Wednesday, September 30, 2009

This morning

Brooklyn Shore from Staten Island, 7 am.

Untapped ideas...

A tiny tax to spur aid to smaller, developing countries... Of course, the Republicans would reflexively label it socialism...

The one untapped source that could easily provide the amount of money needed is the foreign currency market, which handles almost $800 trillion in trades annually, all of which is untaxed. A tiny levy of 0.005 percent on transactions involving the world’s most traded currencies — the dollar, the euro, the pound and the yen — would raise more than $33 billion annually for development, while not hurting the market or affecting the average international traveler. The tax could be collected automatically by the computer system that handles foreign exchange transactions — so it would be easy to put into place, and impossible to evade. And because not all currencies would be taxed, only the countries whose currencies would be affected would need to consent. France already supports the idea, and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has signaled her willingness to consider it.
... The banking industry has so far managed to keep currency trading untaxed, but this industry, which has so recently been dependent on government aid, has a duty to give back. President Obama has reminded Wall Street leaders about what he called their “obligation to the goal of wider recovery, a more stable system and a more broadly shared prosperity.” The same principle applies internationally.

Curbing an era of constant GDP growth...

Are we ready for a steady state economy? Per a new study by Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, undue emphasis on 'growth' is not a good thing...

According to the report, much of the world has long been ruled by an unhealthy fixation on swelling the gross domestic product, or the quantity of goods and services the economy produces. With a singular obsession on making G.D.P. bigger, many societies — not least, the United States — failed to factor in the social costs of joblessness and the public health impacts of environmental degradation. They allowed banks to borrow and bet unfathomable amounts of money, juicing the present by mortgaging the future, thus laying the ground for the worst financial crisis since the 1930s.
... The resulting report amounts to a treatise on the inadequacy of G.D.P. growth as an indication of overall economic health. It cites the example of increased driving, which weighs in as a positive within the framework of economic growth, as it requires greater production of gasoline and cars, yet fails to account for the hours of leisure and work time squandered in traffic jams, and the environmental costs of pollutants unleashed on the atmosphere.
During the real estate bubble that preceded the financial crisis, the focus on economic growth helped encourage overbuilding and investment in real estate. Mr. Stiglitz argues that the single-minded focus on growth gave American policy makers a false sense of assurance that their policies were virtuous, as they allowed financial institutions to direct virtually unlimited sums of money into real estate and as consumer debt levels built with unrestrained momentum.
Credit enabled spending, and spending translated into faster growth — an outcome that was intrinsically good, and never mind how long it might last or the convulsions that would accompany the end of easy money. A growth-oriented policy encouraged homeowners to borrow as if money need never be repaid, and industry to produce products as if the real cost of pollution were zero, Mr. Stiglitz added.
... Instead of centering assessments on the goods and services an economy produces, policy makers would do better to focus on the material well-being of typical people by measuring income and consumption, along with the availability of health care and education, the report concludes.


Salon has some straight talk about Roman Polanski... (before everyone start feeling sorry about a 76 year old man who has made great movies)...

Roman Polanski raped a child. Let's just start right there, because that's the detail that tends to get neglected when we start discussing whether it was fair for the bail-jumping director to be arrested at age 76, after 32 years in "exile" (which in this case means owning multiple homes in Europe, continuing to work as a director, marrying and fathering two children, even winning an Oscar, but never -- poor baby -- being able to return to the U.S.). Let's keep in mind that Roman Polanski gave a 13-year-old girl a Quaalude and champagne, then raped her, before we start discussing whether the victim looked older than her 13 years, or that she now says she'd rather not see him prosecuted because she can't stand the media attention. Before we discuss how awesome his movies are or what the now-deceased judge did wrong at his trial, let's take a moment to recall that according to the victim's grand jury testimony, Roman Polanski instructed her to get into a jacuzzi naked, refused to take her home when she begged to go, began kissing her even though she said no and asked him to stop; performed cunnilingus on her as she said no and asked him to stop; put his penis in her vagina as she said no and asked him to stop; asked if he could penetrate her anally, to which she replied, "No," then went ahead and did it anyway, until he had an orgasm.

A true libertarian (or am I way out of line)?

The story of a man who slept with over 1,300 women paying them roughly $184,000. The title of the post was derived from the fact that the author of this piece does not believe that society should be so intrusive that it should regulate matters of intimacy and personal consent...

I remember the first time I had sex—I still have the receipt. The girl was alive, as far as I could tell, she was warm and she was better than nothing. She cost me £20. I was 16 then and I’m 47 now. I have spent 25 years throwing my money and heart at tarts. I have slept with every nationality in every position in every country. From high-class call girls at £1,000 a pop to the meat-rack girls of Soho at £15, I have probably slept with more than 1,300 prostitutes, at a cost of £115,000. I am a connoisseur of prostitution: I can take its bouquet, taste it, roll it around my mouth, give you the vintage. I have used brothels, saunas, private homes from the Internet and ordered girls to my flat prompt as pizza. While we are on the subject, I have also run a brothel. And I have been a male escort. I wish I was more ashamed. But I’m not. I love prostitutes and everything about them. And I care about them so much I don’t want them to be made legal.
...The great thing about sex with whores is the excitement and variety. If you say you’re enjoying sex with the same person after a couple of years, you’re either a liar or on something. Of all the sexual perversions, monogamy is the most unnatural. Most of our affairs run the usual course. Fever. Boredom. Trapped. This explains much of the friction in our lives—love being the delusion that one woman differs from another. But with brothels there is always the exhilaration of not knowing what you’re going to get.
The problem with normal sex is that it leads to kissing and pretty soon you’ve got to talk to them. Once you know someone well the last thing you want to do is screw them. I like to give, never to receive; to have the power of the host, not the obligation of the guest. I can stop writing this and within two minutes I can be chained, in the arms of a whore. I know I am going to score and I know they don’t really want me. And within 10 minutes I am back writing. What I hate are meaningless and heartless one-night stands where you tell all sorts of lies to get into bed with a woman you don’t care for. The worst things in life are free. Value seems to need a price tag. How can we respect a woman who doesn’t value herself? When I was young I used to think it wasn’t who you wanted to have sex with that was important, but who you were comfortable with socially and spiritually. Now I know that’s rubbish. It’s who you want to have sex with that’s important. In the past I have deceived the women I have been with. You lie to two people in your life; your partner and the police. Everyone else gets the truth.

So, what class are you?

How does one define the vague term 'middle class'?

In India, a scooter company aims ads at a schoolteacher who earns $2,500 a year and lives in a tiny brick house with no running water. Why? Because that teacher, according to marketers, is middle class. In the United States, meanwhile, a family that earns $200,000 a year and has a 2,000-square-foot home, two cars, three computers and an Xbox game console so the kids don't have to play outside barely blinks before labeling itself middle class.

And yet, experts say, neither is incorrect:
  • The Indian teacher, despite his relative poverty, earns an extra sliver of income that will allow him to buy something he doesn't absolutely need. He has escaped poverty.
  • The American family, although extremely wealthy by world standards, lives with some degree of financial stress. Both parents work hard but worry about retirement, education and health care costs, and are acutely aware of the fact that they share a country with some who have far more. They feel middle class.
"Everybody sort of defines themselves as middle class" in America, says Steven R. Pressman, a professor of economics and finance at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J. "Self-perception is a funny thing."


Medical book covers...

Cow dung cremations in India...

Do Americans have to live like Europeans (to save the planet)?


The 'Obama' brand does not seem to be substantially superior than the 'Bush' brand when it comes to foreign policy (of course, it has only been three quarters of a year). One hopes that the 'Obama' brand will step up for the public option in the health care debates...

