Sympathy for Mules

Drug Smuggler Caught by Airport Police

Of late I have been fascinated by a National Geographic Channel series called “To Catch a Smuggler.” The show concentrates on drug smugglers attempting to smuggle cocaine, heroine, so-called party drugs, and other narcotics in their luggage or on their persons.

Initially, I was elated that people smuggling drugs into this country (or, in fact, any country) were being caught. Then, as I viewed more of the series, I started feeling some compassion for the drug mules, who were mostly poor people in serious debt who were persuaded by the real criminals that they would not get caught if they carried heroine in a false bottom in their luggage or swallowed rubber contraceptives full of cocaine. In the latter case, if one of the rubbers broke while in transit, the result would be a fatal overdose.

When caught, the drug mules would begin by denying everything. Then, when presented with clear evidence of their crime, they would break down. Allowed one phone call to their loved ones, they broke down when they realized their lives were irretrievably ruined.

Thinking one could smuggle several kilos of drugs past trained dogs, experienced security and customs personnel, and instant chemical tests for banned substances is a form of magical thinking. Unfortunately, the prison sentences for smuggling can be up to thirty years in countries like Peru and Colombia, and somewhat less in Europe.

Also on the show are another set of “smugglers,” except what they are smuggling are themselves. Show after show highlights cases of Syrians, Turks, and Albanians attempting to get to the United States or Europe with forged or otherwise false travel documents. It seems that many Muslims are desperately trying to leave their home countries, many of which are either despotisms or fighting endless civil wars.

I think one would have to be Marjorie Taylor Greene to watch this show and not feel for the perpetrators.

Bad Faith, Russian Style

Wagner Group Mercenary in Eastern Ukraine

It looks like there’s plenty of instances of bad faith to go around. We have been hearing that the Wagner Group (Группа Вагнера) has been supplementing the Russian army in the Ukraine with its own conscripts, mostly recruited from Russian convicts serving time for crimes. Vladimir Putin probably figures that when his “Private Military Company” (PMC) gets ripped apart by the Ukrainian army, no one will shed any tears.

In the news today the head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, claims he has been “cut off” from ammunition by Putin. In fact, he claims that Putin now refuses to take his phone calls. I guess his force, which once numbered 50,000 fighters, is now considered expendable.

This is a significant development. There has been considerable friction between the Wagner forces and the regular Russian army. Does that mean that Vlady will now risk angering his supporters by sending their sons home in a box? That would not look good for him, even if the Russian man in the street claims to support him—at least in public. But what does that say about what they think of Putin in the privacy of their homes?

Blaming Russian Literature for the Ukraine War!?

Ukrainian Writer Oksana Zabushko

A week ago, I was reading a back issue of The Times Literary Supplement when I encountered an article that made me sit up straight. A Ukrainian author of some note—Oksana Zabushko—was blaming Russian literature and Russian culture for Putin’s invasion of her country.

While I regard Vladimir Putin personally responsible for the war, I do not go so far as to blame Russia as a country. Even when the man on the street in Petersburg or Moscow appears to back up Putin, I write that off as being careful what to tell a foreign journalist in view of the Draconian punishments in store for those not backing up Putin.

Why blame Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Pushkin, and Chekhov for an invasion that they would in all likelihood opposed? Ukraine is certainly suffering from the invasion, which is targeting innocent civilians. At the same time, Russia is suffering, perhaps equally, from a war Putin did not expect would drag on for so long. He did not anticipate the disproportionately high Russian casualty rates, the incompetence of his generals, the sudden backbone shown by NATO, the global isolation of Russia from the world economy, and the disinclination of young Russian men to fight the war.

As much as I loathe Putin, I continue to read Russian literature and see Russian films. Although most of my fellow Americans avoid Russian literature like the plague, I think it is one of the great world literatures. Currently, I am reading a book of essays by Polina Barskova about the German siege of Leningrad during World War Two.

When Russia invaded Ukraine last February, I didn’t stop reading Russian literature. Instead, I made a point of adding more Ukrainian literature to my TBR (To Be Read) pile—including Oksana Zabushko herself, who is a pretty good author herself. Even when she makes an error in judgment.

