July 29, 2012

Murder Madness

The news has been filled with horrific accounts of violence. The crazies and the frustrated and the loners have been racking up the body count, sometimes in their heads, sometimes on the street. The common thread in each case was the use or stockpiling of firearms. Everything from handguns to shotguns to assault weapons. Not to mention the bullets and the black body armor that now seems de rigeur for this sort of affair.

I'm sick of it. I'm sick of the people who think that killing other people is the way to go. I'm sick of groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) who use their money and power to maintain the ready availability of any kind of weapon imaginable in any quantity unimaginable. I'm sick of gutless politicians who cater to the NRA. There is a cancer in the good 'ol U.S. of A., and it's name is the Second Amendment, which has been used and abused by groups to defend a mythical right to participate in an equally mythical well-ordered militia. The Supreme Court has a lot to be ashamed about, and its most recent ruling on gun control will easily make the top three.

Let me tell you something. Unlike most of you (I hope), I have actually lived with an M-16 locked and loaded, by my side or in my hand, 24/7. So did everyone else wherever I was in Vietnam. And you know what? Not once were any of those weapons fired in anger at each other. And it wasn't because we were all armed. It was because in the middle of a war, under horrific circumstances, we retained enough of our moral sanity to know that you just didn't go around shooting people for no good reason.

Know this. Assault weapons have only one purpose, the killing of other people. Now you can do that in lots of different ways, but if you are talking assault weapons and someone finally does snap, it means just one thing: More dead, more quick.

So if you absolutely feel that the only way you can be safe is to have a weapon, by all means go out and get a handgun or a shotgun or a rifle. (Personally, I'd go with the shotgun.) I'm almost 70 years old and have never once felt the need to shoot someone for any reason whatsoever, but if you worry about it and you think that having a firearm in the house will make you safer, go for it. No problemo.

But for goodness sakes, can't we agree that assault weapons have no place in anyone's home? Can't we agree that allowing an individual to buy enough of these types of weapons to outfit a platoon is just plain crazy? I don't think that is too much to ask for. What you really need to ask yourselves is how many deaths are worth preserving a couple of sentences written by men living in very different times, men who undoubtedly would be stupefied at the idiocy of allowing access to any and all kind of weapon absent proper military structure to go along with it.

I'll end with this slight adjustment to Bob Dylan's lyric in Blowin' in the Wind:

July 28, 2012

Of Whales, Elephants, Apes and Men

Religion tells us that God has a plan for us. Science helps us to understand just how that plan works. The two sides haven't always communicated so good, but both are essential if we are ever to understand mankind's place in the grand scheme of things, a struggle that been going on ever since we began painting images on a cave wall and burying our dead with flowers.

From the beginning, religion emphasized our uniqueness, even as science confirms our existence as the consequence of many antecedent developments. The Bible gave us dominion over "the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth." If there was a plan, it was just for us.

I have long disliked the notion that we are somehow apart from the rest of creation. I believe, instead, that we should consider all of creation as bound together in a whole, be it animate and inanimate. I have no problem believing in a plan; I just think everything is a part of that plan, not just a single species that has been around for the wink of an eye.

This leads me to spindle neurons. I first learned of them in an article in New Scientist. Spindle neurons are a specific kind of brain neuron--cells that communicate with each other inside our brain via electrical and chemical triggers--that are found in significant numbers and always in the same two parts of the brain in only four species: humans, great apes, certain whales (humpback, fin, sperm, and killer), and elephants. And new research suggests you can add dolphins to the list. A pretty elite group.

The evolution and purpose of spindle neurons--more properly called von Economo neurons after the Romanian scientist who discovered them in the early 20th Century--is still being explored. Some scientists trace them back to food. Sensing what is safe and what is poisonous requires fast work inside the brain, and spindle neurons are designed for speed, especially in large brains where the signals have, comparatively speaking, much greater distances to cross. The understanding of what food is safe also has importance for the group as well as the individual. So, spindle neurons seem to have played a role in social communication. The more of them you have, the higher the degree of social development.

