Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Break in continuity

Our family will be taking some time off over the next couple of weeks. This blog will see little to no posts during the first couple of weeks of the New Year. I am not sure if I will find the time to come by and post in between hectic visits to homes of relatives, friends and family while in India. A happy New Year to all and may the peace be with you.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Sociology break

Interesting essay on Amazon by Dalton Conley, the writer of Elsewhere, U.S.A. on what prompted him to write it...
The subtitle of the book is a mouthful but revealing... "How We Got from the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms, and Economic Anxiety"

I am writing this on my BlackBerry as I sit on the sidelines of my daughter's soccer game. My wife, her mother, is off in Indiana on business. And this pretty much captures life in Elsewhere USA, where professional couples with children feel the pressures of work 24/7 and solve their multiple commitment conflicts by doing all at once with partial attention. We are afraid to stop working (or perhaps can't) since, though in objective terms we may be doing better, rising inequality makes us feel as if we are falling behind...It struck me that as of 2007, when I set out on this project, no one had yet written a book that captured the subtle but unmistakable ways that everyday life has changed for this class of Americans--or, for that matter, the socioeconomic roots of such changes, above and beyond the obvious technological advances that have besieged us over the last two decades...

There had once been an esteemed tradition among sociologists to try to crystallize a historical moment, in order to reflect it back to those living it in the hope that one could put words to something that was felt by many but not articulated. The 1950s were filled with such classics like, THE ORGANIZATION MAN; WHITE COLLAR; THE LONELY CROWD; and THE AFFLUENT SOCIETY, to name a few.

So I decided to try to swing for the fences, so to speak, and put into words what I -- as a sociologist and victim of the elsewhere ethic -- saw happening around me. The economic red shift (anxiety caused by rising inequality at the top), the price culture (the spread of markets into every nook and cranny of daily life), coinvestment (investment + consumption), weisure (work + leisure), the portable workshop (what I am writing this on), intravidualism (an ethic of fragmented selves replacing the modern ethic of individualism), and, of course, the Elsewhere Society (the inter-penetration of spheres of life that were once bounded from each other). All these terms were attempts to describe the gradual -- yet fundamental -- ways that life has changed beneath our feet since those 1950s classics. The organization man is gone, replaced by the elsewhere dad, the blackberry mom and various other figures have come into our new social landscape. Or so I claim... It's up to you to tell me if I've struck out or connected...

The 'Shock and Awe' doctrine

It is instructive to compare the number of people killed on either side after the Israeli attack on Hamas (in bold below) that took place some hours back.

Reason for the Israeli attack on Hamas (from the NY Times):
The air attack came after days of warnings by Israeli officials that Israel would retaliate for intense rocket and mortar fire against Israeli towns and villages by Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza. On Wednesday alone, more than 60 rockets and mortars were fired, some reaching further than previously. While the Hamas rockets are meant to be deadly, and several houses and a factory were hit, sowing widespread panic, no Israelis were killed or seriously injured in the recent attacks.

Meanwhile over in Gaza after the Israeli response: (from CNN and the NY Times):
Israeli aircraft launched air attacks across Gaza on Saturday, killing at least 155 people, including the Hamas police chief and other officials, according to Israeli and Palestinian sources. Palestinian medical sources said 250 people were wounded in the air raid in Gaza. At Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, scores of dead bodies were laid out in front of the morgue waiting for family members to identify them. Many were dismembered. Inside the hospital, relatives carried a five-month old baby who had suffered a serious head wound from shrapnel. Overwhelmed, the hospital staff seemed unable to offer help. At the Gaza City police station, at least 15 traffic police who had been training in a courtyard were killed on the spot. Tamer Kahrouf, 24, a civilian who had been working on a construction site in Jabaliya, north of Gaza City, said he saw his two brothers and uncle killed before his eyes when the Israeli planes bombed a security post nearby.

Friday, December 26, 2008

How one man saved the Indian financial system...

Just ran into this story about an individual who had the courage to think rationally against prevailing trends even when it became extremely unfashionable to do so. There seems to be larger lessons that one could glean from this story...

India had a bank regulator who was the anti-Greenspan. His name was Dr. Y. V. Reddy, and he was the governor of the Reserve Bank of India. Unlike Alan Greenspan, who didn’t believe it was his job to even point out bubbles, much less try to deflate them, Mr. Reddy saw his job as making sure Indian banks did not get too caught up in the bubble mentality. About two years ago, he started sensing that real estate, in particular, had entered bubble territory. One of the first moves he made was to ban the use of bank loans for the purchase of raw land, which was skyrocketing. Only when the developer was about to commence building could the bank get involved — and then only to make construction loans. (Guess who wound up financing the land purchases? United States private equity and hedge funds, of course!)
Then, as securitizations and derivatives gained increasing prominence in the world’s financial system, the Reserve Bank of India sharply curtailed their use in the country. When Mr. Reddy saw American banks setting up off-balance-sheet vehicles to hide debt, he essentially banned them in India. As a result, banks in India wound up holding onto the loans they made to customers. On the one hand, this meant they made fewer loans than their American counterparts because they couldn’t sell off the loans to Wall Street in securitizations. On the other hand, it meant they still had the incentive — as American banks did not — to see those loans paid back. Seeing inflation on the horizon, Mr. Reddy pushed interest rates up to more than 20 percent, which of course dampened the housing frenzy. He increased risk weightings on commercial buildings and shopping mall construction, doubling the amount of capital banks were required to hold in reserve in case things went awry. He made banks put aside extra capital for every loan they made. In effect, Mr. Reddy was creating liquidity even before there was a global liquidity crisis.

Did India’s bankers stand up to applaud Mr. Reddy as he was making these moves? Of course not. They were naturally furious, just as American bankers would have been if Mr. Greenspan had been more active.

Photo from boxing day four years ago

Kusol Wetchakul offers prayers for the soul of his sister at dawn along the beach near Khao Lak, Thailand. Wetchakul's sister was swept out to sea in the Tsunami that hit on Dec 26, 2004 and believed drowned as she sold goods to tourists on the beach just north of Phuket. From here.

Quick thoughts on borrowing from the Chinese

As the New Year rolls around, the United States Treasury will find itself more and more busy conducting auctions to pay for our $700 billion bailout of the banks. The bulk of that money will come from selling American government bonds and government-backed mortgage debt to the Chinese who have the most of what we need right now - greenbacks. Money from China is not necessarily bad, provided one uses it for the right purposes. Over the last eight years, monies from China were primarily used to finance the quagmire in Iraq and hand out cheap credit to individuals who did not have any business owning that half a million dollar home. As soon as the end of January rolls around, the new Obama administration’s stimulus package will demand an additional borrowing of upwards of a trillion dollars - the bulk of it to be borrowed from China – again by selling them IOUs like US government bonds and government-backed mortgage debt. We hope that this time around the borrowed money from China will be put to the national good. One can only hope.

