Archive for January, 2009

Welcome to the (Financial) Jungle

31 January 2009

I just hit Google News looking for mentions of Adam Smith because of a Bloomberg article by Nassim Nicholas Taleb: “Taleb Says Nationalize Banks, You Can’t Trust Them.”

I was looking for mention of Adam Smith because he gets less credit lately for such thoughts than do scholars like Taleb. No offense to the author of the best-selling finance book The Black Swan, but Smith said that banks were inherently untrustworthy and needed watching way back in his 1776 tome Wealth of Nations.

I wish more financial types would actually take a couple of years and read Wealth of Nations. There’s a lot of wool in it, both metaphorical and otherwise, but it’s a grand, enlightening, and misinterpreted work.

Anybody’s who’s read this work knows that Smith HATED joint stock companies. Today we call these outfits corporations.

But that isn’t really why I’m posting tonight. What got me was what turned up when I Googled “adam smith” in the news.

Here’s what hit me: GNR’s Duff McKagan Becomes Financial Columnist

I blinked. The Guns N’ Roses bass guy? Uh, OK.

Life’s full of surprises. Not only are he and his liver still alive, he’s now a columnist for the Seattle Weekly and the financial columnist for Playboy.

Business school. English class. Sounds like he’s turned his life around nicely. He apparently did well with investing after GNR.

I hope Duff’s sold his Starbucks stock by now.



Handbasket Report–One If by Land, Two If–

29 January 2009

The Baltic Dry is actually up a bit. But, never fear, there’s more bad news. This time it’s air transport.

Cargo Plummets 22.6% in December

This story was the lead on the excellent blog Calculated Risk this morning.


You Say Repost, I Say Riposte

29 January 2009

The billions of words on the internet offer an anonymity I love, so I’ll dare to post again a comment I wrote for another blog a bit ago. I responded to a post on the general topic of sustainability. This other blog centers almost entirely on economics, and, although most who frequent this blog are extremely well informed, this sometimes means the whole picture is not always present. Meanwhile, I try to find time to worry about EVERYTHING. So here’s what I said over there.



Once, I scoffed at Christian doomsayers, saying “What makes you so special that Christ will return in YOUR lifetime?” Their outlook struck me as so narcissistic.

But now I find myself a doomer. Only I’m not expecting a savior.

Profligate animals, we humans have outdone ourselves. Current studies predict the demise of commercial fishing by mid-century. In the US, farm production will be hit by the growing scarcity of fossil fuel fertilizers and the erosion of topsoil by the intensive farming those fertilizers allowed. Moreover, droughts will lower yields. The sea is acidifying so even radical changes in commercial fishing would most likely be futile. And, of course, the supply chain is already showing lots of weak links. And on and on. None of the news is good.

And yet, the Secretary of the UN warns we need to double food production by 2050. But of course. We NEED to, so it will happen, right?

Sustainability may once have been a reachable goal–were we truly rational, reasonable creatures. Alas, we are not.

It’s not just the economic crises. We are indeed entering a Perfect Storm of crises. Economic collapse. Climate change. Resource depletion. Overpopulation. And we mustn’t forget that intensive factory farming makes bird flu mutations even more likely while the crumbling medical industry does less and less research investment. That is, don’t count on any new vaccines soon.

We do indeed seem doomed.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. Derrick Jensen’s ecology essay “Beyond Hope” suggests this. Stretching out our demise is, I fear, all we can hope for.

And now, back to reading Greer’s The Long Descent.

Handbasket Report–Climate Changes–People Don’t

28 January 2009

Yesterday, I clicked on “Global Warming ‘Irreversible’ for Next 1000 Years: study,” read the first paragraph, and felt a wave of sadness:

Climate change is “largely irreversible” for the next 1,000 years even if carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions could be abruptly halted, according to a new study led by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Since NOAA is not exactly a flaky organization, this did not strike me as good news. But, how having scanned several conservative blogs, I find that some are still scoffing, even rejoicing.

I read several comments about how this was a good thing because now the “wingnuts” had no reason to try to destroy American capitalism. I read several who commented about the ridiculousness of the news article because global warming had been so thoroughly debunked (no mention of by whom). There was much climate/weather confusion, mutterings about how ridiculous the idea of warming was because there was X inches of ice and snow outside right now.

I can’t really say this surprises me. If memory serves, something like a quarter of our populace thinks the sun revolves around the earth. So how can one expect them to know what this news means for the future of humanity?

The depressing fact is that few Americans are scientifically literate. There is perhaps a slim possibility of changing that.

