Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for October 2011

Does not look good

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One does not wish to leap to conclusions, but at its rosiest this picture is grim.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 October 2011 at 5:46 pm

Posted in Business

I knew it!: Airline travel division

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Good article—and high time, too—on airline boarding dysfunction. From the article:

. . . It now takes 30 to 40 minutes to board about 140 passengers on a domestic flight, up from around 15 minutes in the 1970s. . .

Written by LeisureGuy

31 October 2011 at 5:40 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life

Have you seen lost pet?

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The Wife took this photo just now outside our Pilates studio, which is catty-corner from the PG PO:

Written by LeisureGuy

31 October 2011 at 4:38 pm

Posted in Daily life

Holy crap! Click the link.

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You must look at two simple charts. I think pretense has been thrown overboard and the brass knuckles (metaphorically) are coming out: the wealthy are flagrantly asserting their ownership of the power structure.

And remember that Congress has been able to accomplish nothing purely and simply due to GOP obstruction and irresponsibility.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 October 2011 at 4:35 pm

Posted in Business, GOP, Government

Bayesian search techniques for optimal shaving solutions

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When I first learned Go, I couldn’t stop seeing Go positions in the objects around me; now, I can’t stop seeing examples of Bayes’ theorem in action—and let me again recommend McGrayne’s The Theory That Would Not Die.

I just realized that I have based my shave recommendations on a Bayesian foundation, in this sense: I have long recommended—in print—that a beginner’s second razor should be a Slant Bar. (For the first razor, I initially recommended the Merkur Hefty Classic (aka “HD”), but switched to any of the Edwin Jagger DE8x series once that razor was available with the new head design, and that continues to be my recommendation.)

A guy on the Wicked_Edge posted that he started with the Weishi, then tried the Gillette Red-tipped Super Speed, and then a Gillette Slim adjustable. In the course of his description of his razors and their performance, he mentioned that he had a thick, tough beard. That, to me, is Slant Bar bait.

So of course I immediately weighed in to recommend he try a Slant, and wrote:

In my book I stress that the beginner’s second razor should be a Slant Bar (and I recommend one of the Edwin Jagger DE8x series as a first razor).

For much the same reason—gaining experience by trying something different—I would recommend that a beginner’s second brush be of a different sort of bristle than his first: If he began with boar, get a badger; if a badger was first, get a horsehair second; and so on.

I’m reading (with great interest) a book about Bayes’ theorem, so of course I’m now seeing it everywhere, and my recommendation of making a big rather than an incremental change is quite Bayesian and is more likely to lead more quickly to optimal outcomes.

And I realized as I described this to The Wife (who hears, I think she would agree, rather a lot of shaving theories from Yours Truly) that this is a search strategy that quickly gives information on the overall characteristics of the search space by testing widely separated points—for one, a search space of razors; for the other, brushes.

Indeed, now that I have the notion, I can do it better. For razors, for example:

a. Edwin Jagger DE8x
b. Slant Bar
c. Adjustable
d. Straight Razor

Again: the idea is to avoid trying incremental change (i.e., nearby points in the search space) and instead trying a different neighborhood. In fact, I could be persuaded that “c.” should be the Straight Razor.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 October 2011 at 4:23 pm

Posted in Shaving

Bill Keller

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I read Bill Keller’s op-ed column in the NY Times today. Keller was the editor thumping the drum in favor of the Iraq War, pushing the WMD idea hard, and he’s also the editor who embargoed the story on NSA’s warrantless surveillance program ordered by President George W. Bush until after Bush was safely re-elected—it was a close election, and had the public been informed of what the Bush Administration had done the election likely would have gone the other way. His column today, as well as his past actions, makes clear that he really is an odious man. Also not very smart.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 October 2011 at 2:41 pm

Posted in NY Times

Military Keynesianism

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Very interesting column by Paul Krugman in the NY Times today:

A few years back Representative Barney Frank coined an apt phrase for many of his colleagues: weaponized Keynesians, defined as those who believe “that the government does not create jobs when it funds the building of bridges or important research or retrains workers, but when it builds airplanes that are never going to be used in combat, that is of course economic salvation.”

Right now the weaponized Keynesians are out in full force — which makes this a good time to see what’s really going on in debates over economic policy.

What’s bringing out the military big spenders is the approaching deadline for the so-called supercommittee to agree on a plan for deficit reduction. If no agreement is reached, this failure is supposed to trigger cuts in the defense budget.

Faced with this prospect, Republicans — who normally insist that the government can’t create jobs, and who have argued that lower, not higher, federal spending is the key to recovery — have rushed to oppose any cuts in military spending. Why? Because, they say, such cuts would destroy jobs.