From here: By itself, money from China is not a bad thing. As American officials like to note, it speaks to the attractiveness of the United States as a destination for foreign investment. In the 19th century, the United States built its railroads with capital borrowed from the British. In the past decade, China arguably enabled an American boom. Low-cost Chinese goods helped keep a lid on inflation, while the flood of Chinese investment helped the government finance mortgages and a public debt of close to $11 trillion. But Americans did not use the lower-cost money afforded by Chinese investment to build a 21st-century equivalent of the railroads. Instead, the government engaged in a costly war in Iraq, and consumers used loose credit to buy sport utility vehicles and larger homes. Banks and investors, eagerly seeking higher interest rates in this easy-money environment, created risky new securities like collateralized debt obligations.



Images from Fang Lijun's work at the Arario Gallery earlier this year.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas!!

From here: Christmas, marketing gurus and Donny Deutsch will explain, is popular in modern society because it plays perfectly to two vast, but distinct, audiences: religious and nonreligious Christians. For religious Christians, it celebrates nothing less than the birth of their Savior and is one of the holiest nights on the entire calendar. For the nonobservant, Christmas provides a month-long overdose of mass-marketed consumption.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas in India

Another perspective...

With Christians amounting to just 2.3 per cent of its population, India is warming to Christmas, though it is still a relatively minor festival. In the balmy evening heat of Calcutta, I watched children perform an open-air Nativity play in Bengali, with Mary dressed in a sari and Joseph sporting a turban. In Delhi, I saw rows and rows of Christmas trees on sale in the markets and shops adorned with tinsel and lamps. Indians know the importance of festivals and take any opportunity to celebrate one - however hard times are.
I've witnessed many festivals in India. Some - including Eid, Diwali, and the birthdays of the Buddha and Guru Nanak - are national holidays, while others are regional ones. Some have no official recognition but people take the day off and celebrate them anyway. On any given day, dozens of festivals are taking place across the country. Earning a fraction of what we are paid in the West, with no welfare state to protect them, ordinary Indians face far more insecurity and hardship than anyone in Britain but will spend whatever they have to make the very most of their festivities. Festivals provide a necessary social function, allowing people to let off steam and break through barriers. Last year, I watched Holi, the festival of colours, in Mumbai. People of every background threw dye at each other and gleefully shouted obscenities during the one day of the year when they can air any grievance they have - towards their boss, colleagues, in-laws, whoever -knowing they'd be forgotten by the evening.

Perspectives on losing our edge

The 'columnist preacher' Friedman goes ballistic this week on the 'dumbing down of America' theme...
My fellow Americans, we can’t continue in this mode of “Dumb as we wanna be.” We’ve indulged ourselves for too long with tax cuts that we can’t afford, bailouts of auto companies that have become giant wealth-destruction machines, energy prices that do not encourage investment in 21st-century renewable power systems or efficient cars, public schools with no national standards to prevent illiterates from graduating and immigration policies that have our colleges educating the world’s best scientists and engineers and then, when these foreigners graduate, instead of stapling green cards to their diplomas, we order them to go home and start companies to compete against ours.
To top it off, we’ve fallen into a trend of diverting and rewarding the best of our collective I.Q. to people doing financial engineering rather than real engineering. These rocket scientists and engineers were designing complex financial instruments to make money out of money — rather than designing cars, phones, computers, teaching tools, Internet programs and medical equipment that could improve the lives and productivity of millions.
Meanwhile some of what he says makes sense - we go about cutting each other lawns, rubbing each others back after taking courses in massage therapy and learn to trim each others hair on select areas of our anatomy - yes, we are a now a true service economy in every sense of the word, but at what cost. A cost that might involve telling our children that opting to cut someone else's lawn or fashion someone else's hair or massage someone else's back is the best that they could hope to make of their lives growing up in America...

This little story in the Times today about a automobile employee who was laid off recently and decided to go to massage therapy classes to make up the money sums it all up nicely.
More than 1,000 workers were laid off at the Moraine plant. Under terms of the U.A.W. contract for all its members, they and the workers in Janesville and Newark will collect unemployment checks and payments from G.M. that together equal about 80 percent of their take-home pay. But those payments will only last about a year. And with the U.A.W. prepared to suspend its “jobs bank” program as a condition of the federal loans, there will be no safety net after that.
Some workers will have an opportunity to transfer to other plants. But with the industry contracting so quickly, there is little job security in making a move. “I can’t risk transferring,” said David Williams, one of the remaining 1,100 workers at the Newark plant when it closed. “I don’t want to go 1,200 miles away to get laid off again.” Mr. Williams installed a sunroof on the last Dodge Durango to come down the assembly line in Newark. Now he plans to take massage-therapy classes and pursue a new career far from the factory floor. “Enough with the concrete,” he said. “It’s time for some carpet and climate control.”
Maryann Reid, the founder of Marry Your Baby Daddy Day (an annual event where 10 unwed couples who already have children together elect to marry) on what the Obama win means to black consciousness...
"I have no more excuses" is what I've been hearing at holiday parties from people who believed the system was designed to prevent black progress. The discussion has gone from talk of race to talk about ourselves and our families. When the president is black, it means so much more than a color; it means a new national consciousness. And I wonder whether attitudes about marriage will change among black couples.
The Obama family represents the dream of so many black men and women: the picturesque wife, husband and children. It is a fantasy that seems far away for some, but Obama's win made it a possibility. What the world, and black Americans, will see now is a model for a healthy couple, a happy union and, dare I say it, a sexy marriage. His win means that we are all expecting more, accepting less.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

'Row of benches at 14th Street, Union Square on an especially rainy day'

"Two lonely crossroads that themselves cross each other I have walked several times this winter without meeting or overtaking so much as a single person on foot or on runners. The practically unbroken conditions of both for several days after a snow or a blow proves that neither is much traveled. Judge then how surprised I was the other evening as I came down one to see a man, who to my own unfamiliar eyes and in the dusk looked for all the world like myself, coming down the other, his approach to the point where our paths must intersect being so timed that unless one of us pulled up we must inevitably collide. I felt as if I was going to meet my own image in a slanting mirror. Or say I felt as we slowly converged on the same point with the same noiseless yet laborious strides as if we were two images about to float together with the uncrossing of someone's eyes. I verily expected to take up or absorb this other self and feel the stronger by the addition for the three-mile journey home. But I didn't go forward to the touch. I stood still in wonderment and let him pass by; and that, too, with the fatal omission of not trying to find out by a comparison of lives and immediate and remote interests what could have brought us by crossing paths to the same point in the wilderness at the same moment of nightfall. Some purpose I doubt not, if we could but have made it out. I like a coincidence almost as well as an incongruity" - Robert Frost writing to Susan Ward during the Christmas of 1911

Papal Bullpoop

The Pope cannot get any funnier than this latest pronouncement yesterday. I remember actually laughing out loud the first time I heard it on the radio... He must have figured that a little levity on Christmas eve might actually be good given the general downer spirits that have attended this year...
Pope Benedict said on Monday that saving humanity from homosexual or transsexual behaviour was just as important as saving the rainforest from destruction.
No, I refuse to believe that he was being serious...