However, having read these blogs, I figure the statistics on kindness and good sense are undoubtedly even lower. What I was reading on those blogs told me that most of these bloggers dismissed scientific evidence as hocus-pocus and were more worried about current politics than they were about their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

We might be able to blunt the force of ignorance, but I doubt that anything can stop our inherent and ruthlessly aggressive self-centeredness.

God bless.

The lack of an object for the above sentence was quite intentional.


On Bush’s Farewell Address

16 January 2009

Greetings fellow human beings.

For the past eight years, the United States has been in the hands of an alien from a two-dimensional, monochromatic world. I don’t know what he calls his world in his real language, but I conflated Black and White to come up with a name for it–Blite.

I’ve been building up a profile of planet Blite by reading his messages. I may have missed some clues by not watching, but after the first few months, I had to stop. His appearance was human enough, but listening to his mechanical, cackling drawl with the giveaway mispronunciations was just too disturbing.

New Cue Lure. {shudder}

But there’s a reasonable explanation for these strange and tell-tale vocal aberrations. The radio transmissions that reached Blite obviously had a glitch. And once a Bliter has “learned” something, change is no longer possible. In their flat, colorless world, analysis, introspection, and intellectual growth do not exist.

Furthermore, since concepts such as history, reality, and fact are unknowable to a Bliter, he can’t even fake them. He’s certainly tried, but his attempts are oddly out of sync with what the rest of us see when we look around our three-dimensional world.

You doubt me? Let’s look at some snippets from President Bush’s final address.

The first decade of this new century has been a period of consequence – a time set apart.

Doesn’t this reveal his longing to return to his pinpoint homeworld where everything is NOW and nothing else exists? Blite has only one period. In fact, it is much like a period. A pinpoint. A prick in time.

I thank the American people for the trust you have given me.

Surely, only someone from another planet could say this!

Here’s an article from CBS news on January 15, 2009:
“Bush’s Popularity Reaches Historic Lows”

Keep the number of people who approve in mind. This number may indicate the percentage of Bliters inhabiting America today.

Across our country, students are rising to meet higher standards in public schools.

Don’t get me started here. The depressing stats are everywhere. Here’s one source:
Alliance for Excellent Education Fact Sheet
from March 2008

Vulnerable human life is better protected.

Well, duh. ALL human life is vulnerable, isn’t it? So protected from WHAT and HOW? Was this a code phrase? A signal home?

While our nation is safer than it was seven years ago, the gravest threat to our people remains another terrorist attack.

OK, I suppose a global financial collapse doesn’t count if you come from a prick in time. The future is NOW. Period.

I have often spoken to you about good and evil. This has made some uncomfortable. But good and evil are present in this world, and between the two there can be no compromise.

Oh, now HERE we have it. Isn’t this the absolute giveaway? Don’t normal, intelligent humans brought up in civilized populations come to realize that people, cultures, and countries are a mix of good and evil. Isn’t it widely accepted–by all but Bliters–that the world is NOT black and white but shades of gray?

Isn’t there, in fact, an informal fallacy that helps humans identify Bliters in their midst? The fallacy comes with many names:

False dilemma
False dichotomy
The either-or fallacy

All warn of the same error: Bliters think in extremes–in two dimensions. It’s a total giveaway. Something’s either RIGHT or it’s WRONG. If you’re a Bliter, someone’s EITHER with you OR against you.

How does a Bliter explain those poor kids in Gaza who were blown apart by Israeli bombs? Did they reveal themselves to be PURE evil? Totally WRONG? Was it at least totally wrong for them to be under that bomb that fell on them? Or does “collateral damage” mean they aren’t even counted as “vulnerable human life”? I suppose that’s possible given the limitations of Bliter thought.

I have confidence in the promise of America because I know the character of our people

Our people? Does he mean Bliters? That approval rating surely means we are heavily infiltrated. I know I hear them every day.

Listen carefully. Trust no one. They can’t help but reveal themselves.

And don’t expect them to be ugly or nasty. Many of them aren’t. As we know from the last eight years, they can appear charming, patriotic, even intelligent.

For example, John Wayne was undoubtedly a Bliter. There’s a story that when someone told him the world wasn’t black and white, he responded that it should be. The Duke, the noble cowboy, such a charming, handsome even–

Excuse me, I stray.

Don’t be taken in by the mere appearance of humanity. Be afraid, very afraid. Bliters are among us, and they must be stopped!

Oh, where is Fox Mulder when you need him?


Handbasket Report — RIP BDI

14 January 2009

Think the Baltic Dry Index (BDI) was offering up bad news? Well, it was, but the BDI was just the canary in the mine.

Things have gotten worse. Read all about it in the UK’s Telegraph: “Shipping Rates Hit Zero As Trade Sinks.

Too chicken to go there? I don’t blame you.