It is true that many species have a very complex social existence, ants and bees being a prime example. Yet, somehow we know that they are very different from us, as different as Star Trek's Borg are from mankind. But apes and whales and elephants and dolphins ... we can see a reflection of ourselves in their eyes and in their actions. Elephants mourn their dead. Dolphins and whales have a complex language. Apes ... well, they are an obvious choice.

What does it mean, these spindle neurons that link us so closely and uniquely? I don't know, but my gut says that whatever plan exists, there is most likely a Plan B ... a replacement that can move in if we falter. Given how things are working out, that might not be such a bad idea.

One final thought. To the list of whales, elephants, and apes, I would add dogs. We are so deeply connected to them ... you have to think that maybe they have spindle neurons ... or maybe some other as yet undiscovered neuron in charge of unconditional love. Now that would be something to think about.

July 23, 2012

A Primer on Rare Earths

In my novel, The Magpie's Secret, I included a brief discussion of neodymium magnets, without which there would be no rock 'n roll or computers. So it's kind of important stuff. Neodymium is one of the so-called rare earths, minerals that are vital to many of the technologies we rely on just about every waking minute of our lives. In addition to computer hard drives, rare earths are essential for the manufacture of televisions, cell phones and rechargeable batteries, including those used in hybrid cars. So take away rare earths and you have pretty much unplugged modern society.

The key thing about rare earths is that 97 percent of the world's supply is controlled by China. Yeah, that China. So, when they say "Made in China," you have no idea. Extracting rare earths is a messy and dangerous process, which is why the rest of the world is content to let the Chinese handle it. The largest rare earth mine, located in Inner Mongolia, generates untreated toxic radioactive wastewater equivalent to two Lake Michigan's every year. Think about that the next time you watch TV or buy batteries or use your cell phone. Our cheap consumer society is bought and paid for in places like Inner Mongolia, where the costs are truly hidden.

Below is an infographic from www.getbuckyballs.com, a producer of executive toys. There is also a neat video explaining the uses of rare earths that is embedded in a BBC article on China's trade quotas and the complaints they have spawned from the rest of the world.

Buckyballs Rare Earth Metals

July 22, 2012

Getting Climate Change's Number

In the world of climate change activists and alarmists, Bil McKibben is a very well-known figure. Founder of 350.org, a movement aimed at drawing attention to the importance of keeping carbon dioxide levels below 350 parts per million in the atmosphere, McKibben recently published an essay in Rolling Stone, in which he talks about three other important numbers.

The first is 2° Celsius, the rise in average global temperatures at which we begin to feel the effects of global warming. We are nearly half-way there, and already the damage is greater than expected, with dramatically less Arctic ice, significantly higher acid levels in the ocean, and a wetter atmosphere capable of producing much heavier rainfalls.

The second number is 565 more gigatonnes, the amount of carbon dioxide scientists say we can add to the atmosphere by midcentury and still hope to stay below 2° Celsius. From this is derived the notion of a carbon budget, an attempt to keep the amount of fossil fuels burned within "safe" levels. To give you an idea of where we stand, last year 31.5 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide was added, a rate which would blow us past the safe level in less than 20 years.

The third number--2,795--is the real grabber. This is the "amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies."

The point McKibben makes is a simple one. Oil and natural gas companies are in the business of making money by producing and selling their product. It is in their interest to sell all the product they can to make all the money they can. But if they do so, they will push us wildly past the 565-gigatonne maximum level of carbon dioxide deemed barely acceptable if we are to avoid punishing consequences from climate change induced or accelerated by the burning of fossil fuels.

Now ask yourselves, what are the odds of the big oil and natural gas companies voluntarily agreeing to not sell what they already know they have, especially in the face of ever-increasing demand for the product? If the phrase "slim and none" pops into your head, you are on the right track.

Bottom line, as I have so often stated here, if climate change driven by global warming driven by burning fossil fuels is as real as the climate scientists say it is, then we and our children and their children are screwed, plain and simple, because there is no way, no how, the politics of the foreseeable future are going to permit the kinds of measures needed to achieve the first two numbers.

