Later On

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

Archive for April 11th, 2012

That danged old evolutionary process: it crops up all over the place

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Like in the Apple Apps store, as reported at New Scientist by Paul Marks:

Modelling Apple’s App Store marketplace as an ecosystem reveals what makes it thrive and which apps are likely to sell

IT IS easy to get rich as a developer on Apple’s App Store – just build an app that mimics a bestseller. So why doesn’t everyone get in on the act? Because the ploy ends up killing interest in the store entirely, according to researchers who built a simulation of the store to see what makes it tick.

Apple’s thriving marketplace of well over 500,000 apps for the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch is a self-regulating ecosystem that doesn’t tolerate copycats, say Soo Ling Lim and Peter Bentley at University College London, who modelled activity on the App Store.

Since Apple releases very little data associated with App Store interactions, Lim and Bentley built the next best thing – an “artificial life” simulation of the store. Named AppEco, it uses bits of software that obey unique behavioural rules to mimic apps, developers and consumers.

The simulation mimics four types of developer the team labelled innovators, optimisers, milkers and copycats. The copycats found it easy to make money – they simply built knock-offs of top-selling apps and confused users ended up buying the facsimiles.

But any developer who does this risks legal action and being banned from the App Store. That’s one reason Lim and Bentley chose to build a simulation of the store, rather than run a real-life experiment that would involve them releasing their own apps. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 April 2012 at 7:12 pm

Trying to formulate a rational defense for bigotry

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Bigots seldom believe that they are bigots. They see their positions as perfectly reasonable, but when they attempt to explain, “reason” breaks down rather quickly, as Bill Keller points out in this long and intriguing article in the NY Times:

At the end of January, New York’s Conservative Party, the most influential of the minor parties that complicate the state’s politics, celebrated its 50th anniversary at a Holiday Inn near the Albany airport, a vast and dingy venue that reminded me of athlete housing left over from the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Politicians like former Gov. George Pataki, who owed his election to the Conservatives, came to pay homage to the party for its record of steering the state’s politics to the right.

But one calamity darkened the mood of nostalgia and self-congratulation: the passage last summer of a law legalizing same-sex marriage. For many New Yorkers, the June 24 marriage vote was a rare moment of goosebump drama from a capital better known for tedious dysfunction. For the Conservatives, and in particular for Mike Long, the ex-marine who has been the party’s chairman for nearly half of its history, the vote was a triple humiliation.

It was, first, a defining triumph for the state’s ambitious new Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo. Second, it was an abandonment by Republican leaders, who had invoked party discipline to kill similar legislation in 2009. This time the Republican leaders publicly opposed gay marriage, but knowing that both public opinion and lobbying muscle were coalescing on the other side, they freed their members to vote as they wished. And that led to what was, for Mike Long, an unforgivable betrayal. All four of the Republican senators who voted for the bill and provided the necessary margin for it to pass had been elected with the Conservative endorsement, a prize for which opposition to gay marriage was an essential litmus test. Two of those wayward senators would not have won their seats without the Conservative boost.

Try as they might to explain away the defections — perhaps it was the lure of money from gay hedge-fund billionaires, or some devilish deal with Cuomo — the Conservatives feared that this defeat, if not punished, could mean an ominous loss of influence.

The four Republican apostates now had targets on their backs.

It is difficult to construct an argument against marriage rights for gay people that doesn’t sound like an argument against gay people. Mike Long and his fellow partisans, like many conservatives nationwide, build their case on what they call “the defense of traditional marriage.” No society in history, they told me repeatedly, has extended marriage rights to homosexuals, and so we shouldn’t risk the unraveling of civilization by starting now. (Apparently they don’t count the 10 countries, from Canada to South Africa, where gays may legally marry and civilization endures.) I’ve had a few conversations with Long, trying to understand what harm they think they are defending marriage from. In one conversation I recounted my own classic wedding at the Holy Name of Jesus church, and wondered how somebody else’s less conventional marriage could diminish the joy of it.

“Well, I don’t think it hurts anybody,” Long replied, “but I think a society has to have certain standards, and since the beginning of time, marriage has been between a man and a woman.” Marriage, he elaborated, is about children. “You’re not going to procreate children with same-sex couples.”

I told him that would be news to my daughters’ school classmates, the ones with two moms or two dads. And by the way, we don’t prohibit elderly, infertile or just plain procreation-averse couples from marrying.

