How the Post Office will really be saved

From the Desk of the Honorable Congressman Jack P. Blowhard

Official C-SPAN Transcript

Good afternoon.  The United States Postal Service has provided reliable mail delivery to Americans for hundreds of years, but now its mission is in jeopardy as a result of continuing budget problems.  I am here today to propose a solution that will keep the Postal Service operational through Fiscal Year 2030, save $100 million in bailout funds needed in the event of a bankruptcy at USPS, as well as save thousands of lives.

How will we do it?  By repurposing the perfectly good United States Postal Service into a disaster response team and rescue squad.  They have already mastered the art of logistics.  This bill scraps the current corporate structure of the Postal Service and turns it into an agency managed by the Department of Homeland Security.  After all, who else is prepared to actually go to your home in the event of an emergency?

As part of this initiative, the USPS will also take control of the current E-911 system mandated for cell phone service providers by the FCC.  Thus, the Postal Service will be transformed into a 21st-century solution to address our nation’s safety concerns while continuing to provide quality mail delivery service during regular business hours five to six days a week.

Through rain, through sleet, through snow, the U.S. Postal Service has been delivering the mail since stamps still had this yucky-tasting glue on them that you had to lick.  Did you know that, interns?  Thirty years ago, you would have been licking hundreds of stamps sitting at my desk.  You kids got it easy these days.  Can I get those two sentences struck from the record?  Thanks.

Anyway, no matter the weather, no matter the time of year other than federal holidays and your mom’s birthday for some reason, the Postal Service is there for America.  That is why Congress should entrust with them the responsibility for managing the communications backdrop and logistics for emergency services to the nation’s most vulnerable citizens.  USPS will become a partner with FEMA and be the agency responsible for implementing the TSA’s expanded mission of protecting America’s trains and roadways.  The War on Terror is a mission not yet completed, but the Postal Service was one of the first involved back in 2001, with the delivery of anthrax to the office of Former Senator Tom Daschle, an old colleague and current drinking buddy of mine.  He’s a champ.

The Postal Service will work with local law enforcement agencies all across the country to determine the appropriate means for carrying out its security operations.  In some places, that may simply mean arming the mailman with tasers to subdue the threats of pit bulls, German Shepherds, and Glenn Beck’s remaining audience.  For others, the Postal Service may be equipped with helicopters, bulletproof vests, and submachine guns in order to better protect America.

This is a bipartisan solution that has been long in the works and is the result of years of brainstorming between myself, my colleagues on the Homeland Security Committee, representatives of various federal agencies, and a handful of highly-respected think tanks.  Thank you all for your extremely hard work to make this bill a reality.  You have helped to potentially save the jobs of millions of postal workers all across America and keep the agency operating indefinitely now that it has a mission beyond turning a profit.  Together, we can build a bureaucratic Rube Goldberg machine that solves many problems all at once in the name of avoiding one politically disastrous decision.

Time?  Okay.  Thus, the Postal Service RESCUE Act of 2012 will modernize the USPS for a new, transparent, accountable world of streamlined mail delivery and rescue operations.  I will now open it up to debate from the floor.

[APPLAUSE]

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Now that science is over, we don’t have to do it anymore

Simulated Higgs event (thx CERN)

The likely discovery of the Higgs-Boson has brought elation to those in the scientific community, many of whom thought the particle might never be found, not in their lifetimes at least.

Humanity’s long struggle to understand the universe has reached its end.  The standard model of particle physics has come together as neatly as a cable-knit sweater in a gift-wrapped box on Christmas.  You’re not going to open the box one year and get that exotic alternate universes theory you’ve always wanted; it’s always just going to be the same universe, the same sixty elementary particles that combine in the same statistically predictable ways.

And that’s all there is.  What’s the point of sending NASA to Mars if we know what’s out there?  It’s time for science to come home and tie up the loose ends.  Outreach.  Distributing grant money to grad students.

Science is over.  We went to the moon, and now if the Large Hadron Collider is any indication, going nowhere very fast seems to be the ultimate destination.

Yes, physics is finished, though it is an accomplishment hundreds of years in the making.  Sir Isaac Newton probably didn’t realize that by the time his project was finished, there would already be things like cars, refrigerators, and the internet.  It probably would have been easier just to wait until at least the 1800s for people to start doing physics.

It’s a shame that so many students are, even today, learning to do physics when all of the field’s greatest mysteries have already been uncovered.  Perhaps now their attention can be directed at learning something useful, like math or critical thinking skills.  That would be a much greater miracle than being able to smash atoms together at the speed of light.

Time Management is Key for Successful Autocrats

Vladimir V. Putin

Originally published on Facebook – 10/7/2010

Putin writes for Forbes magazine

Vladimir Putin writes for Forbes magazine

As a very successful individual, I am frequently asked by students, young professionals, and aspiring dictators what traits I have cultivated to become one of the world’s great pariahs of autocracy. What I tell these people is always the same. “Two words: time management.”

