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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Weather Map

September 15, 2009 atmospheric pressure measured in hectopascals (hPa)

by John MacBeath Watkins

I have seen the isobars
rippling on the flanks of a monsoon
as it thundered across the waves to China

And I have seen the wild typhoons
each wrapped tight about its eye
failing its fury at some speck of dirt
in the Pacific light of a sedentary moon

And I have seen the isobars
rippling on the flanks of a monsoon.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Manipulation and the bestseller lists

by John MacBeath Watkins

Republicans found an argument they liked in Edith Efron's 1971 book, The News Twisters. Efron used her judgment of whether television news reports were biased to show that in fact they were. Nixon liked the book so well that he told Charles Colson to make it a best seller. Colson found out which stores the New York Times consulted in determining its best seller list, then took $8,000 from the Nixon campaign fund and bought out the stock in those stores. The book, which Colson had thought destined for obscurity when he read it before Nixon spoke to him about it, became influential as a result.

The problem, of course, was that Efron's judgment was far from unbiased. For example, when hecklers disrupted a Nixon speech, she counted the fact that the news media reported this as an example of anti-Nixon liberal bias. When Hubert Humphrey had a speech disrupted by hecklers, this was counted as pro-heckler, rather than anti-Humphrey, therefore liberal bias again. She didn't want an unbiased press, she wanted one that matched her bias, a dream that would one day be realized in Fox News.

Say what you like about Nixon, he was in his own way a genius.

That's just one example of how such lists are manipulated, and one more reason not to trust bestseller lists. Nixon wasn't the only one to do it.

Al Neuharth, CEO of the Gannett newpaper chain, claimed he manipulated the bestseller list for his autobiography, Confessions of an S.O.B.

I suppose if you have a herd instinct, and must know what others are reading, such lists are some good, but I have to wonder, how often does stuff like this happen? And how much good are bestseller lists?

Watch out for books with a political bone to pick, or with a moneyed man with a large ego behind it.  Those are ripe for manipulation.

More on the moral dimensions of economic theory

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've rewritten and expanded the post on this topic to about 2,000 words, more than twice the length of the original, and posed it on Scribd:

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Willie Sutton, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you

by John MacBeath Watkins

One of the more curious aspects of the Great Depression was that bank robbers became national heroes. Now, how did that happen?

I'm starting to understand, since the foreclosure mess started getting a little publicity. Currently, a number of banks have a temporary freeze on foreclosures, at least one of which ends Oct. 25.

From Joseph Tauke's great article in the Daily Caller:

"What’s most insidious is where the foreclosure freezes are taking place. Many banks have only ordered foreclosures to cease in 23 states. Why 23? Because there are 23 states that require courts to review foreclosures. And every single one of those states is on the list."

Read more:

Read the whole article, it's well worth it. Hell, I wish some of their advertisers weren't so objectionable, so I could click on them and help support the site. This is really good enterprise reporting.

The banks have a huge mess on their hands because during the housing bubble, they were writing mortgages so fast they weren't taking much trouble to make sure the documents were right. And now that they've got a huge number of foreclosures on their hands, they've taken even less trouble.

There's a big problem with fraudulent papers being used to foreclose. In some cases, the documents are missing, so a specialized industry has grown up to provide them...and they can say exactly what you want. But why are the documents so hard to find?

Again, from the Daily Caller:

"Banking officials happily told the Florida court system in 2009 that the documents had been shredded. At the time, lenders were trying to prevent some foreclosure rule changes, so they sent a letter to the Florida Supreme Court. Among other things, the letter stated that it was standard practice to destroy mortgage papers once the mortgages were sold into MERS in order to avoid confusion. (“A” for effort on that front.) Something funny happens when tearing up a contract, and it might best be explained by a certain common phrase. That phrase is, “Tearing up a contract.” Unless very specific conditions are met, the contract becomes null. Void. Not worth the paper it is printed on.

"The fact that so many contracts were torn up explains why DOCX didn’t deal in affidavits of foreclosure, at least not according to a DOCX price sheet posted on attorney Matthew Weidner’s website. The sheet lists the going rates for tasks such as, “cure defective mortgage.” Nowhere on the document does DOCX say that its services were limited to 23 states. Quite the opposite, in fact—DOCX proudly boasts of its “nationwide” presence at the very top of the sheet. Any mortgage that became “defective,” something that tends to occur when banks can’t find anything signed by homeowners with “mortgage” written in nice big letters somewhere, could be “cured” by DOCX, no matter what state contained the relevant property."

Which means that in states where there are weak controls on the banks, they've continued to use possibly fraudulent documents to foreclose, because who's going to stop them?

