Google analytics

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A crow here, a cat there

by Jamie Lutton

John. has urged me to consider writing about books instead of crows, as spring is here, and the crows are not quite as hungry.

But that does not mean they are not still interesting now and then.

This morning,  half way to work, I threw a treat to a crow standing on the sidewalk, an older, fat one; and he took it in his beak and hopped over to bury it under some trash by a drain in the gutter. A younger crow came up behind him to steal his treat. The older fat crow wrestled that crow on the ground with a great deal of squeaking, waving of wings, very fast thrashing.  I threw another treat to break up the fight and to satisfy the younger one. The older crow scurried over to grab that treat too, blocking the other, younger crow in a manner similar to blocks seen in ice hockey; with a quick scurry that was, again, too fast for my eyes to follow.. He was mad, I think, at the younger crow's attempted theft and hustle.

I could have tossed out a big handful to dilute the perceived shortage of crow treats, but was too fascinated watching the scuffle. This is where a young crow was learning not to steal from an older crow.

A few days ago, I was going home at about 5 pm, and the North nest crows - second of the three -- that seldom in the morning had spotted me. My home cat, Piglet, had run out the front door as I opened it. She likes to dash merrily up and down the lanai, so I have to catch her. These two crows flew to a nearby tree and watched me catch her and pop her back into my apartment.

But still, one of them came and perched on my lanai's railing, to ask for a treat.  I tossed one down on the floor of the lanai.

What emotion that passed over that crow was interesting. He -- fluffed up, all over, as he stared at the treat.   His feathers stood on end; he doubled in size for a moment or two; I think this was - Cat Alert.  I knelt down, so I was not threatening, and put my hands in my lap.  He stared at the crow treat, which was about 10 feet in front of me on the floor, and at me; looking around the leni for the cat he had seen. His mate was in the tree behind him, watching both of us, but could not see over the edge.  The crow suddenly flew down, and grabbed the one treat, made a sudden grab for the second, missed that one, then bounded out and flew away into the sky, out. The second crow stared at  me from the tree, but did not budge from  her perch. More cautious. We looked at each other, then I went inside my apartment.

It is a quiet day at work while I write this. I put some peanuts out on the railing; a few crows have visited me to carry them off. My shop cats watch these crows, and are content; Cat TV.

I should write about books, but have a bit of writers block.

I picked up a copy of a children's book called The Little Engine That Could. This is the earliest book I can remember, and the book I can remember my mother reading to me. I can remember her reading to me what the train said, when faced with a steep hill, and a heavy load "I think I can, I think I can".  I do believe, in the long version of that book that she read to me, several trains had turned down the load, and would not help move a heavy load of toys and things (it is a very bright book of toys, and dolls, and pretend trains).

The point being, the littlest train not only did the tough job, but did the job turned down by other, busy trains.  That sort of stayed with me, as a morality tale, plus, even more, the sound of my mother's voice. She was sober, reading to me. She put on her story-telling voice, but she was clear, and sober, and funny.  So rare in my memories of her. Most of my memories of her she is in the sack, and not thinking of me or anyone else. Mostly, she is complaining; intoxicated, scary even. Commanding that I listen to her as she drank sometimes. When she was sober, in my childhood, she was buried in one book or another, often a murder mystery, cranking through them rapidly.  This is my main memory of her; though she was pretty good mother, she was an addict, an alcoholic, and was very difficult to deal with, especially. in the evenings.

She did tell me about good authors when I got to my teens; authors she loved, authors I still read; authors I want to write about. She was a speed reader like me.  Dad would also tell me about authors and books I should read; sometimes they both agreed on some books; classics, poetry, history. I recall once when they were grabbing volumes off the shelf and reading poetry to me,  to each other, when I was a teen.

I keep stopping, seizing up, as I miss them both, when I try to write about books.  Book memories lie next to my parents in my mind, and they have died too recently for me to go there without me disturbing my memories of them.  I pick up Make Way For Duckings, and I hear my Mother's voice when I was four. Or, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe; and Daddy read that to me each evening when I was in third grad, until I took it away from him and started to read ahead so far that I left him behind.

Third grade was my crucible grade. I began to read everything; it was the year school became hell, the year we moved to Richland, and it was the year my soul decended into hell, too; I think my illness began to be really bad. The next year, the school insisted I take Ritalin to keep me quiet in school.

But books sustained me, and kept me sane, until the day I am writing this, for the ether, for you.  

My next blog will be about the great books of my youth that  I can still reread today with pleasure. What the experts call  classic 'chapter books' or 'young adult books'.  Later blogs will be about adult nonfiction and fiction, and about the great books for my book project/list, books of all kinds that should not be missed.

Monday, March 28, 2011

When we make ours an alien world

by John MacBeath Watkins

"Zone of alienation" is a term I'd never heard until things went pear-shaped at the Fukushima nuclear reactors. From The Smart Set blog, Morgan Meis gives us this gem:

"Radiation has the power to grab portions of the world and make them give off the same aura it normally takes generations to create. We are watching something like that happen right now. A "zone of alienation" — as the Soviets dubbed the area around Chernobyl — is being created in Japan around Fukushima as we speak. A portion of the planet is being cordoned off and removed from the space-time continuum the rest of us inhabit. In a few months it will be a ruin, too, as old as the oldest places we know, lonely and uncanny in its suspended state, preserved as a living relic to the present we are still making."

We have seen greater horrors -- the Holocaust, the fire bombing of Tokyo and Dresden, even the tsunami that caused the Fukushima disaster have taken more lives than the meltdown ever will. But though they have caused greater devastation and cost far more lives than the nuclear power industry ever has, the persistence of the silent menace of  radiation means that while Tokyo could rise from the ashes in a few years and once again be a great city, the fishing villages of the Japanese coast can be rebuilt, perhaps on higher ground, but the poisoned ground of Fukushima will probably become, like the area around Chernobyl, a zone of alienation.

In the absence of human life, wildlife will repopulate these zones. But not all species are equally resistant to the effects of radiation, so they become involuntary parks, refuges for animals who have more to fear from human beings than radiation. Although mutations have been reported, there has been no systematic study of the matter. Rare lynxes have been seen in the Chernobyl zone of alienation, and tracks ofbrown bear, an animal not seen in the area for centuries. and a herd of Przewalski's Horse, an endangered breed of wild horse native to the central Asian steppe, has been released there.

Mutant insects and albino swallows aside, the zone resembles the world of the Terry Gilliam film 12 Monkeys more than any post-nuclear apocalypse envisioned in fiction. It is a world without us, a ruin poisonous to human life, as if the world itself was rejecting us. In the case of the Chernobyl zone, there are a few people living there, either residents who refused to leave or samosely, that is, squatters, resigned to dying early as the price of living in a poisoned Eden.

The death of our fellow humans is one thing to deal with, it tells us we must rebuild and repopulate; in the wake of the horror of World War II we had a baby boom, as if our instinct to repopulate had asserted itself and overshot. The complete absence of human life speaks to us not merely of the end of a life, but of the end of all human life without hope of rebuilding. After a battle or a coal mine disaster, we bury our dead and move on, knowing we can rebuild after such a tragedy. Why can we not take the same attitude toward Chernobyl or Fukushima?

A world without us, a world we've poisoned, would be a world we had alienated. We may have dreams of terraforming other planets, but we also have the nightmare of making our own an alien world, a nightmare that is monstrous beyond the number of people who die.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The curious case of Rick Scott: How is the way he's running the state like running a business?

by John MacBeath Watkins

One of the enduring myths of American politics is that the best managers are all in the private sector, and if those captains of industry could be convinced to take the cut in pay it would entail, they could straighten this country out. We are now witnessing how that plays out in real life.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott says he wants to run the state like a business. So, canny businessman that he is, he spend $73 million of his own money to get a job that pays $130,000 a year, and announced that he would refuse the salary.

