Sunday, January 31, 2010

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Umida Akhmedova


Via a couple of posts on The Online Photographer, and a BBC story, I learned of the photography of Umida Akhmedova, of Uzbekistan.

Determined to destroy the reputation of Uzbekistan before most people have had a chance to form one, the authorities there have arrested her for "defamation and insulting Uzbek traditions." If convicted, she faces six months in prison, or three months at hard labor, for her 2007 collection of photographs of Uzbek people in their daily lives. [Click on the picture above for a better view of her alleged defamation. Then hit the back arrow to return here.]

Here are 51 of the photographs. You be the judge.


Friday, January 22, 2010

Untitled Post



As you know (because I keep telling you), this is a high-class blog. We don't use family-unfriendly language here. But I have to quote Jason Linkins at Huffington Post:
If you're looking for a concise way of capturing today's Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, how about: "We are all royally, hopelessly f****d for the rest of recorded time"?
If you'd like a more measured, less honest, appraisal of the decision, try here.

The Supremes – the Ted Bundys of Jurisprudence – decided yesterday that corporations are people, money is speech, and Congress can place no limit on the ability of corporations to corrupt the political system. The Reagan Revolution is complete.

Consider this, from Linkins' article:
In the 2008 election, Barack Obama and John McCain combined to spend about $1 billion, a number that Politico's Jeanne Cummings called "an unprecedented figure." And the combined expenditures of the entire 2008 cycle came to "a record-shattering $5.3 billion in spending by candidates, political parties and interest groups on the congressional and presidential races."

By means of comparison:

TOTAL AMOUNT OF BONUSES PAID OUT BY GOLDMAN-SACHS, 2009: $16 billion

TOTAL AMOUNT OF BONUSES PAID OUT BY JPMORGAN CHASE, 2009: $27 billion

TOTAL AMOUNT OF BONUSES PAID OUT BY MORGAN STANLEY, 2009: $14 billion

TOTAL AMOUNT OF BONUSES PAID OUT BY CITIGROUP, 2009: $25 billion
We are all royally, hopelessly f****d for the rest of recorded time. Since Exxon/Mobil will be calling the shots on climate change policy, that shouldn't be too much longer.

Cue Jim Morrison:
This is the end
Beautiful friend
This is the end
My only friend, the end
Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise:
The end.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

H.L. Mencken Comes to Mind



A college friend lives in Massachusetts. He was always a more thoughtful person than I, so I recommend his take on yesterday's Mess in Mass[achusetts].


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Usury


It is a fact not well publicized that I once marched in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Only – unlike most Parade marchers – I was not a member of a marching band. Instead, I was a member of the Bergenfield High School Marching Concert Choir!

I don't know if there had been marching concert choirs before, or have been since, but Macy's had paid someone to write a theme song for their parade, and needed somebody to sing it. I guess since our marching band had been in the parade every year since Day 1, it would be logistically easier to just send a couple of extra buses and bring along the choir, too.

This is the song we sang on national television:
Here come the brass bands, snappy and syncopated.
Here come the floats, star-spangled and animated.
Here come the biggest balloons ever made
It's Macy's Thanksgiving Day – BOOM! – Parade.

It's a gaaaaaay holidaaaaaay!
Come on along you're all invited
And you'll be delighted.
By this time we were out of camera and microphone range and the song just fell apart. Mercifully.

So you understand that when I talk about Macy's, it comes from the heart.

Now jump ahead about 40 years. I'm living in Chicago, and a band of boobs called Federated Department Stores, Inc., doing business as Macy's, has bought Marshall Field's, the venerable Chicago retailer. All well and good, but Federated then announced they were changing the name of the store to Macy's. It has been widely boycotted ever since, and Federated is undoubtedly losing money on it. The few times I've been in the store, it has been relatively empty. You just don't throw away a trademark like that without repercussions, and if a brick and mortar store loses customer loyalty in the Age of Amazon – well, good luck with that.