Thus Representative Buck McKeon, Republican of California, once attacked the Obama stimulus plan because “more spending is not what California or this country needs.” But two weeks ago, writing in The Wall Street Journal, Mr. McKeon — now the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee — warned that the defense cuts that are scheduled to take place if the supercommittee fails to agree would eliminate jobs and raise the unemployment rate.

Oh, the hypocrisy! But what makes this particular form of hypocrisy so enduring?

First things first: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 October 2011 at 1:23 pm

The military and its Asian members

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This sounds like another example of the US government—the military in particular—working to keep secret their failures. Story by Kirk Semple in the NY Times:

Friends and relatives crowd into Su Zhen Chen’s small apartment in an East Village housing project, bearing food and solace for her and her husband. A community leader sometimes shows up to pay respects, or a military official arrives with papers to sign. Adults gather in the cramped living room for hushed chats in Chinese as children do homework at the kitchen table. For Ms. Chen, these are welcome distractions.

But at night, when the apartment goes quiet, the grief surges back, and Ms. Chen sits with a portrait of her son, her only child, and ponders what unfolded on a dusty military base half a world away. “It’s so sad that he loved the Army and this happened,” she said.

On Oct. 3, her son, Pvt. Danny Chen, was found shot to death in a guard tower on an American outpost in Afghanistan. He was 19 years old.

Three days after his death, a military official told Ms. Chen and her husband, Yan Tao Chen, that investigators had not yet determined whether the shot to the head was self-inflicted or fired by someone else.

But the official also revealed, the Chens said, that Private Chen had been subjected to physical abuse and ethnic slurs by superiors, who one night dragged him out of bed and across the floor when he failed to turn off a water heater after showering.

Since then, the military has given little information about its investigation to the Chens, immigrants who speak no English.

And though military officials have reassured the Chens that a thorough investigation is being conducted, their grief is laced with suspicion, shared by their supporters in the local Chinese community, that they will never learn the truth.

For decades, Asian-Americans have had an uneasy relationship with the military, enlisting at lower rates than other ethnic groups.

Many Asian-American families have emphasized higher education and white-collar occupations, rather than the armed services, as a way to get ahead in America, experts say. The dearth of high-profile Asian-Americans in the upper echelons of the military may have also discouraged enlistment.

In New York’s Asian population, the reaction to Private Chen’s death has underscored this feeling, and community leaders say the case threatens to chill attitudes toward the military.

“The family deserves the truth — the honest truth,” said Melissa Chen, one of Private Chen’s aunts.

Private Chen kept a journal while deployed, relatives said, but military investigators have so far shared only three pages of it with the family. On one, a cartoonish face with an angst-ridden expression is scrawled alongside the misspelled message: “Watever happens happens.”

On another, a list of notes, in what looks like Private Chen’s handwriting, describes procedural failures, including “Didn’t clear weapon,” “Didn’t hydrate,” and “No attention to detail (little things).”

Relatives said they had no idea what to make of the pages. The military’s decision to release them while retaining the rest of the journal has only added to their bewilderment. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 October 2011 at 1:20 pm

Posted in Mental Health, Military

Cataract surgery lead-up

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I went in today for measurements. I swear that those machines must operate on Bayesian principles. The priors are easy: either the ophthalmologist’s own judgment or the average of the most recent n patients with a similar complaint (n=10, say). Then the machine makes a lot of measurements quickly, and each observation can be used to adjust the probabilities of the actual situation—sort of like the search algorithms I’m reading about now in The Theory That Would Not Die (and I’m amazed at the number of serious accidents and losses the USAF had regarding nuclear and thermonuclear weapons, including dusting some fields in Spain with plutonium: a terrible record, which is why they went to such lengths to keep it all a secret from the American people—our government seems really reluctant to allow citizens to know what it’s doing, have you noticed?)

At any rate, I got the measurements made and I can pick up the various eyedrops I’ll need from my pharmacist. No further action until the day before the surgery (surgery is 16 Nov).

The technician was marveling at how opaque and large was the cataract in my right eye, and also marveled when I told her how I had been consistently advised to avoid having surgery and simply wait while the cataract grew until it became absolutely intolerable. What is the medical thinking in that recommendation, I wonder? The same person who made the recommendation, when I asked about the risks of the surgery, assured me that the surgery was simple and virtually always trouble-free: an outpatient procedure readily done.