His goals, now that he is governor, include doing what any businessman would to for his company -- reduce revenues. He plans to cut property and corporate taxes by $2.2 billion in his planned two-year budget, and these combine with other proposed tax cuts for a total of about $4 billion. Revenues are already down about $4 billion because of the recession, so to balance the budget will require what we bloggers quaintly refer to as "savage cuts."

That is to say, something like a 20% cut in education and transportation. In other words, Scott wants to be businesslike by providing the customers -- Florida voters -- with less service.

 As a businessman, I'm pretty sure if someone offered to pay for building an asset that would improve the value of my business, I'd take them up on it. But Scott turned down $2.4 billion in federal stimulus funds for high-speed rail between Orlando and Tampa without even consulting the state legislature, which has a Republican supermajority in both houses.

The next question, I suppose, is whether, like the board of directors of Columbia Homecare Associates, voters will eventually decide he's cost them too much and ask him to leave. The directors had seen their company fined a total of $1.7 billion for 14 felony counts of defrauding the U.S. government.

Which highlights one of the major differences between the way he ran the business he was reportedly forced out of and the way he is running the state. He was willing to accept federal money when he was running a business.

And indeed, in running his business, he seems still to be willing to take federal money. After leaving Columbia/HCA, he started his own company, Solantic, which operates clinics able to accept Medicare and do drug testing. Now Scott has issued an executive order to subject state employees to mandatory drug testing, which would no doubt increase Solantic's profits. You see, his chain of clinics profits because people get drug tests from them to make sure they can pass an official drug test, so even if Solantic doesn't get a contract to test state employees and welfare recipients, it will profit from those who wish to make sure they can pass before they take the official test. Of course, how could anyone think that influences Scott? He handed over his $62 million stake in Solantic to his wife. Why this is supposed to eliminate the obvious conflict of interest is a mystery I have yet to penetrate.

Solantic is under investigation for allegations of fraudulent Medicare billing. It's the sort of thing that happens when the pressure is to produce profits and it's clear top management doesn't mind cutting corners, so if the allegations turn out ot be true, don't assume Scott knew about the fraud. He would, in that case, have merely set up the incentives. And since Solantic has this little problem with fraud allegations, isn't it just the kind of outfit you'd want to give more control over federal money?

Scott is pushing through a bill that would give private clinics far more control over the Medicaid program that serves Florida's poor. Eric Jotkoff, a Florida Democratic Party spokesman, was quoted in Mother Jones as saying, "These changes to Medicaid are basically nothing but a business plan for Rick Scott's Solantic. It's clear that he stands to greatly profit from these changes to Medicaid."

So there you have it. Scott appears to be running the state like a business. His own, personal business. He's already made moves that are likely to increase his wealth by far more than the salary he is refusing to accept, leaving us to wonder whether he can recover his investment in the election if his plans come to fruition.

I have a feeling by the time he's done, people will have a new regard for those career politicians who don't know how to make the job pay more than $130,000 a year.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

What they said about Andersonville

The food was terrible, and such small portions.

The government that governs least governs Somalia: More government can mean more freedom

by John MacBeath Watkins

The notion that "the government that governs least governs best" has had a stern test in Somalia. Thomas Paine's aphorism has its limits, as he recognized when he said it.

Paine called government a necessary evil. We now have an active political movement questioning the "necessary" part of that assessment. The March 19-25 edition of my favorite news magazine, The Economist, has in it a "leader" (the Brit term for an editorial) titled "Taming Leviathan," in which it makes the claim that slimming the state in essential, and should be the focus of elections in Western democracies.

The Economist does recognize that in some countries, the state is too small, and not just in failed states like Somalia. It cites the example of Guatemala, where the tax take is around a tenth of gross domestic product and private security guards are five times more numerous than the Guatemalan police and army combined.

Of course, a market libertarian might ask why that's a problem. The answer might be that if people of great wealth have at their disposal more power than the state, those who do not possess such wealth lose access to justice. This is a non-economic answer to the question of what size the state should be, but all answers to this question are non-economic, because economics hasn't devoted much study to the question of how large the state should be.

Economics has studied how large a currency area should be. It has studied optimal size for a firm. But the question of how large a state is required for the economy to function is an issue on which people make claims about the economic impact of government spending without an actual economic model supporting those claims. The Economist, for example, claims that "rich-world governments are on a course to bankruptcy -- unless they raise taxes to levels that would wreck their economies."

America is a rich, world country, so let's see how that statement holds up:

This chart, which comes from here, shows that total government spending as a percent of GDP is actually about the same as in 1951. Of course, we are richer than we were in 1951, so the government is taking a piece of a bigger pie, but is that the crisis that The Economist describes? Keep in mind that spending as a percent of GDP always rises in a recession, both because of the social safety net and because the GDP is smaller. That's what a recession is. But if we are in danger of bankruptcy -- and the bond markets don't seem to think so -- it won't be because spending as a percent of GDP is out of hand. It will be because the willingness to pay for what we're spending has eroded.

We are, after all, a democracy. Presumably, there is some relationship between the actions of our government and the wishes of the voters. If Florida Governor Rick Scott is right about the wishes of the voters, they will reward him for turning down funds to build high-speed rail in his state, a federally-funded project that would have represented a substantial transfer of wealth from the country as a whole to the state of Florida. If he's wrong, the next election will give them a chance to replace him with someone friendlier to the notion of accepting such proffered largess.

Of course, demand for public goods like high-speed rail is only one part of the equation. Government spending as a percent of GDP might remain constant because the level of economic activity requires certain government expenditures, or it might be because government expenditures are necessary for economic growth. An example of the latter would be the Good Roads movement of the 1870s through the 1920s.

Early in the existence of this country, post roads were one of the backbones of economic development, as the government built roads for mail delivery that could be used for other purposes. When I was growing up in Maine, the old post road was a few blocks from our house. Roads that tied the country together were useful in making Americans feel that they were all part of one country, and were also useful for moving goods from where they were produced to where the customers for those goods lived.

But by the 1870s, it was clear that more good roads were needed. Roads built by a county government might end at the county line, or simply not meet the road the next county had built. Most roads were dirt or gravel, dusty in summer and muddy when it rained. Bicyclists played a leading role in the movement for better roads, with the League of American Wheelmen (now the League of American Bicyclists) beginning publication of the house organ of the movement, Good Roads Magazine, in 1892. Bicyclists and bicycle manufacturers were not the only advocates of public expenditures on roads. Chambers of commerce were also interested in getting roads built to their communities so that businesses could grow. In the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower, who had in 1919 been assigned as an observer to the army's Transcontinental Motor Convoy, which took 62 days to cross the country, spearheaded the Interstate Highway System, one of motors of economic development in the 1950s through the 1970s, and still important in maintaining our level of economic activity now that it is complete.

Courts also play a role in development. Diversified conglomerates, a type of company that has lost favor in rich countries, are still quite important in developing countries. On reason given for this is that coordinating different activities between branches of the same company is easier than coordinating different companies.

An incompetent or corrupt government will not be effective in enforcing contracts, which means dealing with your own branches will produce better results than working with independent contractors. Rich-country management gurus like to tell companies to stick to their core competence, but in countries with underdeveloped government institutions, a company's core competence may be its ability to get its various parts to deal with each other honestly. Businessmen love to hate lawyers, until someone tries to screw them over. Then they happily resort to the courts.

The result, in rich countries, is the development of companies that can be really good at the of business they specialize in, and are not tied to divisions in tangentially related fields. I suspect that government regulation and effective courts allow such companies to operate more efficiently and produce more wealth than they would as part of a conglomerate.

In effect, the optimal size (and shape) of the firm is dictated in part by how well government frees them from the task of making sure the partners they depend on will deal with them fairly. In other words, more government may produce more economic freedom of a certain sort.