“I know plenty of gay couples, O.K.?” he snapped back. “Some of them, if not all of them, are very good people, O.K.? I just don’t believe that society needs to change what the definition of marriage is to accommodate their lifestyle. That’s all. You know, that may be old-school. But I think Western civilization has done pretty good old-school.”

The quartet of dissident Republicans are themselves fairly old-school, at least when it comes to the rest of their conservative credentials. They come not from liberal Manhattan or the upscale suburbs of Westchester County. They are upstate guys, from struggling former mill towns and diminished Rust Belt cities. So while the senators’ political calculus differs from district to district, their experiences give us a glimpse into how this issue is likely to play out in “real America,” as conservatives are fond of calling it, and not just in the coastal metropolises. Which is why the fates of these four are being watched intently by national lobbies and wavering politicians across the country. . .

Continue reading. Note how the guy’s arguments all fail immediately. The reason: There is no argument, he just wants to prevent gays from having things that he has and enjoys. It’s bigotry, pure and simple.

UPDATE: The NY Times has recently restricted the number of articles one can read. The above article is definitely worth one of those reads. It’s really good.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 April 2012 at 2:17 pm

The mortgage scandal that’s still on-going

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Paul Kiel has an interesting article at ProPublica:

Yesterday, we published “The Great American Foreclosure Story,” our latest Kindle Single. The narrative gives readers a comprehensive look at the foreclosure crisis. Part of that story is the government’s inadequate response, particularly its Home Affordable Modification Program, HAMP. In the excerpt below, Chris Wyatt, a former employee of Litton Loan Servicing, then a Goldman Sachs subsidiary, tells what it was like at the company during the program’s first, crucial years.

In 2009, during the first few months of its participation in the program, Litton put tens of thousands of homeowners into trial modifications. That was easy, because nothing had to be documented. Under the agreements, if the borrower made the lowered payments for the three-month trial period, they’d receive permanent modifications.

The hard part was for Litton to collect the borrowers’ papers and crunch the numbers to verify the terms of the permanent modifications. That, he says, “turned out to be a total disaster.”

Wyatt led Litton’s “Executive Response Team,” which was charged with handling customer complaints. Litton employees, overwhelmed and undertrained, frequently made basic errors when calculating a homeowner’s income, he says. HAMP guidelines often weren’t followed, because Litton was “way understaffed” and couldn’t keep up, he recalls. But the worst part was the way Litton dealt with homeowners’ documents, he says.

When homeowners faxed their documents, they didn’t go to Litton, Wyatt says. They went to India, where a low-cost company scanned and filed the documents — but often misfiled or lost them. Wyatt says Litton routinely denied modifications because homeowners had not sent their documents when, in fact, they had.

In a process internally referred to as a “denial sweep,” Litton’s computers would automatically generate denial letters for every homeowner who, according to Litton’s records, hadn’t sent their documents. But untold numbers of those documents had been lost on another continent. Wyatt complained about the practice in multiple meetings with senior management, he says, but managers were chiefly worried about reducing the overwhelming backlog.

In general, Wyatt recalls, Litton was much more careful about granting modifications than denying them. Yes, HAMP gave financial incentives for each modification Litton and other servicers made, but modifications also meant closer scrutiny from the program’s auditors.

As of the end of 2010, fewer than 12 percent of the borrowers . . .

Continue reading. There are many good links and references on the page at the link.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 April 2012 at 1:52 pm

What the US lost, 2009-2012

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From Huffington Post, which notes:

Peter Van Buren, a 24-year veteran Foreign Service Officer at the State Department, spent a year in Iraq as team leader for two State Department Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Now in Washington and a TomDispatch regular, he writes about Iraq and the Middle East at his blog, We Meant Well. His book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People(The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books), has recently been published. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Van Buren discusses the present plight of the whistleblower, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

Here’s the article in Huffington Post:

People ask the question in various ways, sometimes hesitantly, often via a long digression, but my answer is always the same: no regrets.

In some 24 years of government service, I experienced my share of dissonance when it came to what was said in public and what the government did behind the public’s back. In most cases, the gap was filled with scared little men and women, and what was left unsaid just hid the mistakes and flaws of those anonymous functionaries.

What I saw while serving the State Department at a forward operating base in Iraq was, however, different. There, the space between what we were doing (the eye-watering waste and mismanagement), and what we were saying (the endless claims of success and progress), was filled with numb soldiers and devastated Iraqis, not scaredy-cat bureaucrats.

