A Germany Without Bakeries

If you’ve ever been to Germany, or lived in an American city with an authentic German bakery, you know that Germans love their baked goods and take great pride in creating them. German bakeries produce dozens of variations of breads and rolls and buns and, especially, fabulous desserts. Germans aren’t low-carb people, and a fine strudel, a light torte, or a beautifully decorated kuchen is as important to German culture as a perfectly flaky croissant is to France or a delicate, crunchy cannoli is to Italy.

That’s why what is happening now in Germany is so painful. Rising energy and wheat prices, caused by supply shortages resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, have put many German bakeries out of business and are leaving others teetering on the edge of closure. The bakeries have been hit by a double whammy: the cutoff of Russian natural gas has caused the cost of maintaining ovens and cooling rooms powered by natural gas and electricity to skyrocket, and the loss of Ukrainian wheat means that the cost of flour–the most basic ingredient of German baking–has surged.

We aren’t talking about modest price increases, either. One German baker in Dusseldorf quoted in the article linked above said his monthly electricity bills have more than tripled, from $6,000 a month to $22,000 a month, and the price of flour has more than doubled. A baker in Bremen says his energy costs have increased tenfold, and that bakers in his city are having to recycle leftover bread to make new bread in an effort to reduce costs. The price of the oil that is another key ingredient in German baking has tripled.

Staying in business in the face of such price increases would be a huge challenge for any business, and many German bakeries haven’t been able to manage it. Family businesses and larger firms that have been in existence for decades have had to declare bankruptcy, close their doors, and mothball their ovens. German bakers have been protesting and seeking government help to try to stay afloat, but so far their efforts have not produced much in the way of relief. And with Germany heading into the heart of winter, when energy supplies will be even more stretched, bakers are fearful that worse times lay directly ahead.

It’s hard to imagine Germany without bakeries, and without the succulent smell that greets any customer lucky enough to visit one. The plight of German bakeries is just another example of how interconnected we all are, and how the ripple effect of Russia’s unwarranted invasion of Ukraine will continue to have unexpected, unwanted consequences.

The Life Span Of A Russian Oligarch

Being a Russian oligarch these days seems like a pretty dangerous job. In fact, lately the oligarchs–generally defined as anyone who is deeply involved in running a major industry in Russia, while accumulating vast amounts of wealth–are dropping like flies.

Vox reported last month that at least 15 Russian businessmen have died this year, often under mysterious circumstances. The causes of death include murder-suicides, hangings, shootings, stabbings, and of course falling out of a hospital window. The combination of deaths is so remarkable that one tabloid ran an article this week with the lurid headlineBLOOD FEUD How ruthless Russian oligarchs are ‘MURDERING each other’ in bloody battle for power in Putin’s ‘viper’s nest’‘.” (Speaking of vipers, fatal snake bites seem to be the one cause of death Russian oligarchs have avoided this year, although one oligarch was identified as dying during a shamanic ritual that involved “toad poison.”) The tabloid article includes head shots of the dead oligarchs, with icons identifying their causes of death.

So, what’s going on? Are Russian oligarchs just having a bad run of deadly health problems and sudden suicidal impulses? Based on a long record of suspicious deaths since Vladimir Putin took over, experts generally discount that possibility and say that the official reports of what happened should be taken with a grain of salt. And the sheer number of curious fatal falls–off cliffs, from boats, down flights of stairs, and out of hospital windows–sure seems like an improbable coincidence. But no one really knows what is going on, and whether it is a combination of actual suicides, poorly disguised political assassinations, or that vicious “viper’s pit” of killings within the small circle of greedy oligarchs fighting for every last ruble. And the impact of Russian struggles in its invasion of Ukraine, and the impact of resulting sanctions on the Russian economy, just add to the uncertainty.

The only thing we know for sure is that this is not a good time to be a Russian oligarch. If you’re going to be in Russia any time soon, keep your eye out for falling bodies if you happen to be walking past any hospitals or other tall buildings.

Literally Robbing Themselves Blind

War often exposes otherwise unknown things about one of the combatants. That has been the case in Russia, where the invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing fighting have exposed a huge problem with outright theft of the supplies that were supposed to be used to clothe and equip Russian soldiers. The theft problem is so acute that the Russian men who have recently been conscripted to fight have to buy their own uniforms, boots, and other gear–and what they are given by Russian authorities is often obsolete. “The army has nothing,” one of the conscripts said in a recorded call.

