31 March 2014

Golgotha on steroids

Ella Morton has a Slate article about an unusual destination:
Should you ever feel the urge to be surrounded by Christianity's best-known symbol, head to the Hill of Crosses in northern Lithuania.
Crosses have been accumulating on the mound of this former fort since the fourteenth century, when the Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire occupied the nearby city of Šiauliai. New crosses tend to appear during periods of occupation or unrest as symbols for Lithuanian independence. This was particularly evident during a peasant uprising against Russian control in 1831, when people began placing crucifixes in remembrance of missing and dead rebels. By 1895, there were a hundred and fifty large crosses on the site. In 1940, the number had grown to four hundred.
During the Soviet occupation, which lasted from 1944 to 1991, the Hill of Crosses was bulldozed three times. Each time, locals and pilgrims returned to put up more crosses. The site achieved worldwide fame among Catholics when Pope John Paul II visited in 1993 to thank Lithuanians for their enduring symbol of faith.
There are now approximately a hundred thousand crosses on the hill. The faithful are welcome to add their contribution, in whatever form they wish; a crucifix made of Legos recently joined the collection.
Rico says not his kinda place, but interesting...

Gubs for the day

David Rosenberg, the editor of Slate’s Behold blog, who has worked as a photo editor for fifteen years and is a tennis junkie, has a Slate article by about gubs in America:
In early 2013, on a five-day assignment for the German magazine Stern, photographer Charles Ommanney traveled around the United States photographing Americans with their guns. Ommanney has built a career working as a political and documentary photographer and felt a responsibility to make a story that wasn’t just another “predictable NRA-bashing”. He wanted to see “real” people to find out why they wanted to have guns in their homes. He also decided to shoot the project in a more engaged manner with his subjects instead of simply being a fly on the wall.
Ommanney said the project took him to six states in the Southern and Western United States, where he met people who owned guns for protection, as preparation for when things go “horribly wrong,” or simply because they like the beauty of weaponry. Instead of photographing the gun owners at a firing range or at a National Rifle Association conference, Ommanney wanted to capture them in their homes to create a sense of “normalcy.”
The British-born Ommanney was surprised by the ease at which the gun owners in America felt comfortable being photographed for this project. “I can’t imagine going around England and knocking on someone’s door and saying ‘I’d like to photograph you with your shotgun',” Ommanney said. “They would look at me like I was a lunatic. But for these people, there was nothing in any shape or form abnormal about me wanting to do this; their guns were a perfectly normal extension of their lives.”
Ommanney’s favorite photos exhibit this idea of normalcy, including one of Loigrand De Angelis, who posed for Ommanney with his young son. “At first glance it’s just a dad with a baby in a Baby Bjorn on his chest, and then you take a second look and you see he’s strapped up with a 9mm just inches away from his baby; he never takes that thing off,” Ommanney said.
Another image, of teenager Elizabeth Lamont with her gun at home in Virginia, was remarkable for Ommanney because it contrasts Lamont’s innocence juxtaposed with a deadly weapon. Ommanney was struck by Lamont’s all-American looks and bedroom décor, as well as by her admitting doubt about whether she could actually fire a weapon at another person if she needed to.  “That a seventeen-year-old girl could even be thinking about that is so foreign to me,” Ommanney said.
From an elderly woman who kept a gun because her mother had been murdered, to a family with two young girls who were well-versed at stripping down an M16 assault rifle, Ommanney’s series is a striking cross-section of gun ownership in America. 
Rico says WHAT

Oops is, yet again, a police term

Josh Voohees has a Slate article about excessive force:
"We've been training for this event for several months now," Tucson, Arizona police Sergeant Pete Dugan said in praise of his department's handling of the large, unruly crowd that gathered downtown the previous night following the University of Arizona men's basketball team's overtime loss in the NCAA tournament. "It got a little rowdy and it got a little violent, but no businesses suffered any damage."
It's unclear which category, "rowdy or violent", Dugan would label the blind-side body check leveled upon an unsuspecting woman by one of his department's riot gear-clad police officers (video, above).
Tuscon police say the video, which was published by the Arizona Daily Star over the weekend, is currently being reviewed by the department's internal affairs division. To be fair, it's a relatively short clip without a whole lot of context. Regardless, it's mighty difficult to construct a narrative that required the police officer to respond with that degree of force. Here's how Phoebe Landolt, the person who shot the video, summed things up in an interview with the local paper: "These girls had been trying to get to their car. The girl is on her phone not paying attention and this cop came out of nowhere and just leveled her," Landolt said. "After that everyone just started yelling and she started crying."
Police arrested a total of fifteen people, nine of whom were students, during the night, which saw fans reportedly hurl beer bottles and firecrackers at officers. Officers responded with pepper spray and pepper balls, more than a few of which hit this guy, Alexander Davidson, who was among those taken into custody:

Rico says ya gotta be stoned to take a half-dozen pepper balls in the chest and keep smiling while the police tackle you (see the video here)...

Not the plane, dammit

Josh Voorhees has a Slate article about the latest in the search for the missing plane:
Those searching a patch of the southern Indian Ocean for debris from Flight 370 just got their latest reminder that the sea is full of trash and other objects that have nothing to do with the missing jetliner, via USA Today:
Orange objects spotted by a search plane hunting for wreckage from the missing Malaysia Airlines jet turned out to be nothing more than fishing equipment, Australian officials said.
On Sunday, an Australian pilot searching for the plane, which was lost with 239 people aboard, a majority of them from China, said his crew spotted four orange items that could serve as a "promising lead" in the investigation. But Jesse Platts, a spokesman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, said the objects had been analyzed, and officials had confirmed "they have nothing to do with the missing flight".
Despite the latest false lead, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott suggested that Australia has no plans on giving up the search any time soon. The prime minister told reporters in Perth, which is serving as the base for the search, that searchers are "well, well short" of any point where they would scale back the hunt, despite the fact that none of the objects spotted on satellite or from the air have been definitively linked to Flight 370. "We owe it to everyone to do whatever we reasonably can and we can keep searching for quite some time to come," he said, according to The Associated Press. "And, as I said, the intensity of our search and the magnitude of operations is increasing, not decreasing."
Rico says he hopes they find something soon...

Batshit, indeed

Rico's friend Kelley also forwards a classic Dilbert:

Today's Dilbert. It made my day. I first encountered this phenomena of "techno-speak" when I was in the Army, where we'd "utilize the vehicle" instead of "take the truck". It's driven me batshit to this day.

Scam for the day

Date: March 31, 2014 at 14:12:30 EDT
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Subject: [***** SPAM 10.8 *****] Headquarters 2 (HQ2): International Monetary Fund Washington, DC, 20431,USA
Reply-To: mrscarmanlapointe@hotmail.com



Headquarters 2 (HQ2):
International Monetary Fund
Washington, DC, 20431,USA

 The IMF's mandate and governance have evolved along with changes in the global economy.It is important to note that your payment release of $5m has just been approved by the international monetary fund (IMF)to be delivered to you through diplomatic cash delivery Payment option A4/2014 through a sealed trunk box consignment because the ATM CARD PAYMENT OPTION AND BANK TRANSFER OPTION has been bastardized/abused by unauthorized officials and therefor we close both ATM/BANK TRANSFER PAYMENT OPTION  by this honorable organization in-order to safe you from payment delays  and other unforeseen problems that  might arise so we have decided to make this consignment delivery through this  office from a very confidential location IN USA where we can dictate the pace of the delivery by ourselves where we will have total control of the airport and customs to avoid  unnecessary demands without public knowledge to make sure that the consignment departure is done very confidential for the sake of the safety of the content.

Kindly forward your full name and address,including your telephone number and valid identity so that we can commence the delivery immediately.