If the notion of more government producing more economic freedom seem counter-intuitive, consider Somalia. A businessman can't count on a ship carrying goods to arrive in port without being seized by pirates, can't count on delivering goods to the next town without them being stolen by bandits, and can't count on surviving a business trip to the next town -- or, sometimes, across town.

The early liberal thinkers, of course, anticipated this problem. Thomas Hobbes saw the formation of civil society as essential to protect people from the risk of violent death. Somalia has in essence become the sort of state of nature Hobbes described in his book, Leviathan. I know that I've quoted this before, but since The Economist speaks in terms of "Taming Leviathan," perhaps we should remember what Hobbes saw in the absence of Leviathan:

In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.

Certainly it is possible to have too much government, and North Korea is an excellent example of this. But government is essential to, as Hobbes would put it, make a "place for industry." Some level of state is needed, so instead of simple bromides about how the state must always be made smaller, perhaps we should be talking about what sort of government we need, and how much. We now have an entire political party that seems certain that, as Michael Steele, while Republican National Committee Chairman said, "Let's get this notion out of our heads that the government create jobs. Not in the history of mankind has the government ever created a job."

 As the son of a career Air Force officer, I find this offensive, and I find it offensive that no Republican elected official of any standing pointed out what nonsense this was at the time. My father certainly didn't spend his Air Force career on welfare. He did important work, and by protecting our country he contributed to its wealth, helping make a "place for industry."

Doubtless there is waste in government, just as there is waste in industry. We must always be vigilant to keep government from doing things it ought not to do, and to make sure it functions effectively at those things it should be doing.

But let's jettison the notion that the optimum size of government is always smaller than whatever it is. Let's talk instead about what government should and should not be doing, and how it can do better the things it should do. And let's keep in mind, too little government in the wrong areas can make the country poorer and less free.

Edited to add: Check out this take on the relationship between public expenditures and economic growth.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Managing a Dental Practice the Genghis Kan Way

by John MacBeath Watkins

The title of this post is the winner of a contest sponsored by It is an actual book about managing a dental practice, though I'm not certain I'd want my teeth worked on by Genghis Kan or his acolytes. The author, Michael Young, may know his audience better than I.

Of course, I still prefer Oral Sadism and the Vegetarian Personality, which I've written about before, and Antonio Pigafetta's Words of the Big-Footed Giants.

Nor am I convinced that Managing a Dental Practice the Genghis Kan Way is better than The Generosity of the Dead, which made this year's short list for oddest title. But Young's book won fair and square in a vote on the website, so I suppose I shouldn't complain. Pigafetta, after all, wrote his book about half a millennium too soon to enter the contest. His book wasn't published until the 18th century, but even a 200-year delay wasn't enough to make his book eligible,  and I suppose to wait any longer would have looked like cheating.

And in the annals of odd titles, can anyone really compete with An Arsonist's Guide to Writer's Homes in New England, which did not win's contest at all?

A few more choice titles here.

Closing sale extended -- 70% off

The landlord emailed us today to say that they would be delighted to have us stay a couple more weeks. Our last open day will now be April 13. We'll continue selling books for 70% off, and we'll be selling off the shelves as they become empty.

So slake your appetite for books and buy shelves to accommodate them.

Apparently, Chase Bank thought they could get expedited permits to remodel the space, but the city said no. So they offered us a couple more months, but we're already at the shelf-clearing 70%-off end of the sale, so that's not in the cards.

We'll be picking up more stock so there's more to look at, and things our customers haven't seen before.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Canticle for Fukushima

by John MacBeath Watkins

On-and-off reports that the Tokyo water supply had been contaminated with radioactive iodine have spread fear about nuclear plants. We've been through this before, with the Chernobyl nuclear plant and Three Mile Island, but those came at a time when the move to nuclear power was stalled by economic problems. This comes at a time when the nuclear industry appeared ready to pick itself off the mat.

Apparently that's not going to happen.

But the funny thing is, fiction about nuclear technology has been largely based on nuclear war, and in most cases undersold the threat of radioactive fallout. Perhaps the most famous post-apocalyptic novel is A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller. In that book, the public has reacted by attacking those whose knowledge made nuclear war possible, and only a religious order keeps a few scraps of knowledge about technology alive.

But people dying young of strange cancers is not an important part of the plot, nor is it part of most post-apocalyptic science fiction. Much of such fiction deals with that favorite trope, mutants, and with the breakdown of society, but the only one that comes to mind which deals with radiation as a central problem is Nevil Shute's On the Beach, in which Australians who know the radiation from a northern-hemisphere nuclear war will eventually kill them deal with the knowledge of their forthcoming deaths.

Shute, who was an engineer, had a better understanding of the effects of radiation than most writers. The basic problem -- that we can't protect ourselves from the fallout that would follow a nuclear war -- is perhaps more terrifying than the other scenarios, but less visually appealing, and less interesting from the standpoint of the basic question so much of science fiction deals with: What makes us human?

The tsunami associated with the Feb. 11 earthquake was the worst in more than a millennium, and it overtopped the  breakwaters and drowned the diesel generators that were supposed to provide backup power for the cooling systems of the Fukushima I and II reactors. The impact of the failure of the safeguards on those reactors has a greater impact on public perceptions than Chernobyl, because these are plants designed by General Electric and tended by Tokyo Electric Power Company under the guidance of highly regarded Japanese regulators. Chernobyl didn't even have a containment vessel: The theory seems to have been that nothing would go wrong. The Japanese plants, while not especially new, were considered to be safe designs being handled by safe and expert operators.

And of course, we should also keep in mind that while the ghostly menace of radiation is connected in our minds with Hiroshima, alternatives to nuclear power are not free of risk. Seth Godin notes that "For every person killed by nuclear power generation, 4,000 die due to coal, adjusted for the same amount of power produced..."

Not that this will make a difference to nuclear power's chances for a comeback. 

In my humble opinion, the nuclear industry was less likely to make a comeback than most people perceived. The thing that stopped its expansion was the 1982 Washington Public Power Supply default on $2.25 billion in bonds for nuclear plants that went far over budget and never generated any electricity. As long as businessmen and utilities were willing to go to bat for nuclear power, they were able to get permits and financing. Once the industry showed it couldn't build plants anywhere close to on time or on budget, financing dried up, and so did any interest in going to bat for permits.

Flash forward to the present day, and consider the economics. Fracking technology has opened up more natural gas resources, bringing down the cost of this relatively clean way of generating electricity. Although the French have had some success with standardized designs that have brought down costs, those plants don't compete in the kind of market for electricity the U.S. has. The French can raise rates as they need to so that they can pay for the plants. Even "clean" coal plants may prove more economical than nuclear plants.

The only chance nuclear had was that the government might take global warming seriously and institute either cap and trade or a carbon tax. This would have made fossil fuel plants pay for some of their external costs associated with climate change. Coal-state Democrats and the Republican Party in general were opposed to any effort to cut coal usage, so that's not going to happen.

Of course, the nuclear plants can have their own external costs. The problem of disposing of their waste remains unresolved, and my favorite solution -- pyramids that glow in the dark -- has yet to gather any adherents other than myself. The basic problem with nuclear waste, that it remains harmful for a very long time, is going to be thoroughly cemented into peoples' minds for a generation to come.

The technical problem the Fukushima plants exhibit can be solved. Some additional backup system could be built into the plants. But it's going to take a long, long time for people to forget that any system we can design can, under some circumstances, fail. That's part of the lesson of A Canticle for Leibowitz, but another lesson is that we must learn to live with technology, because going backwards can take us back to a less civilized -- and less human -- existence.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Crows and the human 'murder'

by Jamie Lutton

I remembered  something that I did when I was about four.  My  mother remembered it too, and used to tell the story back to me now and then as I grew up, and when I was an adult.. This was something she liked to do; she was the family history keeper.

