Monday, August 31, 2015

They took Frankie Valli's advice

Walk like a man, he said.

Two robbers who stole over £50,000 worth of cash [and] jewellery while dressed in burkas were foiled when passers-by realised they walked like men.
And then the cops tackled them, even though the bobbies, being English, were unarmed and the robbers had shown a firearm. So, I am often asked when I write about guns, do I think American police need to be armed?

And my answer is, no, not routinely in a society governed by sane laws. But we aren't there yet.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Lord, keep Trump and Walker safe, somehow

I see that Donald Trump wants to build a wall beteween us and Mexico, and Scott Walker wants to build one between us and Canada.

And I thought the GOP of was the party of small government.

RtO suggests two smaller walls, on wheels, one surrounding Trump and one surrounding Walker. It would save lots of money and also we wouldn't have to look at those two idiots again.

Friday, August 28, 2015

A capsule history of Reaganomics

In a comment on Paul Krugman's weekly column, a reader named "Reality Based" from "Flyover Country" says what RtO has been trying to say since 2008, but better:

We now have thirty five years of financial/economic history that should have destroyed forever the Great Lie that Voodoo economics creates anything but deficit bubbles, which are then used to attack and destroy social programs for the poor and middle class. Reagan tripled federal deficits in order to cut taxes in half for the wealthy, while weaponry expenditures exploded. Bush One left office with historic deficits and a sinking economy, which Bill Clinton remedied by returning to progressive taxation on high incomes. Every Republican in Congress said it would destroy the economy, and instead we had 20 million new jobs and zero deficits by 2000. Republicans responded with smears and impeachment. Bush2 insisted upon a return to Voodoo Economics combined with huge upper end tax cuts and two wars, which along with a financial de-regulation frenzy re-created the same enormous deficits, which were then used to try and destroy Social Security. This idiocy nearly brought down the world financial system. Obama's sane economic advisers restored job growth and eliminated most of the deficits, but sixteen Republicans are all ready to return to the same policies that have been failing for a third of a century.

The Republican Party exists to enrich the wealthy, and empower a tiny elite. It has been concentrating income and wealth, by redistributing it upwards for thirty five years. This, of course, is only possible with a politics based totally on deceit, which is the whole point.

I'd amend that to "relatively sane economic policies."  Obama and the Democrats still haven't done anything about restoring a modern version of Glass-Steagall so that the investment crooks cannot take the savings banks down along with their bucket shop operations.

Also, Reagan did not start the policy of organizing government for the benefit of the rich: that was Alexander Hamilton and his move to confiscate the value of the soldier bonuses from the heroes of the Revolution and transfer it to his cronies.

But all in all, an excellent summary.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Changing faces of the candidate

Until 1960, everyone who was elected president or was taken seriously as a candidate was a white, Protestant man whose family had been long settled in America, with the sole exception of Al Smith. Then from 1964 to 2008, the same.

It is remarkable how different the lineup is in 2015. Taking all 17 declared Republicans and the four declared or likely Democrats as “serious,” we find:

Except for Smith and Obama, all previous serious candidates had parents, grandparents and, usually great grandparents, who were born in the United States. Today, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Bobby Jindal all had foreign parents; and two candidates, Donald Trump and Jeb Bush, have or had foreign wives.

For the first time, women are serious candidates, Carly Fiorina and Hillary Clinton.

Jindal, Cruz, Ben Carson and Rubio are, aside from Obama, the first candidates who are not vanilla white.

Bernie Sanders is the first Jew to become a serious candidate, and there are several Catholics: Martin O’Malley, Rubio, Joe Biden. Many evangelical Protestants consider that Mormons are not Protestants (or even Christians), so the two Romneys would, for them, be exceptions to the “all Protestant” characteristic, and so, for them, is Carson, a Seventh-day Adventist.

