Archive | November 2012

Cheerful Wealth Creation

On the same day that Asok cheerfully asks for more busywork, Scott Adams cheerfully suggests that the world can be divided into wealth consumers and creators:

I’ve met a lot of rich people, and as far as I can tell, they aren’t addicted to money, power, or even prestige. I say that for the same reason you don’t crave a ham sandwich at the moment you finish eating one. Once the rich become rich, their motives evolve.

My hypothesis is that the rich are often addicted to hard work itself. Once that hard work produces all that a person needs for personal use, the impulse for hard work doesn’t go away. …

I tend to agree that rich people are often driven to succeed, though I wouldn’t strictly attribute their success to hard work. Some of them are hard-working cheapskates, some work hard and don’t pay their bills, some work hard and consider cheating par for the course – though by no means all of them. I hear so many people look at someone on TV – Michael Phelps, Heidi Klum, Donald Trump – and say, “Why doesn’t he/she just retire and enjoy all that money?” I always tell them, “They didn’t become successful by wanting to retire.”

I wonder if instead of dividing the world into poor, middle-class, and rich, we’d be better off sorting the world into people who create more wealth than they consume and people who consume more than they create. There might be a lot of power in that model.

I don’t believe that anyone creates more wealth than they consume. Obviously some are very adept at exploiting wealth from scarce natural resources or from the efforts of other people. While that may or may not be very commendable, it just isn’t the same as creating wealth. What Adams probably means is people that earn money vs people that live off the system. But you can make a case that we all live off the system. Even so-called wealth creators line up for government contracts.

From an energy standpoint, much of what they call wealth creation is indistinguishable from busywork.

I could see dividing the world into levels of energy and resource consumers, because I think energy and scarce resources are at the root of what we call wealth.

Sacrifice and Service

In The Phony Equivalence of Shared Sacrifice, Michael Maiello, the blogger formerly known as Destor, goes off on Press the Meat:

Decided to torture myself with Meet The Press this morning. Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina was a guest.  She admitted that taxes would have to rise on millionaires and billionaires.  Then she made the familiar argument that families of four who live in high cost areas don’t feel like millionaires when they make a quarter million dollars a year.  Nobody challenged her on that.  But, they never do. …

I also watched MTP, and also cringed. Fiorina happens to resemble a former coworker/friend of mine, which makes it even harder to watch her saying stupid stuff. And no one mentioned that she just about ran HP into the ground:

Carly Fiorina was widely perceived as a failure in her previous position at Lucent, and was rumored to be on her way out. … During her tenure at HP, the company’s stock price fell from $52 per share to $21 per share – a loss of 60%, costing shareholds billions of dollars. … As part of HP’s merger with Compaq, she laid off an estimated 15,000 employees… on top of the thousands of HP employees eliminated prior to the merger. … During her tenure at HP, she actively lobbied against legislation that would have limited the ability of American companies to move jobs overseas.

To her point, I earned half as much in PA as I made in CT or MD, but paid less in rents or mortgage costs. Other costs, like fuel, food, utilities — and federal taxes — were more or less the same. It wasn’t fair, it just was what it was.

The tax code is organized around several earning thresholds, and no matter where they set those thresholds, there are going to be folk in expensive areas who have higher expenses but pay the same taxes as people who earn the same money in poorer areas. Unless we thoroughly revise the tax codes, that will remain true.

Al Sharpton had made a very direct and, I thought, fair point in response to frequent calls for “shared sacrifice” to solve U.S. budget issues. He wanted to know why there should be shared sacrifice when there wasn’t shared prosperity.  Nobody answered him, and I didn’t expect them to.

They don’t have to answer him because they know he’ll be dismissed as only speaking for the blacks anyway. I found myself annoyed by everyone calling him Reverend Al. To me, Reverend Al is Al Green, but even beyond that, it plays more like a stage name than a term of respect, which would be Reverend Sharpton, of course. Maybe they should call Fiorina, The Undertaker, and David Brooks, Macho Man.

What I thought of while watching the discussion was Katharine Graham’s father, Eugene Meyer, who I read about in a long book about US newspapers. It would be interesting to see a successful business leader like Meyer on today’s news shows instead of shams like Fiorina or Jim Cramer.

Before World War I, Meyer made millions investing and speculating, but during the war and the Great Depression he took dollar-a-year positions in several government finance organizations, including Chairman of the Federal Reserve and President of the World Bank. He also bought and resuscitated the Washington Post.

Meyer was a sharp businessman, but like many wealthy men of that era believed that at a certain point one’s career should turn from business to public service, and eventually to philanthropy. Today’s wealthy do indulge in charitable giving, but they don’t seem to ever stop trying to make more and more money.