We were alone together in the kitchen, in our home in Western Maryland.. I am her youngest child of five. I don't remember what time of year it was or anything but that I had grabbed a box of instant rice, and took handfuls of the stuff, and threw it out onto the floor, scattering it all over. My mother, (who had seen everything, with so many children), asked me mildly what I was doing. "feeding the chickens" I said.

I probably had never seen a real chicken in my life, except on our (black and white) TV. Maybe this was from seeing Wizard of Oz; in the beginning there is a chicken feeding scene. But the my four year old self could see the chickens, and they looked mighty hungry.
This turned into my Mother's favorite story about me that she would tell family and strangers.

 I am wondering about that crow that followed me for years, until I fed it. I wonder if we are being domesticated by the crows, as we domesticated dogs, cats, cattle.  Perhaps centuries from now, when most other wildlife is gone, we will all have crows that come to us, and they will eat our scraps.  They might tame us; with their direct stares, repeated cawing, and looping, head diving flying.

They are perhaps wooing us, a human at a time, so that they can be moved from the category of pests to pets. This would be a good ecological stratagem for them, considering the fate of most of the other animals in the world, and what we have done to them.  They may have intuited what might be best for their future progeny.

It would be a different pattern than other pets. Wolves and wild cats probably had their kits and pups kidnapped, to be raised as pets by humans.  The adult crows, seeing us  humans eat in public constantly, may intuit that this is a good murder (the collective noun for crows) to hang about, and may be psyching us out, to see what it would take to safely get in line for chow.  People eat more in public than they used to, in the late 20th and early 21st century; we are always on the run with a latte in one hand and a pastry  or fast food burger in the other.  The crows know the taste of fast food, and they want their share.

I keep thinking about the crow who dropped a chewed-on fast food chicken leg on my head, last year. Maybe he was trying to feed me, to let me know he was hungry.  And the same with the crow who brought back the rancid chicken scrap, and left it at my feet, that I had thrown to him five days earlier. Perhaps there is an attempt at a compact, here.

The crows may be  (ritually?) bringing me a bit of food, to let me know they want food. The adult crow will stuff food down a yearling crow, that is adult sized, if the crow comes up to him or her and begs, by flapping it's wings and cawing loudly. Perhaps they are explicitly begging, by bringing me food, to let me know they want to join my murder.

I wonder if there are other reports of crows bringing food samples to humans, to try to teach the humans to feed them.

I've had a regular route for so many years now. Perhaps the crow that came and greeted me was trying to train me.  It will be interesting to see how crows try to make further contact with us, as they see us eat and walk about, while they try to join our murder.


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Hungry Crows

By Jamie Lutton

I notice that when I walk to work all these years , months, and days that I am the only person, or one of the few people, who does not have headphones on.  I listen to the spring birdsong, which I cannot identify except for the crows, and it is delicious. But nearly everyone else is in another world. They might as well not be on the same sidewalk as I am, or even outside. They could be in a car, shut off as much as they are, not in the damp morning world. The morning birdsong is delicious, even though I am ignorant as to what I am hearing. I can tell it is birds courting, and singing their love to each other, or a challenge to rivals, or merely  to announce that they are, here we are, hello, hello.

There are definitely fewer crows about.

They must be living on more stuff than garbage; insects, worms, etc. must be more available now. When I throw them a dog biscuit, the crows who grab them are usually full enough  that they fly away with the treat and hide it, rather than consume it on the spot.  When a crow hides a biscuit, and he is on the ground, on dirt, sometimes he stuffs it into the dirt, and grabs a bit of grass or weed and covers it up, first making sure he is not being watched. I also see them flying off with them right away, and coming back for more. They then do not seem very hungry. I expect that the gutters around my route are full of dog biscuits.

The crows stalk about, very confidently, as if the ground was their world, when they are on the ground. This is particularity noticeable when no people are about, in the side streets.  They walk rather like human people do, in that manner,  as lords of the earth, radiating confidence as they stalk about.

The hungry crow will pin down a treat with a claw to the ground, then stab it with his beak to break it up, and quickly eat the fragments up.  I chose  dog treats (orange, and they are cheese flavored: they look like heavy squarish Cheetos) because they were too large and solid for pigeons to be interested; but they are meaty and tasty; and the crows eat them readily; they recognize them as food.

I think they think the treats are Cheetos at first glance; customers have told me that they give Cheetos to crows all the time. 

 Some crows just visit me and keep an eye on me. This morning, my elevator did not come for a while, and I was standing about on the open landing seven flights up.   A crow flew over to a nearby tree, cawing as he flew, roosted there to check me out.   He cawed and cawed, and stared at me. I think he was from the North nest, the nest just to the left of my apartment building. I put out two treats on my balcony, and got in the elevator.  Then, I rode the elevator back up, to see it the treats were taken (or to remove the evidence, so I would not get in trouble with my neighbors).  The crow was not interested; he was just checking on me, the treats were still there. He flew overhead, cawing, but did not come down to greet me.  So, the crows are not as hungry as they were in January and February, or perhaps the North nest crows is intimidated by the South nest crows, and do not want to get any closer to me for fear of getting chased.

In December, January, February, when it was 40 degrees out, with a wind chill factor of about 20,  and rain coming down, the crows on my route were awfully glad to see me.  I would have fifty or sixty crows caw and caw, dive at me, flying over my head, perching on the telephone wires and trees, staring at me, begging treats from me, while we all got cold and rained on.  I was running a regular crow soup kitchen. There was an edge to their begging, then, of real sharp hunger; I felt it. They would get much closer to me, right up to a foot from me on the ground, and even closer if I put the treats on a wall or other high up surface. They nearly brushed against my fingers, as I stretched them out to put treats down.   They would fight openly with each other to get the treats first, scuffling on the ground, shoving each other in the air.

Some of the older, slower, rumpled looking crows did not make it through the winter; one day, they just would not show up to greet me one morning. I have never (yet) seen a dead crow on my route; I see dead pigeons all the time. I think crows slink off to a rooftop to die, to be nearer the sky.

The cultural significance of crows

by John MacBeath Watkins

Jamie's wonderful posts on crows set me to thinking about the cultural significance of crows. Think of how few songs there are about crows, or even corvidae in general. "Jimmy crack corn," in the song sometimes called "blue-tailed fly" may refer to crows eating the master's crop or may refer to "gimcrack corn," corn whiskey. The song celebrates the freedom from labor brought about by the death of the master.

Of course, we could always modify songs to celebrate crows. With apologies to Bob Dylan:

Where have all the corvids gone?
Gone to Dumpsters every one...

There is a famous song which does not mention crows, but could. I refer to "Mairzy Doats," composed by Milton Drake, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston. One day Drake's four-year-old daughter came home singing "Cowzy tweet and sowzy tweet and liddle sharksy doisters." (Cows eat wheat and sows eat wheat and little sharks eat oysters.) The lyric Drake and his fellow composers came up with was:

Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lmazy divey.
A kiddley divey too, wouldn't you?
Crows and ravens are known for descending on a battlefield to pick clean the bones of the dead, which suggests the lyric:

Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle crows eat eyeballs...
Of course, their dark coloring and willingness to eat things people think are disgusting does go some way to explaining their cultural status as an outsider bird, a creature of dubious moral character. The most famous corvid in literature is the one in Poe's The Raven, an ominous bird and heir to millennia of myths connecting crows and ravens with death or doom. In Native American myth, Raven is a trixter, and in the Pacific Northwest, a somewhat Promethean character who steals the sun from the old man who owns it and keeps it in a cedar box, and places it in the sky where it can light the world. But Raven is still a thief and a trixter.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim, following the flooding of the world, releases a dove to see if it can find land, and it circles and returns to the ship. He then releases a raven, who flies off and does not return, allowing Utnapishtim to surmise that it has found land. Again, the bird is clever but not moral.

Perhaps both stories are a tribute to the fact that corvidae possess super-avian intelligence, but are inclined to use it to better their own lives rather than ours.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Crows and pigeons

by Jamie Lutton.

