Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Painting Post

'Tandava', 67" (w) X 85" (h), oil on canvas

Ho Hum - it's about time...

Finally, the Hummer is dying!!
From here: Sales of Hummers over all have fallen so far — 51 percent last year, the worst drop in the industry — that General Motors is trying to find a buyer for the brand. Without one, the company might close Hummer.

Image from http://www.ihumpedyourhummer.com

Monday, March 30, 2009

Penitent poetry watch

It is indeed ironic that Douglas Feith, an arch neoconservative who had previously served as the Under Secretary of US Defense Policy under George W. Bush and additionally responsible for the assertion that there were definite ties between the Iraqi government and the Al Qaeda terrorist network is now quoting poetry from Pashto Sufi poet Rahman Baba (who must be shifting uncomfortably in his grave) in the op-ed page of the Times today.

Most recently, he is one of the six named individuals who are part of a criminal investigation by a Spanish Court for having violated international law by providing the legal framework to justify the torture of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Here is the poetry he quoted...

Sow flowers to make a garden bloom around you,
The thorns you sow will prick your own feet.

Arrows shot at others

Will return to hit you as they fall
.

You yourself will come to teeter on the lip

Of a well dug to undermine another.


Poetic indeed...

Photographs of three of Yale trained Tom Gregg's oil paintings taken on a recent visit to George Billis Gallery, Chelsea. For more of his great work and a background writeup, see here.

From the Lone Star Looney bin

The great state of Texas that gave us the honorable President George Bush and a renewed focus on teaching creationism to schoolchildren is insisting on staying in the news with their latest idea:

Texas Considers Allowing Guns on Campuses

Considering their recent offerings, I could see this fitting into their grand strategic policy planning roadmap!

Julian Schnabel, 'St Francis in Ecstasy', 96" X 84", oil, plates, wood and puttywood, 1980. Photograph from a recent visit to the Mary Boone Gallery showing 'Image Matter', an exhibition curated by Klaus Kertess.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Genes, environment and IQ

Explaining the environmental underpinnings behind disparities in average I.Q. between Americans of European and of African descent (from a book review of Intelligence and how to get it: Why Schools and Culture Count by Richard E. Nisbett).

Even if genes play some role in determining I.Q. differences within a population, which Nisbett grants, that implies nothing about average differences between populations. The classic example is corn seed planted on two plots of land, one with rich soil and the other with poor soil. Within each plot, differences in the height of the corn plants are completely genetic. Yet the average difference between the two plots is entirely environmental. Could the same logic explain the disparity in average I.Q. between Americans of European and of African descent? Nisbett thinks so. The racial I.Q. gap, he argues, is “purely environmental.” For one thing, it’s been shrinking: over the last 30 years, the measured I.Q. difference between black and white 12-year-olds has dropped from 15 points to 9.5 points. Among his more direct evidence, Nisbett cites impressive studies in population genetics. African-Americans have on average about 20 percent European genes, largely as a legacy of slavery. But the proportion of European genes ranges widely among individuals, from near zero to more than 80 percent. If the racial gap is mostly genetic, then blacks with more European genes ought to have higher I.Q.’s on average. In fact, they don’t. Nisbett is similarly skeptical that genetics could account for the intellectual prowess of Ashkenazi Jews, whose average I.Q. measures somewhere between 110 and 115. As for the alleged I.Q. superiority of East Asians over American whites, that turns out to be an artifact of sloppy comparisons; when I.Q. tests are properly normed, Americans actually score slightly higher than East Asians.
If I.Q. differences are indeed largely environmental, what might help eliminate group disparities? The most dramatic results come from adoption. When poor children are adopted by upper-middle-class families, they show an I.Q. gain of 12 to 16 points. Upper-class parents talk to their children more than working-class parents do. And there are subtler differences. In poorer black families, for example, children are rarely asked “known-answer questions” — that is, questions where the parents already know the right answer. (“What color is the elephant, Billy?”) Consequently, as Nisbett observes, the children are nonplussed by such questions at school. (“If the teacher doesn’t know this, then I sure don’t.”)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Cleaning up Wall Street Oligarchy

Interesting ideas from the Atlantic on cleaning up the detritus of large banks looming over on Wall Street.

Cleaning up the megabanks will be complex. And it will be expensive for the taxpayer; according to the latest IMF numbers, the cleanup of the banking system would probably cost close to $1.5trillion (or 10percent of our GDP) in the long term. But only decisive government action—exposing the full extent of the financial rot and restoring some set of banks to publicly verifiable health—can cure the financial sector as a whole. This may seem like strong medicine. But in fact, while necessary, it is insufficient. The second problem the U.S. faces—the power of the oligarchy—is just as important as the immediate crisis of lending. And the advice from the IMF on this front would again be simple: break the oligarchy. Oversize institutions disproportionately influence public policy; the major banks we have today draw much of their power from being too big to fail. Nationalization and re-privatization would not change that; while the replacement of the bank executives who got us into this crisis would be just and sensible, ultimately, the swapping-out of one set of powerful managers for another would change only the names of the oligarchs.
Ideally, big banks should be sold in medium-size pieces, divided regionally or by type of business. Where this proves impractical—since we’ll want to sell the banks quickly—they could be sold whole, but with the requirement of being broken up within a short time. Banks that remain in private hands should also be subject to size limitations. This may seem like a crude and arbitrary step, but it is the best way to limit the power of individual institutions in a sector that is essential to the economy as a whole. Of course, some people will complain about the “efficiency costs” of a more fragmented banking system, and these costs are real. But so are the costs when a bank that is too big to fail—a financial weapon of mass self-destruction—explodes. Anything that is too big to fail is too big to exist.
(via James Kwak of Baseline Scenario)

Whatever goes around comes around

From here: A high-level Spanish court has taken the first steps toward opening a criminal investigation against six former Bush administration officials, including former Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, on whether they violated international law by providing a legalistic framework to justify the use of torture of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, an official close to the case said.
... Judge Garzón, however, has built an international reputation by bringing high-profile cases against human rights violators as well as international terrorist networks like Al Qaeda. The arrest warrant for General Pinochet led to his detention in Britain, although he never faced a trial. The judge has also been outspoken about the treatment of detainees at Guantánamo Bay. Spain can claim jurisdiction in the case because five citizens or residents of Spain who were prisoners at Guantánamo Bay have said they were tortured there.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Quotable

"We go to zero emissions in this country, and if China doesn't follow us, we're nowhere. We've just ruined our economy, and we're nowhere. We make mistakes here, and we have a real problem. We talk about that we should lead, then people will follow, but that's kind of silly. China's not going to follow us because we're the United States. . . . You say, 'Shut down your plants' -- well, that's going to be a short conversation. They've got $2 trillion invested in their plants and they still aren't feeding all their people. If we were China, we wouldn't shut our plants down either." 
-- J. Wayne Leonard, chairman and CEO of Entergy Corp., one of the largest U.S. energy companies and the No. 2 generator of nuclear power. From here

3 pictures



Thursday, March 26, 2009

Religion and science fiction

The religious angles behind major science fiction movie productions:

There is a young man, different from other young men. Ancient prophecies foretell his coming, and he performs miraculous feats. Eventually, confronted by his enemies, he must sacrifice his own life—an act that saves mankind from calamity—but in a mystery as great as that of his origin, he is reborn, to preside in glory over a world redeemed. Tell this story to one of the world’s 2 billion Christians, and he’ll recognize it instantly. Tell it to a science-fiction and fantasy fan, and he’ll ask why you’re making minor alterations to the plot of The Matrix or Superman Returns. For reasons that have as much to do with global politics as with our cultural moment, some of this generation’s most successful sci-fi and fantasy movie franchises follow an essentially Christian plotline.

