Saturday, January 30

“I am not an ideologue”

I rather doubt Obama considers himself an ideologue; he has probably convinced himself that he is what he wants to project: an empiricist, a pragmatist, and person who makes decisions based on evidence and reason instead of ideology. The fact that he has pursued an agenda blessed, in almost every instance, by Nancy Pelosi is the oddest of coincidences.

Skeletons & sacred texts

家家有本難念的經 (jiā jiā yǒu běn nán niàn de jīng, literally, "every family has a hard-to-read scripture") means "every family has its troubles". One translation is "There is a skeleton in every house". There's a story:

There is no principle more destructive to human happiness than Revenge; let it be taken in whatever light it may, it answers no purpose, but tends to aggravate men to scenes of bloodshed and crimes, various in themselves, but terrible in their consequences. When it is had, what better can man feel? It makes him none the richer; happiness it brings not, as the following dreadful tale can testify; peace comes not within the boundary of revenge, but it leaves him conscious of his guilt and a prey to his passions.

In the year 1676, there lived at Naples a lady of the name of Corsina, born at Capovana, and wife of a noble cavalier named Ramondo de Balzo. It happened after some years that Heaven was pleased to deprive this lady of her husband, and she was left a widow with an only son. This youth possessed all the excellent qualities and endowments of his father, and became his mother's idol and only care. At length she considered that it would be greatly to his advantage to send him to Bologna, to pursue his studies ; she consequently found him a tutor, provided him with books and every other necessary article, so that his studies might not be interrupted, and sent him away with a tender mother's blessing. He remained at Bologna for a considerable period of time, during which she furnished him with every comfort he could wish or require. The youth having every advantage, improved greatly, became an excellent scholar, and by his gentlemanly manners, correct conduct, and brilliant talents, gained the affection of all his fellow collegians. After a considerable time spent at college, he became a doctor of law, and was on the eve of his return to Naples, when he was taken seriously ill. The bed physicians were summoned to his aid, but none of them gave any hopes of success. De Balzo perceiving he was a lost man, thought of nothing but his mother, and the distress of mind which his loss would occasion her. Contrary, however, to the expectations of every one that saw him, he recovered from his bodily indisposition—but it had left him so nerveless, low and despondent, that nothing that was done for him could rouse him from the lethargic melancholy into which he had fallen. His physicians, as the only chance of removing his complaint, advised his marriage with some beautiful and accomplished young female, who was of a gay cheerful turn of mind, and who might, by her enlivening presence, eradicate the gloomy sensations which had crept over his mind. His mother was accordingly written to on the subject, who immediately set about making the necessary enquiries among every family with which she was acquainted in Naples. The task was a most arduous one—but the restoration of her son's health was the only feeling which her heart contained—that heart had no room for aught else. At length her search appeared to have been crowned with success; she found a being who appeared so gay, so cheerful, so happy and unconcerned, that she seemed incapable of harbouring a single unpleasant thought. She was young and ravishingly beautiful. Madame Corsina, fancying she had found the very person she was in quest of, explained the nature of her mission. The young lady listened attentively to Madame Corsina's story, then replied, "Alas! Madame, instead of being the gayest of the gay, in me behold the veriest wretch that ever crawled the earth; the most miserable being at heart that ever had existence; there never was born, perhaps, a more devoted unfortunate woman than myself, or one who has been more tried by deep sorrows and heavy afflictions : and that you may be convinced of this," said she, " follow me." Taking the hand of Madame Corsina, she led her through a secret passage into an inner chamber or recess, where, drawing aside a sable curtain, she pointed with one hand to a nauseous skeleton which hung dangling to a beam, and with the other to the livid corpse of a man, covered and encrusted with blood, that lay beneath! Madame Corsina started back with horror, consternation, and affright, exclaiming, "Oh God! what means this dreadful sight?" The young lady mournfully sighed; then with eyes bursting with tears, answered—" In me behold the Marchioness de Sartine; that skeleton of bones was once the beloved of my heart; poverty stood in the way of our union; my parents united me to the Marquis de Sartine. My lover came to bid me an eternal farewell ere his departure to foreign climes. The Marquis found us weeping together. Infuriate with rage and jealousy, he drew his dagger and stabbed him in the side, then dragged him (while the life-blood flowed) to this room, and caused him to be hung up as you perceive: then with an unequalled barbarity, confined me with the body, and after my release compelled me to see the unfortunate victim of his rage night and morning of every day. Think of my dreadful anguish! think of the horrid torture of my soul!—I lived but for revenge!—that revenge was sure and terrible!—behold its effects ! With the selfsame weapon that struck my beloved the fatal blow, I stabbed the titled villain to the heart, and dragged him to this spot, where I daily glut my eyes with the food my just vengeance has provided. Now begone, and think for the future that those who appear the most happy are often the most wretched. Begone !—but dare not breathe a word, a whisper of what thou hast seen and heard this day; my power and vengeance are yet terrible !" Madame Corsina quickly departed from the house more dead than alive, and on her return home was still more dreadfully afflicted by the melancholy account of the death of her son, who had suffered a relapse. Bowed down by sorrow, she soon followed him to the grave. The Marchioness de Sartine, continually tortured by remorse, that "worm that never dies," at last made a public avowal of the crime she had been guilty of, and was adjudged to die, but from the particular circumstances of the case, and in consideration of her rank, she was permitted to enter a convent, the rules of which were enforced with unceasing severity, where, by acts of devotion and penance, she endeavoured to conciliate an offended God, and at last died, a true penitent, but with a heart broken with care, remorse, anguish, and sorrow.

