Sunday, May 30, 2010

It's really nice that President Obama takes responsibility for the Gulf of Mexico disaster.

I am wondering just what the hell that means, tho. Does he have an army of deep sea submersibles and giant robots ready to staunch the flow of oil by stuffing material from neutron stars down the pipe at a depth of a mile below the surface? Is he going to order the use of some of our stockpile of nuclear bombs to bomb the open wellhead and shut down the flow of oil?

If not, I am not sure what the hell the President is going to do about this. It is an unfortunate fact that the people who have the most knowledge that might be able to help us out here are the same flippin' people who got us into this mess in the first place. It isn't like the federal government has the technology at hand to fix this.

Now, of course, if this had happened during the Bush administration, we could have had Karl Rove just conjure us an alternative reality of their own making, where millions of barrels of oil weren't going to contaminate every single beach and marshland on the Gulf Coast, kill off all marine and animal life in the area and generally fuck up the environment for decades to come.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

So Rand Paul thinks that accidents just happen all by themselves?

Here is a recent quote from Mr. Paul on the ongoing BP-caused ecological disaster.

What I don’t like from the president’s administration is this sort of, ‘I’ll put my boot heel on the throat of BP,’ ” Mr. Paul said, referring to a remark by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar about the oil company. “I think that sounds really un-American in his criticism of business. I’ve heard nothing from BP about not paying for the spill. And I think it’s part of this sort of blame-game society in the sense that it’s always got to be someone’s fault instead of the fact that sometimes accidents happen.”

I cannot begin to explain how many misguided notions and outright lunacy those few sentences contain. And to think that this is from who will probably be a U.S. senator by the end of the year is absolutely frightening.

But let’s talk about that bit about accidents “happening.” Paul’s quote makes it sound as if accidents don’t have a cause. They sometimes just appear for no reason and are totally unexpected. This is absolutely incorrect, and this is a very ridiculous thing to say about very complex, man-made technology. This happens to be an area that I know something about.

Since the beginning of the 20th Century, there has been a study of industrial accidents -- why they occur and what can be done to prevent them. If you put in the correct search words, you can find all sorts of books on Amazon that talks about accidents and their causes. This is a very specialized field of study done by a number of very dedicated and intelligent people. Accidents do not just “happen.” There are causes, usually multiple ones, for every serious industrial accident. The response of our society has been to mandate certain safeguards and minimum acceptable safety standards by the Code of Federal Regulations. Every important and potentially hazardous industry in this country is regulated in this manner – aviation, railroads, finance, drugs, mining, nuclear power… The list goes on and on. We do this for the common good of the American people.

When things start going wrong is when companies start taking shortcuts or bypassing these regulations. This is not to say that these regulations are perfect and, if followed, would prevent every accident. That is not true. But it would be much less likely that a catastrophic accident occurs if the appropriate regulations are followed. And, of course, there is always the inevitable pushback from the industry and their lobbyists. Money and political pressure can do wonders to weaken and even remove protective legalization. Alternatively, companies can just ignore the rules and fight tooth and nail when challenged. This appears to be what Massey Energy was doing when a coal mine they owned in West Virginia, the Upper Big Branch Mine, experienced an explosion that killed twenty nine workers. From Wiki:

In 2009, the company, Massey Energy, was fined a total of $382,000 for "serious" unrepentant violations for lacking ventilation and proper equipment plans as well as failing to utilize its safety plan properly.[18] In the previous month, the authorities cited the mine for 57 safety infractions.[19] The mine received two citations the day before the explosion and in the last five years has been cited for 1,342 safety violations. The CEO of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, has received criticism for his apparent disregard of safety.[20]

Accidents do not “just happen.” There are causes. They might be from heretofore unknown or truly unexpected causes, but there are causes. In the case of the catastrophic explosion about the Deep Horizon oil drilling rig and subsequent oil release from the bottom of the sea floor, it appears that many regulations were not complied with and many warning signs were ignored. Yet, BP and Transocean pressed ahead. The most important considerations were schedule and cost.

There is a concept called “magical thinking.” I even wrote a post about it myself a while back. But this concept seems to have taken firm root in the boardrooms American corporations and the front line management of American industry. The thinking seems to go, “We don’t need to follow these regulations. They are not doing any good and just costs us money to follow them. Nothing bad is going to happen. Trust us.” That’s what it can be boiled down to. “Trust us. Nothing bad is going to happen.”

This is the thinking that has given us the worst ecological disaster in American history, which no one knows how to fix. Even if these geniuses figure out how to stop the huge flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico today, we will still be faced with decades of the effects of the oil that is already there. This thinking gave us the worst financial meltdown this country has seen since the Great Depression. This thinking gave us twenty nine dead miners in West Virginia.

Accidents occur for reasons, and regulations have been put in place to reduce the likelihood of something going terribly wrong because of the reasons that we know about. Willfully ignoring these regulations in the chase for ever-expanding profits for people who are already rich is obscene.

The corporations in this country, along with the government agencies that are tasked with oversight, need a drastic change of focus and purpose. Regulations are not evil. Accidents do not “just happen.” Unfortunately, I believe that this country is too far gone. Huge corporations are too voracious, too powerful, too willing to do whatever it takes to retain and expand their profits. Following rules are for little people.

Friday, May 28, 2010

O.K., let's recap what's going on here....

- We have an uncontrollable oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that's already the largest ecological disaster in the country's history. No one really knows what to do about it, except the perpetrators want to cover their butts so they don't have to pay any more in damages and cleanup than they believe they absolutely have to.

- North Korea is threatening to declare war on South Korea, which the U.S. will no doubt have to respond to if it actually comes to that.

- We still have two wars going on that we are only not winning, but we have no idea how to get out of. Yet, people keep dying, money is being spent by the billions on a weekly basis.

- An ongoing financial crisis that can still unravel our economy if we don't watch out, with literally millions of people out of work. Yet, some politicians seem to think this is all somehow their fault and they are just lazy because they don't really want a job.

- The big volcano on Iceland, Katla, seems to be having some rumblings, which does not bode well for anyone.