Quotable

Black historian John Hope Franklin died yesterday. The following quote from former slave Frederick Douglass is in order.

"In regard to the colored people, there is always more that is benevolent, I perceive, than just, manifested towards us. What I ask for the negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice. The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us... I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! ... And if the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! ... your interference is doing him positive injury." From Frederick Douglass' speech in Boston, Massachusetts on 26 January 1865
Group of "contrabands" photographed by James F. Gibson at Cumberland Landing, VA during May-August 1862. Photograph from the main eastern theater of war, The Peninsular Campaign. Picture ripped from the Library of Congress

From here on the word 'contraband' as applied to African American slaves: The federal government had a harder time deciding what to do about escaping slaves during the Civil War. Because there was no consistent federal policy regarding fugitives, individual commanders made their own decisions. Some put them to work for the Union forces; others wanted to return them to their owners. Finally, on August 6, 1861, fugitive slaves were declared to be "contraband of war" if their labor had been used to aid the Confederacy in any way. And if found to be contraband, they were declared free.

Thus Spake Sarahthustra - V

"So I'm looking around for somebody to pray with, I just need maybe a little help, maybe a little extra, and the McCain campaign, love 'em, you know, they're a lot of people around me, but nobody I could find that I wanted to hold hands with and pray." - Sarah Palin, the lipsticked pitbull 'speeching' in Anchorage last week.
More of her memorable quotes here, here and here.

Zeitgeist’s parlance

A new blog by Ben Schott exploring the vocabulary of current events. Below is the entry for 'corrective rape'. Other memorable ones include McSaint and Guo Jin Min Tui. Not sure how many of this will make it into the OED...

Corrective Rape:
The use of sexual assault to “cure” lesbians in South Africa. In a disturbing report entitled “Hate Crimes: the rise of corrective rape in South Africa,” the NGO Action Aid said: In South Africa, no woman is safe from violence. The country’s war against its women continues unabated, with an estimated 500,000 rapes, hundreds of murders and countless beatings inflicted every year. For every 25 men accused of rape in South Africa, 24 walk free. This shameful record has resulted in an increasingly brutal and oppressive culture of male violence, in which women are forced to conform or suffer the consequences. As part of this oppression, the country is now witnessing a backlash of crimes targeted specifically at lesbian women, who are perceived as representing a direct threat to a male-dominated society.
… Support groups say that rape is fast becoming the most widespread hate crime targeted against gay women in townships across South Africa. One lesbian and gay support group says it is dealing with 10 new cases of lesbian women being targeted for “corrective” rape every week in Cape Town alone.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Photo

‘We came from the place where the sun is hid at night, over great plains where the buffaloes live, until we reached the big river. There we fought the Alligewi, till the ground was red with their blood. From the banks of the big river to the shores of the salt lake, there was none to meet us. The Maquas followed at a distance. We said the country should be ours from the place where the water runs up no longer on this stream, to a river twenty sun’s journey toward the summer. We drove the Maquas into the woods with the bears. They only tasted salt at the licks; they drew no fish from the great lake; we threw them the bones.’ - from The Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper.

Note

Watching a documentary 10 trillion and counting on PBS last night, I was reminded of an essay on spiritual trusteeship by Eknath Easwaran in which the author hones in on an oft repeated but barely practiced refrain: "How will this affect our grandchildren?"

South African peace conference called off

Good.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Readings

"Mankind made a Faustian bargain as soon as he invented his first technologies, including the bow and arrow. It was then that human beings, instead of limiting their birth rate to keep their population in step with natural resources, decided instead to multiply unchecked. Then they increased the food supply to support this growth by manipulating those resources, inventing ever newer and more complex technologies to do so.... The end result of a totally efficient technological exploitation of Nature would be a lifeless desert: all natural capital would be exhausted, having been devoured by the mills of production, and the resulting debt to Nature would be infinite. But long before then, payback time will come for Mankind." - The Spirit of Earth Day Past talking about limits to our voracious consumptive practices to Scrooge 'Nouveau' McDuck (a postmodern Ayn Rand capitalist)
- from a book the is apt for the times - a discussion of debt titled Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by Margaret Atwood

Shameful testimonials

From standardized transfer procedures of detainees undergoing extraordinary rendition documented by the International Committee of the Red Cross:
From here: The detainee would be photographed, both clothed and naked prior to and again after transfer. A body cavity check (rectal examination) would be carried out and some detainees alleged that a suppository (the type and the effect of such suppositories was unknown by the detainees), was also administered at that moment. The detainee would be made to wear a diaper and dressed in a tracksuit. Earphones would be placed over his ears, through which music would sometimes be played. He would be blindfolded with at least a cloth tied around the head and black goggles. In addition, some detainees alleged that cotton wool was also taped over their eyes prior to the blindfold and goggles being applied.... The detainee would be shackled by [the] hands and feet and transported to the airport by road and loaded onto a plane. He would usually be transported in a reclined sitting position with his hands shackled in front. The journey times...ranged from one hour to over twenty-four to thirty hours. The detainee was not allowed to go to the toilet and if necessary was obliged to urinate and defecate into the diaper.

Edouard Manet, 'The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian', Oil on Canvas, 120" x 99", 1867

Blame the math, but not the decisionmaking: Quote

"The banks knew they were selling crap, they had some back room somewhere where a bunch of Indian guys who'd been doing nothing but math for God knows how many years would come up with some kind of model saying that this or that combination of debtors would only default once every 10,000 years. It was nuts." - trader who sold CDOs for a major investment bank.
From here:

The newcomers imitate old fogeys...

Privatize gains and socialize losses - Bush or Obama, does not matter - the rigmarole continues...

From here: The first assumption is that those battered assets will recover handsomely, thus allowing the government loans to be repaid with interest. There has, however, been no independent assessment of the assets or their underlying collateral, so there’s no way to know that they will recover by much, if at all from their beaten-down state. ...
Even if we assume that the assets do increase in value, allowing the government to be repaid, there are still unsolved problems. Successful sales will rid banks of some of their toxic assets, but not necessarily all or even most of them. To restore the banks to health, the sums expended would have to be enough to balance the banks’ assets and liabilities, and provide a reasonable cushion to resume lending and absorb future losses. No one knows with any certainty how much that is, though some estimates put it north of $2 trillion, much more than what the administration is contemplating. And even if you assume that the sums put up by the government are enough to cleanse the banks entirely, restoring the banks to health by throwing money at them — even with a sheen of private capital — would not be fair. It would be one big transfer of wealth from the government to bank investors. That would be better than an apocalyptic crash, but it is a near complete socialization of losses, with little value flowing to taxpayers.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Painting Post

'And malice toward none', 55"(width) X 85"(height), Oil on unstretched canvas

Friday, March 20, 2009

Toon


From Harpers (December 1967).