Very nice, but not exactly the same thing.

Monday, January 25

Stock market crash leads to battle over Ill. pensions

Terry Savage:
The State of Illinois has the most underfunded public pension plans in the nation, with a funding gap that is now approaching $50 billion. The low balances in the state's pension accounts have been made worse by the stock market crash...

A financial war is brewing -- and it's likely to pit these public employees against Illinois taxpayers who are responsible for paying those generous pension promises. There simply isn't enough money in all these retirement plans to send out the promised checks. If you think Bernie Madoff had a Ponzi scheme going, wait until the wave of boomer retirement hits the reality of pension underfunding...

Could the state simply default on its pension obligations when the time comes?

James Spiotto, an attorney with Chapman and Cutler in Chicago, is an expert in municipal bankruptcies and says the law can be murky.

"There are varying levels of protection, ranging from strict constitutional rights to general statutory provisions, that might allow for some renegotiation of benefit levels in light of adverse conditions affecting the pension fund," Spiotto said.

In other words, if the state tries to cut back on the promised benefits, there will be a huge court battle.

When companies go bankrupt, the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp steps in to cover most defined-benefit pension promises. But the PBGC does NOT cover municipal or state retirement plans.

If city, state and local pension promise are to be kept, it will be up to taxpayers to come up with the money -- either through higher tax levies or lower service levels...

Sunday, January 24

Stimulus money has gone directly to state governments

About 80 percent of stimulus money has gone directly to state governments, they say. Instead of being used to create new jobs, the bulk of the money has been used to save existing state government jobs -- teachers, law enforcement and others -- and for shoring up sagging state budgets.

A Really Hard Test Really Helps Learning

Challenging tests and falling short may be hard on the ego, but they can do more than mere studying for eventually getting it right.

Congress isn’t serious

As Tyler Cowen recently argued, you knew Congress wasn’t serious about global warming when they refused to make Americans pay more for gasoline. And I would add that you can be sure that the populists who want to “re-regulate the banking system” aren’t serious when all they can do is talk about 3.5% downpayments for bad credit risks. It is so much more fun to bash big banks.
Then he point to David Henderson's article:
To be sure, Obama is going after a real problem: that banks often take too many risks in their investments. Wouldn't it be nice if we could go after that problem while not destroying the benefits of having large banks?

We can. And the best way to do that is to give those closest to banks a strong incentive to make sure the banks aren't taking undue risks.

One way to do that would be to get rid of deposit insurance. Until Dec. 31, 2013, if a bank fails and you have up to $250,000 in that bank, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. will make you whole. We depositors, therefore, don't have an incentive to monitor banks: it's called "moral hazard." Moral hazard, as you can see, has little to do with morality, but much to do with incentives. With little monitoring by depositors, banks are freer to take risks with "other people's money."

