Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Tovarisch, can you spare a ruble?

Apparently, President Obama's restrained policy works better than 1) Bush's or 2) McCain's. You'd think rightwingers, with their self-proclaimed understanding of finance, would have understood how these things work.

After proclaiming in 2007 that the ruble was poised to become a haven for global investors, the Russian leader has watched it fade, a victim of his nation’s stagnating economy since the land grab in Ukraine. Now so much money is leaving Russia that its central bank is considering temporary capital controls, according to two officials with direct knowledge of the discussions. The ruble’s share of global trading dropped to 0.4 percent from 0.6 percent since 2012, falling five places to rank 18th most-traded in the world, while the yuan tripled to 1.5 percent, according to the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT.
Barry Eichengreen, one of the leading American theorists of reserve currencies, tells Bloomberg News:

 “I don’t know anyone who takes the idea of the ruble as a reserve currency seriously,” Barry Eichengreen, an economics and political science professor at the University of California-Berkeley, and author of a book on global reserve currencies, said via e-mail. “Holding financial assets in Russia is risky business.”

Monday, September 29, 2014

It's a ban, 'nuff said

Proponents of the GMO initiative have been strenuously denying that the action, whatever it is called, would be a ban on crops. But at least one person on the anti-GMO side is more forthright.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Book Review 335: The Grand Design

THE GRAND DESIGN, by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodindow. 198 pages, illustrated. Bantam, $28

Stephen Hawking’s books are fun to read, and they make everything -- or at least a great deal -- sound simple. The biggest picture of all is contained in less than 200 pages.

But then, replete, you set the book down and ask, what about antimatter? Where’s that? In the glossary but not in the text. If the Grand Design comprehends antimatter (my understanding is it does not), somebody forgot to put it in.

Alternatively, the Theory of Everything is not as near at hand as Hawking thinks. Predicting the End of Physics is sort of like predicting the Second Coming. Lots of people do it, but it keeps receding into the future.

Worth reading for the clearest explication of the weak and strong anthropic principles that I have seen. Also rather good at knocking down the naive materialists, among whom I count myself still, nevertheless. 

By naive materialist, I mean that I give priority to matter/energy over mathematics. I do not think that mathematics calls matter/energy into existence, which seems to be the (usually) unspoken position of the theorists.


Friday, September 26, 2014

Keeping busy

This morning I went to the breakfast meeting of the Rotary Club of Upcountry Maui, to see two high schoolers receive the club's Students of the Month awards. They were an impressive pair, and I will relay a little about them in a moment, but what I found noteworthy was the variety (and, apparently, also depth) of the opportunities students have today.

There was nothing close to it when I was in high school, 50 years ago.

Of course, not all students get the same opportunities. Money and transportation would prevent some. Babysitting obligations would stop others.

But the opportunities are there for both private and public school students.

It is nearly impossible, in some circles, to bring up the topic of education without being subjected to a tirade against public schools. And teachers. And unions.

I spent a lot of time on campus when my children were in high school, and what I saw was generally good. Certainly far better than the Catholic school I went to. I do not believe that anyone pushing vouchers has the interests of the students uppermost. And religious schools are, with some but not many exceptions, antieducational.

The selectees were Jamie Gomes from King Kekaulike High and Josh Higa from Kamehameha Schools Maui. As you can see from the photograph, happy-looking kids.

Jamie said she had been thinking of becoming a family physician until attending a boot camp at Berkeley last summer where she observed a knee operation and is now wondering if becoming an orthopedic surgeon wouldn't be better.

She plays water polo and for her community service requirement has started Operation JAG (Jamie Against Bullying) to go to the community with a message. She would like to attend Oregon State and then Oregon University of Health Sciences medical school.

Josh wants to become a botanist, with an interest in native plants. He's been learning about the Hawaiian uses of plants as medicine -- la'au lapaau. He does judo and runs cross-country and is studying Japanese in school. He has been on reef and park cleaning trips.

He has Northern Arizona and Pacific on his college list.

There were quite a few other items on Jamie's and Josh's busy lists, and I asked Josh's mother Terilyn if she worries about burnout. "Yes," she said.

