Archive | July 2013

Choose Your Vigilante

Nearly everyone likes the Batman. He was envisioned as a covert, but heroic, vigilante in the mold of the Scarlet Pimpernel or Zorro. In some comics the Batman had a quiet understanding with police Commissioner Gordon, and I believe it was only in the campy 1960s TV series that he was actually deputized. But dark and troubled as he is, no one has any doubt that he’s the good guy.

Nearly everyone liked the animated film, The Incredibles, but there was clearly an underlying message that despite the laws forcing them to fit into normal society, the superior members of society had to step forward as heroic vigilantes and save the day. I’ve written before about the Real Life Super Heroes movement in which ordinary Joes and Josettes don spandex (and often carry mace) to try to bring order to the streets. None of them have any doubt that they are the good guys, even though several of them have been prosecuted for brawling or carrying firearms.

Though most Americans claim to believe in the rule of law, they often don’t actually believe the law delivers justice, thus actual vigilantes can become popular within certain groups. Echoing the Klansmen, both Sarah Palin’s “Real America” and younger white libertarians support vigilante George Zimmerman for pursuing, shooting and killing, unarmed black youth Trayvon Martin. The ardent left supported Bradley Manning, Julian Assange and Wikileaks for disclosing inflammatory video and documents about the Iraq War and US diplomacy. Vigilante hackers Anonymous have been touted by many, but not all, as the heroes of the Steubenville rape prosecution. And again to the ardent left, Edward Snowden is a heroic vigilante whistleblower.

Moderates tend to support non-violent protest, but shy away from serious confrontations with governmental power and authority – especially when their party is in office. It is relatively easy to cast doubt on protestors or activists by accusing them of causing violence or of putting the nation’s security at risk or of being vigilantes.

Vigilantes are usually thought of as groups outside the government, but every now and then you hear complaints about a vigilante police officer, who sets himself up as judge and executioner. Nearly everyone liked Dirty Harry and his .44 Magnum in the films, but few people like the thought of real cops making up the law as they go along – though in fact they have a great deal of latitude.

Nevertheless, nearly everyone in the mainstream media and blogosphere stepped up to support the NSA, even though Director Clapper had lied about their activities before Congress. What should we think about a government agency, operating in secret, and protected from public scrutiny? At what point does the NSA stop being a responsible part of government and start being an agency of vigilante snoops?

Even as most media outlets cite poll numbers that claim that most Americans are OK with being secretly watched, a NY Times article claims, Momentum Builds Against N.S.A. Surveillance:

Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, and Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California, have begun work on legislation in the House Judiciary Committee to significantly rein in N.S.A. telephone surveillance. Mr. Sensenbrenner said on Friday that he would have a bill ready when Congress returned from its August recess that would restrict phone surveillance to only those named as targets of a federal terrorism investigation, make significant changes to the secret court that oversees such programs and give businesses like Microsoft and Google permission to reveal their dealings before that court.

“There is a growing sense that things have really gone a-kilter here,” Ms. Lofgren said.

The sudden reconsideration of post-Sept. 11 counterterrorism policy has taken much of Washington by surprise. …

Lawmakers say their votes to restrain the N.S.A. reflect a gut-level concern among voters about personal privacy.

“I represent a very reasonable district in suburban Philadelphia, and my constituents are expressing a growing concern on the sweeping amounts of data that the government is compiling,” said Representative Michael G. Fitzpatrick, a moderate Republican who represents one of the few true swing districts left in the House and who voted on Wednesday to limit N.S.A. surveillance.

Update 20130731: A NY Times Business article, Whistle-Blowers in Limbo, Neither Hero Nor Traitor:

In some respects, Mr. Snowden and Private Manning were performing a quintessentially American act: lone individuals taking on larger forces. But whistle-blowing has always been fraught with peril; one person’s heroic crusade is another’s betrayal of loyalty. In the case of both Mr. Snowden and Private Manning, each became an army of one, reasoning that there was a moral imperative to rendering secrets visible, acting on behalf of a public that he believed deserved to know more. But some Americans don’t seem ready to embrace this version of informational cowboy.

