Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Effects of Inequality

Tyler Cowen asks:

"Does growing wealth and income inequality in the United States presage the downfall of the American republic? Will we evolve into a new Gilded Age plutocracy, irrevocably split between the competing interests of rich and poor? Or is growing inequality a mere bump in the road, a statistical blip along the path to greater wealth for virtually every American? Or is income inequality partially desirable, reflecting the greater productivity of society’s stars?"

... "We have to find a way to prevent or limit major banks from repeatedly going short on volatility at social expense. No one has figured out how to do that yet."

Read more in his fascinating article, "The Inequality That Matters," in The American Interest.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Quote for the Day

Sooner or later we all discover that the important moments in life are not the advertised ones, not the birthdays, the graduations, the weddings, not the great goals achieved. The real milestones are less prepossessing. They come to the door of memory unannounced, stray dogs that amble in, sniff around a bit and simply never leave. Our lives are measured by these.   - Susan B. Anthony

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ouch! US Leaders need to find a way to work together

Thomas Friedman makes some excellent points in his recent New York Times Op-Ed article.  China must be very happy about our government's gridlock.

Written from the point of view of a Chinese diplomat reporting to his government about the state of America:

"... Most of the Republicans just elected to Congress do not believe what their scientists tell them about man-made climate change. America’s politicians are mostly lawyers — not engineers or scientists like ours — so they’ll just say crazy things about science and nobody calls them on it. It’s good. It means they will not support any bill to spur clean energy innovation, which is central to our next five-year plan. And this ensures that our efforts to dominate the wind, solar, nuclear and electric car industries will not be challenged by America.

Finally, record numbers of U.S. high school students are now studying Chinese, which should guarantee us (i.e. China) a steady supply of cheap labor that speaks our language here, as we use our $2.3 trillion in reserves to quietly buy up U.S. factories. In sum, things are going well for China in America."

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Was Tolstoy the First Trust Fund Hippie?

A thought provoking piece by David Brooks on the difference between observing and acting, through the lens of Tolstoy's life.

"... There are many reasons to think about Tolstoy on the centennial of his death. Among them: his ability to see. Tolstoy had an almost superhuman ability to perceive reality.

As a young man, he was both sensually and spiritually acute. He drank, gambled and went off in search of sensations and adventures. But he also experienced piercing religious crises.

As a soldier, he conceived “a stupendous idea, to the realization of which I feel capable of dedicating my whole life. The idea is the founding of a new religion corresponding to the present development of mankind: the religion of Christ purged of dogmas and mysticism.”

But when he sat down to write his great novels, his dreams of saving mankind were bleached out by the vividness of the reality he saw around him. Readers often comment that the worlds created in those books are more vivid than the real world around them. With Olympian detachment and piercing directness, Tolstoy could describe a particular tablecloth, a particular moment in a particular battle, and the particular feeling in a girl’s heart before a ball.

He had his biases. In any Tolstoy story, the simple, rural characters are likely to be good and the urbane ones bad. But his ability to enter into and recreate the experiences of each of his characters overwhelms his generalizations.
Isaiah Berlin famously argued that Tolstoy was a writer in search of Big Truths, but his ability to see reality in all its particulars destroyed the very theories he hoped to build. By entering directly into life in all its contradictions, he destroyed his own peace of mind.

As Tolstoy himself wrote, “The aim of an artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably, but to make people love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.”
But after “Anna Karenina,” that changed. He was overwhelmed by the pointlessness of existence. As his biographer A.N. Wilson surmises, he ran out of things to write about. He had consumed the material of his life.

So he gave up big novels and became a holy man. Fulfilling his early ambition, he created his own religion, which rejected the Jesus story but embraced the teachings of Jesus. He embraced simplicity, poverty, vegetarianism, abstinence, poverty and pacifism. He dressed like a peasant. He wrote religious tracts to attract people to the simple, pure life.

Many contemporary readers like the novel-writing Tolstoy but regard the holy man as a semi-crackpot. But he was still Tolstoy, and his later writings were still brilliant. Moreover, he inspired a worldwide movement, deeply influencing Gandhi among many others. He emerged as the Russian government’s most potent critic — the one the czar didn’t dare imprison.

What had changed, though, was his ability to see. Now a crusader instead of an observer, he was absurd as often as he was brilliant. He went slumming with the peasantry, making everybody feel uncomfortable. He’d try to mow the grass (badly), make shoes (worse), and then he’d return to his mansion for dinner. He was the first trust-fund hippie. He seemed to lose perspective about himself: “I alone understand the doctrine of Jesus.”

There were many consistencies running through Tolstoy’s life, but there were also two phases: first, the novelist; then, the crusader. And each of these activities called forth its own way of seeing...."

Read more here.

91 Year Old Track Star!

Olga Kotelko, a 91 year old Canadian, is one of the world's greatest athletes.  She holds 23 world records, including 17 in her current age category, 90 to 95.

I'd like to age like her.  Who wouldn't?  Read more in this fascinating New York Times article.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Semantics of Failing

"Scott Sandage, an associate professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University and author of Born Losers: A History of Failure in America explains that America's relationship with failure has evolved over time, noting that the word initially applied only to matters of business, not character.

Up until the Civil War, he argues, people who suffered economic misfortune were described as making a failure, not being a failure. Sandage asks: "Why have we as a culture embraced modes of identity where we measure our souls using business models?"

The answer, he suggests, has to do with the end of slavery. Around that time, Sandage says, the two primary identities in American life shifted from "slave" and "free" to "success" and "failure." - Evan R. Goldstein

Read more here.

Lakers game for a family of four: $489

Ridiculous!  The only thing worse is that a game with the Knicks costs $506.

The Fan Cost Index, which takes into account the prices of four average-price tickets, two small draft beers, four small soft drinks, four regular-size hot dogs, parking for one car, two game programs and two least-expensive, adult-size adjustable caps, shows the Knicks with the most expensive night out at a game, with a cost of $506. The Lakers are second at $489, followed by Boston ($393), Miami ($380) and Chicago ($365).

