April 29, 2009

8-hour workday is in your genes

Biological Clock

You've heard about circadian cycles but did you know that the thousands of genes in the body switch on and off over the 12-hour cycles governed by light and dark that set our waking an sleeping hours and eating habits.

Now scientists are finding that shorter cycles are also biologically encoded. 8 hour workday biologically wired

New research from the University of Pennsylvania and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies suggests that humans are biologically hard-wired to work only eight hours a day.

The standard work cycle appears to be programmed in the genes.

Posted by Jill Fallon at 2:49 PM | Permalink

"Who will win the war for the soul of Western Europe?"

Bruce Bawer in the Wall Street Journal on Western European voters' widespread reaction against social democracy.

The shift has two principal, and related, causes. The more significant one is that over the past three decades, social-democratic Europe's political, cultural, academic and media elites have presided over, and vigorously defended, a vast wave of immigration from the Muslim world—the largest such influx in human history.
Yet instead of encouraging these immigrants to integrate and become part of their new societies, Western Europe's governments have allowed them to form self-segregating parallel societies run more or less according to Shariah. Many of the residents of these patriarchal enclaves subsist on government benefits, speak the language of their adopted country poorly or not at all, despise pluralistic democracy, look forward to Europe's incorporation into the House of Islam, and support—at least in spirit—terrorism against the West. A 2006 Sunday Telegraph poll, for example, showed that 40% of British Muslims wanted Shariah in Britain, 14% approved of attacks on Danish embassies in retribution for the famous Mohammed cartoons, 13% supported violence against those who insulted Islam, and 20% sympathized with the July 2005 London bombers.

Too often, such attitudes find their way into practice. Ubiquitous youth gangs, contemptuous of infidels, have made European cities increasingly dangerous for non-Muslims—especially women, Jews and gays.
Who will win the war for the soul of Western Europe? The Islamofascists and their multiculturalist appeasers, many of whom seem to believe that their job is not to defend democracy but to help make the transition to Shariah as smooth as possible? The nativist cryptofascists? Or Pim Fortuyn's freedom-loving heirs?

Posted by Jill Fallon at 11:43 AM | Permalink

Swine Flu

The swine flu (H1N1) is transmitted from person to person like this. 

 Visible Cough

I'm late to post on the swine flu because I've spent much of my time trying to figure out how serious it is and what the average person can do about it aside from washing their hands a lot and postponing any vacation to Mexico.    Apart from the baby who died in Texas, swine flu in the U.S. seems to be quite mild.    In Mexico, the crisis is severe with 149 deaths; the government is going all out to stem the spread canceling public events, closing schools and restaurants in Mexico City.

One of the most alarming bits of new was that Obama in Mexico earlier this month was showed around the city's anthropology museum by Dr. Felipe Solis who died the next day from "flu-like" symptoms, making the President coming closer to almost anyone in the country to contracting the virus.  We did learn later that the President was fine and that Dr. Solis has died of pneumonia.

There's no question that one of the consequences of a flat world, interconnected in ways unimaginable, that fears of a global pandemic will characterize our future.   

Contagion on a Small Planet
An urbanizing planet  knitted by transportation is an extraordinarily welcoming world for infectious disease, particularly easily transmitted viruses like the flu. That’s why it wasn’t surprising Saturday when the World Health Organization concluded that the outbreaks of swine flu focused in central Mexico as well as a school in New York City and several other places around the United States officially constituted “a public health emergency of international concern".

My brother works for the WHO in Geneva and yesterday sent me this graph after WHO raised the global alert level to phase 4.  Click for larger image.

 Who Graph

The good news is that the U.S. government is far better prepared to deal with a pandemic than it was a few years ago.  After the avian flu scare, President George Bush issued a pandemic flu preparedness plan.  Since 2006, $6.2 billion has been appropriated to stockpile antivirals, step up surveillance and improve vaccine-making and technology.

How Not to Battle Flu - Lessons from the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918
CDC tips for individuals

What should you do?

1. Don't panic.  Eat pork if you want.
2. Wash your hands often with soap and water.
3. Have antibacterial handwash in your car so you can use it wherever you are.
4. If you are sick, stay home.  If you have flu symptoms, stay home unless you have difficulty in breathing, dizziness, pain in the chest or vomiting.  Then see a doctor.  The anti-viral drugs Tamiflu and Reflenza are only available with a doctor's prescription.
5. You might want a mask if you come into close contact with flu-infected people, either a disposable surgical mask or a painter's mask.  The most effective are N95 respirators but make sure they are approved by the CDC.
5. Check your own state of preparedness.

Do you have two weeks worth of food and water and necessary medications? 

Posted by Jill Fallon at 11:36 AM | Permalink

April 27, 2009

A Semester with Jesus

You may have already seen this but if you haven't, read about Kevin Roose, the student at Brown University who "infiltrated" Liberty University

"As a responsible American citizen, I couldn't just ignore the fact that there are a lot of Christian college students out there," said Roose, 21, now a Brown senior. "If I wanted my education to be well-rounded, I had to branch out and include these people that I just really had no exposure to."

Formed in 1971, Liberty now enrolls more than 11,000 residential students, along with thousands more who study through Liberty's distance-learning programs. The university teaches creationism and that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, while pledging "a strong commitment to political conservatism" on campus and a "total rejection of socialism."
He lined up a publisher — Grand Central Publishing — and arrived at the Lynchburg campus prepared for "hostile ideologues who spent all their time plotting abortion clinic protests and sewing Hillary Clinton voodoo dolls."

Instead, he found that "not only are they not that, but they're rigorously normal."
Roose said his Liberty experience transformed him in surprising ways.
Once ambivalent about faith, Roose now prays to God regularly — for his own well-being and on behalf of others. He said he owns several translations of the Bible and has recently been rereading meditations from the letters of John on using love and compassion to solve cultural conflicts.

He's even considering joining a church.

From an interview in Newsweek

Did you ever feel guilty about deceiving your new friends?

I did, and I tried to be as honest as I could. When people asked, I told them I'd come from Brown. I expected raised eyebrows, but often what I got was pity. They thought I was fleeing secularism, and they'd say, "Oh, Liberty must be a breath of fresh air." And I'd be like, "You have no idea."

His book is

"The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University" (Kevin Roose)

He's also started a blog where he promotes his book and discusses other matters like Bible literacy: Why you need to know the Bible (even if you're an atheist)

For all the talk of America as a nation founded upon Judeo-Christian values, one humbling fact remains: As a culture, we know startlingly little about the Bible. As Stephen Prothero points out in his book Religious Literacy, studies have shown that only half of U.S. adults know one of the four Gospels by name. More than half are unable to identify Genesis as the first book of the Bible, and 60% can’t name five of the Ten Commandments. Sadly, our collective slide into biblical illiteracy doesn’t seem to be reversing itself among the younger set–according to Prothero, 50% of high school seniors think Sodom and Gomorrah were a married couple.
By getting a solid foundation in the Bible in my Liberty classes, I gained access to an incredible amount of cultural capital. Suddenly, hidden metaphors in classic works of literature leapt out at me from the page, and I caught the subtle scriptural references embedded in political stump speeches

Outside the classroom and the newsroom, biblical literacy is also important in our personal lives. For better or worse, America is a nation with a deeply entrenched religious divide, and knowing the language of the Bible can help secular liberals reach across faith boundaries and build common ground with even the most conservative Christians.
The Bible is, quite simply, the most influential book in history. It’s the all-time best seller, the book whose pages have inspired wars and toppled regimes, whose words have given hope and comfort to billions of believers. And knowing almost nothing about it–as I did before my semester “abroad” at a Christian college–greatly hinders a person’s ability to participate knowledgeably in our country’s most important cultural discussions. Atheist or believer, Jewish or Christian, I hope–and pray–that this holiday season will inspire us all to learn a little more about the book in whose shadow we all live.

