Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Neda, for the Ages

Neda Agha-Soltan's life is sketched in below, from CNN. Her life as an icon has just begun. And as we grieve for her and the tragedy of Iran, we can be forgiven to nod to the fact that Neda, living at that time and place, has in her short life, illuminated the world.

"The second of three children, Neda lived with her parents in a middle-class neighborhood east of Tehran.
She was a happy, positive person. Though she studied philosophy and religion at the Azad Islamic University, she was more spiritual than religious. She also loved music. She once studied violin but had given it up and was planning to take up piano next. She had just bought a piano, but it had not yet been delivered.

Her demeanor was typically calm, even serene, but she had a quirky, playful sense of humor. A friend recalled that once, when Neda was visiting her friend's house, she picked up a white Teddy bear, took off her big, purple-studded earrings and put them on the bear. Then she removed a necklace from around the neck of a friend and put it around the bear's neck, taking delight in the bear's transformation.
She liked to travel, having visited Turkey three months ago with a tour group. And she believed in human rights, her friend said."

Israel defies US with plan for 240 new homes on Palestinian land

• Ehud Barak approved construction in West Bank
• Scheme cuts farmers' access to land, say critics

by Rory McCarthy in Jerusalem

Israel's defence ministry has proposed legalising 60 existing homes at a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, and building another 240 homes at the site, despite US calls for a halt to settlement growth.

Construction at the outpost, known as Water Reservoir Hill, near the Talmon settlement, north of Ramallah, would "greatly damage" the freedom of movement of Palestinian farmers in the area, according to Bimkom, an Israeli planning rights group.

It said the construction plan was put forward for public inspection shortly after the Israeli government was formed this spring and was first approved by Ehud Barak, the defence minister. It was now awaiting final approval.

But Bimkom added: "In virtually all cases, plans deposited for Israeli settlements were subsequently approved."

The Israeli government insisted the homes were part of old proposals. "These houses have been completed, and there has been no approval given for new houses," one official said.

The plan, which follows a pattern over many years of settlement growth, appears to challenge directly Barack Obama's administration, which has issued several clear calls for an end to the practice.

So far, Israel has resisted Washington's pressure for a halt to construction in settlements and the issue is fast becoming a test of wills between the two governments. In an interview yesterday Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said arguing about settlement activity was a waste of time. Last week, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, told Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor ­Lieberman, that Washington wanted "to see a stop to the settlements".

The Jewish Origin of the Vulcan Salute

by Rabbi Yonassan Gershom

(This material is excerpted from Chapter Four of Jewish Themes in Star Trek, ( by (c) 2004, 2009 by Yonassan Gershom. Posted here with the author's permission.)

...We come now to the most famous Jewish influence on Vulcan culture, the "live long and prosper" hand gesture. This "Vulcan salute, " as it has come to be called, was invented on the set by Leonard Nimoy during the filming of the second-season opener, "Amok Time." In this episode, Spock goes into something like a male estrus cycle, called pon farr in the Vulcan language. Comparing himself to a salmon swimming upstream to spawn, Spock tells Kirk that he must return to Vulcan to mate with his betrothed bride, T'Pring, or die trying. The wedding ceremony would be the first glimpse of Spock's homeworld in the series.

[Spock giving the Vulcan Salute] Nimoy felt that there should be some kind of distinctive greeting among Vulcans, analogous to a handshake or a bow. Alan Dean Foster's novelization, based on an early script, has Spock kneeling before the Vulcan matriarch, T'Pau, who places her hands on his shoulders, like royalty dubbing a knight. But Nimoy didn't care for this. Previous episodes had already established that Vulcans are touch telepaths. Therefore, a touch on the shoulders would be an invasion of privacy. Instead, Nimoy drew upon his own Jewish background to suggest the now-familiar salute. Back in the 1960s, hippies who watched "Amok Time" thought the salute was a variation of the two-fingered peace sign. But we Jews knew better. The Vulcan salute came not from protest marches, but from the pulpit of Nimoy's childhood synagogue.