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Truth about California's Budget

Brett Arends makes a strong point that California's budget shortfalls are actually a result of California's subsidizing the rest of the U.S. over the years.

"In the quarter century through 2005 (the most recent year for which we have data), Californians bailed out the rest of America to the tune of about $620 billion in today's dollars. In 2005 alone it came to nearly $50 billion.
That is 30 times next year's forecast "budget shortfall" in Sacramento. The only reason California has a budget problem at all is because they have, foolishly, spent so much money subsidizing everyone else.
If it weren't for that, California could cut its state and local taxes by around $1,300 a person. That's a $1,300 tax cut for every man, woman and child. Hmmm. Funny you never read about that anywhere, isn't it?
Meanwhile, take with giant fistfuls of salt those self-serving claims of fiscal rectitude you're apt to hear from politicians in other states, especially in the South and the West. These states haven't balanced their own budgets with their own money in living memory. Without bailout money from states like California, New York and New Jersey, their taxes would be much higher and their citizens poorer.
But don't expect to hear any of this from California bashers — least of all those on the right. After this November's electoral humiliations of Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, the Republican Party is putting away the kid gloves and getting out the knife.
Could California really default? Run the numbers.
State debt costs come to just $6 billion a year — a fraction of the $90 billion-plus budget. Under the state Constitution, the interest on the debt gets paid second, after the $36 billion that goes to K-12 education...."

Read more here.

Roger Gould's Wise Words on Holiday Family Dynamics

Roger is the authority on emotional eating.  He's wise and thoughtful and truly cares about helping people.  Please read his new article on Thanksgiving and Christmas in The Huffington Post.

"It's the most wonderful time of the year..." How many of us hear that song and couldn't disagree more? The holiday season for some is a joyful, happy time, particularly if you've come from a perfect nuclear family. And since that includes about .0003% of the population, the majority of people have mixed feelings at best about the time between Thanksgiving and New Year's. There are plenty of reasons to be stressed out; there are cookies to bake, there is weight that you want to avoid gaining but will probably gain, there are presents to buy which rouses feelings of financial adequacy or inadequacy, and then there is the family get together.

Essentially, the things you have and the things you lack are exaggerated. The annual holiday get together provides the ideal conditions for flare-ups. The expectations we have of the holidays are almost always unrealistic, making disappointments inevitable. We often stay attached to the past, unwilling to accept that the hand of time has actually changed the people and the landscape of our lives. The holidays can be painfully the same every year because we do not allow the members of our families to be who they currently are; rather, we expect them to be who they've been."

More here.

Reasons to work

Another great one from Seth Godin:
  1. For the money
  2. To be challenged
  3. For the pleasure/calling of doing the work
  4. For the impact it makes on the world
  5. For the reputation you build in the community
  6. To solve interesting problems
  7. To be part of a group and to experience the mission
  8. To be appreciated
Why do we always focus on the first? Why do we advertise jobs or promotions as being generic on items 2 through 8 and differentiated only by #1?
In fact, unless you're a drug kingpin or a Wall Street trader, my guess is that the other factors are at work every time you think about your work.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Obama on American Exceptionalism

Recently, President Obama was asked by a foreigner about America's exceptionalism.  President Obama's response has been cut short and often criticized.  It's worth reading President Obama's whole response to the question.  It's eloquent, humble, strong, and very well thought out.   This whole debate acts as a great exercise in seeing how opponents remove words from their context and then use those words to justify their own ends.  It's quite disingenuous really, and suggests the need for all readers to be on their guard to what is left out of news reports and arguments for and against. The spaces between the notes often say more than the notes themselves.

Obama's response:

I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don't think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.
And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.
Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we've got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we're not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.
And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone.

The Big Lie

A strong point by Andrew Sullivan on a Big Lie in American politics today.  His thought experiment (below in bold) is particularly worth reflecting on.

"It seems to me that the last year or so in America's political culture has represented the triumph of untruth. And the untruth was propagated by a deliberate, simple and systemic campaign to kill Obama's presidency in its crib. Emergency measures in a near-unprecedented economic collapse - the bank bailout, the auto-bailout, the stimulus - were described by the right as ideological moves of choice, when they were, in fact, pragmatic moves of necessity. The increasingly effective isolation of Iran's regime - and destruction of its legitimacy from within - was portrayed as a function of Obama's weakness, rather than his strength. The health insurance reform - almost identical to Romney's, to the right of the Clintons in 1993, costed to reduce the deficit, without a public option, and with millions more customers for the insurance and drug companies - was turned into a socialist government take-over.

Every one of these moves could be criticized in many ways. What cannot be done honestly, in my view, is to create a narrative from all of them to describe Obama as an anti-American hyper-leftist, spending the US into oblivion. But since this seems to be the only shred of thinking left on the right (exacerbated by the justified flight of the educated classes from a party that is now openly contemptuous of learning), it became a familiar refrain - pummeled into our heads day and night by talk radio and Fox. If you think I'm exaggerating, try the following thought experiment.

If a black Republican president had come in, helped turn around the banking and auto industries (at a small profit!), insured millions through the private sector while cutting Medicare, overseen a sharp decline in illegal immigration, ramped up the war in Afghanistan, reinstituted pay-as-you go in the Congress, set up a debt commission to offer hard choices for future debt reduction, and seen private sector job growth outstrip the public sector's in a slow but dogged recovery, somehow I don't think that Republican would be regarded as a socialist. 

This is the era of the Big Lie, in other words, and it translates into a lot of little lies - "death panels," "out-of-control" spending, "apologies for America" etc. - designed to concoct a false narrative so simple and so familiar it actually succeeded in getting into people's minds in the midst of a brutal recession. And integral to this process have been conservative "intellectuals" who should and do know better, but have long since sacrificed intellectual honesty for the cheap thrills of enabling power-grabs. And few lies represent this intellectual cooptation of talk radio/FNC propaganda better than the lie that Obama has publicly rebutted the idea of American exceptionalism."