So why wait? Why the consistent advice to let the cataract get worse? I don’t get it. I suspect that it might have been the adviser projecting their own fears about eye surgery, but it doesn’t seem to be based on anything logical.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 October 2011 at 1:12 pm

Posted in Medical

Superb advertising—and it’s French

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Thanks to my Long Beach friend for pointing this out:

Written by LeisureGuy

31 October 2011 at 12:59 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life

Apps for activists

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Karen Weise in Bloomberg Business Week lists some clever apps for activists:

Software developers sympathetic to Occupy Wall Street are creating mobile apps and websites to help protesters communicate. Some developers work alone, while others joined forces at hackathons in New York, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. in mid-October.

I’m Getting Arrested
By Jason Van Anden
After Van Anden’s friend was arrested at a protest, he came up with an alternative to a phone call to spread the news. With one tap, his app blasts custom text messages to an unlimited number of contacts. After sending the messages, the phone vibrates and shows a screen that says: “Be Polite.”

By Digital Democracy
The OWS open-meeting process is egalitarian yet slow, says Mark Belinsky, co-founder of the nonprofit Digital Democracy. OccupyVotes users submit ideas into a digital pool, which are then randomly paired against each other. Users choose between the two, and the best ideas float to the top.

By Cameron Cundiff
With OWS spreading around the country, Cundiff wants to create a central feed of information pouring out of the protests. Occupyist aggregates the social media content created at each Occupy event, grabbing info posted on Facebook, Twitter, and other places.

By Nathan Hamblen
Since OWS protestors can’t use microphones during meetings without a permit, Hamblen developed an Android app called Shouty. When someone speaks into their phone, the app broadcasts the audio as a radio station and beams it to other phones over ad-hoc local networks.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 October 2011 at 12:57 pm

Why does science give such good answers?

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By “science” I mean the general activity of looking to experience for ideas and (most important) for disconfirmation of ideas. While it’s doubtless true that science (in the general sense of testing one’s ideas against experience in attempts to disconfirm those ideas) cannot answer all questions, I would think that it can answer all questions that (a) are worth asking and (b) have answers.

Some people don’t much like science and search for pejorative terms—”scientism” is a favorite—and define the terms so that they clearly are despicable strawmen welcome at no one’s intellectual picnic. But actual science—having ideas and seeing whether tests in the real world can disconfirm those ideas—is quite strong, resilient, and productive, while other approaches (direct mystical experience, theological dogmatism, demands from a very powerful individual, and so on) have proved unproductive in those few instances in which they are not counter-productive.

I’m pleased that we found science, though a busy group is unceasing in its efforts to put a stop to science because some of their ideas don’t make the cut and in fact are easily disconfirmed by experiential evidence and these people don’t have it in them to take up a new idea.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 October 2011 at 12:52 pm

Posted in Daily life, Science

Organizations and organizational theory

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As you can tell, I am greatly enjoying Sharon McGrayne’s The Theory That Would Not Die. Besides Bayes’ theorem itself (and I was on the fringes of applications in educational testing) what’s most fascinating to me, in my 9th year of retirement, is how poorly organizations work.

I have been totally removed from an organizational context for years now—I’m an introvert and value my time alone—and in reading the book I am forcibly reminded of the many agonizing instances of people in positions of power mucking things up simply because they had the power to do it and to demand that their whims be obeyed, including some whims of astonishing ignorance/stupidity (often difficult to distinguish in managers, many of whom value the fact that their subordinates cannot demand reasons for their manager’s decisions or explanations for their manager’s actions).

This book provides many splendid examples of the frailty of organizations. If our bodies—which can be viewed as an organization with various “departments” responsible for different jobs—were vulnerable to the degree that our business and governmental and military organizations are—so that one office can totally stymie the entire effort—we would all perish in the cradle.

Bodies have redundancies and alternative pathways to accomplish critical tasks, but human organizations generally avoid redundancy in the name of efficiency, and eventually a stubborn idiot in a critical function brings  the organization to its knees. We’ve seen that many times. For example, we see this in the Senate a lot, but that’s just a special Petri dish for this sort of malfunction, which seems to infest all organizations.

I was therefore interested to read in an article by Drake Bennett in Bloomberg BusinessWeek of the organizing principles and techniques of anarchy. In mulling over the numerous examples of organizational dysfunction in the McGrayne book, I was already thinking I should read more about alternative organizational structures to see whether some had evolved to finesse the (obvious) difficulties faced by hierarchical organizations. The article begins:

David Graeber likes to say that he had three goals for the year: promote his book, learn to drive, and launch a worldwide revolution. The first is going well, the second has proven challenging, and the third is looking up.