That was too much for even a well-seasoned cubicle warrior like me to ignore and so I wrote a book about it, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the War for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. I was on the spot to see it all happen, leading two Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in rural Iraq while taking part up close and personal in what the U.S. government was doing to, not for, Iraqis. Originally, I imagined that my book’s subtitle would be “Lessons for Afghanistan,” since I was hoping the same mistakes would not be endlessly repeated there. Sometimes being right doesn’t solve a damn thing.

By the time I arrived in Iraq in 2009, I hardly expected to be welcomed as a liberator or greeted — as the officials who launched the invasion of that country expected back in 2003 — with a parade and flowers. But I never imagined Iraq for quite the American disaster it was either. Nor did I expect to be welcomed back by my employer, the State Department, as a hero in return for my book of loony stories and poignant moments that summed up how the United States wasted more than $44 billion in the reconstruction/deconstruction of Iraq. But I never imagined that State would retaliate against me.

In return for my book, a truthful account of my year in Iraq, my security clearance was taken away, I was sent home to sit on my hands for months, then temporarily allowed to return only as a disenfranchised teleworker and, as I write this, am drifting through the final steps toward termination.

What We Left Behind in Iraq

Sadly enough, in the almost two years since I left Iraq, little has happened that challenges my belief that we failed in the reconstruction and, through that failure, lost the war.

The Iraq of today is an extension of the Iraq I saw and described. The recent . . .

Continue reading. Bureaucrats tend to be authoritarian in outlook, and authoritarians are extremely fearful of criticism (probably because of their deepest feelings about their own actions), so the response to speaking out is not unprecedented: you see it in all authoritarian governments, in which direction we are now moving.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 April 2012 at 1:14 pm

Impossible demands for profit growth

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When I worked in business, corporate routinely demanded profits in the double-digit range, which one can quickly see that (in any rational model) is unsustainable. Nevertheless, corporate demanded, and budgets were tweaked (working backwards from desired outcomes, not forward from reality) to show the numbers corporate demanded.

Then the year started and it all went to hell, of course. But by various dodges (e.g., continuing to fill orders and thus recognize revenue long after midnight of 12/31—we were on calendar year) and accounting tricks, the numbers would, on paper, be achieved, thus resulting in a shower of bonuses for top management, which is why they pushed so hard.

After a few years, of course, the fiction was untenable, and a routine dance developed: the president of the company would leave, a new president would come in and ask for an audit, the CFO would be fired, all the garbage in the balance sheet would be cleansed, and the Etch-a-Sketch would be shaken—and the same cycle would be repeated: fictional results, building up until the collapse, change of management, reset, proceed. No one ever learned. (It was not a learning organization.) Indeed, so far as I can tell, no one ever noticed. It was just how things worked (or, rather, “worked”).

Here’s an interesting conversation on that very subject:

Some while back, I found myself sitting next to an accomplished economics professor at a dinner event. Shortly after pleasantries, I said to him, “economic growth cannot continue indefinitely,” just to see where things would go. It was a lively and informative conversation. I was somewhat alarmed by the disconnect between economic theory and physical constraints—not for the first time, but here it was up-close and personal. Though my memory is not keen enough to recount our conversation verbatim, I thought I would at least try to capture the key points and convey the essence of the tennis match—with some entertainment value thrown in.

Cast of characters: Physicist, played by me; Economist, played by an established economics professor from a prestigious institution. Scene: banquet dinner, played in four acts (courses).

Note: because I have a better retention of my own thoughts than those of my conversational companion, this recreation is lopsided to represent my own points/words. So while it may look like a physicist-dominated conversation, this is more an artifact of my own recall capabilities. I also should say that the other people at our table were not paying attention to our conversation, so I don’t know what makes me think this will be interesting to readers if it wasn’t even interesting enough to others at the table! But here goes…

Act One: Bread and Butter

Physicist: Hi, I’m Tom. I’m a physicist.

Economist: Hi Tom, I’m [ahem..cough]. I’m an economist.

Physicist: Hey, that’s great. I’ve been thinking a bit about growth and want to run an idea by you. I claim that economic growth cannot continue indefinitely.

Economist: [chokes on bread crumb] Did I hear you right? Did you say that growth cannot continue forever?

Physicist: That’s right. I think physical limits assert themselves.

Economist: Well sure, nothing truly lasts forever. The sun, for instance, will not burn forever. On the billions-of-years timescale, things come to an end.