McKibben concludes his article with this tidbit of food for thought:
This month, scientists issued a new study concluding that global warming has dramatically increased the likelihood of severe heat and drought – days after a heat wave across the Plains and Midwest broke records that had stood since the Dust Bowl, threatening this year's harvest. You want a big number? In the course of this month, a quadrillion kernels of corn need to pollinate across the grain belt, something they can't do if temperatures remain off the charts. Just like us, our crops are adapted to the Holocene, the 11,000-year period of climatic stability we're now leaving... in the dust.
 Climate change is but one of many problems pressing upon us. It is also the problem with the least visibility, the least immediate impact on our daily lives. Folks who are worried about making the rent aren't likely to lose a lot of sleep over something that will happen a decade from now. Folks who already think taxes and the cost of living are too high aren't going to sign up more more of both. But like many of the other problems that we face today, climate change is the result of years of kicking the can down the road. Our political leadership has failed on every level. Sooner or later, the price must be paid. Sadly, I fear it is much, much sooner than we dare to think even a few short years ago.

July 20, 2012

The Business of Business

In this era of troubled times, Nouriel Roubini's web site, EconoMonitor, has proven to be a reliable source of even more bad news. If you don't know who Nouriel Roubini is, he is an economist and professor who achieved some notoriety by correctly anticipating the collapse of the American housing market and the worldwide recession. Since then, he has made a cottage industry out of bad news, and business is booming.

His web site recently posted an essay by Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton. Reich argues that, despite the current political brouhaha, out-sourcing of American jobs isn't the problem. He quotes an Apple executive Apple executive who told the New York Times, “we don’t have an obligation to solve America’s problems. Our only obligation is making the best product possible.” Reich goes on to argue that the best product is made by the best and the brightest workers, who no longer are reliably to be found in the United States.

For that, Reich says we can thank the inadequacies of the American educational system. We all know that America world ranking in education has fallen steadily. The latest three-yearly OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report, which compares the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds in 70 countries around the world, ranked the United States 14th out of 34 OECD countries for reading skills, 17th for science and a below-average 25th for mathematics. Add to that a crumbling infrastructure--just check out any highway overpass ... you will most likely see rust spots and flaking paint--and you have less and less incentive for companies to use our workers to make things in America.

Here is where Reich makes his essential point:
"But big American-based companies aren’t pushing this agenda, despite their huge clout in Washington. They don’t care about making Americans more competitive. They say they have no obligation to solve America’s problems.
They want lower corporate taxes, lower taxes for their executives, fewer regulations, and less public spending. And to achieve these goals they maintain legions of lobbyists and are pouring boatloads of money into political campaigns."
 I thought one of the comments on the article, posted by someone identified only as a guest, really hit the nail on the head:
"Talking about 'improving' US schools as the cure-all replaces one simplistic notion with another. German workers are better educated because companies use their services for their entire working lives. That gives German companies an incentive to insist that students are properly schooled before they enter the workforce, and then to keep them productive by ongoing training.

American companies, by contrast, see workers as expenses, resources to be used up as they leave college and then discarded as soon as their classes become irrelevant, or the workers build up seniority and demand higher wages. This model ensures that Americans never reach the level of expertise that takes a lifetime to acquire; they are the ultimate disposable temps, just what 'third world' workers used to be."
This sense that employers don't value their workers is one reason why the American Dream seems to be more and more out of reach, especially for middle America. Look at what's happened to pensions, if you call a self-financed 401(k) a pension. Look at what's happened to health benefits, if you get any. Look at what's happened to jobs, where part-time and temp work is on the rise. If you don't like it, then leave it, because there's plenty more who will take your job for less pay. Too often, this is how it is these days.

People put up with it because they are scared of losing what little they have. At the end of the day, the average wage-earner is at the mercy of the employer. Until American companies see their employees as integral parts of the enterprise worth retaining and retraining instead of just another cost to be dealt with ... until everyone agrees that we all have to chip in to make America more competitive in the global economy ... we will be stuck on the glide path downwards towards mediocrity.

July 15, 2012

Man Versus Machine

We humans seem to have a knack for creating technologies that threaten our dominion "over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth." The most obvious example would be nuclear weaponry, which spawned the ultimate acronym: MAD, or mutual assured destruction. You could call this the big-bang approach to extinction. A less obvious example would be fossil-fuel burning technologies. This is more akin to sitting in a garage while running your car engine. Either way, the end result is the same: mass extinctions and a great deal of suffering, human or other-wise. It's just a matter of time.