Graeber is a 50-year-old anthropologist—among the brightest, some argue, of his generation—who made his name with innovative theories on exchange and value, exploring phenomena such as Iroquois wampum and the Kwakiutl potlatch. An American, he teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London. He’s also an anarchist and radical organizer, a veteran of many of the major left-wing demonstrations of the past decade: Quebec City and Genoa, the Republican National Convention protests in Philadelphia and New York, the World Economic Forum in New York in 2002, the London tuition protests earlier this year. This summer, Graeber was a key member of a small band of activists who quietly planned, then noisily carried out, the occupation of Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, providing the focal point for what has grown into an amorphous global movement known as Occupy Wall Street.

It would be wrong to call Graeber a leader of the protesters, since their insistently nonhierarchical philosophy makes such a concept heretical. Nor is he a spokesman, since they have refused thus far to outline specific demands. Even in Zuccotti Park, his name isn’t widely known. But he has been one of the group’s most articulate voices, able to frame the movement’s welter of hopes and grievances within a deeper critique of the historical moment. “We are watching the beginnings of the defiant self-assertion of a new generation of Americans, a generation who are looking forward to finishing their education with no jobs, no future, but still saddled with enormous and unforgivable debt,” Graeber wrote in a Sept. 25 editorial published online by the Guardian. “Is it really surprising they would like to have a word with the financial magnates who stole their future?”

Graeber’s politics have been shaped by his experience in global justice protests over the years, but they are also fed by the other half of his life: his work as an anthropologist. Graeber’s latest book, published two months before the start of Occupy Wall Street, is entitled Debt: The First 5,000 Years. It is an alternate history of the rise of money and markets, a sprawling, erudite, provocative work. Looking at societies ranging from the West African Tiv people and ancient Sumer to Medieval Ireland and modern-day America, he explores the ambivalent attitudes people have always had about debt: as obligation and sin, engine of economic growth and tool of oppression. Along the way, he tries to answer questions such as why so many people over the course of history have simultaneously believed that it is a matter of morality to repay debts and that those who lend money for a living are evil.

Graeber’s arguments place him squarely at odds with mainstream economic thought, and the discipline has, for the most part, ignored him. But his timing couldn’t be better to reach a popular audience. His writing provides an intellectual frame and a sort of genealogy for the movement he helped start. The inchoate anger of the Occupy Wall Street protesters tends to cluster around two things. One is the influence of money in politics. The other is debt: mortgages, credit-card debt, student loans, and the difference in how the debts of large financial companies and those of individual borrowers have been treated in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

“He is a deep thinker. He’s been a student of movements and revolutions,” says Kalle Lasn, the founder of Adbusters, the Vancouver-based anticorporate magazine. “He’s the sort of guy who can say, ‘Is this thing we’re going through like 1968 or is it like the French Revolution?’ ” . . .

Continue reading. I definitely want to read more about alternatives to the hierarchical organizational structure. There’s got to be a better way: the hierarchical structure seems quite frail and prone to failure—we need something more robust that can accommodate specific failures gracefully by finding workarounds—an Internet instead of a string of Xmas lights.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 October 2011 at 12:46 pm

The world’s largest prison-state

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This is important, I believe:

Written by LeisureGuy

31 October 2011 at 8:32 am

The quiet coup that took over the US

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Extremely interesting article by Simon Johnson that appeared in the May 2009 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. Here’s the blurb:

The crash has laid bare many unpleasant truths about the United States. One of the most alarming, says a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is that the finance industry has effectively captured our government—a state of affairs that more typically describes emerging markets, and is at the center of many emerging-market crises. If the IMF’s staff could speak freely about the U.S., it would tell us what it tells all countries in this situation: recovery will fail unless we break the financial oligarchy that is blocking essential reform. And if we are to prevent a true depression, we’re running out of time.

The article begins:

ONE THING YOU learn rather quickly when working at the International Monetary Fund is that no one is ever very happy to see you. Typically, your “clients” come in only after private capital has abandoned them, after regional trading-bloc partners have been unable to throw a strong enough lifeline, after last-ditch attempts to borrow from powerful friends like China or the European Union have fallen through. You’re never at the top of anyone’s dance card.

The reason, of course, is that the IMF specializes in telling its clients what they don’t want to hear. I should know; I pressed painful changes on many foreign officials during my time there as chief economist in 2007 and 2008. And I felt the effects of IMF pressure, at least indirectly, when I worked with governments in Eastern Europe as they struggled after 1989, and with the private sector in Asia and Latin America during the crises of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Over that time, from every vantage point, I saw firsthand the steady flow of officials—from Ukraine, Russia, Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea, and elsewhere—trudging to the fund when circumstances were dire and all else had failed.

Every crisis is different, of course. Ukraine faced hyperinflation in 1994; Russia desperately needed help when its short-term-debt rollover scheme exploded in the summer of 1998; the Indonesian rupiah plunged in 1997, nearly leveling the corporate economy; that same year, South Korea’s 30-year economic miracle ground to a halt when foreign banks suddenly refused to extend new credit.