But I think the kids will be all right.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Monsanto, keeping you healthy

Do you take prescribed medications? Did you know that most of them depend on Monsanto research?

Most molecules active in human physiology are leftish. Monsanto employee William Knowles discovered a way to use a rhodium catalyst to make molecules go left. From his obituary in the New York Times:

Dr. Knowles figured out a way to tweak the manufacturing process to produce more of the most desirable form of certain molecules, including L-dopa. His tool was a catalyst, a substance often used to speed up a chemical reaction. He developed a process called asymmetric hydrogenation, which uses a catalyst not just to speed the reaction but also to skew it to produce 97.5 percent L-dopa and only 2.5 percent of the unwanted D form. Monsanto then began large-scale production of the drug, which is still a mainstay in treating Parkinson’s, especially in the disease’s early stages.
The technique is used generally for most modern drugs. Knowles was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2001.

What have the anti-Monsanto activists ever done for anyone?

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Their bowels sparkle like diamonds

My letter to the editor of The Maui News regarding the GMO ban was published today:

There is disagreement whether the initiative on genetically modified organisms would be a moratorium or a ban. Whatever it is called, it would be a ban.

Businesses rarely reopen following long, indefinite closures. For local farms, we learned this on Molokai when the cattle ranches were closed in order to try to control bovine tuberculosis. The disease was controlled but the ranches did not reopen, even though there was almost no other commercial use for the land.

Nearly two decades since bovine TB was declared over, a few cattle operations are just beginning to venture onto Molokai, but a recent business study calls ranching only a “shadow” of what it was.

There is an allegation circulating on the Internet claiming that all letters to the editor of The Maui News favoring GMOs are written by employees or beneficiaries of Monsanto. So I need to state that I have never received -- or been offered -- anything from any agricultural entity.
Restrained, I think, but there is more to know. For example, if you pick up "Living Aloha: Hawaii's Magazine for a Health Conscious Community and Planet," which is a piece of pro-ban literature available all over, you will learn some cogent things abou the anti-GMO folks.

The underlying question is the evidence for or against harm, actual or possible, from using recombinent genetic methods in farming. This is a scientific question; it can be answered by observation applied to theory.  Arm-waving scare stories and non-specific premonitions of disaster don't count.

Well, it can be answered by people who use evidence and understand and accept the methods of scientific investigation to make decisions. It does not appear that the people pushing the ban are that kind of people.

"Living Aloha" is supported by advertisements, and these are revealing. The largest number are for yoga classes and clinics. The second-largest number (4) are for colon cleanses.

Long-time readers of RtO (or of my "Well, balderdash" columns in The Maui News back before there was a blogosphere) may recall that I call Maui Duckburg because everywhere you go, you hear a quack. It is safe to say that the opinions of people who believe in colon cleanses on health topics are scientifically worthless.

The argument of those who claim they want only a temporary moratorium pending evidence of safety raises the question: what would they accept as evidence?

Book Review 334: Paper: An Elegy

PAPER: An Elegy, by Ian Sansom. 231 pages, illustrated. Morrow

One reason (of several) that I never pay attention to predictions by digital mavens is that they were so stridently wrong about paper. It is easy to make a wrong prediction, but in this case the evidence was right there.

Surprisingly, Ian Sansom doesn’t use it, although he squeezes an awful lot into a small space in “Paper: An Elegy.” You probably recall the factoid I am thinking of: When the plain paper copier was introduced, Xerox estimated that most users would make a dozen copies a day or so.

Fortunately those early copiers were robust, because counters showed that they were making around 100,000 copies a year: a ream every working day. And even if you never heard that story, it’s hard not to notice that the local stationery store runs a more-or-less continuous teaser sale of copier paper if you buy 10 boxes at a time.

As Sansom shows in this eclectic survey, even if the paperless office had emerged, paper would still be in our hands all the time. In fast-paced chapters, he covers advertisements, money, clothing, origami, games and puzzles, spying, money and much more.

Money might be just about the one use of paper that really will diminish because of digital methods. Yet it is hanging on pretty well still. Who knows, the inability or incompetence of vendors to safeguard credit card data may cause a rush back to greenbacks?