Posted by Jill Fallon at 9:58 AM | Permalink

Getting Rich with Big Green

How to capitalize on global warming by finding the Big Green.  Al Gore shows us the way

According to public disclosure information, Gore was worth somewhere between $1 million and $2 million in 2000. Not quite eight years later, Gore is estimated to be worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million..... When you look out at what Al Gore has done, it’s evident that he figured out on a way to capitalize on the creation of Big Green while becoming the official doomsday prophet that has helped to build Big Green into the monetary powerhouse that it has become.

For those who are terrified by the continuing prophecies of imminent disaster,  it's a helpful corrective to read the Earth Day predictions of 1970.

“Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make. The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.”
• Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University biologist

“Scientists have solid experimental and theoretical evidence to support…the following predictions: In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution…by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half….”
• Life Magazine, January 1970

“The world has been chilling sharply for about twenty years. If present trends continue, the world will be about four degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but eleven degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age.”
• Kenneth Watt, Ecologist

Posted by Jill Fallon at 9:58 AM | Permalink

The Complicity of Washington with Wall Street

I don't see how this is going to turn out well.

Busting Bank of America

The cavalier use of brute government force has become routine, but the emerging story of how Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke forced CEO Ken Lewis to blow up Bank of America is still shocking. It's a case study in the ways that panicky regulators have so often botched the bailout and made the financial crisis worse.

In the name of containing "systemic risk," our regulators spread it. In order to keep Mr. Lewis quiet, they all but ordered him to deceive his own shareholders. And in the name of restoring financial confidence, they have so mistreated Bank of America that bank executives everywhere have concluded that neither Treasury nor the Federal Reserve can be trusted.

No wonder no banker in his right mind trusts the Fed or Treasury, and no wonder nobody but Pimco and other Treasury favorites is eager to invest in the TALF, the PPIP, or any of the other programs that require trusting the government as a business partner.

The political class has spent the last few months blaming bankers for everything that has gone wrong in the financial system, and no doubt many banks have earned public scorn. But Washington has been complicit every step of the way, from the Fed's easy money to the nurturing of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and since last autumn with regulatory and Congressional panic that is making financial repair that much harder. The men who nearly ruined Bank of America have some explaining to do.

Posted by Jill Fallon at 9:11 AM | Permalink

April 26, 2009

A Great Unraveling

Kroft observes to real estate agent Kevin Moran. “There was a time, I think, when people felt really bad about not paying off a debt.”

“Yeah, I think in those days, loans were made by your local banker or building and loan associations or savings and loan,” Moran replies. “They were guys you saw in the grocery store. They were on the little league team with you, the PTA, the school. And I think as mortgages became securitized and Wall Street became involved, they became very transactional and there was no relationship built with the borrower and the lender. And I think that makes it easier for someone to see it as an anonymous party at the other end of the transaction and just walk away from it.”

“Just a business decision,” Kroft says.

Patrick Deneen explores the consequences in Walkaway

One can hardly be surprised at the vulture economy that will spring up as the carcasses begin to putrefy. However, what is most arresting for me in this posting is the growing evidence of shamelessness among our middling debtor class, a vice that can be itself directly traceable to the elites of our society, in particular those quasi-aristocrats who were the trustees and caretakers of our society and its norms. These people of visibility and distinction in settled communities - established businessmen and storekeepers, attorneys and doctors, clergy and civic figures - have reneged their status as responsible keepers of their community and as conveyors and exemplars of its norms, and now ironically are reaping the harvest that they have sown.
Just as our economy has shown us no sense of obligation and concern, so too in return are ordinary people shucking off the social norms or covenants that bound us in communion and fidelity. There is a great unraveling taking place, and at times I do truly fear for the future of this nation.

Posted by Jill Fallon at 2:34 PM | Permalink

"The enormous pot of TARP money has in fact corrupted both the private and the public sector,"

"The enormous pot of TAARP money has in fact corrupted both the private and the public sector," writes Donald Luskin in TARP Looking More Criminal by the Minute.

Yesterday’s sensational claims by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo — that Ken Lewis, CEO of TARP-recipient Bank of America, was pressured into what amounts to securities fraud by the Treasury and the Federal Reserve concerning his bank’s acquisition of Merrill Lynch — throws the question right into the headlines. It raises issues of corruption all around, and at the highest levels — from corporate CEOs and federal regulators to Mr. Cuomo himself.
What originally prompted my friend Larry Kudlow to ask if TARP is a criminal enterprise was Wednesday’s report to Congress by TARP’s special inspector general, Neil M. Barofsky, in which it was disclosed that “nearly 20 preliminary and full criminal investigations” are underway, including “large corporate and securities fraud matters affecting TARP investments, tax matters, insider trading, public corruption, and mortgage-modification fraud.” When I first read that I rolled my eyes and said to myself, “Hey, what do you expect?”
It’s easy to guess that Barofsky is looking into the possibility that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson coerced the CEOs of the nine largest banks to accept capital investments from TARP, even though several of them didn’t want the government as a stakeholder. Wells Fargo chairman Richard Kovacevich, for example, says that he was “forced to take the TARP money.” Philip Swagel, who served at the time as assistant secretary for economic policy at the Treasury, admits that “there is no authority in the United States to force a private institution to accept government capital. This is a hard legal constraint.”

But then again, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, the statute that authorizes TARP, doesn’t give the Treasury the power to make direct investments in banks at all. It gives the Treasury the power to buy troubled assets and to write insurance against losses in troubled assets. But there’s not one single solitary word in the act that authorizes the Treasury to buy stock in banks.

And there’s not one single solitary word in the act that authorizes the Treasury to do anything at all for auto companies like General Motors and Chrysler. The act only authorizes helping “financial institutions.” Yet billions of TARP dollars have gone to the two automakers.

A $700 billion budget buys one heck of a big dog — apparently a dog that attracts some pretty big fleas.

Posted by Jill Fallon at 9:09 AM | Permalink

More on Solar Superstorms and the" Geomagnetic Apocalypse"

Wired has picked up the story that I wrote about  Solar Superstorms calling it The Geomagnetic Apocalypse and tells us - And How to Stop It.

For scary speculation about the end of civilization in 2012, people usually turn to followers of cryptic Mayan prophecy, not scientists. But that's exactly what a group of NASA-assembled researchers described in a chilling report issued earlier this year on the destructive potential of solar storms.

Entitled "Severe Space Weather Events — Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts," it describes
the consequences of solar flares unleashing waves of energy that could disrupt Earth's magnetic field, overwhelming high-voltage transformers with vast electrical currents and short-circuiting energy grids. Such a catastrophe would cost the United States "$1 trillion to $2 trillion in the first year," concluded the panel, and "full recovery could take four to 10 years." That would, of course, be just a fraction of global damages.
Worse yet, the next period of intense solar activity is expected in 2012, and coincides with the presence of an unusually large hole in Earth's geomagnetic shield, meaning we'll have less protection than usual from the solar flares.

 Geomagnetic Superstorm

Wired.com talked to Joseph and John Kappenman, CEO of electromagnetic damage consulting company MetaTech, about the possibility of geomagnetic apocalypse — and how to stop it.

John Kappenman: We've got a big, interconnected grid that spans across the country. Over the years, higher and higher operating voltages have been added to it. This has  escalated our vulnerability to geomagnetic storms. These are not a new thing. They've probably been occurring for as long as the sun has been around. It's just that we've been unknowingly building an infrastructure that's acting more and more like an antenna for geomagnetic storms.

What we're proposing is to add some fairly small and inexpensive resistors in the transformers' ground onnections. The addition of that little bit of resistance would significantly reduce the amount of the geomagnetically induced currents that flow into the grid.
In its simplest form, it's something that might be made out of cast iron or stainless steel, about the size of a washing machine.
If you're talking about the United States, there are about 5,000 transformers to consider this for. The Electromagnetic Pulse Commission recommended it in a report they sent to Congress last year. We're talking about $150 million or so. It's pretty small in the grand scheme of things.