Monday, December 22, 2008

What! Pay for these fine hypertext products??

When I read for the second time in a single week about the fact that free access to newspaper articles on the web might be a model on its way out, one tends to take notice - especially when cost cutting is king. The two possible outcomes to this scenario might result in finding our online forays limited by a subscription based model with article teasers being the only free areas on a newspaper site or that printed newspapers might vanish altogether to be replaced by mediocre web based blog type reporting in which aggregators like Google news may turn out to be the leader..

From the Times today: “Why would I put anything on the Web?” asked Dan Jacobson, the publisher and owner of the newspaper. “I don’t understand how putting content on the Web would do anything but help destroy our paper. Why should we give our readers any incentive whatsoever to not look at our content along with our advertisements, a large number of which are beautiful and cheap full-page ads?” Other publications much larger than TriCityNews have been wondering about pumping resources into a medium that does not seem to show a promise of returns any time soon. And there are signs that the free ride for consumers may be coming to an end. I started getting notices to renew my subscription to The Wall Street Journal and its Web site and waited, as I have in the past, for the deeply discounted offer. It never came. And according to company statements in October, paid subscriptions for The Journal’s Web site were up more than 7 percent from a year ago.

From the Dec 22 issue of the New Yorker. The peculiar fact about the current crisis is that even as big papers have become less profitable they’ve arguably become more popular. The blogosphere, much of which piggybacks on traditional journalism’s content, has magnified the reach of newspapers, and although papers now face far more scrutiny, this is a kind of backhanded compliment to their continued relevance.
Usually, when an industry runs into the kind of trouble that Levitt was talking about, it’s because people are abandoning its products. But people don’t use the Times less than they did a decade ago. They use it more. The difference is that today they don’t have to pay for it. The real problem for newspapers, in other words, isn’t the Internet; it’s us. We want access to everything, we want it now, and we want it for free. That’s a consumer’s dream, but eventually it’s going to collide with reality: if newspapers’ profits vanish, so will their product.

Jack Delano, 'Chicago and North Western Railway Company working on a locomotive at the 40th Street railroad shops', Chicago, Ill., 1942. From the Library of Congress archive.

Lynching postcards – and how we might put them to work for us

Recently, the Atlanta Center for Civil and Human Rights purchased “Without Sanctuary,” a famous collection of lynching images (many of them postcards).
Description of one of those postcards here: A particularly vivid lynching postcard depicts the charred and partially dismembered corpse of Jesse Washington, who was burned before a crowd of thousands in Waco, Tex., in 1916. The card, which appears to have been written by a white spectator to his parents, is signed “your son Joe.” He refers to the horrific murder — in which the victim’s ears, fingers and sexual organs were severed — as the “barbecue we had last night.” He identifies himself in the crowd by placing a mark in ink about his head.
It is a historical fact that almost 5,000 Americans were lynched in the United States from the 1870s to the 1970s; 80 percent of the victims were in the South, almost all of them black. Times editorial observer Brent Staples writes about an idea that was used effectively by Nazi hunters for years in a successful strategy to ferret out Hitler era Nazis who aided and abetted in heinous crimes against the Jews – proof of the crimes embedded within photographs.
Many of the people who attended lynchings as children in the 1930’s and 40’s must be still alive and walking the streets of the principal states of the lynching belt. It is also possible that their parents might still be alive. Nazi hunters have made an art of exposing war criminals through photographs taken in the death camp era. This strategy would have worked well against Southern lynch-mob killers who posed for the camera while murdering African-Americans in a campaign of terror that persisted into the mid-20th century.

Sole matters

The following news snippet seems to be a shoo-in for phrases like 'kick starting a business'...

The shoe hurled at President George W. Bush has sent sales soaring at the Turkish maker as orders pour in from Iraq, the U.S. and Iran. The brown, thick-soled “Model 271” may soon be renamed “The Bush Shoe” or “Bye-Bye Bush,” Ramazan Baydan, who owns the Istanbul-based producer Baydan Ayakkabicilik San. & Tic., said in a telephone interview today.

“We’ve been selling these shoes for years but, thanks to Bush, orders are flying in like crazy,” he said. “We’ve even hired an agency to look at television advertising.”


Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Wall Street Journal is rightly perturbed over the inflationary effects that could follow the latest salvo of rate cuts by the Fed...
Our troubles, over which we will certainly prevail, stem from a basic contradiction. The dollar is the world's currency, yet the Fed is America's central bank. Mr. Bernanke's remit is to promote low inflation, high employment and solvent finance -- in the 50 states. He wishes the Chinese well, of course, and the French and the Singaporeans and all the rest besides, but they don't pay his salary.
They do, however, buy the U.S. Treasury's bonds, which frames the emerging American dilemma. If the Fed is going to create boatloads of depreciating, non-yielding dollar bills, who will absorb them? Who will finance the Obama administration's looming titanic fiscal deficits? Who will finance America's annual surplus of consumption over production (after 25 more or less continuous years, almost a national trait)? Inflation is a kind of governmentally sanctioned white-collar crime. Every crime needs a dupe. Now that the Fed has announced its plan to deceive, where will it find its victims?
2008 in photographs... 1, 2 and 3 (from Big Picture).

A man carries the body of a child recovered from the rubble of a destroyed house after an air strike in Baghdad's Sadr City in Iraq on April 29, 08'

Weekend pictures




Resonant thoughts

From a roundup on video gaming and its artistic sensibilities - something that I did not expect: allusions to libertarianism - a borderline fundamentalist philosophy whose focus is so targeted on the individual that it seems to be slowly destroying our society (IMHO)... from here.
One of the hottest philosophical topics on the internet is Ayn Rand. Her ‘objectivist’ philosophy, positivistic and materialistic and focused on the need to get society out of the way of the genius so that he can get on with his geniusness, is popular with a broad spectrum of alienated semi-young men tapping away at computer screens and dreaming of world domination. Complicating the picture is the fact that she was also the main intellectual influence on her close friend and protégé Alan Greenspan, author of the recent monetary boom we were all enjoying so much until it destroyed the world economy. The only thing which isn’t ridiculous about Rand and her ‘objectivism’ is the number of people who take her seriously. It would be a good time for someone to publish a work of fiction or make a movie going into Rand’s ideas and duffing them up a bit – for instance, imagining what it would look like if a society with no laws were turned over to the free will of self-denominated geniuses.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Excerpted from a Times editorial (1968).