But eight months after his inauguration, all that good will so far has translated into limited tangible policy benefits for Mr. Obama. As much as they may prefer to deal with Mr. Obama instead of his predecessor, George W. Bush, foreign leaders have not gone out of their way to give him what he has sought. European allies still refuse to send significantly more troops to Afghanistan. The Saudis basically ignored Mr. Obama’s request for concessions to Israel, while Israel rebuffed his demand to stop settlement expansion. North Korea defied him by testing a nuclear weapon. Japan elected a party less friendly to the United States. Cuba has done little to liberalize in response to modest relaxation of sanctions. India and China are resisting a climate change deal. And Russia rejected new sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program even as Mr. Obama heads into talks with Tehran.


David Brooks talks about an impending moral and cultural movement to get back the 'old' America... Personally, I think we slowly got here using cultural baby steps that helped slowly erase the concept of feeling 'shameful' in everyday actions (think Hummer buyer, displaying an urge to eat at whatever time one may please any amount that one may choose, bragging about one's paycheck etc. etc)... Feeling 'shameful' about certain things might be a good thing for us in the long run...

Over the past few years, however, there clearly has been an erosion in the country’s financial values. This erosion has happened at a time when the country’s cultural monitors were busy with other things. They were off fighting a culture war about prayer in schools, “Piss Christ” and the theory of evolution. They were arguing about sex and the separation of church and state, oblivious to the large erosion of economic values happening under their feet. Evidence of this shift in values is all around. Some of the signs are seemingly innocuous. States around the country began sponsoring lotteries: government-approved gambling that extracts its largest toll from the poor. Executives and hedge fund managers began bragging about compensation packages that would have been considered shameful a few decades before. Chain restaurants went into supersize mode, offering gigantic portions that would have been considered socially unacceptable to an earlier generation.
...Our current cultural politics are organized by the obsolete culture war, which has put secular liberals on one side and religious conservatives on the other. But the slide in economic morality afflicted Red and Blue America equally. If there is to be a movement to restore economic values, it will have to cut across the current taxonomies. Its goal will be to make the U.S. again a producer economy, not a consumer economy. It will champion a return to financial self-restraint, large and small.

From the 'you can't make this up' department...

Conservatives are so pissed off that there is a black guy ruling this country that they are now calling for a military coup against Obama...

From the article:
There is a remote, although gaining, possibility America's military will intervene as a last resort to resolve the "Obama problem." Don't dismiss it as unrealistic. America isn't the Third World. If a military coup does occur here it will be civilized. That it has never happened doesn't mean it wont. Describing what may be afoot is not to advocate it.
... Imagine a bloodless coup to restore and defend the Constitution through an interim administration that would do the serious business of governing and defending the nation. Skilled, military-trained, nation-builders would replace accountability-challenged, radical-left commissars. Having bonded with his twin teleprompters, the president would be detailed for ceremonial speech-making. Military intervention is what Obama's exponentially accelerating agenda for "fundamental change" toward a Marxist state is inviting upon America. A coup is not an ideal option, but Obama's radical ideal is not acceptable or reversible.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Sign o' the times... (collective culture watch)

On the 360 degree review process ('rank em and then yank em') that fosters cut throat behavior in US corporations... Time magazine says that bell curve-like rating systems--which many employees now call rank and yank--have spread in recent years to some 20% of U.S. companies, and the trend is growing...

Former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling claimed he was inspired by Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene when he implemented a system known as “rank and yank” that sought to apply nature’s lessons to the energy industry. Skilling had all employees in the company ranked every six months. Then he offered lavish bonuses to the top 5 percent while the bottom 15 percent were relocated or fired.
This system of ruthless competition advanced just the type of personalities that one would expect: crazy people. As one Enron employee put it, “If I’m going to my boss’s office to talk about compensation, and if I step on some guy’s throat and that doubles it, then I’ll stomp on that guy’s throat.”
However, what was perhaps most disturbing is that according to Time magazine, 20 percent of US companies were following the same business model at the time of Enron’s collapse. Enron’s self-destruction was only the first in a nationwide trend. But what, if anything, does this say about nature?
In his latest book, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, primatologist Frans de Waal argues that social darwinists like Skilling have learned the wrong lessons about the natural world. The nasty, brutish existence dominated by “savage competition, ruthless exploitation, and deceit” that Dawkins describes is far from the norm for animals that live in social groups. They thrive because of the cooperation, conciliation, and, above all, the empathy that they display towards fellow members. The support and protection they receive from living in a group more than compensates for any selfish advantage they might have achieved on their own.
In other words, the “selfish gene” has discovered that the most successful approach is to behave unselfishly. De Waal thus argues that the age of empathy is far older than our own species and that we must keep this in mind as we try to apply these lessons ourselves.

Right wingnut watch

Recently a census worker was found dead (read: killed) in the Daniel Boone National forest (pure Dixieland)... Some reasons below...

About time...

The allure of Wall Street seems to be fading - about time...

Harvard's 2009 graduating class shows the shift in career directions. Those entering finance and consulting tumbled to 20% of graduates this year from nearly twice that in 2008 and 47% the year before, according to a survey by the university's newspaper, the Crimson. Fifteen percent this year planned to go into education -- up by half from last year -- and the proportion going into health care doubled to 12%.
Even a modest of shift of talent could have an effect on society. When smart people become entrepreneurs, "they improve technology in the line of business they pursue, and, as a result, productivity and income grow," said a study by economists Kevin M. Murphy, Robert W. Vishny and Andrei Schleifer in 1990. By contrast, they said, allocation of talent to professions such as finance and law -- where returns come from distribution of wealth from others rather than wealth creation -- leads to lower productivity growth, fewer technological opportunities and slower economic growth.
... It wasn't just the money. When Vivian Pan got her Ph.D. in geology and geophysics from Yale in 1989, research funding was tight, and a job monitoring radiation for the U.S. Energy Department was "incredibly boring" to her. Looking for dynamism, she went to Wall Street, becoming president and chief investment officer of an investment advisory firm, Hamlin Capital Management.
Some of the people now losing these jobs use the occasion to re-evaluate their lives. "Something I've never seen before in 30 years is that this economy has made people really soul-search," says executive recruiter Jeanne Branthover, who heads global financial services for Boyden Global Executive Search. "They're saying, 'If I'm not going to make as much money as I did, I want to look for something that I really like this time.' "
Education is a beneficiary of the economic turmoil, and not for the first time. In the 1930s, according to Claudia Goldin, an economic historian at Harvard, when manufacturing jobs dried up amid the Depression, some of the men who would have dropped out of high school to work in factories and mills finished school instead. Others who might have taken white-collar jobs after high school went to teacher's colleges, helping staff the nation's schools for a generation.
In the current downturn, Ada Beth Cutler, dean of the College of Education at Montclair State University in New Jersey, is overseeing a program to train laid-off finance professionals to fill a longstanding shortage in U.S. education: high-school math teachers. Starting teacher salaries in the state are $45,000 to $55,000, she says, far under what many make in finance. Still, the college's Traders to Teachers program received 200 applications for its first class of 25 this fall. "There's nothing more rewarding than teaching," Ms. Cutler says. "But you're not going to earn a lot of money."

Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday video

Timescapes Timelapse: Mountain Light from Tom @ Timescapes on Vimeo.

Lighter side...

How Facebook is helping solve crimes now...

