Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Agricultural is the Political

A functioning grassland prairie produces more biomass each year than does even the most technologically advanced wheat field. The problem is, it’s mostly a form of grass and grass roots that humans can’t eat. So we replace the prairie with our own preferred grass, wheat. Never mind that we feed most of our grain to livestock, and that livestock is perfectly content to eat native grass. And never mind that there likely were more bison produced naturally on the Great Plains before farming than all of beef farming raises in the same area today. Our ancestors found it preferable to pluck the energy from the ground and when it ran out move on.

Today we do the same, only now when the vault is empty we fill it again with new energy in the form of oil-rich fertilizers. Oil is annual primary productivity stored as hydrocarbons, a trust fund of sorts, built up over many thousands of years. On average, it takes 5.5 gallons of fossil energy to restore a year’s worth of lost fertility to an acre of eroded land—in 1997 we burned through more than 400 years’ worth of ancient fossilized productivity, most of it from someplace else. Even as the earth beneath Iowa shrinks, it is being globalized.


America’s biggest crop, grain corn, is completely unpalatable. It is raw material for an industry that manufactures food substitutes. Likewise, you can’t eat unprocessed wheat. You certainly can’t eat hay. You can eat unprocessed soybeans, but mostly we don’t. These four crops cover 82 percent of American cropland. Agriculture in this country is not about food; it’s about commodities that require the outlay of still more energy to become food.

About two thirds of U.S. grain corn is labeled “processed,” meaning it is milled and otherwise refined for food or industrial uses. More than 45 percent of that becomes sugar, especially high-fructose corn sweeteners, the keystone ingredient in three quarters of all processed foods, especially soft drinks, the food of America’s poor and working classes. It is not a coincidence that the American pandemic of obesity tracks rather nicely with the fivefold increase in corn-syrup production since Archer Daniels Midland developed a high-fructose version of the stuff in the early seventies. Nor is it a coincidence that the plague selects the poor, who eat the most processed food.

It began with the industrialization of Victorian England. The empire was then flush with sugar from plantations in the colonies. Meantime the cities were flush with factory workers. There was no good way to feed them. And thus was born the afternoon tea break, the tea consisting primarily of warm water and sugar. If the workers were well off, they could also afford bread with heavily sugared jam—sugar-powered industrialization. There was a 500 percent increase in per capita sugar consumption in Britain between 1860 and 1890, around the time when the life expectancy of a male factory worker was seventeen years. By the end of the century the average Brit was getting about one sixth of his total nutrition from sugar, exactly the same percentage Americans get today—double what nutritionists recommend.


This is fine as far as it goes, but the vegetarian’s case can break down on some details. On the moral issues, vegetarians claim their habits are kinder to animals, though it is difficult to see how wiping out 99 percent of wildlife’s habitat, as farming has done in Iowa, is a kindness. In rural Michigan, for example, the potato farmers have a peculiar tactic for dealing with the predations of whitetail deer. They gut-shoot them with small-bore rifles, in hopes the deer will limp off to the woods and die where they won’t stink up the potato fields.

Animal rights aside, vegetarians can lose the edge in the energy argument by eating processed food, with its ten calories of fossil energy for every calorie of food energy produced. The question, then, is: Does eating processed food such as soy burger or soy milk cancel the energy benefits of vegetarianism, which is to say, can I eat my lamb chops in peace? Maybe. If I’ve done my due diligence, I will have found out that the particular lamb I am eating was both local and grass-fed, two factors that of course greatly reduce the embedded energy in a meal. I know of ranches here in Montana, for instance, where sheep eat native grass under closely controlled circumstances—no farming, no plows, no corn, no nitrogen. Assets have not been stripped. I can’t eat the grass directly. This can go on. There are little niches like this in the system. Each person’s individual charge is to find such niches.


Still, these livestock do something we can’t. They convert grain’s carbohydrates to high-quality protein. All well and good, except that per capita protein production in the United States is about double what an average adult needs per day. Excess cannot be stored as protein in the human body but is simply converted to fat. This is the end result of a factory-farm system that appears as a living, continental-scale monument to Rube Goldberg, a black-mass remake of the loaves-and-fishes miracle. Prairie’s productivity is lost for grain, grain’s productivity is lost in livestock, livestock’s protein is lost to human fat—all federally subsidized for about $15 billion a year, two thirds of which goes directly to only two crops, corn and wheat.


Food is politics. That being the case, I voted twice in 2002. The day after Election Day, in a truly dismal mood, I climbed the mountain behind my house and found a small herd of elk grazing native grasses in the morning sunlight. My respect for these creatures over the years has become great enough that on that morning I did not hesitate but went straight to my job, which was to rack a shell and drop one cow elk, my household’s annual protein supply. I voted with my weapon of choice—an act not all that uncommon in this world, largely, I think, as a result of the way we grow food. I can see why it is catching on. Such a vote has a certain satisfying heft and finality about it. My particular bit of violence, though, is more satisfying, I think, than the rest of the globe’s ordinary political mayhem. I used a rifle to opt out of an insane system. I killed, but then so did you when you bought that package of burger, even when you bought that package of tofu burger. I killed, then the rest of those elk went on, as did the grasses, the birds, the trees, the coyotes, mountain lions, and bugs, the fundamental productivity of an intact natural system, all of it went on.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Good comment at Brad DeLong's

"I'd like to throw out an observation, tangential to this conversation, which I've been itching to share. Doesn't it seem to you that the public is not as agitated as you would expect, given the myriad of economic worries, the war, global warming, etc.? If you're like me, you've had said to yourself one day ---perhaps several times a week, these days---"This is the final outrage. Surely the people will not stand for THIS. Even the reporters for the corporate media will feel a responsibility.. blah blah". By now, of course, you realize that your feeling is an illusion.. but maybe there is another cause. It it possible, just barely, that the reason nothing penetrates the consciousness of the American is that a layer of fat protects him from bad news? No---really. I think the presence of cheap, filling, fatty foods has had a chemical effect on the national spirit, weighing us down, so to speak, with millions of tons of complacency.
I'm going to check out my theory by eating an eclair next time Bush commits another outrage---I mean, opens his mouth. I'll let you know."