The Vulcan greeting is based upon a blessing gesture used by the kohanim (koe-hah-NEEM) during the worship service. The kohanim are the genealogical descendants of the Jewish priests who served in the Jerusalem Temple. Modern Jews no longer have priests leading services as in ancient times, nor do we have animal sacrifices anymore. (Yes, people really do ask about that!) The sacrificial system ended with the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in the year 70. C.E. However, a remnant of the Temple service lives on in the "kohane blessing" ritual (duchenen in Yiddish) that is performed on certain holy days.

[Hebrew letter SHIN] [hand and SHIN letter]The actual blessing is done with both arms held horizontally in front, at shoulder level, with hands touching, to form the Hebrew letter "shin." This stands for the Hebrew word for "Shaddai", meaning "Almighty [God]." Nimoy modified this gesture into one hand held upright, making it more like a salute. So, technically, the Vulcan greeting is not the same thing as the ceremonial Jewish blessing. Still, the resemblance is close enough to evoke instant recognition among knowledgeable Jews.

During the synagogue service, the worshippers are not supposed to look at the kohanim while the blessing is being given. The reason for this is to focus our attention on the words of the prayer itself, rather than on the personalities of the kohanim. The kohanim are merely the channels, not the source, of the blessing, which comes from God. Unfortunately, all sorts of silly superstitions have arisen about this ritual, such as "Don't look at the kohanim, or you'll go blind!" and other nonsense. The real reason is simply to focus on receiving blessings directly from God, not from human beings.

[position of the hands for the blessing] Like most Jewish children, young Leonard Nimoy could not contain his curiosity about what the kohanim were really doing up there in front of the congregation. He writes:

"The special moment when the Kohanim blessed the assembly moved me deeply, for it possessed a great sense of magic and theatricality... I had heard that this indwelling Spirit of God was too powerful, too beautiful, too awesome for any mortal to look upon and survive, and so I obediently covered my face with my hands. But of course, I had to peek." (From his autobiography, I am Spock.)

Leonard survived his peeking unscathed, and saw the kohanim extending their fingers in the mystical "shin" gesture. That magical moment remained with him for life, and was there to draw upon years later, when he invented the Vulcan salute.

Did Gene Roddenberry know, at the time of filming, that the Vulcan salute was based on a Jewish ritual? That question remains unanswered. My sense is that he probably didn't, or he would have objected to it, on the grounds of its being too "Judeo-Christian." More likely, he thought it was a weird variation of the peace sign. Certainly, that's how gentile Trekkers saw it for many years. Only much later did Nimoy publicly explain the source of his inspiration.

Life of Riley Index Reaches New Record: $3.1 Million

By Scott Burns Life of Riley Index

If you want to be rich, you'll need a lot of money.

You didn't need to be told that, did you? But the real question is exactly how much? Try $3.1 million as the entry level for 2009.

That's more than three times the amount required only 15 years ago. It's double what you needed in the crazy days of 1999. This is the amount you'll need in financial assets to be a "person of independent means," capable of living better than 75 percent of your fellow Americans without suffering the indignity or inconvenience of work. If you are hoping to get rich the old-fashioned way--- by marrying well--- you'll have to find a mate with a lot more money than just a few years ago.

The $3.1 million figure comes from my Life of Riley Index, an irregular exercise I do to find out how much money we need to be independently upper middle class. Note that this isn't genuinely rich. It's just middling comfortable. It means you won't be hungry, but you won't gargle with champagne, either. It means you'll own a car, but it won't be a Ferrari. It means your home will never be photographed for Architectural Digest, and you'll never buy a watch that is advertised in The New Yorker magazine or fashions advertised in Vogue.

But $3.1 million is, well, a good start. And it is way more money than most people have.

Here's how I get the figure. Our friends at the Internal Revenue Service, always eager to be useful, compile lots of statistics about tax returns and income. One set is a time series that shows how the distribution of income (and taxes) has changed over time. It tells us that if you wanted to be in the top 25 percent of all households in America by income, you needed to have an income of $64,702 in 2006. (To be in the top 1 percent you needed $388,806, and to be in the top 10 percent you needed $108,904.) That's the last published data, so I take an educated guess at 2007, 2008 and 2009 by using wage increase figures from the Economic Indicators, a monthly government publication. That provides the income figure.