But the more subtle persistent threat to our continued status as top dogs on the planet is the computing machines we have been perfecting. The threat comes in two forms. First, we have become utterly dependent upon them, as the inevitable cyber-attack we all can see coming will demonstrate. Without computers, our monetary system would collapse in hours. Hell, computer-driven stock trading has already made a pretty big dent in our economy.

The second threat is more indirect. Computers can already out-perform humans in an increasingly wider range of activities. And we are busily perfecting self-organizing and self-assembling computers and machines--swarmbots and swarmanoids--that can design and build themselves. The day is not far off when these machines will be linked together, in a paradigm envisioned in the Terminator series, when Skynet became self-aware. This was quickly followed by an apocalyptic war with the machines.

So what's our edge? In the battle between Kirk and Spock, who ultimately prevails? The intuitive captain or the logical second-mate? The answer might just be is in the theories set forth by an 18th Century English clergyman named Thomas Bayes. His contribution was a mathematical formula to assign value to prior information in estimating the probability that a future event will occur.

If you think I'm going to explain the intricacies of Bayesian statistics, think again. I couldn't even if I wanted to. The gist of it is that we humans have evolved a capacity to learn from experience. From infancy onward, we have a pronounced ability to base future choices on prior knowledge.

Till now, computers have approached things on a binary level. Zero-one. Just as DNA builds our bodies from combinations of four nucleotides, so computers build our modern world through two electrical charge states, this and that, zero and one. Spock here.

Our minds are built to operate differently. We make inferences based on probabilities weighted by evidence from experience. Our eyes are a good example of this. We can catch a glance of something and immediately our brain assesses what we saw against what we have already seen and literally fills in the blanks for us. The result may not be exactly right, but most often it is right enough for our purposes. Another example is our capacity to adjust to changing circumstances. A computer can only handle what is has been programmed to handle. We humans can think outside the box, a skill largely dependent on Bayesian reasoning. Kirk here.

But that's changing. Scientists and computer engineers are going all-out to incorporate the principles of Bayesian reasoning into our computers and robots. As the power of micro-processors increases and their size decreases, machines within the capacity for Bayesian reasoning are more and more within the realm of possibility. Eero Simoncelli, a computational neuroscientist at New York University, believes that "when we finally figure out how some of these circuits operate in brains in order to accomplish these feats, we’re going to change engineering. We're going to revolutionize the way we think about designing systems."

Spock and Kirk will finally be joined in one brain. Maybe that will be our salvation, the ultimate man-the-toolmaker escape trick. Or maybe we will have succeeded in creating a new form of life, one that will eventually leave us in the dust. For a peek at what lies ahead, check out the video below:

July 12, 2012

By Their Own Hands

Some stories just break your heart. It began with an article in USA Today about military suicides,a topic I had recently written about. The Pentagon, after years of studying the problem, finally offered up this conclusion: suicide is the only way for these men and women to stop the pain they are experiencing ... the pain caused by repeated tours of duty in protracted wars fought for unclear and unattainable goals, pain that for an unfortunate few reaches unendurable levels.

After reading that article, I did some further research and came across this stunner in The Army Times, dated July 9, 2012:
The VA reports that an average of 18 veterans a day have killed themselves. About a third of those veterans were receiving care through the Veterans Health Administration. In April, the New York Times reported that for every soldier killed on the battlefield this year, about 25 veterans died by their own hands.
 Dear God!  For every soldier killed on the battlefield this year, about 25 veterans died by their own hands. I have trouble accepting that statistic as reality. You want to say, "Surely that can't be." And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Current estimates are that nearly a million soldiers suffer from some type of mental health problem.

The Army Times article also discusses the linkages between mental health issues and substance abuse issues, the latter putting these troubled souls more often into the criminal justice system than the mental health system. As Kim Ruocco, national director of suicide education and outreach for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, pointed out, "The abuse of alcohol or drugs should not be used against a soldier suffering from mental health problems ... Instead, it should be considered a symptom of those problems."