Good comment at Brad DeLong's

Here's a question: how much of the preference for unhealthy fast food comes from genetic/evolutionary causes, and how much from advertising? I'm thinking of Coke, for example. Coke actually tastes horrible, but not many people remember their first coke, or their first cigarette, for that matter, if they smoke.
McDonald's? I walk by a McDonald's and it smells like the runoff from a chemical plant to me.
Many people are on such tight schedules that they don't have time (or the discipline) to fix one, two or even three meals to eat away from home. Hence, they have to eat out. After that, pinching the wallet forces them into fast food joints, and advertising convinces them that the horrible product is actually food.


"If you live to be 100 chances are you will live forever because statistics prove that few people die past the age of 100."

Sunday, February 26, 2006

US leader crashed by trying to 'pedal, wave and speak at same time'

HE MAY be the most powerful man in the world, but proof has emerged that President George Bush cannot ride a bike, wave and speak at the same time.

Scotland on Sunday has obtained remarkable details of one of the most memorably bizarre episodes of the Bush presidency: the day he crashed into a Scottish police constable while cycling in the grounds of Gleneagles Hotel.

The incident, which will do little to improve Bush's accident-prone reputation, began when he took to two wheels for a spot of early-evening exercise during last year's G8 summit at the Perthshire resort.

After a hard day's discussion with fellow world leaders, the president was looking for some relaxation. Instead, he ended up the subject of a police report in which the leader of the free world was described, in classic police language, as a "moving/falling object".

It was "about 1800 hours on Wednesday, 6 July, 2005" that a detachment of Strathclyde police constables, in "Level 2 public order dress [anti-riot gear]," formed a protective line at the gate at the hotel's rear entrance, in case demonstrators penetrated the biggest-ever security operation on Scottish soil.

The official police incident report states: "[The unit] was requested to cover the road junction on the Auchterarder to Braco Road as the President of the USA, George Bush, was cycling through." The report goes on: "[At] about 1800 hours the President approached the junction at speed on the bicycle. The road was damp at the time. As the President passed the junction at speed he raised his left arm from the handlebars to wave to the police officers present while shouting 'thanks, you guys, for coming'.

"As he did this he lost control of the cycle, falling to the ground, causing both himself and his bicycle to strike [the officer] on the lower legs. [The officer] fell to the ground, striking his head. The President continued along the ground for approximately five metres, causing himself a number of abrasions. The officers... then assisted both injured parties."

Saturday, February 25, 2006


Can't say I have seen a more extensive marijuana farm ever before.

Funny Ebay Crap

Friday, February 24, 2006


I just realized the greatest double-standard in the history of the world: President Bush wants a strict accountability mechanism for "his" people (re: bankruptcy bill) but no accountability mechanism for himself.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Informative, but Take with Grain of Salt (like all NYT puff)

"This is the richest country in the world — one where one-seventh of the economy is devoted to health care — and yet misdiagnosis is killing thousands of Americans every year."

More Money

I think the natural tendancy is to lead with the carrot - letting people know how easy it is to sock away a modest amount and showing them the benefits of their future lifestyle.

This is an effective approach for many people. For some, fear (the stick) is a more powerful motivator.

I'm 32 also and it scares the hell out of me that for my 50th birthday, I'll get...20 years more work. Not 15-20 hours a week volunteering, but 40-50 hours a week in a cube under flourescent lighting trying to make The Man happy and hoping to duck the next layoff. If I beg hard enough, maybe I can get two weeks in the summer to get far, far away. Just enough to reinflate before The Man pounds me flat once again. Hoping to be able to take a few deep breaths between social security and senility.

I work with a lot of people in their 50s and 60s who didn't think this would be them. And it was. Ed McMahnon never knocked on the door with the $10M check.

Fear works. Don't feel bad using it to motivate people (or yourself) if you think it will be effective.


One Saturday, at a bar in my hometown, I ran into a college buddy who I hadn't seen in almost 25 years.

He's working as a financial planner for a big-name, national outfit. He holds CPA, CFP, and CFA credentials, and has been doing planning for over 12 years.

After a few minutes, he recognized that I wasn't a potential client (my lack of willingness to pay 1% per annum of my portfolio's value was his first hint).

After a beer or two, I asked him, point blank, if he (or the local branch of his firm) had any clients (in the accumulation phase) who earn $20-$40k/year. I further asked him if he had any clients of retirement age who had held blue collar jobs, and, thanks to his firm's guidance, were now enjoying the good life.

The answer, as I expected, was a resounding "no".

Now, I'm sure that his firm is incented to find clients with a net worth of over 1M, but, he swears up and down that they accept clients with just $30/week to invest (which, apparently, is their absolute minimum).

I believe, in general, that people who don't earn a lot of money don't think it's worth their time to invest, because they'll never get ahead.