- Andrew Sullivan

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Art of Nonfiction

A wonderful interview in The Paris Review with John McPhee.

"The thing about writers is that, with very few exceptions, they grow slowly—very slowly. A John Updike comes along, he’s an anomaly. That’s no model, that’s a phenomenon. I sent stuff to The New Yorker when I was in college and then for ten years thereafter before they accepted something. I used to paper my wall with their rejection slips. And they were not making a mistake. Writers develop slowly. That’s what I want to say to you: don’t look at my career through the wrong end of a telescope. This is terribly important to me as a teacher of writers, of kids who want to write."

"Certainly the aural part of writing is a big, big thing to me. I can’t stand a sentence until it sounds right, and I’ll go over it again and again. Once the sentence rolls along in a certain way, that’s sentence A. Sentence B may work out well, but then its effect on sentence A may spoil the rhythm of the two together. One of the long-term things about knitting a piece of writing together is making all this stuff fit."

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Miracle Baby! Survives fall from 7th-floor Paris flat

A 15-month-old girl survived a fall from a seventh-floor apartment in Paris almost unscathed after bouncing off a cafe awning and into the arms of a passerby, police said today.

The baby had been playing unsupervised with her four-year-old sister yesterday when she fell out of the window, a police spokesman said.

A young man saw the baby starting to fall and alerted his father, who raced into position, arms outstretched, to catch her after she hit the awning, the daily Le Parisien reported.

"He must have played rugby for years to have developed reflexes like that," a bystander who saw the incident told the paper. Police said the girl appeared to have no serious injuries and was under observation in a nearby hospital.

The owner of the cafe, located at the foot of the block of flats in north-east Paris, said it was a stroke of luck he had decided to leave the awning open that afternoon. "I usually close it to stop it catching fire as people tend to throw their cigarette butts on to it."

Read more here.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Another Reason America Should Welcome Immigrants

Tyler Cowen writes an excellent article explaining why immigrants help create more jobs.

The study notes that when companies move production offshore, they pull away not only low-wage jobs but also many related jobs, which can include high-skilled managers, tech repairmen and others. But hiring immigrants even for low-wage jobs helps keep many kinds of jobs in the United States, the authors say. In fact, when immigration is rising as a share of employment in an economic sector, offshoring tends to be falling, and vice versa, the study found.
In other words, immigrants may be competing more with offshored workers than with other laborers in America.

American economic sectors with much exposure to immigration fared better in employment growth than more insulated sectors, even for low-skilled labor, the authors found. It’s hard to prove cause and effect in these studies, or to measure all relevant variables precisely, but at the very least, the evidence in this study doesn’t offer much support for the popular bias against immigration, and globalization more generally.

We see the job-creating benefits of trade and immigration every day, even if we don’t always recognize them. As other papers by Professor Peri have shown, low-skilled immigrants usually fill gaps in American labor markets and generally enhance domestic business prospects rather than destroy jobs; this occurs because of an important phenomenon, the presence of what are known as “complementary” workers, namely those who add value to the work of others. An immigrant will often take a job as a construction worker, a drywall installer or a taxi driver, for example, while a native-born worker may end up being promoted to supervisor. And as immigrants succeed here, they help the United States develop strong business and social networks with the rest of the world, making it easier for us to do business with India, Brazil and most other countries, again creating more jobs.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Cordarounds: Life is Better Horizontal!

As the former Corporate Philosopher for Cordarounds, I'm excited to see such success come for the masters of the "crotch heat index," Chris and Enrique.  Great article in the New York Times:

To understand the thinking behind Chris Lindland’s company, Betabrand, you need to keep three seemingly disparate ideas in your head at the same time: 1) It’s a challenge for Web-only businesses to sell clothing. 2) Most people want to be witty. 3) Some shoppers go crazy for limited-edition goods. (Think Beanie Babies.) 

Betabrand employs No. 2 (our desire to be funny — or at least original), to trump No. 1 (our reluctance to buy something we can’t examine up close). Then the company seals the deal by exploiting No. 3. (Because its products are made only in batches of a few hundred, you’ll miss them if you don’t hurry.)
“We could never afford to make product in volume, so we adopted kind of like a Beanie Baby approach: we’d create small collections that supremely rabid buyers would end up buying,” Mr. Lindland said, noting that some customers own more than 20 pairs of his signature pants. “They’re a collectors’ item, oddly enough.”

Friday, October 29, 2010

Spreading Ideas

A great post from Seth Godin on the reasons why we spread ideas.

I spread your idea because...

  1. I spread your idea because it makes me feel generous.
  2. ...because I feel smart alerting others to what I discovered.
  3. ...because I care about the outcome and want you (the creator of the idea) to succeed.
  4. ...because I have no choice. Every time I use your product, I spread the idea (Hotmail, iPad, a tattoo).
  5. ...because there's a financial benefit directly to me (Amazon affiliates, mlm).
  6. ...because it's funny and laughing alone is no fun.
  7. ...because I'm lonely and sharing an idea solves that problem, at least for a while.
  8. ...because I'm angry and I want to enlist others in my outrage (or in shutting you down).
  9. ...because both my friend and I will benefit if I share the idea (Groupon).
  10. ...because you asked me to, and it's hard to say no to you.
  11. ...because I can use the idea to introduce people to one another, and making a match is both fun in the short run and community-building.
  12. ...because your service works better if all my friends use it (email, Facebook).
  13. ...because if everyone knew this idea, I'd be happier.
  14. ...because your idea says something that I have trouble saying directly (AA, a blog post, a book).
  15. ...because I care about someone and this idea will make them happier or healthier.
  16. ...because it's fun to make another teen snicker about prurient stuff we're not supposed to see.
  17. ...because the tribe needs to know about this if we're going to avoid an external threat.
  18. ...because the tribe needs to know about this if we're going to maintain internal order.
  19. ...because it's my job.
  20. I spread your idea because I'm in awe of your art and the only way I can repay you is to share that art with others.