None of these characteristics has anything to do with being qualified to do the job, but in the past they had everything to do with being taken seriously.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Book Review 352: Star Island

STAR ISLAND, by Carl Hiaasen. 354 pages. Grand Central paperback, $14.99

It isn’t possible to write a satirical novel about Florida, even for a writer as talented and uninhibited as Carl Hiaasen. Satire has to go over the top, and how can you top this actual Florida event (as reported in the Orlando Sentinel):

“Crystal Metheny was arrested May 5 on a charge of shooting an offensive missile into a vehicle, according to public records from the Polk County Sheriff's Office. She was released the following day after posting $5,000 bond.”

(It does not appear she was ever prosecuted, though. Perhaps after checking the statutes, the authorities learned it is not against the law to shoot offensive —or even friendly — missiles into vehicles in Florida. I wouldn’t be surprised.)

Still, props to Hiaasen for trying. “Star Island” is his eleventh attempt. He probably fried his brain doing the research, which involved watching TMZ, Keeping Up with the Kardashians and reading People and the like non-stop for some length of time.

“Star Island” is like one of Ed McBain’s 84th Precinct novels in that it alternates between two unrelated plots.

The main one revolves around Cherry Pye, a drug and alcohol addled pop star being groomed by a pack of thoroughly despicable handlers for a last-chance comeback. Since Cherry is usually wasted, they hire Ann DeLusia, a hopeful actress, to stand in for her.

The lesser plot concerns Clinton Tyree, a sometime governor of Florida who quit in midterm and lives in a swamp, emerging occasionally to take revenge on developers and similar scum ravaging the peninsula. Here Hiaasen comes as close as he gets to creating an over-the-top character. Everybody knows there has never been an environmentalist governor of Florida.

The plots link up when both Tyree (called Skink) and Bang Abbott,  a paparazzo obsessed with taking Marilyn- Monroe-style pictures of Cherry, kidnap Ann. Much mayhem and backstabbing ensues, and the plotting is clever.

What is missing, and notably missing from a novel supposedly about the environment, is any description of Florida. Hiaasen is not much of a descriptive writer, preferring to move his plots ahead by action, character and references to pop culture. He does lavish some adjectives on the two manly and self-integrated characters, Skink and a bodyguard named Chemo.

Readers don’t get much of a feel for the ravaged beauty of either Florida or Cherry/Ann.

In compensation, they do get to enjoy gruesome ends for some (but nowhere near all) of the grifting con artists who infest the book.

Since the most fully developed character, Abbott, is a former newspaperman, I had constantly in mind the greatest satire of a newspaperman caught in sordid circumstances, Evelyn Waugh’s “Scoop.” “Scoop” comes to a gruesome finish. “Star Island” ends with half of dozen even more gruesome ones.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Is the stock market crashing?


In my 40-odd years of business reporting, all the 500-point daily drops in the Dow-Jones Industrial Average signaled crash. True, those were from lower levels to begin with, so that the percentage fall was bigger.

Still, 500 points is impressive.

All the more so when there appears to be no particular driver. Reports cite a slowdown -- not even a reversal -- in the growth rate in China. But we have understood -- RtO has, anyway -- for years that China's numbers were both partly imaginary and wholly based on an unstable economic organization.

If the market is supposed to be this magic place where all information is subsumed, masticated, digested and processed, way is the market reacting to China's well-known difficulties only now?

Curious. Maybe market theory is radically incorrect at a fundametal level. RtO has always said so.

Or maybe it's just that historically bull markets seldom run longer than 6 years.  But that doesn't make market theory look good, either.

If you listen to Republicans, the key ingredient in business is not investment, competence or innovation but something called "business confidence." So what changed between last Friday and this Friday to dampen business confidence?

Answers must refer to changes in objective conditions. Everything else is hand-waving.

Book Review 351: My Lobotomy

MY LOBOTOMY, by Howard Dully and Charles Fleming. 286 pages, illustrated. Three Rivers paperback, $13.95

I have never known anyone who had had a lobotomy, but in the 1960s a friend told me about his aunt who had had one. She was always happy, he said, but had no memory.