- Our political system seems to be crumbling before our eyes, where the biggest issues of the day seems to be driven by chickens, job offers, holier-than-thou politicians who keep getting caught with their private parts messed up with other people's private parts, insane television personalities, etc. etc....

You know what? I would really like to go back to bed. This really sucks.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


Above photo and text from here.

In the shadow of Saturn, unexpected wonders appear. The robotic Cassini spacecraft now orbiting Saturn recently drifted in giant planet's shadow for about 12 hours and looked back toward the eclipsed Sun. Cassini saw a view unlike any other. First, the night side of Saturn is seen to be partly lit by light reflected from its own majestic ring system. Next, the rings themselves appear dark when silhouetted against Saturn, but quite bright when viewed away from Saturn and slightly scattering sunlight, in the above exaggerated color image. Saturn's rings light up so much that new rings were discovered, although they are hard to see in the above image. Visible in spectacular detail, however, is Saturn's E ring, the ring created by the newly discovered ice-fountains of the moon Enceladus, and the outermost ring visible above. Far in the distance, visible on the image left just above the bright main rings, is the almost ignorable pale blue dot of Earth.

That may be the most beautiful photograph ever taken. Click on the photo to get a larger version, and then look for the dot in the upper left hand quadrant. That's Earth. Everything that you and I have ever read about or heard about took place there. Except for a few things that happened on the moon, of course.

The surface of Saturn's moon Dione, up close.

Tiny moon Janus, seen before Saturn's rings, with massive moon Titan beyond.

Saturn’s polar region.

Saturn's moon Enceladus, seen just in front of Saturn.

The four bottom photos from here, courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Harvey Fierstein as Tevye!?!

O.K., I admit, to my knowledge, of never having heard Harvey Fierstein sing. But in the films I have seen him in (say, oh, Independence Day), his voice sounds somewhat like he had his vocal chords sent through a food processor. I am just having a difficult time envisioning this. And having seen the stage version with Topol, I am thinking I probably won't be taking the time to see this one.

Friday, May 21, 2010

My own dalliance with racism and bigotry.

The year was very late 1969 or early 1970, when our family, now under the control of new a stepfather, moved from Colorado to rural Alabama. It doesn’t take a huge amount of imagination to understand that this was a huge change for me, a rather shy, unhappy, impressionable and neurotic teenager just starting high school, moving from a relatively progressive place to a very small town in the Deep South, where the Civil War was still very fresh in the cultural consciousness. The Civil Rights movement was not some distant event that today’s kids read in their history books. We were less than seven years removed from the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, attack dogs and fire hoses unleashed on peaceful protestors, also in Birmingham, and the abduction and murder of three young people in Philadelphia, Mississippi whose only crime was attempting to sign up black people to vote. This was the environment into which I found myself dumped, terribly unprepared and uninformed.

My new hometown, which shall remain nameless in this telling, was very similar to every other small town in the Deep South at this time. There was an almost identical town about seven miles to the west. They could have swapped names and it would have hardly made a difference. Unemployment was high, alcoholism was a problem. The towns had very little to offer in terms of employment or entertainment. Both had a white population and a black population that got along marginally well. For the most part, there was no overt hostility between the two groups and there were true positive feelings among a number of individuals. But the subject of race was there. It was always there.

It wasn’t very long after I started in the local high school that I found myself labeled as a “Yankee.” That was, without a doubt, not a compliment. After all, I talked differently. I wore different clothes and tended to have longer hair those days. This was before it became acceptable for country music stars to have long hair. I was an outsider, and that usually means “not acceptable.” Yankee! Outsider! Alien! Looking back, I certainly didn’t do myself any favors. But, at the time, I was just trying to cope with a new family, a sometimes hostile and drunk stepfather and the loss of every friend I had ever managed to make up that point.

At some point in time, I remember being surrounded by a number of the white kids who demanded to know whether or not I was a “nigger lover.” I remember being rather confused by this at the time. I wasn’t certain what that actually meant. My school in Colorado had a total of one black kid in the entire high school, and the football season before I moved away, he had just been voted by the student body as Homecoming King. I don’t remember my reaction to that. I think it was probably confusion, more than anything. I certainly didn’t believe it was somehow “wrong.” However, I do remember that I instantly knew what the answer that my new classmates were expecting from me. I said something to the effect of a very indignant, “No!” I don’t know what would have happened to me if I would have answered otherwise. Probably nothing except some additional ostracism.

The drive-in restaurant in the town (which my stepfather later bought and I was forced to work in when I wasn’t at school or doing school work) had “WHITES ONLY” painted above the walk-up window at the front of the building. There was, of course, the corresponding “COLORED ONLY” sign over the window at the side of the building. This was 1971, not all that long ago. There wasn’t a sign, but it was just an unstated rule that blacks were expected to not come inside into the dining area. Outside was fine, but not inside. During my hours working at the windows at the restaurant, of which there were to be many over the next five years or so, I remember those became my expectations as well. I felt that some unknown code had been violated when a black kid used the window designated for WHITES ONLY to order an ice cream cone. I didn’t say anything, I filled the order. I think it might have been a kid from school. After a few years, that code seem to become relaxed so that the COLORED ONLY window got covered up by equipment so that no one could have used it if they had wanted to. But when it first happened, I do remember feeling uncomfortable.

There was some outward conflict at the school on occasion. I remember one event, which may have lasted several weeks, where there was definitely some animosity going on between the white boys and black boys. It was kid of like a “Jets vs. Sharks” thing from West Side Story. I think it was centered in the higher classes, and I was just a freshman. I remember a bunch of kids standing around, talking, and there were actually some cooler heads trying to prevail. I remember one white kid trying to reason it out saying something like, “Look, if the football team wins, who is it that wins? Is it the colored boys? Or the white boys? No, it’s the team that wins.” Looking back now at that environment and who I remember it was saying that, I am rather impressed. That situation could have easily spiraled out of control. But it didn’t. Everything just went back into the pressure cooker to be heated up a bit more.