To get the wealth figure I use the average dividend yield on the S&P 500 and the yield on a 5-year Treasury obligation. Then I assume the portfolio is invested 50/50 in stocks and 5-year Treasuries to calculate the average yield from the portfolio. Finally, I divide the needed income by the average portfolio yield to learn the required wealth (see table below).

Needless to say, that $3.1 million isn't written on clay tablets. The amount can be changed by using assets with different yields such as value stocks, relatively high yield REITs or government-backed mortgage securities. That may reduce the amount you need well below $3 million, but the growth of required wealth is likely to be very similar to the figures presented here.

Basically, you need a lot more financial assets these days to replace the income from working your day job. For all the attention to the growth of wealth and the number of people investing, a life of leisure based on dividends and coupon clipping is a lot more elusive than it was 5, 10, or 20 years ago.

Can it be said that life is getting harder?

Yes, it probably is---catching the big brass ring of luxury and leisure requires a bigger stretch than ever.

The Life of Riley Index— (or, how much money you need to be independently upper middle class)

This table shows how much you need in financial assets to produce an income at the 25th percentile of all American households. The actual amount could be changed by substituting investments with different yields than the S&P 500 index and 5 year Treasury note that are used in this example.

Year S&P500 Yield 5Yr Treasury Yield 50/50 Portfolio Yield Top 25% AGI Threshold Portfolio
1986 3.49% 7.30% 5.40% $32,242 $597,627
1987 3.08% 7.94% 5.51% $33,983 $616,751
1988 3.64% 8.47% 6.06% $35,398 $584,608
1989 3.45% 8.50% 5.98% $36,839 $616,552
1990 3.61% 8.37% 5.99% $38,080 $635,726
1991 3.24% 7.37% 5.31% $38,929 $733,817
1992 2.99% 6.19% 4.59% $40,378 $879,695
1993 2.78% 5.87% 4.33% $41,210 $952,832
1994 2.82% 6.68% 4.75% $42,742 $899,832
1995 2.56% 6.77% 4.67% $44,207 $947,631
1996 2.19% 6.07% 4.13% $45,757 $1,107,918
1997 1.77% 5.77% 3.77% $48,173 $1,277,798
1998 1.49% 5.15% 3.32% $50,607 $1,524,307
1999 1.25% 5.54% 3.40% $52,965 $1,560,088
2000 1.15% 6.15% 3.65% $55,225 $1,513,014
2001 1.32% 4.55% 2.94% $56,085 $1,910,903
2002 1.61% 3.82% 2.72% $56,401 $2,077,385
2003 1.77% 2.97% 2.37% $57,343 $2,419,536
2004 1.72% 3.43% 2.58% $ 60,041 $2,331,689
2005 1.83% 4.05% 2.94% $62,068 $2,111,156
2006 1.87% 4.75% 3.31% $64,702 $1,954,743
2007e 1.86% 4.43% 3.15% $67,225 $2,137,520
2008e 2.37% 2.80% 2.59% $69,242 $2,678,607
2009e 2.36% 2.13% 2.25% $70,142 $3,124,365

FTC plans to monitor blogs for claims, payments


Savvy consumers often go online for independent consumer reviews of products and services, scouring through comments from everyday Joes and Janes to help them find a gem or shun a lemon.

What some fail to realize, though, is that such reviews can be tainted: Many bloggers have accepted perks such as free laptops, trips to Europe, $500 gift cards or even thousands of dollars for a 200-word post. Bloggers vary in how they disclose such freebies, if they do so at all.

The practice has grown to the degree that the Federal Trade Commission is paying attention. New guidelines, expected to be approved late this summer with possible modifications, would clarify that the agency can go after bloggers — as well as the companies that compensate them — for any false claims or failure to disclose conflicts of interest.

It would be the first time the FTC tries to patrol systematically what bloggers say and do online. The common practice of posting a graphical ad or a link to an online retailer — and getting commissions for any sales from it — would be enough to trigger oversight.