Big power lines and substations can withstand all the other known environmental challenges. The problem with geomagnetic storms is that we never really understood them as a vulnerability, and had a design code that took them into account.
Wired.com: Can it be done in time?

Kappenman: I'm not in the camp that's certain a big storm will occur in 2012. But given time, a big storm is certain to occur in the future. They have in the past, and they will again. They're about one-in-400-year events. That doesn't mean it will be 2012. It's just as likely that it could occur next week.

Posted by Jill Fallon at 9:03 AM | Permalink

April 25, 2009

"It wasn’t all over when I saw the body. It was just beginning.”

From the London Times comes the terrific story of Susan Galbreath.

How one ordinary woman solved a murder : the story about an ordinary woman's persistence led to justice for the victim of a brutal murder.

At the age of 40 Susan Galbreath’s life had spiralled into a dull purposelessness, with no fixed ambitions, targets or goals. By the year 2000, she had two failed marriages behind her, one son, and had moved south from Chicago to Mayfield, Kentucky. Her third husband was an alcoholic and the marriage was in atrophy. She had not worked since an illness in 1998 and anyway had a background without any fixed skills or training. It was a dead end-life in a near dead-end town.

On the morning of August 1 she was having coffee in the local café and the waitress mentioned that a body had been found in the school playing fields nearby. It was a discovery that would change her life irrevocably.

“I believe nothing happens by chance. I’ve often ignored instinct and regretted it,” she says. “This time I let instinct lead me.” Her instinct – “I can’t tell you why” – was to go to see the body for herself.

What she saw defied reasonable description. A female black corpse, naked, horribly burnt and bloated, the face unrecognisable.

Susan Galbreath still does not comprehend what happened to her at that moment, but she experienced an epiphany. “Nothing prepares you for a sight like that. I started to cry. I should have been repelled and walked away but something led me there. It wasn’t all over when I saw the body. It was just beginning.”

I only wonder which middle-aged actress or producer in Hollywood will jump to buy the option to write a screenplay.

Posted by Jill Fallon at 4:48 PM | Permalink

April 23, 2009

Cultivating Friendship

Close friendships often have a greater effect on health than a spouse or a family member.  They will shape your life, sustain it and make it better.

What Are Friends For?  A Longer Life

Researchers are only now starting to pay attention to the importance of friendship and social networks in overall health. A 10-year Australian study found that older people with a large circle of friends were 22 percent less likely to die during the study period than those with fewer friends. A large 2007 study showed an increase of nearly 60 percent in the risk for obesity among people whose friends gained weight. And last year, Harvard researchers reported that strong social ties could promote brain health as we age.

“In general, the role of friendship in our lives isn’t terribly well appreciated,” said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. “There is just scads of stuff on families and marriage, but very little on friendship. It baffles me. Friendship has a bigger impact on our psychological well-being than family relationships.”


The only reward of virtue is virtue; the only way to have a friend is to be one.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

If a man does not make new acquaintance as he advances through life, he will soon find himself left alone. A man, Sir, should keep his friendship in constant repair.
- Samuel Johnson (1709 - 1784) British lexiographer.

My friends are my estate.
- Emily Dickinson

Posted by Jill Fallon at 12:43 PM | Permalink

TARP is just one big criminal problem

Is TARP a criminal enterprise? 

Larry Kudlow asks
Is the whole TARP plan a criminal enterprise? Sounds farfetched, I suppose. But after reading about Special Inspector General Neil Barofsky’s report, it may well be that TARP is just one big criminal problem.

Listen to this:
Barofsky’s investigators reported Monday that they have opened 20 criminal probes into possible securities fraud, tax-law violations, insider-trading, and mortgage-modification fraud related to TARP. Yup, those are criminal probes. Barofsky is the special IG overseeing the bailout program. And for some reason the mainstream media refuses to report this on the front pages where it belongs.

Barofsky’s report spans 247 pages. And it says that
the very character of the bailout program makes it “inherently vulnerable to fraud, waste and abuse, including significant issues related to conflicts of interest facing fund managers, collusion between participants and vulnerabilities to money laundering.”

By the way, one of Barofsky’s recommendations is for Treasury to abandon its whole plan of buying toxic assets from banks and investors. The IG’s report also notes that what started last October as a single-purpose $750 billion effort to buy toxic securities has morphed into twelve separate programs that cover up to $3 trillion in direct spending, loans, and loan guarantees. In other words, TARP is nearly equal in size to the entire federal budget.

Think about this: TARP, which is now linked to substantial criminal activity, has ballooned to the size of a second federal budget and represents the biggest government-directed intrusion into the economy in history — vastly bigger than the New Deal. And not only is there TARP for banks, insurance companies, and non-bank financial institutions, but also for GM, Chrysler, and various auto suppliers, and perhaps soon enough for credit cards, newspapers, and other sectors of the economy.

Much as I am dismayed about the direction of the economy, I'm more distressed at what John Bogle calls the Crisis of Ethic Proportion

The old notion of trusting and being trusted -- which once was not only the accepted standard of business conduct but the key to success -- came to be seen as a quaint relic of an era long gone.

The proximate causes of the crisis are usually said to be easy credit, bankers' cavalier attitudes toward risk, "securitization" (which severed the traditional link between borrower and lender), the extraordinary leverage built into the financial system by complex derivatives, and the failure of our regulators to do their job.

But the larger cause was our failure to recognize the sea change in the nature of capitalism that was occurring right before our eyes. That change was the growth of giant business corporations and giant financial institutions controlled not by their owners in the "ownership society" of yore, but by agents of the owners, which created an "agency society."

The managers of our public corporations came to place their interests ahead of the interests of their company's owners. Our money manager agents -- who in the U.S. now hold 75% of all shares of public companies -- blithely accepted the change. They fostered the crisis with superficial security analysis and research and by ignoring corporate governance issues. They also traded stocks at an unprecedented rate, engaging in a dangerous spree of speculation.

What's to be done? We must work to establish a "fiduciary society," where manager/agents entrusted with managing other people's money are required -- by federal statute -- to place front and center the interests of the owners they are duty-bound to serve. T
he focus needs to be on long-term investment (rather than short-term speculation), appropriate due diligence in security selection, and ensuring that corporations are run in the interest of their owners. Manager/agents need to act in a way that reflects their ethical responsibilities to society. Making that happen will be no easy task.

Posted by Jill Fallon at 11:33 AM | Permalink

Solar superstorms and our electrical grids

I continue to remain baffled about the anxieties over climate change since that is what climates do.  Far more worrying to me than the hypothetical worries about global warming,  far more immediate and far more dangerous to our way of life are solar superstorms. 

Meltdown! A solar superstorm could send us back into the dark ages - and one is due in just three years

This catastrophe is not some academic one-in-a-million chance scenario.

It is a very real threat which, according to a report in the latest issue of New Scientist, remains one of the most potent, yet least recognised, threats to the future of human civilisation.

Daniel Baker, a space weather expert at the University of Colorado, prepared a report for the U.S. National Academy of Sciences last month, and the conclusions make grim reading.

'Every year, our human technology becomes more vulnerable,' he says.

A repeat of the 1859 Carrington event today would have far graver consequences than the frying of some telegraph wires.

The problem comes with our dependence on electricity and the way this electricity is generated and transmitted.

A huge solar storm would cause massive power surges, amounting to billions of unwanted watts surging through the grids.

Most critically, the transformers which convert the multi-thousand-volt current carried by the pylons into 240v domestic current would melt  -  thousands of them, in every country.

This would bring the world to its knees. With no electricity, we would not just be in the dark.

We are dependent, to a degree few of us perhaps appreciate, on a functioning grid for our survival. All our water and sewage plants run on electricity.

