When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson

31 August 2008

Restrain these immoderate rains, we humbly beseech thee

I grew up on the Episcopal Church's 1928 edition of the Book of Common Prayer.  It was the prayer book in use at the parochial school I attended, and our congregation was among the last in the diocese to switch (under protest) to the 1979 revision.

Anyway.  As I watched the news tonight, and saw the grim projections of Gustav's landfall in the Gulf Coast by morning, I recalled a prayer from the 1928 prayer book.  We must have said it countless times in our North Carolina parish; hurricanes and bad storms were not infrequent occurrences in our part of the country. 

It contains good stiff-upper-lip understatement, but gets the point across:
For Fair Weather.
ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech thee, of thy great goodness, to restrain those immoderate rains, wherewith thou hast afflicted us. And we pray thee to send us such seasonable weather, that the earth may, in due time, yield her increase for our use and benefit; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Wasilla City Hall

Wasilla City Hall
Originally uploaded by djcn0te.

Picture: From the comments thread of a post at Washington Monthly, courtesy of Carrie.

All by way of pointing out that there's a really good comment thread here... enrevanche regulars Phil, wtf, Chap, and Buck all chime in.

In America, soon, social network finds you

Bradley Bloch has a great idea: develop social networking software that tracks the relationships of the world's movers and shakers; kind of an interactive Who's Who for the 21st century:
Last week, the New York Times reported that Rielle Hunter’s lawyer, who issued a statement in December that Hunter was not carrying John Edwards’ child, and Andrew Young’s lawyer, who shortly thereafter issued a statement that Hunter was carrying his client’s child, were not unconnected to each other. Instead, both had worked on legal cases with Fred Baron, the influential trial lawyer and former finance chairman of Edwards’ presidential campaign. The link between two supposedly independent players via a key Edwards advisor suggests that attempts to control the scandal have been much more extensive than first reported.

We would have known all this from the start if the three lawyers, like so many millions of other people, had set up profiles on a social networking site such as LinkedIn or Facebook and connected to each other. But, of course, high-profile lawyers don’t tend to spend much time on such sites, and when they do, they’re not likely to announce connections they’d rather the rest of us not know about.


Most of us have our own networks of friends, classmates and colleagues – largely invisible to the outside world – that we vigorously tap when looking for a new job or trying to get our children into selective schools. Even so, we never fail to be surprised, if not shocked, when other people’s invisible connections turn out to play an important role in explaining events. We rarely think to look at the world through a network lens except when we want something or when things don’t go as we expect.

Indeed, a remarkable number of our after-the-fact analytical activities, from investigative reporting to seething about being passed over for a promotion, are ultimately attempts to piece together other people’s networks, even if we don’t always recognize them as such. We would be better off if we assumed from the start that networks and connections play an ongoing role in shaping people’s priorities and behaviors, including our own.

Taking Facebook to the Next Level (Bradley W. Bloch, Los Angeles Times, 24 August 2008)

I can't wait for the public beta. :-)

Be everywhere now

Quicksilver fans, rejoice: a new project, Ubiquity, takes the Quicksilver experience and places it on any platform that can run Firefox.
Ubiquity is an experimental Firefox extension that gives you a powerful new way to interact with the Web.

You're used to telling Firefox where you want to go by typing Web addresses into the URL bar:

With Ubiquity installed, you'll be able to tell Firefox what you want it to do by typing commands into a new Ubiquity input box.

The commands are pretty straightforward, but you can define your own and then chain them together and do things that are pretty mindsnappingly powerful.

Having a browser that "understands" natural language has enormous potential. Ubiquity is in the earliest of prototype stages, but seems stable and is already a useful tool in my online kit.

Related: Introducing Ubiquity (Mozilla Labs blog - August 2008)

Not as much traffic in these parts since the new Interstate came through

Invented by American computer scientists during the 1970s, the Internet has been embraced around the globe. During the network’s first three decades, most Internet traffic flowed through the United States. In many cases, data sent between two locations within a given country also passed through the United States.


Some Internet technologists and privacy advocates say [post-Patriot Act US interception and filtering of Internet traffic] may be hastening the shift in Canadian and European traffic away from the United States.

