Wednesday, December 10, 2008

In memory of John Lennon murdered 28 years ago today

The Imperial Transition

44, The Prequel
By Tom Engelhardt

Did you know that the IBM Center for the Business of Government hosts a "Presidential Transition" blog; that the Council on Foreign Relations has its own "Transition Blog: The New Administration"; and that the American University School of Communication has a "Transition Tracker" website? The National Journal offers its online readers a comprehensive "Lost in Transition" site to help them "navigate the presidential handover," including a "short list," offering not only the president-elect's key recent appointments, but also a series of not-so-short lists of those still believed to be in contention for as-yet-unfilled jobs. Think of all this as Entertainment Weekly married to People Magazine for post-election political junkies.

Newsweek features "powering up" ("blogging the transition"); the policy-wonk website offers Politico 44 ("a living diary of the Obama presidency"); and Public Citizen has "Becoming 44," with the usual lists of appointees, possible appointees, but -- for the junkie who wants everything -- "bundler transition team members" and "lobbyist and bundler appointees" as well. (For those who want to know, for instance, White House Social Secretary-designate Desiree Roberts bundled at least $200,000 for the Obama campaign.)

The New York Times has gone whole hog at "The New Team" section of its website, where there are scads of little bios of appointees, as well as prospective appointees -- including what each individual will "bring to the job," how each is "linked to Mr. Obama," and what negatives each carries as "baggage." Think of it as a scorecard for transition junkies. The Washington Post, whose official beat is, of course, Washington D.C. ├╝ber alles, has its "44: The Obama Presidency, A Transition to Power," where, in case you're planning to make a night of it on January 20th, you can keep up to date on that seasonal must-subject, the upcoming inaugural balls. And not to be outdone, the transitioning Obama transition crew has its own mega-transition site,

Earliest, Biggest, Fastest

And that, of course, only begins to scratch the surface of the media's transition mania -- I haven't even mentioned the cable news networks -- which has followed, with hardly a breath, nearly two years of presidential campaign mania. Let's face it, whether or not the Obama transition is the talk of Main Street and the under-populated malls of this American moment, it's certainly the talk of medialand -- and at what can only be termed historic levels, as befits a "historic" transition period.

Believe me, no one's sparing the adjectives right now. This transition is the earliest, biggest, fastest, best organized, most efficient on record, even as Obama himself has "maintained one of the most public images of any president-elect." It's cause for congratulations all around, a powerful antidote, we're told, to Bill Clinton's notoriously chaotic transition back in 1992.


Homer Simpson tries to vote for Obama

Day without a Gay


The worldwide media attention surrounding our massive grassweb efforts for gay rights has been tremendous. Join the Impact was a HUGE success and will continue to thrive because of our efforts.

We've reacted to anti-gay ballot initiatives in California, Arizona Florida, and Arkansas with anger, with resolve, and with courage. NOW, it's time to show America and the world how we love.

Gay people and our allies are compassionate, sensitive, caring, mobilized, and programmed for success. A day without gays would be tragic because it would be a day without love.

On December 10, 2008 the gay community will take a historic stance against hatred by donating love to a variety of different causes.

On December 10, you are encouraged not to call in sick to work. You are encouraged to call in "gay"--and donate your time to service!

December 10, 2008 is International Human Rights Day. CLICK HERE to join us, and search or add to the list of human rights organizations that need our help RIGHT NOW.

New gun for seniors could be subsidized by Medicare

by John Byrne

A New Jersey company says they have gotten federal approval to market a gun to the elderly and hopes to have it subsized by Medicare.

Constitution Arms says its Palm Pistol will aid seniors with arthritis who would otherwise have trouble pulling the trigger. The device allows individuals to shoot by squeezing with their thumb.

The company's president Matthew Carmel says its "something that they need to assist them in daily living," and has applied to have the gun approved as a Class 1 medical device, the same designation given by Medicare to walkers and wheelchairs.

Palm Pistol retails for $460.