Falling out of love with the Chinese

I have seldom seen the foreign business community more angry and disillusioned than it is today...

Visiting CEOs' banquet-table chatter is now dominated by swapping tales of arrogant and insolent Chinese bureaucrats and business partners. The litany includes purposefully inconsistent and nontransparent enforcement of regulations, rampant intellectual-property theft, state penetration of multinationals through union and Communist Party organizations, blatant market impediments through rigged product standards and testing, politicized courts and agencies that almost always favor local companies, creative and selective enforcement of WTO requirements ... The list goes on.

Monday, January 18

Genocide and famine matter less than a lost dog

Named Hokget (or 福吉 Fúqí) in Mandarin.

Something about a lost dog on an abandoned ship in the Pacific gripped people's imaginations. Money poured into the Humane Society to fund a rescue. One check was for $5,000.

Donations eventually arrived from 39 states, the District of Columbia and four foreign countries.

"It was just about a dog," Pamela Burns, president of the Hawaiian Humane Society, told me. "This was an opportunity for people to feel good about rescuing a dog. People poured out their support. A handful of people were incensed. These people said, 'You should be giving money to the homeless.'" But Burns thought the great thing about America was that people were free to give money to whatever cause they cared about, and people cared about Hokget.

The problem with a rescue was that no one knew where the Insiko was. The Coast Guard estimated it could be anywhere in an area measuring 360,000 square miles. The Humane Society paid $48,000 to a private company called American Marine to look for the ship. Two Humane Society officers boarded a salvage tugboat, the American Quest, and set off into the Pacific.

Air, sea and high-tech surveillance equipment were all pressed into service. With each passing day, the calls from around the world intensified: Had Hokget been found?

Under the guise of exercises, the U.S. Navy began quietly hunting for the Insiko -- the tramp tanker was deemed a search target for a maintenance and training mission. By April 7, the search had turned up nothing, but the letters and checks continued to pour in.

...

Eight years before the Hokget saga began, the same world that showed extraordinary compassion for a dog sat on its hands as hundreds of thousands of human beings were killed in the Rwandan genocide.

Those trucks are dangerous

As she walked, Tiffany Briggs, 25, was talking to her grandmother on her cellphone, lost in conversation.

Very lost.

“I ran into a truck,” Ms. Briggs said.

It was parked in a driveway.

Saturday, January 16

Why football is so boring

Because
the average amount of time the ball is in play on the field during an NFL game is about 11 minutes.
And Americans complain about soccer being boring!

Tuesday, January 12

as Harry Reid said

You, My Friend, Need a Left-Wing Talk Radio Show

Guy #1: I'm not afraid to tell people that I voted for Obama cuz he's black.
Guy #2: I voted for him cuz he's cool.
Guy #1: My reason is way cooler!

--Washington Square Park


via Overheard in New York, Jan 12, 2010

As Ryan Sager writes,

But, really, is there anything in Reid’s comments at which an even marginally sane person could take offense?

Reid, of course, said that Obama might make a successful presidential candidate because of his “light-skinned” appearance and speaking patterns “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

If anyone missed that this was a major part of Barack Obama’s appeal, starting in 2004 and right up through the 2008 election, then they live in a different country than I do. These facts about Mr. Obama were among the key reasons he was flagged almost six years ago as a serious contender to become the first black president (along, of course, with an impressive rhetorical style and a uniting, centrist message that captured the national zeitgeist after so many years of red-blue partisan rancor).

And these notions — that Americans have a preference for someone light-skinned who doesn’t sound black — while not exactly pleasant, and not exactly indicative of Americans’ higher angels, are hardly in dispute. Not only are they conventional wisdom, they’re experimentally tested.

Saturday, January 9

Princess Diana = Queen of Hearts?

Princess Diana wanted to be known as the Queen of Hearts. Had she never read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland ("Off with their heads!")?

If you subsidize something, you get more of it

— and that applies to unemployment too.

...which means that Democratic efforts to reduce unemployment are counterproductive. I usually believe unemployment isn't the government's fault, but it looks like they've got what they paid for.