Are Tennis Players Juicing Up?

Scott Adams claims he knew Lance Armstrong was dirty, and claims that hedge fund managers and tennis players will soon be revealed as well:

Eventually you’ll see the same sort of doping scandal in tennis. It’s obvious that many of the top players – especially the women – are up to something. You can tell by the sudden changes in body shape and performance. It’s especially obvious when you see players having their best performances after the age of thirty. …

Allow me to get out in front with both tennis and hedge funds. My bullshit filter says tennis is filled with juiced-up cheaters, and the majority of hedge funds are criminal enterprises hiding behind “secret” algorithms.

Just to be clear, I don’t think Roger Federer is abusing any substances. His body shows no signs of it. I think Andy Roddick is clean too, or else he would still be playing. I would put the juicing rate at somewhere near 50% for the top thirty players.

There have been concerns:

Consider that Petr Korda was an Australian Open champion who tested positive to steroids, current pro Wayne Odesnik faced charges in Brisbane for illegally importing human growth hormone, and several past and present players, including current world No.7 Sara Errani, have been linked with Armstrong-connected medico Luis Garcia del Moral.

As the Sydney Morning Herald article notes, there is a great deal of random testing, but as I recall Lance Armstrong passed all but maybe one of his tests over the years. According to AP in the Myrtle Beach Online, Roger Federer and Andy Murray have called for more out-of-competition testing, which is currently rare in tennis:

Just three of the out-of-competition blood tests in 2011 were on female tennis players. ITF statistics on its web site show it didn’t test Serena Williams out of competition at all in 2010 and 2011, years she won the Australian Open and Wimbledon and lost a U.S. Open final. …

Li Na, the 2011 French Open women’s singles winner from China, also was not tested out of competition by the ITF or WADA in 2011 or in 2010, but was tested in-competition. Of the 642 tested tennis players, 510 were not tested out of competition at all in 2011 – when athletes aren’t playing between events or in the offseason.

Many experts say that tennis requires such a combination of mental fortitude, coordination and endurance that “juicing-up” would be counter-productive. Novak Djokovic attributes his improved fitness to his low-gluten diet, time spent in his pressure pod and his intense drills. But Pat Cash recently claimed that performance-enhancing drugs might be perfect for tennis:

In a candid interview, Cash said … “It’s the perfect sport to take performance enhancing drugs, with the recovery, strengthening etc, but I think the lack of positive results shows that tennis is a clean sport.” …

But like Murray, who said that since 1990 tennis had seen around “65 positive tests, 10 of them recreational and 30 to 35 performance-enhancing in that time,” Cash is convinced that despite the perfect storm of effectiveness and lack of testing (in 2010, Murray did not undergo a single out-of-competition test), it just doesn’t happen.

Giving thanks for alternative media

Making sense of the situation in Gaza is difficult. Network news and the major print media virtually always support, and report, the pro-Israeli point-of-view. Alternative media outlets report the pro-Palestinian arguments, such as when Democracy Now! interviewed Phyllis Bennis last night:

History can be determined by when you start the clock. If we start the clock the way most of the U.S. press now is, which is a change, now saying that this escalation began when Israel assassinated a Hamas leader on November 14, that is one time line. The Israeli position is, well, we did it because they fired — the Palestinians fired a rocket at an Israeli Jeep. Well, why did that happen? That happened because a few hours before there had been that firing on an Israeli military Jeep and a patrol, there had been the killing of a 13-year-old child in Gaza who was playing soccer. Two days before that, there had been the assassination of a young man walking in the no walk area, the no go zone near the border, where Israelis say, we told him, we called out to him not to go there and he did not listen.

It turns out this was a mentally disabled man who maybe didn’t hear, maybe didn’t understand, continued to walk and was shot dead. We could start the clock then. But, at the end of the day, we can look back four years, we can look back to the end of Cast Lead and say, since Cast Lead, 271 Palestinians, according to the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem, have been assassinated by Israeli air strikes, by drones, by planes, by helicopters. 271 Palestinians in Gaza killed by Israelis, zero Israelis killed by Palestinian rockets.

Even the alternative voices seem to play into the notion that one side is simply defending itself while the other is clearly the aggressor. What seems clear to me is that a lot of innocent people — both sides — have been set against each other as a result of a long geopolitical skirmish.  As long as Middle Eastern oil reserves are valuable to the industrialized world, the major powers will provide sufficient arms to each side to keep the conflict going.