Full list here.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Painting Post and a little note…

It has been a while since I completed a proper painting. Four months to be exact. While I still enjoy the process immensely, I do not feel as motivated as I used to over the last three years as I indulged in my little amateur experiments in painting our faces. I know Chuck C. has spent his lifetime doing just that, but I do not seem to have the wellspring of optimism and creativity that seems to sustain and nurture his craft. As a result, this will be my last ‘face’ painting for the immediate future. A lot of options, ideas and avenues have been floating inside my head – the trick is to bring the art behind some of these ideas to fruition – practically and meaningfully. I have not figured out an optimum process/technique to channel output appropriately under the happy circumstances surrounding the balance of work, family, sleep etc. and when I do I will let you know (in the meantime if you have any tips, do let me know). Yesterday night, I did create a couple of preparatory sketches on paper as a precursor to develop something as yet undefined. I am not too sure where this new direction is going to take me, but I feel confident that I will discover something new.



Recent photos




Thursday, December 18, 2008

Thoughts triggered on reading about a recent face transplant

Reading about a marathon 22 hour surgical procedure that involved a face transplant in the Times this morning left me wondering a wee bit about the preponderance of plastic surgery news and their perceived importance in today’s society when we really should be focusing on the looming primary care problem on our hands. Don’t get me wrong, in this case of the face transplant, it was a much needed piece of medical assistance that competent plastic surgeons accomplished in helping a disfigured women get back her dignity. Of course, the bulk of plastic surgeons belong to the ‘nip tuck’ species, the ones who make their millions working on propping up sagging breasts, jowls, tummies and just about any piece of the human anatomy that one might want to fashion after ones vanities. As expected, policy wonk Ezra had a great paragraph on the looming shortage in primary care physicians.

We're about to face an epic shortage of primary care doctors -- we're talking 44,000 or 45,000 too few docs -- which will ensure massive disruption for patients. The problems for primary care are basic: Fewer graduates, more patients. As I understand the issue, there are two problems here. The first is lifestyle. Primary care doctors have too many patients, too little time, too much paperwork, too much administrative hassles, too little satisfaction. The other is money. Primary care doctors make far less than specialists, even though they go through a similarly expensive and rigorous training process. It's no surprise, then, that most doctors opt to become specialists, where they have better incomes and more control over their lifestyle.

In my view, the primary care shortage will only get worse due to the following factors: 1) average longevity of citizens are on the rise across the United States 2) a generation of boomers are staring to enter retirement age and will seek out preventive and primary health care in larger numbers. 3) the looming recession will result in chronic unemployment leading to the ‘laid-off’ patient facing a distinct inability to seek specialist care (which are typically more expensive) and starting to resort to primary care physicians for their health care needs. 4) first year MD enrollment per 100,000 population has steadily declined from 1980

What might logic dictate as solutions in such a scenario? Well, for starters, we must legislate increased enrollment in medical school primary care programs through the use of innovative tools like a) tuition breaks for graduates enrolled in the primary care track 2) better pay prospects as soon as they enter the primary care profession 3) increase primary care physicians participation across larger aspects of the patient health care cycle rather than having them sometimes relegated to being the 'specialist referrers' – this could be accomplished through changes in the classroom training and residency programs.

Of course, that was logic. What does the state of Massachusetts (and 24 other states) do in response to the looming crisis?

From here: For the first time, all health insurers in Massachusetts are required by law to recognize nurse practitioners as primary care providers, allowing consumers to choose them to coordinate and direct their care. The Massachusetts Medical Society recently reported that more than half of all patients presenting to a primary care practice who see a nurse practitioner make a deliberate choice to do so. Massachusetts joins 24 other states that recognize nurse practitioners as primary care providers.

Yes, legislate that a group of nurses with markedly lower training and skillset now start to step up and perform the task of physicians because we as a nation have failed to persuade the youth entering medical school that primary care physicians count critically at a national health care level. One might ask, if there are fewer students graduating out of the primary care program, then what are they actually opting for... Well, as is usual in times where the lure of the lucre is paramount, money does the talking and it seems to literally shout in this case. Accustomed to living their teenage years in an image conscious society and listening to news of 20 somethings make millions as analysts on Wall Street, the first choice for most graduates leaving medical schools is to be dermatologists, plastic surgeons or cosmetic surgeons. So, we as a nation are effectively saying that having more plastic surgeons who takes care of ones looks is better for the common national good than having more primary care physicians who takes care of how one feels. The only problem with this cultural prescription is that the moment we slide down the slope of sanctifying the external aspects of individuals in our plastic society, there is the clear and present danger of our society slowly turning morally bankrupt deep inside.

Full disclosure: My wife is a primary care physician.

Retired orthopedic surgeon turned artist Dr. Anthony Walter created this baroque mirrored hall in his home in Houston, Tex., Image ripped from here.

Pervasive Ponzi(ness)

The more I start to understand the methods employed by Wall Street firms to achieve profits, the more I am convinced that grandfather Madoff might not be the only one running a Ponzi scheme…

From here: After all, Madoff’s scheme -- at least in spirit, if not in its nefarious intent -- wasn’t much different than the business models at some of the nation’s largest failed financial institutions. Back in May, four months before it collapsed, American International Group Inc. increased its dividend at the same time it unveiled plans to raise $12.5 billion in capital. Later, when its cash ran out, AIG got a government bailout, the size of which has expanded to about $150 billion.

Whether you call that a Ponzi scheme or something less sinister, AIG was paying old investors with money raised from new investors. The same could be said of many banks that blew through billions of dollars in freshly raised capital the past couple of years, continuing to pay large dividends even as their balance sheets quietly imploded.

Geoffrey Raymond's caricature of Mr. Madoff (ripped from Dealbreaker)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Bootstrapping on Legacy: Nepotism watch

As the supremely under qualified Ms. Caroline Kennedy plans to get Hillary Clinton's Senate seat solely on the strength and popularity of nothing but her last name, it was interesting to note this response from a Times reader...

It is amusing that Andrew M. Cuomo, who owes his whole career to his dad, may not get the Senate seat of Hillary Rodham Clinton (who owes her whole career to her husband) because David A. Paterson (who owes his whole career to his dad) may give it to Caroline Kennedy (who owes her whole career to her dad).

The Beast opines better.