Physicist: Granted, but I’m talking about a more immediate timescale, here on Earth. Earth’s physical resources—particularly energy—are limited and may prohibit continued growth within centuries, or possibly much shorter depending on the choices we make. There are thermodynamic issues as well.

Economist: I don’t think energy will ever be a limiting factor to economic growth. Sure, conventional fossil fuels are finite. But we can substitute non-conventional resources like tar sands, oil shale, shale gas, etc. By the time these run out, we’ll likely have built up a renewable infrastructure of wind, solar, and geothermal energy—plus next-generation nuclear fission and potentially nuclear fusion. And there are likely energy technologies we cannot yet fathom in the farther future.

Physicist: Sure, those things could happen, and I hope they do at some non-trivial scale. But let’s look at the physical implications of the energy scale expanding into the future. So what’s a typical rate of annual energy growth over the last few centuries?

Economist: I would guess a few percent. Less than 5%, but at least 2%, I should think. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 April 2012 at 11:40 am

The sexual revolution of the ’60s (the 1760′s)

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Interesting interview in The Browser with Faramerz Dabhoiwala (including book recommendations) on an earlier sexual revolution:

The roots of our (generally) open attitude to sex lie not in the sixties but the 1760s, says the historian and author of The Origins of Sex, who explores this earlier sexual revolution through its literature. . . .

Tell us about your book The Origins of Sex

I was very lucky as a historian – irrespective of what effect my work might have on people’s private lives. As a historian you always dream of stumbling across a subject that is important and unexplained, and that’s what I was lucky enough to do. There were all these things that happened in and around the 18th century – the age of the Enlightenment – that are both extraordinary in themselves and collectively add up to a sexual revolution. None of them have been really explained or put together, and so I tried to write a total history.

Let me give you an example of the kind of shift that my book charts. Until the 17th century, sex outside marriage was illegal and people were punished for it with increasing severity. The last person to be executed for adultery in England was hanged in 1654. If you fast-forward a hundred years to 1754, people have started to think and behave differently. There was a huge explosion in the amount of sex outside marriage, which was no longer punished. In 1754, [English radical] John Wilkes writes this great line in his Essay on Woman: “Life can little more supply, than just a few good fucks and then we die.” I think this is a wonderful encapsulation of a completely new way of thinking about the purpose of life, the greatness of sexual pleasure and the role of sex in life on earth. That’s just one of the huge shifts that take place, and that’s why I call it the “first sexual revolution”.

Why did this shift in attitudes take place?

There were important social transformations, one of the most important being urbanisation. Until the 17th century, only a tiny minority of people in England lived in towns. Most lived in tiny villages and communities of no more than a few hundred people at most. It was easy to enforce religious, sexual and political conformity in places like that. But then there was an explosion of urbanisation which started in the late 17th century. At the end of the middle ages, 40,000 people lived in London. By 1800, London was the biggest city in the world and more than a million people lived there.

London is a major focus of my work, because new ways of living in these cities created all sorts of opportunities for sex and the communication of ideas. The mass media was also born at this time in London. Intellectually, this is a point at which people in western societies move from a fundamentalist belief in the validity of the Bible and external authority to belief that individual conscience and reason is the only real foundation for ascertaining what’s true and what’s false. That, again, is a seismic shift and undermines the old way of thinking about ethics and sex.

You talk about a seismic shift in attitudes towards sex, but prostitutes have always been around and sexual shenanigans were hardly something new.

It’s a very pleasing idea that nothing ever changes and human nature remains the same. But I would push back against that a bit. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 April 2012 at 11:21 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Science

Letters to oneself: Older to Younger division, Prostitute department

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Fascinating post of a retired prostitute to her younger self. It got me to thinking about what I would put in a letter I would write to myself to be read (say) in April of my senior year of high school. The warnings are obvious, but the positive advice—what to do more of, what to go for—is more intriguing.

At any rate, I thought the post was interesting. Take a look.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 April 2012 at 10:57 am

Here we are: Global Warming to date, still going strong

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Janet Raloff reports in Science News:

People may argue about why Earth is warming, how long its fever will last and whether any of this warrants immediate corrective action. But whether Earth is warming is no longer open to debate. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has just published domestic examples to reinforce what Americans witnessed last month — either on TV or in their own backyards.

Let’s start with the heat: March 2012 temperatures averaged 10. 6° Celsius (51° Fahrenheit) — or 5.5 °C warmer than the 20th century average across the contiguous United States. Throughout the more than 115 years that national U.S. weather data have been compiled, only one other month (January 2006) surpassed this past March in its departure from the average.