What a Life!

Richard T. Gill, in all statistical probability the only Harvard economist to sing 86 performances with the Metropolitan Opera.  At 16 he entered Harvard, where he sang in the glee club, interrupting his studies for Army service with the postwar occupation forces in Japan. He pursued graduated studies at Oxford and returned to Harvard as an Assistant Dean at age 21.  Before beginning his operatic career, Mr. Gill had published short fiction in The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly. In later years he was the host of “Economics USA,” a 28-part public television series first broadcast in 1984 and 1985.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Monday, October 25, 2010

Adam Smith: Pro-Tax

"The rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion."

Adam Gopnik's recent article in The New Yorker demonstrates that Smith, the father of capitalism, was far more concerned with the ability of producers to band together and promote unfair prices for consumers than he was about government interference in the market.  Indeed, he welcomed government interference insofar as it necessary to promote competition and protect consumers from wealthy businesses.

The interest of manufacturers and merchants "in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public.  To widen the market and to narrow the competition, is always the interest of the dealers... and can serve only to enable the dealers, by raising their profits, above what they naturally would be, to levy, or their own benefit, an absurd tax upon the rest of their fellow-citizens."

Aircraft crashes after crocodile on board escapes and sparks panic


A small airliner crashed into a house in the Democratic Republic of Congo, killing a British pilot and 19 others after a crocodile smuggled into the aircraft in a sports bag escaped and started a panic.

Read more details at the Telegraph.



Shipping Costs: Demand matters more than distance

A great new post from Ethan Zuckerman on shipping costs and routes around the world.

Americans buy a lot of atoms from China. The Chinese don’t buy nearly as many from the US. A 40′ container filled with household goods, shipped from Shanghai to Houston, TX costs $6169.93. Reverse the trip and ship the same container from Houston to Shanghai and the cost is $3631.07. That’s because 60% of containers on ships coming from the US to China are empty, which means Maersk and other shippers are desperate to sell container space.

(The 2006 New York Times article that offers that 60% empty container statistic suggests that lots of full containers are coming to China from raw-materials rich countries like Australia, Brazil and the Middle East. That suggests we should see the opposite pattern – expensive containers from Sao Paolo to Shanghai and cheap ones in the other direction. Nope. $5101.70 from Shanghai to Sao Paolo, $1930.59 in the other direction. Perhaps containers from China to Brazil are riding the same ships as those to the US and paying the same premiums?)

How much water goes into a morning latte?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Is Sitting the New Smoking?

"Sitters of the world, unite. It is time to rise up now."

"But when we sit, researchers say, important biological processes take a nap. An enzyme that vacuums dangerous fat out of the bloodstream only works properly when a body is upright. Standing also seems to ward off deadly heart disease, burn calories, increase how well insulin lowers glucose and produce the good brand of cholesterol. Most of these processes occur - or don't - regardless of whether someone exercises. Human beings need to stand."

"Hedge, the Cornell professor, isn't a fan of all this standing. "Making people stand all day is dumb," he said. "Standing increases torso muscle activity and spinal disc pressure, increases the risk of varicose veins, increases the risk of carotid artery disease and increases the load on the heart." 

More of this Washington Post article here.

Adjustable desk for sitting or standing:  GeekDesk

Monday, October 11, 2010


As the great economist Adam Smith put it, Ch.3, Of Public Debts, “Were the expense of war to be defrayed always by revenue raised within the year … wars would in general be more speedily concluded, and less wantonly undertaken.”

Dream City

Zadie's Smith's article, Speaking in Tongues, about the many voices of Barack Obama is engaging and thought provoking.  A few snippets:

"Dream City is a place of many voices, where the unified singular self is an illusion. Naturally, Obama was born there. So was I. When your personal multiplicity is printed on your face, in an almost too obviously thematic manner, in your DNA, in your hair and in the neither this nor that beige of your skin—well, anyone can see you come from Dream City. In Dream City everything is doubled, everything is various. You have no choice but to cross borders and speak in tongues. That’s how you get from your mother to your father, from talking to one set of folks who think you’re not black enough to another who figure you insufficiently white. It’s the kind of town where the wise man says “I” cautiously, because “I” feels like too straight and singular a phoneme to represent the true multiplicity of his experience. Instead, citizens of Dream City prefer to use the collective pronoun “we.”

Throughout his campaign Obama was careful always to say we. He was noticeably wary of “I.” By speaking so, he wasn’t simply avoiding a singularity he didn’t feel, he was also drawing us in with him. He had the audacity to suggest that, even if you can’t see it stamped on their faces, most people come from Dream City, too. Most of us have complicated back stories, messy histories, multiple narratives.

It was a high-wire strategy, for Obama, this invocation of our collective human messiness. His enemies latched on to its imprecision, emphasizing the exotic, un-American nature of Dream City, this ill-defined place where you could be from Hawaii and Kenya, Kansas and Indonesia all at the same time, where you could jive talk like a street hustler and orate like a senator. What kind of a crazy place is that? But they underestimated how many people come from Dream City, how many Americans, in their daily lives, conjure contrasting voices and seek a synthesis between disparate things. Turns out, Dream City wasn’t so strange to them.

George Bernard Shaw said, "Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it.” But that may be an audacious hope too far. We’ll see if Obama’s lifelong vocal flexibility will enable him to say proudly with one voice “I love my country” while saying with another voice “It is a country, like other countries.”

"How can the man who passes between culturally black and white voices with such flexibility, with such ease, be an honest man? How will the man from Dream City keep it real? Why won’t he speak with a clear and unified voice? These were genuine questions for people born in real cities at a time when those cities were implacably divided, when the black movement had to yell with a clear and unified voice, or risk not being heard at all. And then he won."

