Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The gift that keeps on giving

Electing then re-electing George Bush did more damage to the US than possibly any other action ever taken by its citizens or, for than matter, by anyone. At a critical point in our political and economic history, election of a fool backed by selfish knaves created a government that gutted regulation, created hatred toward this country by reducing diplomacy to playground taunting, and committed us to two ill-considered and unaffordable wars. The first election was close -- arguably a loss reversed by an activist Supreme Court. However, the second election was not so close, and the forces of stupidity and greed eked out a victory that has pretty much done us in for at least a generation. In a democracy, we all share in the mistakes of the majority. America's adventures with what passees for conservatism have pretty much all gone badly, but we seem to come back for more. We are, classically, repeating the mistakes of the history that we didn't learn.

The current Supreme Court, a version of which helped bestow GWB on us, has now decided, contrary to generations of precedence, to gut gun-control completely. Violence and "conservatism" seem to go hand in hand nearly everywhere, but nowhere more dramatically than here in America. We will continue to pay the price long after the Bush administration has been consigned to the compost heap of history.

(Speaking of composting, I'll be away for a couple of weeks tending my crops and following the news. I hope things get better.)

Friday, June 25, 2010

"The Big Short"

An interesting review by Jeff Madrick of Michael Lewis' recent book "The Big Short" appears in the June 10 New York Review of Books (I am finally catching up). Here is the article in its entirety. The book is about the recent financial crisis; in particular, about derivatives, credit default swaps, and all the goodies that I discussed in a previous blog; the review is interesting in itself. Michael Lewis's other well-known book (besides "Moneyball") is also about big-time financial speculation: "Liar's Poker." I hope to read the new one sometime in the near future.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

No cheers for Bork

Well, Robert Bork thinks that Elena Kagan, the President's nominee for the Supreme court, is unfit to serve. His main reason is that she is a big fan of the former president of Israel's Supreme Court, Aharon Barak. Barak's sin is that he is a liberal judicial "activist". Bork believes that the only true way to adjudicate constitutional issues is by "originalism": determining how the originators of the Constitution viewed or would view each issue. Consequently, Bork doesn't believe in a right of privacy or any civil rights embelishments such as prohibition of the poll tax. This puts him solidly in the Scalia-Thomas axis. Ironically, Scalia himself has given at least one speech in which he praised Aharon Barak, though conceding that they differed on ideology. Of course, Scalia himself is a judicial activist as evidenced by his support of the absurd "corporations as individuals" position. It's hard to believe Jefferson or Madison -- who had something to do with our Constitution -- would believe that artificial corporate entities (unknown in their time) had rights of free speech.

Bork was indeed "borked" out of a Supreme Court seat: not by a filibuster, but by a good old-fashioned bipartisan "NO" majority. He has since been whining about it from the sidelines. Most Americans especially hated him for firing Special Watergate Prosecutor Archibald Cox, after both Elliot Richardson (Att. Gen.) and William Ruckelshaus (Dep. Att. Gen) courageously resigned rather than do Nixon's dirty work. Bork's arrogance, toadyism, and bad judgement made his eventual rejection by the Senate well-deserved. He was unfit to serve, and now appartently is guided by the well-known playground principle "Takes one to know one."

Monday, June 21, 2010

Another white swan

One of the standard methods of covering a total screw-up is to claim that what happened was not only unforeseen but, basically, unforeseeable. Something so rare as to unaccountable -- a "Black Swan" as it were. Nassim Taleb has a book called "The Black Swan" in which he gives a (popular) account of this phenomenon. Since Taleb is especially interested in economics, he spends a lot of time debunking classical pundits of the "dismal science" -- in fact, he is highly skeptical that it is a science. (He put his money where his mouth is and made a fortune during the recent "unpredictible" financial crisis.)