“Who is he to decide?” suggested a cabdriver in New York on Tuesday, speaking of Private Manning. He could have been speaking of Mr. Snowden as well.

NSA/ stay night

While the House of Representatives narrowly defeated (217-205) a measure to challenge the NSA’a massive surveillance program, the Senate has passed a proposal to sanction nations that might offer help to whistleblower Edward Snowden.

On July 10th, a Quinnipiac poll showed that 55% of Americans accepted Snowden as a whistleblower, while 34% saw him as a traitor. Two weeks later an ABC/Washington Post poll showed that 53% thought Snowden should be charged as a traitor while only 36% disagreed.

This should not be a surprise. Most of the mainstream press and much of the new mainstream blogosphere have led an attack on Snowden as a talented magus gone rogue, and a defense of the NSA as heroic spirits of the global empire. It appears to be the nature of established journos and politicos to defend an illusory status quo in which the courts are independent, corporations are benevolent, democracy works, and the worst enemies are on the other side of the aisle.

The Guardian differs in, Edward Snowden’s not the story. The fate of the internet is:

In a way, it doesn’t matter why the media lost the scent. What matters is that they did. So as a public service, let us summarise what Snowden has achieved thus far.

Without him, we would not know how the National Security Agency (NSA) had been able to access the emails, Facebook accounts and videos of citizens across the world; or how it had secretly acquired the phone records of millions of Americans; or how, through a secret court, it has been able to bend nine US internet companies to its demands for access to their users’ data. …

… here are some of the things we should be thinking about as a result of what we have learned so far.

The first is that the days of the internet as a truly global network are numbered. … Balkanisation is a certainty.

Second, … the idea that the western powers can be allowed to continue to control it has become untenable.

Third, … the Obama administration’s “internet freedom agenda” has been exposed as patronising cant.

… no US-based internet company can be trusted to protect our privacy or data. The fact is that Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft are all integral components of the US cyber-surveillance system. …

Traditional Breaststroke and Mixed Relays

SwimSwam reports:


FINA has decided to maintain the status quo in breaststroke for the time being. As I discussed before, allowing More Fly Kicking in Breaststroke may well make the stroke faster, and will let IM swimmers do better, but will begin an evolution away from the traditional look of the stroke.

They’ve also added Mixed Relay events:

They are also for the first time recognizing Mixed Relays, which will be made up of two men and two women. FINA will begin recognizing World Records in those events, and expect to see them on the World Championship schedule as soon as 2015 (as the European Championships have already committed to include them).

That sounds exciting for televised meets. In Masters competition, we already have mixed relays and mixes of different age groups. Purists will object to adding more events, but it is a great way to get more team members involved in scoring points for the team.

Bilateral Breathing

Last May I wrote a post about coaching recommendations to breathe bilaterally, or not, and about my attempts to incorporate true bilateral breathing into my stroke. That post is long, but worth reading, and the upshot is I settled for breathing twice to the right, then twice to the left (2R/2L) for longer than 200m swims and once to the right and once to the left (1R/1L) for shorter swims.

A few weeks ago on one 1600m swim I started swimming 1R/1L and found that I had enough air. I’m chalking that up to being in better aerobic shape from all the cycling I’ve been doing this Spring.

In the 1600m I’m swimming the same speed with less effort, and feel much smoother. My worst bad habit is holding in air, so exhaling fully requires a great deal of concentration. While thinking about exhaling I’m doing a lighter two-beat kick, but at least it is a steady, well-timed kick. My goal for the rest of the summer is to add speed and work the pull and kick harder.

No More Banging On The Oil Drum

Back in 1995 or so, I looked up the website of the Congress for the New Urbanism, which led me to the website of James Howard Kunstler, self-styled urbanist, professional curmudgeon and author of The Long Emergency. Kunstler led me to Matt Savinar’s doomer site Life After The Oil Crash (LATOC) and Professor Goose and Heading Out’s site The Oil Drum (TOD). Thus began an immersion into Hubbert’s Theory of Peak Oil.