Before departure of the  consignment the  courier tracking number of the transit consignment that will be used by you to monitor your consignment online until arrival at your doorstep will be issued to you  to confirm that the consignment is indeed on transit so that the CONSIGNMENT TRANSIT INSURANCE and COURT AFFIDAVIT  from a reliable court in USA  will be obtained to cover your consignment on transit for a safe arrival and this office will also issue you a valid UNITED NATION DELIVERY APPROVAL covering you as the legal and valid beneficiary.

Respond immediately or you will not be contacted again and the payment cancelled which will be to your detriment.

Waiting to hear from you.

Yours Faithfully,
IMF diplomatic payment coordinator
Under the
IMF's Monetary and Exchange Affairs Department


God moves in mysterious ways...

Rico's friend Kelley also forwards this, from The Daily Beast, via the Santa Maria, California Times, with the note, "File this under 'In'sh allah'":
A 43-year-old man who was reportedly swept out to sea at the Rancho Guadalupe Dunes Preserve during a baptism ceremony this morning, had not been located as of 6 pm, according to the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.
The man was swept out with two other people just before 10 am, according to Mauro Cervantes, the pastor of the Santa Maria, California church Jesus Christ Light of the Sky.
The other two people were able to return to shore, he said. Emergency crews responded to the beach and began searching as a group of participants in the baptism ceremony, most of whom were speaking Spanish, waited in the parking lot.
Cervantes said there were about 25 people at the ceremony a couple of hundred yards north of the parking lot. The church performs such baptism ceremonies two or three times a year, he said. Cervantes did not identify the missing man.
In addition to Santa Barbara County fire crews and the agency’s water rescue team, others helping search for the missing man were from Guadalupe, Vandenberg, and Santa Maria fire departments and the Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue team. Also involved were helicopters from the county Air Support Unit plus the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard also sent a vessel from Morro Bay, according to Captain David Sadecki of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.
Diondray Wiley, a battalion chief with the county fire department, said the search was being conducted to the south of the spot that the man disappeared because of the ocean currents.
Rico says why are all these agencies working so hard (and so expensively) when Jesus will save him?

Air bursts?

Rico's friend Kelley forwards this:

Saw this with morning coffee on Yahoo. It was the illustration for a North Korea/South Korea-shooting-missiles story. Unfortunately, it was not repeated in the main body of the story. I have never seen doughnut airbursts like these. Have you?
Rico says he suspects a liberal interpretation of what an air burst looks like by the illustrator...

History for the day

On 31 March 1968, President Lyndon Baines Johnson stunned the country by announcing he would not run for another term of office.

Apple for the day

The New York Times has an article by Brian Chen about the wars of Silicon Valley:
Officially, it’s Apple v Samsung Electronics in another tech patent face-off in a San Jose, California courtroom this week. But there is another company with a lot at stake in the case: Google.
In a lawsuit, Apple is seeking about two billion dollars in damages from Samsung for selling phones and tablets that Apple says violate five of its mobile software patents. Samsung, meanwhile, says Apple violated two of its patents.
Some features in Samsung devices that Apple objects to are part of Google’s Android operating system, by far the most popular mobile operating system worldwide, running on more than a billion devices made by many manufacturers. That means that, if Apple wins, Google could have to make changes to critical Android features, and Samsung and other Android phone makers might have to modify the software on their phones.
Google’s been lurking in the background of all these cases because of the Android system,” said Mark P. McKenna, a professor who teaches intellectual property law at Notre Dame. “Several people have described the initial battle between Samsung and Apple as really one between Apple and Google.”
Representatives for Apple, Samsung, and Google declined to comment.
The current case, which begins jury selection soon, is the second major court battle over patents between Apple and Samsung, which rode the success of Android to become the biggest handset maker in the world. Samsung lost the first case in 2012, and it was ordered to pay nearly a billion dollars in damages.
That amount is pocket change for Apple, one of the richest companies in the world. And it hardly interfered with Samsung’s ability to sell phones: The company, which is based in South Korea, shipped over three hundred million handsets last year, according to the research firm IDC.
So this second fight has to be about more than money, said James Bessen, a law lecturer at Boston University. He said that, if Apple just wanted money, it would have already agreed to settle. Still, going after Google by attacking Samsung is difficult, Bessen said. Both Google and Samsung could alter features to avoid infringing on patents. And by the time the trial and appeals are finished, newer devices will have supplanted the products in question. “To kill Android with a half-dozen patents,” Bessen said, “just seems like a long shot.”
Long shot or not, combating Google’s Android system was a cherished goal of Steve Jobs, Apple’s co-founder and chief executive, who died in 2011. He called Android a knockoff of the iPhone and told his biographer, Walter Isaacson, that he was willing to go to “thermonuclear war” just to kill Android. He also told Isaacson that Apple’s past patent lawsuit against HTC, another Android handset maker, was about Google all along.
“I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product,” Jobs was quoted as saying in Isaacson’s book Steve Jobs.
In the case set to open this week, Apple’s legal complaint aims at some of the features that Google, not Samsung, put in Android, like the ability to tap on a phone number inside a text message to dial the number. And, although Google is not a defendant in this case, some of its executives are expected to testify as witnesses.
Apple has a long history of choosing battles against what it views as copycats. In 1988, the company sued Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard, claiming that software programs sold by the two companies, including Windows, infringed on Apple’s copyrights on how information was presented on the Macintosh operating system. After a four-year legal struggle, Apple lost on nearly all its claims.
Apple filed its latest complaint against Samsung over two years ago in the Federal District Court in San Jose, California, accusing Samsung of infringing on software patents involving both the iPhone and iPad, including the “slide-to-unlock” feature for logging in, and universal search, the ability to look up items across the device and on the Internet at the same time.
For those patents, Apple wants forty dollars per infringing Samsung device sold in the United States. Apple lists several Samsung products that it says violated its patents, including the popular Galaxy S III, which at one point surpassed the iPhone in sales, and the Galaxy Note II. “Instead of pursuing independent product development, Samsung slavishly copied Apple’s innovative technology,” Apple said in its complaint.
Samsung says Apple has infringed on patents covering how a photo album is organized, as well as a method for transmitting video over a wireless network. It bought these patents from Hitachi and a group of American inventors.
The case will be tried by a jury of four and is expected to last a month. Apple’s lawyers plan to argue that, by copying the features of Apple’s devices and then selling millions of phones, Samsung harmed Apple, because people who bought Samsung phones presumably would have otherwise bought iPhones. Apple will probably try to illustrate that Samsung is a copy machine, not an innovator, by pointing out that the two patents Samsung says were infringed on are not based on Samsung’s own ideas, because they were acquired from other inventors.
Samsung’s lawyers will try to argue that Apple’s patents are invalid by demonstrating that similar software features were being developed by Google and others before the iPhone was released. They will also probably argue that Apple’s complaint poses a threat to competition because the patents Apple says were infringed on broadly cover Android, meaning other phone manufacturers could be dragged in to the dispute.
Expected witnesses include Philip W. Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president for worldwide marketing; Todd Pendleton, chief marketing officer of Samsung’s American division; and Hiroshi Lockheimer, a vice president for engineering in Google’s Android division.
Apple does have some advantages entering the trial. It won the last fight with Samsung, which might carry weight with jurors trying to decide if Samsung again infringed on patents. And the judge, Lucy H. Koh, who also oversaw the last trial, has already decided that Samsung infringed on one of Apple’s patents covering a method for automatically correcting incomplete or misspelled words while a person is typing. So Samsung is already down one.
That does not necessarily make this an easy fight. To streamline the trial, Judge Koh limited the number of patents each company could assert were infringed on. Apple must argue that just a few patented features are worth a great deal of money, when there are thousands of other patented inventions that make a smartphone tick. “When you have a case where a party comes in with a handful of patents and says, these are the really important ones, these are the patents that are worth several dollars apiece per phone, from a simple economic standpoint, that doesn’t make a lot of sense,” said Brian J. Love, a law professor who teaches patent law at Santa Clara University.
In January of 2014, the companies’ top executives met with a mediator to discuss a possible settlement, but to no avail. Settling would be difficult for either company, in any case, given their clashing business strategies.
Apple’s approach is to develop software that runs exclusively on its hardware, and the company generally does not license its patents, because it hopes that may prevent others from reproducing its products.
Samsung has found success in making all kinds of products, like washing machines and refrigerators, or smartphones and television sets. It is unlikely it would tear features out of its best-selling smartphones without putting up a fight.
Rico says hide and watch; this one's gonna get ugly... (But making washing machines and refrigerators generally doesn't get you smart software designers.)