Some examples often given of black swans range from the outbreak of WW I to the 9/11 attacks to the financial collapse of 2008-2009. These are all pretty bad examples since there were many people who foresaw these events, but whose opinions -- mostly for political reasons --were deliberately ignored or maginalized. I won't go into that now.

Most recently, our favorite company, BP, was telling us mere months ago that what happened in the Gulf was extremely unlikely and unforeseeable -- a classic black swan. Furthermore, their "experts" were saying, in no uncertain terms, that undersea "plumes" of oil were largely impossible and, in any case, didn't exist.

Now it turns out that BP knew all along that exactly what happened was so likely that they actually did experiments to try to model it. Today's Globe, for example, has an article which describes experiments -- partly funded by BP and run by the much-criticised federal Minerals Management Service -- that released oil mixtures deep underwater to see what would happen. Guess what? The mixtures divided into two parts: one rose to the surface fairly rapidly while the other formed: a plume!

Seems that the swan in this case is black only because it is covered in oil.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


If you follow the World Cup tournement, currently underway, you'll know that the winning goal in USA vs. Slovenia was taken away from the Americans by a totally inexplicable call. Here's what Jere Longman, writing in the Times, reports:

"In perhaps every other sport, an explanation of such a decisive play would have been provided. But Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA, has ignored calls for video replay and has decided against putting additional referees on the end line. He has said that he likes the debate that follows matches, believing that uncertainty and subjectivity boost the sport."

No comment necessary but here are a few personal and gratuitous ones about futball in general.

1. In cases of a tie in a game, an extra period is played; if it's still tied, they have a one-on-one shootout -- this in a game where teamwork is supposedly of prime importance.

2. In a tournement, rank is determined by points, assigned for wins, ties and, eventually, goals scored. If there is still a tie, the winner is decided by lots. That makes a lot of sense.

3. It is impossible for ordinary people to determine when a soccer game is actually over. Sure, they play for two 45-minute periods [corrected], but then time is added -- perhaps rationally (who knows?) -- by the refs to compensate for various on-field things like injuries. Except that one can't seem to find out how much time there really is. During the recent game with Slovenia -- the one with the inexplicable call -- even the expert TV announcers were asking, near the end: "Is it over?" It was only when the players began walking off the field that it became clear to them and to us that yes, indeed, it was over.

Soccer is a lot of fun to play -- I played a bit in college and a bit later -- and it's great exercise. It clearly requires a lot of (esoteric) skills, most involving the feet (as in futball). Also, it is truly democratic, requiring no special equipment except for something that can pass for a "ball" and some way of marking out a goal. As a game, however, it makes no sense. After all, we are the result of millions of years of (literally) digital evolution. Our hands are amazing: we can, with reasonable training, occasionally put a ball through a fairly small hoop from midcourt; we can even pick up things with our toes. With only a few exceptions (goalies and tossing the ball inbounds), soccer disallows use of our digital appendages; you can't even whack the ball with the back of your hand. Makes no sense to me, and it makes the game so hard to play that nearly every play is broken up before hardly anything takes place.

Can you imagine making love with these kinds of restrictions? Can't use your hands or digits (20 or 21 as the case may be), you have to wear shoes, don't know when it's over, and sometimes it's decided by a solo effort. (Please feel free to pursue this analogy if you wish.)

Of course, anything is exciting if you really care who wins: that's why we have soccer hooligans.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Sharron Angle: Not ready for prime-time in Nevada

I got the URL for this local reporter's quasi-interview from Talking Points Memo (TPM):

Angle Interview .

This is typical of all the Tea Screamers that I have seen interviewed: No grasp of the issues and, in fact, no grasp of the positions which they claim to take. Angle wants to "transition out" of Social Security, yet is not willing to explain what that means; she claims Harry Reid wants to destroy SS while she will save it -- by transitioning out (whatever that means). (Watch Michelle Bachmann to see another such idiot.)