And once word gets around that the banks are engaging in fraud to take peoples' homes from them (and often everything inside those homes) how long until people start thinking it's morally acceptable to take what's in the banks?

DCOX, the company referred to above, advertised that it could provide all the proof of ownership a bank could want for the low, low price of $35. I'm sure that buys a lot of due diligence.

And they offered a volume discount if you bought a lot of these papers.

Now, one of the reasons that the property bubble was so damaging to the Japanese economy was that in some cases, title to property wasn't clear, and when that happens, it takes a lot longer to clean up the mess. As Paul Krugman points out, we were very smug about how this could never happen to us.

Until it did.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Getting played by the crows

by Jamie Lutton

I have to set limits on the crows, even though I have fed them only three times.

I told myself that I would only feed them several blocks from work, and only for about 10 minutes, so that they would not associate my business with food.

But they know my face.

On the way back from the bank this morning, a black shadow few in front of my face, and perched on the post office. I said, staring up, happily "HI there!". Crow looked down at me, turning his head back and forth, then fluffed his feathers at me.

This happened twice this morning, coming and going to the bank. The crows are trying to play me; as several other crows, I noticed, were watching the game to see if he could get me to give out treats again.

I noticed that the crows seemed to be happier if I tossed the dog biscuits than if I put a pile on the ground. When I do that, they seems to grumble, as they line up, as if at a cafeteria, and each fly down and take one. None of them seem to think of grabbing one in a claw, yet; they try to carry the dog biscuits in their beak to eat later or swallow whole.

Sometimes a slightly larger crow will try to grab two; this is a comedy, as they are slightly too large for this so be accomplished easily. He will fly down with one already in his beak; try to grab a second one, the first will fall out, the new one will fall out, he will hop. Then stare at both of them. Then pick the new one up, then a car will come by, and he will have abandon both, then fly back, and try to pick them both up - if another couple of crows have not grabbed both the biscuits.

Once in a while, flying slowly, a crow will manage to get two biscuits at once, but the crows look like they are having to balance them, like a waiter with a full tray.

This morning, as usual, I finished up with the biscuits a few blocks from my shop, and showed the crows my empty hands, saying "all gone" to them, looking up. But several were determined to try to guilt me into producing a few more.

I stuck my head out of the shop a few minutes ago - it is a beautiful October day - and I can see them, in the trees and one on the top of a building - hoping that I will relent.

I wonder, in centuries in the future, if we will take better care of the crows, and they will not be feral any more than we no longer have feral dogs and cats wandering our streets in the US. Maybe have birth control for the crows, and the pigeons, so they do not dig in our trash, and pester people for scraps. Since the crows are so smart, they are all worth watching and cherishing, the way we cherish cats and dogs now, instead of kicking them, and feeding them scraps, and drowning their puppies and kittens instead of getting them fixed and getting them proper homes.

But then, I do not think the crows suffer much. And they are wild birds, after all. They seem tame as they are associated with the trash of our cities, and live off of it, and are thus our responsibility. I wish that more humans thought they were beautiful.

If they were rare; I think we would. If you saw only a few crows in your lifetime, you would freeze, and stare, from the beauty of their flight (if not their song).

I do not see dead crows too often. Do they eat their dead? We used to eat our dead; humans have been cannibals. I do know that I can't be the first human they have tried to play into giving more treats.

The "fly in front of the face" repeatedly cute routine is too practiced. I have to draw limits, though Only a few treats, and only in the early morning, and only far from my shop; or I will end up like that school bus driver who fed crows, who ended up having a black murder of crows following her on her route.

She almost lost her job over that.

Crows are worth watching and feeding, though. As my birder brother said thoughtfully "they are a native bird" which, in this mind, made them worthy of a bit of food. And they are so smart; almost as smart as us. An alien species among us; we don't have to go to the stars to meet.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Feeding the crows

by Jamie Lutton

I had been thinking about this for years. It is incredibly easy, yet so forbidden, and so politically incorrect.

Feeding the crows. When I walk to work in the early morning, threading through a maze of apartment buildings and houses, or down Broadway, there are always a few about, digging in the garbage or eying the passersby hopefully. Since there are fast food places with garbage spilling out, a few young crows are always in and out of the trash, tugging at wrappers. Sometimes, if it is early enough, they fly races down Broadway, or that is what it looks like, fast low and in groups, zipping above the street.

My elderly cat died a few weeks ago, and I have been mildly blue ever since - from that and overwork. Never have time to post on this blog. I had been thinking about feeding the crows for months and months.

What triggered this was a crow playing with me. I was walking to work early on a Sunday morning. when a chewed fried chicken leg dropped at my feet. It looked like a crow dug it dug from Ezel's trash.