Nevertheless, the Monday after Christmas this year, looking for a particular picture frame and exhausting all other possibilities first, we held our noses and forced ourselves to go into a Macy's store. We found what we needed, and as we were being checked out the sales clerk told S. about a special deal: sign up for a Macy's credit card, and get 20% off the purchase price.

Do I need to tell you?

On the bright side, Macy's probably made no money on the deal. On the other hand, there's that credit card.

When we got the bill, we discovered two things:

• In addition to the purchase price and any interest, Macy's charges a flat fee of $2 a month for any month you carry a balance. They assume you will carry a balance, and charge the $2 up front.

• The interest rate for this purchase, considering just the $2, is 135.2%, annualized. You read that right.

Financial Reform


From economist Joseph Stiglitz, via Andy Tobias:
There used to be a social contract about the reasonable division of the gains that arise from acting together within the economy. Within corporations, the pay of the leader might be 10 or 20 times that of the average worker. But something happened 30 years ago, as the era of Thatcher/Reagan was ushered in. There ceased to be any sense of fairness; it was simply how much the executive could appropriate for himself. It became perfectly respectable to call it incentive pay, even when there was little relationship between pay and performance. In the finance sector, when performance is high, pay is high; but when performance is low, pay is still high. The bankers knew – or should have known – that while high leverage might generate high returns in good years, it also exposed the banks to large downside risks. But they also knew that under their contracts, this would not affect their bonuses.
I was going to suggest we need a term to refer to these scoundrels, just as "robber barons" was applied to 19th century "captains of industry." From this Wikipedia article, I learned that "robber barons wasn't used until decades after the real robber barons had left the scene, and that somebody has already proposed "Robber Boomer Barons." I think we can do better than that. I was going to suggest "Republican," but nobody deserves to be called that.


Monday, January 18, 2010

Haiti


If you didn't see this report on 60 Minutes, watch it now:




Now let's have a round of applause for Rush Limbaugh and Pat Robertson.


Friday, January 15, 2010

Financial Reform


Congress's Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission held its first hearing yesterday. NPR reported that so many Senators and Congressmen are on the take, um, I mean receive large donations from the financial industry, that most of them are hoping it will just fade away.

The heads of the four largest banks – or maybe "financial conglomerates" would be a more accurate description – testified yesterday. These are the "best talent" that's attracted by the obscene bonuses. Krugman says they're clueless, and we should ignore whatever they have to say.

I have a better idea.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Airport Security


Chicago Ted sent along this interesting article from the Toronto Star about the difference in the approach taken on airport security in Israel to that in North America. It's well worth your time.

One quibble, though. I'm not sure if the reporter or the security expert is fudging this up, but fudging it is.
Officers are looking for nervousness or other signs of "distress" — behavioural profiling. Sela rejects the argument that profiling is discriminatory.

"The word 'profiling' is a political invention by people who don't want to do security," he said. "To us, it doesn't matter if he's black, white, young or old. It's just his behaviour. So what kind of privacy am I really stepping on when I'm doing this?"
There may be some issue about behavioral profiling I'm not familiar with, but as far as I know, it's racial profiling that gets people upset. Handling the issue in such an off-hand way doesn't raise my confidence level. The notion that it's a "political invention" adds suspicion.

It's like the phrase "politically correct." We are encouraged to sneer at political correctness. But wherever it's used, you can substitute the phrase "respectful of people who aren't like me."

Addendum: Chicago Kris had a great comment on the article.
Way back in 1990, when we went to Israel, it struck me that the security guys in Tel Aviv were asking very basic questions, then staring intently at me while I answered. Contrast that with the American airport official reading the scripted question, never taking his/her eyes off the computer screen. In American airports, the only person who looks you in the eye is the Starbucks barista.

Miep Gies


Miep Gies died yesterday at the age of 100.

A good friend, who is Jewish, once asked/assured me, "If we were living in the Nazi era, you would have hidden us, wouldn't you?"

The long pause before I answered was disconcerting, I'm sure.

The glib, easy answer is "Yes, of course I would." The difference between right and wrong is not usually so easy to discern.