In retrospect, Kunstler was archly amusing to read even though he was essentially predicting that the Long Emergency, a severe bout of oil scarcity leading to civil unrest,  would begin before his next column, or maybe the one after that. In retrospect LATOC was mostly about selling survival gear to doomers. After the 2008 oil shock and subsequent economic depression, when society did not devolve into his predicted Mad Max scenario, Savinar shuttered LATOC and moved on to astrology.

When I started reading it, The Oil Drum was a small online community, with recognizable personalities, in-jokes and good-natured banter among well-informed discussions of just how much shit was going to hit the fan and when. Like most good sites they suffered an invasion of disruptive trolls, thus became more moderated from above than within, and stopped feeling like a community. Having been through that scenario before, I stopped participating before TOD really got rolling, and read it only sporadically afterwards.

Katrina and Rita fit neatly into the Peak Oil playbook of everything changing overnight, and worried people flocked to TOD to look at the projected paths. When a Category 4 or 5 cyclone seemed headed towards oil production facilities in the Persian Gulf, many on TOD predicted that this was the big one. MidEast oil would stop flowing and Americans would be stumbling around between stopped cars. But that storm missed anything of great importance. At the time I thought TOD might have jumped the shark.

But then the price of oil hit $140 per barrel, the world suffered a global economic meltdown, and the Deepwater Horizon dumped a major spill of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. There was still plenty to talk about, but all I found were links to articles I had already read elsewhere, and more squabbles than sensible discussion. Smart folk like Jeffrey Brown were still worth reading. Other smart people, like Robert Rapier, had started their own blogs. Others had just left.

Now I read that the Oil Drum is shutting down but being maintained as an archive.

Techno-Cornucopians, those who believe that humans will always find the right technological response to any challenge, are crowing that the closing of The Oil Drum is a signal that the theory of peak oil has been proven wrong. A Reuters article reprinted at the Financial Post offers a typical gloat:

The decision to shutter “The Oil Drum”, the leading website devoted to peak oil, has come to symbolise the end of an era – and sparked a furious debate about whether the theory was all along based on a fundamental mistake. …

For critics, the site’s demise marks the end of a flawed theory and more generally the fact the commodity supercycle has turned.

“Peak oil theory has basically gone the way of the California Condor, from widespread existence and acceptance … to near extinction,” Forbes magazine wrote in a polemical column.

“Today, given the new abundance of shale oil, almost no real industry leaders are peak oil proponents,” Forbes added, dismissing peak oil as “a theory based on lack of imagination.”

In, Peak oil isn’t dead; it just smells that way, Chris Nelder of SmartPlanet offers a different post-mortem:

… what did in The Oil Drum was volunteer burnout, falling visitor traffic, and an insufficient flow of high-quality original work and contributors. …

But the reason The Oil Drum has been lacking for good original content wasn’t that it had lost the argument and there wasn’t anything left to say. Far from it. The flow of content simply moved to where good analysts and writers on the subject could actually get paid for their work. … Consultants and hedge funds began restricting their work to their private clients and subscribers, with maybe a teaser of free stuff posted in their blogs and newsletters. Investors and oil and gas companies began hiring capable analysts to do the work privately, after many years of enjoying the assembled intelligence on The Oil Drum (and trading it very profitably, I might add) for free. The volunteers who had put so much time into the site all these years discovered that they needed to spend their energies elsewhere. And the public got accustomed to higher prices, so the media stopped talking about peak oil, which led to a dropoff in traffic. Hey, that’s show biz.

Is Peak Oil dead dead, or even mostly dead? Nelder doesn’t think so. After a thorough discussion of all the unconventional stuff – tar sands and fracked gas – we’ve been scraping out of the earth to keep the machines humming, he summarizes:

I expect world oil production to rise, weakly, for another two years or so, as America falls into a deeper slumber believing that fracking has cured everything. The media will reinforce that belief. And when it comes, the wake-up call is going to be harsh. In the meantime we’re just going to be waiting for the punchline.