"If you walk into a department store, you know the (sales) clerk is a clerk," said Rich Cleland, assistant director in the FTC's division of advertising practices. "Online, if you think that somebody is providing you with independent advice and ... they have an economic motive for what they're saying, that's information a consumer should know."

The guidelines also would bring uniformity to a community that has shunned that.

As blogging rises in importance and sophistication, it has taken on characteristics of community journalism — but without consensus on the types of ethical practices typically found in traditional media.

Journalists who work for newspapers and broadcasters are held accountable by their employers, and they generally cannot receive payments from marketers and must return free products after they finish reviewing them.

The blogosphere is quite different.

"Rules are set by the individuals who create the blog," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project. "Some people will accept payments and free gifts, and some people won't. There's no established norm yet."

Bloggers complain that with FTC oversight, they'd be too worried about innocent posts getting them in trouble, and they say they might simply quit or post less frequently.

Between ads on her five blogs and payments from advertisers who want her to review products, Rebecca Empey makes as much as $800 a month, paying the grocery bill for a family of six. She also has received a bird feeder, toys, books and other free goods.

Now the 41-year-old mother of four in New Hartford, N.Y., worries that even a casual mention of an all-natural cold remedy she bought herself would trigger an FTC probe.

"This helped us. This made us feel great. Will I be sued because I didn't hire a scientist to do research?" Empey said.

Finding Health Care Reform

Iran's Web Spying Aided By Western Technology

European Gear Used in Vast Effort to Monitor Communications

The Iranian regime has developed, with the assistance of European telecommunications companies, one of the world's most sophisticated mechanisms for controlling and censoring the Internet, allowing it to examine the content of individual online communications on a massive scale.

Interviews with technology experts in Iran and outside the country say Iranian efforts at monitoring Internet information go well beyond blocking access to Web sites or severing Internet connections.

Instead, in confronting the political turmoil that has consumed the country this past week, the Iranian government appears to be engaging in a practice often called deep packet inspection, which enables authorities to not only block communication but to monitor it to gather information about individuals, as well as alter it for disinformation purposes, according to these experts.

The monitoring capability was provided, at least in part, by a joint venture of Siemens AG, the German conglomerate, and Nokia Corp., the Finnish cellphone company, in the second half of 2008, Ben Roome, a spokesman for the joint venture, confirmed.

The "monitoring center," installed within the government's telecom monopoly, was part of a larger contract with Iran that included mobile-phone networking technology, Mr. Roome said.

"If you sell networks, you also, intrinsically, sell the capability to intercept any communication that runs over them," said Mr. Roome.

The sale of the equipment to Iran by the joint venture, called Nokia Siemens Networks, was previously reported last year by the editor of an Austrian information-technology Web site called Futurezone.

The Iranian government had experimented with the equipment for brief periods in recent months, but it had not been used extensively, and therefore its capabilities weren't fully displayed -- until during the recent unrest, the Internet experts interviewed said.

"We didn't know they could do this much," said a network engineer in Tehran. "Now we know they have powerful things that allow them to do very complex tracking on the network."

HOWTO communicate in repressive regimes

Patrick sez, "Unlike most of us, it looks like @PatrickMeier knows what he's talking about. He should, considering he's doing a PhD at Harvard on 'The Impact of the Information Revolution on Authoritarian Rule and Social Resistance: From Information Revolution to iRevolution?' Patrick has an excellent guide on How To Communicate Securely in Repressive Environments. He keeps it up to date based on his studies and input from readers, and will provide a more detailed guide on request (my guess is that not all requests will be handled equally). If you're a Farsi speaker, please translate it and email me, I will post it (or maybe Patrick will want to post it next to the original)."
Mobile Phones

* Purchase your mobile phone far from where you live. Buy lower-end, simple phones that do not allow third-party applications to be installed. Higher-end ones with more functionalities carry more risk. Use cash to purchase your phone and SIM card. Avoid town centers and find small or second-hand shops as these are unlikely to have security cameras. Do not give your real details if asked; many shops do not ask for proof of ID.

* Use multiple SIM cards and multiple phones and only use pay-as-you go options; they are more expensive but required for anonymity.