A couple of days after a solar superstorm, the taps would run dry.

Within a week, we would lose all heat and light as reserves ran out, the supermarket shelves would run empty and the complex supply and distribution networks upon which our society depends would have started to break down.

No telephones, no medicines, no manufacturing, no farming  -  and no food.

Global communications and travel would also collapse  -  a solar superstorm would probably destroy the network of GPS satellites upon which every airline depends.

So could this really happen? And why is 2012 a year to worry about? Well, we know that solar superstorm did happen, back in 1859.

And we know that 20 years ago a much smaller storm knocked out the power grid across much of eastern Canada, leaving nine million people without electricity.

We also know that the Sun's activity waxes and wanes in 11-year cycles.

Currently, the Sun is very quiet. But a solar maximum  -  a peak of activity  -  is predicted for 2012, and this is when a superstorm could strike, probably around either the spring or autumn equinox, when the orientation of the Earth's magnetic field to the Sun makes us very vulnerable.

The main point is that every solar maximum puts us more in danger as our growing population becomes ever more dependent on electricity.

I'm curious as to what the government is doing to harden the electrical infrastructure.

We learned earlier this month that the electricity grid in the U.S. has been penetrated by cyberspies.

The spies came from China, Russia and other countries, these officials said, and were believed to be on a mission to navigate the U.S. electrical system and its controls. The intruders haven't sought to damage the power grid or other key infrastructure, but officials warned they could try during a crisis or war.

The electrical grid is the soft underbelly of our economy.  What is being done to harden it? 

Posted by Jill Fallon at 11:16 AM | Permalink

April 20, 2009

"Do not for a moment think that a brokerage firm is your friend"

Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic on Why I Fired My Broker

For most of our  our adult lives, my wife and I have behaved in the way responsible cogs of capitalism are supposed to behave—we invested in a carefully calibrated mix of equities and bonds; we bought and held; we didn’t overextend on real estate; we put the maximum in our 401(k) accounts; we gave to charity; and we saved, but we also spent: mainly on gasoline, food, and magazines. In retrospect, we didn’t have the proper appreciation for risk, but who did? We were children of the bull market.
Well, goodbye to all that. I took a random walk down Wall Street and got hit by a bus.

IT TURNS OUT that my crucial mistake was believing that the brokers and wealth managers and cable-television oracles who make up the financial-services industrial complex actually had my best interests at heart. Or so say the extremely smart—and wealthy—people I asked to help me figure a way out of my paralysis. One of these people was Robert Soros, the deputy chairman of the fund started by his father, George. I went to see him at his office, where he spent two hours performing an autopsy on my assumptions.

“You think a brokerage should be a place you go to pay commissions for fair and unbiased advice, right?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“It’s not. It never has been.” He then cited another saying of Buffett’s: “‘Wall Street is a place where whatever can be sold will be sold.’ You are the consumer of their dreck. What they can sell to you, they will sell to you.”

“But they told us—”

“They lied.”

He went on: “You should be disheartened and disappointed. But don’t kid yourself. You’re a naive capitalist. They were never your advisers. Do not for a moment think that a brokerage firm is your friend.”ß

Who Will Guard Your Nest Egg 
Brokers are not legally bound to put your best interests first.

Independent registered financial advisors are.

Vetting a Potential Financial Advisor

Posted by Jill Fallon at 10:01 AM | Permalink

April 17, 2009

A grain of sand

"To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour."
          William Blake

I'm a big fan of microphotography and Dr. Gary Greenberg opens up a whole new world that lies under our feet.

 Grain Sand

"A Grain of Sand: Nature's Secret Wonder" (Gary Greenberg)

Posted by Jill Fallon at 9:57 AM | Permalink

Don't Let the Bedbugs Bite

Those nocturnal tiny insects that feed on the blood of humans are back.  Jane Brody tells you how to keep them from biting.

 Bed Bug

Although this blood-sucking parasite has been around for thousands of years, it was mainly associated with impoverished dwellings and fleabag hotels. Now, as the authors pointed out, “international travel, immigration, changes in pest control practices, and insecticide resistance” have ganged up to create “a resurgence in developed countries,” including the United States.

“Bed bug infestations have been reported increasingly in homes, apartments, hotel rooms, hospitals and dormitories in the United States since 1980,” they wrote. Reported infestations in San Francisco doubled from 2004 to 2006; telephone complaints in Toronto rose 100 percent in six months during 2002; and the number of bed bug samples sent to authorities in Australia was 400 percent higher from 2001 to 2004, compared with the previous three years.
Most people who are bitten by bed bugs do not react. Of the 30 percent or so who do, many mistake the small, pink, itchy bumps for mosquito bites, although people may become more suspicious and more sensitive with repeated bites....People who are highly sensitive react with intense itching that prompts scratching and can lead to infections......most bed bug lesions can be treated with an anti-itch product like calamine lotion or a topical or oral corticosteroid and antihistamine. If bites become infected, a topical or oral antibiotic may be needed.

Just don't pick up discarded mattresses, sofas or cushioned chairs off the street.

When you travel, check for bedbugs with the small flashlight you should always have with you.

If your bed has been infested, you have no choice but to call a professional.

Posted by Jill Fallon at 9:47 AM | Permalink

Nasal irrigation for allergies

Nasal irrigation works, as many recent studies attest, to ease allergy symptoms, stuffy nose and other nasal problems.

One benefit is that irrigation can clear nasal passages without dryness or “rebound” congestion, which occurs when overuse of decongestants leads to dependence and irritated tissue.

In one independent study in 2008, researchers examined a group of children with severe allergies. They found that regular nasal irrigation with a mild saline solution significantly eased symptoms and helped reduce the need for steroid nasal sprays. A 2007 study at the University of Michigan looked at 121 adults with chronic nasal and sinus problems. Over two months, the scientists found that those treated with nasal irrigation reported greater improvements than those treated with a spray.

The neti pot has been used for thousands of years, but some find it too awkward to use.  Today you can easily buy a saline spray that will remain sterile as long as you don't share it.    Natural and cheap.

 Nasal Irrigation

Posted by Jill Fallon at 9:32 AM | Permalink

Spengler Unveiled

Spengler, one of my favorite writers on the web, unveils himself, And Spengler Is

The 300 or so essays that I have published in this space since 1999 all proceeded from the theme formulated by Rosenzweig: the mortality of nations and its causes, Western secularism, Asian anomie, and unadaptable Islam.

Why raise these issues under a pseudonym? There is a simple answer, and a less simple one. To inform a culture that it is going to die does not necessarily win friends, and what I needed to say would be hurtful to many readers. I needed to tell the Europeans that their post-national, secular dystopia was a death-trap whence no-one would get out alive.
I have been an equal-opportunity offender, with no natural constituency. My academic training, strewn over two doctoral programs, was in music theory and German, as well as economics. I have have published a number of peer-reviewed papers on philosophy, music and mathematics in the Renaissance.
I owe much to several mentors, starting with Dr Norman A. Bailey, special assistant to President Reagan and director of plans at the National Security Council from 1981-1984...Another mentor was Professor Robert Mundell, the creator of supply-side economics, among his other contributions.
I had left economics for music, and left music for finance, eventually working in senior research positions at Bear Stearns, Credit Suisse and Bank of America. At Bank of America, I created from scratch a highly rated fixed income research department between 2002 to 2005, with 120 professionals and mid-nine-figure compensation budget. By 2005, it was no longer clear how the financial industry would play a helpful role in fostering prosperity, and philosophical differences prompted me to take my leave.
Exile among the fleshpots of Wall Street had its benefits, but I had other ambitions. My commitment to Judaism came relatively late in life, in my mid-thirties, but was all the more passionate for its tardiness.
As a returning religious Jew, I had less and less to discuss with the secular Zionists who shared my passion and partisanship for Israel, but could not see a divine dimension in Jewish nationhood. So-called cultural Judaism repelled me; most of what passes for Jewish culture comes down to the mud that stuck to our boots as we fled one country after another. The Hebrew Bible and its commentaries over the centuries are the core of Jewish culture,
Europe's high culture and its capacity to train universal minds had deteriorated beyond repair; one of the last truly universal European minds belongs to the octogenarian Pope Benedict XVI.
Both as classical musician and as a Germanist, I had better insight than most Jews into the lofty character of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI.
To write for First Things was an unanticipated honor. I came to know the magazine's editor Joseph Bottum, as well as such regular contributors as George Weigel, Russell Hittinger and R R Reno.