“Since passage of the Patriot Act, many companies based outside of the United States have been reluctant to store client information in the U.S.,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. “There is an ongoing concern that U.S. intelligence agencies will gather this information without legal process. There is particular sensitivity about access to financial information as well as communications and Internet traffic that goes through U.S. switches.”
Internet Traffic Begins to Bypass The US (John Markoff, New York Times, 29 August 2008)

Gilding the lily

31 Aug: Updated, because I mangled Greg's comment in the original version.

Greg sends:
Cats love cardboard boxes, but they don't look nice strewn around the house—so the Evil Mad Scientists DIY site details how to assemble a hilarious cardboard box "chaise lounge" for your favorite kitty. All it takes is a few boxes and some cutting and folding, and they offer a PDF pattern download to get it just right. Once your feline's chaise is done, she'll love having a cardboard box to lounge in and you'll have a conversation-starter in your liviing room.

Lifehacker: Weekend Project: Make Your Own Cardboard Cat Chaise (30 August 2008)

Greg comments: "Every cat I have ever known is perfectly happy with the original box."

Me too.

29 August 2008

It's Palin for VP

I think McCain made a canny choice. It was a bold one, anyway: this move is either going to look nuts or brilliant in under a month.

Depending on the polls you believe, between 20% and 30% of Hillary Clinton voters were self-reporting as "likely to vote for McCain," and that's *before* JMC picked a woman as running mate. So there's the obvious, transparent and cynical appeal to disgruntled Clintonistas. But the thing is, this might work!

Independents are still very much in play. McCain himself, though pro-life (as is Palin) can best be described as a moderate social conservative with occasional tendencies towards actual tolerance, and Palin has been described as "as libertarian as you can get and still be on a major ticket" by no less than the editor of Reason magazine.

Plenty of people have modestly libertarian views (including many independent voters!) - economically conservative but socially tolerant.

Best punditry I've seen so far:

Michael Barone

Marc Armbinder

28 August 2008

"When I get angry, I stamp my feet..."

Therapy and healing for disappointed Clinton supporters, via Jon Stewart:

True 'til it ain't funny

By the way, the best line of the convention so far? Ted Strickland of Ohio, when he echoed the 1988 Democratic convention joke about George H.W. Bush, that he was born on third and thought he hit a triple. Strickland said of George W. Bush that he was born on third and then stole second. It didn't get much attention in any of the commentary, but it's all people were talking about in the bars of Denver that night.
"Declarations" - Peggy Noonan writing in The Wall Street Journal, 28 August 2008

Patience is whittled away; sarcasm often ensues

Sometime over the course of a person’s first year in New York, there usually comes that moment. It can happen in the first days or weeks, or after 10 months. It can happen repeatedly, or without people noticing, at least not at first.

Newcomers suddenly realize either that the city is not working for them or that they are inexorably becoming part of it, or both. They find themselves walking and talking faster.

The subway begins to make sense. Patience is whittled away; sarcasm often ensues. New friends are made, routines established, and city life begins to feel like second nature. In other words, newcomers find themselves becoming New Yorkers.

“It can be lonely, very lonely, and I knew I would find it hard,” said Lisa Phin, 25, who moved to New York from Dallas in late May, and is building a network of friends through events listed on Web sites like Meetup.com. “But if you can stick it out for one year, you’re home free.”
Newcomers Adjust, Eventually, to New York (New York Times, 27 August 2008)

Well, maybe. As of Labor Day 2008, I will have been a full-time resident of NYC for 12 years.

I developed the love-hate relationship with the City almost immediately ("...suddenly realize either that the city is not working for them or that they are inexorably becoming part of it, or both...") but I didn't really self-identify as a New Yorker for maybe a year and a half. (I was impatient and sarcastic long before I moved here, so that particular diagnostic doesn't work for me.)

I have seen *much* quicker transitions, though, and not necessarily from people who are moving here from other large cities.

Basically, you're a New Yorker the moment that you self-identify as being one, and that's conceptually one of my favorite things about the city I now think of as my hometown.

26 August 2008

Behaving badly on vacation

Speaking of travel:
“They scream, they sing, they fall down, they take their clothes off, they cross-dress, they vomit,” Malia’s mayor, Konstantinos Lagoudakis, said in an interview. “It is only the British people — not the Germans or the French.”
Some Britons Too Unruly for Resorts in Europe (New York Times, 26 August 2008)

25 August 2008

A travel life list

Phil has posted his wanna-visit list at Archer Pelican, and asked around for others to share theirs.

