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No, There Really Isn't Much We Can Do To Retaliate Against North Korea

| Sun Dec. 21, 2014 2:59 PM EST

A couple of days ago I wrote a post suggesting that there might not really be much we can do to retaliate against North Korea, who the FBI blames for the Sony hack. So I was curious to read "A Reply to Kim’s Cyberterrorism," a Wall Street Journal editorial telling us what options we had. I figured that if anyone could make the best case for action, it was the Journal.

Unfortunately, they mostly just persuaded me that there really is very little we can do. After clearing their throats with a couple of suggestions that even they admit are mostly just symbolic, they get to the meat of things:

Earlier this year [Rep. Ed Royce] introduced the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, which gives Treasury the power it needs to sanction banks facilitating North Korea’s finances. It passed the House easily in July but has since been locked up in Harry Reid’s Senate at the behest of the Obama Administration. Mr. Royce tells us he plans to reintroduce the bill as a first order of business in the new Congress. New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez has introduced similar legislation in the Senate; a bill could be on Mr. Obama’s desk by the second week in January.

So....that's it. And even this is weaker tea than the Journal suggests. For starters, the bill has a serious structural problem because it puts severe limits on the president's power, which is why Obama hasn't supported it in the past. It's a bad idea in foreign relations for Congress to mandate sanctions that can then be lifted only by Congress. This makes it almost impossible for presidents to negotiate future agreements because they have no carrots to offer in return for good behavior.

But that could be fixed. What can't be fixed is the fact that North Korea learned a lesson from our previous attempt at tightening economic sanctions in 2007, when we cut off the US links of Banco Delta Asia, a Macau-based bank suspected of doing business with North Korea. This in turn panicked other Macau banks into cutting off their relationships with North Korea, which severely restricted the regime's access to dollars. As the Journal notes, this genuinely hurt North Korea, and the Bush administration agreed to resolve the BDA issue during the Six-Party nuclear talks later that year.

Unfortunately for us, sanctions like this would hurt North Korea a lot less now than they did back in 2007. Stephan Haggard explains:

Post-BDA, and since the ascent of Kim Jong-un in particular, North Korea has also sought to diversify its trade, investment and financial links. The KPA and its associates have developed relationships with financial entities that are not concerned with access to the U.S. market, both in China and outside it; Russia will be particularly interesting to watch in this regard but there is also the open field of the Middle East....While this legislation might raise the costs of proliferation activities if implemented, it is unlikely to staunch them completely and could simply forge new networks beyond the law's reach.

Another question is whether the sanctions will have the broader strategic effect of moving the North Koreans toward serious negotiation of its nuclear program....The paradoxical feature of sanctions is that they rarely have the direct effect of forcing the target country to capitulate. The HR 1771 sanctions will have effect only when coupled with strong statements of a willingness to engage if North Korea showed signs of interest in doing so. The legislation provides plenty of sticks; the administration will have to continue to articulate the prospective carrots in a way that is credible. Strong sanctions legislation makes that difficult to do if the legislation places a series of binding constraints on the president's discretion. Why negotiate with the U.S. if there is no return from doing so?

With changes, Royce's sanctions bill might be an appropriate response to the Sony hack. However, it's unlikely to have a severe effect on North Korea. Even worse, past history shows that a single-minded "get tough" attitude toward the DPRK can backfire badly, as it did on George Bush when his refusal to negotiate with Pyongyang in 2002 led in short order to the ejection of UN inspectors and the construction of plutonium bombs from a stockpile that had previously been kept under lock and key.

As the cliche goes, there are no good options here, just bad and less bad. I wouldn't necessarily oppose a modified version of the sanctions bill, but it's unlikely to have a major impact. It might even make things worse. If this is the best we can do, it's pretty much an admission that there's not really much we can do.

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Let's Blame Conservatives For All the Killings They're Responsible For

| Sun Dec. 21, 2014 11:41 AM EST

Via Atrios, here is America's-mayor-for-life Rudy Giuliani commenting on the killing of two New York City police officers yesterday by a deranged gunman:

“We’ve had four months of propaganda starting with the president that everybody should hate the police,” Giuliani said during an appearance on Fox News on Sunday. “The protests are being embraced, the protests are being encouraged. The protests, even the ones that don’t lead to violence, a lot of them lead to violence, all of them lead to a conclusion. The police are bad, the police are racist. That is completely wrong.”