On January 8, 2009, the magazine's founder Richard John Neuhaus died. A few weeks later Jody Bottum asked me to join the staff of First Things as an editor and writer. It seems only heartbeats ago that I was in dark seas, looking up at this beacon; now it is my turn to help keep the lighthouse.

A lighthouse keeper indeed

Posted by Jill Fallon at 8:35 AM | Permalink

April 16, 2009

"No socialisation of losses and privatisation of gains"

There is so much sense in Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Ten principles for a Black Swan-proof world everyone should read the whole thing.

1. What is fragile should break early while it is still small.

2. No socialisation of losses and privatisation of gains.
Whatever may need to be bailed out should be nationalised; whatever does not need a bail-out should be free, small and risk-bearing. We have managed to combine the worst of capitalism and socialism. In France in the 1980s, the socialists took over the banks. In the US in the 2000s, the banks took over the government. This is surreal.

3. People who were driving a school bus blindfolded (and crashed it) should never be given a new bus.
Find the smart people whose hands are clean.

4. Do not let someone making an “incentive” bonus manage a nuclear plant – or your financial risks.

5. Counter-balance complexity with simplicity.

6. Do not give children sticks of dynamite, even if they come with a warning .
Complex derivatives need to be banned because nobody understands them and few are rational enough to know it. Citizens must be protected from themselves, from bankers selling them “hedging” products, and from gullible regulators who listen to economic theorists.

7. Only Ponzi schemes should depend on confidence.
Governments should never need to “restore confidence”.

8. Do not give an addict more drugs if he has withdrawal pains.
Using leverage to cure the problems of too much leverage is not homeopathy, it is denial. The debt crisis is not a temporary problem, it is a structural one. We need rehab.

9. Citizens should not depend on financial assets or fallible “expert” advice for their retirement.
Economic life should be definancialised. We should learn not to use markets as storehouses of value: they do not harbour the certainties that normal citizens require

10. Make an omelette with the broken eggs.
Finally, this crisis cannot be fixed with makeshift repairs, no more than a boat with a rotten hull can be fixed with ad-hoc patches. We need to rebuild the hull with new (stronger) materials; we will have to remake the system before it does so itself. Let us move voluntarily into Capitalism 2.0 by helping what needs to be broken break on its own, converting debt into equity, marginalising the economics and business school establishments, shutting down the “Nobel” in economics, banning leveraged buyouts, putting bankers where they belong, clawing back the bonuses of those who got us here, and teaching people to navigate a world with fewer certainties.

Posted by Jill Fallon at 9:49 AM | Permalink

Round-up of recent medical breakthroughs

If you or someone you love has to take a complicated regime of medicines, you might be pleased to learn that soon a microchip that tells the doctor if you've taken your pills.

Digestible sensors in pills activate a harmless electrical charge when the pill is digested by the stomach which charge is picked up on a sensing patch on the patient's stomach that records the time and date the pill is digested,  sends it off to a mobile phone which in turn sends it to a secure web page.    Just 1 mm wide, the silicon microchips can't be seen by patients and can be added to any standard drug during the manufacturing process. 

New research suggests that one speck of blood or tissue may be enough to diagnose cancer.

Researchers at Stanford University, California, have developed a machine that separates cancer-associated proteins by means of their electric charge, which varies according to modifications on the protein’s surface.

There may be a "good" fat tissue - brown fat -that fights obesity but the downside is  that it works only when you turn down the heat and shiver.

And the best news of all. Bacon sandwich really does cure a hangover by boosting the level of amines which clear the head.

Posted by Jill Fallon at 9:36 AM | Permalink

The Neural Patterns of Unconditional Love

'Unconditional love, extended to others without exception, is considered to be one of the highest expressions of spirituality, said Professor Mario Beauregard, of Montreal University’s centre for research into neurophysiology and cognition.

Professor Beauregard used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) on low paid assistants looking after people with learning difficulties, as examples of people with proven ability to feel strong unconditional love:

When the subjects were asked to evoke feelings of unconditional love, the scans showed seven brain areas that became active, three were similar to those of romantic love. The others were different, suggesting a separate kind of love.

Prof Beauregard’s discoveries showed that some of the areas activated when experiencing unconditional love were also involved in releasing dopamine - the chemical involved in sensing pleasure.

The greatest love of all: Study shows why humans are capable of caring unconditionally

Posted by Jill Fallon at 9:34 AM | Permalink

April 15, 2009

Tax Day Tea Party

Tax Day Tea Parties around the nation on Google Maps

 Tax Day Tea Parties

Self-organized, the tax day tea parties are protesting higher taxes and out-of-control government spending.    The Wall St Journal says

What's most striking about the tea-party movement is that most of the organizers haven't ever organized, or even participated, in a protest rally before. General disgust has drawn a lot of people off the sidelines and into the political arena, and they are already planning for political action after today.

Stop Spending Our Future

Adjusted for inflation, the proposed deficit is 3 times what we spent on WW2 and 24 times what was spent on The New Deal.

Obama Deficits-1

Posted by Jill Fallon at 10:59 AM | Permalink

The Cosmic Dance

What is going on in the sky above that is otherwise invisible to your naked eye outside your suburban Boston Home.

Mosaic Sky-Above

  As I grew older,...eventually I made some startling discoveries -- three of them -- and they have changed my life forever. The first of these is the amazing revelation that I am made up of stardust, that every part and parcel of who I am materially was once a piece of a star shining in the heavens. The second discovery is that the air I breathe is the air that has circled the globe and been drawn in and out by people, creatures and vegetation in lands and seas far away. But the most astounding discovery that both awakened and affirmed my early childhood awareness is the fact that I am part of a vast and marvelous dance that goes on unceasingly at every moment in the most minute particles of the universe....

Joyce Rupp

Posted by Jill Fallon at 10:41 AM | Permalink

April 14, 2009

Limiting Market And State

The dichotomy of market and state places us between the Scylla of seeking profit in all of our interactions and the Charybdis of coercive force and intrusive regulation. When both the state and market are properly limited, room is made for the vital institutions of social life to flourish and for a culture of charity to be truly nurtured.

Between Market and State

It's actually quite sad when people think that's the only choice they have.

Posted by Jill Fallon at 10:51 PM | Permalink

April 13, 2009

Vetting a potential financial advisor

From the Wall Street Journal comes Seven Questions to Ask When Picking a Financial Advisor

The first step is to realize that you're ultimately responsible for your family's money -- you're the chief executive of your own investment company. Your financial adviser, mutual-fund manager, wealth manager and anyone else who handles your investments should report directly to you. Even if you don't understand the ins and outs of investing as well as they do, you're responsible for ensuring that they handle your money properly.
Once you recognize that you're in charge, you can approach your advisers like a boss -- not just a client. That means putting them through a tough vetting process to make sure they're competent, trustworthy and looking after your best interests.

1. What's in the advisor's background?
2. What do the advisor's clients say?
3. How does the advisor get paid?
4. Where are the advisor's checks and balances?
5. What's the advisor's track record?
6. Can the advisor put it in writing?
7. What do other pros think?

Read the whole piece for Shelly Banjo's discussion.