Because I am an old married guy :-), elements of this list are on Carrie's life list and/or mine. If they're in italics, I've visited them at some point; bold italics, she and I have visited them together.

Major cities I think we'd enjoy hanging out in:
  • Amsterdam
  • Atlanta
  • Bangkok
  • Barcelona
  • Beijing
  • Berlin
  • Boston
  • Cairo
  • Chicago
  • Copenhagen
  • Hong Kong
  • London
  • Madrid
  • Manila
  • Melbourne
  • Mexico City
  • Milan
  • Montreal
  • Mumbai
  • Nairobi
  • New Delhi
  • Oslo
  • Paris
  • Rome
  • San Francisco
  • Shanghai
  • Singapore
  • Stockholm
  • Sydney
  • Tokyo
  • Toronto
  • Vancouver
  • Vienna
Place my wife is determined to visit and beats the hell out of me why but I'm game and we're planning on doing this:


23 August 2008

The perfect attack dog

To keep track of how the Presidential candidates are reaching out to their supporters (and also as a little experiment to gauge whether the various campaigns are keeping their privacy pledges--so far, all of them are), I've signed up at each major candidate's campaign site under a trackable pseudonym; at Obama's site, I'm "Joe Gauche"; for McCain, "Joe Droit," and at Bob Barr's place, "Joe Liberté".

Mr. Gauche got the text message announcing Obama's pick of Joe Biden early this morning, followed by an e-mail.

Real Clear Politics has been collating the published responses in the major media, and so far I think the New York Post, of all places, has the analysis nailed: Blowhard Could Be Just What Obama Needs.

Biden is, um, articulate to a fault... and he'll make the perfect attack dog, if his performance in the primary debates is any indication. (His one-sentence takedown of Rudy Giuliani -- "He only ever says three things: a noun, a verb, and 9/11" -- was pitch-perfect.)

If the campaign staff can keep Biden anything close to on-message, he'll be very effective.

22 August 2008

Housecats: Not conservation-minded.

Lake County, California reports that a mysterious problem with high water bills for a residential customer has been definitively diagnosed.

Hat tip: deVille.

An appreciation of a "natural"

One of the best teachers it has ever been my privilege to know, Don Houpe, died unexpectedly on Tuesday, at the far-too-young age of 67:
[Dr. Houpe] was the foreign language coordinator at the school, where Ginger Wilson, dean of humanities, said he was a very kind and caring teacher and person.

"He was a real linguist in that he was interested in the structure of the language," she said. "He had a tremendous impact on the students. He was somebody who was exceedingly patient with students, always willing to go the extra mile. He was probably one of the most dependable people you'd ever meet in your life. He loved this school, he loved teaching."

His wife agreed.

"He loved teaching and the School of Science and Math," she said. "It was like his second home. He said that he knew he, as a teacher, he was supposed to challenge the student. But he said in actuality the students were challenging him to be a better teacher."
Dr. Houpe was my Russian teacher at the NC School of Science and Mathematics (where he was a founding member of the excellent faculty) in the early 1980s, but he was much more than that; he was actually a one-man foreign language program unto himself. This gentle, funny, brilliant man was fluent in something like a dozen languages, including the artificial language Esperanto (which he taught as a seminar during "Special Projects Week" at NCSSM back in the day.)

I learned more about the structure of language from studying with Don Houpe than I ever realized at the time. He loved language, and he loved teaching.

A man of his intellect and caliber could've had any job in the world. That he chose to teach high-school students speaks volumes about his character and values.

Dankegon, Dr. Houpe. You will be missed.
"Teaching is the only major occupation of man for which we have not yet developed tools that make an average person capable of competence and performance. In teaching we rely on the "naturals," the ones who somehow know how to teach." -- Peter Drucker

18 August 2008

So you showed up for four years and your tuition checks didn't bounce... okay...