Indeed, even established tyrants sometimes are burdened by a failure to prioritize. Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez are both notorious for having given speeches in excess of seven hours. That’s one full “lazy American workday”. While I’m sure their respective peoples gained some degree of enlightenment on the principles of Marxism and the fight for social justice, those are hours that those Presidentes de vida could have better spent finding ways to nationalize industries owned by their shell companies headquartered out of the Cayman Islands.

But perhaps the most vacillatory despot out there is Muammar al-Gadaffi. For every hour he spends violently, financially, or even verbally outraging the West, it seems like he spends an entire year toiling away in inanity trying to improve his country’s infrastructure or indulging his eccentric hobbies. It’s an uneven track record that tells me that he is unsure whether or not he is ready to fully embrace his revolution and become a truly totalitarian ruler. I’ve tried talking to him about maybe getting something going with the oil industry or starting some kind of narco-terror group just to keep his name out there, but no dice.

Instead he’s done all sorts of crazy things over the past couple of years. Jet skis, aviator sunglasses, and circus tents are all fine and good, but autocracies are about one thing: power. It might have been sort of cool to hobnob with those guys from the Bush Administration a couple of years ago, but that image was not well-received by his megalomaniac peers. And it was just downright embarrassing when he insisted on testifying before the United Nations. It’s commonly known that the UN is full of pathetic little countries like Cambodia. I’m on top of my game, and the only reason I would ever care about Cambodia would be if I thought I could drill for oil there and launder the money into my wife’s Swiss bank account. While Colonel Gadaffi has no doubt led a very pleasant life as Libya’s de facto leader, fewer distractions and more discipline (and underground bunkers!) would make his country one that even I would be proud of.

But I digress: this column isn’t intended to be a critique of the efforts of those whose days have already passed. Instead, I would like to give advice to future generations of autocratically-minded leaders – certainly a worthy cause, if I do say so myself; for what is the use in spending a life first pursuing power at all costs, and then micromanaging the affairs of a country if I can’t threaten those goons at the Tax Department into letting me gift my incomprehensible wealth to somebody just like me before I die?

  1. Spend time planning and organizing. As a dictator, this should be something that you greatly enjoy, but there are a few subtle nuances that a novice tyrant might not be aware of. For example, once you get good enough at planning for your own people, you can start to engage in prognostication regarding the affairs of other countries. The government of your country will only change in the case of the very unfortunate happening, but democracies are different. If you can figure out who they’re going to elect and what they will want from you far in advance, it will be far easier to procrastinate holding legitimate negotiations on their treaties, make excuses for ignoring their demands, refuse to cooperate with people who want to hold you accountable, or even arrest random citizens from their country if need be when the time comes.
  2. Set goals. Realism is important here. For example, I sometimes have a hard time trying to decide if I want science to prioritize putting zoo animals in space, developing different kinds laser-beam weapons, or helping underprivileged regimes in third-world countries build nuclear reactors. You can’t do everything, so you have to make choices, decide where to put your resources, and focus on that. Coming up with benchmarks that have reasonable deadlines attached to them can be important for keeping track of your progress on a big project as well.
  3. Prioritize. Again, this is where some other leaders have fallen short. Having power is really fun, but you have to keep in mind that every hour you spend ranting about the decline of American capitalism is an hour you could spend thinking about how to most strategically position tanks along the border of a smaller neighboring country.
  4. Delegate. Have your sycophants do the most unappealing items on your agenda, but first make sure that they are at each others’ throats enough to compete and do what you want them to at an acceptable level of competence. Fire one of your advisers just often enough to keep people on their toes.
  5. Use a To-Do List. A successful autocrat never misses a chance to justify the deaths of their own citizens, foreign spies, and political enemies in front of the global community. Keep a planner and don’t forget to go to the big summits and use your power to filibuster everyone else’s agendas while you continue to centralize power and build your wealth.
  6. Be flexible. You have to allow time for interruptions and distractions. Referring to a previous example, we hit the deadline for fueling Bushehr without any “interruptions”, but right now we are having technological difficulties. However, the global community has so grossly underestimated our ability to finish this project, that even if it takes us an extra couple of months to work out the bugs, they’ll still be surprised when my buddy Ahmadinejad is kicking back with the good ol’ boys at the nuclear club!
  7. Know when you’re at your peak. I consider myself a morning person, but usually I catch a second wind late at night. An effective dictator will use the middle of the night to catch up on threats they didn’t have time to make during the workday.
  8. Conquer procrastination. Hold yourself to masochistically rigid standards for self-discipline, and soon procrastination will be one of your autonomous regions.
  9. Learn to say “no”. When you single-handedly rule over the world’s largest country, the demands on your time and attention are going to be constant. If you can’t justify or be bothered to refuse a particular supplicant, refer them to an intimidating subordinate to be scared away.
  10. Reward yourself. It’s easy to lose sight of what is really important when you have a heavy workload of really difficult and frustrating problems to deal with, but you will work towards meeting your goals faster if there is an incentive to do that. I promise myself an extra day of bear hunting for every 100 million dollars I make. For smaller achievements, sometimes I will promise myself dessert with my lunch or time to go get coffee with my favorite internal spy.