Selective civilian killing in Gaza - a telling quote

“What’s great about Gaza — you see a person on a path, he doesn’t have to be armed, you can simply shoot him. In our case it was an old woman on whom I did not see any weapon when I looked. The order was to take down the person, this woman, the minute you see her. There are always warnings, there is always the saying, ‘Maybe he’s a terrorist.’ What I felt was, there was a lot of thirst for blood.” - Reaction of an Isreali squad commander when asked why an elderly woman was recently killed. From here.
Message written by Israeli soldiers in a bedroom of the Abu Hajaj home in Johur-ad-Dik. Picture from Palestinian Center for Human Rights (here)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

AIG - a cover play? - II

Eliot Spitzer, former john and former governor of New York State makes a compelling case for the AIG bailout serving as a front for saving firms with deeper connections (like Goldman Sachs)...

But wait a moment, aren't we in the midst of reopening contracts all over the place to share the burden of this crisis? From raising taxes—income taxes to sales taxes—to properly reopening labor contracts, we are all being asked to pitch in and carry our share of the burden. Workers around the country are being asked to take pay cuts and accept shorter work weeks so that colleagues won't be laid off. Why can't Wall Street royalty shoulder some of the burden? Why did Goldman have to get back 100 cents on the dollar? Didn't we already give Goldman a $25 billion capital infusion, and aren't they sitting on more than $100 billion in cash? Haven't we been told recently that they are beginning to come back to fiscal stability? If that is so, couldn't they have accepted a discount, and couldn't they have agreed to certain conditions before the AIG dollars—that is, our dollars—flowed? The appearance that this was all an inside job is overwhelming. AIG was nothing more than a conduit for huge capital flows to the same old suspects, with no reason or explanation.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The payroll tax holiday idea

Even if further cutting taxes is anathema after the last eight years, here is an idea to cut taxes and spur growth. This will involve cutting the tax that the poor amongst us pay - the payroll tax. Of course, this idea coupled with the rich paying their fair share of taxes on capital gains would be nirvana. If only there was the will to do so...

The payroll tax—a.k.a. the Social Security tax, the Social Security and Medicare tax, or the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) tax— skims around fifteen per cent from the payroll of every business and the paycheck of every worker, from minimum-wage burger-flippers on up, with no deductions. No exemptions, either—except that everything above a hundred grand or so a year is untouched, which means that as salaries climb into the stratosphere the tax, as a percentage, shrinks to a speck far below. This is one reason that Warren Buffett’s secretary (as her boss has unproudly noted) pays Uncle Sam a higher share of her income than he does. In fact, three-quarters of American households pay more in payroll tax than in income tax.

… A whole good idea would be to make a payroll-tax holiday the first step in an orderly transition to scrapping the payroll tax altogether and replacing the lost revenue with a package of levies on things that, unlike jobs, we want less rather than more of—things like pollution, carbon emissions, oil imports, inefficient use of energy and natural resources, and excessive consumption. The net tax burden on the economy would be unchanged, but the shift in relative price signals would nudge investment from resource-intensive enterprises toward labor-intensive ones. This wouldn’t be just a tax adjustment. It would be an environmental program, an anti-global-warming program, a youth-employment (and anti-crime) program, and an energy program.

Photo

AIG - a cover play?

Is it AIG that's playing us for fools or is it really Goldman Sachs?

From here: The roots of the linkage between Goldman Sachs and AIG go back to the closing months of the Bush administration, as the financial meltdown reached crisis proportions and key decisions were made that are now reaping the whirlwind. Remember who played a key role in deciding to bail out AIG? Henry Paulson, the Goldman CEO-turned George W. Bush Treasury Secretary. Paulson, according to a September 27, 2008 New York Times piece by Gretchen Morgenson, led a team of regulators and bankers in early September to determine what to do with the most severely wounded financial institutions. One of the participants in those meetings was Lloyd C. Blankfein, Paulson's successor at Goldman Sachs. Out of those meetings came the controversial and heavily criticized decision to allow Lehman Brothers, a Goldman competitor, to go belly up, and to bail out AIG. Starting with $85 billion from the Fed, taxpayers have pumped a total of $170 billion into the giant insurance company. The bailout was crucial to Goldman in that it permitted AIG to pay off its $12.6 billion debt to the firm, $8.1 billion of which was to cover AIG-backed credit derivatives. At a hearing of the House Financial Services Committee on February 11, 2009, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein denied that his firm had a major stake in bailing out AIG. Blankfein told the panel that "with respect to our dealings with AIG, we were always fully collateralized and had de minimis or no credit risk at any given moment because we exchanged collateral....We had transactions with them. And if they had gone the wrong way, they would have owed us money. We assumed they'd pay it, but if they defaulted, they wouldn't pay us. We insured against that default. We didn't win money from it. We wouldn't have made money. But it would have protected our down side."

Throughout the past six months of economic crisis, Goldman has taken full advantage of what the government has to offer. On October 28, 2008, Goldman and eight other banks were the first to receive federal bailout money under the Treasury Department's Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP). which was initiated by Paulson. On November 25, 2008, Goldman became the first bank in the nation to benefit from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program (TLGP), issuing $5 billion in government-secured debt at 3.367%, substantially less than the market rate facing banks which issued unsecured debt. All told, Goldman has issued a total of $20 billion in government-guaranteed debt under TLGP. In their dealings with banks, both Treasury and the Fed have been subject to relatively minimal disclosure, in order to protect the proprietary interests of financial institutions, especially to prevent rumors of illiquidity or excessive debt from threatening a bank's viability.

Late evening photo

Monday, March 16, 2009

Art as investment - thoughts

As talk swirls around the fact that some art dealers are doing the unthinkable and slashing the prices of artists they represent, Wooster Collective has an interesting observation on the 'art as investment as opposed to art for art's sake' conundrum:

"As an investment, art should be treated no different than a stock. Investments go up and down. Why shouldn't art? On the flip side - If you buy art not as an investment but because you love it, why should it matter to you if the price comes down? You bought it because you loved it, not because of it's value."

Random reads

From Nick Hornby's writings here: It can happen anywhere: a dinner table, a pub, a bus queue, a classroom, a bookshop. You have struck up a conversation with someone you don’t know, and you’re getting on OK, and then suddenly, without warning, you hear the five words that mean the relationship has no future beyond the time it takes to say them: “I think you’ll like it.” This phrase is presumptuous enough when used to refer to, say, a crisp flavour; if, however, you happen to be talking about books or films or music, then it is completely unforgivable, a social solecism on a par with bottom-pinching. You think I’ll like it, do you? Well, it has taken me over fifty years to get anywhere near an understanding of what I think I might like, and even then I get it wrong half the time, so what chance have you got? Every now and again I meet someone who is able to make shrewd and thoughtful recommendations within the first five years of our acquaintance, but for the most part, the people I listen to I’ve known for a couple of decades, a good chunk of which has been spent talking about the things we love and hate.