That helps explain why we don’t have memoirs by people who had their prefrontal cortices cut off from the remainder of their brains. That, and the fact that up to a third of people died after the operation.

So Howard Dully’s “My Lobotomy” is a precious document. But an outlier in many respects.

First, he apparently had nothing organically wrong with him. Some people who were lobotomized were sick.

For example, while reading “My Lobotomy” I came across the case of Sherwin Nuland, a surgeon at Yale Medical School who in middle age was so affected by depression that he could not work. It is a measure of how sick he was that his colleagues supported giving him a lobotomy even though they recognized that it would mean he would never do surgery again.

And this was as late as 1973. As it happened, he avoided lobotomy and was cured with massive electroshocks, so that he enjoyed a long further career as a surgeon and teacher. (You can find his story in a TED talk on Youtube.)  

Second, Dully was young, just 12. Lobotomies on children were not uncommon but were rarer. As Dully learned by offering his brain up for MRI imaging, apparently his young brain was unformed enough that as he grew older it developed alternate structures so that no one would tell from his behavior that he had had his brain “scrambled like an eggbeater.”

Third, and perhaps of no particular significance to his story, he was a boy. Doctors overwhelmingly did their lobotomies on women.

Howard Dully came from a family that was a mess. Lots of drunks and head cases, plus humdrum diseases like cancer, which killed his mother when he was five. Hardly any members of the extended family seem to have had any idea how to be parents, even the ones with little or no mental disease.

Bring in a hateful stepmother and Dr. Walter Freeman, the Johnny Appleseed of American lobotomy — and a product of another family where no one seemed to know how to rise children — and you had a formula for disaster. Dully believes his stepmother hoped Freeman would kill him, or at least turn him into a vegetable.

Either way would get him out of the house. As it turned out, the observable effects of the operation were small, but Dully was kicked out anyway.

He was soon involved in petty crime — by his own account, he seems to have been a bit of a con artist — and so was labeled troublemaker. That was nearly as good, from stepmom Lou’s point of view, as vegetable.

Once labeled, it is difficult to get people to look with clear sight at your behavior, and much of the memoir is devoted to Dully’s worries about his own status. If I’m not really bad, he thought, why am I being treated the way I am? So I must be bad.

With the love of a good woman — though a cocaine addict; few people in Dully’s world were outstanding citizens — he eventually learned how to function in society. Nobody had ever tried to teach him that, he says in one of the rare bitter passages.

His tone is remarkably sweet though never saccharine. Too much bad stuff happened to allow for that.


Deficits are good

Can be, anyway. This is something all economic historians understand, primarily from the experience of Great Britain, which deliberately created a permanent debt in 1694 and became the most powerful economy the world has seen subsequently.

Tea Partiers are death on debt, which is why I never pay any attention to them. Life is way too short to listen to ignorant fools.

Economic history, regrettably, is not part of any American school curriculum, and while it is easy -- though time-consuming -- to learn about it on your own, hardly anybody does. So I was pleased to read Paul Krugman's column called "Debt is good" -- with links. Even Krugman, who is a mathematical economist not an economic historian, seems a bit surprised. Nut graf:

In other words, the great debt panic that warped the U.S. political scene from 2010 to 2012, and still dominates economic discussion in Britain and the eurozone, was even more wrongheaded than those of us in the anti-austerity camp realized.
 And you know what? Trade deficits are good, too. Can be anyway.

It is largely a function of what you do with the imports. Again, Britain is our teacher. Even centuries before the creation of the Bank of England, Britain ran a big trade deficit with the eastern Baltic.

It exported woolen cloth, ironmongery etc. and imported hemp, flex, timber and resin. These were used to build its merchant navy and warships. This deficit was out of balance in one direction -- in favor of the Baltic provinces -- for 500 years.