The Moon’s a Balloon

“What is success? It is a toy balloon among children armed with pins”

In the last few days, U.S. jet fighters have intercepted four balloons and popped them. Although the military has not officially admitted it, all four appear to be balloons equipped with electronics for spying. It is possible that we will never know, as what they manage to find is probably a military secret.

President Biden’s decision to bring these devices down is in sharp contrast to Trump, who let three or four such devices float over the U.S. during his régime without bringing it to anyone’s attention. Typically, he was full of anti-Chinese bluster—bluster, that did not translate into action.

We know that the Chinese have launched a number of spy satellites. Why, I wonder, did they feel it was necessary to supplement their findings with such a low-tech device as a balloon? Is it possible that their spy satellites did not produce satisfactory information? Were the Chinese balloons self-propelled? Or did they just drift any which where at the mercy of the winds? I doubt we’ll ever know.

Thoughts & Prayers—Pfffft!

AK-47 Insides

After the mass killings in California this weekend—in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay—I am tempted to make an immodest proposal. Every time N number of innocent victims are killed by a shooter, the same number of NRA members (and their families) are slaughtered in the same fashion.

It would have the effect of thinning the herd.

Insofar as the Second Amendment is concerned, in exactly what way do gun buyers constitute a “well-regulated Militia”? (Answer: In no way.)

What Happened to the Telephone?

I do not think that Alexander Graham Bell could ever have imagined what would become of his invention. What started out as a voice communication between two humans has developed into something quite different: One might even say it has merged in some ungodly way with computers and the internet.

Corporations want to talk to you, to find out what you are thinking, whether of their products or services, or your politics. But they don’t want you to communicate with them—unless to tell them you want to order now. That’s why we all have to go through a diabolically designed automated attendant service which has a computer asking you why you are calling. I find that they frequently omit the option that describes why I am calling them. Sometimes, there is no way to get through to a human.

Most of my incoming calls are tagged as SPAM RISK. That’s because there are firms and charities that want to romance you out of your money. One charity calls me every day: I even recognize the caller’s voice. And this for a “charity” that is not even tax-deductible. I have told him multiple times that I am on a fixed income and no longer contribute to charities. (That’s not exactly entirely true, but it is 100% true for people who try to collect money by making unsolicited phone calls.)

This morning, I received one UNCLASSIFIED call that wanted to ask about my political opinions. I politely informed the caller that I do not discuss politics with strangers because I am suspicious of their motives. That is particularly so as election time approaches. This is a dance I will perform numerous times come midterm elections in November.

It is sad that people have to protect themselves from the telephone. We try to insulate ourselves from callers by using voice mail or by communicating only by texting.

Not at All Cute

As an apartment dweller, there is nothing that bothers me so much as little yapper dogs who bark incessantly. Their owners arrive at a strange kind of belief that the cuteness of their pets despite all other indications pointing at the fact that excitable small furballs are creatures from hell and their constant barking is nothing more than a canine form of mental breakdown.

According to the American Kennel Club (AKC):

Some barking is normal, but when barking becomes excessive not only is it frustrating for owners, but it’s also a sign your dog may be stressed, or their needs aren’t being met. Dogs use their barking as a means of communicating with us when they need things: to go outside, to play, because they are hungry, or because they are concerned about things. There is always a reason for the barking, and it’s our job to figure out what our dogs need.

All well and good, but apartment dwellers do not seem to get the message. When I first moved into this building in 1985, having pets was forbidden. But now it seems that many prospective renters are unable to get by without a small, noisy, outraged ball of fluff.

The barking gets particularly bad when the owners are away, and the dog is left alone to howl in the empty apartment for food, walkies, love, or whatever.

When I go to the supermarket, I am met by a sign that says Service Dogs Only, but inside there are numerous people, mostly elderly women, with their “furbabies” in tow as “mental health service dogs.” It seems that people are ever more dependent on small dogs with objectionable behaviors.

