December 29, 2011

The Year of the Book

I'm not a big believer in looking too far back or too far forward. I like to think there are three days in my life: yesterday, today, and tomorrow. But let's face it, few among us can resist the impulse to take the occasional measure of our progress to reach whatever it is we are slouching towards.

For me, 2011 will be the year of the book, the year I became a published author. Okay, so there are a few asterisks to go along with that statement. I'm a self-published author, part of a nova of writing that has exploded onto the e-book scene. I publish mostly e-books, although I have ventured into the paperback trade. Even at 99 cents, I don't sell a ton of books, but I do sell some books every day. Small potatoes when compared to the big boys, for sure, but the pleasure of getting the thing done, of writing something that other people would actually read ... well, as they say, that's priceless.

I will soon be adding another book to my oeuvre, this time a novella set in 1863. The title is Requiem for Ahab. The story is based on a couple of references in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick to Ahab's child bride and to a young son born shortly before the events of Moby-Dick. My story focuses on the son, who loses a leg during the Civil War, an event that triggers a need to learn more about his long-forgotten father, a father who went mad as a consequence of his injury, a father whose madness cost him everything. One man holds the key to understanding his father's life and death. That man is the sole survivor of the sinking of the Pequod, a man known only as Ishmael.

Here's the opening paragraph: (Click here for a longer sample.)
I was not quite seven years old when my father died. His name was Ahab, and he was captain of the whaleship Pequod out of Nantucket. She was sunk off the Solomon Islands in March 1843 with all hands lost, save for one sailor who was picked up two days later by a sister whaleship—the Rachel, captained by Josiah Gardiner—that was searching for its own lost crewmen in yet another of the mishaps that made whaling a dangerous and often fatal enterprise. The Seamen’s Bethel in New Bedford never lacked for new names to be engraved on the markers that adorned its spare white walls … markers that would never see a graveyard, memorializing sailors who would never again see the land. My father’s name was not among them. Ahab was an outcast, this being the result of the unspoken sentiment of a whaling community that resented the loss of ship and sailors not in the normal course of a dangerous trade but rather because of one man’s madness … or so it was said. The only available facts were collected during a brief official inquiry into the loss of the Pequod, facts derived mainly from the testimony of the lone survivor, a sailor identified only by the name Ishmael.

December 27, 2011

Anonymous

So you are sitting around the Anonymous club house with your buds, and you're asking yourselves, "What can we do to really shake up the military-industrial complex?" Forget for the moment that most folks have never heard of your target. In the cloistered world of self-appointed do-gooding, anything you decide comes complete with its own moral imperative. Actually, this is a crowd Newt Gingrich would fit right in with.

Anyhoo . . . someone says, "Hey, let's hack Stratfor and take the credit card information of all their subscribers and use it to make donations to charities of our choosing. What could be bad about that?"

Gee, I don't know. How about this for starters? You are running a perfectly legitimate charity, minding your own business, when up pops this contribution for $500 from Mr. X. This is followed very shortly thereafter by a phone call from Mr. X. informing the charity this his credit card information was stolen by a bunch of hactivitists who used it to fraudulently make a donation and would you please undo the transaction. No problem, says the charity, as soon as we pay the credit card company a $35 processing fee for the refund.

Seems to me if you are wizard hactivists looking to throw a monkey wrench in the gearworks of the military-industrial complex you ought to know enough about what you are doing to avoid collateral damage.  Expecting legitimate charities to accept ill-gotten gains is ... well, let's be charitable and just leave it at naive. Not understanding that it will actually cost them money to undo your efforts is just plain dumb. I can see why they prefer to remain anonymous.

December 22, 2011

The World According To Newt

The following video is an exchange between Newt Gingrich and Bob Schieffer on last Sunday's Face the Nation. Schieffer's astonishment is priceless to watch as he tries to initially absorb what Gingrich is saying. But Schieffer is one of the best, if not the best, in the business right now, and it doesn't take long for him to start hammering away at Newt. As for Gingrich, his high opinion of himself is evident in everything he says and does. Given the chance, he who would reshape everything into "The World According to Newt." This video gives us a pretty good idea of what that world would be like.

Medicare Fraud

MSNBC news recently reported on shell companies stealing billions of dollars from Medicare. What you do is set up a bunch of fake companies, a process that is disturbingly easy to do in many states. Then you start sending in bills from a bunch of nonexistent clinics. You keep doing this until it looks like you might get caught then you fold all these shell companies and start the whole thing all over again. Add it all up and you are looking at losses of nearly $48 billion, almost 10 percent of the total claims paid out by Medicare.