"For reasons that are obscure to me, those qualities we cherish in our artists we condemn in our politicians. In our artists we look for the many-colored voice, the multiple sensibility. The apogee of this is, of course, Shakespeare: even more than for his wordplay we cherish him for his lack of allegiance. Our Shakespeare sees always both sides of a thing, he is black and white, male and female—he is everyman."

"Shakespeare’s art, the very medium of it, allowed him to do what civic officers and politicians can’t seem to: speak simultaneous truths. (Is it not, for example, experientially true that one can both believe and not believe in God?) In his plays he is woman, man, black, white, believer, heretic, Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Muslim. He grew up in an atmosphere of equivocation, but he lived in freedom. And he offers us freedom: to pin him down to a single identity would be an obvious diminishment, both for Shakespeare and for us."

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Alms Dealers

Philip Gourevitch's recent New Yorker piece on how humanitarian aid contributes to conflict throughout the world was eye-opening.  He refers mostly to the strong arguments of Linda Polman, a Dutch journalist, who wrote the new book, The Crisis Caravan:  What's Wrong with Humanitarian Aid, after spending 15 years researching the ill effects that humanitarian aid has on people, as it has a strong tendency to increase and lengthen conflict, arguably causing more harm to civilians than help.

As David Kennedy writes in The Dark Side of Virtue, "Humanitarianism tempts us to hubris, to an idolatry about our intentions and routines, to the conviction that we know more than we do about what justice can be."

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Social Network

The best commentary I've read about Facebook, Harvard, and that new movie that focuses more on the rules of narrative fiction than on trying to get the story right.

"We are told that people liked Facebook because it took "the entire experience of college," especially the exclusive final clubs, and transferred it online. This is a bit like saying books caught on because they put the whole experience of talking onto paper. What Facebook really gave us, for better or worse, was a new social and intellectual culture that we could claim, finally, as our own. During its early rise, the site allowed the social flavor of the Ivy League to include more than just playing dress-up and pretend. (We now played those games online, as our own.) These days, it's helped open a large, uncharted territory for a generation whose world first seemed, in many ways, competitively tighter and more predetermined than ever. There is the story of a kind of revolution here. It's just a shame The Social Network tells it in the style of the old regime."
- Nathan Heller, "You Can't Handle the VERITAS", Slate

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why)

I was born in the congo
I walked to the fertile crescent and built
    the sphinx
I designed a pyramid so tough that a star
    that only glows every one hundred years falls
    into the center giving divine perfect light
I am bad

I sat on the throne
    drinking nectar with allah
I got hot and sent an ice age to europe
    to cool my thirst
My oldest daughter is nefertiti
    the tears from my birth pains
    created the nile
I am a beautiful woman

I gazed on the forest and burned
    out the sahara desert
    with a packet of goat's meat
    and a change of clothes
I crossed it in two hours
I am a gazelle so swift
    so swift you can't catch me

    For a birthday present when he was three
I gave my son hannibal an elephant
    He gave me rome for mother's day
My strength flows ever on

My son noah built new/ark and
I stood proudly at the helm
    as we sailed on a soft summer day
I turned myself into myself and was
    men intone my loving name
    All praises All praises
I am the one who would save

I sowed diamonds in my back yard
My bowels deliver uranium
    the filings from my fingernails are
    semi-precious jewels
    On a trip north
I caught a cold and blew
My nose giving oil to the arab world
I am so hip even my errors are correct
I sailed west to reach east and had to round off
    the earth as I went
    The hair from my head thinned and gold was laid
    across three continents

I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal
I cannot be comprehended except by my permission

I mean...I...can fly
    like a bird in the sky...

by Nikki Giovanni

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Calling All Flyers

This visual documentary by Christoph Niemann is a gem!
Click the sketch above for the rest of the story.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Letting Go: What should medicine do when it can't save your life?

Dr. Atul Gawande's recent New Yorker article on the process of letting go in the last stages of life is beautifully written and very informative. It's a must read. Aside from masterful fiction, including Master and Man and The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy, as well as Errand by Raymond Carver, it's the best I've read about the end of life.

"About two-thirds of all patients are willing to undergo therapies they don't want if that is what their loved ones want. ... " This observation surprised me at first, but upon reflection it makes sense. We the living have our own work to do when it comes to dealing with loved ones who are near the end.

And the following observation by Dr. Gawande is incredibly well written:

"The simple view is that medicine exists to fight death and disease, and that is, of course, its most basic task. Death is the enemy. But the enemy has superior forces. Eventually, it wins. And, in a war that you cannot win, you don’t want a general who fights to the point of total annihilation. You don’t want Custer. You want Robert E. Lee, someone who knew how to fight for territory when he could and how to surrender when he couldn’t, someone who understood that the damage is greatest if all you do is fight to the bitter end.

More often, these days, medicine seems to supply neither Custers nor Lees. We are increasingly the generals who march the soldiers onward, saying all the while, “You let me know when you want to stop.” All-out treatment, we tell the terminally ill, is a train you can get off at any time—just say when. But for most patients and their families this is asking too much. They remain riven by doubt and fear and desperation; some are deluded by a fantasy of what medical science can achieve. But our responsibility, in medicine, is to deal with human beings as they are. People die only once. They have no experience to draw upon. They need doctors and nurses who are willing to have the hard discussions and say what they have seen, who will help people prepare for what is to come—and to escape a warehoused oblivion that few really want"

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Infinite Power

WikiLeaks: What's all the fuss

Andrew Exum, a former Army officer who led a small special operations unit in Afghanistan from 2002-2204, has an excellent editorial, "Getting Lost in the Fog of War" in the New York Times today:

"I’m a researcher who studies Afghanistan and have no regular access to classified information, yet I have seen nothing in the documents that has either surprised me or told me anything of significance. I suspect that’s the case even for someone who reads only a third of the articles on Afghanistan in his local newspaper."