But here’s the first paragraph:

Freight rates for containers shipped from Asia to Europe have fallen to zero for the first time since records began, underscoring the dramatic collapse in trade since the world economy buckled in October.

Oh, go ahead, be brave, click the link.


Climate Change, Politics, and the Weather

14 January 2009

Have you ever mentioned climate change to people and instead of responding with comments about ice core measurements, the latest GHG measurements, and ocean acidification rates they’ve responded with distinctly political comments on the free market system and plots by anti-American subversives?

For years, I naively wondered what politics had to do with climate. What connection I was missing? I could understand people’s concerns about Al Gore and his film. It’s dated and superficial. But when peer-reviewed journals started coming out with dozens and dozens of detailed studies on the topic of global warming, I thought those who brought up politics would change their minds. I thought they’d note that many of these studies were trying to find explanations other than those pointing to man’s activities.

From what I saw, scientists tested hypotheses on all sorts of alternate explanations. But at the end of these studies, the scientists typically ended up pointing to human-induced climate change because that’s what the data they collected indicated.

I actually assumed the non-science community at least GLANCED through the abstracts of peer-reviewed studies at least weekly. Yearly? At least knew what a peer-reviewed study was?

Uh, no. If I got any sort of supporting argument against climate change, it usually involved dubious or downright wrong information from some think-tank with political or industrial ties. In fact, I heard this sort of “argument” AFTER even the Bush administration admitted that climate change was a problem.

So I was wrong. I finally realized a major mistake.

Mistake #1: I assumed most people were rational, well read, and open-minded.

To be fair, some were. A couple gulped and stepped toward the factual side, but most dug in and denied even more mightily. So I finally learned that most people are NOT rational, well read, and open-minded.

They know not the 11th Commandment: Thou Shall Fact-check, Cross-reference, and Verify Thy Sources.

Verily, many could not, for they knew not that they knew not even the most basic concepts. For example, on days like today, many denied global warming by pointing outside to ice and snow and frigid temperatures. Often, I’ve blinked and said, “So?” (One of my favorite Dick Cheney lines, by the way.)

Mistake #2: I assumed everyone knew the difference between the climate and the weather.

Apparently, the difference has escaped many because today I found this article on the Voice of America website:

Meteorologists: Global Warming and Cold Weather Go Hand-In-Hand:

The World Meteorological Organization says cold weather does not mean that global warming has abated. WMO says people should not confuse weather with climate.

People in Europe are shivering, while people in North Asia and parts of Australia are sweltering. Scientists say these weather extremes are to be expected and neither phenomenon can be used as a case for or against global warming.

And now, I’m going back to reading Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. I’m only on page 28 and so far I’ve learned that I’m one of the few people in the world who admits screwing up regularly.

And, by doing so I’ve proven myself wrong yet again.

Mistake #3: I thought everyone made mistakes regularly, evaluated the reasons for the failures, and hoped to learn from them.

Considering all this, am I learning from my mistakes?

Oh well. Maybe Mistake #4 (of this series–my total is beyond count) will be that I’m wrong about America’s future. I sure hope so.


Handbasket Report — The Bread Basket Baketh

10 January 2009

That food production will be negatively affected by climate change isn’t exactly “news” in the sense of newness, but I’m fond of this study because my alma mater was in on it: “Croplands May Wither as Global Warming Worsens.”


To Blog or Not to Blog

7 January 2009

Even though this blog isn’t intended for a large audience, I do often feel guilty about adding to the clutter. Too many write and too few say anything.

And now I’ve just stumbled across some comments on the subject by journalism prof Charles Seife. In “Malthusian Information Famine,” he notes that we’ve now reached the point where we could, were we so compelled, record, well, too much. “For millennia,” he says, “we were starving for information to act as raw material for ideas. Now, we are about to have a surfeit. . . . We are at the brink of a colossal change: our knowledge is now being limited not only by our ability to gather information and to remember it, but also by our wisdom about when to ignore information—and when to forget.”

I belong to the camp that believes constraints encourage creativity and mental vigor. So here I am in a place where I can type anything I want.

Oh well.


“Pearls before Breakfast”

4 January 2009

A relative just forwarded this April 2007 Washington Post article to me.

Need more proof that the typical American is a philistine?  Read/listen to “Pearls before Breakfast: Can One of the Nation’s Great Musicians Cut through the Fog of a D.C. Rush Hour? Let’s Find Out.”

A couple of video clips and the audio of the Metro Station performance is available at this link.

A fine English teacher once told me that when she started her career, she thought that with good instruction everyone could learn at least to appreciate fine writing.  After a couple of decades in the classroom, she changed her mind.  “Some people,” she said, “just don’t have all the parts.”

It’s a sad truth.