In all, U.S. weather stations logged almost 15,300 all-time highs, last month, roughly half of them for nighttime temps. “There were 21 instances of the nighttime temperatures being as warm, or warmer, than the existing record daytime temperature for a given date,” NOAA’s new analysis finds. Only Alaska bucked the trend; its temperatures were the tenth coolest for March.

Nor was last month the only anomalous period. The first three months of 2012 also set a record for toastiness across the contiguous United States, with an average temperature throughout the period of some 5.6 degree above the long-term average. Sixteen states had temperatures ranking among their 10 warmest for the quarter. None of the contiguous states posted a quarterly composite for January through March that fell below its long-term average.

In many regions, March weather anomalies sparked conversations. At the Society of Toxicology meeting in San Francisco, for instance, I ran into three researchers who remarked on needing sweaters. All said it was warmer at home than at the meeting — home being Michigan, Maine and Indiana. In the DC area, people oggled earlier-than-normal blooms in their yards and upon century-old cherry trees lining the Tidal Basin.

Nationally, the entire 2011-to-2012 cold season (October through March) proved especially mild. It was the second-warmest on record across the 48 states.

Accompanying the heat came a diminished rainfall. . .

Continue reading. None of this will matter to those for whom facts weigh less than personal beliefs, but I think they’ll notice as food grows more scarce and thus more expensive. Food riots in various parts of the globe will start occurring well within 5 years, I imagine.

Hmm. I wonder how the upcoming Farm Bill will address global warming and climate change, or whether that will be once again ignored. If so, it will probably be the last time: the changes will accelerate once the oceans are warmed and stop absorbing so much of the increasing heat.

UPDATE: Speaking of those who demonstrate that personal beliefs matter to some more than factual information, check out this article by Christa Marshall in Scientific American (and thanks to Kate Gladstone for the pointer):

Tennessee soon will have a law granting public school teachers the right to challenge climate science in their classrooms.

Gov. Bill Haslam (R) of Tennessee declined to act on a measure yesterday that would formally allow teachers to challenge “the teaching of some scientific subjects,” including global warming, evolution and human cloning. Without the governor’s signature, the bill becomes law by default later this month.

“The bill received strong bipartisan support, passing the House and Senate by a three-to-one margin, but good legislation should bring clarity and not confusion,” Haslam said in a statement. “My concern is that this bill has not met this objective.”

Haslam said he thought that the bill would not change the already-established curriculum in the state’s public schools. . .

Continue reading. The problem is that the story science tells is connected through chains of causality, which cannot really be interrupted by legislation.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 April 2012 at 10:52 am

Heading for yet another Farm Bill failure

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Tom Philpott explains in Mother Jones:

The farm bill—that vast, byzantine, twice-a-decade plan for federal food, ag, and hunger policy—expires on Sept. 30, just weeks before what promises to be an epically contested presidential election.

Under normal circumstances, getting Congress to agree on such complex and expensive legislation at a politically charged juncture would be daunting. This year, with both parties touting fiscal austerity and with the GOP-dominated House having recently approved a draconian budget proposal, getting a farm bill through the legislative process will be nearly impossible.

But none of that will likely stop Big Agribusiness from getting what it wants, which is programs that underwrite environmentally ruinous, nutritionally vapid corn/soy agriculture. Take Big Ag’s lobbying power and add a big pinch of fiscal hysteria and what you get is thin gruel for everything else in the farm bill, which could could choke off the USDA’s progressive-ag programs and even result in sharp cuts to hunger programs at a time of high un- and underemployment.

That’s the assessment I recently got from Ferd Hoefner, the policy director of the Washington-based National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and a veteran of farm bill fights starting in the ’70s. Hoefner added that, despite the uncertainty on when the bill will actually be passed, we’ll likely see its broad outlines take shape in the near future.

The Senate Agriculture Committee is currently cobbling together its farm bill proposal, Hoefner says. “What happens in the next four weeks [in the Sentate Ag committee] will largely determine what’s going to happen in this farm bill, regardless of whether it finishes this year,” he said. That’s because the Senate version will represent what Hoefner calls the bill’s “high water mark” in terms of progressive policy. When the Senate bill goes to the the budget-slashing House for reconciliation—whenever that reconciliation actually takes place—it will likely be pushed in more regressive, Big Ag-friendly directions.