Charles Murray:
Imagine that America had no system of post-secondary education, and you were a member of a task force assigned to create one from scratch. One of your colleagues submits this proposal:

First, we will set up a single goal to represent educational success, which will take four years to achieve no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward to it that seldom has anything to do with what has been learned. We will urge large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability to try to achieve the goal, wait until they have spent a lot of time and money, and then deny it to them. We will stigmatize everyone who doesn't meet the goal. We will call the goal a "BA."

You would conclude that your colleague was cruel, not to say insane. But that's the system we have in place.
For Most People, College Is a Waste of Time (Charles Murray, Wall Street Journal op/ed)

Murray's proposed solution? Certification exams in various competencies, modeled on the CPA exam and similar professional licensure schemes, which wouldn't require a degree (or even a traditional college education) to sit for. You want to prep by taking online classes or just sitting in a public library and reading books? Fine!

I think the man has a good point here.

Perhaps poking the bear with a stick was not such a good idea

Pat Buchanan can usually be counted on to raise some fairly awkward but thoughtful points at key moments in history:
American charges of Russian aggression ring hollow. Georgia started this fight -- Russia finished it. People who start wars don't get to decide how and when they end.

Russia's response was "disproportionate" and "brutal," wailed Bush.

True. But did we not authorize Israel to bomb Lebanon for 35 days in response to a border skirmish where several Israel [sic] soldiers were killed and two captured? Was that not many times more "disproportionate"?

Russia has invaded a sovereign country, railed Bush. But did not the United States bomb Serbia for 78 days and invade to force it to surrender a province, Kosovo, to which Serbia had a far greater historic claim than Georgia had to Abkhazia or South Ossetia, both of which prefer Moscow to Tbilisi?

Is not Western hypocrisy astonishing?

When the Soviet Union broke into 15 nations, we celebrated. When Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia, Montenegro and Kosovo broke from Serbia, we rejoiced. Why, then, the indignation when two provinces, whose peoples are ethnically separate from Georgians and who fought for their independence, should succeed in breaking away?

Are secessions and the dissolution of nations laudable only when they advance the agenda of the neocons, many of who viscerally detest Russia?
Blowback from Bear-Baiting (Patrick Buchanan at HumanEvents.com)

16 August 2008

Navigating Beijing

English-language maps of Beijing are not so plentiful, so comprehensible, or so reliable that the existence of a good one should go unmentioned.


This very detailed map, from MapMatrix, is a 4.6MB PDF file with the following virtues: It is zoom-able, so that as you look at a certain neighborhood the street names appear. It is pan-able, so you can see an overview of the whole city and understand relative locations. And it is search-able, which is a true godsend.


Weller Cartographic offers this and similar maps free, but gently requests a $2 - $5 contribution to underwrite its efforts. That's less than 14 - 35 RMB -- and I've paid much, much more than that for much, much worse Chinese city maps. I've chipped in and hope others will too.
James Fallows: My gift to Olympic visitors: great web-based PDF map of Beijing (August 12, 2008)

Detail from the map, below:
Bejing map detail

15 August 2008

Thought for the day

"I spent a lot of money on booze, birds, and fast cars.  The rest I just squandered."

- George Best (legendary English footballer)

13 August 2008

Federal court upholds Creative Commons-style licenses

So for non-lawgeeks, this won't seem important. But trust me, this is huge.
In non-technical terms, the Court [of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which has jurisdiction over intellectual property law issues - bc] has held that free licenses such as the [Creative Commons] licenses set conditions (rather than covenants) on the use of copyrighted work. When you violate the condition, the license disappears, meaning you're simply a copyright infringer. This is the theory of the GPL and all CC licenses. Put precisely, whether or not they are also contracts, they are copyright licenses which expire if you fail to abide by the terms of the license.
Lawrence Lessig - lessig blog - huge and important news

The comments are absolutely worth reading, by the way, or were as of the writing of this post, anyway.  Mr. Lessig has some very smart and interesting readers.

Who were those masked (little) men?

11 August 2008

Thank God schadenfreude isn't taxable

For all that has been written and said about Hillary Clinton’s epic collapse in the Democratic primaries, one issue still nags. Everybody knows what happened. But we still don’t have a clear picture of how it happened, or why.