....The former mayor also criticized President Barack Obama, Holder, and Al Sharpton for addressing the underlining racial tensions behind the failure to indict the white police officers who killed [Eric Garner on Staten Island] and Mike Brown in Ferguson. “They have created an atmosphere of severe, strong, anti-police hatred in certain communities. For that, they should be ashamed of themselves,” he said.

Fair enough. But I assume this means we can blame Bill O'Reilly for his 28 episodes of invective against "Tiller the Baby Killer" that eventually ended in the murder of Wichita abortion provider George Tiller by anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder. We can blame conservative talk radio for fueling the anti-government hysteria that led Timothy McVeigh to bomb a federal building in Oklahoma City. We can blame the relentless xenophobia of Fox News for the bombing of an Islamic Center in Joplin or the massacre of Sikh worshippers by a white supremacist in Wisconsin. We can blame the NRA for the mass shootings in Newtown and Aurora. We can blame Republicans for stoking the anti-IRS paranoia that prompted Andrew Joseph Stack to crash a private plane into an IRS building in Austin, killing two people. We can blame the Christian Right for the anti-gay paranoia that led the Westboro Baptist Church to picket the funeral of Matthew Snyder, a US Marine killed in Iraq, with signs that carried their signature "God Hates Fags" slogan. We can blame Sean Hannity for his repeated support of Cliven Bundy's "range war" against the BLM, which eventually motivated Jerad and Amanda Miller to kill five people in Las Vegas after participating in the Bundy standoff and declaring, "If they're going to come bring violence to us, well, if that's the language they want to speak, we'll learn it." And, of course, we can blame Rudy Giuliani and the entire conservative movement for their virtually unanimous indifference to the state-sanctioned police killings of black suspects over minor offenses in Ferguson and Staten Island, which apparently motivated the murder of the New York police officers on Saturday.

Or wait. Maybe we can't do any of those things. Maybe lots of people support lots of things, and we can't twist that generalized support into blame for maniacs who decide to take up arms for their own demented reasons. Maybe that's a better idea after all.

Here Is President Obama's Statement on Today's Tragedy In New York

| Sun Dec. 21, 2014 1:17 AM EST

Two NYPD officers were murdered in cold blood Saturday by a gunman who then killed himself before being apprehended. Details are still sketchy, but New York is at fever pitch right now. Some people are trying to blame this horrendous tragedy on Bill de Blasio, Eric Holder, Barack Obama, and the thousands of protestors who have taken to the streets over the last few weeks to protest the decisions of the Eric Garner and Michael Brown grand juries.

Here's President Obama's statement from tonight making clear that he "unconditionally condemns today's murder of two police officers." The fact that he has to make that clear at all—as though there was a chance he may have been undecided on the issue—is surreal.

 

The 9 Best Cookbooks of 2014

| Sat Dec. 20, 2014 5:09 PM EST

Another year, another spate of brilliant cookbooks. Here are the ones that made the biggest impression on me, in no particular order.

Bitter: A Taste of the World's Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes, by Jennifer McLagan. In 2005, nearly a decade before "bone broth" emerged as a craze, McLagan came out with Bones, a delicious defense of a culinary resource people normally discard. Three years later, when people like me were still mostly shunning the lard jar, she produced the equally excellent Fat, which she called an "appreciation of the misunderstood ingredient." McLagan, perhaps the most idiosyncratic and underrated cookbook author of our time, has now trained her powers on the stuff that makes you grimace the first time it hits your palate: radicchio, dandelion greens, hops, brassicas, chicory, citrus zest, coffee, etc. "Without bitterness we lose a way to balance sweetness," she instructs. "Food without bitterness lacks depth and complexity." Bitter brims with luminous mini-essays on the science and philosophy of taste, and delivers dozens of straight-ahead recipes that teach us to tame and celebrate the most challenging of the five basic flavors.

Great gift for: People with adventurous palates.
Killer dish: Dandelion salad with hot bacon and mustard dressing.
Dish I'm dying to try: Pork chop (bone-in, fat lined) in coffee and black currant sauce.