So to those who can grasp the data, here’s my final thought: How will you prepare yourself for The Great Contraction? You’ve got perhaps two good years left of business as usual, and maybe another three or four after that before things really get difficult. I encourage you to use them well, and do what you can to make yourself resilient and self-sufficient. What will you do 10 years from now if the price of gasoline is $10 a gallon?

Dingo Eats Royal Baby

OK, just kidding. It was actually a Welsh Corgi.


Debt Reduction Trifecta

I’ve posted three pieces about what seems to be a debt mediation scam by a variously-named company. Last week I got yet another unsolicited Final Notice from American Debt Mediators, also known as CRV and Debt Arbitrators. I’ve also written about the Credit Card Hardship Programs that are available from most lenders. Anyway there’s nothing new about this latest piece of mail. It looks like an overdraft notice, has some official-looking warnings about obstructing the mail on the front, and claims I am late in sending them $366.67 for a debt mediation plan that promises to satisfy my debt for less than the balance owed. How much less? Good question. Probably not enough to recoup the payments they’ll collect.

I also got another Loan Pak from Embrace Home Loans. With the words ExpressPlus checked, the Loan Pak must be intended to look like a special delivery mailer. The Shipper is one D Noyce from 25 Enterprise Center Newport RI 02842. According to the mailer, I am pre-qualified for up to $417,000. And presumably down to zero. When I first got Embrace mailings, I wondered where they got that number. Turns out it is the maximum Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac FHA guaranteed mortgage amount in my area.

On LinkedIn under Kurt (David) Noyce, we find that Embrace was formerly Advanced Financial Services. Complaints appear in Ripoff Reports and ConsumerMotion. I gather the Embrace routine is to collect $375 for a spurious real estate appraisal.

I got a third mailer – first contact – from The Lending Club, a peer-to-peer lending agency which is profiled positively on Wikipedia. To the borrowers they promise lower rates. To the investors they promise higher returns. Can both be true? The rationale is that people are paying so much above the prime rates on credit card and other debt that there is plenty of room for a careful investor to make essentially microloans to people that are perfectly capable of paying back a loan. IOW, they claim to remove the middlemen, the banksters, and pass the savings to both investors and borrowers:

When initially founded, Lending Club positioned itself as a social networking service and set up opportunities for members to identify group affinities, based on a theory that borrowers would be less likely to default to lenders with whom they had affinities and social relationships. …

After registering with the SEC, Lending Club stopped presenting itself as a social network … To reduce default risk, Lending Club focuses on high-credit-worthy borrowers, declining approximately 90% of the loan applications it receives and assigning higher interest rates to riskier and borrowers within its credit criteria.

But soon I ran across a site called Lending Club Scam, which seems designed to catch the eye of people like me that want to check up on Lending Club, and provides a positive and reassuring review by Jonathan. “You can relax now, because you’ve made it to a truthful review about Lending Club, whether you intend to be an investor or a borrower. Let me please share with you some thoughts which better helped me understand and evaluate their service.”

Call me cynical, but I got suspicious after reading that and other preemptively-named sites including the terms Lending Club and Review.

The Economist has a laudatory article from January of 2013:

… Lending Club brings that spread down by using technology to match up borrowers and investors without incurring the costs of legacy IT systems and branch networks that weigh down the banks. The firm concentrates on creditworthy, “prime” consumer borrowers, and the average rate that they pay on loans is 14%, well inside credit-card charges. Allowing for a default rate of 4%, and Lending Club’s fees, the returns to investors are 9-10%, which isn’t too shabby given where interest rates are.