The biggest flare up between the two groups of people came not at my town, but the aforementioned town seven miles to the west. It could have just as easily been our town, I suppose. But it wasn’t. The conflict started, if I remember correctly, when several of the white cheerleaders started dating a couple of the black kids who starred on their football and basketball teams. Now, this was definitely crossing a line that the townspeople did not want to see crossed. It came to a head when the two or three couples wanted to go to the prom together. Maybe they succeeded, maybe they didn’t. I honestly don’t remember. But what I am attempting to convey here is my reaction. I don’t remember being outraged. I think my own reaction went something along the lines of, “Gee, those are cute girls. I don’t understand. They couldn’t get a date with a white boy?” No doubt I was feeling a bit left out, like I always did, as I wouldn’t have been able to get a date at that time if my life had depended on it. I cannot say with any amount of certainty what the girls’ motivations were. No doubt they truly liked the black kids, and they were stars on the sports teams, after all. But I imagine a healthy dose of rebellion was in there as well. “You aren’t going to tell ME who I can and can’t date!” I can now respect them for that.

I got along, for the most part, O.K. with the black kids in my class. I didn’t know what to say to them, really. The black boys were on the basketball team, on which I also played. By “played”, I really mean, “sat on the end of the bench a lot.” The black girls, I just didn’t know what to say to them. But then, I usually didn’t know what to say to girls anyway, so that’s no big surprise. Two of the black girls seemed really nice kids and they were rather well liked. The black boys got into no more or less trouble than did the white kids. Maybe less, now that I think about it. I was treated no better or worse by the black kids than my white classmates.

So, now I come to the reason I started to write this. Racism and bigotry have raised their heads again. We have a black man as president, and that doesn’t seem to be going over very well with a segment of the populace. Thoughts and feelings that have been submerged but still present in our society since my days in high school are popping out all over. Things that used to go unsaid are now being overtly trumpeted by the right wing media personalities and even some local politicians. The focus is now more on Latinos and Muslims instead of blacks, but it’s the same thing. “You are not like me. Therefore, you are bad and are to blame for all of my problems.” I won’t try to rehash the current societal mess. It’s just that I can’t help thinking that I have seen all of this before. I “know” the people who say these things that you would not expect to hear in America in the 21st Century.

Why? What is it with people that we can be trained to view with hostility anything different than ourselves? Based on what I know of history and from my own experiences that I recounted here, I have come to believe that human beings are extremely susceptible to manipulation. Some people may call this “tribal knowledge” or “learning at the feet of your elders.” However, manipulation is as good as any term that I can come up with. I believe that you can get a human being to believe anything if you start early enough and repeat it often enough. Children can be taught values when they are young that they carry with them for the rest of their lives. I remember being taught about The Golden Rule when I was in kindergarten. Now, I may not have always practiced that as diligently as I should have, but I have always believed it. Of course, there is the other side of the coin. Children can be taught distrust, hatred and prejudice as well as what most of us would consider to be more positive attributes of society. Protestants can be taught to hate Catholics. Germans can be taught to hate Jews. Many tribes of Native Americans hated each other and were in a constant state of conflict.

For my part, I am rather ashamed that I fell so easily into that trap. Of course I was not a “nigger lover!” How dare you think that about me! I now hope that was more just a knee-jerk reaction to my intense desire to be accepted than it was to my real beliefs at the time. As I said, I do not remember ever really disliking black people because they were black. I have been uncomfortable around them sometime, as I never knew how I was supposed to act or react, and whether they were going to be hostile to me. But then, I can also remember other times, like working with a black guy at a job at an office supply store, and we got along very well together. During one delivery trip, he and I, along with one other white guy, stopped off at a nightclub where a lot of black people hung out. The club band was practicing and we sat and listened to them for a while. My work buddy introduced us white guys to the rest and we sat around and got high. Being a head trumps being a racist, I suppose. I suppose I can feel somewhat mollified by the fact that really don’t believe I ever felt any animosity toward anyone because they were black. I was just reacting to the pressures of the times and of high school.

I am now married to a very nice Asian woman and have been for almost 20 years. We adopted her niece, who is also Asian, it should go without saying, as our own daughter. I have known many black people and gotten along with them well, as I have other “different” people such as gays and lesbians. I am a “good” progressive. The only time I really dislike someone is not because of their skin color, religion or sexual orientation, but because I perceive the person to be a jerk. I am extremely proud of the fact that the United States of America, with its very messy and unfortunate history regarding race relations, has a black man as President. I am the epitome of open-mindedness and acceptance. Until I look past the surface and into my own thoughts and history. Then, I sometimes begin to wonder. Why did I not object to the WHITES ONLY sign above the serving window of our family restaurant? I never questioned that at all, and I wonder why and am rather ashamed that I don't have a good answer. Should I have stood up to the bullies who demanded to know my feelings about my black classmates and told them where to get off? I still dislike thinking about that event and the answer that I so immediately and easily came up with.

Are we ever really truly free from fear and distrust of “The Others”, especially if we have been immersed into a culture that condones that fear and distrust?

It’s an interesting discussion I sometimes have with myself.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

It seems to me that Mexico has a very large coastline on the Gulf of Mexico.

That might be one reason it is referred to as "The Gulf of Mexico." So, if huge amounts of oil and dead birds and sea life start showing up on Mexico's beaches, I am wondering what they might do. Can a foreign country claim more than $75 million in liabilities from BP?

I am actually very sorry I feel this way, but I find myself somewhat hoping that the beaches around Miami and St. Pete get really fouled with oil. That should get someone's attention. Finally. I have had it with these cretins that are trying to minimize this catastrophe.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Arizona's draconian laws aimed at immigrants take a toll on kid's birthday parties.

First, they came for the piƱatas, and I was silent.

Next, the came for the party clowns who make balloon animals, and I said nothing.

Then, then came for the mimes, and still I said nothing.

Actually, that's not exactly true. I cheered when they came for the mimes.

From Oddly Specific.

Apparently, the Tea Party elite think they can say whatever they are thinking.

From TPM:

Tea Party Leader: Allah Is 'Monkey God'

Well.... That's certainly an fine example of speaking your mind, regardless of the consequences. I can't really imagine any one of Arab heritage ever voting for any of these people. The one good thing about this is that we all know what they really think now. There’s nothing really left to the imagination. The ultra-conservatives of this country seem to be purposely trying to alienate every single person who isn’t white and conservative. That can only be a good thing for us progressives, but it certainly is frightening to watch. Just think if Arizona’s “Show Us Your Papers!” law went national….