I'm that person who reads roughly a third of the articles on Afghanistan, and I definitely agree. Exum's article is definitely worth a read. While I certainly haven't read the 92,000 articles published, there doesn't appear to be much new information that's come out of Wikileaks.

Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, claims these articles are as important as the Pentagon Papers. Exum calls that claim "ridiculous," He may be right. I do think Assange has succeeded in endangering the lives of our soldiers overseas who risk their lives for us.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Economist gets it wrong on CEO pay

The Economist attacks Japan in a recent article, "Spartan Salarymen", for the lower pay managers of companies receive relative to their counterparts in the U.S. and Europe. This is yet another example of the CEO-Media Complex, a collusion between big business executives and the media (newspapers, magazines, journalists, etc) who work together to elevate pay higher and higher for executives, championing CEO's as the reason why companies do well, while neglecting the real reason companies perform - the multiple actions of the men and women in the ordinary jobs who show up day after day and execute their roles with precision. They are the true heroes and drivers of performance, and they should be compensated as such. It seems the Japanese have their priorities in place as a nation, culture, and a business environment.

The article sounds like it was written by one of those "compensation consultants" wonderfully described by Harvard Business School Professors Jay Lorsch and Rakesh Khurana in their excellent article, The Pay Problem, in Harvard Magazine.

I was cheered to see that the large majority of reader comments on the Economist article believed that the Economist had got it wrong. Clearly, CEO's and other top managers in the US and Europe are overpaid. As Professors Lorsch and Khurana point out, compensation consultants who collude with CEO's to convince disinterested Boards and Compensation Committee's are only part of the problem. Executive pay in the West continues to rise in the West "not so much as a driver of improved performance, but as a consequence of improving performance and an accompanying rise in equity values. ... Incentives have impact on behavior only when the recipients can see a direct link from their actions to the results achieved and the rewards they will receive. ... In most companies, multiple forces and the joint efforts of many individuals cause the results achieved."

I hope the Economist writer will do his homework in the future before writing such ridiculous propaganda promoting the CEO-Media Complex.

Why I never wore that fake Rolex?

Years ago, a family member gave me a fake Rolex, purchased while in South Korea. It was a beautiful looking watch, but I never felt like wearing it, partly because it was too big, but there was another reason why - I just never knew how to express it.

Now the research shows how wearing counterfeit items can affect our behavior.

Friday, June 18, 2010


Ron Artest was clearly the MVP of the game. Wow! He came through big time and what a wonderful unfiltered expressiveness:

"I was nervous as a mama, but I have to thank my doctor," Artest said. "She came and saw me last night, and she'd come follow me on the road because there's so much going on on the road and I know myself. I know in these situations I don't think the right way and I need help to think the right way and focus and stay relaxed. All I did was relax at the moment I took the 3-pointer. I settled in and trusted in myself."

Artest was in rare form when describing the 3-pointer, which came off a pass from Bryant. "He never passes me the ball and he passed me the ball," Artest said. "Phil didn't want me to shoot the 3. He's the Zen Master, so he can speak to you and he doesn't need a microphone. You can hear him in your head, 'Ron, don't shoot.' Whatever. Pow, 3. I love the Zen though."

Later pressed about the shot, Artest said God told him to shoot it when he wasn't so sure. "A voice came down and told me to shoot the ball," he said. " 'Shoot the ball,' he said. God told me to shoot the ball and I shot the ball."

If it all sounds a little crazy, it's because you'd expect nothing less from Artest, who clutched the trophy in his arms after the game and admitted he didn't fully realize he was playing for the championship until he was handed a championship cap after the game.

"I really couldn't feel where I was at," Artest said. "I couldn't feel the Finals. I was more in the game and what my coach wanted me to do. When we won, I didn't even know we won. I honestly didn't know we won. I actually cried before the game. How stupid is that? How dumb is that? How do you cry before the game and then you don't cry after you win? Daddy, you raised a dumb child."

Lakers just need two more championships to overtake Boston. Lakers are the Batman to the Celtics Joker, the Sherlock Holmes to their Moriarty. Three-peat, then Four-peat.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Financial Investments of Lawmakers

On the House Agriculture Committee, which holds sway over farm policies and subsidies, members had farming and agribusiness investments worth five times on average the amount held by other colleagues in the House.

Much more in the full article.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Are you an Asker or a Guesser?

A brilliant web posting by Andrea Donderi on human nature:

"We are raised, the theory runs, in one of two cultures. In Ask culture, people grow up believing they can ask for anything – a favour, a pay rise– fully realising the answer may be no. In Guess culture, by contrast, you avoid "putting a request into words unless you're pretty sure the answer will be yes… A key skill is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won't have to make the request directly; you'll get an offer. Even then, the offer may be genuine or pro forma; it takes yet more skill and delicacy to discern whether you should accept."

Neither is "wrong", but when an Asker meets a Guesser, unpleasantness results. An Asker won't think it's rude to request two weeks in your spare room, but a Guess culture person will hear it as presumptuous and resent the agony involved in saying no. Your boss, asking for a project to be finished early, may be an overdemanding boor – or just an Asker, who's assuming you might decline. If you're a Guesser, you'll hear it as an expectation. This is a spectrum, not a dichotomy, and it explains cross-cultural awkwardnesses, too: Brits and Americans get discombobulated doing business in Japan, because it's a Guess culture, yet experience Russians as rude, because they're diehard Askers."

- Oliver Burkeman, The Guardian

Being a Guesser is "great for, say, reading nuanced and subtle novels; not so great for, say, dating and getting raises." - Donderi

So if you are a Guesser, what's the best way to say "No?"
  1. "I'm afraid that won't be possible"
  2. "Oh dear, I find I'm watching television that night" - Peter Cook
  3. "I can't, because I'm unable to"
  4. "No."
  5. ??

Monday, May 10, 2010

Van Gundy's = Von Erich's ???