My father-in-law has worked at the same factory for over 30 years and makes a good buck. He refuses to put money into banks (except for a checking account) or Vanguard because (and I quote), "The Man will just control it".

He, instead, keeps his savings in shoe boxes, at the house. When he bought a new truck, he paid cash, which is hard to find fault with. No amount of explaining the concept of compound interest to him appears to influence his behavior.

When is it too late? I don't know. My aunt got started at 49 - I convinced her to open a Roth IRA instead of taking a vacation to Florida with her girlfriends (most of whom are her age and dead-broke).

We had a long and serious talk about money, and, in the 6 years since then, she's saved almost $80k, though about once a month she calls me to complain that "I've taken all the fun out of her life".

Her situation is somewhat complicated (she's twice divorced), but, I keep asking her if she wants to find someone to support her or if she wants to support herself. I think she's come to realize that she can't depend on anyone else, and that's it up to her. The discussions aren't so much about money, as about taking responsibility. Indeed, these are strange (and uncomfortable) conversations to have.

I don't know the answer to your question, but, I don't think it's ever too late to start saving. What's the downside?

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Unbelievable Waste of Time

But sweet.

Monday, February 20, 2006



Death for Chan, Sukumaran

BALI Nine "enforcer" Myuran Sukumaran today joined Andrew Chan in being condemned to death by firing squad for attempting to smuggle heroin from Indonesia to Australia.

A three-judge panel found Sukumaran, 24, of Sydney, guilty of being a major player in an organised drug ring.

Cheers from some Indonesian anti-drug activists echoed in the court as the judges announced the words "hukuman mati", meaning death sentence.

Prosecutors had characterised him as being the "enforcer" of the Bali Nine gang which had tried to smuggle 8.3kg of heroin out of Bali last April.

It was the second Bali Nine death sentence handed down by the Denpasar District Court today.

Earlier Andrew Chan, the so-called "godfather", was also ordered to face the firing squad.

Two drug mules, Michael Czugaj and Martin Stephens, were both sentenced to life in prison.

Yesterday two more mules, Renae Lawrence and Scott Rush, were jailed for life.

The fate of three more defendants will be made known tomorrow. They are also expected to receive life sentences.

The court's decision to impose the death penalty on Chan and Sukumaran was not unexpected – when co-accused Renae Lawrence was sentenced on Monday prosecutors had asked for a 20-year term because she had assisted police in their investigations, but judges imposed a life term anyway.

The sentences came after a chaotic start to proceedings.

Chan, of Sydney, and Czugaj, were the first to be called in separate hearings.

But a media frenzy erupted when the two were escorted by police from a holding cell to two courtrooms.

At one stage, Chan was jostled and fell, almost toppling into a drainage ditch at the side of the building.

His guards held him up and pushed him through a pack of reporters and cameramen and then through a side door.

Nearby a group of Indonesian anti-drugs activists chanted: "Death! Death!".

Michael Czugaj, who was found guilty of attempting to smuggle heroin from Bali to Australia and today given life imprisonment.

Czugaj is a school friend of Brisbane man Scott Rush, who with co-accused Renae Lawrence was jailed for life on Monday.

During the trial Czugaj, like Rush, said he was so excited at the offer of an overseas holiday in Bali that he was blind to the possible reasons behind the free trip.

"In all honesty I should not have been so blind to this, this so-called holiday," he said.

"But as Bali has always been a favourite destination, it made me overwhelmed with excitement."

Czugaj said he had no idea of Chan's agenda until the last day of his holiday when he was threatened with death.

A three-judge panel in the Denpasar District Court took less than an hour to read out its judgment and convict the 20-year-old Brisbane man of trying to smuggle heroin from Bali to Australia on April 17 last year.

They said he had been found convincingly guilty of the primary charge of smuggling.

Czugaj sat with a impassive expression on his face as the verdict and sentence was read out, holding hands with his estranged parents, Stephan and Vicki.

He was then rushed to a holding cell at the rear of the court where he put on dark sunglasses and then tried to hug his mother through the cell bars.

Another Bali Nine member to receive a life sentence today was Wollongong man Martin Stephens, who was alleged to have operated as a drug mule.

A three-judge panel in the Denpasar District Court convicted the 29-year-old of trying to smuggle heroin from Bali to Australia on April 17 last year.

They said he had been found convincingly guilty of the primary charge of smuggling.

Stephens was arrested at Bali airport with 2.9kg of heroin strapped to his body in five bags.

The Pessimism Deficit by Sarah Vowell - New York Times

"My go-to worldview is pessimism. I see a Times Square billboard promoting a musical that has its audience "dancing in the aisles" and I can't help but think, "That is a fire hazard." But it has been my happy experience that if one moves through life in a constant state of low-key dread, then one gets to be continually pleasantly surprised....

I got the feeling that he was asking for reasons to be optimistic about the government Alas, I see my initial worries about the current administration as the greatest betrayal in my whole life by my old pal pessimism. I attended the president's inauguration in 2001. When he took the presidential oath, I cried. What was I so afraid of? I was weeping because I was terrified that the new president would wreck the economy and muck up my drinking water. Isn't that adorable? I lacked the pessimistic imagination to dread that tens of thousands of human beings would be spied on or maimed or tortured or killed or stranded or drowned, thanks to his incompetence. I feel like a fool."

Damn.. that's some biting commetary.

Good comment at Brad DeLong's

"To some extent, the exponential increase in computer power is illusory.