There are times when I question my own beliefs: Maybe I'm wrong, and the folks I'm arguing against are actually correct. Then I read what they are saying -- or refusing to explain -- and I remember why it is that I disdain them. They are intellectually dishonest, taking oversimplified or misleading positions which they can't even state explicitly or defend with any semblance of rationality. Watch this interview (above) and you can see what a Tea Screamer candidate is like in real life, someone who has a very decent chance to be the next senator from (the great state of) Nevada. Good god: It's scary. How many more of them will be have to deal with?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

BP fund and PTR loonies

The Party for The Rich (formerly the GOP) is at it again, vying for this week's Beneath Contempt Award. Since they have to oppose everything the administration does, they need excuses to oppose the escrow fund of $20 billion that the President has gotten BP to set up. Joe Barton, a perennial idiot from Texas, has called it a "20 billion dollar shakedown." Other PTR folks have described it as a "Chicago style slush fund"; Rush Limbaugh is somehow worried that ACORN might be getting a cut. Michelle Bachmann, who is truly beneath contempt all of the time, describes it as a "redistribution of wealth" -- no doubt like the damages that the drunken driver who ran over your child might pay. (Ah, but what part of beneath contempt don't I understand?) And so on, ad nauseum.

None of these prize folks seems to have grasped the fact that payouts from the fund will be directed by Kenneth Feinberg, the same person appointed by Bush AG John Ashcroft to dispense the funds to victims of 9/11. Whatever you may think of Feinberg's handling of 9/11 monies, it seems highly unlikely that he will use the BP money to set up "Chicago-style" slush funds for ACORN or Democratic operatives. But perspective is not one of the fringe PTR strong suits...

Some of the saner members of the PTR -- especially representatives from states like Florida which will sustain severe damage from the spill -- are beginning to distance themselves from the outright loonies . John Boehner of Ohio, House minority leader, has disavowed Barton's remarks. The best thing the Dems can do is make sure that what the crazies are saying stays in the spotlight for as long a possible.

Costs of rescuing Abby Sunderland

Of course, this is not of great importance in the scheme of things, but here's a link to some of the figures.

The "Law of the Seas" provisions for rescuing sailors has an elegance and simplicity which speak to a previous era: If you are in distress at sea, the nearest country will rescue you, no questions asked. This was agreed on just subsequent to the Titanic disaster, before would-be Guiness record holders started ballooning, sailing, running, eating etc. their way into their 15 minutes of fame.

If Abby Sunderland had run into a hurricane near Haiti, would the devastated country be forced to spend millions to rescue her?

I have suggested that such people, whose actions are taken solely to post personal records, be forced to put up a bond or demonstrate insurance coverage that would defray the possible external expenses for their frivolous activity. Otherwise, they or their guardians would be financially liable for the consequences.

The question is, how -- or even can -- this be enforced? Any suggestions?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Of yachts and fundraisers

Like everyone else I was quite relieved to hear that 16 year-old sailer Abby Sunderland had been rescued in the Indian Ocean. Nevertheless it raised an disturbing issue.

Two nights ago I attended a musical fund-raiser for Partners In Health -- a leading provider of medical aid to Haiti. Two bands and a chorus donated their talents, while a church contributed the venue and others provided printing, publicity, and sound mixing. The event produced about $10,000 in much-needed support.

At the same time, the Australian military provided several search planes to look for Ms. Sunderland. At tremendous cost these planes flew thousands of miles; other volunteers donated their time, and there was a commercial chartered airplane as well. This was all in support of a teenager who engaged in the challenge of being the youngest person to sail solo around the world -- a challenge so low in priority and importance that it would be invisible if not for Guiness Book of Records hype.

There's no doubt that sailing solo around the world involves considerable nautical skill. However, in the case of recent attempts by teeners, it also involves having a yacht at your disposal. We're not talking open rowboats here, but 40 foot, very expensive vessels, outfitted with the latest electronic equipment, and specially designed for a crew of one. And, if something goes wrong, who can deny emergency aid, at any cost, to the young skipper? The cost of such aid dwarfs by many orders of magnitude the amount of money raised for relief of the earthquake victims in Haiti.