The BBC has an interesting story about the official records concerning supplies stolen from the Russian army and the staggering scale of the thievery. One member of the Russian Duma complained that 1.5 million sets of soldier kit, consisting of basic items like uniform pants, shirts, and flak jackets, summer and winter boots, helmets, and other essentials, have vanished even though, for years, Russia has been allocating huge sums toward its military supply budget. One popular item for theft is the night-vision goggles that soldiers obviously need for operations under cover of darkness–which means the Russians are literally stealing themselves blind.

The BBC report suggests that most of the stealing is being done by members of the Russian army, so much so that theft from military stores seemingly is a way of life. Commissary officers are adept at pilfering goods, creating fake stock lists, invoices, or reports to cover their tracks, and writing off perfectly good supplies as damaged by mold or poor storage conditions. Russian army records of the thieves whose schemes have been discovered reveal that the larceny ranges from spur-of-the-moment decisions to boost available items to systematic schemes to take goods in such quantities that trucks are needed. In addition to clothing and protective equipment, the light-fingered Russians are filching food and petrol–which may be why so many Russian vehicles in the Ukraine seem to be running out of gas.

The prevalence and vast scale of the crime makes it likely that the official records of theft barely scratch the surface of what has really happened in Russian supply depots. And the extent of the theft likely would not have been detected but for Vladimir Putin’s ill-conceived decision to invade Ukraine, which revealed that the cupboard was bare when it was supposed to be fully stocked. You have to think that the invasion of Ukraine not only was opposed by the civilized world outside of Russia, but also by the supply officers and soldiers in the Russian army whose criminal schemes suddenly were at risk of exposure. Supply officers who have been stealing for years make for good pacifists.

Hoping For A Warm Winter

There are dire forecasts for the winter in Europe. The forecasts aren’t about the weather, specifically, but more about the ability of Europeans to stay warm and European factories to operate when the temperature drops and energy supply problems reach a crisis point.

An article recently published in Fortune outlines the issues. Many European countries made the decision to rely on Russian natural gas as one of their primary energy sources. When it invaded the Ukraine, Russia provided 40 percent of the natural gas for the 27 countries in the European Union. Some European countries then responded to the invasion by stopping purchases of Russian natural gas, while others were cut off by Vladimir Putin.

Obviously, losing 40 percent of a primary energy source–natural gas is the second most popular energy source in Europe behind oil–puts a dent in your energy policy. And, as the Starks are fond of saying, “winter is coming.” Prices have skyrocketed to historical record levels. The cost of electricity has already tripled in some places, and governments are scrambling to reopen coal-fired and nuclear power plants that were shuttered in moving toward “green” energy. The EU countries also are looking to other, non-Russian sources, but they don’t yet have the infrastructure, such as pipelines and processing terminals, needed to use the alternative suppliers. Building that infrastructure can’t happen overnight.

That means there is an immediate energy crunch, and the experts consulted by Fortune paint a bleak and alarming picture of what might happen when the snow falls. They say that world energy supplies are so precarious right now that any increase in demand could cause even bigger price spikes, mandatory rationing, and mass shutdowns of factories and businesses, “devastating European economies with a wave of unemployment, high prices, and in all likelihood public unrest and divisions between European nations.” That’s petty scary stuff. Some European factories have already stopped or reduced operations, and some countries have already instituted some energy conservation policies to try to preserve supplies in advance of the winter. The rubber won’t really meet the road, however, until the cold weather hits and energy demand increases in response.

So let’s all hope that the European winter is mild, and our friends overseas aren’t left to shiver in the cold and dark. But praying for warm weather isn’t exactly sound energy policy. What has happened in Europe should cause our government, and every government, to take a careful look at their energy policies and focus on making sure that energy supplies are secure. That means reducing dependence on unreliable energy sources–like Russia–and taking steps like building nuclear power plants and pipelines to provide domestic sources of energy that won’t be turned off when winter comes.

ABBA Torture

The United Nations-appointed Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine recently concluded that Russia has committed numerous war crimes in its invasion of Ukraine. The Commission found evidence that Russian forces have engaged in summary executions, torture, and deliberate targeting of civilian areas for bombings and attacks.