Even in parvenu America, noblesse oblige is as good an impetus as any, and many of our best (and a couple of our worst) leaders have been to the manor born. We have a tradition of electing officials with last names like Roosevelt and Adams and, of course, Kennedy, and we are often pleased with the results. Dynasty is not un-American, even if it is anti-democratic. Conversely, some of our most naturally gifted presidents of recent years—Nixon and Clinton come to mind—came right out of the dogpatch and spent a good deal of their public lives struggling with their upstart demons to the detriment of just getting the job done. It was far better to live in ancient Judea in the time of King Solomon, who was born a prince, than in the turbulent days of King David, who started his life as a simple shepherd.

A related post on political ceilings and women appeared on this blog about a year back...

On a lighter note...

A cure from 1815 for gout and rheumatism, reprinted in new book about frontier medicinal cures in vogue as American's expanded westwards in the 1800's. Excerpted from the review here.
Take a young fat dog and kill him, scald and clean him as you would a pig, then extract his guts through a hole previously made in his side, and substitute in the place thereof, two handfuls of nettles, two ounces of brimstone, one dozen hen eggs, four ounces of turpentine, a handful of tansy, a pint of red fishing worms, and about three-fourths of a pound of tobacco, cut up fine; mix all those ingredients well together before [they are] deposited in the dog’s belly, and then sew up the whole, then roast him well before a hot fire as hot as you can bear it, being careful not to get wet or expose yourself to damp or night air, or even heating yourself, or in fact you should not expose yourself in any way.

Wall Street Ponzi

Tom Friedman sees no difference between the Ponzi scheme run by Mr. Madoff and the Ponzi scheme run by Wall Street. I could not agree more.
I have no sympathy for Madoff. But the fact is, his alleged Ponzi scheme was only slightly more outrageous than the “legal” scheme that Wall Street was running, fueled by cheap credit, low standards and high greed. What do you call giving a worker who takes only $14,000 a year a nothing-down and nothing-to-pay-for-two-years mortgage to buy a $750,000 home, and then bundling that mortgage with 100 others into bonds — which Moody’s or Standard & Poors rate AAA — and then selling them to banks and pension funds the world over? That is what our financial industry was doing. If that isn’t a pyramid scheme, what is?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Nothing seems to be Something

A consensus that the universe might continue expanding forever rather than follow a cyclical expand/contract routine as originally assumed is slowly emerging...
From here: Cosmologists once believed that the universe would expand for a while from the Big Bang explosion about 13 billion years ago, reach a critical point and then contract back to a tiny point. But measurements suggested that something else was going on -- something was acting like a spring to push galaxies apart. This something has been named dark energy
Even nothing -- empty space -- weighs something, and because we have a lot of nothing, it is a major factor in the evolution of our universe and causes space itself to accelerate - says David Spergel, an astrophysicist at Princeton University...
If dark energy is explained by the cosmological constant, the expansion of the universe will continue to accelerate and our own Milky Way and next-door Andromeda will drift away from the next-nearest galaxies in the Virgo cluster.

Tis' the...

The outer bands of an ice storm that tortures New England residents manifests itself in the form of soft, puffy snowflakes outside my window in Manhattan. While I do not relish the bleak prospects of those caught up in its fury in the north, lightly falling snow does have a calming effect on the mind… Of course, come evening, the calming effect is bound to have evaporated when faced with the prospect of clearing the driveway. Being the first proper snowfall of this season, the youngest in our family is now old enough to appreciate the sights. I plan on introducing him to snow this evening.

Alternative cures

Interesting take on curbing alcoholism... (from Proof, a Times blog on drinking).

That dinner party was almost 10 years ago; it was the last time I saw anyone visibly drunk at a New York party. The New York apartments and lofts which were once the scenes of old-fashioned drunken carnage — slurred speech, broken crockery, broken legs and arms, broken marriages and broken dreams — are now the scene of parties where both friendships and glassware survive intact. Everyone comes on time, behaves well, drinks a little wine, eats a few tiny canapés, and leaves on time. They all still drink, but no one gets drunk anymore. Neither do they smoke. What on earth has happened?
If alcoholism is an addiction — which it is — how can people control their drinking just because it is no longer acceptable to get drunk? What about smoking, another addiction? Addicts are supposed to be powerless; is a little social disapproval more powerful than all the rehabilitation centers and 12-step programs and fancy new drugs?

Does fashion trump addiction?

Mumbai Jihad: Overwhelming Force or Judicious Prudence

As the debates rages on in the Indian sub-continent about an appropriate response to the Mumbai Jihad, thinkers and policy makers in India lurch between an all-out war espousing the annihilation of Pakistan to understanding terrorism as a symptomatic response to past injustices...

Speech by Arun Shourie to the Rajya Sabha. His basic premise being 'Not an eye for an eye, but for an eye, both eyes'.
Please realize -- this is a point for the liberals also -- whenever we are pushed into such a situation we say that NO, force should not be used. Only minimal force should be used. But no war is won with minimal force. It is won by overwhelming the enemy. As it has happened in Mumbai now. You can't do it with minimal force. You try and kill six people in China and see what happens. Here you can kill 60,000 people and nothing happens to the killers!. Not an eye-for-an-eye, not a tooth-for-a-tooth. That is completely wrong. For an eye, both eyes! For a tooth, the whole jaw! Unless India has that determination and that clarity, we will continue to bleed like this all the time.

Arundhati Roy seeks rationality in the actions of the terrorists and reminds us of the historical background behind the current conflict.