The after-battle assessments in the major newspapers and newsweeklies generally agreed on the big picture: the campaign was not prepared for a lengthy fight; it had an insufficient delegate operation; it squandered vast sums of money; and the candidate herself evinced a paralyzing schizophrenia—one day a shots-’n’-beers brawler, the next a Hallmark Channel mom. Through it all, her staff feuded and bickered, while her husband distracted. But as a journalistic exercise, the “campaign obit” is inherently flawed, reflecting the viewpoints of those closest to the press rather than empirical truth.

How did things look on the inside, as they unraveled?

To find out, I approached a number of current and former Clinton staffers and outside consultants and asked them to share memos, e-mails, meeting minutes, diaries—anything that would offer a contemporaneous account. The result demonstrates that paranoid dysfunction breeds the impulse to hoard. Everything from major strategic plans to bitchy staff e-mail feuds was handed over. (See for yourself: much of it is posted online at www.theatlantic.com/clinton.)

Joshua Green: The Front Runner's Fall (The Atlantic, 19 August 2008)

Related: The Hillary Clinton Memos

10 August 2008

Vintage computer ads

If you've been interested in the computer industry for a while, BoingBoing has assembled a collection of 101 vintage magazine ads that will be a real stroll down memory lane.

Just let me get my walkin' cane.

Below, what looks to be a newspaper circular ad for one of the best computers I ever owned, bang-for-the-buck, and considering existing technology at the time: the Radio Shack Model 100 was an ultraportable machine that ran on AA batteries (!) and was a writer's dream.
radio shack model 100

Returning to the global stage after its "century of humiliation"

Returning to the global stage after its "century of humiliation" and the tortuous insanities of Mao Zedong's long rule, China naturally views the Games as its coming-out party. To that end, Beijing seeks to control every possible aspect, seeking to burnish the image of the "China model."


But the harsh costs of China's model are also inescapably put on display -- to wit, Beijing's now-legendary smog. The Communist Party wants the world to focus on medals hanging around the necks of Chinese athletes, but the Games' dominant image will undoubtedly be the pollution-filtering masks attached to many competitors' faces.


Beijing's frantic attempts to manipulate the weather for smog-clearing rain speak to a wider human hubris: that we can easily engineer our way out of the problems associated with global climate change. Again, the biggest social trade-offs are inherently political questions, not simple equations for unelected technocrats to solve one afternoon sitting around a table -- no matter how supreme their mandate seems.
Thomas P.M. Barnett (Scripps Howard News Service)- What Beijing Olympics Tells [sic] Us About Our World

P.S. Tom also really, really likes "Mad Men" - the cable series, not Ahmadinejad and Kim.

09 August 2008

A 24/7 downtown

Tarus (Down Under for the next few weeks) e-mailed me a link to a story he knew I'd love:
We are not witnessing the abandonment of the suburbs or a movement of millions of people back to the city all at once. But we are living at a moment in which the massive outward migration of the affluent that characterized the second half of the twentieth century is coming to an end. For several decades now, cities in the United States have wished for a "24/7" downtown, a place where people live as well as work, and keep the streets busy, interesting, and safe at all times of day. This is what urbanist Jane Jacobs preached in the 1960s, and it has long since become the accepted goal of urban planners. Only when significant numbers of people lived downtown, planners believed, could central cities regain their historic role as magnets for culture and as a source of identity and pride for the metropolitan areas they served. Now that's starting to happen, fueled by the changing mores of the young and by gasoline prices fast approaching $5-per-gallon. In many of its urbanized regions, an America that seemed destined for everincreasing individualization and sprawl is experimenting with new versions of community and sociability.
Trading Places: The demographic inversion of the American city.
Alan Ehrenhalt, The New Republic
Published: Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Topo Maps, then and now

35-50.697N, 78-42.426
35-50.697N, 78-42.426W

40-44.225N, 74-00.194W
40-44.225N, 74-00.194W

08 August 2008

Take the phone off the hook, pour a cold one

Ta-Nehisi Coates lets us know about the impending arrival of pure crack for politics junkies.

Jim Cramer's famous rant, one year later

Cramer Day is upon us. This weekend marks the anniversary of former hedge fund manager Jim Cramer’s outburst on CNBC that the Federal Reserve was “asleep” and that there was “Armageddon” in the fixed income markets.

It was possibly the most entertaining five minutes of financial television ever broadcast. Those who do not work in a Wall Street trading room and have not watched the excerpt repeatedly over the past year, can watch it on YouTube, where it is a popular view.