Hardware gets faster & faster, but programs get bigger and attempt to do more. Disk drives get bigger, but so do the files to be held. Modern desktop machines draw more power than older ones in general, despite improved efficiency. So exponential growth is not sufficient to grow out of problems. Supply growth must exceed demand growth, or you get nowhere.

Additonally, exponential growth in complexity of semiconductors will not be able to harvest more energy from sunlight than is there. There are finite limits on how efficient transportation technologies can be. Assuming that exponential growth can continue indefinatly is most assuredly wrong."

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Boycott Major Music Labels

It is no secret that the entertainment oligopolists are not happy about space-shifting and format-shifting. But surely ripping your own CDs to your own iPod passes muster, right? In fact, didn't they admit as much in front of the Supreme Court during the MGM v. Grokster argument last year?

Apparently not.

As part of the on-going DMCA rule-making proceedings, the RIAA and other copyright industry associations submitted a filing that included this gem as part of their argument that space-shifting and format-shifting do not count as noninfringing uses, even when you are talking about making copies of your own CDs:

"Nor does the fact that permission to make a copy in particular circumstances is often or even routinely granted, necessarily establish that the copying is a fair use when the copyright owner withholds that authorization. In this regard, the statement attributed to counsel for copyright owners in the MGM v. Grokster case is simply a statement about authorization, not about fair use."
For those who may not remember, here's what Don Verrilli said to the Supreme Court last year:

"The record companies, my clients, have said, for some time now, and it's been on their website for some time now, that it's perfectly lawful to take a CD that you've purchased, upload it onto your computer, put it onto your iPod."
If I understand what the RIAA is saying, "perfectly lawful" means "lawful until we change our mind." So your ability to continue to make copies of your own CDs on your own iPod is entirely a matter of their sufferance. What about all the indie label CDs? Do you have to ask each of them for permission before ripping your CDs? And what about all the major label artists who control their own copyrights? Do we all need to ask them, as well?

P.S.: The same filing also had this to say: "Similarly, creating a back-up copy of a music CD is not a non-infringing use...."

Friday, February 17, 2006

Yay New Jersey

With an exploding number of kids becoming killers, more than 2,225 juveniles across the country now are serving life in prison without parole.... Because of tough state laws such as charging murder suspects as adults regardless of their age, Pennsylvania tops the nation in the number of young offenders condemned to life in prison without parole....
[Alison] Parker [from Human Rights Watch] authored a report released last fall that found that 42 states permit judges and juries to condemn juveniles to life in prison without parole, despite widespread global rejection of that penalty for young offenders. Pennsylvania leads the nation in the number of juvenile lifers, with more than 330 [and] ... 59 percent of the juveniles serving life-without-parole sentences nationally had no prior criminal convictions before being placed in prison for life, according to Parker's report....

[Advocates of reform] point to New Jersey as a model, where murder convicts face a minimum of 30 years in prison without parole. Judges then decide if the case warrants a more severe penalty based on the circumstances. While the Garden State allows juveniles to be sentenced to life in prison without parole, the Amnesty International study found no juvenile lifers there. States that don't allow life-without-parole sentences for juveniles are Alaska, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, New Mexico, New York and West Virginia; the District of Columbia also forbids them.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Glenn Greenwald is smart

The very notion that someone was going to breach the cockpit door of an airplane by detonating a shoe bomb is so absurd that even the journalists who cover The White House noticed it and objected:

Q Scott, I wanted to just ask a follow-up about the LA plot. Is there something missing from this story, a practical application, a few facts? Because if you want to commandeer a plane and fly it into a tower, if you used shoe bombs, wouldn't you blow off the cockpit? Or is there something missing from this story?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know what you're referring to about missing. I mean, I think we provided you a detailed briefing earlier today about the plot. And Fran Townsend, our Homeland Security Advisor, talked about it. So I'm not sure what you're suggesting it.

Q Think about it, if you're wearing shoe bombs, you either blow off your feet or you blow off the front of the airplane.

MR. McCLELLAN: There was a briefing for you earlier today. I think that's one way to look at it. There are a lot of ways to look at it, and she explained it earlier today, Alexis, so I would refer you very much back to what she said, what she said earlier today.

And then there were the geniuses who planned to "blow up" the Brooklyn Bridge using blow torches (only to be miraculously thwarted by our warrantless eavesdropping program), a plot which Bob Barr described thusly: " this so-called plot to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge was bogus because it had to do with a group of idiots who were planning to dismantle it with blow torches." The more we hear about these scary terrorist plots, the more Al Qaeda resembles The Three Stooges rather than, say, Lex Luthor.

The reality is that the White House doesn't care how transparent their manipulation of terrorist threats is, because this manipulation is not aimed at our rational faculties. What they want is for there to be scary pictures constantly flashed on the television screen of Muslims wearing ski masks with ground-to-air missiles on their shoulders and prolonged shots of our tall buildings and hastily arranged news conferences by city officials talking about security measures and faux terrorism experts parading around on TV talk shows with gravely concerned expressions as they warn us, yet again, of all the different ways that we are at risk.

Unleashing all of those images over and over triggers, as intended, fresh waves of fear that we are all about to be blown up or zapped with radiation. How absurd the underlying facts are is irrelevant; anything that serves as a pretext for new waves of frightening images does the trick just fine.

This is really the aim and the work of the terrorists -- to keep the targeted population in the grip of fear. Here is how the Department of Defense describes the defining goal of terrorism:

"the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological."

