December 2009 Archives

A.I. nearly kills couple, then saves them

This news story illustrates the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde nature of placing our lives into the hands of our advanced technologies:

A Nevada couple letting their SUV’s navigation system guide them through the high desert of Eastern Oregon got stuck in snow for three days when the GPS unit sent them down a remote forest road.

On Sunday, atmospheric conditions apparently changed enough for their GPS-enabled cell phone to get a weak signal and relay coordinates to a dispatcher, Klamath County Sheriff Tim Evinger said.

“GPS almost did ‘em in and GPS saved 'em,” Evinger said. “It will give you options to pick the shortest route. You certainly get the shortest route. But it may not be a safe route.”

But what kept them alive while stuck in 18 inches of snow for three days was old-fashioned technologies:

The couple was well-equipped for winter travel, carrying food, water and warm clothes, the sheriff said.

Posted by James on Dec 31, 2009

America's Socrates: Bill Moyers

“Bill Moyers Journal” is possibly the best show on television, so I was depressed by Bill Moyers' decision to retire from the show in April. What makes it so great? Neal Gabler’s analysis of why Bill Moyers is uniquely wonderful explains far more thoughtfully than I ever could:

If Moyers has been more interested in morality than in politics, he has also been more interested in the ways one arrives at moral conclusions than in the conclusions themselves, which is another quality that makes his programs so distinctive. For Moyers, real morality isn’t posited; it is arrived at, so that debate itself is a moral process and ideas part of an ongoing moral exploration. No one on television has centralized the discussion of ideas as much as Moyers…

Moyers has always sought the most interesting thinkers, people who would never otherwise be on television, and then discussed their ideas in search of timeless truths. In the last two months alone, he has interviewed naturalist Jane Goodall, playwright Anna Deavere Smith, economist James K. Galbraith and U.N. human rights investigator Richard Goldstone — a disparate group, none of them exactly headliners. In a sense, then, the title of one of his series, “Now,” was a misnomer. Moyers has never been about now. He has always been about something beyond the moment. Or put another way, while everyone else in the media has been exploring topography, Moyers has been exploring geology.

This belief in the efficacy of ideas in the service of good is also what has made him such an extraordinary interviewer. In a world of certainty that forecloses investigation, Moyers has curiosity. In a world of glibness and superficiality, he has a rare temerity of mind. In a world of ego and bombast, he has always been modest and self-effacing. He not only gives a forum to unusual thinkers, he is truly, visibly, interested in what they have to say and in who they are because he believes that their ideas really matter. It is clear that for Moyers, these interviews aren’t a way to fill time or amuse an audience or aggrandize himself, and he obviously has no interest in the “get” — the hot interview. Instead, they have always been a way to learn how, once again, to make things better by accumulating the wisdom of people who are trying to do just that — people who are engaging the world. In short, they are a search for moral prescriptions…

He has both a goodness and a gravitas [his right-wing enemies] lack. We know that he doesn’t need or want attention, that there is nothing for him to gain personally by battling corporate America or fundamentalist America or our government or the media that so often enable these other forces or any of what he has called “the apologists for people in power,” and that there is much to be lost…

With depressing accuracy, the article notes that “There really is no place for quiet truth on television anymore, only shouted opinions; no place for speaking truth to power, only repeating what power dictates; no place for morality, only strict, self-righteous moralism.”

Whatever happened to Socrates, anyhow? Oh, that’s right. The people voted to poison him to death.

Posted by James on Dec 15, 2009

Another absolute must-read from Matt Taibbi: $23.7 trillion Wall Street bailout

Nothing whips up my populist outrage more effectively than a new Matt Taibbi article!

His entire article is great, so I won’t even try to cut-and-paste highlights. But this sentence summarizes his key point:

An economic team made up exclusively of callous millionaire-assholes has absolutely zero interest in reforming the gamed system that made them rich.

Please read.

Oh, wait. Here’s a highlight:

Neil Barofsky, the inspector general charged with overseeing TARP, estimates that the total cost of the Wall Street bailouts could eventually reach $23.7 trillion.

Posted by James on Dec 11, 2009

A peek at upcoming technologies

I’m generally skeptical about “technologies that will soon change your life” — because many of the “breakthroughs” never pan out, become commercially viable or excite people to buy/use them — but “5 New Technologies That Will Change Everything” is a plausible list:

3D TV, HTML5, video over Wi-Fi, superfast USB, and mobile “augmented reality” will emerge as breakthrough technologies in the next few years

Posted by James on Dec 03, 2009

Art delegation article captures China in a nutshell

“Chinese Team Searches Museums for Art Treasures” illustrates several important realities about China:

  1. The dangerous mix of pride/arrogance and shame/humiliation many Chinese feel regarding their country and its relations with Western nations: “Emboldened by newfound wealth, China has been on a noisy campaign to reclaim relics that disappeared during its so-called century of humiliation, the period between 1842 and 1945 when foreign powers subjugated China through military incursions and onerous treaties.”

  2. The unpredictability of China’s governmental policies, esp. policies grounded in domestic politics that irk foreign nations in ways the Chinese either don’t grasp or don’t care sufficiently about: ““China is like an adolescent who took too many steroids,” said Liu Kang, a professor of Chinese studies at Duke University. “It has suddenly become big, but it finds it hard to coordinate and control its body. To the West, it can look like a monster.””