The outburst signalled for the first time to the general public in the US that the largely technical problems for the credit market could have serious repercussions for them.


Reviewing the rant, we can see it set the template for all that followed.


Finally, Cramer wanted to pin the blame on Alan Greenspan, who had left the Federal Reserve with an impeccable reputation early in 2006. He pointed out, correctly, that Greenspan had encouraged borrowers to take out mortgages at low “teaser” rates and then proceeded to raise rates.

Those comments have become the new orthodoxy. The easy money with which the Greenspan Fed responded to the bursting of the tech bubble at the beginning of this decade is now deemed a mistake.

This was the first crisis to afflict the YouTube generation. The “Rant That Shook The World” as CNBC called it, will be an important item in financial history years from now.

Long view: Jim Cramer’s TV outburst that will last for ages (Financial Times, 1 August 2008)

07 August 2008

"Browser History" analyzes your habits, guesses at your gender

One of the things that I always wanted to do but never got around to was to analyze a user’s browsing history to estimate age and gender. Of course the idea is definitely not new, in fact Xerox (of all companies??) has a patent on the whole process and I’m certain plenty of networks already do something of the sort… but what the heck, let’s have some fun!

So what I did is I modified the SocialHistory JS so that it polled the browser to find out which of the Quantcast top 10k sites were visited. I then apply the ratio of male to female users for each site and with some basic math determine a guestimate of your gender...
Mike on Ads: Using your browser URL history to estimate gender

Mike's algorithm estimated that there was a 98% chance that I'm male, 2% chance that I'm female.

Not that I'm an effeminate fellow at all :-), but I was surprised that my browsing history indicated only a 2% chance of me having two X chromosomes...

(via Megan McArdle)

05 August 2008

Free topographical maps

Kevin Kelly @ Cool Tools:
The easiest way [to obtain free topo map data] is to download a free nifty app for Google Earth, called the Topographical Overlay, that will add a KMZ "layer" of official US topo maps on Google Earth. Once installed you can toggle it on or off. When on, the Topo Overlay displays the standard 7.5 minute topos as one seamless map of the country. This makes it very easy to center your interest in the middle of your custom map. (You can buy a similar service on a not-cheap set of CDs from National Geographic, but you get the same thing here for free.) For browsing, this arrangement is hard to beat. You can zoom in, or out, and scroll forever. Its major drawback is printing. I have not been able to get the displayed map to print larger than one half of a standard letter page.
...You can download, for free, a high resolution PDF file of any US topo map made. These are the same maps that the Google Earth app is using, but here they are dished out one by one in PDF format. Go to the USGS Map Locator page, and search for the quad you want. You can type in an "street" address just like in Google. Click on the appropriate miniature map and then choose which scale map of the area you want to download. The PDF files of the standard 7.5 minute topo map will be between 6 and 16 megs. You'll need Photoshop or equivalent to crop and size them. Be prepared to use some heavy duty processing power. These are big, very detailed maps.

Goodbye, Norma Jean

I've been participating in a blogger program with the Encyclopedia Britannica folks, and as part of my subscription I get an "on this day" e-mail every morning. 

It's just the sort of thing I'd need if I were a small-town AM radio DJ, and since being a blogger is not *totally* unlike that, I have occasionally found it useful.

This morning, they kind of stepped in it, though. 

Under "born this day," they list Marilyn Monroe, aka Norma Jean Mortenson/Baker.

August 5th is actually the day she died of an overdose, y'all.

Marilyn Monroe
American actress Marilyn Monroe who achieved stardom as a sex symbol in such films as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and later became a cultural icon died on this day in 1962 after taking an overdose of sleeping pills.

04 August 2008

Re nao-able energy

“This is going to be the biggest festival ever in China,” said Qi Jianlan, as she finished taking photos of her husband with the stadium in the far distance. “It’s going to be even more ‘re nao’ than the New Year,” she added, using the phrase Chinese use to describe their favorite atmosphere – “warm and noisy.”
For Chinese, it's the teflon Olympics (Christian Science Monitor, 3 August 2008)

A warm, personal gesture from senior executives to themselves

When even the Wall Street Journal is delicately holding its nose while describing how your company is funding its executive pension scheme, you know trouble's on the way:
At a time when scores of companies are freezing pensions for their workers, some are quietly converting their pension plans into resources to finance their executives' retirement benefits and pay.