Friday, May 14, 2010

Four Year Anniversary for Barking Rabbits.

“Never underestimate the power of denial.” - Wes Bently

My, how time flies. I would like to say something insightful about things that I have learned or enjoyed over the last four years. Unfortunately, my time and insight is rather limited today. Anything I might say would probably be a repeat of some post I have made previously.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

I would have never thought that BP wouldn't have a way to plug a gushing underwater oil well that was already figured out.

Incredible. "Hey, who would have thought that this could happen?" Well, anyone with any sort of engineering background or even a vivid imagination. Anyone who has ever watched any cheesy "scientific experiment gone horribly wrong" B sci-fi movie from the 50's or 60's, that who. This sort of reminds me of a rather old but apparently very rare sci-fi film called "Crack in the World." Some scientists get the brilliant idea to turn a rocket upside down and shoot it INTO the earth. I forgot the point of this little experiment. It all goes horribly wrong and the resultant hole starts a large crack in the ground (hence the name of the film). Actually, two cracks start. Panic ensues. Calamity results. The two cracks eventually come around and merge. The result is that it was like an apple corer had been applied to the Earth. A large chuck was forcibly ejected and, viola! It became another moon.

Oops.... Sorry about that. Certainly didn't see THAT one coming.

O.K., silly analogy. I just am an old sci-fi film buff, so almost everything reminds me of a movie these days.

But what kinds of black belt morons do these people have to be to do something that, in retrospect, looks as dangerous and prone to accidents as it turns out it is without any sort of backup plan?

Unfortunately, that seems to be the way our society is evolving. Risks are not considered. To consider risks and have contingency plans is to "plan for failure." I was actually told that once at a previous job. Anything that anyone can imagine automatically becomes "the plan", which will be wildly successful.

Balls. People have forgotten that life itself is a dangerous business. Pushing the technological envelope in ways that haven't been tried before (such as drilling to such depths in very deep water), by definition, is a dangerous business. To not recognize some possible but somewhat likely outcomes other than the one that you really want to occur is to be blind. Stupid. Idiotic. Which about sums up my feelings about our current society.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Hybrids and electric cars are not “green.”

I find myself very annoyed at television commercials about these so-called “green” automobiles that show all sorts of flower, trees and animals, thus implying that these things are actually great for the environment. Hey, they aren’t, O.K.?

What the companies that make these vehicles are implying is that it is a matter of degrees. Nothing that contributes pollution to the environment is good for the environment. It is just “less bad” than the alternatives, and even that may be a red herring. I maintain that "less bad than the alternative" is not really "being green." And, when the big picture is considered, even being "less bad" is something that really hasn't been proven yet.

What is not being considered about electric cars that need to be recharged fairly often is that this electricity must come from somewhere. It must be generated, and the overwhelming source of electrical power in this country is from coal-fired power plants. Burning coal on a large scale is not and never will be “green.” If everyone were to stop driving vehicles that burn gasoline, that would indeed be a major contribution to the removal of pollutants in our air. However, has anyone ever checked to see how much more electricity that we might need to support this huge increase for demand? I suppose some of the effects of that demand might be mitigated if everyone were to charge up their vehicles at night when the normal demand is lower. Still, that’s a lot of juice that needs to come from somewhere.

Let’s talk about the batteries needed for a bit. Batteries can be considered to be a hazardous material. If we have huge amounts of electric cars and hybrids that need to have significant battery capacity, what happens to these batteries when these cars start to be junked in huge quantities? We are going to need a complete new industry that deals with recycle of used automotive batteries. There are many problems with the normal lead-acid battery that are normally used in today’s vehicles. There are also problems with lithium-ion batteries that are being used in aviation applications. Perhaps the most promising approach would be to use fuel cells, which convert a fuel, such as hydrogen, into electricity. However, if we were to want to use massive amounts of fuel cells in our transportation system as it exists today, when we are going to need a huge source of hydrogen. How are we going to do that? It takes a huge amount of electricity to disassociate hydrogen from oxygen in water. Now we are back to the problem of how are we going to generate that much electricity? And we all remember what happened to the Hindenburg, right? Hydrogen is a very explosive gas.

The problem, ecologically speaking, with hybrids is that they indeed reduce the amount of gasoline consumed, and therefore reduce emissions. However, hybrids also introduce the same problem with batteries that was not present with purely gasoline-powered vehicles. These batteries need to be produced, and produced in an environmentally friendly as method as possible, and a way must be devised to dispose of these batteries in a similar manner.

I am not arguing that our society should not use these types of vehicles. I am just saying that we should not let ourselves, once again, be deluded into thinking that we are doing the “right thing” by an industry who wants to sell you something. Let’s not just fix one big problem by introducing new problems. And, most certainly, let's not just pretend we are doing our part because we happen to drive one of these new vehicles and figure that everything else is just "someone else's problem."

Friday, May 07, 2010

Another great shot from Hubble.

Because I am really bummed out by everything else that's going on....

(You can click on the picture to get a slightly larger version.)

I have maintained, for quite some time, that the stock market is just legalized gambling.

If you know what you are doing, there are opportunities there for you to make a killing. There are also opportunities for you to lose your life’s savings, even if you do know what you are doing. I remember one person at work was very offended when I said that during a discussion. "No, it's not!" It was like I had insulted his mother. That was the depth of his reaction. But I think I have been proven to be correct. The stock market is just one big roll of the dice, in my mind.

May 6, 2010 is a case in point. Getting near the end of the trading day, The Dow Jones Industrial dropped almost 1000 points. It was in total freefall. Brokers were panicking, CNBC “analysts” were panicking, and certainly those people heavily invested in the stock market that set up their Blackberries to get programmed alerts if certain things happen were panicking.