Some of the Russian torture methods break new grounds of depravity and inhumanity. For example, a British fighter captured by Russian forces has reported that he was forced to listen to the Mamma Mia soundtrack of ABBA songs 24 hours a day, while also being beaten, stabbed, and given electric shocks. The British prisoner was later released as part of an effort to free international prisoners captured by the Russians, and he says, quite understandably, that he never wants to hear an ABBA song again.

An unprovoked invasion of a neighboring sovereign nation, bombing civilian areas, summary executions, and torture tell us that the Russians will have to answer for a host of horrific war crimes when their invasion of Ukraine has come to an end. But forcing a soldier to listen to ABBA music 24 hours a day reflects a special kind of cruelty that makes you wonder whether Russia should ever again be welcomed into the family of civilized nations.

Vlad’s Big Bad

Sometimes people make good decisions, sometimes they make bad decisions, and sometimes they make decisions that are so catastrophically ill-conceived it’s hard to imagine they were the product of rational thought. It’s been looking for some time now like Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine falls into the last category, and the consequences of his bad judgment seem to be getting worse and worse–for him personally, and for Russia.

It’s safe to say that the Russian invasion of Ukraine didn’t go as Putin thought it would. The Ukrainians fought valiantly in defense of their country, and the invasion was universally condemned by other nations. Even worse, as the Russian forces quickly became bogged down and began suffering devastating casualties, it also became clear that the vaunted Russian military wasn’t performing as anticipated due to planning, logistics, operational, and soldier morale issues. If American sports fans had been watching the Russian army’s performance in a stadium, you would undoubtedly have heard the “over-rated” chant.

After being mired in a fighting stalemate for months, things got worse for Russia recently, when a Ukrainian offensive caught the Russians off guard, drove Russian forces back, and captured huge amounts of Russian armaments and supplies. The Russian retreat created a decision point for Putin–and yesterday, he decided to double down, calling for a “partial mobilization” and even raising the chilling prospect of using nuclear weapons if he deemed the “territorial integrity” of Russia to be at stake. It is the first mobilization order in Russia since World War II. The order means that 300,000 Russians in the reserve or with military experience could be subject to conscription and sent to fight in the Ukraine, where thousands of Russian soldiers have already been killed, wounded, or captured.

Putin’s mobilization decision wasn’t well received by at least some Russians, who took to the streets to protest what they see as a pointless, unnecessary conflict. A human rights group reports that 1,200 Russians were arrested in anti-war demonstrations in major cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. Other Russians voted with their feet, trying to take one-way plane flights out of the country, causing some flights to sell out, and there are reports that roads from Russia to neighboring Finland were jammed with cars trying to cross the border. The protests and departures, coupled with other internal criticisms, raise the question of whether Putin’s grip on the country may be loosening.

Putting aside the reaction of the Russian people, it’s hard to see how throwing more hastily conscripted soldiers into the fight with Ukraine is going to turn the tide, when the trained professional soldiers Russia initially used in its invasion weren’t successful. And rounding up more soldiers doesn’t solve the tactical, logistical, and morale issues that have dogged the Russian forces since the invasion began.

Unlike most people, Vladimir Putin apparently can’t own up to making a mistake. Time will tell, but his mobilization decision may ultimately be seen as moving an initial error farther along the spectrum toward ultimate disaster.

Investing In A Nuclear Era

The war in Ukraine goes on, and since it began Russia has absorbed a series of embarrassing defeats and setbacks, including most recently the sinking of one the ships in its Black Sea fleet. The stout defense of Ukrainians is heartening for those who oppose evil aggression and the slaughter of innocent civilians, but it also has raised the possibility that Vladimir Putin might be tempted to do the heretofore unthinkable: launch some kind of nuclear weapon. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warns that the world should be prepared for precisely that inconceivable scenario.

It’s a frightening time, for sure. And yet, things haven’t been as panicky as you might have thought. No one is hiding under the bed or encamped in their home fallout shelter. People live their lives and go to their schools and jobs, the economy bumps along, we worry about inflation and gas prices and shortages, and stocks continue to be traded. In fact, when you think about it, the stock market is pretty weird right now. Frightening times typically are bad for the stock market, which always reacts badly to uncertainty–and yet the market has held its own, even as concerns about the Russia-Ukraine conflict escalating to the nuclear level are raised. Why is that?