"The justification for this would be no more or less for a (walking aid) or wheelchair, or any number of things that are medical devices," Carmel told New Scientist Friday.

On the description, it describes the weapon as "ideal for seniors, disabled or others who may have limited strength or manual dexterity.

'Hoax' call almost took nuclear powers to war: Officials

by Stephen C. Webster

During the recent terrorist assault on Mumbai, India, an alleged 'hoax' phone call to the Pakistani government had the two countries on the razor's edge of war.

According to reports Sunday, a man posing as India's foreign minister called Pakistani President Asif Zardari on Friday, Nov. 28, and threatened military action if Islamabad did not hand over those behind the attacks, Pakistani newspapers reported on Saturday.

"I had made no such telephone call," Mukherjee said in a statement explaining how India rushed to clarify that the call was a hoax.

"I can only ascribe this series of events to those in Pakistan who wish to divert attention from the fact that a terrorist group operating from Pakistani territory planned and launched a ghastly attack on Mumbai."

Some in the Indian media, however, placed blame directly at the feet of Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI.

While refusing to comment on the claim, the thinking within the Indian Foreign Office is that such disinformation stories could only mean that the Inter-Services Intelligence's dirty tricks department is very much at work," reported The Hindu. "The ISI and the Army are trying to divert internal and external attention from their complicity in Mumbai terror and thereby clawing their way into public acceptability in Pakistan.

Pakistan's public stance on the incident has been quite to the contrary.

Wajid Hasan, Pakistan's ambassador in London, told UK's Guardian that the call was traced directly to the Indian government.

"They did it," he said. "It was not a hoax call, but an instrument of psychological warfare. They were trying to scare Pakistan, test the waters for our reaction."

Satirists thick and thin

From Juvenal to Armando Iannucci, satire is an ancient and necessary art

In 2007, Tony Blair's erstwhile Director of Communications, Alastair Campbell, invited the actor Peter Capaldi (who played a comparable figure in Armando Ianucci's award-winning television series The Thick of It) to interview him, in character, to help publicize Campbell's new book. And Capaldi's response was: "Look, I'm an actor. It's not really me". The anecdote (recorded in The Times, January 25, 2008) not only sums up the elusiveness of the "reality" inhabited by spin doctors, but also points to the special relevance of reality to satire. In truth, the whole issue of realities and "realities" is central to satire and our understanding of it, and accordingly to the three books under review: Ralph M. Rosen's Making Mockery: The poetics of ancient satire, William Kupersmith's English Versions of Roman Satire in the Earlier Eighteenth Century, and a prime example of today's satirical writing, the scripts of Iannucci's The Thick of It, from 2005 to 2007. The cultural gulfs between New Labour present, the eighteenth century and classical antiquity may seem distractingly wide. The satires in question, though, are readily discussible under a common heading, even if admirers of the poetic sophistication of Juvenal and Alexander Pope have to reckon with something more abrasive in Ianucci's televisual prose.

Not that "readily discussible" is a phrase one would rush to apply to satire as such. Like reality or "reality", satire itself can be elusive, and, partly for that reason, productive theorizations of the satirical have never got very far. There are other reasons, too. Arisotle never theorized satire (for once, indeed, the Greeks didn't quite have a word for it), so aftercomers had no convenient, and possibly authoritative, point of reference. Then again, like comedy, satire is often vulgar, therefore repels the high-minded (Matthew Arnold's "demotion of Chaucer and Burns to Class Two", said Northrop Frye, was motivated by "a feeling that comedy and satire should be kept in their proper place"). And again, being directly implicated in reality (vulgar or not), satire is an awkward category for metaphysically minded theorizers, therefore awkward for the great German theorists of literature and related fields, from Herder to Heidegger (though Schiller had a go). In more recent times, conversely, that same implication in reality has been no less off-putting for theorists influenced (as so many have been) by postmodern credos, because postmodernity (like T. S. Eliot's "human kind") "cannot bear very much reality", preferring to focus on "constructions" or (in Roland Barthes's famous phrase) "the effect of the real" – and all this despite satire's evident association with those favourite postmodern facilities, irony and parody. And finally, unlike the novel (which, like satire, is directly implicated in reality and is also, sometimes, vulgar), satire is not a genre, or a set of genres, but a mode – which makes theorizing harder.