Follow these tips and you’re sure to be well on the path to unlimited wealth and power. But that’s enough from me, I have to go try and convince some trade representatives from a third world country that a pile of old missiles are worth mineral rights on their sacred land until 2100. Dos Vidanya, comrades!

Russia Kills the Lawyers First, Asks No Questions Later

This is the story of a plot so complicated, it took a lawyer to unravel.  And when he finally did, he was killed.

The lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, worked out of Moscow for an American firm, and discovered that one of his clients, Hermitage Capital Management, was defrauded 230 million dollars.

It all started in 2007 when 50 police officers from the Moscow Interior Ministry raided both the offices of the law firm and the fund, claiming to be working on a tax investigation.  The officers confiscated documents related to all of the fund’s investment companies, in gross violation of the search warrant that they actually possessed.

However, my suspicion is that such seizures aren’t entirely out of the ordinary in Russia, and so nobody was alarmed when this happened.  Nobody was confused until later that year when the investment firm received a telephone call inquiring about a court judgment that had fallen against one of the fund’s Russian companies, that had, to the recollection of those legitimately involved, never been to court.

Mr. Magnitsky looked into the situation and found out that some of the Russian companies that Hermitage was invested in had been sued by fake companies using forged and backdated contracts, documents whose creation would have only been possible with the seizures from the raids on their offices.  The Hermitage fund’s companies were represented by dummy lawyers that weren’t hired by the firm, and they plead guilty to all of the charges levied against them in court.  This is where the fraud occurred; the liabilities from the forged contracts amounted to millions upon millions of dollars, and the judgment was the the companies owed that money to their clients.

Going beyond even that, the companies were effectively stolen by a murderer, who re-registered the companies under the name of one of his own.  This was done so that the companies, now run by thieves, could turn around and claim that the illegitimate court judgments had wiped out their profits, and ask for their tax money on the now-nonexistent profits to be returned.

The Russian tax authorities granted this request.  A “refund” of $230,000,000 for overpaid taxes – indeed, the largest of its kind in Russian history – was wired to the stolen company.

If this all sounds like the most elaborate and disturbing way of conducting a heist, just wait.  It gets worse.

Before the money had even been “refunded” to the stolen company, Mr. Magnitsky had, on the behalf of Hermitage Capital Management, already filed numerous and lengthy complaints detailing the frauds with three different Russian law enforcement agencies.  The agencies proceeded to pass those filings back to the police officers named in the complaints as a substitute for conducting investigations.  The police officers retaliated by starting criminal cases against various employees of the fund.

Mr. Magnitsky sent different government offices over 50 requests for information regarding the stolen companies, and managed to piece together what had happened.  The corruption was blatant, and stunning in its magnitude and reach within the Russian government.  He felt compelled to do something, so he prepared a detailed complaint about the stolen tax money and filed it with seven different Russian government agencies.

The Interior Ministry officers implicated in the complaints opened criminal cases targeting all of the lawyers representing Hermitage.  The pressure was intense, and six of the seven lawyers fled Russia.  Magnitsky remained, because he was sure that he hadn’t really done anything illegal.  He naively believed that innocence alone would be enough to win a case in the Russian justice system.

It wasn’t.  After testifying against powerful, but corrupt officials in court, he was arrested on a phony charge and spent the short remainder of his life being moved through a set of progressively worse prisons before finally dying of illness caused by conditions tantamount to torture.  The cell that Magnitsky was kept in lacked glass in the windowpanes, enabling the frigid weather to do its worst.  There was no toilet, only an overflowing hole in the floor.  Nobody ever held a gun to his head, yet his ability to survive was slowly chipped away at by a system that denied him the good health he had been in when he had arrived.

Like the convoluted way Hermitage’s adversaries had gone about their fiscal crimes, the murder of Sergei Magnitsky is similarly troubling; not only because of the evil inherent in the deed, but also because of how utterly legal the method was.

Rather than sending a hit man to his house with a gun, Mr. Magnitsky’s tormentors had him locked away in a cell.  Not one in somebody’s basement, but one in a federal prison run by a national government that operates with all of the airs of legitimacy that bureaucracies the world over do, but which happened to be run by crooks.  Smart crooks, who used the powers vested within the papers they pushed around to silence the one man who tried to get in the way of their undue windfall.

Instead of defending the lives and property of its citizens from wrongdoing and holding those who perpetuate misdeeds accountable, the Russian government has instead done the exact opposite:   it has let itself become a tool for those with criminal intentions.  In this case, it was used to move a massive amount of money from one bank account to another, and kill the man who tried to expose it all.  To anybody who had hoped for reforms, transparency, and reduced corruption from the Russian government in the 21st century, those hopes were dead before the first decade of it ran out.

Sergei Magnitsky died on November 16, 2009.  R.I.P.

- sf1

For the much-longer piece that inspired this post, click here

Another article I referred to while writing this – on WSJ.com