There is a fierce, unforgiving fault line that runs through the contemporary discourse on terrorism. On one side (let's call it Side A) are those who see terrorism, especially 'Islamist' terrorism, as a hateful, insane scourge that spins on its own axis, in its own orbit and has nothing to do with the world around it, nothing to do with history, geography or economics. Therefore, Side A says, to try and place it in a political context, or even try to understand it, amounts to justifying it and is a crime in itself. Side B believes that though nothing can ever excuse or justify terrorism, it exists in a particular time, place and political context, and to refuse to see that will only aggravate the problem and put more and more people in harm's way.
So, on balance, if I had to choose between Side A and Side B, I'd pick Side B. We need context. Always.
In this nuclear subcontinent, that context is Partition. The Radcliffe Line which separated India and Pakistan and tore through states, districts, villages, fields, communities, water systems, homes and families, was drawn virtually overnight. It was Britain's final, parting kick to us. Partition triggered the massacre of more than a million people and the largest migration of a human population in contemporary history. Eight million people—Hindus fleeing the new Pakistan, Muslims fleeing the new kind of India—left their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Each of those people carries and passes down a story of unimaginable pain, hate, horror, but yearning too. That wound, those torn but still un-severed muscles, that blood and those splintered bones still lock us together in a close embrace of hatred, terrifying familiarity but also love. It has left Kashmir trapped in a nightmare from which it can't seem to emerge, a nightmare that has claimed more than 60,000 lives. Pakistan, the Land of the Pure, became an Islamic republic, and then, very quickly a corrupt, violent military state, openly intolerant of other faiths. India on the other hand declared herself an inclusive, secular democracy. It was a magnificent undertaking, but Babu Bajrangi's predecessors had been hard at work since the 1920s, dripping poison into India's bloodstream, undermining that idea of India even before it was born. By 1990, they were ready to make a bid for power. In 1992, Hindu mobs exhorted by L.K. Advani stormed the Babri Masjid and demolished it. By 1998, the BJP was in power at the Centre. The US War on Terror put the wind in their sails. It allowed them to do exactly as they pleased, even to commit genocide and then present their fascism as a legitimate form of chaotic democracy. This happened at a time when India had opened its huge market to international finance, and it was in the interests of international corporations and the media houses they owned to project it as a country that could do no wrong. That gave Hindu Nationalists all the impetus and the impunity they needed. This, then, is the larger historical context of terrorism in the subcontinent, and of the Mumbai attacks.
Interestingly, in many of the conflicts around the world, there is always the ever-present ghost of colonialist policies practiced by the British. Africa, the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent were the prime theaters used to by the British to satiate their appetite for unlimited access to raw materials, free or borderline cheap labor and access to regional riches. I see their guilty hand in almost every conflict; of course, many of these conflicts have now been conveniently wallpapered over and relabeled as regional uprisings, religious zealotry or intra cultural discords endemic to a regions peoples and attendant cultures. Delve a little deeper and one finds the pernicious effects of British rule lurking under the covers… Someday I hope to write more on the enduring effects and the daily horrors that one has to put up just because the English decided that it was in the best interests of their people to invade countries around the world.
The site of the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center seven years after the towers went down. I remember taking this picture walking past it a couple of months back...

Monday, December 15, 2008

On a curious spectacle of ‘flying shoes’ in mainstream television

As a couple of size 10 shoes sailed ungracefully over the head of leader of the free world, I took some time out to read parts of a report that chronicles the events that have led unto the colossal failure in the reconstruction of Iraq. One might think that after five years there, reconstruction might be progressing at a fast clip and infrastructural development proceeding smoothly. The report manages to convey something far from that line of thought. The report lays bare a continuous string of flawed decision making and points to the single factor that might be responsible for the quagmire that we are in now: Miscalculation. Pure and simple miscalculation.

A colossal miscalculation of what the United States would face after the shock and awe of the initial firebombing campaign was complete. Miscalculations that seemed to have spawned countless trial and error governance experiments executed on the fly to fix mistakes even as scores of innocent civilians were mowed down by roving Sunni/Shia death squads. To borrow from the science of project management, when one conceives of a project without a coherent project plan or roadmap, one is forced to adapt to the 'whack a mole' approach to running the same. Just as soon as a problem pops up, the response to tackling the problem turns out to be tactical, imprecise, short sighted and novel in every instance.

The ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ nature of the invasion did not account for any strategic thinking with respect to the larger picture at hand – that Iraq was a country full of living, breathing people just like you and me. Instead, the focus on removing Saddam and the elaborate framework that he had built to syncretize power so consumed the war planners that governance of the country and its people were relegated to being nothing but afterthoughts. Afterthoughts that have come to haunt us in the form of flying shoes sailing unceremoniously on mainstream television. In many ways, one hopes that the fiasco in Iraq will serve as a constant and present reminder towards large nations to think twice, breathe deeply and weigh options before starting to meddle in places where they have little idea of local mores, customs, sects or culture.

The following incident featuring the creator of the phrase 'known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns' vividly illustrates the sheer ignorance with which a senior strategist like the United States Defense Secretary went into Iraq.
On the eve of the invasion, as it began to dawn on a few officials that the price for rebuilding Iraq would be vastly greater than they had been told, the degree of miscalculation was illustrated in an encounter between Donald H. Rumsfeld, then the defense secretary, and Jay Garner, a retired lieutenant general who had hastily been named the chief of what would be a short-lived civilian authority called the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance.
The history records how Mr. Garner presented Mr. Rumsfeld with several rebuilding plans, including one that would include projects across Iraq.
“What do you think that’ll cost?” Mr. Rumsfeld asked of the more expansive plan.
“I think it’s going to cost billions of dollars,” Mr. Garner said.
“My friend,” Mr. Rumsfeld replied, “if you think we’re going to spend a billion dollars of our money over there, you are sadly mistaken.”
In a way he never anticipated, Mr. Rumsfeld turned out to be correct: before that year was out, the United States had appropriated more than $20 billion for the reconstruction, which would indeed involve projects across the entire country.
An American soldier watches President Bush's televised apology for Abu Ghraib. Iraq 2004. Photo by Ashley Gilbertson. From here.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

In a Keynes state of mind...

Keynesian economics in a couple of paragraphs below and reasons why the government might need to spend like it has never done before in order to get us out of the current 'Great Recession'...

Keynes’s prescriptions were guided by his conception of money, which plays a disturbing role in his economics. Most economists have seen money simply as a means of payment, an improvement on barter. Keynes emphasized its role as a “store of value.” Why, he asked, should anyone outside a lunatic asylum wish to “hold” money? The answer he gave was that “holding” money was a way of postponing transactions. The “desire to hold money as a store of wealth is a barometer of the degree of our distrust of our own calculations and conventions concerning the future. . . . The possession of actual money lulls our disquietude; and the premium we require to make us part with money is a measure of the degree of our disquietude.” The same reliance on “conventional” thinking that leads investors to spend profligately at certain times leads them to be highly cautious at others. Even a relatively weak dollar may, at moments of high uncertainty, seem more “secure” than any other asset, as we are currently seeing.
It is this flight into cash that makes interest-rate policy such an uncertain agent of recovery. If the managers of banks and companies hold pessimistic views about the future, they will raise the price they charge for “giving up liquidity,” even though the central bank might be flooding the economy with cash. That is why Keynes did not think that cutting the central bank’s interest rate would necessarily — and certainly not quickly — lower the interest rates charged on different types of loans. This was his main argument for the use of government stimulus to fight a depression. There was only one sure way to get an increase in spending in the face of an extreme private-sector reluctance to spend, and that was for the government to spend the money itself. Spend on pyramids, spend on hospitals, but spend it must.

Try telling this to a creationist

From recent research on why life forms...