Russian brands to boycott

Rico says we don't have a lot of ways to punish the Russians for bad behavior, shy of a real war, so The Street has some suggestions by Eric Reed, a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel, on ways to do it without shooting:
Russian President Vladimir Putin has horrified onlookers in the West with his sketchy tactics in the Ukraine. Yet foreign affairs can be a frustrating topic. Most of the time the issues seem too far away for any of us to turn our ideological protests into action.
Times like now, when a foreign power has staged the first European land grab in nearly eighty years, we want a voice. Plenty of Americans object to Russia's invasion of the Crimea, but don't know what to do about it.
Fortunately, like the US government, we can always fall back on sanctions. For people who want to reach the world through their wallets, they can try boycotting Russian products, a simple way to send a message overseas. Although caricatured strongmen wouldn't care much about local boycotts, in reality cutting money to state owned companies and shifting the needle on the 44% of Russians who think Russia deserves an empire might make a difference. Here are a few brands, for consumers who want to try it:
1. Lukoil
Energy has overwhelmingly become Russia's number one export since the fall of the Soviet Union. Last year America alone bought nearly twenty billion dollars of Putin's oil, ten times as much as our next biggest Russian import (iron and steel). In many real senses Russia has become a petro-state, and Lukoil is the country's second biggest producer.
While crude oil is a global market (meaning that buying less from a company in Chicago, Illinois doesn't matter, because they'll just sell that barrel in Mumbai), Lukoil doesn't just sell crude and gasoline. They also have bottles on the motor oil and lubricant shelves, products that will stagnate if no one buys them. The next time your motor starts knocking, feel free to reach for something else.
2. Aeroflot
Aeroflot is the largest carrier in Russia and flies across most of the world. While it's hard (if possible at all) to find flights within the United States on the wings of Moscow, readers flying international can start planning their trips around the Russian fleet.
This won't be a huge loss for international travelers, since Aeroflot provides mediocre service and gets generally middling reviews anyway. The website airlinequality.com rates this fleet at three stars out of five, not terrible but nothing to write home about either. The world has much better airlines. Russia's annexation of the Crimea just gives us one more reason to avoid this one.
3. Baltika Beers
Two years ago the Carlsberg Group, a Danish brewing company and one of the largest beer makers in the world, bought out the Moscow-based Baltika Brewery. So technically Baltika now belongs to the Danes. However it remains a distinctly Russian brand, brewed in and imported from Russia. Baltika makes a generally decent, if unremarkable, lager that's available in the United States. In fact, showing how thoroughly the brand has assimilated to our beer culture, the company's store locator page features a come-hither blonde in a wet, loosely buttoned shirt. For the time being, however, Ms. Moscow might have to be disappointed. It's probably time to look further down the tap.
4. Cut the Rope
Anyone with a smartphone has probably seen ZeptoLab's tracing game and its colorful little mascot, Om Nom. It became a huge hit on both the iPhone and Android and spawned several sequels, which have all done relatively well.
ZeptoLabs is an entertainment company that was started and remains headquartered in Russia, although they now have offices in the United Kingdom. Gamers who want to send their dollars elsewhere might want to leave those ropes alone, at least for the time being.
5. Stolichnaya
We all knew this one was coming. Stoli is perhaps the single most iconic Russian brand out there. Every time I order one, I feel like I should have ridden to the bar on the back of a grizzly while wearing an oversized hat and playing with little nesting dolls. (None of which would be a bad thing. The Facebook photos from that night would be epic.)
For the modern company, pointing to a specific place of origin is a little bit of a mess. As Stolichnaya explained during last year's backlash against Russia's anti-gay laws, the company has spread its corporate structure all over the place. This most Russian of brands gets its water from Latvia, its bottles from Poland, and its caps from Italy.
The key ingredient though, the alcohol itself? That still comes from Tambov, Russia.
6. Morgan Stanley
This one hits a little close to home. In recent days, Morgan Stanley has announced that sanctions against Russia won't stop a deal it made for Rosneft, Russia's state run oil company, to buy its oil group. According to Bloomberg, the American firm will sell off its global oil merchant unit to Rosneft and approximately a hundred executives will move along with it. While, ordinarily, transactions like this happen behind the scenes, something feels inherently dirty about an American firm doing major business with the Russian state's petroleum arm while that country hoists its flag over the Crimea. It's one thing to conduct business as usual with the citizens of a country who couldn't turn the ship of state if they wanted to, but Rosneft is for all intents and purposes a branch of the Russian government.
For good taste, if nothing else, Morgan Stanley should have waited. Moving money and assets elsewhere would be a sign of disapproval.
7. Entertainment
Russian entertainment has proliferated over the last decade as companies can increasingly reach out to global customers through the Internet. Several popular computer games and movies have their roots back in Moscow. The games Battle Mages and Farm Frenzy (a shameless knockoff of a shameless knockoff) come from Russian studios Targem Games and Alawar Entertainment respectively. Moscow-based 1C publishes a wide variety of games, including the Men of War and King's Bounty series.
Moviegoers may have even heard of the Day Watch and Night Watch films, both produced by Channel One Russia and based on a popular series of books from a local author. You can skip all of these, if you want to, although once this crisis is over I do recommend taking a look at what 1C has to offer.
8. Alforma Capital Markets, Inc.
According to its website, "Alforma Capital Markets is an affiliate of Alfa-Bank's international equities business." Alfa, in turn, is one of the largest commercial banks in Russia, with an investment branch in America and a significant presence in Europe. (It should also not be confused with the Greek Alpha Bank, an entirely separate institution.)
Although the day-to-day consumer probably won't come across Alforma, anyone making decisions with their company's money might want to remember where this firm comes from and where they send the money.
9. Russia Today
Owned and operated by the Russian government, this news network has been generally outed as a propaganda operation. Questionable even under the best of circumstances, these days it's probably best to just switch back over to CNN.
Rico says he doesn't drink vodka, so all of these should be easy to avoid...

Climate change documentary

Phil Plait , who writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death from the Skies!, has a Slate article about climate change:
I’ve been saying for a long time that to communicate science effectively, we need to connect with people. Scientists have a habit of just relaying facts to each other, since that’s how nature itself works. But people don’t work that way at all, and just reciting facts doesn’t work.
If we want to connect with people, especially over the sound and fury of the anti-science noise machine, we need to be passionate. We need to be emotional. And we need to tell the human story.
That’s exactly what it looks like Showtime is doing with its new big-budget eight-part series, Years of Living Dangerously, which will show the impact of climate change on our planet. It looks phenomenal, gorgeously shot, and features journalists and celebrities who travel the world to investigate what we’re doing to our planet. Among the people in it are Jessica Alba, Harrison Ford (photo, above), Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lesley Stahl, and Thomas L. Friedman.
This isn’t a fluff piece, from what I can tell: their science adviser team includes scientists Michael Mann, Katharine Hayhoe, James Hansen, and Joe Romm, among other top-flight climatologists. They’ve also set up a really nice website with more information, including links to the stories they cover and the science of climate change. The trailer looks great, and there’s also a version of it on YouTube:
The Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media has more information about the series as well.
I very much want to see this, and I hope it gets watched far and wide. With temperatures rising, extreme weather becoming the norm, temperature records being broken faster than ever, and the polar ice melting, we need this. And we need it now.
The series premiers on Sunday, 13 April 2014.
By the way, the full version of the IPCC report comes out this Sunday. Be prepared for more noise than ever from the usual suspects.
Rico says he's not sure, until the icecaps finish melting, what it's gonna take for people to admit this is happening...