Terrorists don't expect to achieve their goals through the physical destruction of a society using violence, the way a nation at war attempts with its military. The violence inflicted by terrorists is simply a tool for ratcheting up the fear level, and the fear of the violence, rather than the violence itself, is the primary tool of the terrorist. The greater the fear of the targeted population, the closer the terrorists are to achieving their goals.

When it comes to Al Qaeda's targeting of the U.S. in this manner, nobody helps the terrorists achieve those objectives more than the Bush Administration, which (like Al Qaeda) really does have as its principal goal -- particularly in an election year, and particularly when it faces all sorts of political difficulties on an array of fronts -- keeping the fear level as high as possible. The more frightened people are, they believe, the more likely they are to support the President and his party. And so fear-mongering becomes the first and really only political weapon they have.

The orange alerts aren't really that effective any more. Orange is so un-scary. But tales of thwarted terrorist attacks on our cities always give rise to the same set of images and warnings which keeps the fear level nice and fresh and edgy. It's only February -- I have no doubt we will be treated to many, many more episodes like this. The question is, with 9/11 now more than 4 years away, is there some limit to the water in this well?

America: Dumb Country or Dumbest Country Ever?

NOTE: Some statistics listed here are very questionable.

Para Publishing has compiled some chilling statistics about that endangered beast called the "reading public." But look on the bright side, if you've made it to page 19 of a book, you can proudly count yourself as one of America's intellectual elite. You can also get into this elite club if you bought a single new book last year. A few of the stats:

One-third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives. Many do not even graduate from high school.

58% of the US adult population never reads another book after high school.

42% of college graduates never read another book.

80% of US families did not buy or read a book last year.

70% of US adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.

57% of new books are not read to completion.
--Jerrold Jenkins.

Most readers do not get past page 18 in a book they have purchased.

63% of adults report purchasing at least one book during the previous three-month period. (Most were probably exaggerating).
--Bookselling This Week, November 10, 1997.

53% read fiction, 43% nonfiction. The favorite fiction category is mystery & Suspense, 19%.
--Publishers Weekly, May 12, 1997, page 13.

Of the top fifty books, fiction outsells nonfiction about 60% to 40%. Fiction peaks in July at 70% but nonfiction reaches almost 50% in December.
--USA Today, April 30, 1999.

55% of fiction is bought by women; 45% by men.
--Publishers Weekly, May 12, 1997, page 13.

Thirty percent of Americans surveyed by the Harris Poll say they would rather read a book than do anything else; twenty-one percent said watching TV is their favorite activity. That's the good news. The bad news is that only 13 percent selected "spending time with family.
--Publishers Weekly Email Daily, July 9, 1998.

Each day, people in the US spend 4 hours watching TV, 3 hours listening to the radio and 14 minutes reading magazines.
--Veronis, Suhler & Associates investment bankers

70% of Americans haven't visited a bookstore in five (5) years.
--Michael Levine, June 2002

Customers 55 and older account for more than one-third of all books bought.
--2001 Consumer Research Study on Book Purchasing by the Book Industry Study Group

People reduced their time reading between 1996 and 2001 to 2.1 hours/month.
2001: per capita spending on books per month was $7.18.
--Publishers Weekly, May 26, 2003

Only 32% of the U.S. population has ever been in a bookstore.
--David Godine, Publisher.

The time Americans spend reading books.
1996: 123 hours
2001: 109 hours
--Veronis, Suhler & Associates investment bankers

1996 to 2001
Consumer spending on book rose 16%
Unit sales dropped 6%
(Readers spend more and purchased fewer books)
--Veronis, Suhler & Associates investment bankers

2001: Households purchasing at least one book 56.5%
--Veronis, Suhler & Associates investment bankers

The mean age of book buyers
1997: Age 15-39: 26.5% of the books bought
2001: Age 15-39: 20.8% of the books bought

1997: Age over 55: 33.7% of the books bought.
2001: Age over 55: 44.1% of the books bought
--Ipsos NPD reported in Publishers Weekly, January 6, 2003

Good Summary by Juan Cole on Valerie Wilson Mess

Why, oh why, are we ruled by ruthless Machiavellians?

Blame America! Blame the West!

“Arnold Wilson (British officer over Mesopotamia) had firm ideas about how the area should be ruled. ‘Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul should be regarded as a single unit for administrative purposes and under effective British control.’ It never seems to have occurred to him that a single unit did not make much sense in other ways. In 1919 there was no Iraqi people; history, religion, geography pulled the people apart, not together. Basra looked south, toward India and the Gulf, Baghdad had strong links with Persia; Mosul had closer ties with Turkey and Syria. Putting together the three Ottoman provinces and expecting to create a nation was, in European terms, like hoping to have Bosnian Muslims, Croats and Serbs in one country.

The population was about half Shia Muslim and a quarter Sunni but another division ran across the religious one: while half the inhabitants were Arab, the rest were Kurds, Persians or Assyrians. The cities were relatively advanced and cosmopolitan: in the countryside, hereditary tribal and religious leaders still dominated. There was no Iraqi nationalism, only Arab.

Arnold Wilson did not foresee the problems of throwing such a diverse population into a single state.”

Margaret McMillan, Paris 1919, Random House, 2001, pp. 397-8

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Note to my readers

Try to avoid at whatever costs oral surgery. It makes one of the best things in life, eating, painfully craptastic.

Monday, February 13, 2006


"As population grew over the million or so years of man's first man hunted the larger animals. A number of kill sites with great quantities of bones have been found, indicating that the hunting tactic of driving large animals over a cliff was employed. It is possible that man's increasingly efficient ability to hunt the great cold-weather animals--the mammoth and the woolly rhinoceros-- contributed to their extinction...since their disappearance in North America coincided with...the appearance of humans...

