Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Mission Accomplished


Ted RallDAYTON, OHIO--I'm the loudmouth pundit. I'm supposed to have the answers, or at least pretend to. This week, however, I'm baffled. Confused, even. So I'm turning the tables to ask you, dear reader: Why aren't we bombing the crap out of Somalia's pirates?

I don't get it. You can't build a house in Waziristan or throw a wedding in Afghanistan without drawing a blizzard of Hellfire missiles. We bomb aspirin factories, hospitals and schools. We employ bad-ass Special Forces types and psycho mercenaries who set up freelance torture operations and supervise mass executions. We Americans have our faults, but wimpy pacifism isn't one of them. So what's with these pirates?

In June 2007, a French warship witnessed the Danica White, a Danish merchant vessel carrying a crew of just five men, being hijacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia. The French, reported the Navy Times, "could not cross into Somali territorial waters to offer help." Which is confusing, what with Somalia being a failed state without a viable central government and all. Who was going to stop them--the Somali coast guard?

Somalia's territorial waters? Sacrosanct! Invade Iraq, invade Afghanistan, try to overthrow the president of Venezuela, send CIA agents into the Iranian desert to case their nuke plants, blast cars on highways in Yemen, no problem. But for God's sake, leave Somalia alone! National sovereignty matters!


Where would you exile an inept leader who ruined your country?

The Most Remote Place on Earth

Where would you exile an inept leader who ruined your country?

Probably as far away as possible! Short of launching him into space, consider this island - the most remote inhabited location on the planet. There are other distant places, but they are uninhabited, mostly barren and unexciting - but here life is established in a very British way, so our world-leader-in-exile would not mess it up so easily, one hopes.

(images credit: 1, 2)

Tristan da Cunha, the Loneliest Island on Earth

When Napoleon was sent to St. Helena by the British, they annexed the closest chain of islands to prevent the French from attempting to rescue him. After all, who wouldn't travel a mere 2430 km over rough and hostile seas in order to rescue the Emperor himself? Yes, that's right, the islands of Tristan Da Cunha closest neighboring land mass, the island of St. Helena, is 2430 km away.

The island is so small that cartographers can't even put it on their maps (not enough resolution). Located in the South Atlantic between Africa and South America, this volcanic outcropping has the honor of being the remotest inhabited island on the planet, and that's including Antarctica and the North Pole. One of the islands in the archipelago is called "Inaccessible", which only seems appropriate, together with their motto: "Our faith is our strength"

Death to film critics! Hail to the CelebCult!


A newspaper film critic is like a canary in a coal mine. When one croaks, get the hell out. The lengthening toll of former film critics acts as a poster child for the self-destruction of American newspapers, which once hoped to be more like the New York Times and now yearn to become more like the National Enquirer. We used to be the town crier. Now we are the neighborhood gossip.

The crowning blow came this week when the once-magisterial Associated Press imposed a 500-word limit on all of its entertainment writers. The 500-word limit applies to reviews, interviews, news stories, trend pieces and "thinkers." Oh, it can be done. But with "Synecdoche, New York?"

Demise of the ink-stained wretch

Worse, the AP wants its writers on the entertainment beat to focus more on the kind of brief celebrity items its clients apparently hunger for. The AP, long considered obligatory to the task of running a North American newspaper, has been hit with some cancellations lately, and no doubt has been informed what its customers want: Affairs, divorces, addiction, disease, success, failure, death watches, tirades, arrests, hissy fits, scandals, who has been "seen with" somebody, who has been "spotted with" somebody, and "top ten" lists of the above. (Celebs "seen with" desire to be seen, celebs "spotted with" do not desire to be seen.)

The CelebCult virus is eating our culture alive, and newspapers voluntarily expose themselves to it. It teaches shabby values to young people, festers unwholesome curiosity, violates privacy, and is indifferent to meaningful achievement. One of the TV celeb shows has announced it will cover the Obama family as "a Hollywood story." I want to smash something against a wall.