Here's what is frustrating to me. There are some problems money really can help with. Just the other day there was a CBS News report about the many years it takes veterans to begin receiving their disability payments, delays due to a lack of staff and modern technology. Cutting down on the suicide rate is another example where more funding would be directly beneficial. More doctors, more hospitals, more counseling, more training ... just more of whatever it takes to save these men and women. Unfortunately, that bucks the severe anti-spending, anti-government head wind that is blowing through our political system at the moment.

You hear a lot of talk about how you can't trust the government. Well, these soldiers trusted the government to do right by them ... to live up to the promise made by Abraham Lincoln "to care for him who shall have borne the battle." Think about that the next time you hear a politician going on and on about the national debt. There is more than one kind of national debt. The debt we owe to our men and women in uniform is a debt that must be paid, no matter the cost. Failure to do so renders us unworthy of the sacrifices made on our behalf.

July 7, 2012

On Happiness

Growing up, I don't recall that happiness--the attainment or lack thereof--was ever much of a topic of conversation around the dinner table. It's not that we were any more or less happy than anyone else; it's more that we just didn't talk about being happy. Or at least, that's my memory of it.

I don't mean to imply that our parents were indifferent to our happiness, or that they didn't want us to be happy. It's just that as a goal in life, happiness wasn't high up on their to-do list. Work and family and church topped the list. Adherence to that holy trinity of life would perhaps distill a modicum of happiness from the day-to-day routine, but being happy was never the primary purpose of life.

Working hard ... taking care of your own ... keeping faith with Holy Mother Church ... those were important. Being happy ... well, not so much.

As I look back on my life, I realize that moments of supreme happiness have been relatively few and far between. I've thought about this from time to time. Is there something wrong with me? Am I missing a genetic marker for happiness? Did the happiness fairy forget to come visit me?

The war wasn't helpful. For too many years, the memory of it held me back from fully committing myself emotionally to anything other than work and family, church having fallen by the wayside long before the war. But, I can't blame it all on the war. Thinking about it, I have to admit that I have never really worked at being happy. Instead, I have settled--if that's the right word--for being content.

Don't get me wrong. I like the idea of being content. There is in it a New England frugality of emotion that satisfies me. Happiness is fireworks brightly flowering against a night sky before winking out. Contentment is sitting in front of a warm fire on a cold winter’s day, watching the gentle flickering of flames over logs. Youth sees the future as a blank slate upon which their destiny will be writ large; age brings with it an appreciation of holding one’s own over the long haul.

The poet Robert Graves, in summing up the impact of his experience as an officer of the Royal Welch Fusiliers during World War I, wrote that he adopted “a brutal persistence in seeing things through, somehow, anyhow, without finesse, satisfied with the main points of any situation.” As I try to balance the needs of work and family with my own desire for happiness, I understand what he means by “brutal persistence.” That’s the life I chose. I’m content with that.

July 6, 2012

Feeling The Heat

Gestalt: a structure, arrangement, or pattern of physical, biological, or psychological phenomena so integrated as to constitute a functional unit with properties not derivable by summation of its parts.

One of my favorite writers is Ross Macdonald, who crafted elegant explorations of the warping effect of time on human frailty under the guise of hard-boiled detective stories. His detective, Lew Archer, would often say "the gestalt clicked," a phrase he used to describe that feeling when the clues came together to point towards a solution. Today we would call it connecting the dots.

For a lot of folks, the gestalt is starting to click about global warming. The incredibly hot weather, the violent storms, the wide swaths of drought affecting pretty much the entire southern half of the country, the firestorms destroying millions of acres of forests, the new temperature records being set seemingly every month now ... put it all together and folks are beginning to get an uneasy feeling that this may be the new normal.

Climate and weather are far to complicated for simple explanations. Global warming alone is not responsible for the weather we see out our window. But it can act as a multiplier, a phenomenon that interacts with other weather makers to increase the overall scale or intensity of a given weather event. So it's not just hot ... it's really hot, in lots of places, more often than not.

Here's the thing I don't think most folks are locking in on, although you begin to hear it in some news commentaries. If ... and I say if ... climate change from global warming due to burning fossil fuels in indeed happening, the added costs to local and state governments to cope with its consequences are going to be another area where the effects of climate change will be felt.

