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International incidents

Last night, the South Koreans announced, from the White House driveway, that Donald Trump had agreed to meet with Kim Jong-un to discuss denuclearization of North Korea.

The announcement has been met with a combination of confusion and alarm by former national security experts and the diplomatic community:

I realize that to the Trump voters out there that this is proof of the revitalizing nature of Trump’s ability to disrupt the establishment. It’s likely that the North Koreans are hoping you guys will keep thinking that. They’re probably thinking that Trump is a man of little understanding and that flattering him into thinking he’s some kind of messianic peacemaker is just the beginning in making both him and the United States look ridiculous.

We’ll see. Most likely, someone has already managed to plant the seeds of doubt in his head and he’ll vacillate several times between now and May and the whole enterprise will become pointless. Not only that but a real deal requires real experts and diplomats, something we have a shortage of right now:

“It’s going to take time to get this underway under any circumstances. I would get going right away,” said Wendy Sherman, who served as North Korea policy coordinator for the Clinton administration and lead negotiator with Iran during the Obama administration.

“When we did the Iran negotiation, we wrote an entire agreement, over 100 pages, before we began the negotiation, so we had a sense of what we were trying to achieve,” Sherman said. “It was incredibly detailed and incredibly technical. There’s homework to be done.”

Traditionally, talks would require a lead negotiator with gravitas and the trust of both the White House and Congress, who would nail down the details of any agreement over a series of meetings before proposing any summit with the U.S. commander in chief. But Trump has long fashioned himself his own negotiator, potentially rendering past diplomatic playbooks void.

Good luck with that. This is going to take more than a Cheeto colored Trump pounding the desk with his shoe.


Scary science: Derek Lowe and the Pharma R&D community on Twitter are busily speculating on the type of nerve agent used on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia as they were sitting outside on a park bench in England. They’ve ruled out Sarin and VX and are now looking at a series of nerve agents designed by the Russian military called Novochoks or ‘newcomers’.

The frightening thing about these agents is that they can be made from two commercially available reactants that are not banned. The products are simple, relatively low molecular weight molecules that block the neurotransmitter acetylcholine at the nerve synapses causing heart and lung muscles to involuntarily contract.

In the attack in England, first responders were also affected. One police officer who performed CPR is in serious condition and 20 other people also experienced milder symptoms. Atropine is supposed to counteract the effects of nerve agents. Do we send police officers out on duty with epipen like devices full of atropine? I’m betting not.

What I’d like to know is how it was administered. Since so many first responders were affected after the attack, it sounds like the agent was not injected or swallowed but was sprayed, sort of like someone would spray roundup. (Please don’t anyone get all panicky about roundup. It’s safe and non-toxic to humans). One report I’d read about the attack was that when Skripal was found, he was gesturing at the sky with his hand. My imagination is conjuring up a remote control drone rigged with a spraying device that administered a large aerosolized dose of agent above the park bench where the two were sitting. It would probably need to be bigger than the drone in the picture. Still, we’re not talking about a lot of nerve agent. Milligram doses would be sufficient.

In fact, I’ve been thinking a lot about how drones can be used as weapons of mass destruction. All you need is a kid with a passion for chemistry and biology, some lab equipment or incubators and shakers, and access to publicly available databases and reagent vendors. Sure, some of the reagents could be expensive. That’s what a cleverly written gofundme Page is for. Then just rig a drone, sit back and watch what happens.

You don’t even need a gun.

Why yes, it is frightening. There are enemies out there thinking of even more clever ways to hurt us. Or it could come from a home grown terrorist. Maybe we could all benefit in some crash courses in the ethics and morality of a “winner takes all” mentality, and that practicing machiavellian behavior is bad, misanthropic and anti-social. For a start, we could stop pretending that a candidate like Donald Trump is entertaining and good for ratings.

Or we could treat every child in this country, regardless of the circumstances of their birth with dignity, kindness and respect, giving them an equal start in life so they have no need to seek revenge when they grow up to be old enough to figure out how to make dangerous substances in their garages.


About those tariffs, Trump is throwing numbers around like they’re bargaining chips but as I heard someone say last night on the radio, businesses do not thrive in an atmosphere of uncertainty. They need to be able to predict what’s going to happen fairly reliably from day to day. Trump’s malevolent capriciousness has the capacity to affect markets all over the world in unpredictable ways, not least of which is via retaliation. The EU is already starting to talk about imposing tariffs on Harley Davidson motorcycles and Kentucky bourbon. That’s to send Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan and Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell a message.

But what was even more unsettling was walking around downtown Pittsburgh last night with msnbc talking about Trump meeting with steel workers. I feel for them. I really do. I felt for them even more strongly about 36 years ago when the steel mills in Pittsburgh closed up for good and there was genuine pain in the city. It was devastating.

But the thing is, those mills are gone for good. They were torn down and turned into shopping centers. There are only a few left. I’m talking about the physical buildings. They no longer exist for the most part. The sky in Pittsburgh is clean, the buildings are shiny and pretty. It’s a very nice place now that the mills aren’t belching smoke and turning the sky orange at night with sandblasting or putting to children to sleep with the sound of banging and clanging from the mill down the hill.

Those days when US Steel dominated the economy here are never coming back. Even the US Steel building lost its US steelness. It now sports a gigantic UPMC logo on the top floors.

Sure, go ahead, roll out a tariff on steel a week before a milestone congressional special election. BOTH candidates support it. There is still a small steel presence in the 18th district. But there’s a whole generation of southwestern Pennsylvanians who didn’t grow up expecting to work in the mills. This is an IT, robotics and healthcare town now.

If the Republicans were so concerned with saving the steel industry, they should have done something about it when Reagan was president and if I recall correctly, Reagan was absolutely NOT a union man.

Be careful what you wish for.