I'm not saying we shouldn't have recreation and hobbies, but most of the diversions we engage in we pay for up front. Things like sporting events are enjoyed by millions on a voluntary basis. Yet around-the-world sails in quest of an artificial record have little to offer anyone except those wealthy enough to participate, and when something goes wrong, the rescue efforts are essentially coercive: you have to save the kid, after all.

Seems to me that anyone engaged in this kind of egotistic endeavor should be required to post a several million dollar bond to defray costs of rescue. This kind of up-front payment is already required in some parks where people engage in risky adventures like winter mountaineering. If folks want to compete for Guiness Glory they should be forced to pay for it themselves; the rest of us should be allowed to contribute to the rescue efforts of our choice.

Oil disaster pictures

Here are some photos of the Gulf oil spill collected by the Boston Globe.

Thanks to EC for sending me the link.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Helen Thomas

On May 27 Rabbi David Nesenoff asked Helen Thomas for her comments on Israel. She said: "Tell them to get the hell out of Palestin" and: "Remember, these people [Palestinians] are occupied, and it's their land; it's not German, it's not Poland's." Nesenoff asked her where they should go and she replied: "Home." And where is home, Nesenoff asked: "Poland, Germany... America, and everywhere else. Why push people out of there who have lived there for centuries?" This interview took place during the Jewish Heritage Celebration Day event at the White House.

These remarks by Thomas, who has had a long and distinguished career at UPI, and more recently at Hearst, have been subject to a lot of criticism. She just announced her retirement -- at age (almost) 90.

My first reaction to her statements was one of disbelief. It isn't that Thomas has been shy about about her opinions: she despised Bush (junior) and his VP Cheney, and made her feelings clear. She has long been an advocate of Palestinian rights and a critic of Israel -- opinions I share to some extent. But telling Jews they should go "home" -- in effect: "Go back where you came from" is a bit much. After all, it isn't that all Israelis come from Poland, Germany and ... America. A large proportion of Jews in Israel at the time of its creation were, in fact, long-time natives of the Middle East; thousands were living within its borders, and tens of thousands were driven from their homes in nearby countries. Since she is of Lebanese descent, and was a young adult when modern Israel was created, she had to know that thousands of Jews were living in Lebanon, Syria, Libya, Jordan and greater Palestine (administered by Britain). There have been estimates that close to half of the population of Israel around 1948 were from the Middle East and not from Europe. "Home" for these Jews was certainly not Poland or Germany or America.

What really rankled me, however, was the idea that Poland and Germany, "home" of the crematoria and death camps and murder in the shtetls could be described as "home" by Thomas. What a cruel joke!

What about America or Britain? Robert Frost, in "The Death of the Hired Hand" said:
“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in.” While the Jews were being rounded up, America and Britain were turning away shiploads of Jewish refugees at their ports, sending them back to their deaths in Europe, or to other countries. There were Jewish "quotas" here and in England and in other allied countries. So much for having to take you in.

I'm afraid that Helen Thomas was either being dishonest or on the verge of senility. Her retirement, sad-to-say, was timely.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Arctic char, rotenone, and geo-engineering

This past May the Portland Maine Sunday telegram had an article about returning a tasty gamefish, the Arctic char, to a pond in Northern Maine. Here is a link to this article.

The body of water in question, Reed Pond, was long a home for the char -- one of the few in the "lower 48" -- until someone illegally introduced a far less "valuable" species, the rainbow smelt. The smelt fairly quickly monopolized the pond, nearly driving out the char and eliminating the place as a mecca -- well, that's overstating the case for a relatively inaccessible body of water in extreme northern Maine -- for fly fishing.

A Maine wildlife biologist and several local residents decided bring back the char. They found several of the remaining fish and bred them in captivity for several years until they had hundreds of fingerlings and some larger fish. They plan to reintroduce them into Reed Pond in the near future.