Hoefner broke down the key issues for me one by one: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 April 2012 at 10:46 am

Bad idea: That everyone should be in the stock market

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The professionals like the idea of course: they want everyone to bring all their money and dump it in—just like the casinos believe that everyone should bring their money to the casinos. But Michael Lind points out the problems:

Is the problem with capitalism that there are too few capitalists? Is the solution to encourage every American to get into the stock market? Before the tech bubble burst at the beginning of this century, I thought this was an interesting notion that deserved careful consideration. Mea culpa. Today, after two disastrous stock market crashes in less than a decade, I think that the idea of “the investor society” or “the ownership society” or “universal capitalism” (defined narrowly as encouraging wider individual ownership of stocks and bonds, as opposed to broadly, to include proposals for sharing profits from public resources or sovereign wealth funds) is a profoundly misguided idea. The proponents of universal shareholding in the 1990s were right that more Americans should share in the gains from economic growth, which have gone disproportionately to the owners of capital and overpaid CEOs. But the method of spreading the gains by encouraging individual working Americans to risk their money in the stock market was ill-conceived.

During periods of rapid asset inflation, whether the assets be stocks and bonds or houses, it is tempting to conclude that the middle class and poor, as well as the rich, should be able to enjoy the benefits of asset appreciation. In such an era, like the 1990s, the warnings of realists are drowned out by the claims of optimists that the rise in stock market or house values is a permanent trend, not an unsustainable bubble. The failure to recognize the stock market bubble for what it was encouraged schemes to increase the ownership of stocks and bonds by America’s high-school educated, working-class majority. The utopian dream was that, in addition to earning income by means of wages, every American could be a capitalist, supplementing wage income with income from capital gains. The fact that, during the bubble, stock market returns outpaced the virtual returns from “investment” in Social Security created converts for the libertarian scheme of partly or wholly replacing Social Security with tax-favored individual retirement accounts invested in the stock market.

That this was madness was argued by a lonely few at the time.  By now its lunacy should be apparent to everyone but die-hard libertarians and stock market touts in the financial press. Appealing as it seems, “universal capitalism” — the idea that middle- and low-income Americans can or should rely for a substantial part of their incomes on investments in the stock market — is bad for ordinary Americans and the American and world economies as a whole.

Proponents of universal individual stock ownership often view it as a supplement or replacement for public income maintenance programs, of which the most important are Social Security and unemployment insurance. Likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney recently praised the libertarian idea of private unemployment insurance accounts. Diverting Social Security payroll taxes into the stock market is another right-wing idea which, like Count Dracula, repeatedly rises from the dead.

But public income maintenance programs are far less volatile than stocks and bonds, particularly at the federal level. The federal government has a diverse, continental tax base. And it can borrow more easily than the states to meet its obligations during downturns like the Great Recession. Average Americans can count on Social Security and the federal contribution to unemployment insurance far more than they can expect the stock market to be up at the exact moment when they are fired or have to retire.

This is not liberal propaganda. It is common sense. Any rational person would prefer the security of government-funded retirement and unemployment insurance to the insecurity of private retirement accounts and unemployment accounts. The truth is that Social Security and government unemployment insurance are far better deals than the universal capitalist alternatives.

In addition to being a bad deal for ordinary people, the push to increase stock market participation by the majority of Americans has had bad effects on the economy as a whole. At the root of the volatility of the global economy in the decades leading up to the crash of 2008 was an excess of global savings and too little wage-enabled consumption by ordinary people in developed and developing nations alike. This problem had many causes, including the strategy of Asian mercantilist countries of suppressing the incomes of their workers and the diversion of the gains from economic growth in the U.S. into rewards for shareholders and CEOs rather than higher wages for workers.

One factor in macroeconomic instability was federal tax policies that encouraged employer-based pension funds, in the 1940s and 1950s, and then Roth IRAs and 401K’s, beginning in the 1970s. These tax incentives channeled enormous amounts of money from working Americans into mutual funds. This money—at least what was left, after the brokers had extracted their hidden fees — added to the oceans of money sloshing around in search of unrealistically high returns, producing a pattern of ever more severe booms and busts.

Among other harmful effects, Wall Street management of the retirement money of millions of Americans, whether in the form of employer or union or public pension funds or IRAs and 401K’s, contributed to the culture of short-termism in the American business community. Answerable to flighty investors demanding high short-term returns, CEOs neglected the long-term health of one American company after another, in order to goose quarterly earnings reports by dismantling and offshoring industrial capacity, slashing wages and benefits, or engaging in financial machinations (some of them criminal, as in the case of Enron).