Friday, January 8

Any real cost containment is pure fantasy

Via CARPE DIEM

The federal government wants to require young, healthy people to buy insurance because if they don't, premiums for everyone else will go up. Insurance companies need low-maintenance, young customers on their rolls so they can raise money to cover benefits for less-healthy people the health care bill will require them to insure.

...

But both houses passed two other reforms that create an incentive not to buy insurance.

First, the bills allow patients to basically purchase insurance whenever they want.

"You can literally buy an insurance policy in the ambulance on the way to the hospital," said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office. "You could imagine a situation in which you would pay the fines, stay out of the insurance pool, and at the moment when you need it, you go out and buy it."

The other disincentive is that both houses change how much older customers can be charged relative to younger customers. Analysts agree this will drive up the cost for young people, though it's not clear by how much.

...

The Senate tries to make it easier on the young by offering them a bare-bones insurance plan that would be less expensive than all the others. This is perhaps the keystone for the entire reform effort, because if young healthy people don't get into the insurance pool, everything else -- especially cost containment -- could fall apart.

The wheels of China's corruption grind exceedingly fine

...the Communist Party secretary is king. He has the final say in all personnel decisions and the interpretation of central government policy. He runs the bureaucracy like a giant franchise system.

The 12 members of his standing committee vie for his favour rather than hold him to account. Below them are the party departments and government bureaus, whose rank and status are determined mainly by the amount of money flowing through them from above.

The Organisation Department is on top. Smith says all the township party secretaries paid money for their posts, as did the heads of 80 per cent of government bureaus. Lower officials pay lower sums to ''show their appreciation''.

Based on Graeme Smith's Political Machinations in a Rural County.

Thursday, January 7

Liberals and conservatives agree:

Whenever the government fails, give it greater power.

This is a common liberal impulse. The public schools aren’t educating students adequately? They need more money. The stimulus didn’t rev up job creation? Pass another one.

But when it comes to national security and law enforcement, the same tendency afflicts many conservatives. They expect [the federal government] to perform with flawless efficiency in finding murderous fanatics. And if it fails, they look to expand its authority to do the job it botched.

To stop global warming, we've got to live as we did in 1870

The U.K.-based Carbon Footprint consultancy claims that to stop global warming each person on Earth should be limited to emitting only two tons of carbon per year. The average American emits more than 20 tons annually while going about his business in a highly productive, developed society...

What countries already keep per capita carbon dioxide emissions below two tons a year? Climate champions include Togo (per capita GDP: $900), Bangladesh ($1,500), Ethiopia ($800), Uganda ($1,100), and Mali ($1,200). The last time Americans emitted as little as 2.5 tons of carbon dioxide per capita was in 1870.

Tuesday, January 5

President Will Push Today for Intelligence Community to Constantly Challenge Its Assumptions

It's probably a good idea, but I can't help wondering what kind of assumptions they're going to challenge:
  • air is not breathable, water burns: in short, scientific "laws" are all wrong
  • we are the bad guys; terrorists are the good guys
  • democracy is a mistake
  • capitalism is a mistake
  • the bill of rights is the bill of wrongs
  • Obama is not the president
  • WAR IS PEACE
  • FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
  • IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
  • we are not real
  • etc.

Monday, January 4

Sigh...

As the world begins to emerge from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, there is growing concern that a rising tide of tit-for-tat protectionism is slowing the recovery.