Jonathan G. Parker, of Fort Loudoun, Pa., was recently arrested for breaking into a woman’s home and stealing two diamond rings. Police tracked Parker down after discovering that he had checked his Facebook page on the victim’s computer and forgotten to log himself out.
In an unprecedented journalistic coup, the Berkeley County sheriff’s department has provided the New Yorker’s Cartoon Lounge with a full list of the evidence in the case pending against Mr. Parker. We can only hope that our full disclosure of the evidence will not in any way affect the ongoing investigation or the future jury trial.

The full list of evidence:
  • Parker’s Facebook page was open on the victim’s computer.
  • Parker left a to-do list on the victim’s refrigerator, reminding himself to rob her.
  • Several detailed charcoal self-portraits of Parker were found in and around the victim’s bathroom. We have reason to believe Parker used the bathroom mirror as a visual aid in drawing the self-portraits. We have no reason to suspect that an accomplice was in fact the artist, while Parker posed, primarily because Parker signed each portrait several times.
  • Parker’s passport, driver’s license, and birth certificate were found in the drawer from which the diamond rings were taken.
  • Two copies of an autobiography titled, “Jon Parker, International Diamond Thief” were found on the victim’s dining-room table. The book-jacket design appeared to be a collage of Parker’s fingerprints.
  • Detective Hudson, upon searching the victim’s trash, found more than thirty pieces of crumpled paper on which Parker had been obsessively practicing his signature.
  • Parker had changed the victim’s answering machine message to say, “Hello, you have reached Jonathan Parker, but only for the time being. Don’t leave any messages for me here after 3:30, because I will be done stealing the diamonds by then. Thank you, and have a safe weekend.”
  • All of the photos on Parker’s Facebook page were of him stealing the diamonds.

Friday music

Glenn Gould @ Goldberg Variations

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Reading into Beck's madness...

I personally detest Glenn Beck. But when he says things like “Wall Street owns our government, our government and these gigantic corporations have merged”, he strikes a chord. This column argues that the chord being struck is not the racist one (as many liberals tend to dismiss him for), rather it is a more populist, anti-government chant that seems to be getting more followers. I am yet to sign on, but sometimes I have to admit that even Glenn makes sense (what other conclusion can one come to when one sees headlines like World changed, finance rules remain same post-Lehman). I guess New Zealand's Prime Minister, John Key, said it perfectly: "Six months ago, The Wall Street Journal came to interview me and asked me if capitalism was dead. Now Goldman Sachs is paying record bonuses."

“Wall Street owns our government,” Beck declared in one rant this July. “Our government and these gigantic corporations have merged.” He drew a chart to dramatize the revolving door between Washington and Goldman Sachs in both the Hank Paulson and Timothy Geithner Treasury departments. A couple of weeks later, Beck mockingly replaced the stars on the American flag with the logos of corporate giants like G.E., General Motors, Wal-Mart and Citigroup (as well as the right’s usual nemesis, the Service Employees International Union). Little of it would be out of place in a Matt Taibbi article in Rolling Stone. Or, we can assume, in Michael Moore’s coming film, “Capitalism: A Love Story,” which reportedly takes on Goldman and the Obama economic team along with conservative targets.
Unlike liberal critics of capitalist inequities, of course, Beck and his claque are driven by an over-the-top detestation of government. Washington is always the enemy, stealing their hard-earned money to redistribute it to the undeserving and shiftless poor (some of whom just happen to be immigrants or black). Though there is nothing Obama can do to stop racists from being racist, he could help stanch the economic piece of this by demonstrating how a reformed government can at times actually make Americans’ lives better. That’s what F.D.R. did, and that’s the promise Obama made, swaying some Republicans and even some racists, during the campaign.
Too many Americans are impatiently waiting for results. It’s hard to argue that the stimulus package reviled by big government-loathers is a success when unemployment continues to rise and most Americans feel none of the incipient “recovery” spotted by Ben Bernanke. The potential dividends to be gained at the end of the protracted health care debate also remain, for now, an abstraction to many who have lost and are continuing to lose their jobs, their savings and their homes.
Nor has Obama succeeded in persuading critics on the left or right that he will do as much for those Americans who are suffering as he has for the corporations his administration and his predecessor’s rushed to rescue. To mark the anniversary of Lehman’s fall, the president gave a speech on Wall Street last Monday again vowing reform. But everyone’s back to business as usual: The Wall Street Journal reported that not a single C.E.O. from a top bank attended. The speech sank with scant notice because there has been so little action to back it up and because its conciliatory stance was tone-deaf to the anger beyond the financial district.

Question time...

Maureen Dowd, an op-ed columnist for the Times asks an interesting question - Did the feminist revolution end up benefiting men more than women? Well, if one goes by the results of a recent survey, (that had tracked Americans’ mood since 1972) women are getting gloomier and men are getting happier. She has some cogent reasons...

When women stepped into male- dominated realms, they put more demands — and stress — on themselves. If they once judged themselves on looks, kids, hubbies, gardens and dinner parties, now they judge themselves on looks, kids, hubbies, gardens, dinner parties — and grad school, work, office deadlines and meshing a two-career marriage.
... The more important things that are crowded into their lives, the less attention women are able to give to each thing. Add this to the fact that women are hormonally more complicated and biologically more vulnerable. Women are much harder on themselves than men. They tend to attach to other people more strongly, beat themselves up more when they lose attachments, take things more personally at work and pop far more antidepressants.
...Another daunting thing: America is more youth and looks obsessed than ever, with an array of expensive cosmetic procedures that allow women to be their own Frankenstein Barbies. Men can age in an attractive way while women are expected to replicate — and Restylane — their 20s into their 60s. Buckingham says that greater prosperity has made men happier. And they are also relieved of bearing sole responsibility for their family finances, and no longer have the pressure of having women totally dependent on them. Men also tend to fare better romantically as time wears on. There are more widows than widowers, and men have an easier time getting younger mates.

'Old ideas crawling out of the woodwork' watch

From a new book on my favorite economist John Maynard Keynes by Robert Skidelsy. From the looks of it, it seems to be fashionable to now say that one is a Keynesian now. If only they did not listen to Mr. Greenspan and his Ayn Rand inspired drivel about the BS surrounding 'self correcting markets'.

“The root cause of the present crisis lies in the intellectual failure of economics, It was the wrong ideas of economists which legitimized the deregulation of finance, and it was the deregulation of finance which led to the credit explosion which collapsed into the credit crunch. It is hard to convey the harm done by the recent dominant school of New Classical economics. Rarely in history can such powerful minds have devoted themselves to such strange ideas.”

This is what a NYTimes review about the book said (the book must be made required reading for Wall Street aspirants)...

Mr. Skidelsky surveys the vast body of Keynes’s work. But he boils the thinking down to a few essential points. Central among them is that market economies are fundamentally uncertain; large shocks like the recent meltdown are not anomalies but normal if unpredictable events. Government should intervene in a crisis — as the Obama administration has since the fall of Lehman Brothers last year — supplying a judicious but firm hand on the tiller. Mr. Skidelsky is righteous in his thunder about how Keynes’s ideas have been spurned in recent decades. He scolds the free-market ethos of the Reagan and Thatcher eras as well as the thinking of anti-Keynesian New Classical economists. He does not entirely blame the usual suspects (banks, hedge funds, credit-rating agencies, the Fed) for the current crisis. He indicts laissez-faire philosophy.

POV on net neutrality...

On the argument that the Internet succeeded because of inherent regulation and not for the lack of it (coming on the heels of the net neutrality decision by the FCC is an interesting viewpoint). Well, guess who is against net neutrality - the Republicans...