From HuffPo:

At this point no one knows why. Some say it was sudden burst of worries about Greece's debt and the increasing possibility of a default that might cause a run by global investors. Others point to a "trading error." Giant high-speed computers generate millions of trades based on instructions embedded in computer programs designed to move fast enough to beat everyone else. So when there's a glitch in one of them it can immediately spread to all the other programs designed to move just as fast. Some say it was an erroneous trade entered by someone at a big Wall Street bank who mistyped an order to sell a large block of stock, and that the big drop in that stock's price (Procter & Gamble?) triggered "sell" orders across the market.

Regardless of why it happened, it's further evidence that the nation's and the world's capital markets have become a vast out-of-control casino in which fortunes can be made or lost in an instant -- which would be fine except for the fact that most of us have put our life savings there. Pension funds, mutual funds, school endowments -- the value of all of this depends on a mechanism that can lose a trillion dollars in minutes without anyone having a clear idea why. So much of the market now depends on computer programs and mathematical models that no one fully understands, so much trading is in the hands of a few people whose fat thumbs or momentary carelessness might sink the economy, so much of global wealth now depends on who can move their money quickest at the slightest provocation -- that we are toying with financial disaster every day. The luck or foolishness of a few traders, and inside knowledge and information that some possess and others don't, combined with ultra high-speed computers, put us all at the whim of a system whose risk is way out of proportion to any public benefits.

The stock market now is just one more out-of-control element in our out-of-control society, and this event, if there was still a doubt after the the Big Meltdown of 2008, should give absolute proof for anyone willing to actually see. That’s the problem, though. There are very few people who are willing to actually see what is going on and to take action. There are too many vested interests that want to maintain things exactly the way they are.

This is just such an obvious indication (to me, anyway) that we have lost control of the beast who once served us so well. If this article is true and no one really knows what happened, or if they do know for certain that it was some sort of “error” on a big trade that triggered all sorts of computer programs to automatically kick in with their sell orders, then we have big trouble on our hands. This is Frankenstein’s Monster. We will never know when it will turn on its “Masters.”

The stock market is a very strange thing, in my mind. It’s original intent was to provide industry the working capital it needed to invest in itself. Money has to come from somewhere in order to expand. Therefore, stocks and stockholders were invented as a way for the company to obtain the capital it needed and for the stockholders to have an investment in that company. I wasn’t around back then, of course, but my understanding of the early Twentieth Century mindset is that stocks were regarded as long-term investments. They were something to be held on to, rather like U.S. Savings Bonds are today. The stock market was not really invented for people and corporations to make a quick buck or huge fortunes by manipulating their holdings on a daily basis. But that’s what it has become, and everyone has gotten in on the game.

I haven’t trusted the stock market in a long time. I have had almost 100% of my holdings (mostly two 401K accounts) in bonds and stable growth funds. Yes, I know that is terribly, terribly conservative. Financially, that’s who I am. If I don’t understand something, I don’t get involved. And I certainly didn’t understand what was going on in the late 90’s and early “aughts.” As a result, I wasn’t pulling down 15 to 20% a year on my investments, like everyone else in this country seemed to think was some sort of God-given right. If they weren’t making that much, there was something terribly wrong and they were going to go find somewhere else to put their money. I have talked to those kinds of people, so I know that mindset existed. However, all these mutual funds and other types of investments that were packaged such that people thought their investments were diversified all collapsed pretty much at the same time, for the same reason. Many people lost 50% or more of their investments, which they had regarded as safe. My investments, on the other hand, kept plugging away at their usual very slow growth, without a single drop in value through this period. Who knows? Maybe I would have come out about the same if I would have been making all sorts of money on my investments and then lost it back. I might be just about in the same place as I am now. But I know that I didn’t really want to experiment with what I see as my retirement. That is not a place for me to be playing around in something I know that I don’t understand. But yet, I seem to be one of the few people in the country who thought like that. Even now, people and companies are still trying to find a way back to those heady days of 20% return on investments. Maybe so. Maybe those days will return eventually. But I know one thing. Until I can be convinced that our financial system isn’t some sort of out-of-control monster that will turn around and devour its “master” without warning, I know that I am going to remain a very conservative investor.

UPDATE: Via Attaturk.

Reports from CNBC and our own sources suggest that it was a Citigroup (C) trader that accidentally entered a sell BILLION-size sell trade, when they meant to do million.

Since the market came back and only ended down over 3%, all the focus now is on what happened. There's going to be an investigation into Proctor & Gamble (PG) trading, Accenture (ACN) and the market as a whole.

O.K., this pretty much makes my point. Any time we can experience an almost instantaneous meltdown of the Dow Jones due to a single keystroke error, then this system is really screwed and we are f*cked. I don't care if the market recovered pretty quickly. This is a screwed up system. One more thing in our society that no one really understands, but is yet entirely of our making.

UPDATE II: It appears that people who should know still have no idea of what caused this instantaneous crash and almost as instantaneous recovery. People, human beings, are going through a huge number of trades to try to figure out what happened. They don't know. I am very intrigued by several reports that a number of trades were "obviously in error" and were being cancelled. Really? Now, just how do people know that? We couldn't tell with the Florida ballots in 2000. What makes for an "erroneous trade"? And how do you "cancel" them without screwing over someone else? Maybe it was because some huge corporations lost lots of money, and that is what made their trades "erroneous?" I wonder if the little guy is getting as good attention.

This all reminds me of that old movie "War Games", where a computer sort of takes over and mixes reality and a test exercise to the possible elimination of the human species. Rather silly movie, if nothing more than the presence of Matthew Broderick. However, the part about the computer taking over and causing vast destruction, without the slightest comprehension by the people who designed the computer and without a hope in hell of heading off the catastrophe? That seems really plausible right now.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

10 Minute History Lesson: Was Katherine Howard a slut?

The final season of Showtime’s The Tudors is having a sexy old time with Katheryn Howard, who viewers first saw as a naked nymph on a garden swing. For subsequent appearances she donned clothes, though given the high-school-cheerleader mien adopted by actress Tamzin Merchant, you’d think that a short skirt and tight pep sweater would be more appropriate.