I looked straight up, and at the very top of a telephone pole there was a crow looking down at me. I did not think he meant to drop it, as it still had meat on it. I said to him "that was funny" as if he could understand me. We both looked at each other, then he flew away. Crows do not like to be stared at; they know that is a menacing act by humans; and could be followed by an attack of some kind.

That morning, I went into the pet food store, and said that they could make a fortune selling "CROW FOOD" for people who liked the crows, with fancy packaging and such. The clerk said that one of his customers bought cheese flavored dog biscuits to feed them, in bulk, at $2,98 a pound. I looked at the biscuits, and left, without buying any.

Came back a week later. I had been staring at the crows as I went to work. The hopeful ones had always swung by me, if I bought a latte, as there might be crumbs involved. I could tell, then, that others had been breaking off bits of pastry to feed them, as a hopeful crow would check me out at close range when I had a latte in my hand.

Dog biscuits, then. And where I was not observed too closely. There is some ordnance against feeding crows, I knew, and I did not want some Pecksniffian type to come up and yell at me. I went and bought a big bag, telling the clerks what they were for, and announcing that I was now truly crazy. I tried one on my home cat Piglet, she licked one, but was not impressed.

I walked by a group of crows, going through the trash, this morning. I threw out a dog biscuit, experimentally. I got there attention immediately; one dived and grabbed it. I did not know if they would like the taste, despite the reassurances of the people at the pet store. I kept walking toward work. I now had company.

Twenty crows followed me. I threw out another biscuit, and another. The ones that landed too close to me did not pick up the biscuits until I was well away, but they got all of them. I had to walk about eight blocks to work, but until I crossed a busy street, eighty percent of the crows kept me company. I walked pretty slowly, and tossed out probably forty dog biscuits, as there was so many of them. They were above me, circling in the sky, flying ahead, lagging behind, like a pretty black cloud.

I had read about how smart they were, like an alien species among us. The only thing that kept them from building cities was a lack of an opposable thumb. They subsist on our garbage, thriving in our cities. Such beautiful birds. If they had beautiful voices, I think they would have more respect. But, I am sure is due to their intelligence, they do not need pretty songs, they get by with their hoarse caws and gestures.

When I finally got to work, I only had five or six crows with me, even though I was tossing out just as many biscuits. I perhaps had lured them beyond their territory. When I went inside, they peeled away and left me. When I reemerged to mail a letter, one crow was outside waiting for me.

I tossed him a biscuit, and he swooped down and grabbed it. We eyed it other with mutual satisfaction, and I went back to work to write you.

I looked over at my counter, and the two remaining dog biscuit I had been carrying were being wolfed down by my orange shop cat Schmoo, who will eat anything.

I will probably feed the crows again once in a while, if only because they are so beautiful, and alien, and smart, such fun to watch. I know that that they are supposed to be pests, but I cannot fault them for their habits, when it is humans who have disrupted their natural environment. They subsist on our garbage; giving them an extra treat now and then is not that outrageous an act.

I went out today and got coffee on the way to work. I saw what I believe was the same murder of crows eating out of the trash. They look young somehow. They act like teenagers, eating together, and hanging out together. I was on the other side of the street, but I tossed one dog treat to get their attention. I instantly had a group of crows following me. I walked along Broadway, tossing out a dog biscuit now and then, and I watched the crows diving for them. I was suddenly reminded of beggars diving for coins in old movies set in Calcutta, or 19th century London, except that such beggars were never so beautiful as these birds. All alike, black feathered, but not all alike, sheened perfection.

I felt like I was in a Hitchcock film, but one where a miracle happened instead of a horror; the birds coming; to give me a benediction. I got a proper benediction by one of them; he or she crapped on my head. I threw out the last of the treats, and crossed Olive Street, where I left them behind me, squawking over the last couple of biscuits. I had to put my head under the sink, in the end, to get the crow crap out of my hair.

I am not discouraged, however. I am having too much fun.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Democracy, the Nobel peace prize, and the robber-baron Communists

by John MacBeath Watkins

One of the odder sights ever recorded on film had to be the “Goddess of Democracy” built by protesting students at Tiananmen Square in late May, 1989. It bore a striking resemblance to the Statue of Liberty, and following its unveiling, the crowd in the square grew from about 10,000 people to 300,000. The idea for the Statue of Liberty was of course hatched by a couple of Frenchmen during the reign of Napoleon III, who had been elected president of France before initiating a coup and taking on the mantle of emperor. It was as much a symbol of threatened French liberty (though it was built after the fall of Napoleon III) as of continuing American liberty.