There are fewer crows about now that spring is really here. The great mob of crows hanging about Broadway have dispersed, probably because food is easier to find in the spring. The crows near my apartment have made themselves easier to find, as they are slightly less likely to mob me, and I have traced them back to their actual territories.

One group of three or four lives in the block one block north, and these are the ones that fly up to my apartment and greet me now and then. I always regard them as the most anxious and loud of all the crows I talk to; they are very vocal, but do not fly down to greet me every time, unless I tilt my head back and stare at them while they are croaking at me.

They do not fly any further than the south end of the block, where another group of three or four inhabit an abandoned lot and the block around it. These two groups are not too friendly with each other; but do not attack each other as the crows who live closer to QFC, when they venture down to where I am, when I am putting a couple of treats out. Then, the crows from the abandoned lot will tussle with them and drive them out. The flying that they do resembles WWI flying aces showing off, only much, much faster. They turn and twist in the sky chasing each other into the distance. Often, they seem to be playing. I noticed a "V" shaped squadron chasing a crow who had nabbed a half a sandwich across the sky, then back again, at terrrific speeds.

It seemed to be as much about the game as it was about the food.  To compare them to ancient warplanes is sort of awful, as there is never any bullets involved, just a tussle over territory and food. Much more innocent and playful. 

The crows who were mobbing on Broadway have mostly disappeared.  There used to be 50 or so of them, now  I see only 10 at most at a time.  I surmise that they are getting food somewhere else, and not from the garbage that litters Broadway.  The insects, worms and flowers, etc, that they eat have appeared (as well as more food litter, as more people venture outside).

There is still a fairly big crowd on the back street on the way to my shop, but only half as many as there used to be when it was really cold. I noticed they tolerate a greyling gull hanging out with them now and then. He or She hangs about, like a giant gray ghost, on the outskirts of the crow crowd, hoping for a flung treat.

Also, the pigeons are everywhere.

Pigeons are like sparrows; they are not native to the United States, but were brought here as food and for message bearing a couple of hundred years ago. They used to be the backbone of long distance message bearing; but they have since fallen on hard times.

Some were raised as pets and went wild. The more intrepid restaurants  in New York used to go out with nets at dawn, and scoop them up by the dozens, kill and pluck them, and serve them as squab at $50 a plate.  This practice has allegedly been curtailed by the health department, but I am not totally sure about that.

The pigeon population could be controlled in our cities if we built dove-cotes for them. Then, they would not nest in the undersides of awnings and such and crap on people and the sidewalks, but would nest where we wanted them to nest. Then, the theory is, the dovecotes could be raided, the eggs removed and replaced with wooden dowels the same shape as eggs.

And so, the population would go down. 

This practice over a few years could cut the population of pigeons back considerably. That no one has done this is just laziness on the part of the local city planners. This is the standard way that pigeon population is controlled in some European cities.

Killing them, even in great numbers,  does not work. The surviving pigeons just have bigger nests and more chicks until the population is replaced.  They respond to stress like this way. Only making homes for them and removing the eggs, will work.
Once in a while, pigeons stalk me, as they see me feeding the crows. This is embarrassing. I've got their number; and they will get no treats from me.  The crows tolerate them; I think they see them as protective coloration; as in as long as there are pigeons, they will not be the most hated bird on the sidewalk. They often hang out with the pigeons on the sidewalk, going for similar food, and hope to blend in.  Instead, they look like wild elk foraging among domestic cows, with one eye on the woods beyond.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Beau Geste: Libya and the European mind

by John MacBeath Watkins

Beau Geste is a 1924 novel by P.C. Wren about three English brothers who join La Légion étrangère (the French Foreign Legion) because they are trying to do the decent thing, by the standards of the British upper crust at that time. It is eventually revealed that they are saving a woman from scandal, sacrificing their reputations to preserve hers.  The brothers are Digby, John, and Michael "Beau" Geste. Beau geste translates as "handsome gesture."

They end up in a fort in French North Africa, which is attacked by Tuareg tribesmen, and as the garrison of the fort is picked off by the Tuareg, they prop up the bodies of the dead to make it look like there is still a full garrison. The book was made into two films, a 1926 silent film starring Ronald Coleman and a 1939 remake with Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, Robert Preston, Susan Hayward, Broderick Crawford, and Brian Donlevy.

That iconic film still shows sometimes on late-night television, reminding us of the tragic nobility the European mind connects with the French colonial empire. The National Journal's "Talleyrand" gives us a skeptical echo of this mindset in his commentary today:

Talleyrand, like many other people, is very perplexed by this most recent action. Several European nations, the United States and a few token others have decided to intervene militarily in a civil war on the losing side, and just at the moment when these forces were on the verge of defeat.

 Of course, the timing is peculiar because the U.S. did not want to go it alone. It takes time to build a coalition, and Gadaffi, well aware of this, has been trying to crush the rebellion before those outside Libya could do anything.

This is more than a no-fly zone, which would have done little to stop Gadaffi's troops. The French opened hostilities with air strikes against military vehicles Gadaffi loyalists were using to attack the rebels. But I'm skeptical about the efficacy of air power alone against Gadaffi's army. I suspect someone is going to have to put boots on the ground, and President Obama has vowed that it will not be America.

The answer to the question, "whose boots" might also be the answer to the question, is Operation Odyssey Dawn a good idea, or just a beau geste?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Dan Beard - why is he forgotten? Mark Twain's great illustrator

by Jamie Lutton

There was a big fuss, a few months ago, about Mark Twain's autobiography, which was released one hundred years after his death. He had instructed his estate to sit on the book that long, before publishing it, as he had controversial remarks to make in the text. I got a copy of this book, and read some of it; it did not seize me the way some of his earlier books did. I was wary about it, due to the fuss that was being made by everyone.  I am more interested in forgotten books, that I can't understand, considering the fame of Mark Twain, are not reprinted in their proper, restored editions.

In particular a forgotten, restored edition of Yankee in King Arthur's Court, with Dan Beard's brave, outrageous, political caricatures.   Twain said this when he wrote this book "I am writing it for posterity only; my great grandchildren....of course I do not intend to publish it.". He had been inspired by Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur and the story of Jeanne d'Arc, and had turned the tale in his mind into a satire. All editions - that I know of - of this book have been heavily censored from the first few printings. Not the text, (though his editor had made him remove some passages 'improper in tone'), but the original illustrations.

It is very hard to find any of the original illustrations at all - they are too outrageous for modern tastes - or the publishers are ""protecting"" modern readers from the illustrations. preferring to substitute bland watercolors or no illustrations at all. (They do show up on Google Images.) But these are  the illustrations that Mark Twain intended to accompany the text.    Mark Twain said of Beard and his illustrations "My pleasure in them is as strong and as fresh as ever. I do not know of any quality they lack. (later)...what luck it was to find you! There are hundreds of artists who could illustrate any other book of mind, but there was only one who could illustrate this one". In the introduction to this edition, and this one only, there is a key to show where Dan Beard was lampooning present day figures in the text; another reason to obtain this and only this edition of this book.

Dan Beard claimed so, and after a careful examination, I can only agree with him. The only edition that I found, that is very cheap on line, which has all these illustrations and explains what happened to them is the

Chandler Publishing Company, 1963 The author listed is S. L. Clemens, as the heirs of Mark Twain would not allow a facsimile edition published under the name "Mark Twain", in 1963.  This book is available  on ABEBOOKS.COM for about $8.00, and is worth it. This is a great treasure.  To read this book of Twain's without these illustrations would be like tackling Alice in Wonderland and Through the Lookinglass without Tenniel, but worse.