What is satire? A short, provisional definition might be: mocking criticism (more or less artistic) of current human behaviour. Current: not necessarily strictly contemporary behaviour, but, so to speak, behaviour still in the public domain. Criticism: unlike comedy, which may be sympathetic (as Pirandello argued) or "innocent" (Freud) or all-embracing (Bakhtin), satire is negative and addresses a definable target. But mocking criticism: in the Gospels, Jesus is frequently critical of human behaviour, but without mockery, and no one reads the Evangelists' Jesus as a satirist; contrast Plato's Socrates, who does mock, and can be so read. And human behaviour: the subject of satire is (in Juvenal's words) "whatever people do", its domain the moral and social realm. We do not associate satire with philosophical logic or nature poetry – either of which may have profound human implications, but neither of which is centred on that moral and social realm.

Where is John Edwards?

by Susan Estrich

Doris Kearns Goodwin could not have asked for more. The author of "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," published in 2006, is making headlines once again for her foresight, as well as her knowledge of history, in light of President-elect Barack Obama's decision to surround himself with his former rivals, including Vice President-elect Joe Biden, Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton, and now Secretary of Commerce-designate Bill Richardson.

The missing man in all of this is, of course, John Edwards, who was far more formidable a candidate than either Biden or Richardson, and whose endorsement of Obama last May was at least as significant for the president-elect as Richardson's. Edwards had long been mentioned as a logical choice for attorney general, a spot that has already been filled. His commitment to deal with poverty would make him a logical choice for Health and Human Services. But his problem isn't competence or experience.

Should Edwards' personal stupidity — his involvement with a wacky videographer, who may (if you believe the tabloids) or may not (according to her, and him, but what do you think they'd say) be the mother of his illegitimate child — cost him a seat at the table? If he has something to add — and I think he does — should he be disqualified from doing so because he is a lying lout?

Washington is full of lying louts. Many of them are called "distinguished gentlemen." Now that Congress has more women, my guess is there are more female versions of the lying lout. Although, I am sexist, or realistic, enough to believe that there are real gender differences in this regard. If all the lying louts were disqualified from holding high elective or appointive office, the Capitol would shut down.

Strike the ranch set!

We all go together when we go

The first great financial crisis of the 21st century has begun. Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman explains how it happened, and how it can be cured

Let's tell the tale.

The great US housing boom began to deflate in the autumn of 2005. As prices rose to the point where buying a home became out of reach for many Americans, sales began to slacken off. There was a hissing sound as air began to leak out of the bubble.

Yet house prices kept rising for a while. After an extended period during which prices had been rising sharply each year, sellers expected the trend to continue, so asking prices actually continued to rise even as sales dropped. By late spring 2006, however, the weakness of the market was starting to sink in. Prices began dropping, slowly at first, then with growing speed.

Even the gradual initial decline in house prices, however, undermined the assumptions on which the boom in subprime lending was based. Remember, the key rationale for this lending was the belief that it didn't really matter, from the lender's point of view, whether the borrower could actually make the mortgage payments: as long as home prices kept rising, troubled borrowers could always either refinance or pay off their mortgage by selling the house. As soon as prices started falling instead of rising, and houses became hard to sell, default rates began rising. And at that point another ugly truth became apparent: foreclosure isn't just a tragedy for the homeowners, it's a lousy deal for the lender. Between the time it takes to get a foreclosed home back on the market, the legal expenses, the degradation that tends to happen in vacant homes, and so on, creditors seizing a house from the borrower typically get back only part, say half, of the original value of the loan.