But I must tell you, to IMF officials, all of these crises looked depressingly similar. Each country, of course, needed a loan, but more than that, each needed to make big changes so that the loan could really work. Almost always, countries in crisis need to learn to live within their means after a period of excess—exports must be increased, and imports cut—and the goal is to do this without the most horrible of recessions. Naturally, the fund’s economists spend time figuring out the policies—budget, money supply, and the like—that make sense in this context. Yet the economic solution is seldom very hard to work out.

No, the real concern of the fund’s senior staff, and the biggest obstacle to recovery, is almost invariably the politics of countries in crisis.

Typically, these countries are in a desperate economic situation for one simple reason—the powerful elites within them overreached in good times and took too many risks. Emerging-market governments and their private-sector allies commonly form a tight-knit—and, most of the time, genteel—oligarchy, running the country rather like a profit-seeking company in which they are the controlling shareholders. When a country like Indonesia or South Korea or Russia grows, so do the ambitions of its captains of industry. As masters of their mini-universe, these people make some investments that clearly benefit the broader economy, but they also start making bigger and riskier bets. They reckon—correctly, in most cases—that their political connections will allow them to push onto the government any substantial problems that arise.

In Russia, for instance, the private sector is now in serious trouble because, over the past five years or so, it borrowed at least $490 billion from global banks and investors on the assumption that the country’s energy sector could support a permanent increase in consumption throughout the economy. As Russia’s oligarchs spent this capital, acquiring other companies and embarking on ambitious investment plans that generated jobs, their importance to the political elite increased. Growing political support meant better access to lucrative contracts, tax breaks, and subsidies. And foreign investors could not have been more pleased; all other things being equal, they prefer to lend money to people who have the implicit backing of their national governments, even if that backing gives off the faint whiff of corruption.

But inevitably, emerging-market oligarchs get carried away; they waste money and build massive business empires on a mountain of debt. Local banks, sometimes pressured by the government, become too willing to extend credit to the elite and to those who depend on them. Overborrowing always ends badly, whether for an individual, a company, or a country. Sooner or later, credit conditions become tighter and no one will lend you money on anything close to affordable terms.

The downward spiral that follows is remarkably steep. Enormous companies teeter on the brink of default, and the local banks that have lent to them collapse. Yesterday’s “public-private partnerships” are relabeled “crony capitalism.” With credit unavailable, economic paralysis ensues, and conditions just get worse and worse. The government is forced to draw down its foreign-currency reserves to pay for imports, service debt, and cover private losses. But these reserves will eventually run out. If the country cannot right itself before that happens, it will default on its sovereign debt and become an economic pariah. The government, in its race to stop the bleeding, will typically need to wipe out some of the national champions—now hemorrhaging cash—and usually restructure a banking system that’s gone badly out of balance. It will, in other words, need to squeeze at least some of its oligarchs.

Squeezing the oligarchs, though, is seldom the strategy of choice among emerging-market governments. Quite the contrary: at the outset of the crisis, the oligarchs are usually among the first to get extra help from the government, such as preferential access to foreign currency, or maybe a nice tax break, or—here’s a classic Kremlin bailout technique—the assumption of private debt obligations by the government. Under duress, generosity toward old friends takes many innovative forms. Meanwhile, needing to squeeze someone, most emerging-market governments look first to ordinary working folk—at least until the riots grow too large.

Eventually, as the oligarchs in Putin’s Russia now realize, some within the elite have to lose out before recovery can begin. It’s a game of musical chairs: there just aren’t enough currency reserves to take care of everyone, and the government cannot afford to take over private-sector debt completely.

So the IMF staff looks into the eyes of the minister of finance and decides whether the government is serious yet. The fund will give even a country like Russia a loan eventually, but first it wants to make sure Prime Minister Putin is ready, willing, and able to be tough on some of his friends. If he is not ready to throw former pals to the wolves, the fund can wait. And when he is ready, the fund is happy to make helpful suggestions—particularly with regard to wresting control of the banking system from the hands of the most incompetent and avaricious “entrepreneurs.”

Of course, Putin’s ex-friends will fight back. They’ll mobilize allies, work the system, and put pressure on other parts of the government to get additional subsidies. In extreme cases, they’ll even try subversion—including calling up their contacts in the American foreign-policy establishment, as the Ukrainians did with some success in the late 1990s.