Is it just me, or do basketball's Van Gundy brothers (Jeff and Stan) remind you of professional wrestling's Von Erich brothers?

NBA vs. WWE??

Da Bears, but only if Ditka is playing?

Get your Groupon: Collective Buying Power

I was skeptical, but I must admit, Groupon's are pretty sweet. They have some great deals. If you use the link above, I get extra credit. Thanks.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Smarter, More Effective Development

Esther Duflo recently won the John Bates Clark Medal for her work on using randomized trials to evaluate development policies.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Monday, April 26, 2010

Exercise and Weight Loss

Very informative article on the relationship between exercise and weight loss.

"Working out can have a significant effect on appetite. The mechanisms that control appetite and energy balance in the human body are elegantly calibrated. “The body aims for homeostasis,” Braun says. It likes to remain at whatever weight it’s used to. So even small changes in energy balance can produce rapid changes in certain hormones associated with appetite, particularly acylated ghrelin, which is known to increase the desire for food, as well as insulin and leptin, hormones that affect how the body burns fuel"

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

How Wall Street Became a Giant Casino

"Allowing speculators to bet on entities in which they have no stake is similar to letting your neighbor take out an insurance policy on your life."

- Roger Lowenstein in an excellent article on the casino that wall street has become.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Twitter = Pre-19th Century Diary Entries

As Harry Truman once said, "if you want to know the future, read history." Twitter tweets resemble the diary entries of the 1700s and 1800s.

April 27, 1770: Made Mead. At the assembly.

May 14, 1770: Mrs. Mascarene here and Mrs. Cownsheild. Taken very ill. The Doctor bled me. Took an anodyne.

Sept. 7, 1792: Fidelia Mirick here a visiting to-day.

Jan. 26, 1873: Cold disagreeable day. Felt very badly all day long and lay on the sofa all day. Nothing took place worth noting.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Kiva and High Interest Rates for the Poor

Several years ago, when I first heard about Kiva, I read their website thoroughly and was disappointed that there were no safeguards to control the interest rate at which the poor were charged. I wrote Kiva directly to ask about this and this was confirmed.

This is why I don't use Kiva. More in today's NY Times about the entire industry of microloans.

"Unwitting individuals, who can make donations of $20 or more through Web sites like Kiva or Microplace, may also end up participating in practices some consider exploitative. These Web sites admit that they cannot guarantee every interest rate they quote. Indeed, the real rate can prove to be markedly higher than advertised."

And more:

"At Kiva, which promises on its Web site that it “will not partner with an organization that charges exorbitant interest rates,” the interest rate and fees for LAPO was recently advertised as 57 percent, the average rate from 2007. After The Times called to inquire, Kiva changed it to 83 percent.

Premal Shah, Kiva’s president, said it was a question of outdated information rather than deception. “I would argue that the information is stale as opposed to misleading,” he said. “It could have been a tad better.”

"A tad better." Please. Kiva was off by 26% - that's a huge amount in interest rates. That's 46% more than the rate they were advertising. And given LAPO's practices, it's probably higher than the now quoted 83%.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Umami Burger

After The Counter went downhill last year (they cut back - different beef supply), I had no good place for a burger in LA. Now I've found Umami Burger - Thank God, it's delicious!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

New Permissions Model Needed for Media

"In order for electronic books to live up to their billing, we have to fix a system that is broken: getting permission to use copyrighted material in new work. Either we change the way we deal with copyrights — or works of nonfiction in a multimedia world will become ever more dull and disappointing."

- Marc Aronson, NY Times

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Wal-Mart vs. Payday Lenders

Can Wal-Mart be a part of the solution, a free-market competitor to the loan sharks that prey on the working poor with ridiculously high interest rates?

Wal-Mart already has “MoneyCenters” in 1,000 of its U.S. stores, and the company said yesterday it plans to to add 400 more by the end of the year. The centers offer services like check cashing and bill pay that are often considered part of the broader “fringe banking” system. [...] Lots of those people go to local check-cashing outfits that often charge high fees. So Wal-Mart, which charges $3 to $6 cash a check, can be a good alternative, said Alejandra Lopez-Fernandini, who works for a New America Foundation program that aims to help low- and middle-income people build wealth.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Don't believe everything you hear

"Don't catch yourself being biased by Fox News that somebody's no good," - Tom Coburn

Am I supposed to believe that?

Is Anyone Faithful Anymore?

Is anyone monogamous any more? Truly monogamous? We may not be having serial affairs in the John Terry/Tiger Woods mode. We may not find ourselves transgressing as dramatically as Iris Robinson. Or as publicly – and ineptly – as Ashley Cole. But we are probably less monogamous than we used to be, aren't we? We're perhaps having extended flirtations; serious and not-so-serious dalliances; special, ostensibly platonic lunch dates with people we see more regularly than we'd like our partners to know. We are, at the very least, testing the borders of fidelity via the medium of text message, or Facebook connections, or Twitter exchanges; the Vernon Kays of the non-celebrity sphere. And some of us are having fully fledged, old-fashioned, impassioned affairs.

- Polly Vernon, the Guardian

Prostitutes sign confuses motorists

From Treviso, Italy:

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Another Zinger from Anthony Lane

"If only Miss Marple had been a bisexual biker with multiple piercings, a criminal record, and a long lick of oil-black hair over one eye, she might have solved a few more crimes. Those are the accoutrements with which Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) is decked out in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and they stand her in good stead for the unpicking of clues. Lisbeth has a gift for computer hacking, plus an ability to trawl briskly through printed files, and I found it endearing that, even as the movie tries to rough us up with tales of fascists, dildos, woodland snipers, and exploding cars, the main lesson that we come away with is: there’s nothing like a day in the archives."

