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.

Crustacean Placation Nation

The Swiss are worried about lobsters.

live-maine-lobster-640-2017-BOGOThey are concerned that lobsters are sentient and can feel pain.  So, if you want to eat a lobster in Switzerland, you can’t drop it, live, into a pot of boiling water, which is the preferred cooking method in Maine and other lobster-loving states.  Instead, according to this article in USA Today, you need to either electrocute the lobster, or lull it into an insensate state by dipping it in salt water — and then stabbing it in the brain.  I’m not sure, frankly, why those methods are viewed as more humane than the classic drop into a pot of boiling water approach, but we’ll just have to take the word of the Swiss — who don’t eat many lobsters in any event — that the lobsters would prefer the electric chair or a knife to the brain.

Switzerland’s constitution apparently has an “animal dignity” provision, and Switzerland is a leader in the animal rights movement.  Swiss laws enacted in furtherance of that constitutional protection say that dogs can’t be punished for barking and that anyone who flushes an unwanted goldfish down the toilet violates the law.

The logical extension of this movement is to prevent humans from eating any animals, or for that matter domesticating them, breeding them, and preventing them from roaming free and impairing their liberty.  And if humans can’t eat other animals, the “animal dignity” provision presumably would prevent one animal species from gobbling up another animal species, too.  Why should humans be restrained, when other animals get off scot free?  Bears shouldn’t be able to eat fish, for example, and hawks and eagles can’t snatch up eat mice or voles, and wolves and coyotes should be barred from eating chickens, rabbits, or your neighbor’s annoying little yapper dog.

This seems like a pretty confusing approach to the food chain.  Me, I think I’ll still enjoy freshly boiled lobster.


Last week the U.S. Department of Justice announced sweeping indictments aimed at officials within FIFA, the the governing body of soccer.  In all, 14 people were charged with racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering conspiracy that allegedly turned soccer into a “criminal enterprise.”  While the U.S. was announcing the indictments, Swiss officials were raiding FIFA offices in Zurich and arresting high-ranking FIFA executives.

On Saturday, the New York Times published an interesting piece about the indictments, which were the result of a long and complicated investigation undertaken by the Internal Revenue Service and the FBI that looked at tax issues and bank transfers and involved coordination with police agencies and governments in 33 countries.  As is often the case, the indictments were the product of careful, patient analysis and time-honored police techniques, like focusing on building the case against one target, then flipping him and having him point the finger at his fellow crooks — because there is no honor among thieves.  In the case of the FIFA investigation, that initial target was a high-flying executive who lived the lifestyle of the ultra rich but somehow filed no tax returns.

The indictments paint a picture of extraordinary corruption, involving millions of dollars in bribes and a culture of kickbacks that affected decisions ranging from the award of broadcasting and marketing rights for tournaments to the selection of host countries for the World Cup.  Interestingly, those who pay attention to FIFA’s doings — i.e., football fans outside the United States — aren’t surprised by the allegations of criminal activity.  In fact, many international sports fans have expressed gratitude that the U.S. has acted where other governments couldn’t, or wouldn’t.  You get the sense that many countries viewed FIFA as the international giant that had to be strictly obeyed — or else your nation might lose its chance to host a tournament for find its team put into the “group of death” in the next World Cup.  Now America, where soccer’s growing popularity still lags far behind that of the NFL or college football, is trying to play the role of Jack.

Sports has long since become big business, in the United States and the world.  Soccer offers unique money-making opportunities because it is the one truly international team sport, where fans from virtually every nation want to watch their team play and wear their team’s gear.  According to the U.S. indictments, FIFA officials took advantage of the sporting interests of fans to turn soccer into a kind of slimy international slush fund.  And American officials indicate that more indictments are likely.  When this case reaches the courtroom, we’ll learn a lot more about the seamy side of the soccer world.

Sex (Boxes) In The City

Switzerland has a very robust voter referendum approach to democracy — and sometimes Swiss voters make interesting decisions.

Consider Zurich’s recent decision to construct so-called “sex boxes” on that city’s streets.  The “sex boxes” will consist of walled off parking spaces where prostitutes will be shielded from prying eyes and left free to practice the world’s oldest profession.  The proposal apparently was developed as a means of keeping streetwalkers away from Zurich’s tonier suburbs.

What a great concept!  A box on a city avenue is a perfect setting for intimate acts.  (Just ask anyone who has used one of those embarrassingly public sidewalk toilets found in some European cities.)  And the boxes will allow the Swiss johns not only to satisfy their evidently urgent need for urban intercourse, but also to get a brief taste of the homeless experience. You might even call it a two-fer.