In recent years, companies from Intel Corp. to CenturyTel Inc. collectively have moved hundreds of millions of dollars of obligations for executive benefits into rank-and-file pension plans. This lets companies capture tax breaks intended for pensions of regular workers and use them to pay for executives' supplemental benefits and compensation.

The practice has drawn scant notice. A close examination by The Wall Street Journal shows how it works and reveals that the maneuver, besides being a dubious use of tax law, risks harming regular workers. It can drain assets from pension plans and make them more likely to fail. Now, with the current bear market in stocks weakening many pension plans, this practice could put more in jeopardy.
Companies Tap Pension Plans to Fund Executive Benefits (WSJ, 4 August 2008)

03 August 2008

Sidearm-swingers from Brooklyn

Joe Mitchell would have loved this story:
“Vic was probably the best ever,” he said. “Just a towering, towering figure in New York City handball, which is the best handball in the world.”

Ruby Obert, 74 — who with his two older brothers, Carl, 76, and Oscar, 77, made up a renowned trio of sidearm-swingers from Brooklyn — said Mr. Hershkowitz was a New York City fireman and would sometimes show up at tournaments straight from work, wearing his heavy uniform and a mask of soot. Then he would light up the court. Mr. Hershkowitz’s secret weapon, Mr. Obert said, was his ambidexterity.

“He could play equally well with either hand,” Mr. Obert said, leaning against the chain-link fence and eyeing some of the younger players. “Guys would die to have Vic’s left hand, which was just as good as his right.”

Not everyone at this Coney Island landmark known as the Seaside Courts was aware of the legend of Mr. Hershkowitz or that he died on Monday in Plantation, Fla. But Mr. Obert had heard the news, and he could talk about Vic Hershkowitz all day, if it were not for his natural tendency to turn the spotlight on himself and his brothers and their 36 total combined world and national championships. Oh, and did he mention that each had been inducted into the United States Handball Association Hall of Fame?

“That’s because I’m a handball player,” Mr. Obert readily admitted. “None of us can talk about anyone but ourselves.” A small ego makes a small player, he said, and by that logic, there were very few small players around the Coney Island courts on Friday, where the boardwalk and sand and scrubby pines edge right up to the courts.
Want to Play Handball? Better Not Forget Your Ego (New York Times, 28 June 2008)

Hat tip: Carrie, who belatedly but thankfully called this to my attention.

Lunch at the Red Hook soccer field on Sunday

Dining al fresco, from the food trucks surrounding the Red Hook soccer field in Brooklyn, NY:

lunch at the redhook ballfields on sunday

Pictured: Dave, Melissa, Max and Carrie (l-r) sample pupusas, tacos, grilled corn, and various tasty beverages, including horchata and agua de tamarindo.

(Max travels with his own Cheerios and crackers, which were not on offer from the trucks.)

India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan

Robert Kaplan, writing in The Atlantic:

The India-Pakistan rivalry is often misconstrued by Americans. For average Indians and Pakistanis, the hatred is far milder than that between Arabs and Jews. Pakistanis speak openly of their high regard for India's democracy and hope that they can emulate it. And especially now, with regular Pakistani troops moved away from the Indian frontier to deal with the terrorist-infested Afghanistan border, there is the false perception that the India-Pakistan rivalry belongs to the past. It doesn't—not because of the attitudes of the general public in each country, but because of the subculture of those manning the intelligence services in New Delhi and Islamabad.

In the mind of the ISI, India uses its new consulates in Afghanistan to back rebels in Pakistan's southwestern province of Baluchistan, whose capital, Quetta, is only a few hours' drive from Kandahar. When India talks of building dams in Kunar, the ISI thinks that India wants to help Afghanistan steal Pakistan's water. Karzai's open alliance with India is nearly a casus belli for the ISI. So elements of the ISI have responded in kind; they likely helped in the recent assassination attempt against the Afghan president.