In that case, you might ask, why not make a deal with the current homeowner to reduce payments and avoid the costs of foreclosure? Well, for one thing, that also costs money, and it requires staff. And subprime loans were not, for the most part, made by banks that held on to the loans; they were made by loan originators, who quickly sold the loans to financial institutions, which, in turn, sliced and diced pools of mortgages into collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) sold to investors. The actual management of the loans was left to loan servicers, who had neither the resources nor, for the most part, the incentive to engage in loan restructuring. And one more thing: the complexity of the financial engineering that supported subprime lending, which left ownership of mortgages dispersed among many investors with claims of varying seniority, created formidable legal obstacles to any kind of debt forgiveness.

So restructuring was mostly out, leading to costly foreclosures. And this meant that securities backed by subprime mortgages turned into very bad investments as soon as the housing boom began to falter. By February 2007, the realisation sank in that the junior shares in CDOs were probably going to take serious losses, and prices of those shares plunged. By the end of the year, it became clear that nothing related to housing was safe - not senior shares, not even loans made to borrowers with good credit ratings who made substantial downpayments.

Why? Because of the sheer scale of the US housing bubble. Nationally, housing was probably overvalued by more than 50% by the summer of 2006, which meant that to eliminate the overvaluation, prices would have to fall by a third, and in some metropolitan areas by 50% or more.

In Gaza, despite pain and death: Musical resistance against the siege

by Sameh A. Habeeb, The Electronic Intifada, 8 December 2008

A Palestinian singer performs at the Gaza Concert.

On 27 October, a group of young Palestinians, none of them over the age of 25, organized the first music concert of its kind in the Gaza Strip, called Gaza Concert '08. Regardless of the awful conditions in the Gaza Strip brought on by the 19-month Israeli siege, the youth sang for freedom, peace and ending the unjust siege. Thousands of people came from all over Gaza while several international and local media outlets covered the event that was sponsored by Action for Peace Italia. A mixture of traditional Palestinian debka dance, rap, and nationalist anthems were performed calling for lifting the siege and ending Israeli occupation.

Ahmed, one of the dabka dance performers, lost his hand in an Israeli military operation in 2006 in the Jabaliya refugee camp when he and his friends were hit by Israeli shelling. "I came here to express my readiness and willingness for peace. I lost my hand but I want a just peace with Israelis if they give me my full rights."

Hatem Shurab, a 24-year-old singer based in Gaza and one of the concert organizers, is a another victim of Israeli siege. He is involved in a journalism training program in the US. However, due to the closure, Shurab was trapped in Gaza and missed his chance along with some friends who were also supposed to participate. He explained, "I came here to sing for peace and freedom. I came here to make the suffering of people heard through songs and music. I sang for Sarah who was sick and unable to get treatment due to the siege. The words of my song say: 'A girl called Sarah, innocence in her eyes, because of no medications she is about to die. Don't let Sarah feel the pain, let her fly like a bird in the sky, take the siege away.'"

According to the International Palestinian Campaign to End the Siege on Gaza, this concert was intended to convey the message of a people whose voice is not heard. Nadine Rajab, a coordinator of the campaign, said the concert was to include musicians from Gaza, the West Bank and inside Israel. Because of the siege it was limited to Gaza. Because Israel does not issue permits for Palestinians outside of Gaza to enter the besieged territory, musicians in the West Bank and Israel were featured on pre-recorded video.

Rajab stated, "The occupation banned us from having our brothers from the West Bank. We overcame this as they have sent us a video of their songs. Next year we want to make it regional so our voice would be heard widely. All in one, we have succeeded to achieve our aim of telling our story. Many people think we are savage and terrorists but today's concert would prove the opposite. Many people abroad are fed up of our news but through this way they will know what's happening."

Conditions in the Gaza Strip, already extremely difficult because of the siege, have worsened over the past month. Patients are denied the ability to travel abroad for treatment. And basic commodities like flour, sugar and rice have nearly vanished. Yet Gaza Concert '08 is further proof that Palestinians are stronger than siege and occupation. The concert reflects the paradoxical images of sadness, joy, life and death that are found in Gaza on a daily basis. While Israelis may have succeeded in shutting Gaza's borders to the outside world, they have failed to silence the sounds, hymns and music of young Gazans.