Japan accepts ban on whaling

The BBC has an article about the Japanese, bowing to the inevitable:
The UN's International Court of Justice (ICJ) has ruled that the Japanese government must halt its whaling program in the Antarctic.
It agreed with Australia, which brought the case in May of 2010, that the program was not for scientific research, as claimed by Tokyo. Australia argued that the program was commercial whaling in disguise.
Japan said it would abide by the decision, but added it "regrets and is deeply disappointed by the decision". While the court's decision is considered legally binding, Japan had argued that the suit brought by Australia was an attempt to impose its cultural norms on Japan.
Reading out the judgement, Presiding Judge Peter Tomka said the court had decided, by twelve votes to four, that Japan should withdraw all permits and licenses for whaling in the Antarctic and refrain from issuing any new ones.
It said Japan had caught some thirty-six hundred minke whales since its current program began in 2005, but the scientific output was limited.
Japan signed up to a moratorium on whaling in 1986, but continued whaling in the north and south Pacific under provisions that allowed for scientific research. Norway and Iceland rejected the provision and continued commercial whaling. The meat from the slaughtered whales is sold commercially in Japan.
Japan has clashed repeatedly with Australia and some other western countries, which strongly oppose whaling on conservation grounds. Japan has argued that minke whales and a number of other species are plentiful and that its whaling activities are sustainable.
A spokesman for Greenpeace UK, Willie MacKenzie, welcomed the ICJ's decision.
"The myth that this hunt was in any way scientific can now be dismissed once and for all," he said.
Rico says the Sea Shepherd folks (who provided the photo of the whaling ship above) should be allowed to hunt whalers...

Feds seeking fugitive

Naveed Ahsan has an article at Philly.com about a bad guy on the lam:
The U.S. Marshals Service is searching for Leon Dickson, 40, a convicted child-rapist who is wanted on a 2006 federal indictment for being a felon in possession of a firearm in a February 2005 incident.
Dickson is also a State Police Top Ten Fugitive for failure to register as a sex offender. After being found guilty of raping a 12-year-old girl in March of 1994, he was sentenced to three to ten years in prison.
He also is the subject of a narcotics warrant issued by Philadelphia Police.
Dickson has a scar on his right elbow. He was last known to reside on 64th Street near Chelwynde Avenue, Elmwood.
"Any assistance that the public can give us regarding his whereabouts is greatly appreciated," Deputy U.S. Marshal James Burke, who supervises the marshals' fugitive task force, said yesterday.
Tipsters should call the U.S. Marshals Service at 886-865-TIPS (8477).
A $2,500 reward is offered for information leading to Dickson's arrest.
Rico says how the hell, with so many people wanting him for so many things, did this guy ever get away?

Cleanup at Fort Mifflin

Stephan Salisbury has an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer about problems at Fort Mifflin:
They don't call it Mud Island for nothing.
On Sunday, two days of rain and drizzle had left widening pools and fields of shoe-sucking muck in and around Fort Mifflin on the Delaware River, south of the Philadelphia international airport.
No one at the fort cared, it seemed. Certainly not the more than forty volunteers who swarmed the place as the British never did. They were intent on cleaning and polishing and ripping out burned and bedraggled building elements, casting all debris into growing piles of soggy timbers and woebegone insulation (photo).
Spring cleaning came to Fort Mifflin on Sunday, but the charred and waterlogged piles served as evidence that this year's effort had a particular urgency.
A week ago, very late on Sunday night, fire broke out in the attic of the officers' quarters, a two-story, early nineteenth-century brick building.
The Philadelphia Fire Department responded quickly, and fire damage was contained to the attic. Water and smoke damage, however, spread throughout. There were no injuries, and the fire is still under investigation.
Elizabeth Beatty, executive director of Fort Mifflin, a National Historic Landmark widely known for its role in the Revolutionary War, but also actively used in the War of 1812, the Civil War, and on up until the 1950s, when it was decommissioned, said there was no significant damage to original artifacts or documents. "The damage to the building is from fighting the fire; the holes in the roof, the blown-out windows, the water damage," she said. The smell of wet, burned wood lay heavily across the fort. "That's what we're addressing today; all that wet insulation. It is a heavy, dirty job."
That said, volunteers from all over the area turned out to lend a hand. And, Beatty said, despite the fire, the fort is proceeding with all of its scheduled events, including the US Colored Troops Civil War weekend on April 4th and 5th, and the President's Plate: Dining with Thomas Jefferson on April 19th. There was a lot to do, she said, between now and then. But help is there.
Christine Schum, 46, from North Cape May, New Jersey, interrupted her work sweeping the barracks to say her family had been volunteering for fort cleanup days for a decade.
"They needed us," she said. "The fort is very dear to us." Schum is an active member of the Kingdom of Lucerne, a living-history group focused on the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Every year, the kingdom holds its School of the Musketeer at the fort, filling the old brick battlements with tunic-bedecked archers and lace-capped bakers.
Cathy Lieby, 43, from Bainbridge in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is also into living history, although she is more inclined to the military engagements of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a member of the Twisted Knot Company of Pike & Shot.
Fort Mifflin is not just historic to her, she said, it is real in a way that goes beyond the buffed-up historic sites of Center City in Philadelphia. "In Center City, you can read about it, look at it, but here, you can do it," she said. "Wow! This is how it was."
Jamie Stahl, 24, also of Twisted Knot, said she had been in "pretty much every building."
"There's a little spot outside where, if you get up early in the morning, you can see the sun rise," she said. "I just love it."
As the piles of sodden insulation grew higher and the drizzle intensified, the horde of volunteers headed off to lunch in a casemate beneath the ramparts. They were interrupted, however, by the squish of George Washington's boots.
The General, aka John Godzieba, arrived with a small entourage to encourage the volunteers and inspect the fort. Washington received the cheers of the volunteers with suitable modesty and then headed off to inspect the damage. As Washington walked through sodden rooms, Pat Jordan, president of the Olde Fort Mifflin Historical Society, stood on a balcony, shaking his head at the damage. "This is one of those hurts," he said. "Like when someone dies."
Rico says it's a shame; a great place, and the location for the Proofmark Cinema video, Four Hand Draw...

Ogden's Nut Gone Flake

Rico says it was one of the few actual LPs he retained from his youth (mostly for the cover), but this is what it was all about:

The Beatles, the Crickets, and Rodgers & Hammerstein

Quarry Men: Paul McCartney (playing a right-handed guitar upside-down), Ken Brown, and John Lennon at the Casbah Coffee Club in Liverpool, England.