In the midst of all this, both Bush and Barack Obama talk simplistically about sending more American troops to Afghanistan. The India-Pakistan rivalry is just one of several political problems in the region that negate the benefit of more troops. As in the past in both Afghanistan and Iraq, we are in danger of conceiving of war in narrow military terms alone, and thus getting the politics wrong.

Behind The Indian Embassy Bombing (The Atlantic, Dispatches, 1 August 2008)

(via Sepia Mutiny)

01 August 2008

May we all deal with old age as gracefully...

...and with as many good friends, as Elizabeth Goodyear:
She has taken dance lessons from Martha Graham, had drinks with Duke Ellington, spent a couple of hours with George Balanchine and his cats, and accompanied Gypsy Rose Lee, actress and burlesque entertainer, on a game show. One visitor recalled listening to Ms. Goodyear’s stories and then racing home to Google unfamiliar characters.


Ms. Goodyear now has an aide from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to help bathe, move and feed her. Her only medications are a monthly shot of vitamin B12 and one daily Tylenol her doctor prescribed because, as she put it, “I guess I have to do something.” Because she can no longer leave her apartment without an ambulette, her doctor makes house calls — once a year.

“He says he has to worry about his younger patients,” Ms. Sandleben said.


A couple of weeks after her 101st birthday, her refrigerator contained five bottles of Champagne and dark chocolate in truffle and bar forms. 
In Strangers, a Blind Centenarian Finds a Literary Lifeline (New York Times)

Tip of the beret to Carrie.

Has MIT invented the Shipstone?

This is cool:
MIT is in a twisted, propeller-capped knot this morning heralding a new discovery it says will unleash a solar revolution. However, the "revolutionary leap" inspired by photosynthesis is not on the glamorous front-end of energy collection, rather, it's related to a simple, highly efficient and inexpensive way to store that energy when the sun doesn't shine. "This is the nirvana of what we've been talking about for years," says Daniel Nocera, MIT neomaxizoomdweebie who with Matthew Kanan developed the unprecedented approach to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gases using the sun's energy. The gases can then be recombined later inside a fuel cell. The key components to the process are a pair of catalysts (one consists of cobalt metal, phosphate, and an electrode; the other, platinum) which produce the O and H gases at room temperature and in neutral pH water (i.e., tap water). While similar solutions exist for industrial use (primarily), these are very expensive and require specialized environments.

"This is a major discovery with enormous implications for the future prosperity of humankind," said James Barber, a leader in the study of photosynthesis at Imperial College in London. "The importance of their discovery cannot be overstated since it opens up the door for developing new technologies for energy production thus reducing our dependence for fossil fuels and addressing the global climate change problem." Nocera concedes that further engineering is required to commercialize the approach but hopes to see it implemented in household fuel cell systems within the next 10 years.
Video: MIT develops solar storage nirvana (Engadget)

As for the Shipstone reference in the post's title... Heinlein fans will know what I'm talking about; for the few regular visitors who aren't members of the intersection of the sets "enrevanche readers" and "classic sci-fi fans," let me explain:
1. Common power source. It involved intensive solar collection and energy storage but was not otherwise described. It apparently replaced almost all other sources of energy. The name also applied to the conglomerate that apparently owned most of the corporations on and off Earth, including Daniel Shipstone Estate, Inc.; Muriel Shipstone Memorial Research Laboratories; Shipstone Tempe, Gobi, Aden, Sahara, Africa, Death Valley, Karroo, Never-Never, Ell-Four, Ell-Five, Stationary, Tycho, Ares, DeepWater, Unlimited, and Ltd.; Sears-Montgomery, Inc.; Prometheus Foundation; Coca-Cola Holding Co.; Intraworld Transport Corp.; Jack and the Beanstalk, Pty.; Morgan Associates; Out-Systems Colonial Corporation; Billy Shipstone School for Handicapped Children; Wolf Creek Pass Nature Preserve; Año Nuevo Wild Life Refuge; and Shipstone Visual Arts Museum and School. In effect, Shipstone controlled the entire economy. A feud among different factions resulted in the overthrow and disruption of many Earth governments, particularly in North America.
RAH was clearly having some fun with the concept, imagining the industrial behemoth - a combination of GE and the oil companies - that would result from a revolutionary battery technology. Not much of a leap here to think that hydrogen to power fuel cells, made from water and sunlight, could have a similar impact.