Beard's illustrations are bawdy in places.. They also explicitly attack the Catholic church, both individual clergy and the pope. And most of all, they attack inherited wealth and power, and the divine right of kings, over and over. The illustrations also attack slavery, as it would have been practiced in the medieval world, showing bloated priests, royalty and knights being carried on the backs of skinny peasants. There is a strong suggestion by Beard, by the faces he puts on his kings and others that the situation has not changed much.   The text wraps around the pictures; they are embedded and illustrate the actions on the page, like a very good children's book. Adult books used to be like this; the modern reader will not have seen the like before, as this style is very old fashioned and only remembered by the better children's authors.
Everyone should own this exquisitely wicked, true book. The influence of this particular Twain novel is very large. Many science fiction authors have stolen from Twain, to write time travel yarns, without catching the pathos of the hero, who tries to fix the world he finds himself thrown into, but finds the dead hand of history against him.   This book beat into print, as it was published in 1889, beat H.G. Well's novel The Time Machine by six years which came out in 1895. Both had philosophical points to make about time, but Twain's story, I think, holds up better.  

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Thomas Hobbes, liberalism's accidental founder

by John MacBeath Watkins

To my way of thinking, Thomas Hobbes was the deepest and most original of the liberal thinkers. Funny thing is, he advocated absolute monarchs. His most famous book, Leviathan, was published in 1651, two years after Charles I was beheaded as the English Civil War worked its way through. Hobbes had Charles II as a pupil while both were exiled in Paris. (Ironically, one of the most influential liberal thinkers to follow Hobbes was John Locke, who was an expatriate living in Paris when he wrote his Two Treatises of Government because he was suspected of collusion in a plot to kill Charles II.)

Leviathan's publication was also only three years after the end of the Thirty Years War, fought largely between protestants and Catholics, though pretty much every grievance got a hearing by the end of things. And by the end of the war, the combatants were bankrupt and populations were depleted, as first foraging armies stole the crops and burned the fields as they retreated, causing famine among the populations and opening the weakened people to disease. The "state of nature" he described was in fact the breakdown of society in the wake of such devastation:

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.

The social contract he described was not some imaginary pact arising from a state of nature so much as an aspiration for a ruined civilization. In the disorder of discredited governments, he wished to give order a new legitimacy. He did so by appealing to human nature, rather than tradition, because tradition was in a shambles, and leaders had done little to cause people to honor them. He suggested, therefore, a selfish reason for people to accede power to the sovereign -- to preserve their own lives. The ruler was legitimate because he or she enforced a peace in the war of each against all, preserving people from violent death.

In short, to save us from violent death, the state must be granted a monopoly on violence. It was a new logic of legitimacy.

But Hobbes did more than that. He gave us an entire system of value that could make sense of the chaos. It was a subjective system of value that could operate even when tradition was discredited or forgotten.

The Value, or WORTH of a man, is as of all other things, his Price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his Power: and therefore is not absolute; but a thing dependant on the need and judgement of another. An able conductor of Souldiers, is of great Price in time of War present, or imminent; but in Peace not so. A learned and uncorrupt Judge, is much Worth in time of Peace; but not so much in War. And as in other things, so in men, not the seller, but the buyer determines the Price. For let a man (as most men do,) rate themselves as the highest Value they can; yet their true Value is no more than it is esteemed by others.

One reason for the failure of Marxism was that it never had a workable system of value. Hobbes' formulation may sound philistine, but the notion of value as a thing "dependent on the need and judgment" of people was revolutionary. In Chapter X of Leviathan, he lays out how the objective notions of value -- being born of influential parents, for example -- boil down to what people think of a person.

These notions -- that society should suit human nature, that government depends for its legitimacy on the needs of the governed, that value is a matter of judgment, a thing negotiated between people -- had their own logic, which did not lead in the direction of the absolute monarch Hobbes himself advocated. Elections and markets were more obvious ways of allowing people to make their judgments known that allowing sons to succeed fathers on the throne.

So the monarchist became the founder of liberalism, not because of where he said his logic led, but because of where it did lead.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Gull man again

By Jamie Lutton

I was on my way home last night, in the early evening, when I heard the gulls again. They were crying so loudly, and there were so many of them, that I knew that man must be back.

I went uphill a block from my shop, and wiggled through a hole in the fence, to come out in the back of the parking lot behind Dick's Drive-in.

The gull-man was there again. He had the same gang of gulls around him. I watched them and him again, carefully.  What I thought was a different breed of gull  in the crowd was actually juveniles; they are called 'greylings'.  Gulls live a very long time, 40-50 years, so there were few young, only 5% of the total number of gulls.  They stood about, and did not seem to be treated differently than the adults in the mix, by the adults.

Like the last time, the man had many packets of food to give them, all wrapped up separately, in the black wheeled luggage he had with him.

The man was trying to psych out the gulls. He would not look in the direction he was throwing the bits of garbage; he would throw the food suddenly over his shoulder or to his side, and the gulls would suddenly dash for it, squabbling for it. They hopped up and down, like manic winged sheep, in the dusky, wet cool night.  I counted heads again; nearly one hundred gulls had showed up for treats. He  saw me watching him. I waved to him, but he did not acknowledge me; as he was focused on his birds.

He did not stay that long; it did not take that long to empty his packed up bags of scraps for the gulls.  I also felt that he knew he had to hurry, as a police officer or the manager of Dennys would probably stop him,  for some excuse of noise or falling gull guano.

I am sure that summoning  and feeding  gulls violates some city ordinance. I told the story to a birder friend of mine last night, trying to amuse her (failed); as she said mildly that it was not a good thing to feed the gulls. She is very strict sort of birder; one who goes out with binoculars and spots migrating birds in the wild (her eyes are better than mine).   I suppose not; of course she is 'right'.  I should get my bird watching in by going out with binoculars out and watching rare birds, instead of enjoying common garbage eating city scavengers.   And that homeless man should be standing on the sidewalk with a sign asking for spare change, like a proper homeless person, instead of the dreamer he is, who loves the gulls.

If we had laws that were enforced strictly enough to keep the gull feeder from doing what he is doing,  all the time, the world would be full of  citizen police spies, and I and you would be walking the streets and in our homes dreading the eyes of others on us,  watching us for committing some many of the infractions that might land us in jail or fined or scolded.

I would hate to live like that, myself. I openly throw treats to crows, and as they are native birds, and I do so in the morning,  no one says anything to me, yet.  I suppose it is a bad thing,  a not-environmentally conscious thing somehow, (gasp) but it is not against the law, yet. Maybe someday soon it will be, as humans love to make laws controlling each other, particularily when it is for their own good. 

I like living in a world where that eccentric homeless gull feeder is left alone, and fat gulls (and crows) float above us in the skies, looking hopefully down at the humans below.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

When nonviolent action fails

by John MacBeath Watkins

The toppling of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, using the nonviolent methods outlined by Gene Sharp in his book, From Dictatorship to Democracy has amazed the world. The failure of similar efforts in Lybia and a few other places has caused me to wonder how other regimes counter those methods.

In the case of Libya, the answer is fairly obvious: They shot anybody brave enough to attempt to peacefully assemble to oppose the Gaddafi regime. This is why the movement to topple him quickly turned violent, which, as Sharp points out, is to the advantage of the dictator, because the dictator's strength is violence.

In Egypt, the army refused to fire on civilians. But Gaddafi has his own trusted paramilitary made up of tribesmen from his own tribe and mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa. In a way, this is similar to (though far cruder than) Iran's use of the Basij paramilitary to crush the green movement. It's a simple matter of having a force more loyal to the ruler than to their country, preferably made up of people who do not feel themselves to be a part of the community trying to get rid of the dictator. The Basij were brought into the countryside to beat up people in the city.

China is perhaps the most sophisticated regime to defeat a nonviolent movement. In crushing the Tienanmen Square movement, they used direct violence. In more recent efforts, they've become adept at finding out the means of coordinating protests, and provided a police presence that breaks up assemblies before they reach critical mass. Although China has enough diversity that it can bring in garrisons from outside Beijing, it is possible that at some point they would find themselves faced with a group that refuses to fire on peaceful citizens, so infiltration and police presence are their tools of choice.