  3. The frequency with which the Communist Party — and the media it dominates — blows hot air on smoldering nationalism to stoke pro-Party feelings: “Recounted in Chinese textbooks and in countless television dramas, the destruction of the Old Summer Palace… remains a crucial event epitomizing China’s fall from greatness… The Communist Party has long used the narrative of foreign subjugation as a binding force… But arousing nationalist sentiment, Chinese officials have learned, is a double-edged sword. In 2005, officials allowed public ire against Japan, over territorial disputes and textbooks that glossed over Japanese wartime atrocities, to boil over into violent street protests. After some of the anti-Japanese slogans began morphing into demands for action by Chinese leaders, the authorities clamped down.”

  4. The Chinese can be quite ill-informed about other nations: “One stop [on the "treasure hunting team” tour], the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., was scrapped after the group realized the museum was in the Midwest, not in the Northeast."

  5. The Chinese can politicize and scapegoat as well as Fox News: “Although the Chinese public broadly supports recovering such items, a few critics have suggested that the campaign merely distracts from the continued destruction of historic buildings and archaeological sites across the country. A government survey released this month found that 23,600 registered relics had disappeared in recent years because of theft or illicit sales, while tens of thousands of culturally significant sites had been plowed under for development. What’s more, said Wu Zuolai, a professor at the China Academy of Art, the obsession with Yuanmingyuan ignores the plunder of older sites that are more artistically significant. “Chinese history did not start with the Qing Dynasty,” he said. “This treasure hunting trip is just a political show. The media portray it as patriotic, but it’s just spreading hate.””

  6. Though the West talks about China as if it will become a superpower tomorrow, China has MANY serious problems: “Mr. Liu, the researcher who was part of the delegation… complain[ed] that politics had upstaged scholarship. Even if he stumbled upon a palace relic, he said, he would be reluctant to take it back to an institution whose unheated exhibition space resembled little more than a military barracks. “To be honest, if you leave a thermos in our office, it gets broken,” he said. “Maybe it’s better these things stay where they are.””

Posted by James on Dec 17, 2009

Billions MORE taxpayer dollars for Citibank!

  1. Banks went bankrupt
  2. Instead of shutting down the bankrupt banks and selling their assets to non-failed banks, the Federal Reserve and U.S. government bailed the failed banks out, at a cost of tens of trillions
  3. Most of the bailout money was handed over by the Fed with no strings attached
  4. A small fraction of the money was handed over by the U.S. government with thin strings attached, primarily limits on executive compensation at failed banks receiving TARP money
  5. Executives at failed banks balked at compensation limits, but Shittybank Citibank NEEDED the bailout money

So, now, the federal government has re-written tax law to give Citibank additional massive tax breaks if Citibank returns its TARP money. As a political side benefit, Citibank’s return of its TARP money will help the government claim — utterly falsely — that the bailout cost taxpayers little or nothing:

The federal government quietly agreed to forgo billions of dollars in potential tax payments from Citigroup as part of the deal announced this week to wean the company from the massive taxpayer bailout that helped it survive the financial crisis.

The Internal Revenue Service on Friday issued an exception to long-standing tax rules for the benefit of Citigroup and a few other companies partially owned by the government. As a result, Citigroup will be allowed to retain billions of dollars worth of tax breaks that otherwise would decline in value when the government sells its stake to private investors…

“The government is consciously forfeiting future tax revenues…,” said Robert Willens, an expert on tax accounting who runs a firm of the same name. “I’ve been doing taxes for almost 40 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this, where the IRS and Treasury acted unilaterally on so many fronts.”

…A senior Republican staffer also questioned the government’s rationale. “You’re manipulating tax rules so that the market value of the stock is higher than it would be under current law,” said the aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “It inflates the returns that they’re showing from TARP and that looks good for them.”

…The precise value of the IRS ruling depends on Citigroup’s future profitability and other factors, but two accounting experts said it was fair to estimate that Citigroup would save at least several billion dollars.

Posted by James on Dec 16, 2009

Buffett: "In a country as prosperous as we are, nobody should get a really short straw"

Warren Buffett is deservedly lauded for his astonishing investment record, but his true brilliance is the humility, perspective and clarity with which he views the whole world first and himself and his firm as bit actors in our shared world, rather than himself and his vast empire as the center of the universe and valuing the rest of the world just for how it affects him and Berkshire Hathaway.

For example, in his recent Charlie Rose appearance, Buffett complained — for about the five-millionth time — that he’s not taxed enough:

If we’re looking for more money, we ought to look to guys like me. I mean, I am still paying a lower rate on dividends and capital gains than my cleaning lady [on her labor income]. It’s, you know, in terms of her payroll tax, just to start with. And so, I just think that we’ve gotten so far out of whack in terms of who’s been prosperous in recent years, and most of the economy — most people have been left behind, you know. So we learn that a rising tide lifts all yachts.

When Charlie Rose raised the conservative canard that rich people won’t work as hard if they’re taxed more, Buffett knocked that out of the park:

I worked with rich people, you know, even in the ‘50s and the '60s, and I worked with them when the top rate was 70 percent. I worked with them when capital gains rates were 39.6 percent, and not one of them said, you know, it’s 1:00, and instead of working this afternoon I think I’ll go to the movies because my marginal rate is so high. I mean, if anything, they worked harder, Charlie… Not one [investor] ever came to me and said, “Warren, I decided to hell with it. 39.6 percent, I’m not going to invest my money.” What would they do with it, stick it under the mattress?

But the best was when Buffett explained why “I’m prosperous because of the society around me”:

WARREN BUFFETT: A prosperous country should not just be prosperous for the people like me who are wired in a particular way at birth. No credit to me, but I happen to know something about capital allocation… I could have been wired [as] a great ukulele player. But there’s more money…

CHARLIE ROSE: Sometimes you can be both.

WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, well, not often. Not in this case anyway. But there’s more money in what I do… And you don’t want to mess up the market system that works to bring out of people what their best talents are, but the market system is not perfect in any kind of distribution of wealth. And taxation is a way where you get to the excesses of what the market system produces and where you take care of the people that get the short straws. In a country as prosperous as we are, nobody should get a really short straw.

CHARLIE ROSE: You know, some people are going to hear you say that and they’ll say, “Warren is talking about sharing the wealth. There he goes ..”

WARREN BUFFETT: Well, I’m talking about sharing the prosperity… I’m prosperous because of the society around me. Stick me down in some poor country and I’ll walk around and say I allocate capital, you know, and they’ll say, so what? What we need is a guy with a strong back. You know, and I don’t have a strong back… When a couple of middleweights fight it out on Pay Per View this weekend and get $49.95 from me, or whatever it may be, and I can’t remember their names two weeks later, you know, they are benefiting not because of their own talent that much, but because some guy invented television and then invented cable television, and learned how to change a stadium of 15,000 people into a stadium of 300 million. So they benefit from society. We all do. And some like me benefit enormously from society, you know. I can’t do it by myself. Stick me on a desert island, you know, you do not want to be on the same island.

Posted by James on Dec 02, 2009

China's government extends its Internet authoritarianism

I’m outraged the U.S. government violates the U.S. Constitution by monitoring virtually everything every American does online, but at least “our” government doesn’t (yet) dictate what we can and can’t do online.

As if to prove my point from last night about the Chinese government’s ability to craft bad policies, I woke up this morning to read that China’s government is expanding its already strong control over Internet usage: “China’s government censors have taken fresh aim at the Internet, rolling out new measures that limit ordinary citizens’ ability to set up personal Web sites and to view hundreds of other Web sites offering films, video games and other forms of entertainment.”

The Chinese government would be wise to do everything it can to earn its citizens' trust — by adopting a zero-tolerance policy toward corrupt Party/Government officials, for example — rather than further constrain its citizens' ability to communicate and learn about the world.

Posted by James on Dec 17, 2009

Environment, the oceans and China

“To Save the Planet, Save the Seas” makes a very important argument:

in addition to producing most of the oxygen we breathe, the ocean absorbs some 25 percent of current annual carbon dioxide emissions. Half the world’s carbon stocks are held in plankton, mangroves, salt marshes and other marine life. So it is at least as important to preserve this ocean life as it is to preserve forests, to secure its role in helping us adapt to and mitigate climate change…

Worldwide, coastal habitats like these are being lost because of human activity. Extensive areas have been altered by land reclamation and fish farming, while coastal pollution and overfishing have further damaged habitats and reduced the variety of species. It is now clear that such degradation has not only affected the livelihoods and well-being of more than two billion people dependent on coastal ecosystems for food, it has also reduced the capacity of these ecosystems to store carbon…

Managing these habitats is far less expensive than trying to shore up coastlines after the damage has been done. Maintaining healthy stands of mangroves in Asia through careful management, for example, has proved to cost only one-seventh of what it would cost to erect manmade coastal defenses against storms, waves and tidal surges.

Speaking of environmental destruction, here are depressing, shocking photos of environmental devastation in China.

Posted by James on Dec 28, 2009

Goldman Sachs bought indulgences from Obama

We’ve known for a long time that: * Goldman Sachs “earned” (at least) tens of billions of dollars betting against CDOs it put together and sold off to sheep its naive customers * Presidential candidate Obama took more money from Goldman Sachs than from any other company * President Obama practically handed control over U.S. financial policy to Goldman Sachs * Former Goldman Sachs officials running U.S. financial policy have been EXTREMELY kind to Goldman Sachs

We now know that:

  • Goldman Sachs employees knowingly structured CDOs so horrible they were virtually guaranteed to collapse and then bet against them
  • Some Goldman Sachs customers — to whom Goldman was trying to sell its toxic assets — smelled out Goldman’s duplicity/fraud at the time Goldman was marketing its garbage while trying to bet against it

Here’s a snippet from a pretty damning New York Times article):

The woeful performance of some C.D.O.’s issued by Goldman made them ideal for betting against. As of September 2007, for example, just five months after Goldman had sold a new Abacus C.D.O., the ratings on 84 percent of the mortgages underlying it had been downgraded, indicating growing concerns about borrowers’ ability to repay the loans, according to research from UBS, the big Swiss bank. Of more than 500 C.D.O.’s analyzed by UBS, only two were worse than the Abacus deal.

Goldman created other mortgage-linked C.D.O.’s that performed poorly, too. One, in October 2006, was a $800 million C.D.O. known as Hudson Mezzanine. It included credit insurance on mortgage and subprime mortgage bonds that were in the ABX index; Hudson buyers would make money if the housing market stayed healthy — but lose money if it collapsed. Goldman kept a significant amount of the financial bets against securities in Hudson, so it would profit if they failed, according to three of the former Goldman employees.

A Goldman salesman involved in Hudson said the deal was one of the earliest in which outside investors raised questions about Goldman’s incentives. “Here we are selling this, but we think the market is going the other way,” he said.

A hedge fund investor in Hudson, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that because Goldman was betting against the deal, he wondered whether the bank built Hudson with “bonds they really think are going to get into trouble.”

Indeed, Hudson investors suffered large losses. In March 2008, just 18 months after Goldman created that C.D.O., so many borrowers had defaulted that holders of the security paid out about $310 million to Goldman and others who had bet against it

It’s a logical assumption that Goldman Sachs' outpouring of “generosity” to candidate Obama was actually an attempt to buy indulgences for its sins/crimes that should have landed many of its employees in prison, rather than cushy Treasury offices. Perhaps shaping a massive taxpayer bailout to Goldman’s great benefit was not the main objective of funding Obama’s campaign but an added bonus.