Think about how much all this is all going to cost ... restoring electricity and removing fallen trees in Virginia and Maryland, fighting the Colorado forest fires, holding back a rising sea all along the East Coast. Got to be in the millions of dollars. Who pays for all that? Oh yeah, you and I do. And in a country where debt is the new big thing to worry about, how do we not acquire more debt, because these are things you have to do? You can't go without electricity in the middle of a heat wave. You can't just let houses burn to the ground no matter how stupid it was to build them in the first place. You can't give stretches of New York City or Miami Beach back to the sea. Houston, we have a problem. 

Again, if global warming caused by burning fossil fuels is real, it can no longer be turned off any time soon, even if we wanted to ... and no one seems really willing to do that anyway. Hell, we are champing at the bit to get the global economy fired up again. So, this new normal is going to be with us for a very, very, long time: extreme weather imposing unexpected costs on already strained governmental budgets. Forget connecting the dots. What we are seeing is the dominoes starting to fall.

July 4, 2012

Peak Oil

Today's topic is peak oil. Now you would think this is a simple enough concept to grasp. Oil is a finite, non-renewable resource. That means there is only so much of it, and we can't make any more of it. So, sooner or later, it is bound to run out. How hard is that to grasp? And yet, in today's polarized world, denial of anything is possible, and not surprisingly, a lot of folks deny the possibility of peak oil.

Peak oil, like anything else, can be seen in a couple of different ways. Most folks think of it as the point where the amount of oil pumped out of the ground diminishes from one year to the next, instead of increasing, signalling the beginning of the end. This is a difficult calculation, since companies and countries routinely lie about their reserves, inflating or deflating the numbers to suit their purposes. So based on reserve and production data that may or may not ever have been accurate, one could maintain that production is still increasing. That appearance does not negate the reality of oil as a finite, non-renewable resource.

A slightly different way of looking at peak oil is to think of it in terms the availability of cheap oil. There can be no doubt that, in that sense, we have indeed peaked. Gone are the days when you can just drill a pipe into the ground and out will gush oil, what refiners refer to as light and "sweet" oil. What oil there is to be found is likely to be off-shore, far from markets, harder to get at, and there will be less of it at lower quality. That's why words like "fracking" and "BP oil spill" have entered into the daily lexicon.

The only reason we have seen oil prices decline is because of the global recession. When economies begin to ramp up production, the demand for oil will again rise and there will be no avoiding the issue of peak oil.

Think of the global economy as a NASCAR race and the global meltdown as a multi-car pileup. The world economy has been running under a yellow caution flag. At some point, the green flag will come out, and the race will resume at full speed. The main question then will be whether or not there is enough fuel left in the tank to get the cars to the finish line. That is when peak oil will pass from a theoretical concept to a crushing reality.

Even more worrying, most folks really don't get just how much of our consumer culture relies on products derived from petroleum. As I pointed out in Fifty Years of Global Warming:

Which is more important: a gallon of gas, or a bottle of aspirin, or the antihistamines to treat those sniffles? Fertilizer and pesticides used to grow cheap food? How about the dishwashing soap we use to clean our dinner plates? Or the additives that extend the shelf-life of canned foods? Sneakers and CD’s, without which no kid would be complete? Dyes? Garbage bags? Golf balls? Plastic, anyone?
We face some rough choices as the oil in the ground becomes more and more expensive to find, extract, and refine. Who decides whether the next barrel of oil will make gasoline or medicine or plastics or Britney Spears’ CD’s? Will we be content to let the market place decide that, or will we eventually have to appoint a Petroleum Czar to make these choices for us.
These are not things I will ever have to worry about, but my children and grandchildren will face these tough choices. Some problems can be deferred or delayed, but not this one. Peak oil is an inevitability. And we have done little more than talk about it. Just like a whole host of problems, from funding for Social Security and Medicare to the debt to ... yes, climate change. We truly are a throw-away culture, and the biggest thing we have thrown away is our children's future.