The real Katheryn was young, no doubt about that, and foolish, impulsive, imperious — but probably not as much of a knockout as the series would have us think. Since no absolutely authenticated portrait of Katheryn exists, we have only the words of her contemporaries — one of whom calls her “a young lady of moderate beauty but superlative grace, in stature small and slender.” The portrait shown here is often identified as Katheryn; if so, it looks like she unfortunately inherited the Howard nose.

Not that an oversized sniffer or her moderate beauty were handicaps. By all accounts, she was full of life: dancing, smiling, entrancing all who saw her. We’d call her bubbly today, and that was a large part of her charm. She certainly dazzled Henry, as she’d dazzled men like Henry Mannox and Francis Dereham before him.

She grew up as the daughter of one of the least wealthy of the Howards — her father was Edmund Howard, brother of the third Duke of Norfolk. He seems to have been a bit of a flub, never gaining Henry VIII’s affection or even his trust. His first marriage was to Jocasta Culpepper, and one of their ten children was Katheryn Howard. The impecunious family welcomed the chance for Katheryn to live with her grandmother, the Dowager Duchess, joining young people of her relatively high birth but low economic standing in what amounted to an aristocratic boarding and finishing school. Living in a super-heated (but half-supervised) atmosphere of courtly pubescence, Katheryn must have shared in the declarations of love that preceded sexual dalliance. Our own age might label her emotionally neglected by her family; certainly she and Dereham seem to have made promises to each other that she’d later claim amounted to a pre-contract of marriage. Her grandmother called it something else when she caught wind of the affair, beating Dereham and sending Katheryn to the chaplain for moral correctives.

It was her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, and Bishop Gardiner who probably brought her to Henry’s attention — not the work of Francis Bryan, as the TV series would have it — as a way of breaking the Anne of Cleves marriage and bringing down Thomas Cromwell. Did Katheryn tell the anti-Cleves faction about her chequered past? Unlikely; though sexually experienced, she was a political innocent and probably saw only what was dangled before her: the chance to be queen of England.

Why did she throw the chance away, first by engaging Dereham as her secretary, then by having an affair with one of Henry’s gentlemen of the bedchamber, Thomas Culpepper? That secret died with her, but in the case of Culpepper — most likely a cousin — it seems to have been an 18-year-old’s love for a young man universally praised for his good looks. Her barely-literate declaration of that love pulses passion across the centuries:

Master Culpeper,

I heartily recommend me unto you, praying you to send me word how that you do. It was showed me that you was sick, the which thing troubled me very much till such time that I hear from you praying you to send me word how that you do, for I never longed so much for a thing as I do to see you and to speak with you, the which I trust shall be shortly now. That which doth comfortly me very much when I think of it, and when I think again that you shall depart from me again it makes my heart die to think what fortune I have that I cannot be always in your company. It my trust is always in you that you will be as you have promised me, and in that hope I trust upon still, praying you that you will come when my Lady Rochford is here for then I shall be best at leisure to be at your commandment, thanking you for that you have promised me to be so good unto that poor fellow my man which is one of the griefs that I do feel to depart from him for then I do know no one that I dare trust to send to you, and therefore I pray you take him to be with you that I may sometime hear from you one thing. I pray you to give me a horse for my man for I had much ado to get one and therefore I pray send me one by him and in so doing I am as I said afor, and thus I take my leave of you, trusting to see you shortly again and I would you was with me now that you might see what pain I take in writing to you.

Yours as long as life endures,

Then to Culpepper. The Tudors is an intriguing series — not because of what they get wrong, because there’s a lot of that, but because of what they get right. In this case, theirs might be the first historical retelling to include the nasty back story on Thomas Culpepper, so often shown as an innocent young man who unfortunately bites forbidden fruit. Yes, the episode showing Culpepper raping the wife of a park-keeper is accurate; he was convicted of that crime and of the murder of at least one person who came to the woman’s aid. However, he was pardoned by Henry, who sometimes favored such high-spirited young gentlemen. (He did the same for the Earl of Surrey, but don’t get me going about the series’ inaccuracies regarding that scion of English nobility.)

With Culpepper and Katheryn, who seduced whom? Possibly Katheryn was hoping to become pregnant by Culpepper and pass off his baby as the king’s, since Henry’s health and obesity made another heir a long shot — but it’s more likely that once she realized how under the gold-tissue trappings of royalty lay an aging, ailing man, Katheryn became disillusioned and ripe for an emotional connection of her own making.

In any case, though several romances of Katheryn include in her dying words on the scaffold the statement “I die queen of England, but I would rather have been the wife of Thomas Culpepper,” there’s little doubt she felt the sentiment. Ill-educated, hungry for affection and fed on visions of courtly love, Katheryn inspires considerable pity. In the bare-bones picture we have of her inner life, there are hints that she was playing at a game of the courtly ideal, armed with little beyond her youth and energy. It wasn’t enough. Abandoned by Henry, repudiated by the Howards, she had to face death alone. The night before her short life ended, she had an executioner’s block brought to her rooms so she could practice placing her head properly. The image is heartbreaking. Was she hoping, perhaps, that the physical grace she’d relied on for sustenance would be enough to take her into the next world?

(Posted by Philm Phan. For more on Henry's wives, this one about Anne of Cleves, click here.)

The Georgia legislature is at it again, gives thumbs up to carrying guns in Atlanta Hartsfield airport.

From U.S.A. Today:

Lawmakers in Georgia have approved a bill that would allow gun owners to carry their licensed firearms at parts of Atlanta Hartsfield, despite the airport's vigorous opposition.

The legislation, which is waiting for Gov. Sonny Perdue's signature, would permit carrying of firearms in areas that are not controlled by the federal government, such as terminals and parking lots.

It expands on a state law passed in 2008 that allows Georgia residents with firearm licenses to bring concealed weapons onto public transportation, in parks and recreational areas and into restaurants that serve alcohol. Gun advocates have since been lobbying to expand the law to include the airport.