We should expect, however, that groups...would initially try to develop stable relationships between the population of the band and the (food) resource base...These bands would limit fertility by taboos, infanticide, and various other means...Moreover, we should expect that these bands attempted to develop a set of customs and rules to regulate hunting, and in a way that would maintain stability...precisely the kind of homeostatic relationships that the anthropologists have described as existing among contemporary primitive societies..."

Douglass C. North, Structure and Change in Economic History, Norton, 1981, pp. 84-5

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Supreme Court.

" 'Your opinions are not your children,' Breyer told me. 'What they are is your best effort in one case. The next one will come along, and you'll do your best. You'll learn from the past. (Justice) Goldberg taught me to never look backward...'

'One of the great things about our Court is that there are two rules which I love--not written-down rules, but ways of behaving,' he went on. One involves the Justices' conference, at which they discuss their decisions and announce their votes in order of seniority. 'The first that nobody at conference speaks twice until everybody has spoken once. Great rule. Helps preserve the peace...

The second rule, he said, is that 'tomorrow is another day. No dependency of a decision of one case on another: You join me, I join you. None of that. None of that, zero. The coalitions float. Each one, each case, is a new day. Each day is a new day...' "

Jeffrey Toobin, Breyer's Big Idea, The New Yorker Magazine, October 31, 2005, p. 43

I think Justice Breyer is being a little disingenuous. He almost contradicts himself when he denies trading votes in cases yet admits to coalitions. Besides, how much do the coalitions really float? Maybe Kennedy, ex-Justice O'Connor float... but not many other Justices float around... maybe Souter.

It is a shame that our "democratically" elected legislative branch is such a sham that we have to rely on the Court to preserve some amount of sanity. It's especially scary because the Justices hold so much power, yet are fairly normal people. We even have an evolution-denier on the Court. Do you trust him with your rights?

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Not sure what to make of this passage. Thoughts anyone?

"We thought that perhaps our species thrives best and most creatively in a state of semi-anarchy, governed by loose rules and half-practiced mores. To this we add the premise that over-integration in human groups might parallel the law in paleontology that over-armor and over-ornamentation are symptoms of decay and disappearance. Indeed, we thought, over-integration might be the symptom of human decay. We thought: there is no creative unit in the human save the individual working alone. In pure creativeness, in art, in music, in mathematics...the creative principle is a lonely and individual matter. Groups can correlate, investigate, and build, but we could not think of any group that has ever created or invented anything. Indeed, the first impulse of the group seems to be to destroy the creation and the creator...

"Consider, we would say, the Third Reich or the Politburo-controlled Soviet. The sudden removal of twenty-five key men from either system could cripple it so thoroughly that it would take a long time to recover, if it ever could. To preserve itself in safety such a system must destroy or remove all opposition as a danger to itself. But opposition is creative and restriction is non-creative. The force that feeds growth is therefore cut off...thought and art must be forced to disappear and a weighty traditionalism take its place...A too greatly integrated system or society is in danger of destruction since the removal of one unit may cripple the whole.

Consider the blundering anarchic system of the United States, the stupidity of some of its lawmakers, the violent reaction, the slowness of its ability to change. Twenty-five key men destroyed could make the Soviet Union stagger, but we could lose our congress, our president and our general staff and nothing much would have happened. We would go right on. In fact we might be better for it..."

John Steinbeck, The Log From the Sea of Cortez, Penguin, 1941, pp. 257-8

Musical Possibilities

"Bach's great Mass in B Minor was never performed during his lifetime: as a Catholic Mass, it could not be played in a Protestant church, and the use of an orchestra was forbidden in Catholic churches during Bach's lifetime, although he hoped it might eventually be possible. His 'Goldberg' variations is the most successful of all his works in concert performance today, yet the kind of concert in which it can be performed did not exist for another century, and it had to wait for recognition and acclaim for still another hundred years...

The first great set of works to become the staple of serious public piano performances was the thirty-two Beethoven piano sonatas: only two of these were played in a concert hall in Vienna during Beethoven's lifetime... the musical system changes over the centuries, possibilities of exploiting the musical language suggest themselves that are too fascinating to ignore, but the works inspired by this stimulus may possibly have to wait a long time for their exploitation..."

Charles Rosen, from his review of The Oxford History of Western Music, by Richard Taruskin, The New York Review of Books, February 23, 2006, p. 43

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Beautiful Word

I learned of this word from someone's internet pseudonym. Now I know what this beautiful word means.

ahimsa (uh-HIM-sah, uh-HIN-sah) noun

The principle of refraining from harming any living being.

[From Sanskrit ahimsa, from a- (not) + hinsa (injury).]

Today's word in Visual Thesaurus:

-Anu Garg (

"As my conception of ahimsa went on maturing, I became more vigilant
about my thought and speech. The lines in the Anthem:
Scatter her enemies
And make them fall;
Confound their policies,
Frustrate their knavish tricks
particularly jarred upon my sentiments of Ahimsa."
M.K. Gandhi; The Story of My Experiments With Truth; 1927.

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Terrorists versus Theocrats?

I have a good old friend who listens faithfully to Democracy Now! and insists that evangelical Christians are a greater threat to freedom and American values as she understands them than the radical Muslims are. When I mention terrorism, she points to the guy who killed the abortion doctor a few years back.