Paradoxically, it might simply be that the possibility of nuclear war is just too scary to really affect the markets. It’s too colossal a risk, and far outside the normal issues that affect trading in securities. If you’re worried about inflation, you can adjust your portfolio and trading patterns; if you’re concerned that equities are overvalued due to irrational exuberance, you can shift into fixed income investments. But there is no plausible investment strategy that can protect against the devastating impact of a nuclear exchange.

That’s why some analysts are encouraging their investors to stay bullish on stocks, even in the face of the risk of Putin launching nuclear weapons. One Canadian firm, BCA Research, recommends staying in the equities market for the next year, reasoning that financial risks are immaterial in the face of a potential existential risk. One article quotes BCA Research as saying, bluntly: “”If an ICBM [Intercontinental Ballistic Missile] is heading your way, the size and composition of your portfolio become irrelevant.”  

If you were searching for evidence that financial analysts are cold-blooded, look no farther! But, in a strange, counterintuitive way, this apocalyptic approach to investing makes sense in the current circumstances–and it may be why the market hasn’t plunged into Black Friday territory. The BCA Research approach might seem like the caterpillar approach from the fable of the ant and the caterpillar, but what else can an investor do? In such extraordinary times, the best approach may be to keep your head down, follow your investment strategy, and hope that Vladimir Putin keeps his finger off the button.

The Limits Of The Law

Today the International Court of Justice, the highest court in the United Nations hierarchy, ruled by a vote of 13-2 that “the Russian Federation shall immediately suspend military operations that it commenced on 24 February 2022 in the territory of Ukraine.” (The Russian and Chinese judges dissented.) The majority opinion concluded that there was no evidence substantiating Russia’s stated reason for the invasion, which was that Ukraine was committing genocide against Russian-speaking peoples in eastern Ukraine.

Under the UN Charter, the Court’s rulings are binding on the parties, and the Court has stated that they create “binding legal obligations” on the parties. The article linked above notes, however, that Vladimir Putin is nevertheless “unlikely” to abide by the order and cease the murderous invasion of Ukraine, and the Court has no standing army it can hurl into the fray, or any other means of enforcing its ruling. It’s entirely predictable that the Russians will ignore the order and undoubtedly will issue propaganda seeking to undercut the credibility of the Court and depict the judges as stooges of the imperialist West.

Presumably everyone understood this at the outset, and the Ukrainians nevertheless thought that the effort was worth it, if only to further evidence the barbaric and lawless actions of the Putin regime. I’m not sure that the decision is a very positive thing for the ICJ, however, because it is not good for courts to issue orders that they know will never be enforced or enforceable. A record of unenforceable orders undercuts the credibility of the court and can only serve to encourage noncompliance with other orders in the future. The Russian actions in the Ukraine are so heinous that the ICJ apparently decided to go ahead and issue the order, regardless.

The situation reminds me of an incident I learned about in law school. In 1832 the U.S. Supreme Court, in Worcester v. Georgia, issued a decision about Georgia’s rights with respect to Cherokee tribal lands. President Andrew Jackson strongly disagreed with the decision and famously stated: “John Marshall (the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) has made his decision; now let him enforce it.” Because both the President and the state of Georgia basically ignored the ruling, it had no effect, and the terrible “Trail of Tears,” in which Cherokees were forced to relocate to Oklahoma at the cost of thousands of Native American lives, was the ultimate result. It took decades for the Court’s credibility to recover to the position it now occupies, where the public outcry if an American President ignored a Supreme Court ruling would quickly make the President’s position unsustainable.

Unfortunately, Russia is not the United States, and the ICJ does not have the same implicit authority in Russia that the U.S. Supreme Court has in our country. The ICJ’s ruling today is undoubtedly correct, and it provides another reason to steadfastly oppose Vladimir Putin’s egregious activities in the Ukraine–but it will be up to history to determine whether the impact of Putin’s flouting of the order on the International Court of Justice’s credibility, and on parties’ compliance with its future orders, was worth it.