Bar Tartine: Techniques & Recipes, by Nick Balla and Cortney Burns. Based on a single meal several years ago, I've always assumed San Francisco's Bar Tartine—sister to the justly venerated Tartine Bakery—specialized in simple bistro food. So I wasn't overly excited when this substantial, beautifully produced tome arrived. But rather than deliver yet more versions of steak frites or coq au vin, the book reads like a manifesto written by radical gourmet homesteaders—one of the weirdest and most compelling cookbooks I've picked up in years. I got lost in the rabbit warrens of the opening "projects kitchen" section, where the authors lay out in detail all the stuff they make from scratch. "Our dairy program began humbly—with yogurt, sour cream, and kefir—and evolved to include all the products we currently use: blue cheese, pepper Jack, gouda, triple creams, feta, and fresh cheeses such as mozzarella, goat cheese, and farmers cheese," the authors declare. Whoa. Ever wondered how to make your own kefir butter? Balla and Burns have you covered. I had never heard of "black garlic" before. Turns out, "holding garlic at 130 F for two to three weeks renders the cloves as black as tar." Is that a good thing? "All of the characteristic sharpness disappears and is replaced with a molasses-like sweetness and an aroma reminiscent of licorice." Then there's the spice mixes. Forget, say, homemade curry powder. Think "charred eggplant spice," a powder that "tastes like the pure flavor of earth and smoke" (other elements: charred, dehydrated chile peppers, huitlachoche—a corn fungus—and green onions.) Surprisingly simple (but never obvious) recipes follow the opening section's wild innovations. I predict this book will be seducing and flummoxing me for years. Also, I've got to get myself back to Bar Tartine.

Great gift for: Anyone with radical gourmet homesteader tendencies; and jaded home cooks in search of inspiration.
Killer dish: Chilled beet soup with coriander & yogurt.
Dish I'm dying to try: Someday? Smoked potatoes in black garlic vinaigrette with ramp mayonnaise.
 

Plenty More: Vibrant Vegetable Cooking from London's Ottolenghi, by Yotam Ottolenghi. Have we reached peak Ottolenghi? That was my question when I cracked the latest from the ubiquitous London chef, whose classics Plenty and Jerusalem seem to grace the shelves of most everyone I know, and won a spot in my 2012 best-of list. Known for his colorful, vibrant, vegetable-centered Mediterranean fare, the London-based, Israeli-born chef has been profiled in The New Yorker and interviewed on every foodie podcast. Does he have anything more to say? Hell, yes. Plenty More ventures farther afield from the author's native Mediterranean region than his other works, copping techniques and ingredients from Thailand, Iran, India, and more. It draws you in with the delectable photography, and keeps you hooked with irresistible combinations: oranges and dates; beets with avocado and peas; leeks with goat cheese and currants; and so on. Ottolenghi isn't a vegetarian, but he's a wizard of vegetables, and a master at conjuring up hearty meals by combining them with grains and legumes.

Great gift for: Anyone who thinks vegetarian food is boring; anyone who likes to cook and eat.
Killer dish: Pea and mint croquettes.
Dish I'm dying to try: Fried umpa (an Indian semolina porridge) with poached eggs

Honorable mentions

In Afro-Vegan: Farm Fresh African, Caribbean & Southern Flavors Remixed, the Bay Area writer/chef/activist Bryan Terry pulls off a mean feat: He uses stylish, spicy vegan fare—light on tofu and heavy on grains, greens, and legumes—to lure readers into recognizing the "centrality of African-diasporic people in defining the tastes, ingredients, and classic dishes of the original modern global fusion cuisine—Southern food." Terry's argument is unassailable—as convincing as his gorgeous peanut stew with winter vegetables and cornmeal dumplings.

• Despite the ongoing gluten-free fad, bread is having its day, as are books on baking. No home baker will want to miss In Search of the Perfect Loaf, in which the food politics writer and editor Sam Fromartz visits the epicenters of the global baking renaissance—Paris, Berlin, San Francisco, etc.—talking to its main characters and committing an epic and appealing nerd-out (with recipes) in service of home-cooked leavened dough. In Josey Baker Bread, San Francisco's most celebrated young baker (yes, his name and vocation are identical) shows us how the pros do it.

• San Francisco's The Slanted Door is a fancy restaurant that applies Vietnamese techniques and condiments to Northern California's bounty. The Slanted Door, by chef-owner Charles Phan, is a surprisingly unfussy guide to working the restaurant's magic at home.