Well, Guardian has a link here to 1000 songs they think you ought to like... (or at least listen to...)

Quote for the day

"I'm the least partisan person I know" - Tucker Carlson talking about himself after calling Jon Stewart a 'sanctimonious party hack'. The video is pretty funny, although the guy needs to grow up some more...

Just smile and wave, boys - cause we are sinking...

The relationship between the relaxing of usury laws (laws that prohibit the charging of unreasonable or relatively high rates of interest) in the United States and the loss of our manufacturing base is explored well in a recent article in Harpers by Thomas Geoghegan. Read and weep.

It may be hard to grasp how the dismantling of usury laws might lead to the loss of our industrial base. But it's true: it led to the loss of our best middle class jobs. Here's a little primer on how it happened. First, thanks to the uncapping of interest rates, we shifted capital into the financial sector, with its relatively high returns. Second, as we shifted capital out of globally competitive manufacturing, we ran bigger trade deficits. Third, as we ran bigger trade deficits, we required bigger inflows of foreign capital. We had 'cheap money' flooding in from China, Saudi Arabia and even the Fourth World. May God forgive us - we even had capital coming in from Honduras. Fourth, the banks got even more money, and they didn't even consider putting it back to manufacturing. They stuffed it into derivatives and other forms of gambling, because that's the kind of thing that got the 'normal' big return; i.e., not 5 percent but 35 percent or even more. Go back to the top and repeat the sequence. It was what scientists call an autocatalytic reaction. It just kept going. All that cheap money would have been a good thing if it had gone into manufacturing. But it didn't. The capital inflows from big trade deficits couldn't go into manufacturing because the returns in banking were just too high. And because this autocatalytic reaction just kept going - as long as there was imbalance between finance and industry - the system could not readjust or stabilize. The bigger the deficit, the bigger the capital inflow; and the bigger the capital inflow, the bigger the financial sector became; and the bigger the financial sector became (relative to manufacturing), the bigger the trade deficit became.

And what did we as a nation gamble and bet on?

I don’t mind futures on the weather, or futures on interest rates, or even futures on the fluctuations of the price of bleacher seats for Cubs games, but I really have trouble with futures on futures, bets on the outcomes of all bets. … By 2007, the ‘notional’ values of all these bets came to $516 trillion – a number that even theoretically is hard to ponder. And that is all the capital that could have gone into real things we could have sold abroad. The money we bet in Chicago is the money we should have been investing in Detroit. And I know they’re lunkheads in Detroit, but the lunkheads ended up running the auto industry because the smart people, the Harvard dropouts and the autodidacts from Texas Tech, decided that the real money wasn’t in starting software companies or running telcos but in derivatives.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Impractical philosophy watch

The Wall Street Journal opinion page tries hard to burnish the dismal philosophy of Ms. Rand.

The message is always the same: "Selfishness is evil; sacrifice for the needs of others is good." But Rand said this message is wrong -- selfishness, rather than being evil, is a virtue.  ...
Rand also noted that only an ethic of rational selfishness can justify the pursuit of profit that is the basis of capitalism -- and that so long as self-interest is tainted by moral suspicion, the profit motive will continue to take the rap for every imaginable (or imagined) social ill and economic disaster. Just look how our present crisis has been attributed to the free market instead of government intervention -- and how proposed solutions inevitably involve yet more government intervention to rein in the pursuit of self-interest.

Note

Never thought this might happen, but I have managed to find out candidates for Guantanamo, castration, forced solitary confinment and torture involving death by a thousand cuts (in that order).

While Rome burns...

One has got to love this bit of news...

A white paper prepared by the company says that AIG is contractually obligated to pay a total of about $165 million of previously awarded "retention pay" to employees in this unit by Sunday, March 15. The document says that another $55 million in retention pay has already been distributed to about 400 AIG Financial Products employees.

AIG has already recieved a taxpayer bailout of more than $170 billion dollars.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Painting Post

'Red Lincoln', Oil on unstretched canvas, 72" (width) X 90" (height)

Collateral damage

Testimony from the Abed Rabbu family in Palestine during Operation Cast Lead. (Israel's most recent military campaign in the Gaza Strip which started two days after Christmas Day last year).

From here: “I saw two soldiers standing outside of the tank. One of them was eating chips, and the other was eating chocolate. They kept looking at us, but without saying a word. A third soldier got out of the tank but stayed on it. He had a white complexion. He was wearing a gray cap, and he had his hair braided. He was carrying an M16 assault rifle. He had two or three stars on his shoulders, I can’t recall. He looked at us, pointing his gun, and then fired."

Khaled says he heard more than 12 bullets fired at his family. His daughter Amal was struck in the chest. Suad was shot multiple times in the chest, almost ripping her small body in half. Samar too was struck in the chest and stomach, and left with two five-centimetre holes in her back where the bullets exited her body. His mother was also struck in her left arm and lower back and fell to the ground. Khaled further describes the horrific scene:

"We tried calling an ambulance to save mother and my daughter Samar, who was still alive because she had a pulse when I checked, but I had no reception. I covered my three daughters, and my brothers and I began placing cotton on their wounds. My brothers Ahmad and Mahmoud were trying to treat mother and my daughter Samar, but we couldn’t because the two holes in her back were large; about five centimetres diameter. I couldn’t bear looking at my daughters. I sat inside the house for two hours or more, while everybody was crying out for help by calling ambulances and the neighbours. One of our neighbours, who worked as an ambulance driver and medic, tried to help us. He lives 70 meters away from our house but couldn’t leave the area because the whole area was besieged by the Israeli troops. Anyway, he tried to help us, but the tank shelled his ambulance and destroyed it.”

Friday, March 13, 2009

Comment on the Cramer vs. Stewart face-off

I personally find Mr. Jim Cramer's histrionics distasteful and was wondering when would someone call his bluff. Last night seemed as good as a time as any and the Cramer vs. Stewart segment was a cultural classic. Andrew Sullivan hones it with this bit of comparison...

In some ways, the blogosphere is to MSM (Main Stream Media) punditry what Stewart is to Cramer: an insistent and vulgar demand for some responsibility, some moral and ethical accountabilty for previous decisions and pronouncements.
OK, so when is he going to haul in the CEO's and the architects of that failed war in Iraq?

Near the borders

On why the Mexican drug war may not be curtailed with stricter gun laws here... (as people in some quarters might want to believe).

The notion that the violence in Mexico would subside if the United States had more restrictive laws on firearms is devoid of logic and evidence. Mexican drug gangs would have little trouble obtaining all the guns they desire from black market sources in Mexico and elsewhere. After all, the traffickers make their fortunes operating in a black market involving another product and they have vast financial resources to purchase whatever they need to conduct their business. Even assuming that the Mexican government’s estimate that 97 percent of the weapons used by the cartels come from stores and gun shows in the United States—and Mexican officials are not exactly objective sources for such statistics—the traffickers rely on those outlets simply because they are easier and more convenient, not because there are no other options.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

On hawking the gods

From a website selling prints of Indian gods. I hate the 'artsy' undertones implicitly embedded in the text...