As I've argued before, the Internet succeeded because of regulation. It's true, of course, that higher-layer content services (email, videos, browsing, etc.) have always been unregulated. But these services have traditionally relied upon an underlying regulated open access regime that allowed them to flourish.
To be grossly general, just imagine roads. The world today would be much different if the Ford Motor Company owned the interstate highways and could block Hondas from using it. In short, you could imagine a "closed" interstate highway system. But that's not how the interstates work. They're "open." Anyone can use them. Any "device" with wheels will work on them.
The Internet could have very easily evolved into a "closed" network, but it didn't. Instead, the Internet is open because we adopted policies in the 1960s and 70s that required it to be open (namely, we prevented AT&T from strangling it). The FCC today is merely protecting what has always been.
The point of confusion is that the Bush Administration -- an ongoing gift to the world -- adopted new legal labels for "the roads." In short, the Bush FCC started deregulating the physical transmission facilities by legally equating them with content services like Google.
In sum -- the Bush FCC expanded the definition of "the Internet" to include things that have always been regulated. The FCC today merely reaffirmed these traditional protections. And so it's only an "unprecedented" regulation if you ignore the entire history of the Internet.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Quotable (filed in the WTF section)

Now, conservatives are teaching us that young people who look at pictures of naked girls have a greater chance of becoming homosexuals in their adult life... Michael Schwartz, a longtime conservative activist explaining how any and all pornography could lead young people into homosexual lifestyles...

"Pornography is a blight, It is a disaster. It is one of those silent diseases in our society that we haven’t been able to overcome very well. Now, I may be getting politically incorrect here. And it’s been a few years, but not that many, since I was closely associated with pre-adolescent boys, boys around 10 years of age. But it is my observation that boys of that age have less tolerance for homosexuality than just about any other class of people. They speak badly about homosexuality. And that’s because they don’t want to be that way. They don’t want to fall into it.”

Last words

I noticed this article in Saturday's NY Times - these were the last words of inmates from Texas scheduled for execution... Maybe, this is common news, but Texas executes the most inmates amongst any state in the US. A selection of quotes...

Nothing I can say can change the past.

I am nervous and it is hard to put my thoughts together. Sometimes you don’t know what to say.

I have come here today to die, not make speeches.

I want to ask if it is in your heart to forgive me. You don’t have to.

I don’t think the world will be a better or safer place without me.

I want to tell my mom that I love her.

They may execute me but they can’t punish me because they can’t execute an innocent man.

I said I was going to tell a joke. Death has set me free. That’s the biggest joke.

To my sweet Claudia, I love you.

I love you, Irene.

Let my son know I love him.

All my life I have been locked up.

I’m ready, Warden.

Copyright copyleft...

Are the days of the nasi lemak numbered here in the United States?

Malaysia is starting a food fight with other countries to win bragging rights for producing some of Southeast Asia's most beloved recipes, including chili crabs and coconut cream rice, a news report said Thursday. "We cannot continue to let other countries hijack our food," The Star newspaper quoted Tourism Minister Ng Yen Yen as saying while launching a campaign to promote the country's cuisine. The ministry is identifying signature recipes that it will declare as Malaysian, Ng said. She did not reveal how the government might counter others who claim ownership of those dishes, but added that details of its strategy will be announced later. "Chili crab is Malaysian. Hainanese chicken rice is Malaysian. We have to lay claim to our food," Ng said. She mentioned other favourites such as "nasi lemak," which is rice soaked with coconut cream, "laksa," a spicy noodle soup, and "bak kut teh," an ethnic Chinese pork rib stew.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


Great kissing pictures here.

The art of Isaiah Zagar. More here.

Repairing Brindavan through erotica here.

New health care bill in one sentence - "Age will now substitute for preexisting medical condition'.

Baucus's recently unveiled health care legislation is a piece of crap - here is why...

The good parts first:

  • The bill will require everybody to carry health insurance - good thing (if you do not have Medicare, Medicaid or a policy your employer, the law will say that you will need to go out and buy a policy)
  • If you does not buy the insurance, then there is a penalty ($3800 and upwards - adjusted based on your income)
  • In exchange, the insurance company will be required to give everyone a policy even if they are very sick or have a pre-existing condition.

Here comes the kick in the butt.

  • Even if you will be able to buy a policy, it really does not mean that the policy will be affordable. With the public option taken out of the bill, a government run insurance entity is out of question - which means that health care insurance companies (euphemistically dubbed not for profit health-care co-ops) can basically charge what they want…
  • Of course, these co-ops got a sweet deal – in a little noticed caveat called 'age rating', older people will now start to pay up to 5 times more per policy than younger people.
  • In effect, Baucus and his cohorts (not too sure at this point who they are) have essentially replaced one ill with another. Instead of looking at your medical condition and deciding upon your premiums, they are going to penalize all older people regardless of medical condition or not. In retrospect, it seems that the scenario where insurance companies looking for pre-existing medical condition seemed better - at least older people without any major medical conditions were not penalized for being old…

Looking at the bigger picture, this is just one more of the many insults that a society which basically glorifies 'youth' piles on the old people - just the way America works - glorify the young and screw the old. Anyways, the old are not too productive in the grand machinery of capitalism and bottom-line based economics - so why bother.

Trudy Lieberman, contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review led me to think about the issues above while listening to her on NPR…

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A recent morning

Sunrise over NY harbor, Morning of 9th September, 2009


Are rich people the ones who work the hardest? An essay reviewing two books on Ayn Rand's (personally, I detest her) philosophy has ideas...

Let us begin with the premise that wealth represents a sign of personal virtue--thrift, hard work, and the rest--and poverty the lack thereof. Many Republicans consider the link between income and the work ethic so self-evident that they use the terms "rich" and "hard-working" interchangeably, and likewise "poor" and "lazy." The conservative pundit Dick Morris accuses Obama of "rewarding failure and penalizing hard work" through his tax plan. His comrade Bill O’Reilly complains that progressive taxation benefits "folks who dropped out of school, who are too lazy to hold a job, who smoke reefers 24/7."
A related complaint against redistribution holds that the rich earn their higher pay because of their nonstop devotion to office work--a grueling marathon of meetings and emails that makes the working life of the typical nine-to-five middle-class drone a vacation by comparison. "People just don’t get it. I’m attached to my BlackBerry," complained one Wall Streeter to Sherman. "I get calls at two in the morning, when the market moves. That costs money.”
Now, it is certainly true that working hard can increase one’s chances of growing rich. It does not necessarily follow, however, that the rich work harder than the poor. Indeed, there are many ways in which the poor work harder than the rich. As the economist Daniel Hamermesh discovered, low-income workers are more likely to work the night shift and more prone to suffering workplace injuries than high-income workers. White-collar workers put in those longer hours because their jobs are not physically exhausting. Few titans of finance would care to trade their fifteen-hour day sitting in a mesh chair working out complex problems behind a computer for an eight-hour day on their feet behind a sales counter.

... Is income really a measure of productivity? Of course not. Consider your own profession. Do your colleagues who demonstrate the greatest skill unfailingly earn the most money, and those with the most meager skill the least money? I certainly cannot say that of my profession. Nor do I know anybody who would say that of his own line of work. Most of us perceive a world with its share of overpaid incompetents and underpaid talents. Which is to say, we rightly reject the notion of the market as the perfect gauge of social value.
Now assume that this principle were to apply not only within a profession--that a dentist earning $200,000 a year must be contributing exactly twice as much to society as a dentist earning $100,000 a year--but also between professions. Then you are left with the assertion that Donald Trump contributes more to society than a thousand teachers, nurses, or police officers. It is Wall Street, of course, that offers the ultimate rebuttal of the assumption that the market determines social value. An enormous proportion of upper-income growth over the last twenty-five years accrued to an industry that created massive negative social value--enriching itself through the creation of a massive bubble, the deflation of which has brought about worldwide suffering.
If one’s income reflects one’s contribution to society, then why has the distribution of income changed so radically over the last three decades?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


OK, Fastflip is an innovation... Good going, Google... another nail in the coffin of print media - I suppose.