I know the dog owners are really to blame, as the AKC maintains, but why is it that I have never seen a well-adjusted small dog?

Vlad’s Girls

Vladimir Putin’s Daughters: Mariya Putina and Katerina Tikhonova

Although it is well known that Vladimir Putin is divorced and seeing a gymnast named Alina Kabaeva, he has had two daughters by his ex-wife Lyudmila, a former airline stewardess. The girls were born in 1985 and 1986 respectively and are now in their thirties.

Both girls went to school under assumed names and were carefully shielded from the spotlight. Because both are wealthy, after the invasion of Ukraine, they were sanctioned by the U.S. and its allies. It is suspected that Putin has showered the girls with large amounts of rubles, making them suspect as oligarchs in their own right.

You can read up on them and see pictures at this highly entertaining website.

Two Wild and Crazy Guys

Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd as the Two Crazy Guys

The following repost is from April 25, 2013. It refers to the Tsarnaev brothers who used pressure-cooker bombs at the Boston Marathon that year.

You may recall those two Wild & Crazy guys from Czechoslovakia, the brothers Yortuk and Georg Festrunk, on Saturday Night Live. As they shimmied across the stage in search of “foxes, ” they displayed an exquisite misunderstanding what the United States was all about. In the case of Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd, the result was comedy. In the case of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, two Chechen brothers from Dagestan, the result was death and disorder.

In the years to come, one of the greatest dangers to America will be the failure of immigrants from cultures vastly different from our own to adapt to the prevailing culture of the U.S. Even the mother returned to Russia, leaving several arrest warrants for shoplifting in her wake. The streets of America are not paved with gold. They are fraught with dangers not understood by people who have been influenced by our popular culture without understanding the particular demons that we in the States have to contend with in our daily lives.

After the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, my parents took in two sets of refugees. The first was a mother and son who thought that, now they were in America, everything would be golden. That ended badly when Feddike, the son, was sent to a juvenile correctional facility. Next was Lászlo, a young man in his twenties, who also quickly fell afoul of the law—whereupon my mother and father resolved not to take in any more refugees from the Mother Country.

I do not mean to imply that immigration is bad, but that American culture sends misleading vibes to the rest of the world. People who are not thoughtful and who think that just being on American soil is the solution to all their problems are more likely to go astray. No, they must be ready to roll up their sleeves and start working long and hard toward their goals.

The Tsarnaev brothers should be an object lesson to American officials that they have to probe more deeply than mere external circumstances when opening the doors of the henhouse to potential predators.

Through Russian Eyes

Russian Troops in Ukraine

If you were old enough in 1962 to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, you will recall that feeling of dread about the world possibly ending in a nuclear holocaust—within mere days. That showdown between Kennedy and Khrushchev was all because Russia had supplied Cuba with missiles to be pointed at targets in the United States.

Today, I had the unique experience of seeing the war in Ukraine through Russian eyes. I am a member of the European History Meetup Group which gets together several times a year at the Will & Ariel Durant Branch Library in Hollywood. According to Bronislav Meyler, the Ukrainian-born moderator of the group:

Let’s kick off our next program with a discussion about Russia/Ukraine historic relationship. The program will try to focus on the last thirty years of relations between the two states. Historical perspective will not be excluded just for the simple fact that the two nations shared (and still share) almost one thousand years of common history.

The fact that this meeting was held almost in the center of the Russian community in Los Angeles brought a number of Russian-Americans to attend. It is interesting to see how Russians think of the NATO threat. They view the nearness of NATO in the Baltic Republics of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia; Poland; Slovakia; Hungary; Bulgaria; Romania; and Turkey much the same way we viewed the threat of Russian missiles less than a hundred miles from the United States.

Where the Russians view NATO as a monolithic threat, I see them as a relatively disunited group that would have insuperable difficulties agreeing on where to eat lunch. But the threat of Ukraine, which has been tied in historically and culturally with Russia since the 17th century, possibly joining NATO was for Putin possibly the straw that broke the camel’s back.

It is always valuable to see the other side’s point of view.