During the late nineteenth century, India established a printing industry devoted to producing images of Hindu Gods & Goddesses. Go to India today and you’ll see them everywhere ( not the oldest, but prints from about the 1960’s on), in stores and restaurants, on taxi dashboards, tied to bicycle handlebars, even nailed to trees as parts of shrines. For Hindus these prints embody Gods, something of the essence or spirit of a God which is manifest in the world. During puja (daily worship) the God is invited to descend into its image and is treated as a guest. Offerings of fruit, flowers, or sweets are placed before these prints, prayers are chanted to them, incense are burned for them, and garlands of marigolds are hung around their frames.
India’s earliest color prints are lithographs printed from limestone blocks. Images were drawn by hand on as many stones as there were colors to be printed. These stones, each inked in one color, were then printed in succession. By the 1940’s this technique was replaced by the faster and cheaper photo-offset process used today.

They seem to have a gallery show at the International Print Center in NY next month...

Krishna with Gopis, Chore Bagan Art Studio, 1880’s

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Painting Post

'Stilled Life', Oil on unstretched canvas, 56" (w) X 82" (h)

Narendra Modi - a quixotic profile

Robert Kaplan (The Atlantic) melds the effects of religion, culture and imperialism in his profile of Mr. Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat and who could soon become the leader of the world’s largest democracy.

As empires rise and fall, only their ideas can remain, adapted to the needs of the people they once ruled. The Portuguese, given only to plunder and exploitation, brought no ideas save for their Catholic religion, which sank little root among Hindus and Muslims. And so these ruins are merely sad and, after a manner, beautiful. The British, by contrast, brought tangible development, ports and railways, that created the basis for a modern state. More important, they brought the framework for parliamentary democracy that Indians, who already possessed indigenous traditions of heterodoxy and pluralism, were able to fit to their own needs. Indeed, the very Hindu pantheon, with its many gods rather than one, works toward the realization that competing truths are what enable freedom. Thus, the British, despite all their flaws, advanced an ideal of Indian greatness. And that greatness, as enlightened Indians will tell you, is impossible to achieve without a moral component.

A passage describing the Hindu pillage of Muslims (implicitly sanctioned by Mr. Narendra Modi is especially damning).

What local human-rights groups label the “pogrom” began with the incineration of 58 Hindu train passengers on February 27, 2002, in Godhra, a town with a large Muslim population and a stop on the rail journey from Gujarat to Uttar Pradesh, in north-central India. The Muslims who reportedly started the fire had apparently been taunted by other Hindus who had passed through en route to Ayodhya, in Uttar Pradesh, on their way to demonstrate for a Hindu temple to be built on the site of a demolished Mughal mosque. Recently installed as chief minister, Modi decreed February 28 a day of mourning, so that the passengers’ funerals could be held in downtown Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city. “It was a clear invitation to violence,” writes Edward Luce, the Financial Times correspondent in India, in his book, In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India. “The Muslim quarters of Ahmedabad and other cities in Gujarat turned into death traps as thousands of Hindu militants converged on them.” In the midst of the riots, Modi approvingly quoted Newton’s third law: “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” Mobs coalesced and Hindu men raped Muslim women, before pouring kerosene down their throats and the throats of their children, then setting them all on fire. Muslim men were forced to watch the ritualistic killings before they, too, were put to death. More than 400 women were raped; 2,000 people, overwhelmingly Muslim, murdered; and 200,000 more made homeless throughout the state.

Novel solution for sexual offenders - II

We talked about castration for sex offenders earlier here. Cruel but effective. However, I believe the practice (even if labeled a dastardly act), is essential to police individuals who target young children.

From here: Dr. Martin Holly, a leading sexologist and psychiatrist who is director of the Psychiatric Hospital Bohnice in Prague, said none of the nearly 100 sex offenders who had been physically castrated had committed further offenses. A Danish study of 900 castrated sex offenders in the 1960s suggested the rate of repeat offenses dropped after surgical castration to 2.3 percent from 80 percent.

.. In the Czech Republic, the issue was brought home last month when Antonin Novak, 43, was sentenced to life in prison after raping and killing Jakub Simanek, a 9-year-old boy who disappeared last May. Mr. Novak, who had served four and a half years in prison for sexual offenses in Slovakia, had been ordered to undergo outpatient treatment, but had failed to show up several months before the murder. Advocates of surgical castration argued that had he been castrated, the tragedy could have been prevented. Hynek Blasko, Jakub’s father, expressed indignation that human rights groups were putting the rights of criminals ahead of those of victims. “My personal tragedy is that my son is in heaven and he is never coming back, and all I have left of him is 1.5 kilograms of ashes,” he said in an interview. “No one wants to touch the rights of the pedophiles, but what about the rights of a 9-year-old boy with his life ahead of him?”

Brat battle

Judith Woods on liberal parenting:

I would never have dreamed of giving cheek to my mother at any age. There was, at the heart of our relationship, a healthy degree of fear on my part, and steely resolve on hers. I knew, instinctively, that her word was final, argument useless and retribution would be swift and biblical if I was disobedient. Crucially, I was seldom hit (although a slap across the legs wasn’t unheard of); for my generation our parents’ approval was what we craved and its withdrawal was punishment enough. So where did that all go? What happened to the consensus that grown-ups are in charge and children should do as they’re told?...

The biggest mistake we can make as parents is to want to be our children’s friends. Yes, they may like us more, their classmates may think we’re cool, (Really? Gosh, isn’t that lovely!) but the truth is that they also see us as weak. And weakness in those who ought to be powerful will always invite contempt.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A love story

A love story in the Times...

Anyone who is in love is living a charmed life, especially if you’ve been in love for many years, through good times and bad. I have been crazy about Linda since the first time I saw her. We always felt we could handle any challenge because we were facing it together. This time we knew we had the will, but the demands were so exhausting, the changes so pervasive, that sometimes we wondered how we would cope. This incredibly capable woman who loved to hike mountains, ride waves, and run marathons, who had cleared our sizable backyard of eight-foot-high brambles and helped me move all our furniture into three houses, suddenly couldn’t do any of those things, ever again.
... We don’t know what will happen tomorrow, or who will live how long. But we were young together. We struggled to make a life. We raised three great sons. We’ve each been the caregiver and the cared-for, and I suspect that we each have a little more of both in our future. We are two, but we are one. And I love those numbers.
(link: Jason K)

Toon


From here.

U.S. economic indicators: smoke and mirrors?

Mary Dejevsky opines that one of the advantages in the current economic crisis will be a shift towards the U.S looking to gauge itself in 'live-ability' indicators and factors like healthcare, education and emotional security. Whether this will actually happen or will it get washed away with the next ephermal bubble remains to be seen. Of course, a sign of the times might be Obama's renewed focus on universal health care and the administrations vigorous tone on reforming education.