Putin’s Bad Gamble

We’re now at the two-week point in Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, and it’s safe to say it hasn’t gone well for Russian President Vladimir Putin, the architect of the invasion. If you believe the news reports, Russia expected a quick win, and Russian soldiers expected to be welcomed with open arms. The reality has been the exact opposite. The Russian forces have encountered fierce resistance and are mired in the mud, and the Ukrainian people have shown great grit and determination in resisting the Russians at every turn.

That’s what happens when you overestimate your capabilities, and believe your own faulty propaganda.

But the consequences for Putin are a lot more significant than just doing worse in a war than he expected. He’s shown that the Russian military isn’t nearly as fearsome as people thought it would be. He’s galvanized and unified the West in a way that hasn’t been the case in years, and encouraged countries like Germany to reverse their policies on defense spending and energy dependence. He’s isolated the Russian financial sector and put the fortunes of the Russian oligarchs who supported him at risk. There are reports that the Russian treasury might be bankrupted by the war and may be forced to default on debt. And in the process, Russia has become a kind of global pariah in way that wasn’t even the case during the heyday of the Soviet Union.

And what might be bugging Putin the most is that this war has exposed him in a way that goes to a core personal issue. Putin has always seemed highly conscious of cultivating a macho image, and carefully orchestrates photos of himself riding horses without a shirt and going hunting. But if Putin were really the bold, studly guy he’s been trying to portray, we’d be seeing him out in the field with the Russian generals and soldiers. Instead, he’s staying in the office–a guy with a bald spot sitting at the end of a ridiculously long table, as if he’s afraid to even get close to his own aides. It’s pretty safe to say that, even if Russia “wins” the war in the Ukraine, people will never see Vladimir Putin in quite the same way again.

Many people will no doubt be tempted to enjoy some schadenfreude at Putin’s problems, but a little caution is in order. This colossal strategic mistake by Putin may just force a reduced and depleted Russia to turn to China for financial and other assistance, which would materially alter the strategic balance in the world. I think Putin’s bad gamble is going to make the world a much more dangerous and volatile place for the next few years.

Further Befogging The Fog Of War

On Friday Russia enacted a new law that makes it a crime for foreign news organizations to intentionally report “fake news” about Russia’s war in the Ukraine. Violation of the new law is punishable by sentences of up to 15 years in prison.

Western news outlets reacted promptly, and with obvious alarm, to the new law. The BBC’s director-general said the law “appears to criminalise the process of independent journalism,” and the BBC reacted by announcing that it would temporarily halt its reporting in Russia. CNN and CBS said that they would cease broadcasting from Russia, reporters for Bloomberg News and the Canadian Broadcasting Company in Russia also stopped work, and other news organizations removed the bylines of reporters stationed in Russia who were filing reports on the war in Ukraine. Still other networks and newspapers are figuring out how to respond. Obviously, no news service wants to risk the possibility that the accurate reporting of news that is at variance with Russian propaganda would be deemed “fake news” by repressive authorities and result in reporters being jailed.

We’ve often heard about the “fog of war,” in which participants and observers are enveloped and left floundering in a decisional murk because they can’t get accurate information about what is really happening on the ground. One of the concerns about the war in Ukraine is that we are not getting the facts, and therefore are at the mercy of propaganda from both sides. Russia’s decision to put western reporters at risk of prison time for their reporting activities will just make the “fog of war” even thicker for those of us in western countries.

But I suppose it is also fair to draw inferences from Russia’s decision to enact its new law. If the war–and activities on the home front in Russia–were going really well for the Kremlin, there presumably would be no need to criminalize journalism. Russia’s desperate effort to control the bad news therefore might actually make the fog a little less dense.

Fighting On The Financial Front

The Russia-Ukraine war may be the most sprawling, multi-front conflict in history. There’s brutal fighting on the ground, of course, and also in social media and in cyberspace. And a another new front has been opened in the financial sector, where an allied group of countries are throwing haymakers at Russia’s economy, with the goal of crippling Russia’s ability to sustain the conflict.

The current set of financial sanctions that have been brought to bear against Russia may be the most sophisticated and extensive in history. A group of countries that include the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom and Canada have cut off Russian banks from SWIFT, a global financial messaging service. Even the historically ever-neutral Swiss have joined in the sanctions and frozen Russian assets. The U.S. also banned U.S. dollar transactions with the Russian central bank. The overall goal is to prevent the Russian central bank from accessing the reserves Vladimir Putin was expecting it would be able to tap to finance the conflict.