But now comes the dicey part. In order to allow the char to restock the lake, they have to remove the smelt. The plan is to introduce rotenone, a well-known insect and fish poison, into the waters.

Here is a quote from an article appearing on the website of the Center for Biological Diversity about a successful attempt to prevent a similar use of rotenone in California:

"Rotenone use poses the potential for irreversible damage to stream ecosystems and loss of other non-target native species. Studies show that Rotenone causes significant long-term effects on aquatic invertebrates, the food source for trout and other aquatic life. A study conducted after a 1991-1993 poisoning of Silver King Creek shows that the diversity of invertebrates was significantly lower even three years after the project was completed. There is also the potential for severe reductions in food supply to animals such as bats, flycatchers, warblers, amphibians, other fish, and fish-eating birds. This watershed is historic habitat for the mountain yellow-legged frog, a species in serious decline. Silver King Creek was treated with Rotenone in 1964, 1977 and in the early 1990s - the Forest Service has failed to analyze or discuss why non-native trout still persist there before proceeding with another poisoning."

I think that the Reed Pond plan is yet a another example of the failure of many well-meaning people to understand the complexities of ecology and evolution. Just as you can't blithely introduce new species into ecosystems without the risk of unintended consequences, you can't kill off whole segments of an established -- albeit compromised -- ecosystem without a risk of great damage. Rotenone will kill off vast numbers of small fish and insects in various stages of development. What kind of ecological mix will remain when the Arctic char are reintroduced, and what will be the long-term future of aquatic life in the greatly reorganized pond?

Reed Pond is a small deal, but the thinking involved in the plan is scarily evident in new schemes to "geo-engineer" the earth to combat global warming. All sorts of plans are surfacing to spray chemicals into the upper atmosphere or the ocean to reflect sunlight or remove carbon dioxide. Here is the article from Science News that reminded me of the Reed Pond story: Engineering a Cooler Earth.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Miranda, silence, and criminal evidence

I guess I'm going out on a limb when I say that I'm not that upset by the latest Supreme Court ruling -- another 5 - 4 decision by the usual suspects. Naturally we can't expect the conservative majority to be overly enthusiastic about the rights of actual humans (as opposed to corporations) -- that's not what "conservatism" is about.

Nevertheless, the ruling doesn't overturn Miranda in the sense that police must still remind suspects that they have the right to remain silent. However, it does say that, absent a definite (verbal) refusal by the suspect to waive those rights, the police may still continue questioning and use any responses as evidence.

I really don't have a problem with that. I disagree with the suggestion of justice Sotomayor (in dissent) that there is something self-contradictory in the suspect having to speak out in order to preserve the right to remain silent. This is a mere cavil -- the request for silence precedes the actual silence requested, hence doesn't contradict it.

I have a certain sympathy with the point of view that suspects are owed a reminder of their rights, but just that. The issue is, if they don't assert these rights, must police automatically stop questioning them. The Court failed to determine, in the case of ambiguous silence, when police questioning is harrassment or, more to the point, a kind of threat or torture which might evince a false confession. I find it hard to believe that an innocent person would admit to a crime after being informed of their right to remain silent, unless subjected to extreme duress. Of course, I admit that this could happen, but the unlikeliness makes me less upset over this decision than I have been about others by this conservative court.

In a similar vein, I don't believe that a criminal conviction should be thrown out simply because there is doubt as to the nature of the search that led up to it. It seems to me that if police conduct an improper search, they should be punished in some way: official reprimand and demotion, for example, fines, or even dismissal. On the other hand, if the search uncovers an actual crime, why should the defendent go free? Misconduct of the police and criminal activity are two different issues and should be treated separately. No one benefits if a guilty person goes free and no innocent person will suffer as long as the police misconduct is punished sufficiently so as to discourage future misconduct.

I realize that these are debatable points, and I welcome reader comments.