From her article here: Why, if the US was doing so splendidly compared with France, was so much of the infrastructure – roads, railways and municipal offices – so neglected? How come there was so much money around, in theory (on the ballooning stock market and in those dot-com share options), when so little effort seemed to be put into making it? Was it just lack of state benefits that kept unemployment down? And why could the US have one of the worst perinatal mortality rates in the industrialised world without this affecting its economic standing? The answer to all these questions, of course, is that it depends what you count and how you count it. The US topped so many economic rankings because, for the most part, it chose the indicators.
One of the beneficial, and less noticed, consequences of the current crisis is that it has spawned new interest in ways of judging a country's economic soundness and overall success. There have long been quality-of-life indices that include the "live-ability" of cities, including standards of health, housing, schools and public transport. But only rarely are the results amalgamated with officially recognised indicators, such as growth rate, productivity and per capita income.

Happy International Women's day (albeit belated)


Kirsten Justesen, 2002, 'Melting in time #3', Installation

Facebook envy

Matt Labash's makes the case for Facebook being mind-numbingly dull. Facebook, in case one did not know is that online application that people use to sometimes announce to the world that they are currently busy taking a bathroom break (in the 'status updates' section).

It's a place where anorexics have been caught giving each other new ways to purge, where the Uruguayan interior minister posted pictures of herself in the shower, where a site was set up where young men could boast of hitting prostitutes with donuts and hot chocolate. It's a place where a Swedish nurse got in trouble for posting photos of the brain from a brain surgery she was assisting with, where marauding bands of teenage thugs intercepted birthday party logistics so they could crash a home, leaving it in ruins and the dog comatose, and where a husband ended up hacking his wife to death with a meat cleaver after noticing she'd changed her Facebook status to "single." It's a place with so many superficial friend hoarders that one guy vowed to eat all 12 McDonald's value meals in one sitting (including the fries) if 100,000 people friended him. They did, and he gave it a go, but somewhere short of the Filet-O-Fish, he ended up violently hurling in the parking lot. It's a place where friendship is so devoid of honor or value that it can be shown up by a cynical burger joint advertising stunt. Burger King, in their "Whopper Sacrifice" campaign, started a Facebook application which would reward you with a free hamburger when you sacrificed ten Facebook friends. Burger King would then send alerts to the jettisoned ones, effectively notifying the newly defriended that they were only worth a tenth of a flame-broiled Whopper. Facebook ended up disabling the application, but not before 233,906 friends were sacrificed.

Photo essay

Scenes from the housing meltdown - a gallery by Anthony Suau


Cleveland, Ohio, March 25, 2008 -- Detective Robert Kole of the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Department cautiously approaches an abandoned house. He must search it, room by room, at gunpoint to ensure that the house is clear of weapons and squatters or inhabitants. It can be a dangerous and, at times, depressing, job. In this home, the decomposing body of a dog, tied to a leash and left to starve to death, was discovered in the kitchen.

Candidates for online publishing

Newspaper deathwatch here...

...a list (compiled by this group) of the 10 major daily papers that are most likely to fold or shutter their print operations and only publish online. The properties were chosen on the basis of the financial strength of their parent companies, the amount of direct competition they face in their markets and industry information on how much money they are losing. Based on this analysis, it's possible that 8 of the nation's 50 largest daily newspapers could cease publication in the next 18 months.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Painting Post

'Henna', Oil on unstretched canvas, 56" (w) X 82" (h)

Depression babies - the trajectory

If ever we would land up in a prolonged economic slump...

From here: How today’s young will be affected 10, 20 or 40 years on will depend on many things — the children of the Depression were shaped as much by the war that followed. The recession generation will include those born into it, at the youngest end, and those emerging out of college and high school into a jobless marketplace, at the oldest. If history is any guide, what will matter most is where they are on the continuum.
...
In long-term studies, the younger group suffered the bigger psychic scars. For them, the worst disruption of the Depression coincided with the critical years of development when they most needed their parents. With incomes dropping, parents fought more and drank more, leaving children bewildered and often alone. Years later, the group looked back on their childhood as a period of unpredictability, and their high school years as a time they lacked direction or a sense of confidence. As one small-business man put it, “my entire adolescence was a period of painful and frustrating disorientation.”
The older children were better able to understand the hardships, and to get outside the household to help the family earn. They went off to World War II and benefited from the structure of the military, then returned to the booming economy and the G. I. Bill. Ultimately, Professor Elder said in an interview, “they came out with an ability to know how to survive and make do and solve problems.”

On the rich and taxes

How much should the rich pay in taxes?

An opinion: Did you know that Margaret Thatcher declared war on the wealthy, a war so extreme it makes Obama's seem meek by comparison? The top tax rate in the UK was 60% for most of her term in office, and 40% for the last year or so. At no point was it lower than what Obama proposes -- and that's without taking into account the VAT.
Likewise, Ronald Reagan was apparently a Class Warrior: for six of the eight years during which Reagan was President, the top tax bracket was 50%. It's a wonder anyone worked at all! In Reagan's defense, though, he was just carrying on a long tradition of wealth expropriation carried out by socialists like Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Meanwhile in Brazil...

It might be difficult to top this one (filed under the annals of religious fanaticism)...

From here: Archibishop Jose Cardoso Sobrinho of the coastal city of Recife announced that the Vatican was excommunicating the family of a local girl who had been raped and impregnated with twins by her stepfather, because they had chosen to have the girl undergo an abortion. The Church excommunicated the doctors who performed the procedure as well. "God's laws," said the archbishop, dictate that abortion is a sin and that transgressors are no longer welcome in the Roman Catholic Church. "They took the life of an innocent," Sobrinho told TIME in a telephone interview. "Abortion is much more serious than killing an adult. An adult may or may not be an innocent, but an unborn child is most definitely innocent. Taking that life cannot be ignored."

Information technology and art - symbiotic?


From here: How is information technology changing the art world? The same way, you might argue, that it is changing everything else. It has put new tools into creative hands: there are artists making complicated impressionistic works using a paint application on their iPhones. There are artists working with G.P.S. mapping tools, hacking video games and creating art made from YouTube clips. Across the free-market souk of the Internet, more and more artists are trafficking in data, even as confusion about value and copyright proliferates.

And art in return is also changing information technology, by doing what art has done since the beginning, when the Babylonians first painted their palace walls, the Spanish royals first sat for a portrait or Gauguin first laid eyes on the South Pacific — by pushing the limits of our perception. I understood this most clearly visiting the Second Life work of an avatar named AM Radio, a thin, reedy guy who wears a thin, reedy top hat and in real life is a 33-year-old media designer who wishes to keep his exact circumstances private but who will say that he has an art degree and also a full-time job at I.B.M.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Friday photo


DFW - a life

A mini biography of one of my favorite authors David Foster Wallace. A great read. I feel that until such time an authoritative biography of DFW comes out, this will be the one.

An excerpt from his unfinished novel exploring boredom through the work of IRS employee Lane Dean (called a “wiggler” in slang — the first people to go over returns arriving at the agency).