In "Toots," a new documentary about the legendary Manhattan saloon keeper Toots Shor, there is a shot so startling I had to reverse the DVD to see it again. After dinner, Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe leave the restaurant, give their ticket to a valet, wait on the curb until their car arrives, tip the valet and then Joe opens the car door for Marilyn, walks around, gets in, and drives them away. This was in the 1950s. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have not been able to do that once in their adult lifetimes. Celebrities do not use limousines because of vanity. They use them as a protection against cannibalism.

As the CelebCult triumphs, major newspapers have been firing experienced film critics. They want to devote less of their space to considered prose, and more to ignorant gawking. What they require doesn't need to be paid for out of their payrolls. Why does the biggest story about "Twilight" involve its fans? Do we need interviews with 16-year-old girls about Robert Pattinson? When was the last time they read a paper? Isn't the movie obviously about sexual abstinence and the teen fascination with doomy Goth death-flirtation?

The age of film critics has come and gone. While the big papers on the coasts always had them (Bosley Crowther at the New York Times, Charles Champlin at the Los Angeles Times), many other major dailies had rotating bylines anybody might be writing under ("Kate Cameron" at the New York Daily News, "Mae Tinay" at the Chicago Tribune--get it?). Judith Crist changed everything at the New York Herald-Tribune when she panned "Cleopatra" (1963) and was banned from 20th Century-Fox screenings. There was a big fuss, and suddenly every paper hungered for a "real" movie critic. The Film Generation was upon us.


What to Do

By Paul Krugman

What the world needs right now is a rescue operation. The global credit system is in a state of paralysis, and a global slump is building momentum as I write this. Reform of the weaknesses that made this crisis possible is essential, but it can wait a little while. First, we need to deal with the clear and present danger. To do this, policymakers around the world need to do two things: get credit flowing again and prop up spending.

The first task is the harder of the two, but it must be done, and soon. Hardly a day goes by without news of some further disaster wreaked by the freezing up of credit. As I was writing this, for example, reports were coming in of the collapse of letters of credit, the key financing method for world trade. Suddenly, buyers of imports, especially in developing countries, can't carry through on their deals, and ships are standing idle: the Baltic Dry Index, a widely used measure of shipping costs, has fallen 89 percent this year.

What lies behind the credit squeeze is the combination of reduced trust in and decimated capital at financial institutions. People and institutions, including the financial institutions, don't want to deal with anyone unless they have substantial capital to back up their promises, yet the crisis has depleted capital across the board.

The obvious solution is to put in more capital. In fact, that's a standard response in financial crises. In 1933 the Roosevelt administration used the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to recapitalize banks by buying preferred stock—stock that had priority over common stock in terms of its claims on profits. When Sweden experienced a financial crisis in the early 1990s, the government stepped in and provided the banks with additional capital equal to 4 percent of the country's GDP—the equivalent of about $600 billion for the United States today—in return for a partial ownership. When Japan moved to rescue its banks in 1998, it purchased more than $500 billion in preferred stock, the equivalent relative to GDP of around a $2 trillion capital injection in the United States. In each case, the provision of capital helped restore the ability of banks to lend, and unfroze the credit markets.


Transition or Coup D'état?

by Kevin Berends

    During the transition period there is a silent coup d'état occurring inside the federal government in the form of last-minute firings and dubious personnel placements. The easy response to this practice is: "That always happens during the transition period and it isn't even newsworthy. That's how Washington works - always has, always will." Perhaps, but considering how pervasively the Bush administration has flouted every branch of government, from ignoring Congressional subpoenas, to ignoring Supreme Court rulings, to violating the Geneva Conventions, to profuse and legally feeble signing statements - it's clear that embedding operatives loyal to the party and policies jettisoned by the voters in the election is tantamount to laying mines throughout the government.

photo    As if this isn't enough, while the outgoing administration lays mine fields to sabotage President-elect Obama's initiatives that could threaten the status quo, it is also terminating outstanding federal employees whom the current administration can assume, correctly, would be supportive of the new president's policies. In the case of Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, who received her Notice of Proposed Removal from the Environmental Protection Agency on October 30, 2008, the message is clear: remove the person who has demonstrated like no other person within the EPA a determination to ensure that what the agency protects is the environment (as opposed to the corporations and other interests whose practices harm the environment but yield staggering profits) - and a chilling effect on other conscientious workers will have been achieved. Dr. Coleman-Adebayo's landmark court victory in Coleman-Adebayo v. Browner (former EPA Administrator Carol Browner,) represents the most serious challenge the status quo has ever seen. Thus, decapitate the head and the uncontrolled beast of conscientious federal workers will fall. Last week, this particular purge prompted a letter to beleaguered outgoing EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson from Congressional Liaison to the White House Chris Van Hollen, urging reconsideration of Dr. Coleman-Adebayo's firing, and the postponement of any further action until the transition is complete.



