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Monthly Archives: February 2010

Humble Pie

February 28th, 2010 - 4:34 pm

The Internet’s ability to sustain the Long Tail, to provide enough space to cater to the interests of what would otherwise have been a small and scattered group of people sharing similar interests, has allowed not just communities of perverts, but connoisseurs of esoterica to flourish. For example, there are a strangely large number of sites devoted to Last Meals. For some reason people seem very interested to know what people ate, or chose to eat, before they died.  The motivation for this morbid curiousity ranges from the exalted sociological and culinary investigations of the Last Dinner on the Titanic, a best-selling book which has inspired numerous historical recreations of the final meal served on that Night to Remember, to the more inexplicable fascination of with menus selected by the Death Row prisoners on the final mile.


Sure of my lines, no one is there

February 27th, 2010 - 8:42 pm

The lyrics of Stephen Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns captures the comedy of errors which the British establishment now finds itself in with regard to the Falklands. How could they have guessed that the man they had been waiting for, the person who they assumed would be so implicitly like them — their soulmate — would turn to be so different from what they imagined? UK pundits are still shock over the administration’s announcement that it will remain neutral in any dispute between Argentina and Britain over the Falklands. The London Times summarizes things succinctly:

Washington refused to endorse British claims to sovereignty over the Falkland Islands yesterday as the diplomatic row over oil drilling in the South Atlantic intensified in London, Buenos Aires and at the UN.

Despite Britain’s close alliance with the US, the Obama Administration is determined not to be drawn into the issue. It has also declined to back Britain’s claim that oil exploration near the islands is sanctioned by international law, saying that the dispute is strictly a bilateral issue.

As usual, the administration’s given reason for its actions is that “Bush did it”, only in this case it is “Ronald Reagan did it”, even though he didn’t. The Times continues:


Masters of the Universe

February 27th, 2010 - 7:22 pm

According to recent academic studies liberals are smarter than conservatives.  Conservatives can take some consolation in studies which show they are physically stronger, prone to anger and fond of aggression. That means they were useful once, when dinosaurs ruled the earth. But their time has passed.  Time’s John Cloud quotes a London School of Economics paper which says there’s evidence that “very liberal” adolescents have an average IQ of 106 and “very conservative” kids come in at only 95.  That’s a major difference. Cloud’s main doubt about the LSE study is that while there are ways to measure intelligence, there’s no way to accurately measure “liberalism” and “conservativism” except by self-identification. So it might just be cool for some people to call themselves liberals because it’s “in”, which might explain some curious things. Andrew Sullivan, for example, says he’s a conservative, but then again he might just be slumming.

The implicit assumption that liberals are more intelligent probably explains efforts to pre-clear SETI messages through an international advisory panel involving biologists, historians and ethicists who will ensure the right people are “waving on the beach” when the starships arrive. After all, we want the people sending messages to be as much like the aliens as possible. And if liberals are more intelligent than conservatives, then it follows that super-intelligences are super-liberal. So the best showing mankind can put up is to gather up the sum total of our liberalism and say, “Peace be unto you. Greetings from the persons and womyn of Gaia!” But science fiction author David Brin notes not everyone is believes this approach is valid. What if aliens are not like that? What if it isn’t true that the politically correct will inherit the universe.


Relax and Deep Breathley

February 26th, 2010 - 3:39 am

Real Clear World argues that America may have won the war in Iraq, but Iran is trying very hard to steal the peace by pouring millions of dollars into the coffers of Iranian backed candidates in the forthcoming elections. David Ignatius says “Iran is conducting what U.S. officials say is a broad covert-action campaign to influence Iraq’s elections next month, pumping money and other assistance to its allies, notably Moqtada al=Sadr. The best way to counter this assault, American officials have decided, is by exposing it publicly. … The best check against these Iranian machinations, U.S. officials believe, is the simple patriotism of the Iraqi people. Opinion polls show that Iran is even more mistrusted by Iraqis than is America. Iranian meddling has backfired in the past, officials say, and they are hoping that will happen again when Iraqis go to the polls.”


The Last Bubble

February 25th, 2010 - 3:05 pm

Two academics, Simon Johnson from MIT’s Sloan School of Managment and Peter Boone from the London School of Economics predict that the world is close to inflating its final economic bubble. After this last party a Depression will overtake the world. The end is near, they claim, because interest rates are near zero the world over and there is nowhere else to go.

The doomsday cycle has several simple stages. At the start, creditors and depositors provide banks with cheap funding in the expectation that if things go very wrong, our central banks and fiscal authorities will bail them out. Banks such as Lehman Brothers – and many others in this past cycle – use the funds to take large risks, with the aim of providing dividends and bonuses to shareholders and management.

Through direct subsidies (such as deposit insurance) and indirect support (such as central bank bailouts), we encourage our banking system to ignore large, socially harmful ‘tail risks’ – those risks where there is a small chance of calamitous collapse. As far as banks are concerned, they can walk away and let the state clean it up. Some bankers and policymakers even do well during the collapse that they helped to create. …
Each time the system runs into problems, the Federal Reserve quickly lowers interest rates to revive it. These crises appear to be getting worse and worse – and their impact is increasingly global. Not only are interest rates near zero around the world, but many countries are on fiscal trajectories that require major changes to avoid eventual financial collapse.