The Tianamen protesters wrote a declaration to go with their statue that read, in part:

“At this grim moment, what we need most is to remain calm and united in a single purpose. We need a powerful cementing force to strengthen our resolve: That is the Goddess of Democracy. Democracy…You are the symbol of every student in the Square, of the hearts of millions of people. …Today, here in the People’s Square, the people’s Goddess stands tall and announces to the whole world: A consciousness of democracy has awakened among the Chinese people! The new era has begun! …The statue of the Goddess of Democracy is made of plaster, and of course cannot stand here forever. But as the symbol of the people’s hearts, she is divine and inviolate. Let those who would sully her beware: the people will not permit this! …On the day when real democracy and freedom come to China, we must erect another Goddess of Democracy here in the Square, monumental, towering, and permanent. We have strong faith that that day will come at last. We have still another hope: Chinese people, arise! Erect the statue of the Goddess of Democracy in your millions of hearts! Long live the people! Long live freedom! Long live democracy!"

The statue was knocked over by the tanks that invaded the square to re-assert the authority of the Communist Party.

It seems irrational for a person to take up a political crusade that they know will land them in prison or even result in their deaths, but ideas can drive people to accept their own destruction to achieve a greater end. Even after the brutal suppression of the Tianamen Square protest and the persecution of its leaders, China continues to have citizens who care more about what kind of society China becomes than about their own safety and comfort. The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, is serving an 11-year sentence for advocating democracy. In an editorial on Oct. 10, 2010, The Guardian said:

“It is not hard to see why Beijing should react as it did. Although Mr Liu is known and admired among human rights campaigners abroad, he is not, thanks to a powerful apparatus of censorship, a famous figure for most Chinese.

“Charter 08, the call for democratic reforms that Mr Liu co-authored and which earned him an 11-year prison sentence, is not a widely circulated document. Having the man and his cause flashed all over global media threatened to subvert Chinese information control.”

It's Henry VIII's old dilemma, the difficulty of chaining the word. On July 19, Qin Xiao, retiring chairman of China Merchants, a state-owned bank (China's sixth largest,) spoke at a graduation ceremony for 2,000 people at Tsinghua University, urging them to resist the lure of material things and pursue “universal values,” including freedom and democracy

“Universal values tell us that government serves the people, that assets belong to the public and that urbanization is for the sake of people's happiness,” while supporters of the China Model, Quin said, believe that the state should control assets and the interests of the individual are subordinate to those of state sponsored development, and that people should obey the government.

Qin's ideas about where government gets its legitimacy are recognizable to us from Hobbes, and his ideas about property are communistic. The notion that the state should control the assets is really a way of saying those who control the state should control the assets, which is to say, the Communist Party. The latter formulation is what usually happens when a society attempts to apply communism. This is not merely because those in power like to grab all the good stuff, nor is it only because control of property is itself a source of power. It is also because property is not land and buildings, it is the system of rights to the use of such physical objects. In the absence of some system of rights, property is a commons, and the tragedy of the commons is that everyone has an interest in exploiting it, and no one has an interest in maintaining it.

But part of the political significance is that China's biggest exporters are at least partly state-owned. China is manipulating its currency to undervalue it, so that its exports are more competitive because its labor is cheaper. Qin is no doubt aware that this means the government is making workers poorer so that the industries the state controls will be richer.

Well, what's the point of being a Communist if you work for a robber-baron party?

Liu and Qin would both recognize the following sentiment:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. -- That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, -- That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

This is, of course, from the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. The China Model Qin spoke of is the party's effort to base its legitimacy on nationalism. But the meme of liberty and self-government is a powerful one, and one of the few that has shown itself able to rule for long without great force.

How does such an idea worm its way past the censors and override a person's sense of self-preservation?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

That burning sensation gets worse

by John MacBeath Watkins

Remember that Tennessee fire where South Fulton firefighters stood and watched a house burn down because the owner hadn't paid a $75 annual fee for fire protection?

Now it turns out that three dogs and a cat burned to death in that fire.  That's an even greater nightmare for the firefighters who were ordered not to put the fire out, and more proof of the moral bankruptcy of those who ordered them not to.

The firefighters, you may recall, were already there with their gear, having responded to the fire in a field belonging to the neighbor of the Cranick family.  The neighbor had paid his fee.

So the firefighters were there, Mr. Cranick was offering to pay whatever it took to get them to put out the fire consuming his house, but the firemen were ordered to stand down.

Nobody becomes a firefighter to watch a family lose its home, and these people certainly didn't become firefighters so that they could let peoples' pets die horribly in a fire.