If there is a deficiency in this book, it is that Sansom, a teacher in Ireland, gives so little space to each use of paper; and not much to the manufacture of the stuff, although the bibliography shows where to go for more.

Big swathes of interest are ignored, like the move away from chlorine in paper mills. Barely mentioned, but hugely important, is the fact that digital files have a very short shelf life. Among the great advantages of paper over computers is that, once marked, paper can be read without any tools. Even the biggest libraries have trouble finding machinery to read some of their old digital media.


Pretty food

You will never see a prettier plate of tripe stew, at Tante's Island Cuisine.

Good, too, although not the best I've ever had. That would be the tripe stew made by Mrs. Abe Aiona.

(Second-best would be my own, but mine is not local style -- no tomato -- more like menudo.)

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Chocolate-cream Soldier and other bonbons

While driving to an appointment yesterday, I thought I heard a report on the radio news that the United States is giving Ukraine $53 billion to build up its army, but no weapons.

How absurd, I thought, and of course I had misheard. It's only $43 billion, or about 100 Solyndras.

The image of Buntschli, the mercenary in "Arms and the Man" who goes unarmed and uses his cartridge case only to carry chocolates, came immediately to mind, since Ukraine's president is the "chocolate king." Life seldom imitates art so clearly.

Later in the day, I heard King, er, President Poroshenko solemnly promise to an open-handed, empty-headed and madly cheering Congress (ours) that sure, for certain all of our dollars will go only to incorrupt institutions, which must have magically sprung up since Transparency International did its rankings last year. Ukraine finished 144th.


An honest, open crook

After that, it was almost refreshing to read about Jack Ma. American investors are going to give him around $24 billion (50 Solyndras) for no share in the governance of his fencing operation, Alibaba. All they want is a rakeoff on the profits from selling fake gold coins.

Ma and his gang make no pretense of being anything other than thieves. I do not believe they are more thievish than the mill run of other corporate leaders, just less shy about saying so. Certainly they got along with the corrupt bankers of New York like, well, thieves.

There was no sign that any American investors were reluctant to invest in a corrupt business. They're like Congress that way.

Who is dying in Africa?

The vastly overhyped Ebola epidemic is not West Africa's leading health problem. It may not be in the top 3. But it scares the be-hoozis out of Westerners.

As of today, Ebola hemorhagic fever is reported to have killed 2,500 people. Even if the accurate total is 5,000, that's only 1% of the deaths each year from malaria in Africa.

Measles kills more, too.

But you don't hear rightwingers screaming about measles being brought over the border, and you don't hear even sensible people fretting about malaria arriving via air passengers in New York. (Direct air links between Africa and the United States by American carriers are a recent development.) 

Because they don't think they are going to be sickened at home by measles or malaria. It's a good idea to speak to the locals about how they view the situation.

UPDATE, SATURDAY: From The Washington Post, a column recommending speaking to the locals. I cannot say I particularly agree with all of the column, but the comments are, for the most part, appalling.

 Stupid science tricks

What if you ran an experiment in which half the subjects showed a possible change that might indicate a tendency to a postulated, but unproven, pathway to a medical condition in some people? And in the other half it didn't? And the sample size was 7? You might think that is practically the definition of an inconclusive result.

Virtually every editor in the country put the story on Page One.

The subject is sweeteners. Oh. Morality not science.

Dang liberals

Remember all the bad words liberals applied to Cliven Bundy? Add shiftless. You know who you can
always count on for words about family values and taking personal responsibility: the Palins. Actually demonstrating either, well, no, never. You know whose fault that is? Liberals.


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Gun nuggets

How responsible, highly trained peace officers manage firearms. Let's choose some lowlights from that report:

The (Honolulu) officer was in the restroom when he accidentally fired his gun, and the pictures sent to us by a viewer shows the bullet ricocheted off the stall door and hit another stall.
Officers investigated after the 911 call was made but there were no reports available to the public.

 last month . . . an officer accidentally fired his gun and killed himself at home.