Delancey Place has a selection from Tune In: The Beatles All These Years by Mark Lewisohn:
When John Lennon and Paul McCartney were very young, seventeen and fifteen years old respectively, they grabbed every spare moment to play music together and, with the inspiration of Buddy Holly and the Crickets, they began to write their own songs as well:
Afternoons were whiled away playing guitars to records, singing, reveling in the joy of chords, finding out how almost every rock song they knew could be played with C, F and G or G7. They toiled hours, weeks, trying to work out how Buddy Holly played the intro to That'll Be the Day before John eventually figured it out. Buddy Holly was the springboard to John and Paul's songwriting. As John later said: 'Practically every Buddy Holly song was three chords, so why not write your own?'
Stated so matter-of-factly, it could seem that writing songs was an obvious next move, but it wasn't. Teenagers all over Britain liked Buddy Holly and rock and roll but, of that large number, only a fraction picked up a guitar and tried playing it, and fewer still, in fact hardly anyone, used it as the inspiration to write songs themselves. John and Paul didn't know anyone else who did it, no one from school or college, no relative or friend and yet, somehow, by nothing more than fate or fluke, they'd found each other, discovered they both wrote songs, and decided to try it together. Paul recalls the method: 'We'd sit down and say, "Okay, what are we going to do?'"and we'd just start off strumming and one or the other of us would kick off some kind of idea and then we'd just develop it and bounce off each other'.
It had taken only seconds to discover that both had strong and distinctive voices for rock, in all its styles and tempos, and that they sounded great together. They could blend in perfect harmony, with Paul tending to take the higher key and John holding the lower. The Crickets' influence was again strong, and so too were the crafted melodic harmonies of the Everly Brothers, whose first record, Bye Bye Love, was issued in Britain the day before John met Paul, on 5 July 1957.
John and Paul knew they had to keep proper track of their ideas. They'd no means of recording them and neither could read or write music, so Paul appropriated a Liverpool Institute exercise book, maybe forty-eight faint-ruled pages, in which every new song had a fresh page. In his neat left-handed script, generally using a fountain pen, he wrote the words (they were always words, never lyrics) with chords shown by their alphabetical letter. Unable to describe the melody, they decided early on that if they couldn't remember something the next day, they could hardly expect it to stick in the mind of anyone else, in which case it was 'crap' and deserved to go. But sometimes Paul wrote atmospheric directions. For one song it was Ooh ah, angel voices. And on the top of every new page, above the song title, Paul wrote:
The influence for this wasn't rock and roll so much as the great American songwriting teams of older generations, the likes of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Rodgers & Hart, Lerner and Loewe, and other famous combinations who wrote for Hollywood and Broadway. From the outset, John and Paul settled on Lennon-McCartney as a partnership, with that name order. Lennon came before McCartney alphabetically, and he was almost two years older, and it was his invitation, and, surpassing any other consideration, it was simply the way of things: John always came first. While equal in terms of contribution, Paul had to accept that one of them was just a little more equal than the other. Second billing wasn't in his nature, though. Paul accepted it from his fairground hero and positively no one else. 'We were really looking at being Rodgers & Hammerstein, and famous writing duos always had their name the same way. You didn't hear Hammerstein & Rodgers, it just didn't sound as good. So we always wanted to have people say, "Oh, that's a Lennon-McCartney song."'
Competition was nonetheless an ever-essential component. John had complete admiration for Paul's facility with harmony and melody, his musicianship and invention; Paul respected John's musical talent and envied his original repartee. Yet, while combining their skills as a team, they remained competitive as individuals, each trying to outdo the other. It became a vital artistic spur: John would call it 'a sibling rivalry, a creative rivalry', while Paul spoke of 'competitiveness in that we were ricocheting our ideas'. Each tried to impress the other out of sheer fear of what he might say in return. Both were rarely less than candid, and the thought that a new song might be branded 'crap' was usually more than enough to continually raise standards."
Rico says he came late to the Beatles, but there was none better...

Musharraf charged with treason

The BBC has an article by Shumaila Jaffrey about Pakistan:
A court in Pakistan has charged former military ruler Pervez Musharraf (photo) with treason, the first army chief to face such a prosecution. Musharraf is accused of unlawfully suspending the constitution and instituting emergency rule in 2007. He pleaded not guilty, and has always claimed that the charges against him are politically motivated. He could face the death penalty if convicted. President from 2001 to 2008, he was one of Pakistan's longest-serving rulers.
Pervez Musharraf was surrounded by military commandos when he entered the court room. He tried to put on a brave face, waving to those gathered in the courtroom. As the charges were read out to him, Musharraf stood up, looking grim and pale. But, when he began his address to the court he was firm and confident. He denied all the charges and spoke of his achievements: the economic development during his rule and his services for Pakistan's military. And then he asked how he could possibly be called a traitor. Security was tight, as expected. There were more than a hundred security personnel in the court room, and the building was also surrounded by troops.
He went into self-imposed exile in 2008, returning to Pakistan in March of 2013. He had hoped to lead his party into elections, but was disqualified from standing and found himself fighting an array of charges relating to his time in power.
The seventy-year-old has been in hospital since the beginning of the year and reports say he is being treated for high blood pressure.
The judge read out five charges to Musharraf. He pleaded "not guilty" to each of them, but also addressed the court with a speech about his services to the country and questioned how he could be called a traitor, declaring that he was a patriot. "I am being called a traitor, I have been chief of army staff for nine years, and I have served this army for 45 years. I have fought two wars and it is 'treason'?" the Agence France-Presse news agency quoted him as saying.
Supporters of Musharraf staged a rally in Karachi, Pakistan, demanding a fair trial for him "Is this the way to reward someone for being loyal to the country and for loving the country?" the former president asked the court.
Since Pervez Musharraf's return to Pakistan in March of 2013, he has faced four criminal cases but was bailed in all of them. He was charged:
In connection with the 2006 killing of a rebel Baloch politician, Akbar Bugti
In connection with the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto
For putting nearly sixty senior judges under house arrest in November of 2007
Although he was not formally charged, he is on bail in connection with the killing of a cleric in the 2007 Red Mosque siege in Islamabad
His most serious challenge is a treason case, which bears five charges, including suspending the constitution and imposing emergency rule. He pled not guilty, but could face death if convicted.
Musharraf insists that he acted within the constitution when he declared a state of emergency in the country in 2007, and that he did not act alone when taking that decision.
When the former president entered the court he was heavily guarded, but nevertheless appeared relaxed, even waving to the audience. The court has adjourned and its next task is to decide whether Musharraf will be allowed to leave the country to visit his sick mother in Dubai. He is currently on the exit control list which restricts certain Pakistani nationals from leaving the country, and is under house arrest.
Musharraf seized power from Sharif in a coup in 1999. He remained president until 2008, when a democratically elected government came into power. He left the country soon afterwards to live in self-imposed exile in Dubai and London.
Rico says everyone's always getting charged with high treason; is there low treason? (And, if they let him out, how are they gonna get him back?)

30 March 2014

Video coming

Rico says it's the old kitchen building at Graeme Park in Horsham, Pennsylvania, and it's where we'll be shooting the Six-Gun Justice promo soon:

Hate them meeses to pieces

The Associated Press has an article about a neighborhood with problems:
Some Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania residents are complaining that the local Moose Lodge (photo) has gone wild, with noisy parties featuring scantily clad women.
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports that police say neighbors in the Lawrenceville neighborhood are complaining about the lodge. Police say they found YouTube videos claiming to be from Lawrenceville Moose events that show women dancing around a pole as music blares and men throw cash.
Lodge treasurer Paul Kelly says there is a pole, but he's never seen anybody naked on it and there's no illegal activity. “The pole is pretty much always there on Thursdays, but I've never seen anybody naked on it and I've never smelled marijuana," Kelly told the Tribune-Review. "I've seen a bunch of people dancing, but there's no illegal activity that I've seen.”
Lauren Byrne, director of the Lawrenceville United community group, says she's received at least fifty complaints about loud noise and disorderly conduct during the past six months.
Kelly says he's working to soundproof a wall to reduce the noise that neighbors hear.
Rico says if there's a pole, and cash, somebody's getting naked...

Crying? He should be dying...