We’ve come to expect economic sanctions to take a while to work, but that hasn’t been the case here. The assembled sanctions caused an immediate drop in the value of the Russian ruble, as shown in the chart above that shows its value against the dollar. You don’t need to be a financial whiz kid to recognize that any data that shows the value of a nation’s currency tumbling off a cliff isn’t good news for that country. A ruble is now worth less than a penny. The sanctions also caused a run on the banks by everyday Russians who are afraid the purchasing power of their savings will vanish as the ruble crashes and inflation takes hold. And the sanctions also caused Russia’s central bank to raise interest rates and halt any trading on the Moscow stock exchange, which also aren’t positive signs for the Russian economy.

Financial sanctions can be effective against some countries, but not so much against others. Countries without advanced economies, or that are willing to become pariah states like North Korea, or that have secret benefactors that might help them skirt sanctions are better equipped to withstand the impact. Russia doesn’t really fit into any of those categories. In fact, the prompt and devastating impact of the sanctions is causing some people to wonder whether they might be too effective, and back Putin into a corner that might cause him to entertain doing the unthinkable and escalating the conflict to a nuclear stage. We’ll have to hope that other, rational forces in Russia prevent that.

Unfortunately, the sanctions will cause the most pain for the ordinary Russians, who had nothing to do with the decision to invade Ukraine–but one of the ultimate political goals in any war is to crush the resolve of the enemy population so it will sue for peace. That’s what the allied fighters on the financial front are hoping to achieve.

The Return Of Baghdad Bob

Many of us recall “Baghdad Bob,” the Information Minister for Iraq whose press briefings during the Iraq War in 2003, and confident declarations that the Iraqi forces were pulverizing the enemy, were laughably divorced from reality. Baghdad Bob’s willingness to lie to the press, even as invading tanks rolled past behind him, was so complete that the photo of him, above, has become one of the standard internet memes that is used whenever someone is trying to present reality in a way that is contradicted by the obvious truth.

Speaking of Baghdad Bob . . . how is the Russian media presenting the war in Ukraine and the protests that have sprung up in some parts of Russia?

Not surprisingly, it’s been a struggle, and the truth has been hard to find. The tone has been set at the top, where Vladimir Putin has tried to convince the Russian people and Ukrainian military forces that the Ukrainian government consists of a “gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis.” And the Russian media has tried to play along and support the Putin regime by broadcasting patriotic programming and attacks on the Ukrainian leaders.

The problem for Russia is that its people have cell phones and computers and multiple ways of communicating without resort to the traditional media, and that decentralized, personal communication technology is changing the way war can be presented on the home front, just as it is changing how war is conducted on the battlefield. Patriotic programming and outright propaganda lose their force if you can flip on your cell phone and see video recorded or forwarded by your contacts of anti-war protests happening across the country and Russian police breaking up spontaneous demonstrations against the war.

Who knows? Maybe we’ll see footage of a Russian spokesman assuring the world that the Russian people are united in their support for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, while in the background an anti-war protest marches through the streets–and a new “Moscow Mel” meme will be born.

War In The Internet Age

Like everyone else, I have been following the events unfolding in Ukraine, and hoping like crazy that the courageous Ukrainians continue to stand up against the Russians and make them pay for starting a brutal and totally unnecessary war. In the fog of war you never know what is actually happening, but it looks like the Ukrainians, and their President, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, are putting up a fierce fight–according to some reports, at least, much more fierce than Vladimir Putin and Moscow expected.

I’m also fascinated by the new issues that modern technology are introducing to the harsh realities of war. Two stories in particular are helping to illustrate how the internet is changing the paradigm in ways that Sun Tzu, von Clausewitz, General Lee, General Patton, and other experts on war could never have anticipated.