A favorite remains - fastflipping BBC...

Private thought: This is perfect for an era where taking time out to think/analyze might be classified as under anachronism...

A new Moore's law...

Michael Moore's rant (a coherent one too) on newspapers, capitalism and loyalties...

“Two main things I want to say: Why aren’t the newspapers in Europe going under? It’s not that newspapers in Europe are having an easy time—again, we’re in an economic recession that’s worldwide, but why aren’t they going under? The American newspapers, oh they say ‘It’s the Internet. Papers are getting killed by the Internet.’ Last I’ve heard they’ve got the Internet in Europe. And they’ve got the Internet in Japan. So why aren’t their papers folding like ours are going under? European, Japanese, other countries many, most, of their newspapers, the primary source of their funding is circulation. Advertising is second. In our country, advertising is the primary source of funding, circulation is second. Anything you say that the people who read your newspaper are secondary to the business community you’ve lost, eventually you’re not going to survive at that point when you’re primary concern is the advertiser. In Europe, they know in order to keep circulation up they better put out a damn good newspaper. They better put out something that people read, and they better not cut too many reporters because if certain beats aren’t being covered, people aren’t going to read the paper.

Perfect pitch

This bloggers comment was spot-on after I heard news that a 12 year old Yemeni girl who was forced into a marriage with a 24 year old man bled to death during the course of her first chidbirth - the child died too..

The father, of course, experienced no discomfort, and is ready to receive consolation for his loss. He's probably looking for a new wife, too. Maybe he'll see the problem with child-raping, though, and will pick one who is a little mature. Like a thirteen year old.


Just ran into this screed. Non Resident Indians will not be too happy...

Leaving India was an idea assiduously nurtured if you were audacious and ambitious. The grass, it was known, was far greener in the West. There, despite the social and racial disdain an immigrant was subjected to, you could make it with hard work and some enterprise. In the social milieu of the West, the expatriate Indian counted for very little. Barring the odd exception, he could never make it to the inside track of the power structure. But he ensured for himself a relatively decent standard of living. True it was a life minus servants, but it was also minus the hassles of unending shortages, petty corruption and telephones that worked erratically.
It wasn’t merely the Green Card and, ultimately, the coveted blue American or red British passport that made the NRI feel more superior. It mattered to him that his superiority was recognised and acknowledged at home. Despite not being there for 11 months in the year, the NRI became the centre of attraction in the family. He was fawned upon when he came home to India; his pronouncements were heard with awe and reverence; and he was flattered by banks and governments into parting with his few surplus dollars, in exchange for extraordinary benefits denied to rupee earners.
... The average (Non Resident Indian) NRI’s fall from grace in India has been precipitate. The vacuous condescension that marked earlier attitudes has been replaced by desperation to find some accommodation somewhere. The big NRI players have no problem — they have seen their social worth in the West keep pace with India’s soaring reputation as a rising power. But the small fish whose tie and a twang once enabled him to lord over his less fortunate brethren in India has seen envy replaced with disinterest.
To the NRI confronted with a precarious descent into obscurity, there is only a small solace: interventions on the net. Taking advantage of a more connected world, the professional NRI (who knows no other identity) has stepped up his battles to cast India in his own confused image. No Indian website is free from the voluminous but pernicious comments of the know-all, ultra-nationalist NRI banging away on the computer in splendid isolation. From being India’s would-be benefactors, the meddlesome NRI has become an intellectual nuisance, derailing civil discourse with his paranoia and pseudo-superiority. It’s time he was royally ignored.

Novel ideas in proselytizing

From bare-chested jujitsu fighters to tattoo parlors, evangelical churches are trying hard...

The atmosphere was electric at Reborn in Christ Church on “Extreme Fight” night. Churchgoers dressed in jeans and sneakers, many with ball caps turned backward, lined a makeshift boxing ring to cheer on bare-chested jujitsu fighters.
The church, whose name means snowball in Portuguese, was founded 10 years ago by avid surfers. It now claims some 100 chapters and has thousands of members. They screamed when a fan favorite, Fabio Buca, outlasted his opponent after several minutes. They went wild when Pastor Dogão Meira, 26, took his man down, pinning him with an armlock just 10 seconds into the fight.
... Reborn in Christ is among a growing number of evangelical churches in Brazil that are finding ways to connect with younger people to swell their ranks. From fight nights to reggae music to video games and on-site tattoo parlors, the churches have helped make evangelicalism the fastest-growing spiritual movement in Brazil.
...Amid the youth movement, Reborn in Christ has suffered its share of controversy. The church’s leaders, Estevam and Sônia Hernandes, returned to Brazil last month after serving several months in an American prison for trying to smuggle more than $56,000 into the United States, including $9,000 concealed in a Bible. They still face fraud, larceny, tax evasion and money laundering charges in Brazil.

Tuesday music

Reading a newspaper, I saw a picture of birds on the electric wires. I cut out the photo and decided to make a song, using the exact location of the birds as notes (no Photoshop edit). I knew it wasn't the most original idea in the universe. I was just curious to hear what melody the birds were creating.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Monday photo

Photo shows an Isreali settler tossing wine at a Palestinian woman on Shuhada Street in Hebron. The approach of some settlers towards neighboring Palestinians, especially around Nablus in the north and Hebron in the south, has often been one of contempt and violence.

From here. There are 300,000 settlers in the West Bank (another 200,000 Israeli Jews live in East Jerusalem) and they are not monolithic. A third are politically and socially indistinguishable from most of Israel and moved there for suburban-style housing and close-knit communities. Another third are ultra-Orthodox and do not consider themselves settlers or Zionists, wanting only to live together in an appropriate environment somewhere in Israel.
The remaining 100,000 are ideologically (and, most of them, religiously) committed to staying. They have a fairly uniform view of the situation: most believe that there is no such thing as a Palestinian nation; that if the world wants a state for Palestinians, it should set it up next door in Jordan; that all of the West Bank, which they call by the biblical name Judea and Samaria, is a central part of the Jewish homeland; and that Arabs will do everything they can to destroy Israel in any borders, so staying in the West Bank is a matter not only of history but of security.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

America's Republican party today...

If you have been waiting to see how the Republican party have been doing of late, look no further - this collection of photos says it just right....

Friday, September 11, 2009


Two months before the fall of the Berlin Wall (late 1989), Margaret Thatcher tells President Gorbachev that neither Britain nor Western Europe wanted the reunification of Germany.

The reunification of Germany is not in the interests of Britain and Western Europe. It might look different from public pronouncements, in official communiqué at Nato meetings, but it is not worth paying ones attention to it. We do not want a united Germany. This would have led to a change to post-war borders and we can not allow that because such development would undermine the stability of the whole international situation and could endanger our security.
In the same way, a destabilisation of Eastern Europe and breakdown of the Warsaw Pact are also not in our interests. Of course, internal changes are happening in all Eastern European countries, somewhere they are deeper than in others. However, we would prefer if those processes were entirely internal, we would not interfere in them or push the de-communisation of Eastern Europe. I can say that the President of the United States is of the same position. He sent me a telegram to Tokyo in which he asked me directly to tell you that the United States would not do anything that might put at risk the security of the Soviet Union or perceived by the Soviet society as danger. I am fulfilling his request.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


From Democracy In America by Alexis de Tocqueville...