20 Artistic Architectural Optical Illusions

Seeing is believing… or is it? Aided by high-tech materials, today's amazing 3D street graffiti artists, 3D mural painters and other clever geek artists. designers and architects are finding that if it can be imagined, it can also be built. This selection of architectural optical illusions showcases 20 more very public ways to fool the eye, please the mind and satisfy the soul.

(image via: Big Illusion)

Artists like Felice Varini like to think big, and this installation is so vast it requires the aid of distance to complete the illusion. "Three Ellipses for Three Locks" in Cardiff, Wales, was completed in 2007 and proves that with a small amount of material - in this case, some yellow paint - something grand can emerge.

(image via: BBC)

The piece is a classic "anamorphic illusion" in that to view Varini's art as intended, one must be in a certain position where the sightlines can perfectly converge. Costing a mere $50,000, the work was one year in the planning stages yet took only two weeks to create.


A Very Early Look at What Was to Come (Yes, It Was All Foreseen).

Economics & FinanceA Hall of Fame worthy piece of research. A nominee for best work this decade.

To those misguided souls who blame our economic woes on Obama, Reid and Pelosi (how idiotic is that?). To those, like Robert Rubin, who say, "Nobody was prepared for this." To those like Larry Kudlow, Don Luskin, Jerry Bowyer, Brian Wesbury, and all the others who never saw this coming, I offer you all this piece of research, dated August 6, 2004, which lays out in painstaking detail (on pages 5 through 14) exactly what was going on at the time and why it simply could not last. Granted, this bit of wisdom was just a bit early, most likely because the amount of credit and/or leverage in the system was underestimated, but it was deadly accurate. Herewith some of the commentary. Please take the time to read pages 5-14 -- and closely examine the charts and tables -- at your leisure:

Housing: If Not a Bubble Then an Oversized Sud

Classic traits of a bubble:

(i) Extended valuation
(ii) Over-ownership
(iii) Excessive leverage
(iv) Supply surge
(v) Complacency
(vi) Speculation

In this report, we assess the likelihood that the housing market has entered into a "bubble" phase. There are numerous shades of gray, but when we examine the classic characteristics of a "bubble" (extended valuation, over-ownership, excessive leverage, a surge in supply, complacency (denial?), and speculative behavior, it seems to fit the bill. At the very least, housing is overextended, and even the Fed has acknowledged as much.

"Reports from some contacts suggested that speculative forces might be boosting housing demand in some parts of the country, with concomitant effect on prices, suggesting the possibility that house prices might be moving into the high end of the range that could be consistent with fundamentals." (FOMC Minutes — March 16, 2004.)

"To be sure, indexes of house prices based on repeat sales of existing homes have outstripped increases in rents, suggesting at least the possibility of price misalignment in some housing markets. A softening in housing markets would likely be one of many adjustments that would occur in the wake of an increase in interest rates." (Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan — May 6, 2004.)

"The key features of a bubble are that the level of prices has been bid up beyond what is consistent with underlying fundamentals and that buyers of the asset do so with the expectation of future price increases." (NY Fed, July 2004.)

Democratization and/or overownership is a classic characteristic of a bubble. Housing certainly fits the bill given that the homeownership ratio has hit a record high of almost 70%. Remember in the late 1990s that investor participation in the equity market surged to levels that were last posted in the roaring 1920s. "Herd effect" and "caveat emptor" tend to go hand-in-hand.