Posted by James on Dec 27, 2009

Government still trying to re-inflate the housing bubble

The minimum down payment for a mortgage guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) — which is now guaranteeing nearly 30% of new home loans, up from 3% in 2006!!! — is 3.5%!!!

Anyone who can put up only 3.5% of the value of the home they’re “buying” has no business “buying” that home.

Haven’t we all learned how dangerous “leverage” can be, especially in a world with over 10% unemployment???

A 3.5% downpayment means the government is allowing lenders to lend — risk-free — to borrowers with a debt-to-equity ratio of 27.5!!! That’s insane!

It’s even more insane when you realize how hard it is to determine the “fair value” of a home today or what that home might sell for two years from now.

Given the large inventory of homes on the market today (because most sellers are refusing to lower prices to market-clearing levels), many homebuyers today are probably paying too much. If someone puts down 3.5% but overpays 5%, their house is underwater before the ink dries on their contract.

Posted by James on Dec 03, 2009

Greenwich columnist argues FOR estate tax

A nice column in the Greenwich Time in favor of the death estate tax argues “I can’t think of a less painful time to pay taxes” and quotes Warren Buffett’s testimony to Congress that “Dynastic wealth, the enemy of a meritocracy, is on the rise. Equality of opportunity has been on the decline. A progressive and meaningful estate tax is needed to curb the movement of a democracy toward plutocracy.”

The article also warns rich Greenwich residents to watch their backs:

Federal estate tax law is scheduled to expire at midnight New Year’s Eve. As a result, the estates of wealthy Americans who die in 2010 will pay no federal taxes. However, the law also provides for the tax to come back with a vengeance in 2011, with a 55 percent maximum tax rate on estates over $1 million.

My trying to explain the intricacies of tax law is like Sarah Palin trying to explain U.S. foreign policy. So I won’t. But I do know that if Congress and the White House don’t do something about the potential 2010 windfall, nursing homes should hire more security, the wealthy should hire food tasters at all family gatherings, and hospitals should be on the watch for hungry heirs roaming the halls looking for plugs to pull.

Posted by James on Dec 11, 2009

Hasn't Tiger Woods endorsed away his right to privacy?

At the end of an informative punctuation lecture — in response to a reader’s faulty criticism — Michael Tomasky asks an excellent question:

Why wasn’t [Tiger Woods] driving a Buick? That’s the only potential scandal here, and typically, the media have missed it completely.

It’s hardly the ONLY potential scandal, but it’s certainly a scandal.

Tiger Woods rakes in more cash than almost anyone on the planet. He’s wealthy because of his golf winnings ($6 million in 2008) but rich beyond avaricious dreams thanks to corporate product endorsements ($110 million in 2008).

So, Woods' primary job is promoting products for cash: leveraging his public image to tell us to buy Product A rather than Product B. He’s become filthy rich trading on his public image.

If Tiger were merely the world’s greatest golfer, I’d concede him his private life and say his one-person accident — or “accident” — is none of our business. Being the world’s greatest golfer attracts the spotlight, whether one craves or shuns it.

But, as the world’s top corporate billboard, Tiger has put himself out there as a person worthy of emulation and deserving of our trust. So when he repeatedly refuses to talk with the police… And when he refuses to talk with his fans… And when a bizzare, unexplained incident leads to his injury and withdrawal from his own tournament, people have a right to be angry.

This is doubly true because Tiger has been telling us to use Product A rather than Product B while actually using Product B himself!

It’s as if he’s been telling golf fanatics to buy Callaway clubs while he himself plays with Ping. If you endorse a product, don’t you have a moral obligation to use that product yourself?

And when you “earn” nine-figure annual incomes selling your reputation, don’t you have an obligation to be honest and forthright with fans, whom your Nike ads encourage to say “I am Tiger Woods”?

Posted by James on Dec 01, 2009

I fear the robotics revolution... but want my self-driving car!

I’m something of a Luddite regarding intelligent robots (because I fear they could eventually destroy humanity — if we don’t do ourselves in some other way first — or the non-rich), but as I’m reading this article, I can’t help but dream of “driving” my car while reading a book:

The revolution is happening before our eyes, but we don’t recognize it, because it’s incremental. It starts with driving. Cruise control transfers regulation of your car’s speed to a computer. In some models, you can upgrade to adaptive cruise control, which monitors the surrounding traffic by radar and adjusts your speed accordingly. If you drift out of your lane, an option called lane keeping assistance gently steers you back. For extra safety, you can get extended brake assistance, which monitors traffic ahead of you, alerts you to collision threats and applies as much braking pressure as necessary.

With each delegation of power, we become more comfortable with computers driving our cars. Soon we’ll want more. An insurance analyst tells Belfiore that aging baby boomers will lead the way, enlisting robotic drivers to help them get around. For younger drivers, the problem is multi­tasking. Why put down your cellphone when you can let go of the wheel instead? Reading, texting, talking and eating in the car aren’t distractions. Driving is the distraction. Let the car do it.

My dilemma illustrates why controlling dangerous technologies will likely prove impossible: Even leaving aside humanity’s compulsion to learn new things and gain god-like control over our world, we’ll focus on the benefits of our revolutionary technologies and only later suffer the downside consequences. Revolutions don’t always end well, even for those who launch them.

Posted by James on Dec 28, 2009

Is China's government too cunning for its own good?