- Anthony Lane, The New Yorker

He's so funny.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Business Model for Somali Pirates

From an investigation by the United Nations Security Council on Somalia"

A basic piracy operation requires a minimum eight to twelve militia prepared to stay at sea for extended periods of time, in the hopes of hijacking a passing vessel. Each team requires a minimum of two attack skiffs, weapons, equipment, provisions, fuel and preferably a supply boat. The costs of the operation are usually borne by investors, some of whom may also be pirates.

To be eligible for employment as a pirate, a volunteer should already possess a firearm for use in the operation. For this ‘contribution’, he receives a ‘class A’ share of any profit. Pirates who provide a skiff or a heavier firearm, like an RPG or a general purpose machine gun, may be entitled to an additional A-share. The first pirate to board a vessel may also be entitled to an extra A-share.

At least 12 other volunteers are recruited as militiamen to provide protection on land of a ship is hijacked, In addition, each member of the pirate team may bring a partner or relative to be part of this land-based force. Militiamen must possess their own weapon, and receive a ‘class B’ share — usually a fixed amount equivalent to approximately US$15,000.

If a ship is successfully hijacked and brought to anchor, the pirates and the militiamen require food, drink, qaad, fresh clothes, cell phones, air time, etc. The captured crew must also be cared for. In most cases, these services are provided by one or more suppliers, who advance the costs in anticipation of reimbursement, with a significant margin of profit, when ransom is eventually paid.

When ransom is received, fixed costs are the first to be paid out. These are typically:

• Reimbursement of supplier(s)

• Financier(s) and/or investor(s): 30% of the ransom

• Local elders: 5 to 10 %of the ransom (anchoring rights)

• Class B shares (approx. $15,000 each): militiamen, interpreters etc.

The remaining sum — the profit — is divided between class-A shareholders.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Peter Chang: America's 21st Century Chef Outlaw

The magical Chinese chef, Peter Chang, is quickly capturing America's attention (at least us foodies), always on the run, hiding out, popping into small towns to surprise locals with his amazing exploits. I would love to try his authentic Szechuan cuisine.

The Chang Effect: Wooing Palates, Breaking Hearts...

Peter Chang: The Disappearing Chef

The Perfect Chef

Health Care Reform Passes

Obama is in fine form:

"You turn on the news, you'll see the same folks are still shouting about how it's going to be the end of the world because this bill passed. . . . Leaders of the Republican Party, they called the passage of this bill 'Armageddon.' Armageddon! End of freedom as we know it! So after I signed the bill I looked around to see if there were any asteroids falling. Some cracks opening up in the Earth! Turned out it was a nice day!"

Health Care Reform Passes

Obama is in fine form:

"You turn on the news, you'll see the same folks are still shouting about how it's going to be the end of the world because this bill passed. . . . Leaders of the Republican Party, they called the passage of this bill 'Armageddon.' Armageddon! End of freedom as we know it! So after I signed the bill I looked around to see if there were any asteroids falling. Some cracks opening up in the Earth! Turned out it was a nice day!"

Sunday, March 21, 2010



by Kay Ryan

Who would be a turtle who could help it?
A barely mobile hard roll, a four-oared helmet,
she can ill afford the chances she must take
in rowing toward the grasses that she eats.
Her track is graceless, like dragging
a packing case places, and almost any slope
defeats her modest hopes. Even being practical,
she's often stuck up to the axle on her way
to something edible. With everything optimal,
she skirts the ditch which would convert
her shell into a serving dish. She lives
below luck-level, never imagining some lottery
will change her load of pottery to wings.
Her only levity is patience,
the sport of truly chastened things.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Sen. Lindsay Graham sounds like a 5 year old

Graham has spent months working with Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to draft an immigration bill. The two met privately with President Obama last week, delivering a three-page blueprint.

And yet:

"If the healthcare bill goes through this weekend, that will, in my view, pretty much kill any chance of immigration reform passing the Senate this year," Graham said Friday, two days before thousands are expected to march in Washington in support of an immigration overhaul.

America has problems that need solving. Just because you don't get your way on one doesn't mean you just give up and decide to block all efforts to solve the other challenges. Sen. Graham needs to grow up, or resign and let an adult take his place.

from the LA Times, March 19, 2010

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Free-Market Theorists Forget Their Logic

The IMF is so ridiculous. For years, they say money must be allowed to move freely across borders, and yet they would never argue that people (i.e. the labor market) should be able to move freely across any borders. These hypocrites argue for the principle of free-markets only when it's convenient.

Why doesn't someone ask Ron Paul how he can be America's leading champion of free markets while at the same time calling for increased restrictions on "illegal immigrants?" There is no logic to his argument. Under free-market principles, there would be no such thing as an "illegal" immigrant nor would the labor market be restricted in any way, just as there would be no such thing as a restriction on "foreign" currencies. What ever happened to sticking to your principles Ron Paul?

Here's another case of failed logic: Shailendra Anjara's essay entitled "The Capital Truth: What works for commodities should work for cash."

Anjara is a free-market capitalist, blindly following the dogma of deregulation. I don't see her arguing for the free movement of people across borders.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Walt Whitman's Commandments

Preface to Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass"

"This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body. ... The poet shall not spend his time in unneeded work. He shall know that the ground is always ready ploughed and manured ... others may not know it but he shall. He shall go directly to the creation. His trust shall master the trust of everything he touches ... and shall master all attachment."

Friday, March 12, 2010

Close the Carried Interest Tax Loophole Now

At a congressional hearing on the subject, Warren Buffett said, “If you believe in taxing people who earn income on their occupation, I think you should tax people on carried interest.”

A tax loophole that saves private equity and hedge fund managers billions of dollars every year has existed since 1954. Yes, that's right. Taxpayers have been subsidizing these multi-millionaires for 56 years. For three years in a row, the House of Representatives has passed a bill to close this loophole. The Senate has failed to pass the bill, so the loophole still exists. It's a joke. Who in the Senate is going to be a leader and stand for what's right?

James Surowiecki has a brilliant and brief analysis in the New Yorker.

US PIRG has an excellent statement on the need to close the loophole.