The only way to prevent a catastrophe, according to Johnson and Boone, is to cut deficits back and reform the financial system to avoid future hanky-panky. But neither is very optimistic it can be done. The actors benefiting from the short term bubbles are simply too powerful to keep anyone from wresting control of the wheel. And if the reformers ever succeed the money men will simply corrupt them all over again.


Gift-wrapped horses

February 24th, 2010 - 4:38 pm

Mother Jones confirmed that “Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), who made his substantial fortune by suing military contractors and later lambasted them as a lawmmaker, was indeed evacuated from Niger by personnel working for Xe Services (the private security empire formally known as Blackwater), his spokesman confirms.” David Schulman of Mother Jones “asked Jurkowski whether the experience had changed Grayson’s thinking on the use of private military firms. Jurkowski replied:

“The Congressman does not deny that there is admirable work being done by some employees of private contractors. However, he stands by his criticism of companies who have been found to cheat the American people, defraud our government, and unnecessarily risk the lives of members of our military, all in the name of making a profit.”

This recalls the experience of pacifist Norman Kember who traveled to Iraq in 2006 in order to protest the war. Kember was kidnapped by terrorists and later rescued by the British SAS. After being publicly criticized for refusing to thank his rescuers, Kember said “I do not believe that a lasting peace is achieved by armed force, but I pay tribute to their courage and thank those who played a part in my rescue.” His rescue was achieved despite the fact that CPT, the pacifist organization to whom Kember belonged, refused to supply any information which could help the SAS find him.


In the garden of bad and evil

February 24th, 2010 - 4:11 am

The New York Times quotes a Brookings scholar who believes that the sudden increase in the number of Taliban captured indicates that the Pakistani authorities have decided to move against them. The arrest of Mullah Kabir, a member of the Quetta Shura and associate of Mullah Omar, in an all-Pakistani operation, follows closely on the capture of “Mullah Mohammed Yunis, the Taliban’s shadow governor of Zabul Province”. Bruce Riedel of Brookings was moved to say that “this indicates Baradar was not a one off or an accident but a turning point in Pakistan’s policy toward the Taliban. We still need to see how far it goes, but for Obama and NATO this is the best possible news. If the safe haven is closing then the Taliban are in trouble.”

NATO is in need of good news. Defense Update says that the collapse of the Dutch government over the issue of continuing the Afghan mission could lead to a “domino effect” in which the departure of one puts an intolerable stress on all the rest. The departure of the Dutch would leave a hole in Urugzgan province. Australia has refused to take it over and Canada is committed to withdrawing 2,800 troops by 2011. But not everybody thinks the Pakistanis have turned on Taliban.


True lies

February 22nd, 2010 - 3:14 am

Markets work by assimilating and pricing information. But sometimes the information is not available or it’s faked. The Greek debt crisis has focused renewed attention on the accounting procedures used by other European countries to measure their compliance with Eurozone guidelines now that the information shortcomings have been revealed. Investors, having lost confidence in the official numbers provided by Athens are demanding better figures. The Wall Street Journal says new doubts about “sophisticated” reporting practices used in the past are being expressed  not just for Portugal but even for core countries like France and Germany. One particularly controversial practice is the use of currency swaps on the advice of, among others, Goldman Sachs.


“A little incident in Mexico City”

February 21st, 2010 - 2:46 am

In 2005 the NYT reported that the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia was transcribing all the available recorded conversations of American Presidents. The transcripts themselves are going to be slightly sanitized to remove what are now regarded as offensive words. But you can listen to the recordings themselves at the Presidential tapes site.

Some of the most fascinating tapes are of Lyndon Johnson. However one might regard him, LBJ was a ‘colorful’ character and his attempts to cajole Democratic Senator Richard Russell into serving on Warren Commission showcase Johnson’s political style to great effect. Johnson used flattery, appeals to patriotism and menace to get Russell to serve on the Commission, in that order. The conversation is fascinating for what it suggests rather than says outright. Even the threats were delivered with great finesse. Johnson mentions how coerced the Chief Justice of the United States into serving on the Commission by mentioning a report that J. Edgar Hoover had about a “a little incident in Mexico City”. Whatever it was the incident in question had a great deal of persuasive power. Nothing more needed to be added.  Russell and Johnson shared a great deal of insider information and a common understanding of the rules and communicated in a shorthand that we plebeians even with the assistance of hindsight can only dimly understand. So without much more ado, let’s eavesdrop on LBJ.


Once in a Blue Moon

February 19th, 2010 - 3:29 pm

During the 1982 Falklands War, four Argentinian Skyhawks carrying 3 x 1000 lb bombs each attacked HMS Coventry and Broadsword as they defended the landings in San Carlos water. Two x 1,000 lb bombs hit Coventry and you can see the result by watching this dramatization here. The British fleet was doing what the US Pacific did off Okinawa: protecting an opposed landing. In 1982, the British threat was the Argentinian Skyhawks. In 1945 the Pacific Fleet’s enemies were 1,465 human-guided cruise missiles: the Kamikaze. If the navies in each case had been driven off, the entire enterprise would have failed.

The loss of the big type 42 British destroyers off the Falklands came as a shock to the naval world in part because these ships took comparatively much lighter damage than that visited on the smaller US destroyers off Okinawa. Coventry at 4,800 tons went down before 2 x 1000 lb bomb hits. By contrast, the Sumner class destroyer USS Laffey took four bombs, six kamikaze crashes and not only survived the Okinawa campaign, but went on to serve in Korea and throughout the Cold War.