Lock a fellow in a windowless room to perform rote tasks just tricky enough to make him have to think, but still rote, tasks involving numbers that connect to nothing he’ll ever see or care about, a stack of tasks that never goes down, and nail a clock to the wall where he can see it, and just leave the man there to his mind’s own devices. Tell him to pucker his butt and think beach when he starts to get antsy—and that would be just the word they’d use, antsy, like his mother. Let him find out in time’s fullness what a joke the word was, how it didn’t come anyplace close. He’d already dusted the desk with his cuff, moved his infant son’s photo in its rattly little frame where the front glass slid a bit if you shook it. He’d already tried switching the green rubber over and doing the adding machine with his left hand, pretending he’d had a stroke and was bravely soldiering on. The rubber made the pinkie’s tip all damp and pale beneath it. The beach now had solid cement instead of sand and the water was gray and barely moved, just quivered a little, like Jell-O that’s almost set. Unbidden came ways to kill himself with Jell-O. Lane Dean tried to control the rate of his heartbeat. He wondered if, with enough practice and concentration, you could stop your heart at will, the same way you hold your breath—like this right here. His heart rate felt dangerously slow and he became scared and tried to keep his head inclined by rolling his eyes way up and compared the rate to the clock’s second hand, but the second hand seemed impossibly slow.

A great collection of essays by DFW here.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Profiles in hegemony - II

Updated news on the Mahatma Gandhi memorabilia auction taking place today.

An interesting comment I noticed in the same article...

It is really outrageous that British who looted off the items from the countries that they so brutally occupied are still able to make money from this. The gall is that these sellers try to blackmail Asian countries by giving ultimatums - either improve the health care for poor, improve human rights or lose the items. Imagine if the tables were turned and items from Buckingham Palace or White house were being auctioned in India and China and these countries asking US and England to improve the race relations or else..
My sentiments too...

Part I here.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The 51st state argument

Tongue in cheek advantages on Britain becoming the 51st state of the United States - excerpted from a British newspaper.

But the upsides would more than dwarf the regrets. At a stroke we would inherit a written constitution – and what a constitution – guaranteeing such essentials for a functioning democracy as fixed-term government, proper checks and balances to executive power, and freedom of speech. We'd be defended from the worst ravages of economic collapse by belonging to what will, with the euro facing mounting pressure from the imminent bankruptcy of member countries, remain the world's premier reserve currency. We would have a political leader to revere, for eight years at least. And in the US tradition of slightly out-of-the-way cities holding the honour, we could make Norwich our state capital, with the Union Jack replaced as flag by a pot of Colman's Mustard.

About that hedge fund called Iceland

A tale of Iceland where yesterday's fishermen suddenly morphed into investment bankers (and are 'unmorphing' right back into what they do best - fishing).

From Vanity Fair: When Neil Armstrong took his small step from Apollo 11 and looked around, he probably thought, Wow, sort of like Iceland—even though the
moon was nothing like Iceland. But then, he was a tourist, and a tourist can’t help but have a distorted opinion of a place: he meets unrepresentative people, has unrepresentative experiences, and runs around imposing upon the place the fantastic mental pictures he had in his head when he got there. When Iceland became a tourist in global high finance it had the same problem as Neil Armstrong. Icelanders are among the most inbred human beings on earth—geneticists often use them for research. They inhabited their remote island for 1,100 years without so much as dabbling in leveraged buyouts, hostile takeovers, derivatives trading, or even small-scale financial fraud. When, in 2003, they sat down at the same table with Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, they had only the roughest idea of what an investment banker did and how he behaved—most of it gleaned from young Icelanders’ experiences at various American business schools. And so what they did with money probably says as much about the American soul, circa 2003, as it does about Icelanders. They understood instantly, for instance, that finance had less to do with productive enterprise than trading bits of paper among themselves. And when they lent money they didn’t simply facilitate enterprise but bankrolled friends and family, so that they might buy and own things, like real investment bankers: Beverly Hills condos, British soccer teams and department stores, Danish airlines and media companies, Norwegian banks, Indian power plants.

...Back away from the Icelandic economy and you can’t help but notice something really strange about it: the people have cultivated themselves to the point where they are unsuited for the work available to them. All these exquisitely schooled, sophisticated people, each and every one of whom feels special, are presented with two mainly horrible ways to earn a living: trawler fishing and aluminum smelting. There are, of course, a few jobs in Iceland that any refined, educated person might like to do. Certifying the nonexistence of elves, for instance.

Photo

Seen on the intersection of Clove Road and Victory Blvd, Staten Island, NY


From an essay last year on what a depression might look like in today's times...
By looking at what we know about how society and commerce would slow down, and how people respond, it's possible to envision what we might face. Unlike the 1930s, when food and clothing were far more expensive, today we spend much of our money on healthcare, child care, and education, and we'd see uncomfortable changes in those parts of our lives. The lines wouldn't be outside soup kitchens but at emergency rooms, and rather than itinerant farmers we could see waves of laid-off office workers leaving homes to foreclosure and heading for areas of the country where there's more work - or just a relative with a free room over the garage. Already hollowed-out manufacturing cities could be all but deserted, and suburban neighborhoods left checkerboarded, with abandoned houses next to overcrowded ones.
And above all, a depression circa 2009 might be a less visible and more isolating experience. With the diminishing price of televisions and the proliferation of channels, it's getting easier and easier to kill time alone, and free time is one thing a 21st-century depression would create in abundance. Instead of dusty farm families, the icon of a modern-day depression might be something as subtle as the flickering glow of millions of televisions glimpsed through living room windows, as the nation's unemployed sit at home filling their days with the cheapest form of distraction available.

Profiles in hegemony

I wonder how would we as a nation feel if George Washington's personal items — including his footwear, watch and spectacles were auctioned off in India despite an American court order that explicitly forbade the auction in another country.
From here: Despite direct appeals from the Indian government and a last-minute stay from an Indian court, an auction of personal items of Mahatma Gandhi’s — including his sandals, bowl, watch and spectacles — is scheduled to go ahead on Thursday in New York City as planned, the auction house said Wednesday morning. “It’s still planned, still going ahead,” said Julien Schaerer, director of the New York watch department of Antiquorum, a leading watch auctioneer. Mr. Schaerer said they were not informed of the legal ruling. He also added, “I believe they don’t have jurisdiction in the United States.”
c. 1946: Indian street vendors of the Untouchables caste, carrying a box of figures in the likeness of Mohandas Gandhi. (Photo by Margaret Bourke-White/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Outsourcing writing skills

Some incipient research from Microsoft that aims to transform prose written by authors and writers helping them choose between alternative ways to express textual ideas.
I was wondering when will they come up with automated fiction writing? Or better still, a software tool that analyzes brain patterns amongst the random thoughts occurring inside a writers head and then cobbling together a work of fiction or non-fiction? All a budding author needs to do is to sit back and think up something and presto, comes a story.
In suggesting that writers replace content words, we thus take a great deal of risk: a poor choice can dramatically alter the meaning of a sentence - or provoke unintended hilarity. The project goal is not to improve the work of poets, professional novelists, or anyone else who considers their writing art. We’re focused primarily on helping users who are writing to achieve a more pragmatic goal – say a project report, a term paper, or an email – and who would like a little assistance in order to find the right words. ..The tool can even attempt to rewrite an entire sentence, selecting among different combinations of word and phrase replacements to choose the contextually most plausible set of all substitutions proposed by the models.

Text with drawing of Tower of Babel. (1400-1499). From the renaissance and medieval manuscripts collection of the New York Public Library

Toon


Seen in the March 9, 09' issue of the New Yorker magazine.