First, consider Ukraine’s President. He has been extraordinarily deft in using modern communications tools to rally his citizens and his troops, using his cell phone and other technology as a kind of tactical device. After the fighting began, President Zelenskiy made a broadcast, using his cell phone, in which he was posed in front of a notable landmark in Kyiv. In the screen shot above, Zelenskiy looks like a guy taking a selfie on a visit, but his broadcast had an important point: refuting Russian propaganda that he had fled the capital. Zelenskiy’s immediate, selfie response exposed the propaganda as fiction, undercutting Russian credibility (to the extent there was any) and fortifying the resolve of Ukrainians who saw with their own eyes that their leader was standing firm. Zelenskiy, who was an entertainer before becoming President, clearly has a command of modern technology and an intuitive understanding of how it can be used to his advantage. His videos make Zelenskiy look like the future and Putin look like a Cold War relic–which he really is.

Second, consider the many reports that, as they invade, sex-starved Russian troops are using the Tinder apps on their cell phones to try to line up liaisons with Ukrainian women. And consider further the contentions by some that, knowing of the Russian practices, Ukrainian intelligence operatives are posing as women on Tinder and other social media apps to gather useful information on where the Russians are, how they are equipped, and where they are heading. Thanks to the lack of discipline of Russian troops and the anonymity of some social media apps, Ukrainians can collect real-time data about troop movements–the kind of information that is extraordinarily valuable in any war.

One admonition in the United States during World War II was: “loose lips sink ships.” The new saying might be “Tinder apps help lay traps.”

Whatever may happen here, war will never be the same.

Gas Prices

The other day we were out and about, and I noticed we were running low on gas. I stopped at a gas station to fill up and was shocked to see that gas prices were up to $3.39 a gallon. Admittedly, I don’t drive much since my commute became a walk, and it had been a while since I filled the tank. Still, $3.39 seemed like a pretty abrupt upward change in the price for unleaded regular.

Statistics show that there has been a rise in gas prices in Ohio, which have risen again since my visit to the pump last week. You can see charts with records of Ohio gas prices here and here. The data shows a recent surge in prices, with fuel costs up by more than 4 percent week to week and more than 38 percent over the past year–which obviously is not a good trend. At the same time, however, the data shows that the current price for gas is below historic highs, which touched $4.00 a gallon in 2008 and 2011 and came close in 2014. It seems to be human nature to forget the prior high-price periods and fondly remember only the low-price days.

Still, the current trend of price increases is alarming, and the volatile situation caused by Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine isn’t going to help reduce gasoline prices, either. At some point, a continuing spike in prices will cause new sources of gas to come on line–that’s how the law of supply and demand works–and it may prompt the Biden Administration to change policies that many believe have contributed to price increases. Until that happens, though, we’ll have to ride out the surge, and the burden is going to fall primarily on people who have long commutes and have to use their cars a lot.

A sudden jump in gas prices isn’t something that people typically budget for, so it will cause belt-tightening and grousing. And if the Ukraine situation provokes further increases and takes prices to new heights above the $4.00 a gallon level, that might just be something that people actually remember going forward.

Robots In Space

Tomorrow Russia will be sending a humanoid robot into space.  The robot will be one of the passengers on a Soyuz capsule that will take the robot and other crew members to the International Space Station.  Once there, the robot will perform certain tasks under the direction and supervision of a Russian cosmonaut.

190723192309234a3550372iThere are some signs that the robot’s trip is a bit of a publicity stunt, with a whiff of the old “space race” about it.  For one thing, the robot’s name was recently changed, from “Fedor” to “Skybot F-850.”  For another, the Russians say the robot will occupy the commander’s seat on the Soyuz, rather than being carted up in the cargo compartment — although Soyuz being a capsule, there really isn’t a commander’s seat or much piloting going on.  The robot also seems to be a kind of multi-purpose robot who is largely controlled through immersive teleoperation (i.e., controlled by a human) rather than fully autonomous.

As for the whiff of the old space race days, there’s a conscious effort to compare Skybot F-850 to an American robot called Robonaut-2 that worked at the International Space Station a few years ago and is ready to return.  Robonaut-2, the Russians point out, was shipped to the ISS as part of the cargo rather than as a member of the crew.  Good thing for Robonaut-2 that robots can’t feel embarrassment!

Even though the Russian effort seems to have a lot of publicity elements to it, I’m still glad to see a focus on moving forward with robotics in space.  Astronauts are great, of course, but a lot of the hard work involved in tackling space is going to be done by robots who don’t have to worry about atmospheres or food.  If a little taste of the space race will help to move the process along, I’m all for it.