 HPD also says the officer will remain on patrol during the investigation.
This refers to the live one not the dead one. And:

Bakke says that doesn’t make sense “because any time there’s a discharge of a firearm by a police officer, it’s standard procedure that they’re put on desk duty basically.”
HPD says it’s not necessary.
“At this time, we feel that he’s not endangering the public,” said police chief Louis Kealoha. “He didn’t do a criminal act. It was an accidental discharge. We’re doing an administrative investigation, not a criminal investigation.”
He didn't endanger anybody by shooting his pistol in a public restroom in a department store? Kealoa needs to be fired for incompetence and stupidity.

Moving on to New Mexico, what could possibly go wrong when a business encourages its workers to carry loaded weapons and smoke dope? Oh.

On Sept. 17, 2011, Black says, as she stood on a ladder inventorying guns in a storage area, Rubi "pulled the .38 revolver from her rear pocket, pointed it at her buttocks and then with reckless disregard for her safety, pulled the trigger, shooting plaintiff with a single round from the revolver. Plaintiff collapsed on the ladder."
RtO contemplated but had nothing to say about the 9-year-old girl who killed an "instructor" with a submachine gun at an Arizona recreational center called Burgers & Brews. Beer and machine guns, what could go wrong? I should have contemplated the video (or the still taken from it) more carefully.

Because a commenter who did look closely noticed that the girl's target was a silhouette of a person. Some fun.

(While trying, and failing, to refind that comment, I did find this.)

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Coming to a school near you

If you did not grow up in the South, as I did, you can hardly conceive the level of ignorance. It is not a myth that Baptist preachers told their congregations that if Al Smith was elected president in 1928, the pope would sneak over from Rome in a secret tunnel to enter the White House and tell Smith (a Catholic) how to run the country.

Earlier, the Klan in Georgia told a similar story about the Bishop of Savannah. (My grandfather, from an old -- in fact, the oldest -- Southern family of European descent, had taken a second wife from an Italian-American family, and so T.C., my grandfather, ended up on a peacemaking mission to get the Georgia Grand Dragon to tone down his vile attacks on Catholics. This was around 1912.)

By the time I came along most younger Southerners with any pretensions to education no longer believed in the tunnels, although their attitude toward Catholics was as hateful as ever. The level of hatred of Catholics has cooled a little, although if you listen to "To Every Man An Answer," which is available on radio in almost every community in the country, you will find it still exists, along with even greater hatred of Mormons, Seventh-day Adventists, Muslims, Jehovah's Witnesses and a complicated but basically hateful attitude toward Jews.

All this is by way of introducing a report on the Texas Board of Education mandate that textbooks, to be acceptable in Texas public schools, must subscribe to the old Southern standards of ignorance. This concerns you because Texas is the largest purchaser of schoolbooks, and publishers tend to make the rest of the country follow Texas practice. (It seems to me that it would be a good idea for a foundation, or even a money-making business, to produce and sell non-Texan schoolbooks, but so far that hasn't happened.)

Texas young'uns are to learn that separate-but-equal really was equal, that Islam spread by conquest but Christianity by the gentle force of its message, that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War and many similar delusions held by most Southern rightwingers today. A big push is on to sneak the Ten Commandments into the public schools, despite the fact that, as the report notes, the Founders explicitly excluded the first four commandments from our governmental framework:
The Framers, for instance, were not influenced by the first four Commandments, which deal with matters of religious belief and practice. In fact, notable framers such as James Madison led the battle against government punishment for unorthodox religious belief.
And, as the report does not say, had nothing to say about the rest. Ox-coveting is not mentioned in the Constitution, and, if rightwing Christians were honest with themselves, they would acknowledge that their economic ideas not only permit but require ox-coveting. 

The report by the Texas Freedom Network Educational Fund is scornful. On the chance that you think I have been too scornful, I invite you to look at this loving, Christian message from Robby Gallaty, senior pastor at the Baptist church down the road from where I grew up, in which he calls for murdering homosexuals.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Whip Inflation Now! Whip it again!

The modern economy has so many factors, which interact in so many ways, that it is impossible to model in a general way. However, there are a few observable elements that are nearly as reliable as the sunrise, whether we can fully explain them or not.