Mensah Dean has an article in the Philadelphia Daily News about yet another idiot:
Between bouts of tears yesterday, Joseph Zysk testified in his own defense about the night in January of 2011 that he beat his former girlfriend's three-year-old son to death.
Zysk, thirty, who is being tried for third-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter, and endangering the welfare of a child, insisted that he did not mean to kill the child, Jason Larkin.
The boy and his mother, Daniela Gonzalez, were sleeping at Zysk's mother's home in Roxborough, Pennsylvania when the boy became restless and began crying, Zysk, a recovering heroin addict and ex-Navy veteran, told a Common Pleas jury.
"I was getting frustrated. It was a long day, I was tired. That's no excuse," he said while being questioned by defense lawyer Evan Hughes. "I lost control for a split second and I hit him a few times. I felt so bad."
Zysk said he then picked up Jason and took him to the bedroom where he and Gonzalez had been sleeping, and where they had been doing drugs.
When Jason continued to fuss, Zysk said, he took the child back to the room where he slept. He said he later felt remorseful for having hit the child and went to check on him.
"I felt so terrible about what happened. I was trying to ask him if he was okay, and he was unresponsive," Zysk said.
The blows that Zysk landed on the forty-pound child lacerated his liver and led to his death by blunt-force trauma and internal bleeding, according to the medical examiner. Although trauma injuries were found on the child's nose, lip, head, and hand, and bruises were found on his hip and chest, Zysk denied causing those injuries. "I hit him a couple of times on the side and the stomach area," testified Zysk, who alleged that homicide detectives coaxed him into giving a statement in which he said he struck Jason more times than he actually did to account for the multiple injuries.
Defense lawyer Hughes, in his closing argument, told the jury Zysk made a mistake, is remorseful, and should be convicted of manslaughter, a felony that carries a maximum sentence of five to ten years in state prison. "This is a momentary loss of control. A horrible, horrible mistake," Hughes told the jury.
Assistant District Attorney Jack O'Neill argued that Zysk lied about not causing all the injuries and that he brutally battered and murdered the boy. The motive, O'Neill said, was Zysk's frustration with the state of his life: having to live with his mother, frequent fights with Gonzalez, his inability to get an erection, and being addicted to heroin, which he ran out of that night. "He beat that kid to death, now he wants a break from you," an emotional O'Neill told the jury. He asked them to "stick up for" Jason and convict Zysk of third-degree murder. The more serious felony carries a maximum sentence of twenty to forty years in prison. The jury of seven women and five men is set to begin its first full day of deliberations this morning.
Rico says it's too bad they have a choice; he should be beaten to death himself...

New font, less money

Kevin Begos has an Associated Press story about a smart kid:
A teenager has published a study suggesting the Federal government could save millions of dollars a year in printing costs by switching to a thinner typeface that uses less ink.
Suvir Mirchandani, only fourteen, said he noticed there was plenty of talk at school about saving paper and he wondered about saving ink. Mirchandani, who lives in the township of O'Hara, just outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, said that the idea began when he was in middle school and he "noticed that some teachers used heavier fonts" for printing. He said he was already interested in graphic design and used a software program to estimate how much ink different typefaces, or fonts, used. "The data was really surprising to me," he said of how the differences added up, even for the printing done by his school district.
He expanded the study to look at potential savings by the Federal government, and a new paper on his research was published this month in the Journal of Emerging Investigators, a peer-reviewed journal created for promising middle and high school students. He found that the Office of Management and Budget had already estimated that Federal agencies would spend almost two billion dollars in printing for this year and that ink was more expensive than paper on a per-page basis.
In his paper, A Simple Printing Solution to Aid Deficit ReductionMirchandani analyzed five documents produced by five US government agencies and estimated how much ink would be used with three typefaces: Garamond, Times New Roman, and Century Gothic. The analysis estimated that using twelve-point Garamond would save about thirty percent in ink costs.
Mirchandani said his school district looked at the idea but hasn't been able to implement the switch. "It didn't really catch on," he said. "I understand it's hard to make this kind of a change." Still, he's happy that his work succeeded in "even just creating an awareness" of how much ink different typefaces use.
The Government Printing Office has praised Mirchandani's work, and said it will review the printing suggestion.
Rico says he likes Garamond, and hopes they make the change (but not to the bold; it uses more ink)...

History for the day

On 30 March 1981, President Ronald Reagan was shot and seriously injured outside a Washington, D.C. hotel by John W. Hinckley Jr. Also wounded were White House news secretary James Brady, a Secret Service agent, and a District of Columbia police officer.

Rico says he's noted this before, but why do all assassins seem to be Juniors?

Another one gone

The New York Times has an obituary by Paul Vitello of Leo Bretholz, dead at 93, who escaped a train to Auschwitz:
Bretholz testified before Congress in 2011, asking that Holocaust survivors be allowed to sue the French railway S.N.C.F. for its role in Nazi deportations to death camps.

Maybe a scam, maybe not

Rico says that, if it's a scam, it's a damned good one:

Not your father's ride

The BBC has an article about the latest bike from Honda:
Honda has revealed a new motorcycle called the NM4 Vultus (photo). While not the most inspiring name, it does at least look really stealth. Cool stealth. Batbike-level stealth.
It's not a Batbike, of course, but is instead inspired by ‘Japanimation'— that's anime and manga— both genres long interwoven into the fabric of Japanese life and culture. Just last week we found out how Toyota is now plumbing this as inspiration for the new Aygo.
Reference is made to a ‘stealth bomber silhouette', and it measures 933mm across the mirrors, while the seat sits at 650mm high. There are full LED headlights too, while everything else comes in black and stainless steel. Some concession to color has been made: the digital dash changes depending on mood, ranging from white through blue and pink and finally red.
Underneath there's a 745cc twin-cylinder engine canted forward, with a low centre of gravity delivering "strong low and mid-range power and torque". It produces 54bhp and 50 lb ft, with twin balance shafts and a single 36mm throttle body. Honda reckons it's efficient, too, offering up 185 miles from a single twelve-liter tank.
The engine is mated to a six-speed dual-clutch gearbox, and it's all mounted on a steel diamond frame that weighs in at just 245 kilos. So, then, while no performance figures have been announced, it'll be fast; that power-to-weight ratio stands at around 225 bhp per ton (the same as an old Honda NSX, if we're not mistaken).
"The NM4 Vultus with its future-shock style presents a look that will not have been seen in any cityscape this side of an anime movie," Honda says. And, yes, while we're not TopBike.com, Richard and James never stop talking about them, and it's certainly a cool bike, no? Though maybe not as cool as those Lotus-liveried bikes we saw a while back...
Rico says he's not in the market for one (and doesn't dabble in anime or manga), but doubtless many will be...