Another way of seeing just how levered the consumer has gotten is to look at the aggregate loan-to-value ratio for real estate. This ratio is hovering near an all-time high of 45% on the household balance sheet. The flip side to that argument is that households, in the aggregate, own only 55% of their home, hovering near an all-time low. This, in part, reflects aggressive lending behavior this cycle as well as the record pace of mortgage cash-outs. Existing homeowners have effectively borrowed against the rising notional price of their house. Much like the tech stock boom of the late 1990s, the housing market boom has also attracted an increasing number of marginal buyers. For example, subprime mortgage lending has risen at an estimated 25% average annual rate over the last decade.

The entirety of pages 5-14 is a must read for anyone who really wants to understand how we got here, and how preventable this crisis was. I cannot do the report justice here, as it really must be seen to be believed. I encourage everyone in the strongest possible terms to go and read it. Examine the charts and accompanying text, as they are a detailed roadmap to our current crisis. Had the ominous warnings in this piece been heeded instead of ignored, we would almost certainly have avoided the dire straits in which we currently find ourselves. But it was simply too politically expedient to allow the bubble to continue inflating than to take the appropriate measures, a decision that will impact our lives (and likely our children's) for many years to come.

Top secret

Bush Torture COLOR

Team Obama

by meanderthal

The possible strategy behind the picks.

Finally, we have unity between conservatives and progressives.  Unfortunately it is a unity based either in stupidity or deceitfulness.

Both sides are tripping all over themselves to criticize Obama's picks for his cabinet and advisers.  Progressives in particular seem to be livid that moderates figure so prominently and conservatives, who want change less than they want a salt filled straw in the eye, are falling all over themselves pointing out that Obama's picks seem to be at odds with his campaign mantra of "change".  One side is being incredibly shortsighted and the other is being blatantly disingenuous.  Both are being patently ridiculous.

Barack Obama will face challenges upon taking the oath like no president in recent times has seen and possibly, no president ever.  I certainly have no contact with or special insight to the Obama mindset but, it is obvious what he is doing.  Given the current economic crisis and the wars that have so far been idiotically prosecuted, team Obama will have to hit the ground running.  Among the things he wants to avoid are contentious and drawn out confirmation hearings.  He also simply does not have the time to wait for an entire crew of fresh minded Washington outsiders to learn the whos, whys, and hows of the Washington system.  It is almost an impossibility that many of today's picks will not start to need to spend more time with their families in two years or whenever things start to get better.  I fully expect them to be replaced with those who would be considered outsiders today.  They will be working for current picks and/or will have been apprised of their position on the list and will have been given study materials plus, they will not all start at once.  It would be irresponsible, even if it were possible, to institute al the desired change at once.  It must be instituted over time.

However, all of that is pretty much secondary.  There is an old saying that "the fish stinks from the head".  The Clinton appointees will not do as they did under Bill Clinton.  They will have the knowledge and experience but they will have a leader with a a different agenda.  What seems to be forgotten is that Bush did not hire stupid people to work for him.  He hired smart people(of perhaps questionable moral character) and he led them to do stupid things.  The fish stinks from the head.  Anyone who doubts that Barack Obama could take the exact same crew who helped bush screw the nation and achieve significantly different and positive results is simply not paying attention.


Lest We Forget

Resignations from the Bush Administration, provided by the great Rachael Maddow's reckoning:

Former assistant to the President Felipe Sixto was charged with stealing from a Cuba-related nonprofit organization. Edgar Johnson, who worked for the Department of the Interior, was charged with taking bribes. Julia McDonald, deputy assistant secretary at the Department of the Interior, resigned after an investigation found she gave government documents to lobbyists.

The number two person at the department of the interior, Steven Griles, was sentenced to 10 months as a part of the Jack Abramoff Scandal. Abramoff was also responsible for taking down Roger Stillwell from the Office of Insular Affairs, Robert Coughlin, who was chief of the criminal division at the Justice Department, and David Safavian, who was chief of staff in the General Services Administration.

Lester Crawford, Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, who resigned and pled guilty to holding stock in companies that he was regulating. Claude Allen was the assistant to the president for domestic policy. He resigned for a scheme of defrauding Target stores.