Many IMF programs “go off track” (a euphemism) precisely because the government can’t stay tough on erstwhile cronies, and the consequences are massive inflation or other disasters. A program “goes back on track” once the government prevails or powerful oligarchs sort out among themselves who will govern—and thus win or lose—under the IMF-supported plan. The real fight in Thailand and Indonesia in 1997 was about which powerful families would lose their banks. In Thailand, it was handled relatively smoothly. In Indonesia, it led to the fall of President Suharto and economic chaos.

From long years of experience, the IMF staff knows its program will succeed—stabilizing the economy and enabling growth—only if at least some of the powerful oligarchs who did so much to create the underlying problems take a hit. This is the problem of all emerging markets.

Becoming a Banana Republic

In its depth and suddenness, the U.S. economic and financial crisis is shockingly reminiscent of moments we have recently seen in emerging markets (and only in emerging markets): South Korea (1997), Malaysia (1998), Russia and Argentina (time and again). In each of those cases, global investors, afraid that the country or its financial sector wouldn’t be able to pay off mountainous debt, suddenly stopped lending. And in each case, that fear became self-fulfilling, as banks that couldn’t roll over their debt did, in fact, become unable to pay. This is precisely what drove Lehman Brothers into bankruptcy on September 15, causing all sources of funding to the U.S. financial sector to dry up overnight. Just as in emerging-market crises, the weakness in the banking system has quickly rippled out into the rest of the economy, causing a severe economic contraction and hardship for millions of people.

But there’s a deeper and more disturbing similarity: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 October 2011 at 8:30 am

Helping the FBI in its citizen surveillance program

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The FBI, as you probably know, captured the spy who did the greatest damage, so far as we know, to the US, a mole who passed highly secret information to the Soviet Union, including the identities of people within the Soviet military who were spying for the US.

In a way, the FBI success in this effort was much like the FBI success in bringing down the terrorist groups whose formation they have encouraged and sometimes funded and whose plans the FBI works to move along: the spy in question was an FBI agent, the head of their intelligence operation (and, in fact, the guy who for a time led the search for himself—I just watched Breach, with Chris Cooper and Laura Linney, on that case).

One guy, closely questioned by the FBI, decided to take the route of hyper-cooperation. Hasan Elahi explains in a NY Times Sunday Review article:

ON June 19, 2002, I ran into a bit of a problem that turned my life upside down. It happened at the Detroit airport as I was entering the country. I realized something wasn’t right when the immigration agent at United States Customs slid my passport through the reader, then froze. “Is there something wrong?” I asked. He was still frozen. After a few moments, he said, “Follow me, please,” and I ended up at the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s airport office.

It was a large room filled with foreign-looking people, and fear was written on all their faces; this was their first day in the United States, and things were evidently not going well. Typically, there is little overlap between the I.N.S. and American citizens like me, and when I tried to find out from one of the agents what I was doing there, he seemed just as confused as I was.

Eventually, a man in a dark suit approached and said, “I expected you to be older.” I asked if he could please explain what was happening, and he said, “You have some explaining to do yourself.”

We then entered an interrogation room, barren and stark white with a camera in the corner. He sat across from me at an L-shaped desk and asked me to retrace the path I’d taken since I had left the United States. He asked me various detailed questions for a good half hour and then, out of nowhere, said, “Where were you September 12?”

Fortunately, I’m neurotic about record keeping. I had my Palm P.D.A. with me; I looked up Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2001 on my calendar. I read him the contents: “pay storage rent at 10; meeting with Judith at 10:30; intro class from 12 to 3; advanced class from 3 to 6.” We read about six months of my calendar appointments. I don’t think he was expecting me to have such detailed records.

He continued, “You had a storage unit in Tampa, right?”

“Yes, near the university.”

“What did you have in it?”

“Boxes of winter clothes, furniture I can’t fit in my apartment, some assorted junk and garage sale material.”

“No explosives?”

“I’m certain I didn’t have any explosives.”

“Well, we received a report that you had explosives and had fled on September 12.”

Given that I was very cooperative, and also had meticulous records that showed what I did when, I think he began to realize that whatever report he had was erroneous.

A few weeks later, a Justice Department official called my office in Tampa and said he wanted to speak to me about my interview in Detroit. He asked me to come to the Federal Building downtown, where he led me into a room where he and an F.B.I. agent interrogated me about where I’d been and when, and had I witnessed acts that might be detrimental to the interests of the United States or a foreign country, and had I ever met anyone from Al Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, Hamas or Hezbollah. The F.B.I. agent seemed to know quite remarkable details about things like the regular versus the Hezbollah bus routes in Beirut, and the person memorialized in the statue at the entrance of the American University there. His knowledge frightened me.

I COULD have contested the legality of the investigation and gotten a lawyer. But I thought that would make things messier. It was clear who had the power in this situation. And when you’re face to face with someone with so much power, you behave in an unusual manner. You dare not take any action. You rely on instincts and do what you need to survive. I told them everything.