Last but not least, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 April 2012 at 10:28 am

Posted in Business, Daily life

Israel’s free-speech problem

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Many nations are much more inimical and hostile to free speech than the US (which has its own problems and failures in this area, as evidenced by Obama’s vicious persecution of whistleblowers and reporters—cf. this interesting piece by Charles Davis): the UK has its “Official Secrets Act” (which amounts to a “Cover Up Official Blunders and Wrong-doing Act,” since that seems to be its primary function). And Israel has a peculiar hair-trigger response to any criticism of its government or its actions: Alex Pearlman reports:

Earlier this week, German writer Gunter Grass was barred from Israel for the content of his poem “What Must Be Said,” a meditation on the situation between Israel and Iran. The Nobel laureate’s piece, which warns of Israel’s military might and condemns German arms sales to Israel, caused an outrage in both countries and tempers have flared all over the Internet, both in favor of and against the content of the poem.

“Grass’s poems fan the flames of hatred against Israel and the Israeli people, thus promoting the idea he was part of when he donned an SS uniform,” said Israel’s interior minister, Eli Yishai, according to the New York Times, apparently referring to the writer’s adolescence with the Hitler Youth, an admission Grass made in 2006.

But do words warrant instituting a ban on a person?

Grass’ controversial past could explain away Israel’s actions against that German writer in particular. But it isn’t just the poem. Israel has a free speech problem.

In 2010 renowned professor and linguist Noam Chomsky was banned from entry to Israel after an attempt to give a lecture at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah. Norman Finkelstein, also a Jewish professor, was arrested, deported and banned from Israel for 10 years in 2008. [Here's a slide show of more controversial critics of Israel who have been banned from entering the country.]

“The decision to prevent someone from voicing their opinions by arresting and deporting them is typical of a totalitarian regime,” said Oded Peler, a lawyer for Israel’s Association for Civil Rights to the Guardian after Finkelstein’s deportation. “A democratic state, where freedom of expression is the highest principle, does not shut out criticism or ideas just because they are uncomfortable for its authorities to hear. It confronts those ideas in public debate.”

In Israel, there is no protection of freedom of speech, because there is no constitution. There is no specific legal accountability in regard to words or art, because no Israeli document exists that protects this inalienable human right, the way the U.S. Constitution does. The Knesset makes laws and the Supreme Court decides if they’re legal or not, but there is nothing equal to a universal free speech provision on the books in Israel.

In the past few years, it has become apparent that without a central document that protects freedoms, the Knesset has the ability to pass laws without being accountable to a higher idea of human rights. Besides a recent law against organizing boycotts of Israeli goods, which one Israeli journalist called “fascism at its worst,” there have been a flood of incidents that would never fly in the face of the American First Amendment — or even the most general understanding of the concept of free speech.

“Israelis accept limits on free expression that other democracies would reject,” explained Edmund Sanders in a July Los Angeles Times article. “… many of the controversial measures received solid public support, reflecting a growing ambivalence in Israel over free-speech rights.”

The Israeli government also insists that some news outlets submit their reports for approval before publication. A Palestinian TV station was recently shut down without cause or warning, and, according to Human Rights Watch, hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment was seized. Journalists are routinely detained and questioned, and a professor was recently arrested for launching a new website through Al Quds University. . .

Continue reading. That sounds like a totalitarian government to me, determined to control the speech if not the thoughts of those under its control.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 April 2012 at 10:21 am

Publishers efforts to collude on fixing prices for ebooks faces legal challenge

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As you know, Apple and the publishing industry is highly upset at Amazon’s overturning the “agency pricing model” applecart, selling ebooks at reasonable mark-ups. (Amazon initially set top price for ebook at $9.99, but Apple and the publishers hated that.) So the publishers have worked together to fix prices, in plain defiance of US law. I suspect the root cause was greed—or, more tactfully, an effort to respond to the new era of hypercompetitive captialism.

Julie Bosman has a report in the NY Times:

The Justice Department filed a civil antitrust lawsuit against Apple and major book publishers on Wednesday, charging that the companies colluded to raise the price of e-books in 2010.

Several publishers have agreed to a proposed settlement, people close to the negotiations said.

The lawsuit alleges that Apple and the publishers conspired to limit e-book price competition, causing “e-book consumers to pay tens of millions of dollars more for e-books than they otherwise would have paid.”