29 March 2014

Snooping drones

The BBC has an article by Kim Gittleson about the latest in drone technology:
Security firm SensePost has unveiled its Snoopy drone, which can steal data from unsuspecting smartphone users, at the Black Hat security conference in Singapore.
The drone uses the company's software, which is installed on a computer attached to a drone. That code can be used to hack smartphones and steal personal data, all without a user's knowledge. It does this by exploiting handsets looking for a wireless signal.
Glenn Wilkinson, who developed Snoopy, says that, when the software is attached to a drone flying around an area, it can gather everything from a user's home address to his or her bank information. "Every device we carry emits unique signatures; even pacemakers come with wi-fi today," Wilkinson tells the BBC.
Many smartphone users leave the wireless option constantly turned on in their smartphone. That means the phones are constantly looking for a network to join, including previously used networks.
"A lot of past network names are unique and it's possible to easily geo-locate them," says Wilkinson, who explains Snoopy uses a combination of the name of a network a user is looking for, as well as the MAC address that uniquely identifies a device to track a smartphone in real-time.
Snoopy can identify the exact location and user information of a specific smartphone. Beyond that, Snoopy demonstrates how someone could also impersonate one of those past networks in a so-called karma attack, in which a rogue operator impersonates a past network that a user then joins, thinking it is safe.
Once the user has joined the disguised network, the rogue operator can then steal any information that the user enters while on that network, including e-mail passwords, Facebook account information, and even banking details.
This is why Wilkinson says that smartphones and other devices that use wireless technology, such as Oyster cards using RFID (radio frequency identification) or bank cards with chips, can betray their users.
Wilkinson, who began developing the Snoopy software three years ago as a side project, gave the BBC a preview of the technology ahead of its release. Pulling out a laptop from his bag, Wilkinson opened the Snoopy program and immediately pulled up the smartphone information of hundreds of Black Hat conference attendees.
With just a few keystrokes, he showed that an attendee sitting in the back right corner of the keynote speech probably lived in a specific neighborhood in Singapore. The software even provided a streetview photo of the smartphone user's presumed address.
SensePost has used the Snoopy software attached to cheap commercial drones like DJI's Phantom. "I've gathered smartphone device data from every security conference that I've been at for the last year and a half, so I can see who was at each event and whether or not they've attended multiple events," says Wilkinson. He then shows this data to conference attendees, who often ask, when presented with a photograph of their home or office, if they're on candid camera.
Wilkinson is quick to acknowledge that the Snoopy software is not new technology, but rather, just a different way of gathering together a series of known security risks. "There's nothing new about this; what is new is that Snoopy brings a lot of the technology together in a unique way," he explains.
For instance, the Snoopy software has been ground-based until now, operating primarily on computers, smartphones with Linux installed on them, and on open-source small computers like the Raspberry Pi and BeagleBone Black.
But when attached to a drone, it can quickly cover large areas. "You can also fly out of audio-visual range, so you can't see or hear it, meaning you can bypass physical security, men with guns, that sort of thing," he says.
It's not hard to imagine a scenario in which an authoritarian regime could fly the drone over an anti-government protest and collect the smartphone data of every protester and use the data to figure out the identities of everyone in attendance.
Wilkinson says that this is why he has become fascinated with our "digital terrestrial footprint" and the way our devices can betray us. He says he wants to "talk about this to bring awareness" of the security risks posed by such simple technologies to users. His advice? Turn off the wireless network on your phone until you absolutely need to use it.
Rico says there's a market for countermeasures out there...