I accost an American sailor and inquire why the ships of his country are built so as to last for only a short time, he answers without hesitation that the art of navigation is every day making such rapid progress that the finest vessel would become almost useless if it lasted beyond a few years. In these words, which fell accidentally, and on a particular subject, from an uninstructed man, I recognize the general and systematic idea upon which a great people direct all their concerns. Aristocratic nations are naturally too liable to narrow the scope of human perfectibility; democratic nations, to expand it beyond reason.

... When the citizens of a community are classed according to rank, profession, or birth and when all men are forced to follow the career which chance has opened before them, everyone thinks that the utmost limits of human power are to be discerned in proximity to himself, and no one seeks any longer to resist the inevitable law of his destiny. Not, indeed, that an aristocratic people absolutely deny man's faculty of self-improvement, but they do not hold it to be indefinite; they can conceive amelioration, but not change: they imagine that the future condition of society may be better, but not essentially different; and, while they admit that humanity has made progress and may still have some to make, they assign to it beforehand certain impassable limits.
Thus they do not presume that they have arrived at the supreme good or at absolute truth (what people or what man was ever wild enough to imagine it? ), but they cherish an opinion that they have pretty nearly reached that degree of greatness and knowledge which our imperfect nature admits of; and as nothing moves about them, they are willing to fancy that everything is in its fit place. Then it is that the legislator affects to lay down eternal laws; that kings and nations will raise none but imperishable monuments; and that the present generation undertakes to spare generations to come the care of regulating their destinies.
In proportion as castes disappear and the classes of society draw together, as manners, customs, and laws vary, because of the tumultuous intercourse of men, as new facts arise, as new truths are brought to light, as ancient opinions are dissipated and others take their place, the image of an ideal but always fugitive perfection presents itself to the human mind. Continual changes are then every instant occurring under the observation of every man; the position of some is rendered worse, and he learns but too well that no people and no individual, however enlightened they may be, can lay claim to infallibility; the condition of others is improved, whence he infers that man is endowed with an indefinite faculty for improvement. His reverses teach him that none have discovered absolute good; his success stimulates him to the never ending pursuit of it. Thus, forever seeking, forever falling to rise again, often disappointed, but not discouraged, he tends unceasingly towards that unmeasured greatness so indistinctly visible at the end of the long track which humanity has yet to tread.

Sign o' the times...

A new use for Facebook...

Australian authorities said two girls lost in a drainage well system used their phones to update their Facebook statuses instead of calling police. Glenn Benham, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Fire Service in Adelaide, said the girls, ages 10 and 12, posted Facebook updates saying they were lost in a storm drain in the city's south suburbs and a friend who noticed the updates called police, Britain's The Daily Telegraph reported Tuesday.

Message mashups

Yesterday, Obama was heckled at a very important health care reform speech. At one point he was called a liar by a Republican congressman (of course, what else might one expect from that party?)... Kos posts a hypothetical evolution of how the Republicans might twist an apparent disadvantage to benefit themselves... They had done this before (Swift boat, death panels, Jeremiah Wright etc...).

Ezra Klein
Joe Wilson’s “you lie” comment might be a great boon to the Democrats in their bid to pass health care.


Michael Scherer (
Joes Wilson broke decorum when he screamed “you lie” which may come back to hurt Republicans. Obama stared back at him and you could seem him twitch.


Rush Limbaugh
And ladies and gentlemen Mr. Obama was calling Mr. Wilson a liar so he had to respond. Did you see the way that Obama twitched? Ladies and gentlemen that’s the type of twitch you see from the type of man Obama is (unsaid: Black) when he’s ready for a barroom fight or to push you aside and ravage your sister. We’ve all seen that twitch before and we’ve all known what it means.


Breaking Headline: Obama twitch is seen as a challenge not only to Wilson but anybody who disagrees with him. Obama wants a barroom fight – and watch your sister.


“The Twitch” – major backlash on Obama’s response to Joe Wilson’s comment – while Wilson is nothing more than a back bencher, Obama raised his stature by using body language to make what feels like to a lot of people a direct threat, to Wilson, the Republicans and their sisters.


Fox News
We are spending all day discussing “The Twitch,” which is getting people really riled up in the real America (show signs of teabaggers carrying signs saying “Don’t Twitch on Me!”) We have noted body language psychologist Dr. Kraz Y. Town to talk about it.
Town: Yes, I want to show you these pictures of Hitler speaking at Nuremberg. You see the same type of twitch.


Sarah Palin (Twitter)
Don’t “Twitch on Me” buddy. I’ve seen that Twitch before and I know to get out of the room fast or I’m going to wind up with a black eye or pregnant


George Will
The first thing a president must have is decorum. You would never see Ronald Reagan twitch like that, make that type of unabashed challenge to a lowly backbencher. Mr. Obama has done himself and his country a disservice.


David Broder
While I understand that the comment was inappropriate all eyes were on Obama and not Joe Wilson. Obama broke comity and destroyed bipartisanship with that twitch. This is our town Mr. Obama and we don’t appreciate you twitching in it.


Chris Mathews
Mathews: Hi, this is Chris Mathews on Hardball. We’re going to be talking about “The Twitch” with a Democratic consultant. Didn’t Obama make a real mistake with that Twitch?
Democratic Consultant: Well, I’ll admit it wasn’t Obama’s best moment, but he was doing it in response to a comment.
Mathews: Come on Joe Wilson is a nothing, a nobody, and hey, we all know what that twitch means. I’m a lunch bucket kind of guy, I’ve been in bars, I have a sister.
Democratic Consultant: Well we need to admit Obama made a mistake with the Twitch and try and move on and pass health care.


Michael Scherer
Obama’s Twitch is causing him enormous trouble. It’s hard to believe this type of blowback. How did the White House lose control of an issue that should have played in their favor?


Ezra Klein
As idiotic as the twitch is, it looks like it is going to doom the public option

Thursday Photo

From among images taken after first observations made by the new Wide Field Camera 3 aboard the recently serviced NASA Hubble Space Telescope.

Image shows stellar gas jets in the Carina Nebula. These are what could be called “pillars of creation” that show stars being born inside gas columns. Stellar jets like these are a common signature of the birth of a new star. This nebula is an estimated 7,500 light-years away in the southern constellation Carina the Keel (of the old southern constellation Argo Navis, the ship of Jason and the Argonauts, from Greek mythology).

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

When we play god.

Yes, this is an old video, but I finally decided to watch a little bit and all I could think of was 'when we play god'... Also, for some reason I was reminded of an old video by Pink Floyd...


Tuesday, September 08, 2009


Definitions of the word 'work' from Schotts... I found some keepers in the comments section...

  • “These days, it’s simply pre-unemployment activity.”
  • “I have yet to discern a difference between ‘working from home’ and ‘sleeping at the office.’”
  • “Work is the one thing your boss never seems to see you doing.”
  • “Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else.”
  • "Work is for people who lacked the foresight to be born wealthy."
  • "Work is the dread you begin to feel around 3:00 pm on Sunday."

A ditty too...

When Adam fell we all were cursed
With jobs that always do come first.
No more the lion and the lamb;
Now we fight the traffic jam.
Beating plowshares into cars,
Skipping lunch for candy bars.
Meeting deadlines, conference calls,
Power Point, strange toilet stalls.
Jet lag, ergonomic stress,
Change your tie and clean your dress.
Polish shoes until they gleam,
Take one for the office team.
Then retire, and find out
Pension plans are in a route.
Adam, you old S O B,
Couldn’t you find another tree?


President Obama's speech to our school children has some important messages for our children...