So while I think that radical Muslim terrorists are a genuine threat, it is American fundamentalist Christianity that drives progressives to irrational madness. (Cf. Bill Moyers' essay in NY Review of Books from last year -- and he's an ordained minister.)

I don't think the answer is entirely clear. What is the probability of dying in a terrorist attack in the United States? What is the probability that evangelical Christians and neo-Conservatives fuck up America? I would say that the former is certainly less than 1/50,000. The latter is certainly 1. QED.

Executive Salaries

Informative website.


Top 10 Most Common References on (Merriam Webster).

1. integrity

Pronunciation: in-'te-gr&-tE
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English integrite, from Middle French & Latin; Middle French integrité, from Latin integritat-, integritas, from integr-, integer entire
1 : firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values : INCORRUPTIBILITY
2 : an unimpaired condition : SOUNDNESS
3 : the quality or state of being complete or undivided : COMPLETENESS
synonym see HONESTY
Click on each of the other words in the Top Ten List for their definitions in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary:

2. refugee
3. contempt
4. filibuster
5. insipid
6. tsunami
7. pandemic
8. conclave - What is the explanation for this word? The rest all make sense considering major political events in 2005.
9. levee
10. inept

Comment: Kind of scary!

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Quit Complaining About Your Job

Some very disturbing pictures of various occupational hazards.

A Baby Rhino!

What the Bleep is the Reason for This Movie?

About a year and a half ago I wrote here about going to see the movie What the Bleep Do We Know?, a rather spectacularly stupid and lunatic film which extensively misuses quantum mechanics. This weekend, a sequel called What the BLEEP - Down the Rabbit Hole opened here in New York, and I figured I owed it to my readers to check out the this new movie.

There were two good things about it. First of all it was advertised as being 2 hours and 34 minutes long, but ended about 15 minutes earlier than I expected (I kept checking my watch…). Secondly, I don’t have to write a lot about it and can just refer you to the posting about the first film since a large part of it is exactly the same.

100 Best First Lines from Novels

My favorites:

4. Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. —Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967; trans. Gregory Rabassa)

6. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877; trans. Constance Garnett)

10. I am an invisible man. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

14. You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. —Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler (1979; trans. William Weaver)

17. Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo. —James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)

23. One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary. —Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)

27. Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing. —Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (1605; trans. Edith Grossman)

32. Where now? Who now? When now? —Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable (1953; trans. Patrick Bowles)

37. Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. —Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925)

71. Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there's a peephole in the door, and my keeper's eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me. —GŸnter Grass, The Tin Drum (1959; trans. Ralph Manheim)


"Boehner: It [the Iraq War] may not benefit our generation, but for our kids and theirs, this maybe the greatest gift we give them."

How can anyone say that with a straight face?

Nice Anecdote

This is completely off the subject, but I remember back about 1965 being told by a race official that I need to wear white socks or no socks, but I couldn't race with black socks. I was wearing the socks to match the shorts, also had a black jersey with red/white stripes (back when amateurs couldn't wear ad logos/names).

I had a Frejus, all Campy Record, Brooks saddle, before Campy made brakes so they were Mafac. Columbus double butted steel. The whole bike with sewups cost me $151 and some change. 1965.

Shoes were $25 and leather.

Jerseys were $15 and wool.

Shorts had real chamois, wool and about $20.

This used to be a sport for the European working classes, a means to escape being a farm hand or working in a factory.

Interesting Data on Oil

Country of Origin
Thousand Barrels/day
Canada 1,616
Mexico 1,598
Saudi Arabia 1,495
Venezuela 1,297
Nigeria 1,078
Iraq 655

Sunday, February 05, 2006

To get anything done you need money!

"It's funny, all those simple folk sleeping so peacefully! Just wait! There's another '89 on the way! People are fed up with new constitutions and charters, quibbles and lies! Oh, if only I had a newspaper or some sort of forum, what a shake-up I'd give everything! But to get anything done you need money! What a curse to be the son of a publican and waste your youth having to earn enough to survive on!" - Deslauriers in Gustave Flaubert's A Sentimental Education

I hunger for good bread.

"To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread. It will be a great day for America, incidentally, when we begin to eat bread again, instead of the blasphemous and tasteless foam rubber that we have substituted for it. ... Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become."

-- James Baldwin, from The Fire Next Time

Saturday, February 04, 2006


Slate: You've now played both Lester Bangs and Truman Capote—two larger-than-life cultural figures. Is there a difference between impersonating a real-life person and creating a character?

Hoffman: There is at first. One difference is that you have all these materials at your disposal. There's information right there that can help you—books, tapes, photographs—which you don't have when you're creating a fictional character. But once you get that information, you have to start looking at the character as a fiction. When you're playing someone who really lived, you carry a burden, a burden to be accurate. But it's one that you have to let go of ultimately. Films are always a fiction, not documentary. Even a documentary is a kind of fiction. So, ultimately you have to think about the story you're telling. You want somehow to be able to create the character in such a way that people actually stop thinking about the fact that they're watching a real person—that they're watching "Truman Capote." If you can get them to be more invested in the story they're watching than in the character, then you've succeeded.

I need to read this book.

"...the idea that came to (Buddha), his great Enlightenment, the solution to human suffering, was this: if we want to avoid suffering, we must start with ourselves, because all suffering comes from our own desires...If we can stop ourselves wanting all the beautiful and pleasant things in life, and can learn to control our greed for happiness, comfort, recognition and affection, we shan't feel sad anymore when, as so often happens, we fail to get what we want...