Turning back the calendar

The BBC has an article by Oliver Bullough, Caucasus editor at the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, whose most recent book is The Last Man in Russia, detailing the demographic decline of the Russian nation, about Putin:
The world was stunned when Russia invaded the Crimea, but should it have been? Bullough says President Vladimir Putin never kept secret his intention to restore Russian power; what's less clear, he says, is how long the country's rise can continue:
On 16 August 1999, the members of Russia's parliament, the Duma, met to approve the candidacy of a prime minister. They heard the candidate's speech, they asked him a few questions, and they dutifully confirmed him in the position.
This was President Boris Yeltsin's fifth premier in sixteen months, and one confused party leader got the name wrong. He said he would support the candidacy of Stepashin, the surname of the recently sacked prime minister, rather than that of his little-known successor, before making an embarrassing correction.
If even leading Duma deputies couldn't remember the new prime minister's name, you couldn't blame the rest of the world if it didn't pay much attention to his speech. He was unlikely to head the Russian government for more than a couple of months anyway, so why bother?
That man was a former KGB officer, Vladimir Putin, and he has been in charge of the world's largest country, as president or prime minister, ever since. Few realized it at the time, because few were listening, but that speech provided a blueprint for pretty much everything he has done, for how he would re-shape a country that was perilously close to total collapse.
Just 364 days previously, Russia had defaulted on its debt. Salaries for public sector workers and pensions were being paid months late, if at all. Basic infrastructure was collapsing. The country's most prized assets belonged to a handful of well-connected "oligarchs", who ran the country like a private fiefdom.
The once-mighty Russian army had lost a war in Chechneya, a place with fewer inhabitants than Russia had soldiers. Three former Warsaw Pact allies had joined NATO, bringing the Western alliance up to Russia's borders.
Meanwhile, the country was led by Yeltsin, an irascible drunkard in fragile health. The situation was desperate, but Putin had a plan.
"I cannot cover all the tasks facing the government in this speech. But I do know one thing for sure: not one of those tasks can be performed without imposing basic order and discipline in this country, without strengthening the vertical chain," he told the assembled parliamentarians.
Born in Leningrad in 1952, Putin came of age in the Soviet Union's golden years, the period after the USSR's astonishing triumph in World War Two. Sputnik, the hydrogen bomb, Laika the dog, and Yuri Gagarin all bore witness to Soviet ingenuity. The crushing of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 bore witness to Soviet resolve. Soviet citizens were enjoying a time of peace and prosperity. Life was stable. People got paid. The world respected them. Everyone knew their place.
We need to put an end to revolutions. These are staged so that nobody can be rich. But at the moment the country needs reforms so that nobody can be poor. Although this task, unfortunately, is becoming harder by the day. There is no such thing as a thriving state with an impoverished population.
A most important instrument and a most important priority for the government is a secure food supply. We will provide serious assistance to the agrarian sector and in the final analysis to millions of peasants who have just one concern - to feed the country with quality Russian produce.
Russia's territorial integrity is not subject to negotiation. Or, especially, to horse trading or blackmail. We will take tough action against anyone who infringes upon our territorial integrity, using all the legal means available to us.
Russia has been a great power for centuries, and remains so. It has always had and still has legitimate zones of interest abroad in both the former Soviet lands and elsewhere. We should not drop our guard in this respect, neither should we allow our opinion to be ignored.
When Putin spoke to the Duma, his homeland was a different, and less-respected place. He spoke the language of a man who yearned for the lost certainties, who longed for a time when Moscow was to be reckoned with. He did not say it explicitly, but he was clearly stung by Russia's failure to stop NATO driving the forces of its ally, Serbia, out of Kosovo just months previously.
"Russia has been a great power for centuries, and remains so. It has always had and still has legitimate zones of interest... We should not drop our guard in this respect, neither should we allow our opinion to be ignored," he said.
His domestic policy was to restore stability, to end what he called the "revolutions", that had brought Russia low. His foreign policy was to regain Russia's place in world affairs. Those two core aims have driven everything he has done since. If only people had been listening, none of his actions would have come as a surprise to them.
Since then, Putin has seized every opportunity history has offered him, from the attacks of 11 September 2001 to the Ukrainian Revolution of 2013, in his bid to secure his aims. He has been both tactically astute and ruthlessly opportunistic. At home and abroad, he wants Russia to regain the prestige it held when he was growing up.
The obvious place to start his campaign was in Chechneya, symbol of Russia's collapse. The Chechens had defeated Yeltsin's attempt to crush their self-declared independence, but it proved a bitter victory. The war devastated Chechneya's people, economy and infrastructure. Chechneya became a sink of kidnapping, violence, and crime, and, until Putin, no one did anything about it. Finally, for long-suffering patriotic Russians, here was a man not only able to pay their pensions, but prepared to get his hands dirty to defend their homeland. By the turn of the millennium, when Yeltsin stood down and appointed Putin acting president in his place, the unknown prime minister's public approval rating was above seventy percent, a level it has barely dipped below ever since.
Human rights groups and some Western governments accused Putin of breaking Russian and international law in his pursuit of his Chechen opponents. (The European Court of Human Rights has found against Russia in 232 "right to life" cases, effectively ruling that Russia repeatedly committed murder during its Chechen campaign.) But that has done nothing to dent Putin's popularity.
In Chechneya, hundreds of soldiers and thousands of Chechens died. Hundreds of thousands of Chechens fled to claim asylum outside Russia, but Russia's territorial integrity was secured, and Putin had begun his task of restoring Russian prestige.
After 11 September 2001, Putin recast his Chechen campaign as part of the global fight against terrorism, thus muting international criticism of his troops' conduct. He became briefly close to President George W Bush, who even claimed to have glimpsed Putin's soul, until the Iraq War drove them apart. In Iraq, Putin insisted that international law must be upheld; no invasion could be allowed without approval from the United Nations Security Council, and that approval was not forthcoming.
At home, he crushed the most powerful of the oligarchs, first those who controlled media assets, thus taming the lively television scene, and then in 2003 police arrested Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the richest man in the country. His oil company was dismembered and bought by a state oil company. He was jailed in a process so egregiously predetermined that Amnesty International declared him to be a prisoner of conscience.
"I think it became absolutely clear, when Khodorkovsky was arrested, that Putin was not going after the oligarchs to reassert the power of democratic civil society over these titans. He was doing it as part of building an authoritarian regime," says Chrystia Freeland, the FT's bureau chief in Moscow when Putin came to power, and now a Liberal member of the Canadian parliament. (She is also one of the thirteen Canadians barred from entering Russia this week in response to Canada's imposition of sanctions against Russian officials.)
Putin kept a tight grip on the parliamentary elections at the end of 2003, and his allies gained two-thirds of the Duma. He praised the poll as a step towards "strengthening democracy", but monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called it "overwhelmingly distorted".
In just four years, Putin had crushed Chechneya, reined in the free media and the oligarchs, gained a parliament that would do whatever he wanted, and shown that Russia had a strong voice in international affairs.
"He says what he thinks and does what he says, at least much more than probably any other contemporary politician or statesman. Western analysts and politicians always try to uncover some sort of false bottom in his statements, when there often isn't one. That applies to many other Soviet leaders, including Stalin, at least in the run-up to and during World War Two," says Dmitry Linnik, London bureau chief of the Voice of Russia radio.
"He is a nationalist, in the federal 'Russian', not ethnic 'Russian', sense of the word. That is his biggest driving force, I think; not hunger for power or personal ambition."
But Freeland disagrees. "I think he has taken a series of decisions, quite rationally from his narrow personal point of view, that this kind of autocratic regime gives him the most personal power and personal wealth," she says.
There was one thing missing to make the world of his childhood complete: an ideology.
Putin restored some Soviet symbols. He brought back the Soviet national anthem and Soviet emblems (photo), and praised the Soviet triumph in World War Two. But he embraced pre-Soviet themes, too. He befriended the Russian Orthodox Church, and name-checked anti-Soviet philosophers like Ivan Ilyin, whose remains he had repatriated to Russia and buried with honor.
This trend towards a uniquely Russian form of conservatism accelerated after the wave of protests against electoral fraud that struck Moscow in 2011-2012, which alienated Putin from Russia's liberals. Among his favourite ideologues is Vladimir Yakunin, an old friend, a fellow KGB graduate, an Orthodox believer, and now head of Russian Railways, one of the country's most strategically significant companies.
"Russia is not between Europe and Asia. Europe and Asia are to the left and right of Russia. We are not a bridge between them, but a separate civilizational space, where Russia unites the civilizational communities of East and West," Yakunin said in a recent interview with Itar-Tass. Last week, he was added to the US sanctions list for "membership of the Russian leadership's inner circle", following the annexation of the Crimea.
The idea of Russia being separate from, but equal to, the West is convenient, since it allows the Kremlin to reject Western criticism of its elections, its court cases, its foreign policy, as biased and irrelevant.
Many of Putin's friends, though dismissive of the West's economics, politics, values and structures, are, however, much attached to its comforts. Both of Yakunin's sons live in Western Europe, one in London, England and one in Switzerland, and his grandchildren are growing up there.
According to the anti-corruption campaigner, Alexei Navalny, Yakunin has built himself a palace outside Moscow using foreign limestone and building materials brought in from Germany; a strange step for a man supposedly wedded to creating a Russian economy independent of the West.
Putin too has espoused principles, then dropped them when they proved inconvenient. In Iraq in 2003, he made a stand in defense of international law, opposing any invasion without UN approval. In Georgia in 2008, he sent in the troops without even pretending to consult with the Security Council.
Last year, intervention in Syria was out of the question. This year, intervention in the Ukraine is justified and unimpeachably legitimate. It may be that principles have never been the issue, and that Putin's objective has always been to maximize Russian power, and to defy Western attempts to rein Russia in.
"We have every reason to assume that the infamous policy of containment, conducted in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, continues today. They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner because we have an independent position," said Putin in his speech last week announcing the annexation of the Crimea, a speech that repeated all his points from 1999, but with fifteen years worth of additional resentment.
It was only when the Crimea ended up as part of a different country that Russia realized that it was not simply robbed, it was plundered.
Many years later, I heard residents of the Crimea say that, back in 1991, they were handed over like a sack of potatoes. This is hard to disagree with. And what about the Russian state? What about Russia? It humbly accepted the situation. This country was going through such hard times then that realistically it was incapable of protecting its interests.
There was not a single armed confrontation in the Crimea and no casualties. Why do you think this was so? The answer is simple: because it is very difficult, practically impossible, to fight against the will of the people.
Our Western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right.
It is not easy re-shaping a country on your own, and Putin has needed the assistance of one key group within Russian society. While he has cracked down on independent journalists, businessmen, and politicians, he has relied on state officials to make sure his ideas are implemented.
They have been well rewarded for their help. Wages for top officials increased last year by twenty percent, four times the increase in the general budget. Putin's spending binge means that, for the budget to balance, Brent crude must now average around $117 a barrel, more than five times the level needed in 2006, according to analysis from Deutsche Bank.
Even that is not enough for top officials. Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokontsev said last week that, in 2013, the average bribe in Russia had doubled to four thousand dollars. Last year, Transparency International gave Russia 127th place on its Corruption Perception Index, rating it as corrupt as Pakistan, Mali, and Madagascar.
"Putin has really painted himself into a corner by destroying every independent source of power in Russia. He now has only the bureaucracy to rely on, and must keep increasing its funding to keep ensuring its loyalty," says Ben Judah, the British author of Fragile Empire, a study of Putin's Russia. "Eventually, the money is going to run out, and then he will find himself in the same position Soviet leaders were in by the late 1980s, forced to confront political and economic crises, while trying to hold the country together. He looks strong now, but his Kremlin is built on the one thing in Russia does not control: the price of oil."
Putin has succeeded in building a version of the country of his childhood, one that can act independently in the world, and one where dissent is controlled and the Kremlin's power unchallenged. But that is a double-edged sword, because the Soviet Union collapsed for a reason, and a Russia recreated in its image risks sharing its fate.
According to Vladimir Bukovsky, a dissident who spent a decade in Soviet prisons before his exile to the West in 1976, Putin is totally genuine when he says the disintegration of the Soviet Union was a "geopolitical catastrophe".
"He does not understand that the collapse of the Soviet system was predetermined, therefore he believes his mission is to restore the Soviet system as soon as possible," he says. As a middle-ranking KGB officer who loved the Soviet Union, Putin lacked the perspective of senior officers, who knew full well the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own inefficiency rather than because of Western plotting, Bukovsky says. "It leads him exactly to repeat the same mistakes. He wants this whole country to be controlled by one person from the Kremlin, which will lead to disaster," he says.
Putin's decision to invade the Crimea was taken quickly and impulsively, by a small group of his favored top officials. That means Putin has no one to warn him of the long-term consequences of his actions, and until he finds out for himself, he will maintain his course. That means relations with the West will remain uncomfortable, especially in areas he considers to be his "zone of legitimate interests". But we can't say we weren't warned.
Rico says he's back to being Vlad the Inhaler (of other countries). There will be, unfortunately, a lot of people in this country who'll be only to happy to see the Soviet Union come back...

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