Roughly a day before the Copenhagen summit concluded (with a vapid, non-binding “agreement”), I happened to watch a Chinese Central TV (CCTV4, I believe) talk show discussing the conference. I was quite surprised to hear the “experts” beating up so intensely on the U.S. and Barack Obama. (The show was entirely in Chinese, so I didn’t understand every word, but I got much of it.) According to these “experts,” Obama had come out of nowhere to demand of the assembled world leaders in Copenhagen completely unreasonable/outrageous terms, as if he were a god or the world emperor. Given that Obama has scarcely lifted a finger to push anyone in Congress (Democrat, Republican, or Lieberman) to do anything — esp. something costly to big business — the charge seems ludicrous on its face.

When I watched the show, French President Sarkozy had already pointed his finger at China, saying: “What’s blocking things? A country like China which has trouble accepting the idea of a monitoring body.”. So I was really confused why these “experts” would be so single-mindedly focused on blaming Obama.

We’re now learning from first-hand accounts, like “How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room”, how China sabotaged the climate summit:

China wrecked the talks, intentionally humiliated Barack Obama, and insisted on an awful “deal” so western leaders would walk away carrying the blame. How do I know this? Because I was in the room and saw it happen.

China’s strategy was simple: block the open negotiations for two weeks, and then ensure that the closed-door deal made it look as if the west had failed the world’s poor once again. And sure enough, the aid agencies, civil society movements and environmental groups all took the bait. The failure was “the inevitable result of rich countries refusing adequately and fairly to shoulder their overwhelming responsibility”, said Christian Aid. “Rich countries have bullied developing nations,” fumed Friends of the Earth International.

All very predictable, but the complete opposite of the truth. Even George Monbiot, writing in yesterday’s Guardian, made the mistake of singly blaming Obama. But I saw Obama fighting desperately to salvage a deal, and the Chinese delegate saying “no”, over and over again. Monbiot even approvingly quoted the Sudanese delegate Lumumba Di-Aping, who denounced the Copenhagen accord as “a suicide pact, an incineration pact, in order to maintain the economic dominance of a few countries”.

Sudan behaves at the talks as a puppet of China; one of a number of countries that relieves the Chinese delegation of having to fight its battles in open sessions. It was a perfect stitch-up. China gutted the deal behind the scenes, and then left its proxies to savage it in public.

So this was the Chinese script all along, and the CCTV’s “experts” were merely performing their roles in focusing their blame spotlight on President Obama.

In light of this, I’m wondering whether Chinese hackers are responsible for mid-November’s hack of the University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit’s email servers and release of global warming researchers' embarrassing emails that so conveniently — for climate change opponents — leaked just weeks before the Copenhagen summit.

But is China’s tactical victory a strategic win or loss? China will suffer greatly from climate change: “China’s top meteorologist has warned climate change could cause "incalculable” damage to the country and that efforts should focus on adapting to global warming rather than slowing it." If climate change can impose “incalculable” damage on China — and it likely will — isn’t China’s opposition to efforts to slow climate change insane?

Posted by James on Dec 23, 2009

Krugman: "We need to add... 18 million jobs"

Paul Krugman writes:

You can’t just look at the eight million jobs that America has lost since the recession began, because the nation needs to keep adding jobs — more than 100,000 a month — to keep up with a growing population. And that means that we need really big job gains, month after month, if we want to see America return to anything that feels like full employment.

How big? My back of the envelope calculation says that we need to add around 18 million jobs over the next five years, or 300,000 jobs a month. This puts last week’s employment report, which showed job losses of “only” 11,000 in November, in perspective. It was basically a terrible report, which was reported as good news only because we’ve been down so long that it looks like up to the financial press.

So why isn’t our government stimulating the economy to create jobs?

The Fed sprang into action when faced with the prospect of wrecked banks; it doesn’t seem equally concerned about the prospect of wrecked lives.

And that is what we’re talking about here. The kind of sustained high unemployment envisaged in the Fed’s own forecasts is a recipe for immense human suffering — millions of families losing their savings and their homes, millions of young Americans never getting their working lives properly started because there are no jobs available when they graduate. If we don’t get unemployment down soon, we’ll be paying the price for a generation.

Posted by James on Dec 11, 2009

Nerd, geek, dork, egghead: Why does American education fetishize mediocrity?

The overwhelming focus of resources in the U.S. educational system is on bringing lagging students up to an “acceptable” level on standardized reading and math tests. This is especially true since No Child Left Behind created a school rating system — and associated punishments — that cares only about how many students achieve an adequate level of performance and not one iota how much high-achieving students are learning.

Focusing teacher effort and class time so intensely on below-average students plays into our country’s egalitarian (and insanely corrosive) anti-“nerd”, anti-“egghead”, anti-“dork”, anti-“geek” educational culture.

High-achieving students in many other nations are looked up to by their classmates. In America, they’re subjected to name-calling and bullying.

It’s especially ironic since American culture idolizes individual success almost everywhere except the classroom. Top student athletes are hugely popular. We admire talented musicians and actors of all ages. We love smart businessmen, like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. But when it comes to student performance, every child must be alike. As a society, we have chosen to take resources away from talented students and give them instead to lagging students. Many talented students manage to thrive, despite constantly feeling unchallenged in school. But many more talented students grow increasingly bored and frustrated and eventually turn off to school.

One simple, obvious and minimal-cost solution to this problem is to group children by academic performance (perhaps on a subject-by-subject basis) rather than chronological age. Teachers could then teach all students at a level appropriate. A 2004 report advocates for accelerating high-achieving students:

When [America’s gifted children] enter school, things change. They’re often the most frustrated students in the classroom. They’re bored in kindergarten, and they’re bored again in first grade. Year after year, they learn little that they haven’t learned already. They hope things will get better, but things rarely do. For many of them, nothing changes.

America’s school system keeps bright students in line by forcing them to learn in a lock-step manner with their classmates. Teachers and principals disregard students’ desires to learn more — much more — than they are being taught.