Posted by Jill Fallon at 11:56 AM | Permalink

April 12, 2009

Exultent - The Easter Proclamation

The Resurrection Of Jesus Christ

The Exultent is chanted by the deacon during the Easter Vigil

Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels!
Exult, all creation around God's throne!
Jesus Christ, our King, is risen!
Sound the trumpet of salvation!

Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendor,
radiant in the brightness of your King!
Christ has conquered! Glory fills you!
Darkness vanishes for ever!
This is the night
when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death
and rose triumphant from the grave.

What good would life have been to us,
had Christ not come as our Redeemer?
Father, how wonderful your care for us!
How boundless your merciful love!
To ransom a slave you gave away your Son.

O happy fault,
O necessary sin of Adam,
which gained for us so great a Redeemer!

Most blessed of all nights,
chosen by God to see Christ rising from the dead!

Happy Easter

Posted by Jill Fallon at 1:35 PM | Permalink

April 10, 2009

The Crown of Thorns in the Cosmos

The Crown of Thorns in the Cosmos

 Crown Of Thorns Galaxy

A new Hubble image of NGC 7049, a glittering "oddball" galaxy captured by NASA/ESA in the constellation of Indus
The halo - the ghostly region of diffuse light surrounding the galaxy - is composed of myriads of individual stars and provides a luminous background to the remarkable swirling ring of dust lanes surrounding NGC 7049's core. Globular clusters are very dense and compact groupings of a few hundreds of thousands of stars bound together by gravity.

An astonishing meditation on Good Friday by  Richard John Neuhaus, "Father Forgive Them"

But it is just as odd that it should be called God’s Friday, when it is the day that we say goodbye to the glory of God. Wherever its name comes from, let your present moment stay with this day; stay a while in the eclipse of the light, stay a while with the conquered One. There is time enough for Easter.

By these three days all the world is called to attention. Everything that is and ever was and ever will be, the macro and the micro, the galaxies beyond number and the microbes beyond notice—everything is mysteriously entangled with what happened, with what happens, in these days. This is the axis mundi, the center upon which the cosmos turns. In the derelict who cries from the cross is, or so Christians say, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. The life of all on this day died. Stay a while with that dying.

Posted by Jill Fallon at 10:31 AM | Permalink

April 9, 2009

Standing Under The Last Supper


      Schematic diagram From Restoration of the Last Supper

 The Last Supper Da Vinci
The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci finished in 1498 on the refectory wall of of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan

The artist Makoto Fujimara, taking up the invitation to Come and See,  travels to Milan to stand under the masterpiece.

"If you want to 'understand' something," said my friend Bruce Herman, "you have to be willing to 'stand under' it." Bruce, an art professor at Gordon College, went on to cite C. S. Lewis' Experiment in Criticism:

We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.

Leonardo painted in a grand, dominating scale for a small space. Even standing in the far back of the refectory, it is difficult for the eye to decipher the whole painting all at once. He painted The Last Supper in such a way as to force the viewer to enter the painting, physically and emotionally, and to viscerally become part of the narrative.

Only when the viewer stands under the painting can it be seen as it was intended to be (plate A). Leonardo had a specific visual message for those who stand under the painting. He had the visual sophistication to carry off what very few artists could even dream of doing: he painted the complex psychology of betrayal. It starts with Philip, and ends in a moneybag. Invited to walk into Leonardo's funhouse of mirrors, we are all meant to be part of this narrative, which is refracted within our own dark journeys.
As an artist, I naturally try to identify the source of light in a painting, because I know that artists often use light to reveal what they want the viewer to see. In this painting, it would be easy to assume that the light is coming from behind from the windows, through which we see a Renaissance landscape. But the source of light in this painting actually is the face of Jesus reflecting on all of the disciples – all but Judas, who is under-painted with black, denied a brightened countenance.
For him to have painted as he did, he had to be convinced of a center that holds.

So who is at the center? Where does the “vanishing point” end?

It ends on the forehead of the Savior.

And that foundation will hold, no matter how full our moneybags get, nor how little it takes for us to engage in betrayal. To Leonardo, the triangular shape of Jesus literally holds the painting in its visual movement.

A very high resolution photograph (16 billion pixels ) of the painting can be explored here

Timothy Verdon, an art historian and priest explains the profound meaning of the masterpiece from an artistic, theological and liturgical perspective in The Last Supper According to Leonardo published last week in L'Osservatore Romano.

By the use of perspective, the artist focuses the attention on Christ, making him the convergence point of the entire pictorial cosmos defined by the room. In fact, the diagonal lines that draw the eye forward inevitably lead to Christ, everything meets in Him, He is the center of the visual logic of the whole, as well as its narrative logic. He is not the last point, the vanishing point in the perspective; the diagonal lines, instead, converge behind Christ, in the evening sky outside of the window; but that vanishing point remains hidden. Seeking the infinite, our gaze comes to a halt with Christ, as if He were still saying, "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9).

Posted by Jill Fallon at 11:37 AM | Permalink

April 7, 2009

Quake in Italy

The earthquake in L'Aquila and the surrounding villages hit at around 3 am when people slept.

Stefania, mother to seven-year-old Sara, said: "My husband managed to get out of bed but I was completely covered in rubble and I couldn't move and I heard my daughter calling from her bed: 'Mamma, mamma'. I was going crazy, trying to get all the debris off me but I couldn't, and I was thinking: 'If she dies, I want to die with her'." The family was eventually rescued and taken to hospital.

Latest estimates are 235 dead, 50,000 homeless, 15 missing and 13,000 buildings damaged or destroyed.

 L'aquila Map

The deadliest quake to hit Italy in decades left onlookers weeping and every one  afraid as aftershocks continue to rumble.

Rescuers combed piles of rubble with their hands, searching frantically for survivors, but in Onna, a village of mostly elderly residents, the houses made of heavy stone walls that had lasted for centuries crumpled into piles of toppled stones.  The town's physician said

"I ran from house to house, but there were just mountains of stones and screams

Some of the unaccounted for were students at the university in the medieval town of L'Aquila
A fireman from the port of Pescara who came to help rescue efforts collapsed in tears after unearthing the body of his stepdaughter, who was studying there.

Working by floodlight, rescuers used a crane to gradually dismantle a ruined university dormitory in the hope of finding survivors. As darkness fell, workers dragged out the bodies of two of the four students still missing.

Some 7000 emergency rescuers worked through a second night under powerful lamps rescuing several young people and one 98-year-old woman who said that she spent 30 hours knitting as she waited to be freed from her ruined home.

"I worked, I knitted," said Mrs D'Antuono, from the village of Tempera, close to L'Aquila. The redoubtable nonagenarian told rescuers that she was in good health when she was found this morning,

As she was carried out by firefighters, she pleaded with them: "At least let me comb my hair."

After rehousing the homeless, the rescue work will extend to artwork

 Church-Of Conception Paganica Earthquake

Before and after pictures here

Posted by Jill Fallon at 9:45 PM | Permalink

"Just don't hurry"

Wise Counsel at Unexpected Times

As I was moving my widowed mother from a retirement community in Alabama to a nursing home near me in New Jersey, there was a particularly awkward moment on our flight when, somewhere over Philadelphia, she had to use the bathroom.

My mother, then 78, had dementia and balance problems and couldn’t walk without help. Arm in arm, we inched up the aisle, lurching with the turbulence. Somehow, I steered her into the tiny stall and onto the toilet seat, then squeezed myself inside so as to close the door and give her some privacy. Suffice it to say that it’s a lot easier to change a baby’s diaper than a mother’s Depends in an airplane bathroom.

A flight attendant caught my eye as we returned to our seats and gave me a knowing, sympathetic smile. On the ground in Newark, as I settled my mother into a wheelchair for the ride down the jetway into an uncharted stage of her life (and mine), that flight attendant touched my shoulder and said one sentence that I remember to this day: “Just don’t hurry.”