Gadaffi has chosen a course that involves keeping his citizens poor and frightened, and even so he may loose power. China has chosen the more challenging course of rapid growth and centralized, undemocratic government. While Libya is essentially North Korea with oil, China has begun to resemble Hong Kong under British rule -- economically thriving and ruled by undemocratically selected leaders.

Both countries have people in them that want a democratic form of government. It will be interesting to see what path they take forward. I suspect it will take a long civil war and backing from outside Libya to topple Gadaffi, though I certainly hope I'm wrong about that. Change in China can only come from within, so the trick for the Chinese Communist Party will be to stay ahead of the curve, or find a way to apply enough force to bend the curve.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Social insurance, socialism, and the equivalence to Stalinism

by John MacBeath Watkins

One of the odder things about our political conversation in this country is that those who oppose socialism define it very differently from those who advocate it.

Here's the Wikipedia definition of socialism:

Socialism is an economic and political theory advocating public or common ownership and cooperative management of the means of production and allocation of resources.[1][2][3]
That's very different from social democracy, which aspires to retain capitalism while achieving some degree of social justice through the welfare state. This is a distinction largely lost on the conservative critics of socialism, who equate social democrats with Stalinists and Nazis. Although F.A. Hayek claimed that Stalinism and Nazism were the same, because both were totalitarian, the Nazis came to power with the support of business interests and were never in favor of expropriating the means of production. Their biological determinism caused them to reason that the people running businesses were those genetically suited to run them, and they condemned "class war" as a crime against nature.

While social democrats hoped to make capitalism and democracy compatible with socialist ethics, Nazism sought to accommodate capitalism and totalitarianism in harmony with racism, nationalism and social Darwinism.

Liberals (well, what we now call liberals) don't fully appreciate the influence of Hayek on the right. Hayek wrote during WW II in Britain against excessive planning, and maintained that ownership of the means of production was a bulwark of liberty. Yet the German mittelstand was never deprived of its property, and the many medium-sized enterprises were an important part of the war effort, as were such enterprises in Britain and America. The design of one of the best German fighter aircraft of WW II, the Fw 190, was significant in part because it was designed to be built in small sub-assemblies at enterprises small enough that they did not make a good target for an air raid.

This tells us a couple of things: 1) Capitalism is apparently a strong enough system to operate even under totalitarian government. 2) The continuing existence of capitalism is no insurance against totalitarian government.

And what of social democracy? Has the welfare state resulted in oppression by jack-booted thugs? Are Sweden and Denmark pocked with gulags? Um, no.

Perhaps in deciding what government should do and what it should not do, we should think in terms of public goods and private goods. We have plenty of evidence that governments do a terrible job of running a shoe-making enterprise or producing fashionable clothing. On the other hand, providing for the common defense, enforcing laws, and building lighthouses are things private industry just has no incentive to do, unless it is paid by the government.

What do these things have in common? Well, they all have some similarity to insurance. You don't know you'll need a policeman, but it's clear someone will, and we all benefit from a law-abiding society. Left to individual decisions about whether to invest in these things, the best deal is for someone else to pay for them so that they can benefit at no cost. Governments excel at social insurance because they can levy payment for the insurance on all of those who potentially benefit. Private industry sucks at social insurance because they do not have such an inclusive risk pool  Their options include charging a high rate for those who end up using a service, or for the more ethically challenged, collecting insurance payments and then attempting to shift the cost to someone else, often the person who has paid for the insurance. The temptation, therefore, is to charge high premiums and pay as little as possible in benefits, as this rationally optimizes profits.

The problem is finding the line between social insurance and social control of the means of production. In Britain, the National Health Service runs clinics, which would appear to be owning the means of production, so why is it so efficient at delivering its service and why is it so well loved by the British?

Well, it is in effect a very large HMO, and Britain does not restrict private insurance or private clinics from competing with it. There does seem to be a well-established pattern in which countries such as Switzerland and the United States, which rely on private insurance, have much higher costs for equivalent outcomes to the British system. It would appear that the HMO model is more efficient than fee for service whether it is run by private industry or by the state.

But conservatives have attacked social insurance as well as social control of the means of production as "socialism." Rhetorically, this is similar to the use of the term "weapons of mass destruction" to justify in advance a war in Iraq based on the fear of nuclear weapons, and in retrospect on poison gas (which didn't work out anyway, because Hussein had canceled that program as well.)

Which does not seem to me to satisfy the basic question, why do conservatives seem to fear social insurance as much as social control of the means of production? I don't recall the opposition to the government taking a stake in General Motors as being any more violent than the opposition to reforming the way health insurance markets work. Of course, it was pretty obvious that the government did not wish to keep a permanent stake in GM, but keep in mind that the reforms to health insurance markets the conservatives opposed and labeled "socialism" were the same reforms many conservatives had endorsed only a few years earlier.

Perhaps the issue is not what the ideology of conservatives lead them to believe so much as the needs of conservatism as a movement. I'm sure that argument has some validity, but conservative ideologues have had it in for Social Security since the 1930s. Perhaps the fact that insurance of any sort benefits from collectivism rather than individualism makes conservatives uncomfortable with it, but they don't seem to mind when insurance companies are privately owned.

The fact I find curious is that even after Social Security and Medicare failed to turn America into a Stalinist state, the charge of socialism in regard to social insurance retained any force. I suspect that the issue goes to something deeper in the hearts of the believers: The social justice sought by the liberals is in contradiction to the conservatives' concept of a just world. Perhaps the real divide is between those who believe social insurance is needed to provide social justice and those who prefer to believe that whatever results the market produces are social justice. Steve Benen, blogger at the Washington Monthly, keeps writing about how "Republicans just don't like the unemployed." What he fails to recognize is that there is a psychological explanation that makes sense of this. If you are a conservative, you want the world to remain much as it is, and to want that, you have to believe that we live in a just world.

My posts on Hayek, by the way, are here:

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Publishing in the twilight of the printed word: Why hasn't the Internet produced more economic growth?

by John MacBeath Watkins

The pundits are trying to work out why the Internet has failed to produce much economic growth. What do you think, should we tell them?

Most of the analysis I've read has skimmed over the obvious fact that much of what the Internet has done is turn paid work into work that isn't paid. Economics is about the economy -- not about our quality of life in general, but about the economic part of it.  When something is taken out of the economic sphere, it is no longer reflected in economic statistics. And if economics is what you're talking about, those are the statistics that matter.

For most of the 20th century, the music industry was growing and more and more people were making more and more money out of it. People showed that they were willing to pay for music, and the industry was, to put it bluntly, rather rapacious in its pricing.

But computers can provide exact copies of information at almost no cost. And preventing people from pirating such information has proven nearly impossible. As a result, the recording industry has been hit pretty hard, employing fewer people and paying them less.

Newspapers, consistently profitable for the entire 20th century as long as they had a bit of turf of their own, are another area where work that used to be paid for is now consumed largely for free. In addition, newspapers have been disaggregated -- their classified ads, once a profitable part of the business, have largely gone to Craig's List. Their stories appear for free on the Drudge Report and elsewhere. Clicks are nothing like as profitable as subscriptions.

As a result, the nation now employs at least 25% fewer journalists than it did in 2001. This is not just the industry getting more efficient, it is less work being done. Fewer newspapers have bureaus in state capitols or our national capitol, so less information about the way government affects their readers is being gathered and written. When less is written about how politics affects localities and the gap is filled by partisan bloggers, our politics become less regional and more partisan.

If the ability of computers to more efficiently copy and distribute information were simply making the news industry more efficient, that would be a tragedy for pressmen laid off, balanced by the benefit to the consumer of news. If less news is gathered, that's a tragedy for society as a whole. It is also, in economic terms, not exactly a contributor to economic growth. Yes, the consumer benefits by getting news for free, but what is free is by definition not economically valuable. Unlike the "creative destruction" described by Joseph Shumpeter when resources go from a loss-making business that fails to a business better able to make use of resources, this is the destructive destruction of taking economic activity completely out of the economic realm.