And after all those deficits, which side was rich and which was poor?

Caveat: For this to work well, you need a popular government that recognizes social responsibilities.

Once again, something the TP gets all wrong.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

A really contented cow

I find all supernatural beliefs weird but some are weirder than others.
Our savior?
The Tablet has some thoughts:

Would you pay $18 to help produce an immaculate cow? If so, Jerusalem’s Temple Institute, dedicated to doing “all in our limited power to bring about the building of the Holy Temple in our time,” has just the crowdfunding campaign for you: Launched earlier this month, it hopes to raise $125,000 in order to implant the frozen embryos of Red Angus cattle—a hardy breed popular everywhere from Australia to the American West—in Israeli cows, introducing the animals to the Holy Land in the hope that the herd soon produces an unblemished red heifer.
Such a creature—a Parah Aduma—plays a significant part in the ancient Jewish ritual of purification. The Mishnah devotes an entire treatise to the mystical animal, explaining precisely how it ought to be slaughtered—hyssop and silkworms play a central part—in order for its ashes to be mixed with spring water and sprinkled on the priest, making him spiritually clean. Should she materialize—not exactly a certainty, as the Mishnah teaches us mankind was only blessed with seven such animals throughout history, the first having been spotted by Moses himself—the red heifer would take us a few cloven-hoofed steps closer to redemption, making it a little bit easier to rebuild the Temple.

I am not an expert but I believe this conflicts with the New Testament requirements for bringing on Armageddon, so presumably Christian evangelicals will not be contributing their shekels, even if Mike Huckabee -- the most evangelical evangelical of them all -- was over in Israel collecting shekels himself the other day.

Nothing to do with cattle -- except maybe the Republian primary cattle calls -- but Huck did not impress the Guardian:

Mike Huckabee blunders his way through Israel press conference 

I am puzzled by the silkworms. I thought they were introduced into the Middle East late.

I am even more puzzled that the Israeli government allows evangelicals into their country. This Armageddon they hope will happen soon will not be good for Jews. It won't be good for anybody, but especially not for Jews.

I urge you, even if you do not ordinarily click through to links, to click through to this one, and to note the button at top right asking for donations. This is what it says:


The cow is funny. The evangelicals are evil.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

How the freest market in the world really works

Short answer: Not on your behalf.

Longer answer from Matt Levine at Bloomberg News.

In 2009 and 2010, according to the SEC order, "ITG explored initiatives to increase diversification and revenues," and someone came up with a very clever initiative. ITG gets all these customer orders to buy stock, see.  So why not -- just hear me out here -- why not look at the customers' orders, buy the stock ahead of them, and then sell it immediately to the customers at a higher price? That's a pretty good risk-free profit.
You know, I remember when Bush II wanted to take all your Social Security money and give it to people like ITG. I don't recall his mentioning anything about front-running, dark pools and whatnot.

Some people think that free markets do not really operate to give everybody a fair shake, and they are right. Regulators even allow for special categories of players who known to enjoy insurmountable advantages.

Remember that the next time some big-time lawbreaker -- I am looking at you, Jamie Dimon -- tells Congress that more regulation would be a bad thing.

My tool shed

For an hour or so after sunrise, I have the prettiest tool shed on the island. You cannot see them, but bees were swarming all over, fat black bumblebees and little brown solitary bees. There were flowering oleander, gardenia, bougainvillea, stephanotis, jade plant and dandelion nearby, but the bees were interested only in the night-blooming cereus.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Do coral reef ecosystems need fresh water?

Frank Kovalchek's photo of water flowing to the ocean at Oheo
The answer is obvious: No.  Nevertheless, it is a fairly commonly held belief on Maui. (I don't know about elsewhere.)