One can only imagine how many streets in downtown Zurich are hoping they are selected as the location for these engines of commerce, which are certain to attract not only a high-class clientele who are likely to frequent existing local businesses before and after their trysts, but also the support personnel and friendly onlookers typically found around the sex trade.  “Sex boxes” used at random by local streetwalkers no doubt will be kept spotless and maintained in accordance with the highest hygienic standards by their very temporary residents.  And by using parking spots for the hooker shanties, city fathers will have also reduced oppressive parking congestion.

Coming soon, on a city street near you!


Eurotrip 2011: Interlaken


I planned to spend two nights in Interlaken, but after seeing the mountain peaks and turquoise lakes on the train ride in, I decided that the city deserved three nights.

It was an environment I hadn’t seen before. I’d seen big mountains in Colorado, but never a town in between two lakes (hence the name) surrounded by mountains. The water is extraordinarily clear, making the streams milky grey, the color of the stones at the bottom.

Unfortunately, you have to pay for the beauty. The cheapest meal I’ve found is a hot dog for 4.50 francs (about $5.50). The price of a gyro, which I’ve come to use as the standard for how expensive a country is, is 8 francs.

It’s frustrating that Switzerland isn’t on the euro. I withdrew 80 francs from an ATM when I arrived, which turned out to be way more than I needed. However, this mistake has ended up giving me a lot of pleasure, because I have to spend all the francs before I leave. So, I have been buying lots of food from restaurants – or, rather, from a restaurant called Mr. Grill’s, the cheapest in town. You can get a delicious bratwurst there for 6.50 francs.

My bratwurst from Mr. Grills.

At $29 a night, my hostel, the Alplodge/Backpackers Interlaken hostel, is the most expensive yet. However, it is exceptionally clean, it has a fully-stocked kitchen, more than enough bathrooms, and the staff is great at suggesting what to do in town. There isn’t much of a social atmosphere, though. The people staying here do their own thing during the day and come back exhausted, including me. My roommates are three Chinese girls. Interlaken seems to be popular among Chinese and Japanese tourists.

Yesterday I hiked to the other side of the lake to the east of Interlaken. It was a beautiful hike, taking me past many bright green farms. It was also exhausting, especially because I got lost twice. I visited a waterfall that, as far as I could tell by looking at a map, comes entirely from melted mountain snow. I ended up at a town called Brienz, from which I took a train back to Interlaken.

A farm by the lake.

The turquoise lake.

The waterfall.

Today I took a train to Grindelwald (20.80 francs round trip), a town higher up in the mountains. From there I hiked to the top of a mountain called Bort. I think the thin mountain air made me light-headed, because the joke from the Simpsons about Itchy and Scratchy Land having plenty of “Bort” license plates but no “Bart” ones kept running through my head. I hiked even further up from there to the top of a mountain I don’t know the name of. I stopped when the snow became so deep that my feet sank a foot into it with each step.

Despite the presence of snow, the weather was hot, or at least it felt hot to me. When I took off my daypack to get my waterbottle, I thought the waterbottle had burst open because everything was wet, but then I realized it was just my sweat that had soaked through.

Here I am as far as I hiked up.

The views were extraordinary from the top. I could see drifts of snow falling from the mountains in the distance, followed by the sound of it a split-second later. The snow seemed to be melting fast. Parts of the trail had turned into little streams.

The train ride back to Interlaken was very enjoyable, as train rides always are when you’re really tired from walking. Tomorrow, I head back to Italy to see Venice.

Eurotrip 2011:  Florence and Pisa

Eurotrip 2011:  Rome pt. 2

Eurotrip 2011:  Rome pt. 1

Eurotrip 2011:  Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  The Journey To Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Istanbul

Predicting The Extinction Of Religion

The BBC has an interesting article on the efforts of scientists to predict the extinction of religion in certain countries.  The scientific study considers the number of people who indicate no religious affiliation in census data and then seeks to identify the “social motives” behind being a religious person.  The study predicts that religious faith will die out in Australia, Austria, Canada, The Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Switzerland.  (Ireland?  Really?)

The scientists apply a “nonlinear dynamics” model that seeks to measure and predict the social and utilitarian value of putting yourself in the “non-religious” category.  As one scientist explained, the concept of nonlinear dynamics “posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join, and it posits that social groups have a social status or utility.”  Nonlinear dynamics has previously been used by scientists to predict the death of certain spoken languages, where individuals have to decide between a language that is spoken only by a shrinking pool of participants and learning a more popular alternative.

I think the scientists may have missed the boat on this one.  To be sure, religions and languages both have a cultural element, but for many religious people their belief is rooted much more deeply.  Adherents to the world’s various religions, after all, are motivated at least in part by faith.  If joining the larger social group was all there was to it, history would not reveal such a long and bloody list of religious martyrs who were burned at the stake, stoned, and tortured rather than repudiate their beliefs.