* Remove the batteries from your phone if you do not want to be geo-located and keep the SIM card out of the phone when not in use and store in separate places.Use your phone while in a moving vehicle to reduces probability of geo-location.

* Never say anything that may incriminate you in any way.

How To Communicate Securely in Repressive Environments

How Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president of Iran

Wind could power the entire world

by Jeremy Hance

Wind power may be the key to a clean energy revolution: a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science finds that wind power could provide for the entire world's current and future energy needs.

To estimate the earth's capacity for wind power, the researchers first sectioned the globe into areas of approximately 3,300 square kilometers (1,274 square miles) and surveyed local wind speeds every six hours. They imagined 2.5 megawatt turbines crisscrossing the terrestrial globe, excluding "areas classified as forested, areas occupied by permanent snow or ice, areas covered by water, and areas identified as either developed or urban," according to the paper. They also included the possibility of 3.6 megawatt offshore wind turbines, but restricted them to 50 nautical miles off the coast and to oceans depths less than 200 meters.

Using this criteria the researchers found that wind energy could not only supply all of the world's energy requirements, but it could provide over forty times the world's current electrical consumption and over five times the global use of total energy needs.

Turning to the world's two largest carbon emitters, China and the United States, the researchers found that wind power has the potential to easily supply both nations.

Windmill for pumping water in Kenya

Wind turbines for power generation in Maui.
"Large-scale development of wind power in China could allow for close to an 18-fold increase in electricity supply relative to consumption reported for 2005," the researchers write. "The bulk of this wind power, 89%, could be derived from onshore installations. The potential for wind power in the U.S. is even greater, 23 times larger than current electricity consumption, the bulk of which, 84%, could be supplied onshore."

Expanding their view to the top ten carbon emitters, the researchers found that Russia, Canada, and the United States (in this order) had the greatest capacity for wind power. However, they note that much of the area available for wind power in Russia and Canada is far from any cities, making their construction costly. In addition, the authors note that the public may oppose wind turbines in particular areas, especially remote, ecologically sensitive regions. Still, they conclude that "despite these limitations, it is clear that wind power could make a significant contribution to the demand for electricity" in most high carbon emitting countries.

First floating wind turbine buoyed off Norway

by Martin LaMonica

Development of offshore wind farms has been restricted to places where turbines can be attached to the sea bed.

But earlier this week, Siemens and energy company StatoilHydro installed what they call the first large-scale floating turbine. The installation is off the coast of Norway, and testing is expected to last for two years.

The Hywind turbine will still have a ballast that is tied to the sea floor with cables. Wires will transfer the electricity produced to the mainland grid starting in July.

A Hywind floating wind turbine being hauled to sea off Norway.
(Credit: Siemens)

If successful, the project could open up offshore wind to countries that don't have relatively shallow waters of 100 feet to 165 feet off their coasts. The Hywind is suitable for depths of about 400 feet to more than 2,200 feet.

"Hywind could opportunities for exploitation of offshore wind power, as the turbines could be placed much more freely than before," Henrik Stiesdal, chief technology of the Siemens' Wind Power business unit, said in a statement.

The turbine in Norway will be 7.4 miles offshore where the water is 721 feet deep. It will be utility-size turbine, with a hub height of about 100 feet, capable of generating 2.3 megawatts of electricity.

Auto-Tune the News #5: lettuce regulation. American blessings

Obama in cyberspace

By James Boyle

For those stalwarts who lived through the Bush years in a thrall of horror and disbelief, broken only by Jon Stewart monologues, Barack Obama's arrival has been cathartic. True, the sight of your retirement account statement may bring on nausea, chills and palpitations. (Is it really unrealistic to think of working until you are 70? As a bicycle messenger?) But there is always the soothing relief of hearing the announcement that yet another Bush policy has been overturned, even if the announcement generally comes with a pragmatic footnote. America is now against torture again. (But also against prosecuting those who tortured and against declassifying photos of abuse.) Guantánamo will be closed down. (Though we don't know quite where the inhabitants will go.) The United States will do something about climate change. (Even though the actual plan is full of corporate giveaways.) The phrase "Justice Department" no longer sounds like an oxymoron. And so on.