Brian Doyle was deputy press secretary for Homeland Security. He went to prison for child porn. Frank Figueroa also worked for Homeland Security as head of Operation Predator and got in trouble for exposing himself to a girl in a mall.

John Korsmo, chairman of the Federal Housing Board, was convicted of lying about inviting banks that he was supposed to be regulating to a fundraiser for a Congressional candidate. His wife — deputy chief of staff at the Labor Department — also lost her job in the scandal.

Head of the ATF, Charles Truscott, resigned for ordering employees to help his child with a school project.


How to create an Angry American

Creationism: The Latest In Military Suicide Prevention

by Chris Rodda

Here at the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), we get countless complaints about religiously based mental health and counseling programs, which, over the past few years, have been systematically replacing proven psychological and medical approaches to a multitude of issues faced by military personnel. I've seen so many truly insane, not to mention blatantly unconstitutional, ways that the military is playing with the mental well being of our troops since I began working for MRFF that I really didn't think it was possible for me to be surprised by anything anymore. Then I was sent a PowerPoint presentation by an airman at RAF Lakenheath, the largest U.S. Air Force base in England. On the MRFF scale of classifying by various expletives the egregiousness level of things that are reported to us -- "holy crap," "holy shit," and "holy f..." -- this one, promoting creationism as a means of preventing suicide among our military personnel, was definitely a "holy f..."

In March 2008, this presentation, titled "A New Approach To Suicide Prevention: Developing Purpose-Driven Airmen," was shown at a commander's call that was mandatory for an estimated 1,000 of Lakenheath's Air Force personnel, and sent out by email to the entire base of over 5,000 the following day. As the use of the phrase "Purpose-Driven" in its title implies, also incorporated into this presentation is the wisdom of presidential candidate inquisitor Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, a book that, second only to the Bible itself, is the most heavily promoted religious book in the military.

Following a slide stating, "Dr. Rick Warren's book, The Purpose Driven Life, provides a powerful model for Suicide Prevention, developing leaders, and making troops combat ready and effective," the author of the presentation, Air Force chaplain Capt. Christian Biscotti, brings up Charles Darwin for the first time in defining what he calls "3 Levels of Purpose."

USAF PowerPoint slide 10

On one of the next slides, Capt. Biscotti states that if we don't know where we came from we are lost, and that knowing where we come from is the origin of hope. This is followed by a slide comparing "Chance" and "Design," a.k.a. evolution and creationism.

USAF PowerPoint slide 14

And, why not work a little religious nationalism into this "suicide prevention" presentation?


Reverend Billy Leads Buy Nothing Day Service in Union Square

by Roy Edroso

"Where's Reverend Billy?" asked a young woman with a camera.

The acolyte who'd handed her a flyer for the Buy-Nothing day event at the north end of Union Square (detailing the activist Rev's "10 Commandments of Buylessness," and including a "Fun Page" of BND activities) thought a moment, then said, "Where would you like him to be?"

"Right here," the young woman said, pointing at the ground.

The acolyte -- who, unlike most of his comrades, was not dressed as an elf in green and red motley and Santa cap -- made a disappointed sound; magical thinking only works if the crowd cooperates. But the Reverend was on his way, and meanwhile his elves were getting up a dance party, encouraging the hundred or so attendees to "dance your debt away" on and around a "NOT FOR SALE" sign taped to the ground.

 Not many joined in, but the elves put their booties into it, rocking, prancing, and even break-dancing as the public address blared Motown. The crowd was at least vicariously warm as the Reverend arrived in his white suit, busted a few moves of his own, and then proceeded to the day's lesson. His electric bullhorn was weak, and his paper "First Amendment megaphone" did not serve, so his set it aside and just bellowed, stalking within the circle of listeners.

 He announced he'd been to Macy's at Herald Square and could report that Black Friday shoppers were down to "25 percent as many as they were last year." The crowd applauded. "Something very exciting is happening," he said. "This economic system... is stunned, in retreat."

He told the crowd that at a Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, "a young store clerk who had the responsibility of holding back the crowds" had become a Black Friday casualty: "Suddenly the doors burst open and the young man was trampled and killed." Some people laughed; others told them, "it's true, it really happened."



Christmas card of the week