The questioning went on for the next six months and ended with a series of polygraph examinations. I must have completed these to the agents’ satisfaction; eventually an interrogating agent told me that I had been cleared and that everything was fine and said that if I needed anything I should call him. I was planning to travel in the weeks ahead and was nervous about entering the country; I asked the agent about this, and he told me to call him with the information about my flights and said he would take care of everything.

Shortly after, I called the F.B.I. to report my whereabouts. I chose to. I wanted to make sure that the bureau knew that I wasn’t making any sudden moves and that I wasn’t running off somewhere. I wanted them to know where I was and what I was doing at any given time.

Soon I began to e-mail the F.B.I. I started to send longer e-mails, with pictures, and then with links to Web sites I made. I wrote some clunky code for my phone back in 2003 and turned it into a tracking device. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 October 2011 at 8:20 am

Quantifying “luck” and studying its effects

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Interesting article by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen in the NY Times on the role of luck in business success. I thought the way they identified “luck events” was clever:

Better to be lucky than good, the adage goes.

And maybe that’s true — if you just want to be merely good, not much better than average. But what if you want to build or do something great? And what if you want to do so in today’s unstable and unpredictable world?

Recently, we completed a nine-year research study of some of the most extreme business successes of modern times. We examined entrepreneurs who built small enterprises into companies that outperformed their industries by a factor of 10 in highly turbulent environments. We call them 10Xers, for “10 times success.”

The very nature of this study — how some people thrive in uncertainty, lead in chaos, deal with a world full of big, disruptive forces that we cannot predict or control — led us to smack into the question, “Just what is the role of luck?”

Could it be that leaders’ skills account for the difference between just meeting their industry’s average performance (1X success) and doubling it (2X)? But that luck accounts for all the difference between 2X and 10X?

Maybe, or maybe not.

But how on Earth could we go about quantifying something as elusive as “luck”? The breakthrough came in seeing luck as an event, not as some indefinable aura. We defined a “luck event” as one that meets three tests. First, some significant aspect of the event occurs largely or entirely independent of the actions of the enterprise’s main actors. Second, the event has a potentially significant consequence — good or bad. And, third, it has some element of unpredictability.

We systematically found 230 significant luck events across the history of our study’s subjects. We considered good luck, bad luck, the timing of luck and the size of “luck spikes.” Adding up the evidence, we found that the 10X cases weren’t generally “luckier” than the comparison cases. (We compared the 10X companies with a control group of companies that failed to become great in the same extreme environments.)

The 10X cases and the control group both had luck, good and bad, in comparable amounts, so the evidence leads us to conclude that luck doesn’t cause 10X success. The crucial question is not, “Are you lucky?” but “Do you get a high return on luck?”

Return on luck: We call it ROL.

SO why did Bill Gates become a 10Xer, building a great software company in the personal computer revolution? Through one lens, you might see Mr. Gates as incredibly lucky. He just happened to have been born into an upper-middle-class American family that had the resources to send him to a private school. His family happened to enroll him at Lakeside School in Seattle, which had a Teletype connection to a computer upon which he could learn to program — something that was unusual for schools in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

He also just happened to have been born at the right time, coming of age as the advancement of microelectronics made the PC inevitable. Had he been born 10 years later, or even just five years later, he would have missed the moment.

Mr. Gates’s friend Paul Allen just happened to see a cover article in the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics, titled “World’s First Microcomputer Kit to Rival Commercial Models.” It was about the Altair, designed by a small company in Albuquerque. Mr. Gates and Mr. Allen had the idea to convert the programming language Basic into a product that could be used on the Altair, which would put them in position to be the first to sell such a product for a personal computer. Mr. Gates went to college at Harvard, which just happened to have a PDP-10 computer upon which he could develop and test his ideas.

Wow, Bill Gates was really lucky, right?

Yes, he was. But luck is not why Bill Gates became a 10Xer. Consider these questions:

• Was Bill Gates the only person of his era who grew up in an upper middle-class American family?

• Was he the only person born in the mid-1950s who attended a secondary school with access to computing?

• Was he the only person who went to a college with computer resources in the mid-’70s? The only one who read the Popular Electronics article? The only one who knew how to program in Basic? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 October 2011 at 8:08 am

When your kids start having sex: U.S. vs. the Netherlands

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Extremely interesting interview—particularly for parents, I should imagine—in Salon. Thomas Rogers interviews Amy T. Schalet, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, who wrote Not Under My Roof. The interview shows just how weird—and damaging—are US attitudes toward sexual experience. The article begins:

When 16-year-old Natalie first started dating her boyfriend, her mother did something that would mortify most American parents: She took her to the doctor’s office to get her contraceptives. Her mother wasn’t weirded out by the fact that her teen daughter was about to have sex — in fact, she fully supported it. She merely wanted to make sure that she was doing it safely, and responsibly. A couple of months later, when it finally happened, her parents were totally accepting. As her father put it, “sixteen is a beautiful age” to lose your virginity.