From here: In a recent study called “Why did life emerge?”, two scientists, son and father Arto Annila of the University of Helsinki and Erkki Annila of the Finnish Forest Research Institute, offer some insight into the general driving force of life’s origins in terms of thermodynamics. As they explain, all organisms are composed of molecules that assemble together via numerous chemical reactions. Just as heat flows from hot to cold, these molecules obey the universal tendency to diminish energy differences, so that the most likely chemical reactions are those in which energy flows “downhill” toward a stationary state, or chemical equilibrium.
Although the researchers don’t speculate on the specific chemical reactions that created life, they explain that the molecules involved most likely underwent a series of more and more complex reactions to minimize mutual energy differences between matter on Earth and with respect to high-energy radiation from Sun. The process eventually advanced so far that it cumulated into such sophisticated functional structures that could be called living. “The most important idea in our study is that there is no distinction between animate and inanimate,” Arto Annila told PhysOrg.com. “Processes of life are, in their principles, no different from any other natural processes.” In this sense, life is a very natural thing, which emerged simply to satisfy basic physical laws. Our “purpose,” so to speak, is to redistribute energy on the Earth, which is in between a huge potential energy difference caused by the hot Sun and cold space.

Image shows the Z+ end of the CMS tracker (part of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN).

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Retirement blues

Is the 401(k) beginning to look like a pipe dream? (via Reddit)
The 401(k) was the scheme of the century. Corporations offloaded their "burdensome" pensions and used the combined forces of the media and politicians to sell the ruse to the public, to the great benefit of Wall Street. Workers were told that the boom-slump cycle was over, and that stocks were a sure thing. There were additional factors to invest in stocks: interest rates were so low that investing in bonds and other less-risky instruments offered only tiny returns; and since employers stopped contributing to retirement funds, a bigger return was required. More importantly, corporations have been driving down real wages since the seventies, allowing less money to be saved for retirement, creating a mood of desperation. Every “safe bet” for investing has been proven unsafe; the recession has left nothing untouched. After the dotcom bubble burst — taking with it millions of people's 401(k) savings — the housing market became the place to invest. Now the safest possible investment, too, has turned sour. For millions of people, the home they lived in was their nest egg, which they had planned to sell and move into a smaller place. No more.

Saturday miscellany...

Aisha in Zimbabwe - a poem

Aisha is mother to her sister, Khadija,
their mother died of AIDS last year.
Aisha has a soft, round face,
lucky for her, she is H.I.V. negative.
She struggles to get drugs for Khadija,
who at 11 years is H.I.V. positive.

Last year, Aisha took her little sister,
(Khadija appears half her actual age)
to Parirenyatwa Hospital,
the nation's largest.
They waited in the vast courtyard,
amidst the hungry and the festering,
a hospital official finally notices them,
he calls them in and with a gravelly voice
tells them that some crucial test results
needed to qualify the little one for
medications were strangely misplaced.
They will need to come back later
and redo the tests once again.

On a later visit, Aisha is told
the machine used for the tests was broken.
A couple of weeks later, the hospital finally
closed. Of course, they were referred to
private doctors. Doctors who had demanded
payment in S.A. rand or U.S. dollars.
The girls could not do this,
they had no money.

Aisha used to escape the sadness
by going to school, two months ago
the teachers at her high school
stopped going to school.
Of her math teacher, Aisha wistfully says
"She didn't bid us farewell, she just left"

Aisha now barters her labor for food,
Khadija is too weak to work.
Last week, Aisha was overjoyed
She was starting a four-day job,
It did not matter that she was
bent over in a field, all day,
readying it for planting corn.
In exchange, she would get two pounds
of flour, a bottle of cooking oil
and clothes. She plans to keep a shirt
and blouse for Khadija. She prays that
Khadija will fit into the standard sizes.
Aisha needs to get her job done soon,
before the rains lash down on the red earth.
The same rains that will drip into
their little room during the
unannounced late monsoon bursts.

The girls pray together every night
they sleep in a tiny, windowless room.
A small room in a small house that
belongs to their mothers father.
A grandfather whose takes his share
of the little food that Aisha brings home.
Aisha also has an uncle living with them.
He is 45 years old. He is too lazy to work
and sometimes steals her cornmeal.

Like other girls, these two have dreams,
Aisha wants to be a doctor,
Khadija, a bank teller.
Aisha wants to be a doctor to help people
like her little sister, shriveling before her.
In her sleep, Khadija dreams… of growing up,
she dreams of having children, she also
dreams of becoming a bank teller and
repaying the unpayabe debts owed to
her older sister, asleep next to her
hugging her little, emaciated frame.

Note: I wrote this poem using lines adapted from a story about the cholera raging in Zimbabwe printed in yesterday's Times. I had attempted a similar 'poem adaption' exercise earlier here.

Photo by Uwe Ommer, a commercial photographer based in Paris.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Shoot first racism

Racism is alive and well in the great state of Texas. This time the targets are Indians. (via Sepia)

A plea (on the auto industry bailout)

The Republican senators in the Senate last night blocked the auto bailout under the following pretext: the demands for steep cuts in pay and benefits for the automobile workers were not met. Yes, following textbook style Republican governing, they have again asked the workers to make sacrifices whilst making no attempt to hold the management responsible. They have managed to turn this into a ‘the result of workers getting undue benefits is killing the US auto industry’.
At this point the auto bailout looks like a non starter in the Senate. The White House should act now and act decisively. The government must use the funds from the TARP bill to bailout the auto companies. No, I do not think the management at Ford, GM and Chrysler deserve the bailout, but I think the workers deserve it. There are a million or more that will be affected if this does not happen. Three months back Sec. Paulson managed to convince a doubting Congress to fork over $700 billion to save companies on Wall Street. Companies that make money off other peoples money. Companies that have no real infrastructure save people sitting at terminals and betting on outcomes that they scarcely understand. Companies that do not produce or manufacture tangible products save for pieces of paper whose values depend on other pieces of paper… ad infinitum. Detroit made decisions, pursued bad choices and was led by bad managers. As part of the bailout, the government should go ahead and change the management, restructure management benefits and legislate the closure of brands that make no sense. The government should not punish workers that have done nothing other than follow the bidding of managers who were short sighted. Moreover, from a pragmatic viewpoint, the fallout from a million people losing their jobs as a result of these companies going under could have severe repercussions not just for the economy, but socially and morally as well.


Another major argument laid out by the Republicans in fighting the bailout is a story claiming that an average autoworker rakes in $73 dollars an hour. That is a pile of garbage. A breakdown of how the $73 is divvied up here: (The representative image above has been ripped from the article).