Instead of praise and encouragement, these students hear one word — no. When they ask for a challenge, they are held back. When they want to fly, they are told to stay in their seats.

Stay in your grade. Know your place.

It’s a national scandal. And the price may be the slow but steady erosion of American excellence.

Posted by James on Dec 02, 2009

Our "high-tech" government security apparatus threatens us all

For years now, I’ve been beyond angry at massively widespread, unconstitutional warrantless government spying on U.S. citizens. I cancelled my AT&T phone in protest and have refused to even talk to the AT&T folks who keep walking our neighborhood to get us to sign up for their high-speed TV/Internet/phone service.

Anyhow, if our government — which, in theory, serves us, not rules us — insists on spying on us and keeping incredibly detailed records on every American’s purchases, travel, online behavior, emails, phone calls, etc., they should at least use smart technologies to protect and audit access to and use of that data.

Today’s news gives no reason for confidence in our federal government’s ability to use technology with even a modicum of intelligence:

Employees at the Transportation Security Administration inadvertently exposed classified information about the agency’s security procedures because, apparently, they don’t know how PDF documents work.

What’s not clear is how many other government departments, legal agencies, healthcare providers, and other organizations that deal with sensitive information are unaware that a quirk in Adobe’s Portable Document Format can leave data open to prying eyes.

TSA officials posted what they thought was a redacted version of the TSA’s airport security operating manual on a Web site used by private contractors looking for government work. The problem: the officials didn’t actually delete sensitive parts of the document—they just blacked them out using a graphics tool.

That method left the underlying words intact, and they were exposed when readers cut and pasted pages from the document, “Screening Management Standard Operating Procedures,” into a new file.

I’m incredulous! You don’t have to be a tech guru or security guru to know that “blacking out” information in a PDF file merely adds an additional graphics layer that appears visibly atop whatever was underneath. The original data layer still exists, even if it’s not visible using PDF display software. This is basic, basic stuff.

If these morons are this dumb, I expect we’ll find out in five or ten years that the mob or government insiders have been massively abusing data on Americans to steal our money, blackmail us (or our Congressmen or our judges), and committing many other dastardly deeds.

Posted by James on Dec 09, 2009

Regulate hospitals!

Two years ago, we took my father-in-law to our local hospital after middle-of-the-night chest pain had mostly gone away. The hospital tested his cardiac enzymes: negative. And the slight irregularity on his EKG was — I subsequently learned — NOT a sign of heart trouble, given his other symptoms. The liver enzyme test result pointed squarely at a liver issue — probably something bad he ate or a gall stone he passed — and his liver enzyme count fell to near-normal levels several hours later. Nevertheless, the hospital INSISTED on admitting him to the cardiac unit, over his objections that he felt fine and wanted to go home. 24 hours of testing — including a ridiculously expensive CT scan and a simple heart monitor absurdly priced dollars-per-minute — failed to identify the problem, and he received no treatment at the hospital. Following his overnight stay, we received $18,000 in bills. (No wonder the local hospital’s chief administrator “earns” $1.5 million in annual compensation!)

Ours is but one of millions of stories of how American hospitals routinely overtreat patients and overcharge the uninsured. (My father-in-law is uninsured because he is too old to buy private insurance but has not had his green card enough years to qualify for Medicare.) Hospitals routinely charge the uninsured many times what they charge insurance companies for the same treatment. Hospitals can price-gouge the uninsured because government lets them charge whatever absurd price they want and because the uninsured — especially those who show up at the emergency room — are powerless, unlike insurance companies who possess the power to move their customers to another hospital.

Another reason hospitals can charge the uninsured ridiculous prices is because, in many states, they aren’t even required to publish their prices. Imagine having to buy a car BEFORE you find out its price. That’s how most uninsured Americans buy healthcare. And when hospitals can name their price after you’ve already bought the service, they send you a bloated bill.

The New York Times reports on this shameful ongoing nightmare and some new efforts to let the uninsured learn about prices before they buy the treatment:

It is not unusual for a provider to have 10 or more different prices for the same procedure, depending on who is paying. Providers often charge a completely different rate for people paying on their own, which is almost always much more expensive than the discounted rate that insurers pay…

Dr. Rice tells the story of a woman in northern Ohio who had been quoted a price at a local hospital of $2,500 for an M.R.I. of her knee. When she looked up the test on the site, she found the fair price in that area was more like $500.

She went back to the hospital where she had been quoted the high price and started asking questions. The clerk told her it would be much less expensive if she went to the clinic down the street instead of the hospital. The woman followed that advice and paid $300 for her M.R.I.

Posted by James on Dec 02, 2009

Save $1,600 a year... while sticking it to your local cable monopolist

News you can use: The New York Times explains how to get a roughly equivalent TV experience (with technological headaches) without forking over $1,600 a year to your local cable monopoly:

Our only expense is $9 a month to stream Netflix videos from the Web and the $30 a month that we always spent on an Internet connection. O.K., maybe that’s not completely accurate. When the wireless keyboard died a few weeks ago I was forced to spend another $4 for two new AA batteries. We’ve not yet recovered from that financial loss.

We still come home from work and watch any number of shows, just like the people who continue to pay for cable. We just do it a little differently, starting the computer and then using services like Hulu, Boxee, iTunes and Joost. Another interesting twist to this experience is that we’re no longer limited to consuming traditional programming. With these applications we can spend an entire evening flicking through videos from YouTube, CollegeHumor or Web-only programs.

The article mentions two caveats:

It’s a lot less work to just click a button up or down on a standard remote control. And it can be difficult to explain how to use this unfamiliar toolbox of buttons, programs and devices.