RtO has emphasized one: unsupervised markets fail. Some rightwingers call this a feature, not a bug, and the damage done to people not in the markets does not bother them.

Paul Krugman has emphasized that since 2008 fears that inflation is about to break out have proven unfounded. So much so that some even of his fans find him tiresome. (I try to keep RtO from being tiresome, so I have not recently had anything to say about unsupervised markets, but you can bank on the fact that the people who need to understand this most still don't get it.) Krugman is more relentless.

In his column today in the New York Times, he introduces a new idea, which I find plausible. Krugman asks why the inflation hawks (roughly, the Republican Party) insist, against evidence, that inflation is either here or just around the corner. Part of the answer, he decides, is affinity fraud.

And anger against “takers” — anger that is very much tied up with ethnic and cultural divisions — runs deep. Many people, therefore, feel an affinity with those who rant about looming inflation; Mr. Santelli is their kind of guy. In an important sense, I’d argue, the persistence of the inflation cult is an example of the “affinity fraud” crucial to many swindles, in which investors trust a con man because he seems to be part of their tribe. In this case, the con men may be conning themselves as well as their followers, but that hardly matters.
This tribal interpretation of the inflation cult helps explain the sheer rage you encounter when pointing out that the promised hyperinflation is nowhere to be seen. It’s comparable to the reaction you get when pointing out that Obamacare seems to be working, and probably has the same roots.
Well, that helps explain the anger, but as a couple of commenters wonder, what explains the lack of inflation?

This is really easy to understand. The short definition of inflation is too much money chasing too few goods.

There is certainly plenty of money, even if you and I don't have so much of it. (Another theme I have held for years but never developed in RtO -- I should do that -- is that for the first time in history the world has too much capital.)

But haven't any rightwingers noticed that there are not too few goods? The storage industry, which was a hole-and-corner way of exploiting obsolete warehouses a generation ago, is now huge. Drive through even rural areas of the Mainland and you will see ugly storage businesses popping out of pastures, full of items that Americans own but have no use for.

The capacity of China to grind out shoddy is effectively limitless. Where we do see inflation is in goods that cannot be made in China: like Gilded Age mansions in Manhattan.

Few of these have been single-family homes recently, but they are being snapped up at prices sometimes exceeding $50 mil, with at least that much more required to convert them back to single-family residences. It is described as a seller's market.

For sale: truck or house, $28 mil

I note a photo in the Times of one of these mini-mansions. This one is already being renovated, and there's a workman's truck parked in front of it. The house is not as wide as my Toyota Tacoma is long. Yours, either the house or the truck, for $28 million. Cash preferred, the story says.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

More horrifying than a Youtube beheading

Once again, Restating the Obvious has to provide a fresh serving of obvious because (so far as I can find) nobody else is willing to say it.

One of the reasons that ISIL is taken more seriously than other, equally obnoxious Islamic cults is that is has a lot of money (relatively speaking; it has nothing compared with its alleged opponent, the mostly imaginary "state" of Iraq). Money makes the mare go, in insurgencies as in other endeavors. England defeated Napoleon largely by shipping gold to Spaniards who were willing to die for their country but not to starve for it.

The United States pulled off the same coup against Russia in Afghanistan. It is the greatest thing about being rich: you can get people to do your dying for you.

But it is not a mere financial transaction. There have to be patriots on the other side. No country ever spent more money trying to get brown people to die for it than the United States did in Vietnam, but no one wanted to die for Madame Thieu's racehorses. Money could not make those mares go.

I am sure that money given to alleged opponents of ISIL will earn a poor return, except in Kurdistan, because although "our" browns have something to fight against, they have nothing to fight for. (This explains the phenomenon of switching sides that is the most obvious characteristic of politics in that part of the world. People who judged the "surge" and Awakening to have been a success were deluded, and this is the reason that, although the surge had the desired short term effect of allowing Bush to skedaddle out of his lost war, it had no lasting effect.)

But just because the positive use of money is not really available in southwest Asia to the West, thaet does not mean that the negative use is not available. The United States cannot buy allies, but it has the capacity to deny money to ISIL.

Not all of it, but apparently the largest source is selling oil from its captured oil fields. That can be choked off, easily.