When I was young, my family lived in Indonesia for a few years, and my mother didn’t have the money to send me where all the American kids went to school. So she decided to teach me extra lessons herself, Monday through Friday – at 4:30 in the morning.
Now I wasn’t too happy about getting up that early. A lot of times, I’d fall asleep right there at the kitchen table. But whenever I’d complain, my mother would just give me one of those looks and say, "This is no picnic for me either, buster."
I know that sometimes, you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work -- that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball or being a reality TV star, when chances are, you’re not going to be any of those things.
But the truth is, being successful is hard. You won’t love every subject you study. You won’t click with every teacher. Not every homework assignment will seem completely relevant to your life right this minute. And you won’t necessarily succeed at everything the first time you try.
That’s OK. Some of the most successful people in the world are the ones who’ve had the most failures. JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected twelve times before it was finally published. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, and he lost hundreds of games and missed thousands of shots during his career. But he once said, "I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."
It shows how out of touch the Republicans are when they branded this speech as socialist propaganda... Sometimes, I wonder if the Republicans really care about this country...

Monday, September 07, 2009

Annals of capitalism...

On why we need a garment district in Manhattan (or a clothes making district) and elsewhere...

It’s fair to ask why we still need a garment district. But even in the Internet era, proximity offers many advantages. Designers are able to work alongside manufacturers. We can stop by factories to inspect garments, change the fit or correct the sewing. Manufacturing locally, as opposed to overseas, allows us to quickly increase or decrease production, depending on what customers want, and is the only affordable option for young designers with limited resources working on a small scale. More important, in close quarters a mutual respect develops across the chain of production. The people who make the clothes are as passionate as the designers. Both vision and execution benefit from this relationship, and that’s why we do 85 percent of our manufacturing within five blocks of our 35th Street office.
The city once recognized these benefits, and that’s why it passed a zoning law limiting the conversion of the area’s factory space to offices in 1987, in an effort to keep garment makers from being priced out (something that had been going on since the district’s mid-century heyday.) But the city stopped enforcing the law in 1993, and although the Bloomberg administration devoted some new funds to enforcement in 2005, it simultaneously weakened the zoning restrictions. It’s easy to see that many landlords still get away with breaking the rules, and we’ve heard of only one landlord ever getting prosecuted. So floor by floor over the years, manufacturing space has been quietly diverted to other uses, and manufacturing jobs have moved overseas. The city’s proposed exchange offers garment manufacturers 280,000 square feet in exchange for freeing the rest of the district from the zoning restrictions, but this is far less space than is needed. Currently apparel manufacturing occupies 16 percent of the area, or more than a million square feet.

From the 'Can you believe this' department....

Smoking and capitalism....

It didn’t take long for tobacco companies to try to evade tough new restrictions on their ability to market to young people. Less than three months after a landmark federal law granted the Food and Drug Administration power to regulate tobacco products, several of the industry’s biggest companies filed suit in tobacco-friendly Kentucky. They contend that the law’s marketing provisions infringe their commercial free-speech rights. For the sake of the public’s health, we hope this suit is the last gasp of an industry that has a long, sorry history of pretending to market only to adults while surreptitiously targeting young people. The industry is not trying to upend the entire law or the government’s right to regulate cigarette contents. Rather, it seeks to block restrictions that would greatly limit how and where it can advertise.
The law, for example, bans the use of color or graphic images in advertisements placed in magazines that reach a significant number of people under the age of 18 even though the primary audience might be adults. Ads in those magazines would have to consist of black text on a white background. The lawsuit contends that People magazine, Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine, all read predominantly by adults, would be limited to black-and-white tobacco ads. Under another provision, cigarette packages would have to carry much larger warnings than the current labels and would have to use color graphics to depict the health consequences of smoking. The law also prohibits advertising that products carry a lower risk than traditional cigarettes without F.D.A. approval, a provision aimed at ensuring that such claims are scientifically valid not only for individual smokers but also for the population as a whole, including nonsmokers who might be enticed to smoke if they thought a cigarette was low-risk. The industry contends that these and other restrictions limit its ability to convey “truthful information” about a lawful product to adult consumers, not just to young people. Antismoking advocates retort that the companies can convey their information in black and white without using colorful images that have a strong emotional resonance with young people.
To uphold the law, the courts would have to decide that all of these provisions are “narrowly tailored” to the goal of reducing youth smoking, one of the tests of constitutionality. In 2001 the Supreme Court overturned rules in Massachusetts prohibiting outdoor advertising of tobacco products within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds because, while aimed at protecting children, the restrictions interfered unduly with messages aimed at adults. The new law revises provisions on outdoor advertising to meet the objections raised in that case. They would not prohibit ads in retail store windows near schools and playgrounds, for example, so that adult passers-by would know tobacco products were on sale inside.
And just in case more changes are thought necessary, the law instructs the F.D.A. to modify its rules before issuing them to comply with the Massachusetts decision and other governing First Amendment cases. On public health grounds, the tobacco industry does not deserve much latitude to promote its deadly products with colorful images, as opposed to black-and-white text. In a 2006 opinion based on company documents, Federal District Judge Gladys Kessler found that tobacco companies had marketed to young people “while consistently, publicly, and falsely, denying they do so.” Now, the courts must decide how much this rogue industry may be restrained. The health of millions of impressionable young people rides on the outcome.

Monday song

(Sufi, Fateh Ali Khan, European blending... )

Lecture break...

Yet another interesting TED video - this time a little off topic... titled "10 Things You Didn’t Know About Orgasm".

Sunday, September 06, 2009

The vultures are at it again - this time preying on the old, ill and the elderly

After Wall Street managed to bilk low and middle income people out of their homes, lives and mortgages they have found a new source of revenue - securitizing the life insurance policies of old, ill and infirm people. Get this - the element of risk in this whole scheme - the dangerous possibility that people might live longer... Leading the pack are the usual suspect - Goldman Sachs and company...

The bankers plan to buy “life settlements,” life insurance policies that ill and elderly people sell for cash — $400,000 for a $1 million policy, say, depending on the life expectancy of the insured person. Then they plan to “securitize” these policies, in Wall Street jargon, by packaging hundreds or thousands together into bonds. They will then resell those bonds to investors, like big pension funds, who will receive the payouts when people with the insurance die. The earlier the policyholder dies, the bigger the return — though if people live longer than expected, investors could get poor returns or even lose money. Either way, Wall Street would profit by pocketing sizable fees for creating the bonds, reselling them and subsequently trading them. But some who have studied life settlements warn that insurers might have to raise premiums in the short term if they end up having to pay out more death claims than they had anticipated.
Goldman Sachs has developed a tradable index of life settlements, enabling investors to bet on whether people will live longer than expected or die sooner than planned. The index is similar to tradable stock market indices that allow investors to bet on the overall direction of the market without buying stocks.
... In many ways, banks are seeking to replicate the model of subprime mortgage securities, which became popular after ratings agencies bestowed on them the comfort of a top-tier, triple-A rating. An individual mortgage to a home buyer with poor credit might have been considered risky, because of the possibility of default; but packaging lots of mortgages together limited risk, the theory went, because it was unlikely many would default at the same time. While that idea was, in retrospect, badly flawed, Wall Street is convinced that it can solve the risk riddle with securitized life settlement policies. That is why bankers from Credit Suisse and Goldman Sachs have been visiting DBRS, a little known rating agency in lower Manhattan.

Friday, September 04, 2009


On the brouhaha surrounding a recent picture showing a dying US marine...