But sometimes doing what is right takes incredible courage. Giving a glib, easy answer does not consider the sad fact that during the Holocaust, the number of people whose courage failed them vastly exceeded the number of people who, like Miep Gies, did what was right. To be honest, my courage has sometimes failed me for lesser things.

Consider how, when 9/11 had us so scared, we went so crazy. I had an employee who trembled with fear because she thought some pocket lint might be anthrax.

Politicians became cowards. They'd say things like "9/11 changed everything," and "My opponent has a pre-9/11 mindset." Interpretation: "I'm so scared I have lost my ability to do anything but react in fear."

Now consider the fear level with Nazi troops marching through our neighborhoods.

Giving the glib answer does not sufficiently honor those who said "Yes, of course I will hide you," when it was not a glib, easy answer at all.


Thursday, January 07, 2010

Our Future is Bleak


Steve Benen over at Political Animal is really on a roll.
If it feels like, rhetorically, the entire political establishment is spinning its wheels, it's because that's true. For a year, the nation has confronted incredible challenge[s] that demanded serious, credible debates. And for a year, we've ended up listening to -- and responding to -- total nonsense.

Instead of debating the stimulus package, Republicans wanted to explore a five-year spending freeze. Instead of debating health care reform, Republicans wanted to talk about death panels. Instead of debating cap-and-trade policy, Republicans wanted to talk about "Climategate." Instead of debating national security policy, Republicans want to pretend the president doesn't use a word [terrorism] he uses all the time.
And he concludes: "Our political system has to mature quickly or our collective future is bleak."

And now we have the Tea Party "movement", the spawn of Republican rhetoric and its detachment from reality. Our political system is regressing, not maturing. And we see ourselves as the leaders of the Free World. Nobody's going to follow us there.

Benen has two additional great posts here and here.


Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Are There Any Real Reporters on TV News Anymore?


Steve Benen at Political Animal had the same reaction I did to an ABC News story this evening about Democratic retirements. Which was, basically, "Is this reporting? Or is somebody writing a story from a Republican news release?"
Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) is retiring. So is Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.). And before anyone could catch their breath, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) announced he's not seeking re-election, either.

It led ABC News to report that "Democrats are dropping like flies."
It is not shaping up to be a pretty week for the Democrats. [...]

You will certainly hear a lot of talk from Republicans that Democrats are beginning to face the reality of just how tough the current political landscape looks for them and they are running for the hills.
Does saying there's "a lot of talk from Republicans" (when isn't there?) qualify as reporting? How about actually doing some counting?
In the House, 14 GOP incumbents have decided not to seek re-election, while 10 Democratic incumbents have made the same announcement. Does this mean Republicans are "dropping like flies"?

In the Senate, six Republican incumbents have decided not to seek re-election, while two Democratic incumbents have made the same announcement. Is this evidence of a mass Democratic exodus?

Among governors, several incumbents in both parties are term-limited and prevented from running again, but only three Democrats who can seek re-election -- Parkinson in Kansas, Doyle in Wisconsin, and Ritter in Colorado -- have chosen not to. For Republicans, the number is four -- Douglas in Vermont, Rell in Connecticut, Crist in Florida, and Pawlenty in Minnesota. (Update: the GOP number is five if we include Palin in Alaska.)
Sigh.

Good work, ABC.

Update: Talking Points Memo has a rundown on the mid-term elections as they look right now.

The New York Times gets into the act. Gee, where do they get the idea for these unique articles?

Meanwhile, Gail Collins nails it.


Just Can't Get Enough of that Dudamel


Watch, especially, the section between 1:40 and 2:40. Can't think of another conductor who leads with his eyebrows.




Everybody's Picking on Brit Hume


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Some called him unprofessional. But he's just ignorant. Nothin' new here.


Monday, January 04, 2010

From the Ridiculous to the Deadly


I found two stories this morning that make it hard to make a case for organized religion:

This one and this one.

Good thing I wasn't planning on trying to make a case for organized religion.