Just don't hurry

 Bird In Hand Victor Schrager-1

Still, I was often the first target for her frustration, and one night my mother lashed out at me in front of her brother and his wife, who were visiting from New Mexico. I don’t remember what triggered this, but I do recall my Aunt Sherry saying softly from behind me, “Be a duck.”

Be a duck

Posted by Jill Fallon at 8:36 PM | Permalink

Who Will Guard Your Nest Egg?

There's a power struggle in Washington that will shape how investors get the advice they need.

On one side are stockbrokers and other securities salespeople who work for Wall Street firms, banks and insurance companies. On the other are financial planners or investment advisers who often work for themselves or smaller firms.

Brokers are largely regulated by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which is funded by the brokerage business itself and inspects firms every one or two years. Under Finra's rules, brokers must recommend only investments that are "suitable" for clients.

Advisers are regulated by the states or the Securities and Exchange Commission, which examines firms every six to 10 years on average. Advisers act out of "fiduciary duty," or the obligation to put their clients' interests first.

Most investors don't understand this key distinction. A report by Rand Corp. last year found that 63% of investors think brokers are legally required to act in the best interest of the client; 70% believe that brokers must disclose any conflicts of interest. Advisers always have those duties, but brokers often don't.

Now the battle is over whether Finra should adopt a fiduciary standard that puts the clients' interests first.


Posted by Jill Fallon at 10:38 AM | Permalink

The Healthy Side of Pride

The fine art of keeping up appearances may seem shallow and deceitful, the very embodiment of denial. But many psychologists beg to differ.

To the extent that it sustains good habits and reflects personal pride, they say, this kind of play-acting can be an extremely effective social strategy, especially in uncertain times.

“I have a new client, a laid-off lawyer, who’s commuting in every day — to his Starbucks,” said Robert C. Chope, a professor of counseling at San Francisco State University and president of the employment division of the American Counseling Association. “He gets dressed up, meets with colleagues, networks; he calls it his Western White House. I have encouraged him to keep his routine.”

When All You Have Left Is Your Pride

Pride, in short, begets perseverance. All of which may explain why, when the repo man is at the door, people so often remind themselves that they still have theirs, and that it’s worth something. Because they do, and because it is.

However much pride may go before a fall, it may be far more useful after one.

Posted by Jill Fallon at 9:43 AM | Permalink

April 5, 2009

"The most elite institutions in America engaging or facilitating fraud"

William Black, the author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One, was in New York last week for a conference at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice to answer the question "How did they get away with it."

Now Black won a reputation as the senior regulator who cracked down on banks in the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s ,so he knows what he's talking about.  His interview by Bill Moyers last week on PBS was extremely disturbing and damning.

Hat tip Rod Dreher, Williamm K. Black, The government is lying to us.

Black goes on to say how can we justify not having a first-rate, nonpartisan investigation finding out why this happened and how it can be prevented. Why aren't we having that? Because, he says, the government literally doesn't want to know, or rather, doesn't want the public to know. Black alleged that the government is lying about the bank losses to maintain artificial public confidence. Moyers pinned him down on this point, asking if he really did believe that the Obama administration is intentionally deceiving the public.

Black: "Absolutely. Because they are scared to death of a collapse. ... I think they are sincerely just panicked: 'We cannot let big banks fail.'"

And if they keep lying about it? Black says banks will stay enormously weak, and the government will continue "obscene giveaways of taxpayer money."

You can watch the interview here and read the transcript.

Here are a few excerpts:

Fraud is deceit. And the essence of fraud is, "I create trust in you, and then I betray that trust, and get you to give me something of value." And as a result, there's no more effective acid against trust than fraud, especially fraud by top elites, and that's what we have.

It begins in  the boardrooms and the CEO offices and this is how they do it.

Well, the way that you do it is to make really bad loans, because they pay better. Then you grow extremely rapidly, in other words, you're a Ponzi-like scheme. And the third thing you do is we call it leverage. That just means borrowing a lot of money, and the combination creates a situation where you have guaranteed record profits in the early years. That makes you rich, through the bonuses that modern executive compensation has produced. It also makes it inevitable that there's going to be a disaster down the road.
Liars' loans mean that we don't check. You tell us what your income is. You tell us what your job is. You tell us what your assets are, and we agree to believe you. We won't check on any of those things. And by the way, you get a better deal if you inflate your income and your job history and your assets.
This stuff, the exotic stuff that you're talking about was created out of things like liars' loans, that were known to be extraordinarily bad. And now it was getting triple-A ratings. Now a triple-A rating is supposed to mean there is zero credit risk. So you take something that not only has significant, it has crushing risk. That's why it's toxic. And you create this fiction that it has zero risk. That itself, of course, is a fraudulent exercise. And again, there was nobody looking, during the Bush years. So finally, only a year ago, we started to have a Congressional investigation of some of these rating agencies, and it's scandalous what came out. What we know now is that the rating agencies never looked at a single loan file. When they finally did look, after the markets had completely collapsed, they found, and I'm quoting Fitch, the smallest of the rating agencies, "the results were disconcerting, in that there was the appearance of fraud in nearly every file we examined."

Black said it was more than a financial crisis, it was a moral crisis, a fundamental lack of integrity.  In the Savings and Loan crisis only about 10% of the CEOs engaged in fraud.

So, 90 percent of them were restrained by ethics and integrity. So, far more than law or by F.B.I. agents, it's our integrity that often prevents the greatest abuses. And what we had in this crisis, instead of the Savings and Loan, is the most elite institutions in America engaging or facilitating fraud.

Posted by Jill Fallon at 6:27 PM | Permalink

Happiness is contagious

This is wonderful.  Happiness is contagious.

Posted by Jill Fallon at 9:55 AM | Permalink

Come Hell or High Water in Fargo

I just want to say how much I admire the people of Fargo, North Dakota, who came to together in the face of the rising Red River that threatened to destroy their town, to sandbag day after exhausting day. 

The most vulnerable were evacuated; the others stayed to fill more sandbags.  The river crested at 43 feet.

To most those crest numbers mean nothing, but to the residents of Fargo, a few precious feet represent the difference between staying dry and losing a home to the muddy, murky river.

The skies above Fargo are consistently humming as Army helicopters and Coast Guard choppers circle the area using infrared cameras to survey the dikes in search of the slightest leak, or worse, a total breach.

Non-essential businesses are closed, except hardware stores, which have extended their hours—some to 24 hours—to give the people of Fargo a chance to stock up on generators, pumps, rubber boots and other essentials.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker revealed in the morning flood meeting that federal officials had urged him to evacuate the entire city, but he resisted. If the people of Fargo were not here to fight the water, the city would have been lost.

But those manmade levees and sump pumps worked. 

Maybe you have to have lived in the Fargo area to fully understand the tenacity of a people who, faced with two blizzards during the course of record flooding, still shrug and say, "It could always be worse."

A Fargo pastor summed it up well: "This will be one of those markers that we will all talk about for the rest of our lives — how people helped each other out."

Big Picture has lots of the Red River flooding

 Fargo 1-1

Steven Browne, a new transplant to Fargo, was there

So I go up to the volunteer fireman who's coordinating efforts on the floor.

“What should I do?” I ask.

“Grab a shovel and start filling,” he answers quite logically. “Three full shovels in each bag.”
Jeez, will you look at that girl! You can see the exhaustion in her face, but she doesn't complain.

Come to think of it, nobody's complaining. These kids are having a ball. They're doing meaningful work to help save their town, and they're doing a durn good job of it too, without supervision and without slacking an inch.

There's an old guy over there working alongside kids who look like they could be his grandchildren. There's a woman with a grade-school kid working together, filling bags.

 Fargo 3

Some 6000 volunteers endured temperatures below 20 degrees in the race to save their city and their homes.  What a remarkable community.  God bless them all.