And

The sports and technology enthusiasts don’t often mix, but if you’re one of the few people who live in both of those worlds you might have to look for other options.

I might just give this a try after the NFL playoffs. (Perhaps I can start saving sooner because my beloved Patriots won’t even make the playoffs if they can’t end their unprecedented “losing streak.”)

Posted by James on Dec 11, 2009

The funniest thing I've read recently

I read this all the way through, thinking, “This can’t be true, can it?!?!” Only then did I notice I was reading an Onion article:

A study published Monday in The Journal Of Child Psychology And Psychiatry has concluded that an estimated 98 percent of children under the age of 10 are remorseless sociopaths with little regard for anything other than their own egocentric interests and pleasures.

According to Dr. Leonard Mateo, a developmental psychologist at the University of Minnesota and lead author of the study, most adults are completely unaware that they could be living among callous monsters who would remorselessly exploit them to obtain something as insignificant as an ice cream cone or a new toy.

“The most disturbing facet of this ubiquitous childhood disorder is an utter lack of empathy,” Mateo said. “These people—if you can even call them that—deliberately violate every social norm without ever pausing to consider how their selfish behavior might affect others. It’s as if they have no concept of anyone but themselves.”

“The depths of depravity that these tiny psychopaths are capable of reaching are really quite chilling,” Mateo added.

According to the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, a clinical diagnostic tool, sociopaths often display superficial charm, pathological lying, manipulative behaviors, and a grandiose sense of self-importance. After observing 700 children engaged in everyday activities, Mateo and his colleagues found that 684 exhibited these behaviors at a severe or profound level…

Mateo added that even when subjects were directly confronted with the consequences of their inexplicable behavior, they had little or no capacity for expressing guilt, other than insincere utterances of “sorry” that were usually coerced.

…Mateo warned that grandmothers were especially susceptible to the self- serving machinations of tiny little sociopaths.

Posted by James on Dec 11, 2009

The hidden consequences of hidden bank mega-bailouts

While the public is outraged by the $700 billion TARP, the real mega-bailout for failed megabanks is the tens of trillions the Fed has handed the banks, mostly invisibly.

While I’ve ranted before on this blog about the injustice of giving failed banks — and, implicitly, their bondholders and stockholders — mountains of free cash (plus the immense moral hazard problem it creates by incenting too-big-to-fail financial firms to continue making “heads-we-win, tails-taxpayers-lose” gambles with their implicit taxpayer guarantee), I hadn’t connected the dots on one of the implications of this backdoor bailout:

Banks are refusing to refinance millions of mortgages, and Christopher Fountain writes, “Why would a bank want to loan money on an asset that no longer offers security [i.e., a house whose outstanding mortgage balance exceeds the house’s value] when it can borrow money from the Fed at 0% and buy government bonds paying 4.5%, risk free?”

The Bush-Obama “give-the-megabanks-however-many-trillion-dollars-they-say-they-need” policy is so horrible we’d actually be better off just handing failed banks a trillion dollars in cash! By letting them borrow tens of trillions interest-free and “invest” it in government bonds, we’ve largely destroyed their incentive to lend to businesses and homeowners. This policy helps Wall Street but hurts everyone else. Giving banks a trillion dollars would be both more honest and far better for Main Street.

Of course, they should have just let the negative equity banks fail, as I’ve argued all along.

Posted by James on Dec 15, 2009

Want a good workout? Avoid the morning

I never liked exercising in the morning because I always felt too sluggish.

Well, there’s now evidence that morning workouts are less strenuous but feel more strenuous than afternoon and evening workouts:

Not only are performances better in the late afternoon and early evening, but… heart rates are also higher for the same effort.

One recent study, by the late Thomas Reilly and his colleagues at the Research Institute for Sport and Exercise Sciences at Liverpool John Moores University in England, found that people’s maximum heart rates and sub-maximal heart rates were lower in the morning but that their perception of how hard they were working was the same in the morning as it was later in the day.

Dr. Reilly and his colleague Jim Waterhouse, in a review published this year, also noted that athletes’ best performances, including world records, were typically set in the late afternoon or early evening.

Greg Atkinson, also at Liverpool John Moores University, said that some researchers, noticing that heart rates during exercise were lower in the morning, reasoned the way I did — that people must be more efficient in the morning. It would mean that exercise was easier in the morning. Of course, it seemed harder to me, but I could have been deluding myself. Not really, Dr. Atkinson said. It actually is harder to exercise in the morning.

“Most components (strength, power, speed) of athletic performance are worst in the early hours of the morning,” he wrote in an e-mail message. “Ratings of perceived exertion during exercise have generally been found to be highest in the early morning.”

If you exercise later in the day, your muscles are more flexible and stronger and your heart and lungs are more efficient, said Michael H. Smolensky, an expert in chronobiology, the study of the body clock.

No wonder Kenyans and Ethiopians keep winning the New York and Boston Marathons. For Africans, early morning races feel like afternoon runs! ;–)

Posted by James on Dec 11, 2009

We take our (semblance of) democracy for granted

American “democracy” has rotted. Mega-corporations really call all the shots in Washington — except on issues of little importance to them — because they have effectively bought most Congressmen and presidents with billions in campaign contributions and other bribes.

Americans have done little to protect democracy or seize it back from corporate dominance. Which leaves me even more impressed with the efforts some will make to establish democracy in their politically repressive, authoritarian nations.