The calculations show, accurately enough, that for every hour a unionized worker puts in, one of the Big Three really does spend about $73 on compensation. So the number isn’t made up. But it is the combination of three very different categories.
  • The first category is simply cash payments, which is what many people imagine when they hear the word “compensation.” It includes wages, overtime and vacation pay, and comes to about $40 an hour.
  • The second category is fringe benefits, like health insurance and pensions. These benefits have real value, even if they don’t show up on a weekly paycheck. At the Big Three, the benefits amount to $15 an hour or so
Add the two together, and you get the true hourly compensation of Detroit’s unionized work force: roughly $55 an hour.
  • The third category is the cost of benefits for retirees. These are essentially fixed costs that have no relation to how many vehicles the companies make. But they are a real cost, so the companies add them into the mix — dividing those costs by the total hours of the current work force, to get a figure of $15 or so...
Please do not fall for the $73/hr number!! It is actually closer to $50.

Colonial diaries

Reading a recent review of an exhibition showcasing luxury tableware produced by Indian craftsmen in the 1800's during the British occupation, I found myself drawing parallels to the trend of outsourcing technology jobs to India... To subvert the last line from the review below: outsourcing technology jobs to India, where skilled local programmers did fabulous work for a song, made sound business sense...

Whatever its purpose or destination, each item embodied particular images of India, true or false to different degrees, and often pure invention, as India itself was to the colonial eye. As Ms. Dehejia points out in the catalog, in the first half of the 19th century, when early cast silver first appeared there, the subcontinent was still a mystery to much of the Western world, a distant land whose natural resources and benighted natives invited intrusive cultivation.
Tea was one of those natural resources; silver another. After Britain’s early contact with China, tea had become the national addiction. And when it was discovered growing in northern India, the British rejoiced in a limitless supply. Silver tea services had long been fixtures of British domestic design. And outsourcing production to India, where skilled local craftsman did fabulous work for a song, made sound business sense.
Begs questions like the following: Does globalization and in turn outsourcing imply a veiled form of colonialism? Do ideals like The Theory of Comparative Advantage used so skillfully by Western economists point to inherent colonialist tendencies and a desire to profit from the so called underdeveloped nations? Using the ideas generated from the theory of comparative advantage, are we in turn forever 'type casting' certain countries into their perceived areas of expertise and thus preventing them from expanding into new areas?


Four piece Tea Service (teapot, milk jug, sugar bowl and hot water pot). Scotland in the Indian taste, ca 1881, Silver (image ripped from the Wallach Art Gallery website)

Note: “Delight in Design: Indian Silver for the Raj” ends tomorrow at the Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Colors

With not much to do on a spare half hour this cold, rainy afternoon, I headed out to the annual holiday market over at Manhattan's Union Square Park. On getting there, one runs into an unusual selection of special art projects, one-off craft ideas and printed cotton bric-a-bracs distributed across multiple red and white tent-like stalls concentrically arranged across the park. The profusion of color at the market was uplifting especially given the chilly winds visiting our economy (not to speak of the featureless, overcast skies above). I managed to squeeze a couple of shots of the colors running wild across the stalls after securing permission from their proud owners. Maybe it was the weather or maybe the economy, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was not jostled around too much by over-eager holiday shoppers out to get that eclectic gift. In a ‘cup half full’ frame of mind, I preferred to chalk it off to the vagaries of the former. It was a half hour spent well.









'Tis the season

As the annual bonus tree blooms again on Wall Street, firms that were used to making multimillion dollar payouts to incompetant bankers are finally making some practical changes to their compensation structures.
But it was Morgan Stanley’s claw-back announcement, which will affect some 7,000 workers, that captured the attention of employment lawyers and recruiters. It is similar to a rule introduced by UBS, the big Swiss bank, in late November, but Morgan’s is far broader in its language. Pay can be retracted from workers who engage in “conduct detrimental to the firm,” according to an internal memorandum announcing the move, or who cause “a restatement of results, a significant financial loss or other reputational harm.”

Morgan Stanley already holds on to 35 to 60 percent of high earners’ bonuses, but in the past it has held that money entirely in stock and stock options. Now a large portion will be cash, the bank said. “So if you’re a trader and you’ve had a huge year and you get paid a lot of money and then the following year it turns out you were taking outsize risk, we can go back and ding your pay from the year before,” said
Jeanmarie McFadden, a spokeswoman for Morgan Stanley.

Pirate chronicles

An archived piece from '03 on marine piracy in the London Review of Books... as relevant today as it was relevant when piracy was rampant off the Malacca Straits five years back. Only this time it has shifted westwards to the Horn of Africa. The article squarely puts the onus on the U.S. to curb the pirates. One might ask why does the United States need to step up so much when none of its vessels are hijacked. The answer might be found in one of those Spiderman movie quotes "with great power comes great responsibility - it is both a gift and a curse". Of course, the other factor being that we seem to have unconsciously anointed ourselves as the world police force with rhetoric that includes phrases like Bush Doctrine and exporting democracy.
Although the shipping world is demanding protection, neither the United Nations nor the United States sees piracy as a priority. The American Government’s concern for seafarers’ security is no greater than its attention to the health and safety of industrial and mining workers in the United States, where protective regulations are vanishing in the quest for easier profits. The only way to make Washington, and thus the rest of the maritime world, take notice is to project a connection between the pirate enemy and global terrorism. The connection is not far fetched.

Military adventures further American business interests. Halliburton becomes an East India Company running portions of Iraq. Bechtel disburses contracts to be paid from Iraqi oil revenues. Third World economies and former state services become the preserves of Securicor, American Medical International and Monsanto. The subjugated watch their masters to see how it is done. The American way of life is dividing people into two ‘communities’ – those on the inside and those on the outside. Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, the city ghettos of the Western world and the frontier badlands of Russia are more restive than ever. So are the oceans. America constructs nuclear shields in space, fortifies its borders and patrols its coasts. The barbarians are at the gates, and shortly they will be at the harbour walls, but they are inside, too – washing the dishes, shoplifting and, occasionally, beating someone to death to pay for a fix. If Washington’s war on terror does for Islamic extremism what its war on drugs did for the drug barons, we may all end up praying towards Mecca.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Poem/Photo

What the Evangelist Should Have Said a poem by Kei Miller

An American evangelist, preaching salvation,
said it was like being on one side of a river, Jesus
on the other, arms long as forever reaching
to lift you over. But we only knew Hope River,
Sally Waters River—only knew rambling brooks
running through the can as river, a thing
you could jump over, or make your way across
on stones. We had no imagination of Mississippi
or Delaware, rivers so wide they held ships.
A savior with magic arms was pointless.

What the evangelist should have said, was:
Is like when de river come down just like suh
and you find yuself at de bottom,
slow breathin unda de surface, speakin
in bubbles, growin accustomed to fish
and deep and dark and forever—salvation
is de man with arms like a tractor
who reach in fi pull you out of de river,
press de flat of him hands gainst your belly
and push de river out of you.

excerpted from Parnassus