As one citizen said in the comments to the photos at The Big Picture , "I  bagged, my back hurts, my neck hurts, my hands hurt. But God, I've never felt so good!"

Posted by Jill Fallon at 9:51 AM | Permalink

April 4, 2009

The Heart Can Change

Even after a heart attack, the muscles of the heart can regenerate says the NIH

It has long been assumed that when the heart is damaged — such as after a heart attack — heart muscle cells do not regenerate and the damage is permanent. This assumption has been challenged in recent years by evidence that heart muscle cells may in fact regenerate. Now, this latest research provides the most dramatic and clear-cut demonstration to date of heart cell regeneration after cardiac injury," says Claude Lenfant, M.D., director of the NHLBI, a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

You don't die with the same heart you were born with

Heart muscle renewed over lifetime, study finds

About 1 percent of the heart muscle cells are replaced every year at age 25, and that rate gradually falls to less than half a percent per year by age 75, concluded a team of researchers led by Dr. Jonas Frisen of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. The upshot is that about half of the heart’s muscle cells are exchanged in the course of a normal lifetime, the Swedish group calculates. Its results are to be published Friday in the journal Science.

Those nuclear weapons tested in the atmosphere until 1963 in essence "labelled the cells of the entire world's population".

By measuring the amount of carbon 14 in the heart muscles, the scientists were able to calculate the turnover of cells in what was called a "scientific tour de force"

Posted by Jill Fallon at 12:53 PM | Permalink

Feeling overwhelmed at dizzying change

I'm not the only one feeling overwhelmed.  Neo who took a wait-and-see attitude at the beginning finds it curious that her liberal friends

are turning away from politics even more than usual, especially considering that they should be joyfully lapping up the wonderful news, now that their man Obama is in. I believe that their turning away is both a attempt at protecting themselves from the anxiety of hearing about the financial crisis, and a reaction to a feeling of “something just isn’t right with Obama” in the pits of their stomachs.

Peggy Noonan sees the loss in Obama fervor as well: 

There is considerable goodwill for the president, and all the polls show considerable support—half the nation in a time of sustained crisis is not a small thing—but one wonders for the first time if Mr. Obama's support isn't becoming, in the old phrase, a mile wide and an inch deep. Something has been lost in terms of fervor when one talks to Obama supporters.

They like the man but not his policies:

Messrs. Schoen and Rasmussen had 83% of respondents saying his programs will not work, 82% saying they're worried about the deficit, 78% worried about inflation, and 69% worried about the increasing role of the government in the economy.

She quotes a good friend of Obama, Tom Coburn, Republican Senator  from Oklahoma:

"I believe President Obama has proposed the most significant shift toward collectivism and away from capitalism in the history of our republic. I believe his budget aspires to not merely promote economic recovery but to lay the groundwork for sweeping expansions of government authority in areas like health care, energy and even daily commerce. If handled poorly, I'm concerned this budget could turn our government into the world's largest health care provider, mortgage bank or car dealership, among other things."

I'm with Neo when she writes Feel overwhelmed?  Maybe you're supposed to

It hasn’t always been so frenetic, but it is now. Things are happening so fast and so furiously that people have no time to process the amazingly complex issues involved, and the radical changes being proposed and in many cases implemented.

The frantic pace is supposedly happening because we are in crisis mode. But I’m certainly not the only one to wonder whether the sense of crisis is being purposely escalated in order to speed up the passage of controversial and “transformative” legislation. And to be very wary of where this “change” is really leading us.

Looking at the cards Obama has already played, Neo concludes at least as a 'working hypothesis' that

Obama as a man of the Left , that he is insufficiently devoted to the age-old American idea of liberty but is instead a committed statist, and that the mind-numbing pace of his change is deliberate and has been effective so far.
But he also knows that those more in the middle will not be noticing much, until the deeds are done. And he is counting on them to look away and hope for the best. The question is whether his pace is fast enough, and whether they will catch on—and whether they will then understand what is happening, or care.

Posted by Jill Fallon at 12:40 PM | Permalink

Greed, stupidity and taxes

David Brooks writes there are two overlapping narratives that explain the implosion of the global economy  Greed and Stupidity

There's Greed
The U.S. economy got finance-heavy and finance-mad, and finally collapsed. When it did, the elites did what all elites do. They took care of their own: “Money was used to recapitalize banks, buying shares in them on terms that were grossly favorable to the banks themselves,” Johnson writes.

An oligarchy takes control of the nation. The oligarchs get carried away and build an empire on mountains of debt. The whole thing comes crashing down. Johnson’s remedy is clear. Smash the oligarchy. Nationalize the banks. Sell them off in medium-size pieces. Revise antitrust laws so they can’t get back together. Find ways to limit executive compensation. Permanently reduce the size and power of Wall Street.

Or does Stupidity explain it better?

Overconfident bankers didn’t know what they were doing. They thought they had these sophisticated tools to reduce risk.But when big events — like the rise of China — fundamentally altered the world economy, their tools were worse than useless.
Banks got too big to manage. Instruments got too complex to understand. Too many people were good at math but ignorant of history.

The greed narrative leads to the conclusion that government should aggressively restructure the financial sector. The stupidity narrative is suspicious of that sort of radicalism. We’d just be trading the hubris of Wall Street for the hubris of Washington. The stupidity narrative suggests we should preserve the essential market structures, but make them more transparent, straightforward and comprehensible. Instead of rushing off to nationalize the banks, we should nurture and recapitalize what’s left of functioning markets.

Either way or both, we're in for crushing amounts of taxation.

Michael Boskin calculates that Obama's borrowing and spending adds $6.5 trillion to the national debt which will have to be paid back.

If distributed among those who pay taxes, only about 50% of the US population, every family will have to pay an additional $163,000.

These deficits are so large for a prosperous nation in peacetime -- three times safe levels -- that they would cause the debt burden to soar toward banana republic levels. That's a recipe for a permanent drag on growth and serious pressure on the Federal Reserve to inflate, not the new era of rising prosperity that Mr. Obama and his advisers foresee.

Charles Krauthammer on Obama's Ultimate Agenda

we are now so deep into government intervention that constitutional objections are summarily swept aside. The last Treasury secretary brought the nine largest banks into his office and informed them that henceforth he was their partner. His successor is seeking the power to seize any financial institution at his own discretion.
Obama has far different ambitions. His goal is to rewrite the American social compact, to recast the relationship between government and citizen. He wants government to narrow the nation's income and anxiety gaps. Soak the rich for reasons of revenue and justice. Nationalize health care and federalize education to grant all citizens of all classes the freedom from anxiety about health care and college that the rich enjoy. And fund this vast new social safety net through the cash cow of a disguised carbon tax.

Obama is a leveler. He has come to narrow the divide between rich and poor. For him the ultimate social value is fairness. Imposing it upon the American social order is his mission.
If Obama has his way, the change that is coming is a new America: "fair," leveled and social democratic. Obama didn't get elected to warranty your muffler. He's here to warranty your life.

"Congress and the White House are as prudent as a family that greets a huge, emergency roof-repair bill by visiting gourmet bistros, booking Caribbean cruises, and buying Maseratis for the teenagers." - Deroy Murdock

Look across the pond to see what crushing debt foretells about our future.  The Spectator tells us just what will be needed to bring the U.K.'s budget into balance. via Tim Montgomery

To comprehend the scale of the sickening task awaiting George Osborne if he becomes chancellor, consider the following. If he were to raise VAT to 25 per cent, double corporation tax, close the Foreign Office, cancel all international aid, disband the army and the police, release all prisoners, close every school and abolish unemployment benefit he would still be unable to close the gulf between what the UK government spends and what it raises in taxes.

Posted by Jill Fallon at 12:09 PM | Permalink

April 1, 2009

Sheep in Scotland

I always wondered how the Scots came up with plaid.

 Plaid Sheep

Posted by Jill Fallon at 10:26 AM | Permalink