Folly, greed and denial

I disagree with Denis Dutton when he cites terrorism as one of the "real problems...needing intelligent attention" that apocalyptic scenarios divert our attention from in It’s Always the End of the World as We Know It. As a matter of fact, when politicians focus their attention on the other problems he mentions (poverty & "broken financial systems") they can cause a lot of harm, too. But I can only agree with an example of earlier hysteria:
The Y2K catastrophe was promoted with increasing shrillness toward century’s end: headlines proclaimed a “computer time bomb” or “a date with disaster.” Vanity Fair’s January 1999 article “The Y2K Nightmare” caught the sensationalist tone, claiming that “folly, greed and denial” had “muffled two decades of warnings from technology experts.”
The subhead to the Vanity Fair article includes Dutton's quoted phrases:
Will the millennium arrive in darkness and chaos as billions of lines of computer code containing two-digit year dates shut down hospitals, banks, police and fire departments, airlines, utilities, the Pentagon, and the White House? These nightmare scenarios are only too possible, Robert Sam Anson discovers as he traces the birth of the Y2K "bug," the folly, greed and denial that have muffled two decades of warnings from technology experts, and the ominous results of Y2K tests that lay bare the dimensions of a ticking global time bomb.
In the article itself, Anson writes,
No one will know the extent of its consequences until after they occur. The one sure thing is that the wondrous machines that govern and ease our lives won't know what to do. Some will freeze, electronically paralyzed; others will become imbecilic, giving idiot. answers and issuing lunatic commands; still others, overwhelmed, will simply die -as will the blind faith the world has placed in them... The product of this folly is a looming disaster with an immovable deadline that will touch the entire world.
As to greed:
Holding on to old format was rationalized as a cost-cutter, particularly in computer memory-at the time the cost was $761 to store the equivalent of the information contained in a Danielle Steel novel. Considering that the same amount of memory now costs less than a thousandth of that, it was pound-foolish writ gigantic... Had the mischief been contained, the impact would have been negligible. But in the name of "downsizing" and "productivity," computers were increasingly running everything. And how they ran never stopped changing, as business kept demanding better, faster, cheaper thises and thats.
More hysteria:
Things will be infinitely worse overseas, where Y2K's impact on the delivery of food, seed, and fertilizer could result in between 10 million and 300 million deaths.

The Middle East, where half the oil companies expect at least one critical breakdown, is in particularly bad shape-as are Japan, which has the world's largest banks, and China, where much of the software was pirated, not to mention Indonesia. "Asia," said Deutsche Bank Securities chief economist Edward Yardeni, "is toast. In the year 2000, Asia will be burnt toast." But the biggest jitters are over Russia, which possesses not only 11 Chernobyl-type power plants, 22,500 nuclear warheads, and the funds to fix none of them, but also an attack-warning system so vulnerable to Y2K that the Pentagon has proposed stationing officers in each other's command centers New Year's Eve 1999.
...and what actually happened?

Sunday, January 3

Savers are never losers

Fear is the foundation of most governments

From Glenn Greenwald, but the whole thing is great.
The citizenry has been trained to expect that our Powerful Daddies and Mommies in government will -- in that most cringe-inducing, child-like formulation -- Keep Us Safe. Whenever the Government fails to do so, the reaction -- just as we saw this week -- is an ugly combination of petulant, adolescent rage and increasingly unhinged cries that More Be Done to ensure that nothing bad in the world ever happens. Demands that genuinely inept government officials be held accountable are necessary and wise, but demands that political leaders ensure that we can live in womb-like Absolute Safety are delusional and destructive. Yet this is what the citizenry screams out every time something threatening happens: please, take more of our privacy away; monitor more of our communications; ban more of us from flying; engage in rituals to create the illusion of Strength; imprison more people without charges; take more and more control and power so you can Keep Us Safe.

What makes all of this most ironic is that the American Founding was predicated on exactly the opposite mindset. The Constitution is grounded in the premise that there are other values and priorities more important than mere Safety. Even though they knew that doing so would help murderers and other dangerous and vile criminals evade capture, the Framers banned the Government from searching homes without probable cause, prohibited compelled self-incrimination, double jeopardy and convictions based on hearsay, and outlawed cruel and unusual punishment. That's because certain values -- privacy, due process, limiting the potential for abuse of government power -- were more important than mere survival and safety. A central calculation of the Constitution was that we insist upon privacy, liberty and restraints on government power even when doing so means we live with less safety and a heightened risk of danger and death. And, of course, the Revolutionary War against the then-greatest empire on earth was waged by people who risked their lives and their fortunes in pursuit of liberty, precisely because there are other values that outweigh mere survival and safety.

These are the calculations that are now virtually impossible to find in our political discourse. It is fear, and only fear, that predominates. No other competing values are recognized.