• For the drinkers on your list, American Spirit is a spirited guide to what author James Rodewald calls the nascent "craft distilling revolution." At the center of Rodwald's book is a scandal. Because of loose labeling laws, most of the "artisanal" liquor on the market involves clever businesspeople "rebottling something that had been made at a larger distiller and calling it their own." Rodewald profiles the (still relatively few) mavericks who actually are producing their own hooch—and teases out the considerable challenges of making great whiskey and other spirits on a small scale in an industry dominated by liquor giants and false marketing.

• After reading Rodewald, you'll want to sip something stiff. Death & Co.a sumptuous cocktail manual from the instant-legend East Village speakeasy of the same name—delivers dozens upon dozens of ideas for taking the edge off in high style. I can't imagine a more comprehensive snapshot of the mixology craze.

Here's How the Sony Hack Is Like 9/11

| Sat Dec. 20, 2014 3:44 PM EST

I doubt that I'm the first to say this, but has anyone noticed a striking similarity between 9/11 and the Sony hack? Not in terms of scope or malevolence, of course, but in terms of—what's the best word here? Creativity? Bang for the buck?

Here's what I mean. The 9/11 attack wasn't especially sophisticated. In fact, it was famously crude and butt cheap. All it took was a few guys who learned rudimentary piloting skills and then carried some box cutters on board four airplanes1. The reason it worked is that it was brilliant. Nobody had ever considered that hijackers could take control of a plane without so much as a single cheap handgun, and even if they could, no one had really figured that they could do anything much worse than fly the plane somewhere and maybe engineer a hostage crisis. But al-Qaeda thought different. They understood that (a) box cutters would be good enough to hold pilots and passengers at bay for an hour or two, and (b) this was long enough to fly their airplanes into a pair of iconic skyscrapers, killing thousands in an extraordinarily gruesome way. They took a crude, simplistic weapon and figured out a way to cause damage that was both tangibly enormous and emotionally outsized.

The Sony hack is a far smaller thing, but it shows a lot of the same hallmarks. Despite what press reports say, it wasn't really all that sophisticated. It was, to be sure, a step up from box cutters, but it's not like North Korea tried to hack into a nuclear power plant or the Pentagon. They picked a soft target. In fact, based on press reports, it sounds like even in the vast sea of crappy IT security that we call America, Sony Pictures was unusually lax. Hacking into their network was something that probably dozens of groups around the world could have done if they had thought about it. And like al-Qaeda before them, North Korea thought about it. And they realized that a Sony Pictures hack, done right, could have an outsized emotional impact. Like 9/11, it was a brilliant example of using a relatively crude tool to produce a gigantic payoff.

So what happens next? The 9/11 attack was huge, but even for its size it provoked a mammoth overreaction that continues to this day. Will the Sony hack do the same? After the dozens of credit card hacks of the past couple of years corporations are finally getting the news that they need to secure their networks better, and the Sony hack might prompt even more companies to finally get serious about IT security. That would be good. On the other hand, it could also provoke an overreaction that ends up locking down corporate infrastructure so tightly that workplaces turn into digital gulags. That would be dumb.

So then. Better corporate IT security: good. Massive overreaction: bad. Let's get things right this time.

1It also required recruiting 19 guys willing to die for a cause. This is definitely uncommon. But it doesn't really change the basic nature of how al-Qaeda managed to pull off such a massive attack.

The Projectionists at One of LA's Most Famous Theaters Are Apparently Tired of Being Paid Like Crap

| Sat Dec. 20, 2014 2:29 PM EST

The ArcLight is one of the most famous theaters in Hollywood. (It looks like a golf ball. In my house it is known as the golf ball movie theater.) Every Friday night, arm-linked lovers bustle in to find new big flicks. Last night some patrons also found the following Christmas card:

This comes from TV writer David Slack who added on Twitter, "I love you, @ArcLightCinemas but I got this outside your theater. Don’t be an a-hole. Pay your people better."

It's tough times for projectionists. It's a high skilled job that for a long time made a reliable career, but over the last decade theaters have increasingly dropped their 35mm projectors in favor of digital setups that don't require the same technical proficiency to operate. ArcLight projectionists are having an especially difficult time. According to the Stage Technicians Unions, which has been protesting the theater for months, they make less than half what projectionists at competing theaters in LA make. 