In, Wrong side of the fence, Aeon Magazine reports that even more innocents are entering the cauldron:

Israel amalgamated its concerns with these different strands of disappearance into the embedded logic of a frontier state, seen as perpetually clinging on for dear life in a region filled with hostility. In this scenario, purity is a component of survival: if the neighbours are deadly, then there must be clear lines of demarcation; the in-group and the out-group; the acceptable types, and the dangerous, unacceptable types. Israel is like a constantly monitored filing system, sifting carefully distinct categories. It is done in the name of security. There can be no mixing, no blurring; and there is, regrettably, no choice in the matter, or so the prevailing narrative goes, because the country’s very survival is at stake.

The treatment of African refugees in south Tel Aviv is a present and visceral testimony to this equation. But its wider logic has spawned a comprehensive system, a landscape of purity, fenced by borders and boundaries, that features colour-coded ID cards and car number plates; A-road highways and B-grade bypasses; staggered levels of residency and exclusion. It’s an elaborate, all-encompassing system, so entrenched that it is at once overwhelming and invisible: part of the national DNA — but barely a part of the conversation.

Giving thanks for the activists

The media does not want you to worry about fracking, or the land it ravages, or all the water it consumes.

They want you to go into debt to buy another car. They want you to eat a big Thanksgiving dinner, watch some football, then get in line that same night and rack up more debt buying cheap stuff that you don’t need. Stuff that was made by underpaid workers in another country.

I took a look at Juan Cole’s Informed Comment blog thinking to find good info on the Gaza conflict, and found Ellen Cantorow’s great article, Winning the war on Fracking would be the biggest Victory of All:

There’s a war going on that you know nothing about between a coalition of great powers and a small insurgent movement.  It’s a secret war being waged in the shadows while you go about your everyday life.

In the end, this conflict may matter more than those in Iraq and Afghanistan ever did.  And yet it’s taking place far from newspaper front pages and with hardly a notice on the nightly news.  Nor is it being fought in Yemen or Pakistan or Somalia, but in small hamlets in upstate New York.  There, a loose network of activists is waging a guerrilla campaign not with improvised explosive devices or rocket-propelled grenades, but with zoning ordinances and petitions.

The weaponry may be humdrum, but the stakes couldn’t be higher. Ultimately, the fate of the planet may hang in the balance.

All summer long, the climate-change nightmares came on fast and furious. Once-fertile swathes of American heartland baked into an aridity reminiscent of sub-Saharan Africa. Hundreds of thousands of fish dead in overheated streams. Six million acres in the West consumed by wildfires.  In September, a report commissioned by 20 governments predicted that as many as 100 million people across the world could die by 2030 if fossil-fuel consumption isn’t reduced.  And all of this was before superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc on the New York metropolitan area and the Jersey shore.

Washington’s leadership, when it comes to climate change, is already mired in failure. President Obama permitted oil giant BP to resume drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, while Shell was allowed to begin drilling tests in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska.  At the moment, the best hope for placing restraints on climate change lies with grassroots movements.

In January, I chronicled upstate New York’s homegrown resistance to high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, an extreme-energy technology that extracts methane (“natural gas”) from the Earth’s deepest regions.  Since then, local opposition has continued to face off against the energy industry and state government in a way that may set the tone for the rest of the country in the decades ahead.  In small hamlets and tiny towns you’ve never heard of, grassroots activists are making a stand in what could be the beginning of a final showdown for Earth’s future.

Davis Cup: Czech Republic vs Spain

I watched the final two tennis matches of the Davis Cup on the Tennis Channel today. I was sort of rooting for the Czech Republic, because Spain won it last time. But for me it actually comes down to which player’s game I like more.

Since Nadal is still injured, the big guns in this match were world #5 Spaniard David Ferrer and world #6 Czech Tomas Berdych. Behind them were world #11 Nicolas Almagro and world #31 Radek Stepanek. The fast indoor carpet favored the host Czech team, but Ferrer is dangerous on any surface. In the first match, Ferrer beat Stepanek in straight sets, while Berdych needed five sets to beat Almagro, and presumably shook his hand afterwards.

In the doubles, Berdych and Stepanek teamed to beat the Spanish team of Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez in four sets. Doubles doesn’t require as much running, but does require a lot of lunging. The Czechs didn’t get as much rest for the final day of singles as the Spaniards.

I like David Ferrer because he always plays his heart out. Tomas Berdych has all the tools but is more likely to lose heart. He didn’t lose heart today because it was never that close. Even on the fast court, Berdych couldn’t force quick points on his speedy opponent. Ferrer made the Czech play a lot of balls and controlled the match, winning 6-2, 6-3, 7-5. I went running after the first two sets, and after my shower the next match had just started.

So either Stepanek and Almagro would lose two single matches for their team. Almagro was ranked a lot higher, and is only 27, but he’s an offensive baseliner that is better on clay and hard court. 34 year-old Stepanek was originally something of a doubles specialist, but has greatly improved his singles in his later career. For a doubles player, attacking on a fast surface is second nature. Oddly, Almagro the baseliner owns a beautiful one-handed backhand while Stepanek the attacking player hits the two-hander. Almagro also owns the bigger serve.