Well, now. Isn’t that just the most wonderful thing you could imagine? I am betting that if they could have gotten away with it, they would have approved carrying guns into areas controlled by the federal government, including airplanes. That’s how insane this seems to have gotten. There is absolutely no reason to need to carry weapons anywhere near an airport. What’s the point? Does the Georgia legislature really think that people with guns will deter hijackers or terrorists? Or is it more just because those evil lie-burals don’t want guns at airports, as well as many other places? This goes to the point I made in an earlier post. It just has to do with human psychology and what passes for social norms these days. Conservatives promoting gun ownership are now hard-wired to not accept ANY limits. There doesn’t have to be a reason, other than “no one tells ME where I can carry my gun!” That’s obviously the only rationale at play here.

Christ, don’t these people have real problems to fix?

Update: Louisiana, not to be outdone, introduces a bill that would allow carrying people to bring guns into churches.

"God gives us locks on our doors," said Horton, adding: "We buy fire extinguishers in case there's a fire." This bill would simply offer a "final stage of security" for those churches that choose it.


Well, it's good to know that the state of Louisiana doesn't have any REAL problems that they might try to deal with.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Rush Limbaugh thinks SWAT teams blew up Deep Horizons drilling rig.

From Think Progress:

LIMBAUGH: I want to get back to the timing of the blowing up, the explosion out there in the Gulf of Mexico of this oil rig….Now, lest we forget, ladies and gentlemen, the carbon tax bill, cap and trade that was scheduled to be announced on Earth Day. I remember that. And then it was postponed for a couple of days later after Earth Day, and then of course immigration has now moved in front of it. But this bill, the cap-and-trade bill, was strongly criticized by hardcore environmentalist wackos because it supposedly allowed more offshore drilling and nuclear plants, nuclear plant investment. So, since they’re sending SWAT teams down there, folks, since they’re sending SWAT teams to inspect the other rigs, what better way to head off more oil drilling, nuclear plants, than by blowing up a rig? I’m just noting the timing here.

So… SWAT teams, no doubt at the beck and call of President Obama, went down to the Gulf of Mexico and blew up an oil drilling rig, causing perhaps the biggest environmental catastrophe this country has seen, because… environmentalist wackos are very concerned that more drilling will likely result in a catastrophic accident, so.... they cause an environmental catastrophe on purpose?

Is that what Rush is really saying? I think that is the point he is making, but I can’t tell. That would sort of like be burning down your house because you are afraid that your house might burn down. Is that what Rush is insinuating there?

These people don’t even care if they are making sense. They just say whatever comes into their tiny, tiny little minds that is critical of Obama and the Democrats. Nothing needs to actually make any logical sense. The only objective is to get crap out there that shows how evil Democrats really are.

Absolutely insane….

Sunday, May 02, 2010

On Human Nature, Safety Critical Industries and Big, Big Money. Part 2.

I rather promised a Part 2 to this post without really having a plan on what I would write about. I was on a roll and felt I could have kept going. Therefore, Part 2 was promised without really having been thought out past a few points I wanted to make. I’ll just start it running and see where we end up.

I just cannot understand what motivates people in safety critical industries, as well as other important industries such as finance and energy, to act as they do. These people are obviously oblivious to the fact of the damage they are doing to other individuals, families, communities, cities and the entire country. Even when confronted with their misdeeds in front of Congress, even though their misdeeds may, in fact, have been legal but sure as hell look to be immoral and unethical, they appear to be confused as to why anyone would actually suspect them of such actions. Sure, they and their company were making millions/billions, but that’s really beside the point. They would NEVER do anything that would potentially harm anyone, even though such statements look to come from a different universe in light of everything that has happened.

My little electrical co-op here in Washington State was responsible for finally getting tapes and documents from Enron released to the general public. Not only did these documents and tapes show that Enron had been systematically bilking the entire west coast for billions by manipulating the energy markets (such as demanding operators of electrical plants to take them off line for “maintenance” during critical times), they were enjoying themselves while doing it. They made fun of “Grandma Millie” who was going to be in dire straits because of their actions. They were laughing about it. From CBS News:

One trader is heard on tapes obtained by CBS News saying, "Just cut 'em off. They're so f----d. They should just bring back f-----g horses and carriages, f-----g lamps, f-----g kerosene lamps."

And when describing his reaction when a business owner complained about high energy prices, another trader is heard on tape saying, "I just looked at him. I said, 'Move.' (laughter) The guy was like horrified. I go, 'Look, don't take it the wrong way. Move. It isn't getting fixed anytime soon."

California's attempt to deregulate energy markets became a disaster for consumers when companies like Enron manipulated the West Cost power market and even shut down plants so they could drive up prices.

There was quick reaction in Washington to the Enron audiotapes first aired by CBS News last night, and the tapes have become part of the debate over the President's massive energy bill.

"People were talking about market manipulation. People were talking about schemes, people were making jokes," said U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

"While the president would like to have an energy bill, I'd like to have an energy bill that protects consumers," said Cantwell.

Consumers like Grandma Millie, mentioned in one exchange recorded between two Enron employees.

Employee 1: "All the money you guys stole from those poor grandmothers in California?

Employee 2: "Yeah, Grandma Millie man.

Employee 1: "Yeah, now she wants her f-----g money back for all the power you've charged right up, jammed right up her a—for f-----g $250 a megawatt hour."

I just do not have the words to describe what I feel about such people. But they obviously thought nothing of it. It was high school all over again, where the “cool kids” would act maliciously toward a student or group of students, just to show their power over that student/group. To me, it appears to be nothing more than group psychology at work. I keep thinking back to that now rather famous/infamous experiment at Stanford University. That showed that under conditions that were not all that challenging to set up, you can get people to act in very unexpected and dehumanizing ways toward their fellow humans. Once you set up the ‘norm’ for your group in charge, whether they be a group of
“prison guards” in a psychological experiment or a bunch of energy traders for one of the largest companies in the country, you can get them to do whatever you want them to as they understand the rules to be within that group.

The point I am making, I believe, is that American industry today is nothing more than an extension of that Stanford experiment. All who become members of this controlling group are expected to act and think in a very certain way. Part of that is that they really don’t care about their customers, their employees or their country. All that matters is that the amount of money and power that their group amasses is maximized. As that chilling line from the movie “Alien” goes, “All other priorities are rescinded.”