New income source discovered – collecting payments from kins of dead people…

You could trust the nations ailing financial system to figure out new and innovative ways to make money – here is one. Calling up a dead person’s relatives and using emotional arguments, ask them to them to honor unpaid bills of their dead relatives (even when they have no legal obligation to honor the debt).

From the NY Times digest today: Dozens of agents at DCM Services here call up the dear departed’s next of kin and kindly ask if they want to settle the balance on a credit card or bank loan, or perhaps make that final utility bill or cellphone payment. The people on the other end of the line often have no legal obligation to assume the debt. But they take responsibility for it anyway. “I am out of work now, to be honest with you, and money is very tight for us,” one man said after he was told of his late mother-in-law’s $280 credit card bill. He promised to pay $15 a month.
Collecting from the dead, however, is expanding. Improved database technology is making it easier to discover when estates are opened in the country’s 3,000 probate courts, giving collectors an opportunity to file timely claims. Survivors generally are not required to pay a dead relative’s bills from their own assets. In theory, however, collection agencies could go after any property inherited from the deceased.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Photo


Story #27 from the book The Gulistan of Sa'di by Sheikh Muslih-uddin Sa'di Shirazi (1258) Translated by Edwin Arnold (1899)

A man had attained great excellence in the art of wrestling, who knew three hundred and sixty exquisite tricks and daily exhibited something new. He had a particular affection for the beauty of one of his pupils whom he taught three hundred and fifty-nine tricks, refraining to impart to him only one. At last the youth had attained such power and skill that no one was able to contend with him and he went so far as to say to the sultan: ‘I allow superiority to my teacher on account of his age and from gratitude for his instruction but my strength is not less than his and my skill equal.’ The king, who was not pleased with this want of good manners, ordered them to wrestle with each other and a spacious locality having been fixed upon, the pillars of state and courtiers of his majesty made their appearance. The youth made an onslaught like a mad elephant with an impulse which might have uprooted a mountain of brass from its place but the master, who knew that he was in strength superior to himself, attacked him with the rare trick he had reserved to himself and which the youth was unable to elude; whereon the master, lifting him up with his hands from the ground, raised him above his head and then threw him down. Shouts were raised by the spectators and the king ordered a robe of honour with other presents to be given to the teacher but reproached and blamed the youth for having attempted to cope with his instructor and succumbed. He replied: ‘My lord, he has not vanquished me by his strength but there was a slender part in the art of wrestling which he had withheld from me and had today thereby got the upper hand of me.’ The master said: ‘I had reserved it for such an occasion because wise men have said: “Do not give so much strength to thy friend that, if he becomes thy foe, he may injure thee.” Hast thou not heard what the man said who suffered molestation from one whom he had educated?

Either fidelity itself does not exist in this world
Or nobody practices it in our time.
No one had learnt archery from me
Without at last making a target of me.

The problem with Japan

With all the talk of the 'lost decade' in Japan and the U.S. not wanting to fall into the same predicament, one might think that Japan is humming along just fine and are out of the doldrums, but the truth lies deeper...
From here: Since the middle of the 19th century, our economic success has relied on the availability of outside models from which to choose. Our model for social security took inspiration from Bismarck’s Germany, state planning from the Soviet Union, public works from the Tennessee Valley Authority, automobile assembly and manufacturing from Ford. Much of Japanese innovation has involved perfecting what others have created. Sony is famous for its Walkman, but it didn’t invent the tape recorder. Japan’s rise to economic greatness was basically a game of catch-up with the advanced West.
So what happened once we caught up? Over the past two decades, the answer has largely been paralysis. Japan’s ability to imitate outside models was mistaken for progress. But if progress is defined by pursuing a vision of a desirable future, then the Japanese never progressed. What we had was a concept of order and placement, which is essentially stasis.
In the West, on the other hand, the idea of progress rests on establishing individual autonomy and liberty. In Japan, bureaucratic rule offered security and predictability — in exchange for personal freedom. The problem is that our current political leaders can’t keep their side of the bargain. Employment security can no longer be guaranteed. The national pension and health plans seem to be insolvent in the long run. People feel both insecure and unfree.

Quotes

Paul Harvey (1918 - 2009) quotes. Times obituary here.
I liked his style, though not too many of his center of right views.

“Nudists in Lakeland, Florida, are upset that outsiders are sneaking a peek through a hole in their fence... The police promise to look into it.”

“A man called the I.R.S. and asked if birth control pills could be deducted. The I.R.S. worker, not missing a beat, came back and said, ‘Only if they don’t work.’ ”

“White House occupants come and go. They are just like diapers. They should be changed often, and for the same reasons.”

Isn’t money fungible?

I thought it was, but when couched in legalese and banking jargon, what was intended to be a fungible commodity can be 'unfunged'.

From here: When news broke that Wells Fargo, recipient of $25 billion in bailout money, was planning a lavish Las Vegas retreat for its top employees, lawmakers howled. The bank canceled the trip but took out full-page newspaper advertisements defending such trips. ''The funds to pay for recognition events such as these do not come from the government,'' the ad read. ''They come from our profits.''Does that mean the bank tracks government money and profits separately? No.

Company spokeswoman Julia Tunis Bernard said Wells Fargo doesn't distinguish between bailout money and other revenue. What the newspaper ad meant, she said, is that the bank didn't need the bailout money to pay its routine operating expenses -- including employee trips like the one to Las Vegas.

Another example of 'unfungible' aspects of money here: Ruth Madoff said she owns a Manhattan apartment, $45 million in bonds and $17 million in cash that are “unrelated” to an alleged Ponzi scheme by her husband, Bernard Madoff. ... Madoff’s lawyers claim “only Ruth Madoff has a beneficial ownership” to a Manhattan apartment, about $45 million in municipal bonds on deposit at Cohmad Securities Corp., and approximately $17 million in cash in another account. Ruth Madoff says these assets are “unrelated” to the alleged fraud, citing her husband’s lawyer.

Obama's poodle??

The previous poodle led the way for Britain's involvement in a war that should not have been fought - the one in Iraq. The new one, Prime Minister Gordon Brown trumpets shared values and culture ahead of a visit with President Obama later today. Not sure what he has up his sleeve...
From an article written by Brown here: And there is no international partnership in recent history that has served the world better than the special relationship between Britain and the United States. It is a relationship that has endured and flourished because it is based not simply on our shared history but on the enduring values that bind us together – our countries founded upon liberty, our histories forged through democracy and an unshakeable belief in the power of enterprise and opportunity.
...
Winston Churchill described the joint inheritance of Britain and America as not just a shared history but a shared belief in the great principles of freedom and the rights of man – what Barack Obama has described as the enduring power of our ideals – democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope. Britain and America may be separated by the thousands of miles of the Atlantic, but we are united by shared values that can never be broken. And as America stands at its own dawn of hope, I want that hope to be fulfilled through us all coming together to shape the 21st century as the first century of a truly global society.

Well known Bond Street loungers, 1820. The Earl of Sefton, The Duke of Devonshire, 'Poodle' Byng, Lord Manners and The Duke of Beaufort. Source: Mid-Manhattan Library / Picture Collection