The publishers named in the lawsuit are Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Group USA and Simon & Schuster.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is to appear at a news conference at noon Eastern time to announce “a significant antitrust matter,” the Justice Department said on Wednesday.

The lawsuit capped an investigation that began last year into Apple and five of the biggest book publishers. The investigation was in response to what government investigators said was illegal action two years ago when the publishers adopted a pricing policy for e-books. . .

Continue reading. From later in the article:

. . . The lawsuit said that for at least one year beginning “no later than September 2008,” the chief executives of the publishing companies met once every several months, “in private dining rooms of upscale Manhattan restaurants” to “discuss confidential business and competitive matters, including Amazon’s e-book retailing practices.”

One of the meetings took place in the Chef’s Wine Cellar, a private room at Picholine, a Manhattan restaurant. One of the chief executives “reported that business matters were discussed,” the suit said.

“These private meetings,” the suit alleges, “provided the publisher defendants’ C.E.O.’s the opportunity to discuss how they collectively could solve ‘the $9.99 problem.’ ”

At the time, publishers were concerned about Amazon’s practice of charging $9.99 for most newly released and best-selling e-books.

In early 2010, Steve Jobs, then Apple’s chief executive, suggested to book publishers that they sell e-books using agency pricing; Apple would serve as the online agent and take a 30 percent commission.

The five publishers made agreements with Apple for selling e-books, and Apple, which was about to introduce its iPad to the market, insisted on what is known as a “most favored nation’’ clause, which prohibited publishers from allowing other retailers to sell e-books for less than Apple’s price.

It is that clause that came under scrutiny by the Justice Department. . .

Written by LeisureGuy

11 April 2012 at 9:51 am

Megs showing off her new do

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Miss Megs has definite opinions and is not slow to express displeasure, which seems to lurk near the surface. One source of displeasure is attempts to brush her, and so she gradually became known as Miss Tufty. The tufts were not so bad, and when she sat in my lap I was allowed to tug out a few until she got annoyed (approximately 2-3 tufts seemed to be the limit).

Finally, the tufts on her back started to form a mat, and Steps Had To Be Taken. The vet is pretty fearless and also has assistants, so Megs went in for a pedicure and (unbeknownst to her) a good, solid brushing.

She lasted about 10 minutes before, as the vet says, she “hit the way” and it was clear that NO MORE BRUSHING WILL BE DONE!!! At that point, the vet returns the (enraged) little kitty to her carrier, and we return home. They did indeed cut off the back mat and brush out a substantial amount of fur (using a Furminator, which I have but which Megs does not allow in a home setting). The vet suggested I could bring her in for a “finish-up” session in another week or two.

But she definitely looks better. This morning:

I suggest that when you go to adopt a kitten or cat, take along some toys, to see how well it plays, and also a brush, to see whether it enjoys being brushed. Megs mainly wanted—desperately—to escape. I was so calm and effective in holding her that The Wife (the kitty expert in our family) didn’t realize what was happening and thought Megs was snuggling. No, Megs is not a snuggle kitty, though nowadays she does enjoy sitting on my lap, taking a nap there if possible. But she mostly is a solitary creature, though engaging to me.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 April 2012 at 9:44 am

Posted in Cats, Megs

Cool idea if you have kids—especially with summer coming on

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Could be used in kitchen or bathroom or both…

Take a look at this Cool Tool.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 April 2012 at 9:36 am

Posted in Daily life, Technology

Jack Black tryout

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Based on this post at Kafeneio, I decided to give Jack Black a go—I certainly see the stuff advertised enough. I heeded Steve’s advise not to go for lathering and not to add water. The brush was quite useful at spreading the shaving cream—more efficient than fingers would have been—and the shaving cream covers nicely. I’m not so taken with the fragrance-free aspect, I have to admit, but I did get a good shave. OTOH, I thought that in this category of high-end non-lathering shaving creams Jack Black is well out-classed by Nancy Boy original. I’ll verify that impression tomorrow when I’ll use NB, but my first impressions are that Jack Black shaving cream is in the same ballpark as NB but Minor League as opposed to Major League. Still, not bad and a definite step up from those awful gucky brushless shaving creams in a tube like the old BurmaShave.

However: note once more that shaving is YMMV. Someone else might love JB and hate NB. Samples are the way to go to see what will work for you. Try Garry’s Sample Shop.

I got a very nice shave withal: prelim wash with MR GLO, three passes with the iKon S3S, and finally a good splash of Stetson Sierra to wrap it up.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 April 2012 at 9:31 am

Posted in Shaving

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