than the US. How do they achieve this? By not having fat, bloody leeches draining their health spending on useless bullshit. Example: the National Institutes of Health found in a 2020 study that a staggering 34.2% of health-care expenditures in the US went into administration, compared with just 17% in Canada—and Canada has better health-care outcomes overall than we do.

Shure ends her column with an inescapable truth:

[I]t’s pretty telling that the very moment a life-threatening pandemic necessitated mass vaccination, the idea of involving private health insurance companies with that project was absolutely unthinkable. Who in their right mind would attempt to involve them in something urgent? And if they’re such a dismal way to confer access to Covid-19 testing to anyone who needs it, why the hell are they still playing the role they do in the healthcare system writ large?

Let's end this farce and get real single-payer health care in the US, so we can finally enter the 21st century with the rest of the OECD.

* "It is difficult to get a man to understand a thing when his salary depends on him not understanding it."