If that seems like an unfamiliar attitude toward sex and parenting, it might have something to do with the fact that Natalie’s parents aren’t American — they’re Dutch. They are one of dozens of Dutch families interviewed by Amy T. Schalet, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, in her new book, “Not Under My Roof.” Schalet’s book compares the sexual attitudes of American and Dutch parents and her findings are nothing short of staggering: Whereas most American parents panic about the idea of allowing their kids to have sex with other kids under their roof, for many Dutch parents, it’s not only fine — it’s responsible parenting.

As Schalet’s extensively researched, fascinating work shows, the Netherlands’ radically different approach to sex and child-rearing has managed to radically decrease levels of teen pregnancy, abortion and sexual infections. It has fostered closer relationships between teenagers and their parents, and helped make teenagers’ first times far more pleasurable. “Not Under My Roof” is a startling wake-up call about America’s largely misguided attitudes toward sex and growing up.

Salon spoke to Schalet over the phone about the sexual revolution, America’s “slut” problem and how the new generation is changing our attitudes toward sex.

As you point out in the book, the statistical differences between American and Dutch teens when it comes to sex is pretty staggering.

Yes. The pregnancy rate is about four times higher in the U.S. than in the Netherlands and abortion rates are about twice as high. HIV rates are about three times higher. Growing up in the Netherlands, I didn’t actually know of any teenagers who became pregnant as teens. Whenever I say that to Americans they’re always very surprised.

But as you point out in the book, it’s not because American adolescents are having way more sex — it’s because the culture around sex is so different, and it’s especially ironic because people think America was so utterly transformed by the sexual revolution. Why didn’t those cultural changes filter down to the way we think about teens and sex? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 October 2011 at 7:58 am

Great shave: brush, blade, and all

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A wonderful shave today, which began with soaking my Vie-Long boar+horsehair brush while I showered. I washed my beard with MR GLO first, of course, then worked up a really great lather from the Prairie Creations tallow+lanolin soap. This brush is a pleasure to use—in part because it’s a brush, not (as the Semogue 2000 was) just a clump of bristles going every which way. (I do understand that some Semogue 2000 brushes are good, so I imagine that I got a brush from a novice maker: no quality control at Semogue, or that brush would never have made it out of the factory.)

The lather stood up well during the shave and I had no problem getting three passes. After the first pass with the Slant, I realized that the Swedish Gillette blade in it was on its last legs, so I replaced it with a Treet Black Beauty carbon-steel blade and finished the shave in fine style. That really is a fine blade for me.

I rinsed the razor head at the end of the shave, swished it in 99% rubbing alcohol, and put it up for the next shave. Then I rinsed my face, dried, and applied a generous splash of Saint Charles Shave Lavender aftershave: an excellent fragrance.

I go see the ophthalmologist for my pre-op measurements today. Surgery the 16th.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 October 2011 at 7:46 am

Posted in Shaving

Spanish mackerel report

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Spanish mackerel is excellent omega-3 and B12 and the like, but rather bad for mercury. I read a suggestion not to have it more than twice a month, for example.

But the one today looked quite good. I decided to bake/roast it (one recipe, among those I browsed, defined “roasting” as starting at 400ºF; below that, it’s still baking.

A little olive oil in the skillet, tried mackerel (to turn it in the oil) and found it too long. Removed tail (discarded) and head (cooked alongside body).

After getting the fish somewhat oily inside and out, I sprinkled some kosher salt on it, inside and out, and put down a layer of thinly sliced shallot, thinly sliced Meyer lemon (peeling still on), and coarsely chopped garlic. I rubbed those in the oil as well, before laying the fish atop them.

Some shallot, garlic, and lemon go into the cavity, then another layer atop the fish. A good lashing of freshly ground pepper up and down the mackerel, and then into the oven.

I decided—somewhat arbitrarily—on 380ºF. I removed the fish after 40 minutes and tested it with a digital thermometer. I could/should have stopped at 35 minutes, perhaps, but: it was superb. Fish was moist and flavorful without being strong at all, the shallots, lemon, and garlic under the fish had sort of candied around the edges—extremely yummy—and that on top was nicely baked.

Altogether a success. I’ll do this again in two weeks.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 October 2011 at 3:37 pm

Posted in Daily life, Food, Recipes


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