What it does is show — in a very unequivocal and direct fashion — are the real consequences of war, involving in this case a U.S. Marine, and that becomes very personal and very direct in some way, because we have a name, we have a home town, we have a shared nationality and we have, to a certain extent, a shared culture and some common values. So I think it really becomes a very immediate visual record of warfare that, in and of itself, is compelling, and that becomes more compelling because of its rarity. - Santiago Lyon, the director of photography at the A.P.
Why should this be a rarity when over 4300 human beings like this have died in Iraq and over 800 human beings have died in Afghanistan?

From the "Wow, this could happen too!!!" department...

C'mon. all Texans can't be that bad... They have brighter sides too...

Thomas McGowan's journey from prison to prosperity is about to culminate in $1.8 million, and he knows just how to spend it: on a house with three bedrooms, stainless steel kitchen appliances and a washer and dryer. "I'll let my girlfriend pick out the rest," said McGowan, who was exonerated last year based on DNA evidence after spending nearly 23 years in prison for rape and robbery. He and other exonerees in Texas, which leads the nation in freeing the wrongly convicted, soon will become instant millionaires under a new state law that took effect this week. Exonerees will get $80,000 for each year they spent behind bars. The compensation also includes lifetime annuity payments that for most of the wrongly convicted are worth between $40,000 and $50,000 a year — making it by far the nation's most generous package.

More here.


A different take on vacations...

It's almost Labor Day, which means that many of us are about to engage in the great American ritual of sitting in traffic on the way to a large body of water. I insist on going somewhere every year, which means that every year I wonder if a crowded beach is really worth six hours on a crowded highway.
This year, however, my journey has a scientific justification. When my wife looks at me in frustration after yet another crappy fast food meal consumed in the parking lot of a rest stop, here's what I'm going to say: vacation has important psychological benefits. This tedious drive is necessary - not for me, but for my brain.
Look, for instance, at a recent experiment led by the psychologist Lile Jia at the Indiana University at Bloomington. He randomly divided a few dozen undergrads into two groups, both of which were asked to list as many different modes of transportation as possible. (This is known as a creative generation task.) One group of students was told that the task was developed by Indiana University students studying abroad in Greece (the distant condition), while the other group was told that the task was developed by Indiana students studying in Indiana (the near condition). At first glance, it’s hard to believe that such a slight and seemingly irrelevant difference would alter the performance of the subjects. Why would it matter where the task was invented?
Nevertheless, Jia found a striking difference between the two groups: when students were told that the task was imported from Greece, they came up with significantly more transportation possibilities. Because the source of the problem was far away, the subjects felt less constrained by their local transport options; they didn’t just think about getting around in Indiana, they thought about getting around all over the world, and even in deep space.

More here.

Friday song

On our imperfect world...

Time op-ed contributer Krugman predicts a new order in economics discussions that ought to happen in our universities...

Economics, as a field, got in trouble because economists were seduced by the vision of a perfect, frictionless market system. If the profession is to redeem itself, it will have to reconcile itself to a less alluring vision — that of a market economy that has many virtues but that is also shot through with flaws and frictions. The good news is that we don’t have to start from scratch. Even during the heyday of perfect-market economics, there was a lot of work done on the ways in which the real economy deviated from the theoretical ideal. What’s probably going to happen now — in fact, it’s already happening — is that flaws-and-frictions economics will move from the periphery of economic analysis to its center.
There’s already a fairly well developed example of the kind of economics I have in mind: the school of thought known as behavioral finance. Practitioners of this approach emphasize two things. First, many real-world investors bear little resemblance to the cool calculators of efficient-market theory: they’re all too subject to herd behavior, to bouts of irrational exuberance and unwarranted panic. Second, even those who try to base their decisions on cool calculation often find that they can’t, that problems of trust, credibility and limited collateral force them to run with the herd.
...So here’s what I think economists have to do. First, they have to face up to the inconvenient reality that financial markets fall far short of perfection, that they are subject to extraordinary delusions and the madness of crowds. Second, they have to admit — and this will be very hard for the people who giggled and whispered over Keynes — that Keynesian economics remains the best framework we have for making sense of recessions and depressions. Third, they’ll have to do their best to incorporate the realities of finance into macroeconomics.
Many economists will find these changes deeply disturbing. It will be a long time, if ever, before the new, more realistic approaches to finance and macroeconomics offer the same kind of clarity, completeness and sheer beauty that characterizes the full neoclassical approach. To some economists that will be a reason to cling to neoclassicism, despite its utter failure to make sense of the greatest economic crisis in three generations. This seems, however, like a good time to recall the words of H. L. Mencken: “There is always an easy solution to every human problem — neat, plausible and wrong.”

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Subtexts in cellphone karma

Is spotty cellphone service something that we will all have to live with in the future?

... the iPhone is really the Hummer of cellphones. It’s a data guzzler. Owners use them like minicomputers, which they are, and use them a lot. Not only do iPhone owners download applications, stream music and videos and browse the Web at higher rates than the average smartphone user, but the average iPhone owner can also use 10 times the network capacity used by the average smartphone user. ... The result is dropped calls, spotty service, delayed text and voice messages and glacial download speeds as AT&T’s cellular network strains to meet the demand. Another result is outraged customers.
Cellphone owners using other carriers may gloat now, but the problems of AT&T and the iPhone portend their future. Other networks could be stressed as well as more sophisticated phones encouraging such intense use become popular, analysts say.

Getting to the red planet - an idea...

This idea builds upon the inherent urge on the part of the human species to explore the unknown and if necessary give up their lives in the quest - characteristics that were in vogue a couple of hundred years back but terribly out of fashion now... (outlandish yet possible).

To put a human on Mars within the lifetime of America’s current generation, only one scheme is feasible, and this feasible concept challenges our traditional thinking about risk and the value of life. The mission must be a one-way trip. It’s possible that the crew might consist of only one person. For the first manned landing on Mars, there can be no provision for the space traveler to return to Earth. We should call such a solo mission the “Spirit of the Lone Eagle” in honor of Charles Lindbergh, the original “Lone Eagle” who flew solo across the Atlantic. The manned Mars mission (which could be arranged to occur in 2017, just 90 years after Lindbergh’s famous flight) will require a person of special ability who can accept a great challenge.
Return to Earth from the Martian surface is a daunting technical problem for which current technology offers no obvious solution. Realistically, there aren’t even any schemes based on futuristic technology that are likely to be perfected within the next 20 years. When we eliminate the need to launch off Mars, we remove the mission’s most daunting obstacle. Huge engineering challenges remain, but without a Mars launch, we can reasonably expect to devise a program that may be accomplished within the scope of current technology.
...The first human mission to Mars might even consist of a male/female team. Such a privileged couple would follow in the tradition of creation stories common to many human religions. The historic (they might even become legendary) pair would repeat, on an interplanetary scale, the early migrations that populated our world. Precedence exists, since genetic studies suggest that some current populations descended from very tiny groups, perhaps only one family of adventurous travelers.

(For the more scientifically inclined, a fascinating video of launch/orbital mechanics here...)

Wednesday, September 02, 2009


Evening Skies, New York harbor on August 31 2009


I noticed the following headline in the Times this morning and thought there was something wrong with this picture, but after some second thoughts did not linger on it too much - it is just capitalism at work... Reminded me of a report I read recently which stated that the bulk of US aid apportioned to poor African countries gets spent in America servicing companies who 'administer' the aid and relief projects. Will dig up the source soon...

Contractors Outnumber U.S. Troops in Afghanistan

Civilian contractors working for the Pentagon in Afghanistan not only outnumber the uniformed troops, according to a report by a Congressional research group, but also form the highest ratio of contractors to military personnel recorded in any war in the history of the United States.