14% is a lot higher than the 6.78% APR touted on the Lending Club flyer, but still a a lot lower than the 18% to 21% some credit cards charge.  From the investor’s viewpoint, Oblivious Investor compares Lending Club risks with junk bonds:

As it stands right now, I’d categorize Lending Club notes as short-term, high-risk debt that’s difficult to diversify and that carries somewhat higher expenses than I’d like. Entertainment/feel-good value aside, I don’t see much purpose for Lending Club notes in most portfolios.

So I’m not sure what to think of Lending Club. It isn’t obviously disreputable like ADM or Embrace. I would hesitate to invest in such a propped-up economy, but it might be a good deal for the borrower that can qualify.

Trayvon Rally in Bmore

There was a rally on Sunday, which attracted one to a few hundred people, depending on who you believe. Another was scheduled for Monday at 5 PM, so I walked over after work. I had attended a thousand person solidarity march right after Trayvon was killed, and was inwardly hoping for a similar turnout to protest an obviously disappointing verdict.

I began the familiar walk along Inner Harbor, past strollers, tourists and joggers. Behind Rita’s Iced-Custard-Happiness were a few dozen small black and white kids cavorting in a fountain of upward spraying jets – joyfully escaping the Baltimore heat alert. Even at the height of Occupy Baltimore, the rest of Inner Harbor seemed completely normal, so I wasn’t expecting to see any sign of a protest until I got to McKeldin Square.

Crossing the northbound lanes of Light Street at 4:30 or so, I first noticed a black police van, a Tactical Assistance Response Unit, about the size of a large hook and ladder truck. I saw the yellow shoulders of a bike police officer prowling the upper levels of the McKeldin Fountain. There were maybe a dozen demonstrators near the southbound lane of Light and a fellow at a table was handing out signs. Several people were waving signs at traffic at the Pratt & Light Street intersection. Some signs had a picture with We Are All Trayvon Martin, others called for Community Control of Police, Say No to Racial Profiling, and some called for jobs.

A WJZ news van was parked to the north and a much larger Mercedes Bluetec news truck was in front of that. ABC was in a Ford Transit Connect and Fox was nestled in a Subaru SUV. They all had small dishes on top.

A tall white man in business attire was talking to protestors while a cameraman filmed. A fellow got out of the Mercedes and I think it was Tim Tooten from WBAL. It was hot, so I looked for a shady place to wait. In contrast to the Occupy days, the fountain was clean and flowing with water. I played tourist and walked behind the main spillway. By this time, another police truck had arrived. A patrol car disgorged four more officers, then about a dozen were dropped off by a police van. At that point there were almost thirty police officers and perhaps twenty-five demonstrators.

A foursome of police were looking towards the fountain, one in a white shirt. White shirt waved towards the upper levels, seeming to say, “Secure the high ground, boys!” Two pairs headed up the steps, carrying plastic bottles of water. Two officers stood next to me, and asked how I was doing. I said I was good, and moved back down to the plaza. The fountain had an officer at every opening, and there were police across all the intersections. I heard a noise, looked up and saw two black police helicopters hovering above.

A news truck marked with Noticias and the Univision logo pulled in and a heavily made up Hispanic woman got out, followed by a cameraman. A small person with a megaphone was leading, “No Justice, No Peace!” and, “Trayvon didn’t need to die!,” and other slogans. The crowd had grown past fifty people, and were still soliciting honks from passing cars. A man with a Fidel Castro t-shirt that read El Comandante was handing out flyers. A middle-aged black woman complained to a young man that the media didn’t know how to count. A white woman unfurled a red Occupy Baltimore flag. A large officer was walking the perimeter, handing out more cold bottles of water to all the officers on watch. A very thin young white woman wearing a black tee and running shorts was on the fringes near me. She was drinking an iced coffee or something, and seemed to be debating whether to stay and watch or leave. She eventually wandered away.

By about 5:30 a black man in dreadlocks (Lee Patterson on the WBAL video below) was leading a complicated rallying cry, but the focus had shifted and demonstrators were now facing away from Light and Pratt Streets. The crowd seemed to be around 100 strong, but people were coming and going, and except for a core of chanters, I felt very little sense of energy. By about 5:40 I stopped expecting it to become a major rally, and walked back to my car. Inner Harbor was as unaffected and normal as when I walked in.