It came up, briefly, in the First Friday in Wailuku webcast that Jason Schwartz and I do (, usually from about 5-7 p.m.). We interview passers-by, tell jokes (Jason does blonde jokes, I do dog-walks-into-a-bar jokes) and talk about issues that interest us: food poisoning in China, affordable housing on Maui (Jason's big idea) and municipal water (my big idea).

People interested in restoring normal stream flows in east Maui rivers (that would be Steve, our technical master, who offers an unseen commentary as we talk) sometimes assert that fresh runoff is necessary to maintain the health of the offshore ecosystem.

Where this idea came from, I don't know, but for sure it doesn't argue for restoring stream flows. (There are other, better arguments for that.)

The reasons that it doesn't arise from natural phenomena that everybody on Maui experiences but few understand quantitatively. An immense amount of rain falls on east Maui, but about 94% falls on just 6 days out of  typical year.

These would be a couple of 3-day tropical storms, which drop several feet of water. Some soaks into the enormous fresh aquifer but most runs into the ocean.

Nahiku Stream ordinarily runs around 10 million gallons a day, or it would if East Maui Irrigation didn't divert most of it. Nahiku is one of the biggest rivers in east Maui but there are three dozen other rivers.

In a storm, the flow at Nahiku has been measured as high as 9 billion gallons per day.

EMI's ditches can carry off, at most, 200 million gallons per day, so Nahiku all by itself drops 50 times as much water into the ocean as can be diverted to central Maui.

Fresh water is poisonous to coral; that's why entrances through the reefs are at stream mouths.

But the dose makes the poison. It's a big ocean. 9 billion gallons are dispersed quickly.

If it were true that offshore ecosystems required fresh water, then we wouldn't have thriving systems on the leeward side, where most streams are dry nearly 99% of the time and it is usual for 10 months to pass between rainfalls.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

A pause for reflection

Today, as on every anniversary of the first atomic bombing in warfare, I will pause to reflect.

Not about the people killed in Hiroshima. But about the millions upon millions who had already been murdered by the Japanese and the millions more who would have been murdered had the war continued beyond August 15, 1945.

And on the moral emptiness, lack of imagination and sympathy and all around ignorance of those people who will gather at "peace bells" on Maui and other places to stroke their own egos.

I have written often on this topic, mostly in book reviews. My fullest statement came in a review published in The Maui News before there was RtO, but available at Amazon.

Other reviews (including one that I would rewrite in part if I were to do it today) were here and here.

The Washington Post has a story today about how the bombing is taught around the world. It isn't a well-done story, but the striking thing about it is that despite the strong emotional reaction that still exists about the use of the bombs -- pro or con -- little attention is given to teaching about it; and there is no evidence that the people in the story made any effort on their own to become well informed.

If it is important enough to commemorate every year, you'd think it would be important enough to learn about.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Salad bar morality

Hands off the ox, Bub!
When I was taught the Ten Commandments, long ago, it was my understanding that they were all equal: It is just as sinful to bear false witness as it is to covet an ox.

It is unusual for RtO to quote Denis Prager approvingly, so watch closely (it won't happen again):
 The Ten Commandments are predicated on the belief that they were given by an Authority higher than any man, any king, or any government.
But it seems that nowadays, some Christian teachers have discovered a way to rank the commandments. I can see that, in the 21st century, amassing oxen might seem to be of less moment than, say, dishonoring parents. But I cannot find any warrant for treating one commandment as less authoritative than another.

Another Republican "inoperative statement," apparently
I bring this up in the context of the Republican assault on Planned Parenthood, which is based on false testimony (forbidden by God Almighty, in Commandment 8 or 9, depending on who's counting).

This is more than somewhat ironic, given the clamor to republish the commandments on every government lawn and foyer. Possibly the Christians treat the Decalogue more as a talisman than as a directive. In any event. there is not much evidence that they have ever read the document, let alone taken it to heart.

UPDATE Can't count, doesn't think, don't talk too good neither. Did Jeb learn nothing from Mitt?