The American government has been making some effort in this direction, using purely financial methods -- trying to shut off transfers of the income from the oil sales. This effort has failed.

There is a simpler way. It will not be used, because it is equally horrifying to leftists and rightwingers. So horrifying, so unthinkable that it has, in fact, not been thought of.

Bomb the oil fields. 


Friday, September 5, 2014


You know how the gun nuts get all huffy and insulted when RtO calls them gun nuts? I cannot imagine why.

Head shots

Tom Wolfe, in the "The Right Stuff," exactly captured the prissiness of American newspapers when he labeled the press "the Genteel Beast."

Editors were fearless in some fields. Natural and political disasters found them armed and ready. But they quivered in the face of -- or even a suspected reaction from -- preachers and fussy old ladies (of both sexes). It was rather a big deal, and required some discussion among the higher-ups, before my story about Aloha Condoms was printed in The Maui News. The paper had never allowed the word condom before.

That was five years into the AIDS scare.

And we all remember that American papers refused to print the Danish Mohammed cartoons.

When it comes to beheadings, America's news editors are going to protect us from anything so upsetting -- as long as none of us have Internet access. And they have been doing this right along.

As RtO pointed out in the previous post, "Heads you lose," part of the reason the ISIL beheadings were so shocking -- and therefore, arguably, useful for ISIL to conduct -- is that most Americans don't know how much beheading goes on around the world all the time.

"America's Rabbi" Shmuley Boteach ran up against the Genteel Beast and is using it just as ISIL does, to make political hay.

America's newspaper editors. On the whole I admire them and I was one, once. But they are easy to sucker.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Heads you lose

Papal snuff porn
So, ISIL chopped off another American head, and the sanctimony is bubbling over. You might suppose that it was something strange and backward and barbaric. Yes to the last two, but not so strange, even in dar al-Harb (the house of war, everything outside the Koran Belt).

France was chopping off heads until 1977, so the horror being expressed at the ISIL murders there must be a recent development.

When Admiral Coligny was murdered in 1572, his head was sent to the pope, who was so pleased that he hired Giorgio Vasari (better known now as author of “Lives of the Painters”) to paint a series of memorial scenes for the Sala Regia (next door to the Sistine Chapel). The illustration of this papal snuff porn shows Coligny being thrown out of  the window of his sickroom. When he landed, he lost not only his head but his hands and his balls. The paintings are said to still be hanging there.

Up to at least 1789, nobles and kings preferred to have their heads chopped off, since shooting and hanging was demeaning, good enough for peasants and tradesmen but not for men and women of quality.

Beheading is common today in Mexico and very common in Brazil, where several newspapers devote most of their space to pictures of headless corpses.

RtO will not find the images for you, but you can find them easily enough yourself. Bizarre, an English monthly magazine, used to publish pictures of heads set in the middle of roads, usually looking mildly surprised, during the civil wars in Ivory Coast and other west African hellholes in the 1990s.

I have not seen photos of beheadings at the Kaaba in Mecca, but the Saudi government is reported to station monitors with scimitars around the shrine, in case – as sometimes happens – an overwrought worshipper making his mandated three laps throws up on the sacred covering and has to have his head chopped off.

ISIL has been chopping off heads for some time now but no one in America paid much attention until it started doing it to American reporters.

Mistakes were sometimes made. I won’t provide the link, but if you search you can find a photo of a rebel taking a selfie of himself with a fresh head. It was, however, an oopsie:

The Islamic State of Syria and Levante (Isis) said its fighters in Aleppo decapitated a wounded rebelSunni Islamist rebel named Muhammad Fares because they believed he was a supporter of the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Actually, they later discovered Fares was fighting on their side. It was, as they say in the Koran Belt, an own goal.

RtO thinks the attention centered on the occasional reporter who gets murdered is misplaced. Most of ISIL’s victims are obscurer folk, but I think we should count them anyway.

On the other hand, if the attention paid to American victims results in some action -- arming the Kurds would be an obvious step -- that would help the obscure and friendless, then some good might come out of it.

Otherwise, it doesn’t look that much different from papal snuff porn.