I reached out to Chris Forman and will update if he gets back to me.

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Personal Health Update

| Fri Dec. 19, 2014 8:34 PM EST

I haven't had any fresh news on the health front lately, so I haven't brought it up on the blog. But I continue to get lots of queries and good wishes, and today I finally have something to report. I'm 8 weeks through my 16-week regimen of chemotherapy, and last week my doctor ordered up sort of a halftime report on how I'm doing. This is an extended set of lab tests, and today she called to tell me the results.

Apparently they came out great. Unfortunately, I don't actually remember the names of the protein markers and other things we were looking for, so I have to be a little vague here. Immunoglobulins? Lympho-somethings? In any case, the levels were way, way down, and that's what we were hoping for. This means the chemo is working well so far and the myeloma is hopefully on the run.

That's my good news for the day. What's yours?

Watch President Obama Call on Female Reporters for Every Single Question During Friday's Presser

| Fri Dec. 19, 2014 4:12 PM EST

For his final press conference of 2014, President Obama exclusively called on female reporters. The White House had planned it that way:

By the eighth and final question, Obama even appeared to ignore a male reporter's attempt to participate. The result was amazing. Watch below:

Elizabeth Warren: Wall Street Just Got Another Giveaway

| Fri Dec. 19, 2014 3:54 PM EST

Last week, Congress did Wall Street a solid. When lawmakers passed a giant spending bill that funds the government through September, they included a provision written by Citigroup lobbyists that allows banks to make more risky trades with taxpayer-insured money. Then, on Thursday, bankers got another giveaway: The Federal Reserve announced it would delay for up to two years implementation of a crucial section of the Volcker rule—one of the most important regulations to come out of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. The rule generally forbids the high-risk trading by commercial banks that helped cause the financial crisis. The move by the Fed pushes the deadline for banks to comply past the next presidential election and gives Wall Street lobbyists more time to weaken it.

"Less than a week after Wall Street slipped a bailout provision written by Citigroup into the government spending bill, the Fed has given the big banks another victory," Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said in a statement Friday.

"It's really hard to see an excuse for this," says Marcus Stanley, the financial policy director at Americans for Financial Reform, an advocacy group.

The Volcker rule ensures that financial institutions don't engage in something called proprietary trading, which is when a bank trades for its own benefit as opposed to for the benefit of its customers. Banks were supposed to comply with the Volcker rule by July 21, 2014. Last year, when banking watchdogs finalized the rule, the Fed granted banks a year-long extension. The Fed's Thursday announcement gives banks another year to get rid of certain investments—including those in private equity firms and hedge funds. The central bank also noted Thursday that it plans to push out the deadline again next year, by another 12 months. That brings the new compliance deadline to July 2017, far past the 2016 election. If the new president is a Republican, he could fill his administration with Wall Street insiders opposed to the rule, making it even easier for lobbyists to gut it.

Before the Volcker rule was finalized last year, the financial industry fought like mad to weaken it. The regulation could slash the total annual profits of the eight largest US banks by up to $10 billion, according to an estimate by Standard & Poor's. Banking reform advocates were fairly happy with way the final reg turned out. But now the financial industry has extra time to take a few more whacks at rule before banks actually have to obey it. "Wall Street’s loophole lawyers and other hired guns will… continue to hit at the rule as if it were a piñata," Dennis Kelleher, the president of the financial reform advocacy group Better Markets, said when regulators completed the rule in 2013.

The Dodd-Frank law already contains a provision allowing banks that will have difficulty getting rid of particular investments before the initial compliance deadline to request an extension from banking regulators. The Fed's announcement yesterday amounts to an unnecessary "blanket" extension, Stanley says. "It's hogwash."

Friday Cat Blogging - 19 December 2014

| Fri Dec. 19, 2014 2:55 PM EST

I have to run, but before I do here's what passes for an action shot of the dynamic duo. It's about the best I can do these days. As you might guess, they're entranced with something we're waving around just outside the frame. Maybe a pencil? I'm not sure. But with cats, the cheapest cat toys are always the best.

(Seriously. Hopper's favorite, by far, is an empty toilet paper tube. She just goes nuts over them.)