Okay, call me crazy, but this doesn't seem to be an insoluble problem. The weak link in this fraud is the clinics that are are supposedly treating people. How about posting the addresses of new clinics each month and then letting us citizens go out and see if there is actually a clinic at the address? If instead of a clinic you see a UPS store or a vacant building, whip out the old cell phone and take a picture. Return to the web site and go to the "I want to report a fraud" page and post the address and the photo.

Too simple to be true? Maybe, but with a few million gumshoes on the case, it would seem hard to believe that we couldn't knock down a substantial portion of these fraudulent clinics right from the get-go. One thing that won't help is blaming the politicians. This is simple fraud on a massive scale, fraud that is ripping money right out of our pockets. Let's get all us old farts on the case and see what we can do.

December 19, 2011

Big Trouble in China

Paul Krugman wrote an essay in today's New York Times about the housing bubble that is getting ready to burst in China. Regular readers will recall a post in this blog last March entitled China's Ghost Cities, a truly weird piece of video documenting entire cities built in China to keep the construction industry busy, even though there were no people to occupy the apartments or work in the businesses.

Then comes another report from Bloomberg that China is building its own version of New York City, complete with its own Rockefeller and Lincoln Centers and a fake Hudson River. The debt piled up for that project alone exceeds the debt threatening to sink the European Union, some $622 billion

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports that the residents of Wukan in Guangdong province are locked in a dispute with the local government. Villagers allege that the government illegally sold their land off to developers. A negotiating committee was appointed, but then one of the negotiators died while in police custody. Now the villagers are threatening to stage a march outside the village, a major escalation.

Just three samples of stories unfolding from China these days. It would be one thing if this was all that was going on, but we all know that isn't the case. The world is a house of cards, getting more unstable with each passing day. And all we can do is watch Humpty Dumpty take a great fall.

December 12, 2011

Durban's Anti-Climactic Changes

The climate conference at Durban, South Africa, has produced yet another series of glowing press releases, bursting with the rhetoric of solemn commitments to get all over this climate change thing ... but not right now. South Africa’s foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, the chairman of the conference, declared: “We have saved Planet Earth for the future of our children and our great grandchildren to come." In reality, the United States, China, and India agreed to agree on a treaty that would be implemented no earlier than 2020. Until then, efforts to reduce carbon emissions would continue to be voluntary.

All this unfolded against a backdrop of increasingly dire warnings from scientists. Preventing a two degree Centigrade increase in average global temperatures has always been seen as essential to avoiding damaging climate change. If you believe the scientists, that ship has pretty much sailed if the best we can do is business as usual. Putting off binding limits for another eight years is a flawed policy given that time is most defintely not on our side.

Consider that the only reason we have made any headway on reducing emissions is because of the global recession that has cut demand for manufactured goods and cut down on people's driving to work because they have no jobs to drive to. Now listen to the political rhetoric. "Jobs, jobs, jobs." "Exports, exports, exports." "It's the economy, stupid." The fervent dream of every politician on the planet is to restart the engine of perpetual growth, an engine that runs on fossil fuels. How long do you think the politicians will stick to the promises they made at Durban if they have a real chance to improve their gross domestic product by half a point and it requires pumping more carbon emissions into the atmosphere?

So the idea that we have "saved Planet Earth" may be just a tad premature. Truth be told, Planet Earth doesn't need saving. It can fend for itself quite nicely, thank you. We the people are the ones who need saving ... mostly from ourselves.

December 8, 2011

Newt's Modest Proposal

Newt Gingrich, the current flavor of the week for Republicans desperately seeking the anti-Mitt candidate, has opined that young kids these days don't have any work ethic. One alternative he recommends is to take children and put them to work as janitors in the schools sweeping hallways, emptying the trash, or cleaning the boy's room. After all, the kids are already in school, so what's the big deal? Why not put the little guys and gals to work?

Why not indeed? Well, here's why not. Think about it. Which kids are going to be getting these jobs, the kids with money or the kids who are poor? You think the average white bread soccer mom is going to have her Little Johnny scrubbing toilet bowls after school? No way. So when the school bell rings, ending the school day, her kid will head to after-school activities while the poor kids will report for duty with their mops and buckets. Might as well put a big sign on their back saying "I'm one of Newt's 100,000." And I'm betting the the kids who don't have to work will be teasing the ones who do. That's just how kids are.

Maybe Newt has been out of high school for too long to remember how it is. Of course, he did marry his high school geometry teacher when he was 19 years old, so his high school memories more than likely differ considerably from yours or most other people. Looks like Newt had a real gift for mathematics, given how adept he became at romantic triangles.

Here's Newt's Law: The square of the hypocrisy equals the area of political ambition.

December 2, 2011