At first both players seemed to be in trouble on serve, but Stepanek held on and broke at 5-4 to take the first set. He recovered from a break in the second to get into and win a tiebreak at love. Almagro served well and seemed to be in control in the third set, but Stepanek got the early break and took the fourth. The final score 6-4, 7-6(0), 3-6, 6-3.

TV photographers kept showing two pretty blonde women during the match. Even besides his 2007 engagement to Martina Hingis, Radek had a rep for dating WTA players. One of the blondes was the retired female player Nicole Vaidisova, who is now Stepanek’s wife.

Deterrence and Revenge – update

On Nov 14th, John Michael Greer offered Deterrence in an Age of Decline, a long discussion of why nuclear weapons and the missiles that deliver them are constrained to being threats rather than weapons that are actually used:

That’s the rarely discussed logic behind nuclear deterrence. None of the concrete gains a nation can achieve by launching a nuclear strike on another nation comes anywhere near the scale of the costs that would be inflicted by even the feeblest nuclear response. If the US first strike just described does not quite turn out to be quite so improbably flawless, in turn, the costs go up accordingly; ten mushroom clouds over large American cities would leave the US economy as crippled as the economies of Europe were after the Second World War, with no Marshall Plan in sight …

The same logic, by the way, applies to all weapons of mass destruction. Unless you’re the only nation in a given conflict that has the power to annihilate huge numbers of people with a single weapon, it’s never worth your while to use your weapons of mass destruction, because the retaliation will cost you at least as much as, and usually more than, the use of the weapon will gain you. …

While the idea that H-bombs are only for posturing is comforting, over at dagblog, Emma Zahn posted a news item — a WSJ book review of The Second Nuclear Age — that predicts a lot more nuclear actors in the near future:

Since their use invites devastating retaliation, many strategists today imagine that nuclear weapons can never be used to good effect and are therefore essentially worthless. This perception doesn’t just shape American thoughts about our own arsenal; it impels American leaders to underestimate the difficulties of nonproliferation because they don’t fully grasp the size of the gains that nonnuclear powers can achieve in joining the Bomb Club. Our strategists, says Mr. Bracken, are in a state of denial: “An older generation wants to make the nuclear nightmare go away by inoculating the young with protective ideas. Nuclear weapons are useless and we should get rid of them. Strengthen the [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty]. Get rid of ballistic missiles. Deterrence will work.”

These ideas, very much at the heart of the present administration’s strategic thought, are fantasies, Mr. Bracken believes. His central contention is that we are in a second nuclear age. While there were several nuclear powers in the previous one, the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union overshadowed the others. The dynamics then were largely bipolar. We live in a multipolar nuclear world. And there are nine nuclear powers today: the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. More will likely emerge.

There are even more actors that can’t afford nukes, though. In a reaction to fourth-generation warfare (4GW) tactics, the US and its allies use predator drones, targeted missiles and even car bombs for the extrajudicial killings of enemy leaders. So far they behave as if they have a monopoly on targeted weapons. Despite inflicting significant collateral damage, attackers don’t seem to be concerned about future retaliation in kind.

Since the current Gaza hostilities flared after Hamas leader Ahmed Jabari, his entourage and a child were blown up during a cease-fire, it seems worth discussing how we are going to feel if or when our own families are under a retaliatory threat. On Nov 16th, Scott Adams recalled his prediction that predator drones would become a common weapon and in Predicting Israel, asks where it will lead:

In my book The Religion War, written ten years ago, I predicted a future in which terrorists could destroy anything above ground whenever they wanted. They simply used inexpensive drones with electronics no more sophisticated than an Android app.

Fast-forward to today, Iran is sending drones to Hezbollah, and Hezbollah has training camps right next to Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles. Meanwhile, Hamas has its own drone production facility, or did, until Israel found it. One presumes Hamas will build more. How long will it be before Israel is facing suicide drones that only cost its enemies $100 apiece, fit in the trunk of a car, and can guide themselves to within 20 feet of any target? I’d say five years.

So what happens when the drone attacks start happening in volume? Let’s game this out. My assumption is that the coming inevitable wave of hobby-sized suicide drones will be unstoppable because they will fly low to their target and be so numerous that no defense will be effective. I predict it will be too dangerous to live above ground in Israel within ten years unless the trend is reversed. But what could stop the trend?

One can imagine a 4GW scenario in which a state-sponsored organization launches predator drones at targets close to home. Is there any sort of deterrent, or do we simply accept that collateral damage as well?