One example of this is the brave Chinese who so loudly protest single-party rule in China that they demand to be punished alongside their movement’s leader:

Liu Xiaobo, one of China’s best-known dissidents and a principal author of a pro-democracy manifesto that has attracted more than 10,000 signatures from Chinese supporters, was indicted Thursday on charges of trying to subvert the state, his lawyer said…

“The government is trying to tell us to stop trying to push for human rights and democracy in China,” said Xu Youyu, a Charter 08 signer and a philosophy professor who recently retired from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “Secondly, he has been the biggest threat inside of China, and they want to get rid of him.”

…Although censors swiftly deleted the document from Internet pages and chat rooms, more than 10,000 people managed to sign it. It stated that Chinese citizens should be able to elect their own government, that power should be divided among different branches of government and that the military should come under government, not party, control.

Many of the initial signers were interrogated, but only Mr. Liu was arrested, two days before the manifesto was published. He was confined for more than six months to a windowless room in Beijing, then charged by the police with subversion and trying to overthrow the government.

Charter 08 signers have tried to show their solidarity by issuing letters of protest over his case. The most recent one, signed by 165 people, states, “If Liu Xiaobo is found ‘guilty’ that means each one of us is guilty, and we have to shoulder the punishment together with Liu Xiaobo.”

Posted by James on Dec 15, 2009

Why didn't we hear about $79,000 per American bank bailout estimate earlier?!?!

I was so stunned by Matt Taibbi’s claim that TARP’s special inspector general Neil Barofsky said bank bailouts could cost $23.7 trillion that I had to look it up.

Sure enough, Bloomberg reported it… on July 20th!!!

How has this not been the talk of the country for the past five months?!?!? $23.7 trillion for Wall Street!!!

That’s $79,000 per American!!!

And all we can talk about is the need to send more troops to Afghanistan (for what?) and how we can’t afford to provide Americans with basic healthcare.

Our media is horrible at reporting the news absolutely brilliant at keeping the American people focused on all the unimportant stuff while the kleptocracy plutocracy rich, scheming corporate bastards steal Americans' future earnings.

Posted by James on Dec 11, 2009

Yet another way the U.S. political system is rigged

In January 2006, I urged Ned Lamont to run against incumbent “Democratic” Senator Joe Lieberman. I then worked on Ned’s research and advisory team to defeat Lieberman in the Democratic Primary. So it goes without saying how disgusted I feel Lieberman won on the “Connecticut for Lieberman” ticket — how aptly arrogant of that man not to name his party “Lieberman for Connecticut” — and has continued destroying America ever since.

This spring, I contacted the local Green Party to urge them to run someone against incumbent Sen. Dodd, for three reasons:

  1. Practical reasons: Dodd is widely viewed in Connecticut as a hopeless pro-corporate insider, at best, and corrupt, at worst;
  2. Policy/moral reasons: Dodd’s inexcusably central role in deregulating Wall Street — which led directly to a near-depression and tens of trillions in bailouts — and his equally inexcusable role in subverting democracy itself by authoring the HAVA law that forced states to adopt unaudibable electronic voting machines that I believe allowed — among other election thefts — George W. Bush to steal the 2004 election; and,
  3. Strategic reasons: America needs a viable 3rd party because the existing duopoly serves not the U.S. people but the most powerful transnational mega-corporations. Democratic and Republican Party leaders work hard to help “moderate” (i.e., pro-corporate) candidates and shut out independent-minded (esp. “liberal/progressive”) candidates. (I know because I personally witnessed a full-court press to shut down Ned in January 2006 that included calls from Democratic Congressional leaders.)

I want to highlight #3 in light of an article I just read — thanks to Project Censored’s wonderful annual list of 25 stories censored by corporate-controlled TV.

Most Americans probably assume that “The Commission on Presidential Debates” is run by the government, a media collaboration, or a non-partisan, non-governmental organization. In fact, our presidential debates are actually run by the Democratic and Republican Parties themselves. They seized control from the League of Women Voters:

Since 1987, a private corporation created by and for the Republican and Democratic parties called the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) has sponsored the US Presidential debates and implemented debate contracts. In order to shield the major party candidates from criticism, CPD has refused to release debate contract information to the public.

In 1986, the Republican and Democratic National Committees ratified an agreement “to take over the presidential debates” from the nonpartisan League of Women Voters. Fifteen months later, then-Republican Party chair Frank Fahrenkopf and then-Democratic Party chair Paul Kirk incorporated the Commission on Presidential Debates. Fahrenkopf and Kirk still co-chair the Commission on Presidential Debates, and every four years it implements and conceals contracts jointly drafted by the Republican and Democratic nominees.

Before the CPD’s formation, the League of Women Voters served as a genuinely nonpartisan presidential debate sponsor from 1976 until 1984, ensuring the inclusion of popular independent candidates and prohibiting major party campaigns from manipulating debate formats.

Why did Democratic and Republican king-makers kneecap the League of Women Voters? Because the League had — to its great credit — refused to allow the two dominant parties to dictate debate terms. The Democrats and Republicans took over to strengthen their political duopoly. How? By excluding 3rd party candidates from debates, choosing “debate” formats that let the major party candidates look good, etc.:

In 1980, the League invited independent candidate John B. Anderson to participate in a presidential debate, even though President Jimmy Carter adamantly refused to debate him. Four years later, when the Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale campaigns vetoed sixty-eight proposed panelists in order to eliminate difficult questions, the League publicly lambasted the candidates for “totally abusing the process.” The ensuing public outcry persuaded the candidates to accept the League’s panelists for the next debate.



 And in 1988, when the George Bush and Michael Dukakis campaigns drafted the first secret debate contract—a “Memorandum of Understanding” that dictated who got to participate, who would ask the questions, even the heights of the podiums—the League declined to implement it. Instead, the League issued a blistering press release claiming, “the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter.”

Posted by James on Dec 20, 2009