July 3, 2012

You Can Bank On It

One of the great frustrations coming out of the great collapse of 2008 is the seeming inability — okay, maybe that should read reluctance or downright unwillingness — of regulators to hold any of the top banking and mortgage industry leaders to account, as in throwing their sorry asses in jail. Instead we get more and more revelations of illegal and immoral actions by banks.

The latest scandal comes from London, where several large banks are being investigated for manipulating the price at which they borrow money, in attempt to make themselves look financially healthier than they actually were. You can get the gist of the scandal from this article in the EconoMonitor. What caught my eye were these of quotes about the banking industry:
It is time to do something about the banking system…Many people in the banking industry are hardworking and feel badly let down by some of their colleagues and leaders. It goes to the culture and the structure of banks: the excessive compensation, the shoddy treatment of customers, the deceitful manipulation of a key interest rate, and today, news of yet another mis-selling scandal. — Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England
Investment banking is an organised scam masquerading as a business. It is defined by endemic conflicts of interest, systemic amoral behaviour and extreme avarice. — Will Hutton, The Guardian
We are told repeatedly that when Wall Street’s deeply flawed incentive system leads to one bad outcome after another, year after year, it will never happen again. Yet it does. ... For some reason, Wall Street never seems to get the message that bribing government officials — and paying each other off — to get access to lucrative municipal-bond underwriting business is illegal. Wall Street has never learned this lesson because the miniscule price it ends up having to pay for misbehaving has absolutely no deterrent value whatsoever. — William Cohan, Bloomberg News
 The failure to go after the crooks in the banking and mortgage industries stems, in my view, from a pervasive belief in certain circles that public disgrace — coupled with massive fines — is a severe enough punishment and deterrent. You see this in the military as well. It's okay to throw the lower-ranking miscreants into the slammer, but the generals and CEO's get off with a slap on their public reputations and maybe a hit to the wallet. From My Lai to Wall Street, the story never changes. The little guys take the fall, while the big boys take a walk. Until that changes, public faith in our institutions — both public and private — will never fully be restored.

July 1, 2012

Some Like It Hot

One of the things I shared in common with my mother--on a list that is far too short--is a love of warm weather. I always joked that if the temperature dropped below 80 degrees, she would reach for a sweater. Part of it was growing up in a house without air conditioning, a common enough thing in New England, even today. Some of it may have been a testament to our southern Italian genes. In my case, you could add a year in the tropics courtesy of Uncle Sam. Throw in a pinch for old age, add it up, and you have a wonderful feeling as your bones warm up at about 90+ degrees.

We are in the midst of a bit of a heat wave down here, so my wife and I decided to make lemonade out of lemons and apply that solar heat to defrosting our freezer, a long-overdue piece of maintenance on a freezer that is already over 30 years old. (That New England thrift is something else I share in common with mother, who sewed clothes for my sisters, refinished furniture, braided rugs, and maintained extensive vegetable and flower gardens, not to mention a blueberry and strawberry patch.)

So for the last two hours I have been out in the 95 degree heat melting ice and washing the inside and outside of the freezer. Some might say I was crazy to be out working in this kind of heat, but honestly, I never broke much of a sweat. Part of it, as I said before, is due to my internal wiring. But there is a mental aspect to beating the heat, as well.

Joseph Conrad, in his masterwork Heart of Darkness, has a brief scene where Marlowe--who is being sent down by the company to replace a captain killed in a dispute over two black chickens--is being given a physical by an old Belgian doctor. The doctor asks Marlowe if there is a history of madness in his family, a question Marlowe finds irritating, prompting the following bit of dialogue between doctor and patient.
'Pardon my questions, but you are the first Englishman coming under my observation. . . .' I hastened to assure him I was not in the least typical. 'If I were,' said I, 'I wouldn't be talking like this with you.' 'What you say is rather profound, and probably erroneous,' he said, with a laugh. 'Avoid irritation more than exposure to the sun. Adieu. How do you English say, eh? Good-by. Ah! Good-by. Adieu. In the tropics one must before everything keep calm.' . . . He lifted a warning forefinger. . . . 'Du calme, du calme. Adieu.''
That advice has helped me through many a hot day. Surprisingly, it works pretty well in cold weather, too. Du calme, du calme. Before everything keep calm.