Ezra Klein has a post on how this relates to the healthcare debate -- less of a stretch than you might imagine.  His argument is that if you treat firefighting as insurance, then put the fire out for people who haven't paid, that's bad business.  That's why you have to treat firefighting as a public good, and the same applies to health insurance.  It's unconscionable to let the house burn down because someone didn't pay the fee, and it's also unconscionable to let someone die because they don't have insurance.

That's an argument for making healthcare a public good.  Only our healthcare reform doesn't really do that, instead it is a reform of the way health insurance works.  It's better than the system we've got, which works much like the South Fulton Fire Department, but even when it is fully in force in 2014, it will be insurance-based.

The reform is not particularly popular, which has led Republicans to believe that repealing it should be possible.  The problem with that theory is that according to an AP poll conducted last month, those who don't think the reform goes far enough outnumber those who think it goes too far 2-1.

Politics is the art of the possible.  The reform we've got was nearly impossible to pass, and a reform a majority of Americans would agree in advance was the right way to go was impossible.  We can only hope that the reform we've got gets a chance, and is revised in a way that makes it better.  But don't expect the current election to produce that result.  The Republican platform calls for a system that works more like the South Fulton Fire Department.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Burn, baby, burn, when am I gonna get my fee?

by John MacBeath Watkins

Well, that's libertarian.

Firefighters from the city of South Fulton, Tenn., got the call in time to save Gene Cranick's house from the flames that would consume it, but they wouldn't come until his neighbor's field caught fire. They dealt with the field, then stood around and watched the house burn down because Cranick hadn't paid a $75 annual fee to be protected by the fire department. His neighbor had paid, (the fee is for people outside the city) so his fire got put out.

A local television reporter, Jason Hibbs, asked the fire chief why, when the firemen were already there, and Cranick offered to pay whatever it would take to get the fire put out,  he refused to do so. The fire chief called the police to escort the reporter off the property, and while the police did not respond, the firemen quickly left while the house still burned.  I can well imagine why the police did not want to get caught up in the dispute.

The fire department has, or course, been roundly condemned -- sorry, got that wrong, actually roundly praised -- by bloggers at the National Review.

Kevin Williamson of the National Review said: "The world is full of jerks, freeloaders, and ingrates — and the problems they create for themselves are their own. These free-riders have no more right to South Fulton’s firefighting services than people in Muleshoe, Texas, have to those of NYPD detectives."

Two other bloggers from the same conservative organ felt the same, while only one wondered what moral theory allowed them to let the house burn.

So here's my question: Suppose the contract in question had been a union contract instead of a management contract. Would these stern conservatives still think the contract was sacrosanct, and the firefighters, even though they were there to deal with the neighbor's fire, had no obligation to put out the house fire right in front of them?

One of the four National Review bloggers, Daniel Foster, would have a ready answer, and it would be the same one he gave this time:

"But forget the politics: what moral theory allows these firefighters (admittedly acting under orders) to watch this house burn to the ground when 1) they have already responded to the scene; 2) they have the means to stop it ready at hand; 3) they have a reasonable expectation to be compensated for their trouble?"

The other three bloggers would have some thinking to do.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Great Warming

by John MacBeath Watkins

From about 1000 to 1300, the world was warmer than it had been previously, and warmer than it will be until we manage to crank enough CO2 into the atmosphere to really get some global warming going.  For that reason, it is helpful to look at what happened during the Medieval Warm Period.

Vikings, that's what.  Well, that's just my favorite part.  Brian Fagan's book, The Great Warming, recounts how the climate change of that period produced winners as well as losers.  Among the winners were the Vikings, who, freed from the oppressive winters that had limited their population and sailing season, ranged far and wide, and colonized Iceland and Greenland, at least until the Little Ice Age made the Greenland climate too harsh for the farming and dairying way of life the Vikings knew.

Europe in general did quite well during the Medieval Warm Period.  Farming blossomed, helped by the invention of better methods, England produced wines, the population increased, witches burned, and the inquisition sought to save the souls of wicked sinners.  Well, maybe those last two were a coincidence.  In any case, I suspect that had the Medieval Warm Period been less kind to Europe, we'd be a lot more worried about the current warming trend.

Mayan civilization, on the other hand, disintegrated because of persistent droughts, China went through a period of instability caused by alternating droughts and floods, and the trade winds faltered in the South Pacific.

It appears we are likely to experience substantial warming before our leaders decide to deal with the problem of global warming, so a bit of review about what we can anticipate seems quite in order.

Fagan also wrote a book on the Little Ice Age that I quiet enjoyed.  It didn't end until we started burning quite a bit of coal in the mid-19th century, so perhaps until we started to overdo it, we were benefiting from global warming.