Banks charge more to cover extra risk

Congress solves the problem.... by creating another:
Banks that lend money to customers with poor credit histories have to charge more to cover the extra risk. If Congress makes this impossible, banks will respond by refusing to lend to such customers, so that it will be harder for them to re-establish their creditworthiness.

more money isn't always the answer

The President believes that regardless of educational path after high school, all Americans should be prepared to enroll in at least one year of higher education or job training to better prepare our workforce for a 21st century economy.
but
most of those who go to college will never graduate with a degree. Moreover, mere “attendance” at a college does little to improve earnings and leaves many in debt. The situation is even worse at community colleges, where politicians at the state and national levels are heavily subsidizing two-year college education.

Kurt Westergaard's cartoon that inspired an ax attack


Kurt Westergaard's cartoon of Prophet Muhammad (Mohammed?)

Remember all those attacks by Christian fundamentalists after Andres Serrano's Piss Christ? Yeah, I didn't think so.

Saturday, January 2

Hanyu Da Cidian

汉语大词典 definitions can apparently be accessed at cd.kdd.cc but only via IE explorer.

Put a tiger in your tank

Many private zoos that serve as tourist attractions
secretly operate as fronts for illegal tiger farming, butchering captive tigers for their parts, National Geographic magazine reports in the January 2010 story "Asia's Wildlife Trade."
And yet many people seem to believe the Chinese are great environmentalists.

myths about keeping America safe from terrorism

Americans are at far greater risk of being killed in accidents or by viruses than by acts of terrorism. In 2008, more than 37,300 Americans perished on the nation's highways, according to government data. Even before H1N1, a similar number of people died each year from the seasonal flu.
Too bad Obama can't say this. Well, he could, but if the most minor incident happened, his opponents would nail him for saying it. Like most other politicians, even if he knows this, he's not brave enough to say it.

Never intended?

Dr. William C. Roberts, M.D. writes
When we kill animals to eat them, they end up killing us because their flesh, which contains cholesterol and saturated fat, was never intended for human beings, who are natural herbivores.
"intended"!? I wonder where he found what this intention was. Maybe the intention is for us to kill animals, who then kill us. Or the intention was for him to write that, for me to read it, and then write this....

Ya think?

The Obama administration’s $75 billion program to protect homeowners from foreclosure has been widely pronounced a disappointment, and some economists and real estate experts now contend it has done more harm than good.

Since President Obama announced the program in February, it has lowered mortgage payments on a trial basis for hundreds of thousands of people but has largely failed to provide permanent relief. Critics increasingly argue that the program, Making Home Affordable, has raised false hopes among people who simply cannot afford their homes.
Wow. The NYT criticizes Obama administration spending. Truly a new decade.

If animals had rights

Björk:
The Buddhists say we come back as animals and they refer to them as lesser beings. Well, animals aren't lesser beings, they're just like us. So I say fuck the Buddhists.
So, if animals were just like us, they'd have rights, including the right to vote. I wonder what slogans we'd hear....
  • If chickens could vote: No chickens in anybody's pot!
  • If dogs could vote: No leash laws! Follow the leader! Balls to chase!
  • If cats could vote: Vote? I am the monarch!
  • If flies could vote: Shit!
Or maybe I should check the bill of rights:
  • freedom of religion (I'm trying to imagine the religion of caterpillars)
  • freedom of speech (tweet-tweet, buzz-buzz, etc.)
  • freedom of the press (bulletin: man bites dog!)
  • the right to petition for redress (if you don't like the turkey's dressing)
  • freedom of assembly (herding cats)
  • the right to keep and bear arms (do bears really need automatic weapons?)
  • no quartering of soldiers in private dwellings in peacetime (not in the chicken coop, not in the doghouse, and not in the cat house)
  • no unreasonable search and seizure (but you can check me for ticks)
  • grand-jury indictment for serious offenses, protection against double jeopardy in criminal cases, and prohibition against compelling testimony by a person against himself (the cat indicted by a grand-jury for killing a songbird. I'm guessing any feline testimony would be pretty limited.)
  • the rights of the accused to a speedy trial and an impartial jury and the right to legal counsel and to the obtaining of witnesses in his favor (the testimony of avian witnesses is for the birds)
  • the right to trial by jury in serious civil suits and prohibition against double jeopardy in civil cases (no double jeopardy, even for single leopards)
  • prohibition of excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment (what's cruelty to nature red in tooth and claw?)