These are social mores we are talking about here. What is now commonplace would have been unthinkable in the past. We have gone back in time, back to the Gilded Age. I have done some reading about the conditions in the mines back then and why the mining unions became so militant. The robber barons of that era thought nothing of subjecting their “employees” to extreme dangers, all in the name of making huge amounts of money for themselves. The employees themselves saw none of that. It all went to the wealthy overlords of corporate America. That’s the same thing that is going on today.

Things really didn’t begin to change in this country until the Great Depression, which knocked some sense into a few people who took it upon themselves to try to correct the system. FDR implemented the New Deal, which dealt with several concerns such as newly devised banking regulations such that the Great Depression would not be repeated and for economic relief for the millions of unemployed. It’s no wonder that conservatives these days are attacking the New Deal and are trying to blame FDR for the Great Depression. It just doesn’t fit in with their narrative that has become part of their paradigm in their control group. Therefore, it must be attacked. History must be made to change.

I could meander around like this for several hours if I kept at it. I will try to put some sort of conclusion or observation on this.

The point is that all these problems that we are seeing in society today are mostly self-inflicted. There is one group who has become very used to holding the levers of power in this country. Their norm is to maximize their profits in any way they can, all other considerations be damned. Those considerations are outside of their paradigm. What I do not get is how they are able to convince themselves that those concerns aren’t their concerns and that their actions can and often do cause suffering across huge swathes of the population. How can they not understand this? What rationalizations are they using in their minds to justify their actions (such as cutting off insurance coverage to cancer patients who have paid their premiums religiously)? I am convinced that I could never act in that way. So, what is it about the human species that allows this “group think” to take over in a way that is ultimately detrimental to us all? The quest for profits is that strong, even when they already have amassed huge amounts of wealth already? The cost of human suffering is somehow worth it to them, since it isn’t they who are suffering?

I am not at all impressed with the human species. We have advanced far from our origins in the plains of Africa, but to think that we have really become a civilized race is to be deluding ourselves about our nature.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Whodathunkit? My nephew is getting punched in the arm by Vice President Biden.

Here's the newspaper link.

Boy, some real harsh comments in the comment section. Much of Colorado is still pretty much a red state.

On Human Nature, Safety Critical Industries and Big, Big Money.

I’ve been really suspicious about the commercials that British Petroleum has been running on TV lately. You know the ones, where there are a bunch of “everyday Americans”, talking about the need for “common sense” energy. One of the things that is always mentioned is, of course, drilling for more oil domestically, which means off-shore oil wells. I have always felt that these actors, who were obviously paid and have rehearsed their lines, would include potential energy sources such as biofuels and wind farms as sops. Those are just throwaway lines to make BP look like they care about diversity. I wonder how many wind farms and biofuel projects that BP really has going right now?

No, their main goal was to open up America’s coastal waters for new oil drilling. That’s the entire point of those commercials. BP couldn’t give a crap about developing wind or solar farms. Those produce electricity, which, unless I am severely mistaken, BP doesn’t market.

BP and all their Big Oil buddies were succeeding in their plans. President Obama had already stated that his administration was opening many areas in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico to more drilling. “Drill, Baby, Drill” goes the refrain. Sarah Palin’s most outstanding accomplishment in the modern lexicon. Thanks to these commercials, and a whole lot of money funneled to politicians (Republicans and Democrats alike), Big Oil had won. They were getting their prize, and they essentially didn’t have to do much more than that.

That is, they had won until BP shot itself, along with the rest of the country, in the proverbial foot by the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform, which killed 11 people. That would have been bad enough all by itself, but now we are left with an open spigot spewing out crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Unless a super-human effort is made to stop it, the resulting slick will foul the beaches of Louisiana and Mississippi within days. Current news stories indicate that the entire pocket of oil might just gush out into the Gulf before the geniuses at BP can figure out how to cap the wound.

I didn’t trust BP before this accident, and I certainly don’t trust them now. The company apparently refused to include a half million dollar safety device that is designed to stop this specific accident from happening. Brazil apparently mandates such safety devices for drilling around their country. Shell Oil apparently includes such devices on their wells, even though the U.S. government doesn’t mandate they be used. The story I saw said that BP didn’t include such a safety device because it was too expensive.

I would bet that BP easily spent a half million bucks on lobbying congressmen. There’s something more than just saving every single dollar that they can. BP and a whole lot of other companies in many other safety-critical industries (such as coal mining) refuse to include basic safety features for their operations and their employees just because they can, because they don’t want anyone to tell them that they must. It is against their principles. No one is going to tell them how to run their business! And that includes, in their minds, including a bunch of unnecessary stuff related to safety that would only slow things down, even though the money and effort spent wouldn’t amount to a drop in the bucket of their overall operations. And besides, what could happen? Trust us. We have it all under control…

I believe that’s what’s behind this. All the news in the last few months about industrial accidents has all include information about the company’s efforts to avoid government oversight and regulation. All of them. The case against the owner of the Sago coal mine in West Virginia is well documented. It was a matter of principle for the owners. They were not, under any circumstances, going to let the government tell them what the must do. Period. I have seen reports of the same thing going on with this and other BP drilling rigs. There was a recent explosion of a Tesoro petroleum refinery in Anacortes, Washington that killed seven people. That plant had a history of safety violations. It is also an unfortunate fact that companies with a history of safety violations, like BP, Sago and Tesoro, always seem to be able to fight against the fines and required fixes, where they end up paying chump change. The result is that nothing happens. Until something really terrible happens, like an oil platform explosion, a coal mine explosion or a petroleum refinery explosion.

That’s how it goes these days. These huge corporations are the ones that actually run the country, given their army of lawyers and lobbyists and a sea of cash they are quite willing to spend on fighting regulations and oversight. They don’t mind spending millions, even billions, to fight against regulations when what they are fighting against would seem to be less expensive in the long run.

This is a matter of principle for them, these “giants of industry.” Nothing is going to change in this country until we have a very large change of perspective. In the 80’s, this was referred to as a “paradigm shift.” We don’t use that term anymore. But that is what we need. But given human nature and the huge amounts of money we are talking about, there is almost a zero chance of that happening.

Part 2 of this later.