The book publishing industry has dragged its feet on getting into the e-book business for this very reason, but technology is overtaking them now. E-book pirating is already a problem in Japan, where there are businesses that will scan your physical book into an e-book for you. This forces the publishers' hand, because if they don't provide an e-book, someone will, but they must be aware that iTunes hasn't eliminated people downloading music for free. It's given people who want their music in MP3 format the opportunity to be honest, but it certainly hasn't eliminated pirating.

The Internet has provided some new kinds of businesses an opportunity to grow, but given how much formerly economic activity is now outside the economic realm, can we really be surprised that it hasn't made the economy as a whole grow more?

More on publishing in the twilight of the printed word: 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Gulls, crows, and food

by Jamie Lutton

I had seen him before, last year. I never knew his name, not then or now.  He was in the alley behind Charlies (an eatery, for those of you unfamiliar with Seattle,) digging in the dumpster, pulling food scraps out, and putting them into plastic bags. I watched him for a while; then I asked him what he was up to. He told me offhandedly that he fed the birds.

I did not see him again until last night, at dusk, when I looked up on my way home and saw dozens of gulls in the sky making a racket just behind Dick's Drive-in. This drive-in has a pretty large parking lot behind it, an alley, and other parking lot. In the dusk, I saw this same man again, with a large tall wheeled suitcase in front of him, surrounded by gulls, on the ground and in the air.

 The street rang with the cries of nearly a hundred hungry gulls, all focused on this man and what he was doing, all creek-creeking in hunger, circling overhead, and landing in front of him. More and more arrived, and landed, as he threw out more food.  Crows have nothing on the sound of that many gulls, flying overhead and hop-walking in front of this man; who they seemed to know well.  It was a crashing loud cacophony,  with so many gull voices calling at once. hungrily and repeatedly.

I know that it is a common thing to be able to summon a few gulls down by the water, when eating fish and chips; a gull or seven will show up to catch fries when they are thrown. But  this was an navy of gulls, like many, many noisy sheep with wings hopping about on the dark, dirty pavement in the growing March dusk.
The birds surrounded this man on the ground, all facing him. He would twist one way, then another, spinning in a slow circle, throwing out messy, nasty  looking bready food bits. As the food was thrown they would cry even louder, hoping up half airborne to catch the food as it was thrown, jostling each other out of the way to catch the bits in the air.  I did a head count of the gulls on the ground and in the air; at least 80 of them, and more than one species, though most were standard gulls. The gulls were very intent, very serious about getting food; they stood shifting from one webbed leg to another, flapping their wings now and then, staring very intently at the man and his black suitcase.

I realized that to feed a bird that large they must have to be constantly eating large amounts of garbage and effluvia, and fly very far.  There were far more gulls than I am used to seeing in the neighborhood;  the gulls, like the crows, must  call out loudly to their friends in distant parts of the city that there is a feed going on when he began to throw out bready treats last evening.

The man was a diminutive black man, not that much older than me, and down at heels in his appearance. Perhaps homeless; I could not be sure.  I could see what had brought him to dig food out of the trash (as I assume he did ) to feed these trash-eating birds.  The birds see you, and talk to you, if only while the food lasts, surrounding you like so many manic puppies on wings.  It is a tremendous experience, so many, many gulls in one place, crying out for food scraps. I had a sudden fierce wish that I could go to the ocean-side, and hear and see the waves, after seeing and hearing so many gulls. I could almost smell the ocean in the loud cries they were making. 

I don't think I thought of this guy when I started to feed crows, I had not thought of him at all since I caught him at a dumpster, until I saw him last night.  I had a single crow follow me to work part way for over a year, hopping onto the ground,flying just in front of me. I would say to him every day that I was sorry I had nothing for him. I recall I would even feel in my pockets at the time, to see if I had any food bits, but I never would have anything.

I was in a dark world; summer, spring, winter and fall were all alike to me for years, decades; only when I was at work and books were in front of me did I wake up, and register the world. The seasons did not matter to me, nor rain or sun, just my work handling books. I generally have a lonely existence; only a cat and a few distant relatives to call family, only a few friends.. But one crow, persistent, kept asking for food nearly  every morning. And then, as I have reported here, one other crow dropping a chewed on chicken leg nearly on my head, perhaps, I think, to ask (again) for food.

That is what made me finally get treats for the crows; having a chicken leg hit the sidewalk, and looking up, seeing a smug crow who had gotten me to look, me to look...

The crows will sweep you into their world with the smallest invitation; the important invitation of  feeding them.  They will then do acrobatics for you, flying over your head, looping great loops in the sky, or flying (always approaching from the rear!) over your shoulder,  right over your head -(so close you can hear the wings stroke) by your side, then fly up, soaring, landing in a tree or on a wire, and stare down at you, to let you know they are there, there, there and they are hungry    When one crow arrives, and you feed it, you realize that the trees and wires and buildings must all have eyes; as one crow is suddenly ten, twenty, and they are all there, there, there, and all hungry, hungry, hungry, hungry...up in the trees, down on the sidewalk, like a quick sudden moving snowfall, of clumps of black  crows.

Sometimes a gull or three would crash the party, when I was on a back street;: the crows would keep their distance as they were five times the size of the crows, and just as territorial. Often several  gulls would swoop down and steal a treats I meant for the crows, walking on the ground amid the crows they seem like pale giants.  Suddenly, the crows would  fly away and abandon me, to disappear into a tree or around the corner, to 'fake out' the gulls into thinking I had no more food left.  I would keep walking, and the crows fly over and meet me, just a half a block north, having (usually) faked the gulls out. Then, we would go back to playing catch together. 

Watching crows fly is the most fun; watching them pay catch with treats is the second most fun; the only hitch is the trouble in telling them apart; I mostly can tell the skinny shy young ones from the fat and fatter confident old ones, who think nothing of getting fairly close to me. I can't even be sure at who I am looking at, from time to time, even though I know the same birds visit me over and over. I will have to try harder to find a way to tell them apart; maybe by looking at their feet.

I sometimes see old leg bands on some birds, and wonder who is tracking them and tagging them. I hope that they treat the birds right;  and that it is for some good purpose.  Tagging traumatizes them so; handling a wild bird  to tag it oftentimes will put it into a state of shock and bewilderment; this has been observed after the birds have been let go.

Alien skeptics attack!

by John MacBeath Watkins

Well, it was bound to happen.  Those perpetually skeptical scientists are raining on the aliens' parade.

Some say the journal that published the paper by Astrobiologist Richard Hoover of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., is indeed peer reviewed, but not impressively peer reviewed.  After all, I suppose it does matter who the peers are. Lord Blatheringstoke may be a peer of the realm, but does his opinion matter? (In this case, I'm able to answer my own question. No, he is imaginary, therefore has no opinions of his own.)

Hoover argues that the objects he photographs in some cases look like the microbes we know, therefore, since they were found inside a meteorite that came from space, they must have lived somewhere other than earth.

Now, the obvious argument against this is that the above alien also looks like an eroded vitamin tablet, but I suppose this is not the one scientists jealous of their reputations are eager to make.

Astronomer Seth Shostak of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute in Mountain View, Calif., for example, says that while the pictures are "suggestive," they don't amount to proof.

P.Z. Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota, Morris, is less polite, calling the online peer-reviewed journal in which Hoover's claims were published "A ginned-up website for "crank academics."


The full story is here.

Of course, our moon was formed, according to one theory, when another large object smaller than the earth hit our planet and some of the debris coalesced into what would someday become the inspiration for an entire genre of love songs.

So there are plenty of bits of earth out there, although I don't know if there was microbial life on earth at the time. I'm feeling old, but not that old.