Update 20130716: WBALTV’s video. Looks like the group swelled to about 200 and marched to the War Memorial.

Italiacom Open Final on TennisTV

Yesterday I watched Sara Errani vs Roberta Vinci – a dream all Italian final at the Italiacom Open WTA in Palermo. I had watched Vinci beat a very swarthy Spaniard, Estrella Cabeza Candela, Spain, 5-7, 6-2, 6-2 the day before. Errani had defeated Czech Republic’s Klara Zakopalova  6-4, 6-4, but I didn’t watch that one.

Both women wore the same dark blue skirts and blue horizontal-striped singlets over powder blue sportsbras. Even their shoes were the same. Being doubles partners and both sponsored by Nike, it probably never occurred to them that television viewers might have trouble telling them apart. I noticed that Errani wore a bun at the back while Vinci wore a ponytail, but the real giveaway was Vinci’s slice backhand vs Errani’s two-hander.

Errani broke to open, but Vinci pulled even at 2-all. The key to the match was probably the big fight for the seventh game. Vinci couldn’t seem to get a bh dropshot over the net, but saved 5 break points and held for 4-3. Vinci was almost always able to tee off on Errani’s second serve, but in long rallies, was pushed ever deeper by Errani’s steadier strokes. Nevertheless, Vinci won her 6th break point in the eight game, and served out the set at 6-3. The commenters told us that it was the first set she had won against Errani in oh-so-many years.

Errani seemed more error-prone than usual, but focused more, got an early break and won the second set 6-3. Vinci led the third set 4-0, but Errani broke back to get on serve at 3-4. Then Vinci broke and held to 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, ending a run of five defeats to the younger woman, and pleasing fans from her local region.

I watched the match on TennisTV, mostly because it was the only current tournament that wasn’t blocked out in my area. That has been a disappointment. I knew I would not get the majors, but there have been a lot of smaller tournaments that aren’t covered by TTV. I still like the format, but it would be great if I could merge TTV’s delivery and commentary with The Tennis Channel and ESPN’s reach.

Late in the second set the TTV signal dropped a few times, and in the middle of the third set I had to start over and advance to where I had been. Such hiccups are not critical to me, but I could see them flummoxing less experienced users.

The Aquatic Ape & I

While browsing ScienceBlogs, I saw Greg Laden’s post that Elaine Morgan, a proponent of the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis (AAH), had passed away. I also found a BBC obit, Leading writer and feminist Elaine Morgan dies aged 92, in which the word ‘unassuming’ occurs frequently.

My mother was an avid reader, and belonged to several book clubs. I latched on to her copy of Desmond Morris’ The Naked Ape in my early teens. Later she picked up Morgan’s The Descent of Woman, and I read that, too. In some ways Morgan’s book was a feminist response to Morris. Drawing on earlier works cited by Morris in his book, Morgan proposed a scenario where our primate ancestors lost most of their hair in the course of using nearby seas or lakes as a source of food and as a refuge from land predators. She also proposed that female primates began using seashells as tools. She poked a lot of fun at Morris, too. I later read Robert Ardrey, Lionel Tiger (a great name) and a few more of Morris’ books, and thought I was well read on anthropology.

Along with the usual SATs, I took the English AP test before college. An unexpected assignment was to create a dialogue between two authors, so I chose Morris and Morgan. I’m sure the College Board reviewers were expecting something like Joyce chatting with Tolstoy and I’d probably be appalled to read what I wrote today, but science and science fiction were what I was reading then, so that’s what they got.

In college, one of my Architecture profs dismissed Morgan and the like as, “popular anthropology,” and AAH does seem to be a sort of cold fusion-like dead end – with only a few true believers. Someone named Jim Moore has tried to hold AAH underwater by maintaining a website called The Aquatic Ape Theory: Sink or Swim? either a scientific critique or a takedown of the theory, depending on your sympathies.