"A person's highest achievement on earth is to reach the point where he or she no longer has any desires. This is the Buddha's 'inner calm', the blissful peace of someone who is kind to everyone and demands nothing. The Buddha also taught that a person who is master of all his wishes will no longer be reborn after his death...He who no longer clings to life is released from then endless cycle of birth and death, and is at last freed from all suffering. Buddhists call this state 'Nirvana'...

"The Buddha called (this pursuit) the 'middle way', because it lay between useless self-torment and thoughtless pleasure- seeking..."

E. H. Gombrich, A Little History of the World, Yale, 1936, pp. 55-6

Friday, February 03, 2006

Biting Sarcasm but Truthy

The SOTU was Bush's way of letting us know the country is in trouble and virtually leaderless.

From the SOTU we also learned it's our fault.

Americans are addicted to "Middle East" oil. (Not just any oil. Read: "Things haven't gone the way we hoped in the Middle East and are going to get worse.")

This follows on his recently blaming the American people for the trade deficit -- they don't buy American products.

He knows his ratings, knows about the vote fixing, and knows the American people can't be trusted to chose leaders like him.

He also knows most Americans don't make enough to qualify for the really sweet tax cuts. If they want tax breaks they just have to earn more or have the sense to be born into the right family like he did.

He didn't say it, but we know now why Americans have to have their phones tapped and their Googling watched. And why they need to have their news doctored. They can't be trusted.

The president's garbled words always give a hint as to what's coming: He's not to blame. It's the American people.


Just remember: Half of Bush is B.S.

I agree. What do you gain or learn from watching Bush speak?

The main reason why I didn't watch the speech to hear what Bush would say about science policy is that it doesn't matter what he says. This administration doesn't do policy, they do politics. If Bush says something in a speech, it's because they think it will sound good in a speech, period. That doesn't mean there's a concrete proposal in the works-- if the line in he speech is poorly received, odds are it will disappear without a trace. And even if the line sounds good, that doesn't mean there will be any follow-through-- ask the people of New York, Afghanistan, Iraq, and New Orleans about that.

So, yeah, "double the federal commitment to the most critical basic research programs in the physical sciences over the next 10 years" sounds great. So does "If we reverse the polarity on the flux capacitor, we can generate an infinite amount of free energy, and a pony." I'll believe it when I see the pony.

Good comment at Brad DeLong's


I would like to see means testing of the next war.

How much danger is there? Is the danger clear and present? What vital national interest is defended?

Is a military option justified and how could it be done without 150,00 troops and mega tons of expensive gear?

Will the VA be funded for the maimed?

And if the above are means tested then the thing should be paid with increasded taxes and a draft of all physically able youth regardless of sex and economic class.

The question is not whether the military is stretched but why is it being used and why is the cost justified?

I will not feel bad getting both my SS and my military retirement checks.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Absolute Self

"...but more than that, because I have traveled, I can see other universes in the eyes of strangers. Because I have traveled, I know what parts of me I cannot deny and what parts of me are simply the choices I make. I know the blessings of my own table and the warmth of my own bed. I know how much of life is pure chance, and how great a gift I have been given simply to be who I am...

"If we don't offer ourselves to the unknown, our senses dull. Our world becomes small and we lose our sense of wonder. Our eyes don't lift to the horizon; our ears don't hear the sounds around us. The edge is off our experience, and we pass our days in a routine that is both comfortable and limiting..."

Kent Nerburn, Letters to my Son, New World, 1994, pp. 114-115

I cannot really think of many (if any) absolute non-trivial (i.e. something deeper than notions forbidding killing, etc.) convictions that I have. I hate the transcendent. Nothing is holy for me. I'm not wholly a consequentialist, but most transcendent truths tend to be based on myth.

I do have to agree with the necessity of the unknown. The unknown and the random are crucial for the realization that there is no design in the universe. Humans add meaning to life. Not God. There is no originary meaning to human life. It has to be produced. Thus, there is a void at the center of existence.

The Purloined Letter

"The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something because it is always before one’s eyes.) The real foundations of his enquiry do not strike a man at all."

Wittgenstein, as cited by Oliver Sacks, The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Touchstone, 1970, p. 43

I sure hope this isn't accurate.

"Any crisis setting including all the people who by rank are entitled to be there is practically never the one where actual decisions get made...I began learning this truth as long ago as my first paid job working at the Adlai Stevenson for President headquarters in New York City. I observed what a physicist might call the law of the infinitely receding back room. This holds that as decisions are secretly made in a small room someplace, there will be ever more pressure from people desperate to gain admittance. When, because of the pressure, the size of the meeting has been expanded, the original little group will recede to a further back room for its quiet, secret meetings, while continuing the larger one for show. But word of the new back room will get out. (There will always be one person too vain not to let it be known that he is part of the innermost group.) Then the process will be repeated and repeated.

"These days the handful of people responsible for any decision in Washington tend to keep trying to remove themselves to ever more inaccessible rooms. And although the undertaking of so much important governmental activity in private hideaways feeds the image of absolute power being wielded by some tiny, unaccountable elite, the reality may be more nearly the opposite...for in receding to privacy, public people can cut themselves off from specialists who might help them avoid monumental mistakes. Yet they are irresistibly drawn to the private huddle...(because) after you have been inside the innermost club, you can't help becoming scornful of those not in the know...From the moment that thought takes hold, it is only a matter of time before someone is on a plane taking a cake to the Ayatollah Khomeini."

Meg Greenfield, Washington, Public Affairs Press, 2001, pp. 91-2