All images credited to the Gaza Concert '08.

Sameh A. Habeeb is a photojournalist, humanitarian and peace
activist based in Gaza, Palestine. He writes for several news websites on a freelance basis.

Sameh A. Habeeb, B.A.
Photojournalist & Peace Activist
Humanitarian, Child Relief Worker
Gaza Strip, Palestine
Mob: 00972599306096
Tel: 0097282802825
Skype: Gazatoday, Facebook: Sameh A. habeeb
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Vintage whines

What Would Keynes Do?

by Bruce Bartlett

The government should spend on stuff, not on bad assets.

picEvery day that goes by makes clearer the parallels between the current financial crisis and the one that led to the Great Depression. Then, as now, the core problem was one of deflation, or falling prices. But fixing it will require more than just low interest rates. This was the key insight of British economist John Maynard Keynes, whose theories finally explained how to end the Great Depression. They may be the key to solving today's crisis as well.

The Great Depression was so deep and prolonged for many reasons. Herbert Hoover stupidly signed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, which crippled international trade and finance, and imposed one of the largest tax increases in American history in 1932, which was exactly the wrong medicine at the wrong time. Franklin D. Roosevelt at least understood that deflation was at the root of the problem, but he thought artificially raising the price of gold and preventing businesses from cutting prices and wages by law was the solution. In fact, it prevented the economy from adjusting, which made the situation worse.

What few people understood at the time was that the Federal Reserve was primarily responsible for the deflation and the only institution that could have done anything about it. As we now know, the Fed's tight monetary policy brought on a financial crisis that began with the stock market crash in 1929. Smoot-Hawley was also a factor, but it wouldn't have been capable of inducing such a crisis if Fed policy hadn't already put financial markets in a fragile condition.

The Extended Life of Monty Python

IS there life left in the dead parrot sketch?

It has been 25 years since Monty Python was a living comedy troupe — the film "The Meaning of Life," released in 1983, was its swan song — but that has not stopped one alumnus from trying to convince the world that Python, like the parrot in its ancient skit, is just resting. For decades, Eric Idle has made sure the Monty Python name continues to grace books, DVDs, concert tours, a Broadway show, ring tones and video games.

Now he is helping take Monty Python to the Internet., a social network and digital playground, offers clips of old material that people can use to make mash-ups, perhaps inserting their own pet in the killer-rabbit scene from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." The home page has a blog format with news about the surviving Pythons; elsewhere there are chat boards and e-mail forums. Membership is free.

Mr. Idle is a driving force behind the site, though his role could only be described as, well, something completely different.

"I write about football for them occasionally," he said, laughing. "I thought it was the most abstruse thing I could do for it."

Despite the continuing wit and charm of Mr. Idle, the Web site's current content is not very funny. The discussion forums tend toward comments like "Happy Birthday, Eric!" The classic clips, which are familiar, are now available on YouTube, where they are more likely to be viewed by younger people, for whom they are fresh and hilarious.

Monty Python Is LiveThe other Pythons — John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones and Michael Palin — are not active on the Python site. (Graham Chapman, the sixth Python, died in 1989.) Mr. Cleese was the only one who chose to comment on the digital venture, saying he was "vaguely aware" of Pythonline, but had no intention of contributing.

Mr. Idle tried to get going on his own several times in the 1990s, only to set the project aside. "It was like Sisyphus," he said. "Every morning there was another mountain to push the pebble up. Then I got annoyed because people would deny it was me, so I would tell them to shove off and they would say, 'Oh, it is you.' "

In 2007, he signed a partnership with the New Media Broadcasting Company, a small outfit in Glendale, Calif., to jointly operate Pythonline. The site has been in beta-testing mode since the spring and will be officially introduced at the end of the month, said Scott Page, chief executive of New Media Broadcasting.

Mr. Page said the Python channel on YouTube had recorded 4.5 million video views and 52,000 subscribers in its first two weeks.

Season's Greetings