Sometimes the "pragmatism" looks a little like "not trying" – as when Obama scurried quickly into retreat on immunity for the telephone companies who participated, probably illegally, in spying on US citizens. But those who understand politics better than I give him fairly high marks on his combination of principle and pragmatism. And since I couldn't craft a legislative majority at a dinner table over what Chinese food to order, I am reluctant to throw stones at those who have to deal with considerably more unwieldy coalitions.

So what does Obama's mixture of principle and pragmatism look like in the world of the new economy, and more specifically, the world of intellectual property policy? The picture is definitely mixed. On the one hand, he has brought brilliant people to important positions. It is nice to have a Nobel prize-winner (Steven Chu) as Secretary of Energy, and another (Harold Varmus) as the Co-chair of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. It is hard to imagine the Obama team talking about science as if it were simply one inconvenient partisan position or ridiculing the "evidence based mindset" or, for that matter, evolution itself. The administration has good ideas about what to do with the slow motion train-wreck that is the US Patent and Trademark Office. It is not clear if those good ideas will be implemented, but one can hope. In the area of copyright law . . . well, the signs are mixed.

Traditionally, Democratic administrations take their copyright policy direct from Hollywood and the recording industry. Unfortunately, so do Republican administrations. The capture of regulators by the industry they regulate is nothing new, of course, but in intellectual property there is the added benefit that incumbents can frequently squelch competing technologies and business methods before they ever come into existence. Years of making policy this way have given us retrospectively extended copyright terms that are in excess of 100 years. (Perpetual copyright "on the instalment plan" in Peter Jaszi's words.) It has given us a one-sided and unbalanced view of the world, which registers with complete accuracy the real dangers that the content industry faces from any new technology, while ignoring the benefits those same technologies can provide – including to the content industry. The Obama administration's warm embrace of Silicon Valley, and Silicon Valley's chequebook, had given some hope that this pattern would change – and I think it will. Now, instead of taking copyright policy direct from the media conglomerates (who, after all, have a very legitimate point of view – even if not the only point of view) it is quite likely that the administration will construct it as a contract between content companies and high-technology companies such as Google. In some places, citizens and consumers will probably benefit, simply because optimising for the interests of two economic blocs rather than one is likely to give us a slightly more balanced, and less technology-phobic, set of rules. And perhaps the administration will go further. But recent actions make me doubt that this is the case.

Gay Rights

by Susan Estrich

Rep. Barney Frank, the first member of Congress to be re-elected after coming out, is right in telling gays not to abandon the president. As Frank put it, "The notion that if someone doesn't agree with you 100 percent, then you shouldn't be supportive of him — versus someone who disagrees with you 100 percent — is very bad politics." But it's hard not to share the disappointment of gay activists who worked so hard to elect this president and now feel sufficiently frustrated that at least a handful publicly withdrew their support for a Democratic National Committee fundraiser next week featuring the vice president.

Since President Obama took office, more than 250 men and women who volunteered to serve in the military and were doing so honorably have been discharged for no reason other than their sexual orientation. Although the president vowed to get rid of that policy, he has taken no steps to do so, frustrating those who expected a moratorium on discharges if not an outright change of policy.

Then, last week, the Justice department filed a brief that could have come from the Bush administration, defending the law that bars recognition of gay marriages by the federal government and allows other states to refuse to recognize them, as well. While the White House claimed the administration had no choice but to defend a law it believes ought to be repealed, many viewed the inclusion of incest as a justification for the law as both unnecessary and insulting.

So this week, the president extended what was portrayed as an olive branch — or crumbs — to his gay supporters, and directed federal agencies that do not already do so to provide domestic partners access to certain limited federal benefits, specifically not including health insurance.

"It's a matter of fairness," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

To be sure. But so is the right to serve in the military. So is the right to form a legally recognized relationship with a partner. And so, it should be clear to this of all administrations, is access to health care.

Next week, the administration is launching a campaign to provide health care access to all Americans. This week, it is justifying denying such access to gay partners of federal workers?

The Ayatollah's Bitch