Tuesday, February 28, 2012


I wrote here a while ago that the Englishman Alan Bate had gone around the world by bicycle in 106 days, an astounding feat.  I have since learned that he did it with a support crew.  While still an astounding feat, having your luggage carried for you in a support wagon, having your meals prepared for you, being able to sleep in the back of a minivan without finding shelter nor preparing a tent, is not much like real bicycle touring.  Presumably the car would take you over the steepest, slowest sections of road or even across whole mountain ranges, so the whole trip could be done on level ground.

The real record-holder by most reckonings is Vince Cox who went around the world, covering a minimum of 18,000 miles by bike, in 163 days.  He traveled alone, carried his luggage with him on the bike, and slept where he could.  Ironically Cox' 2010 record was broken only four days after it was set, by Bate.

Cox' record meant riding at least an average of 110 miles per day for five and half months on a fully-loaded tourer.  That is a feat of almost magical determination and fitness.

On February 19th a dozen riders set out, nine from Greenwhich, England, one from Bangkok, another from New Zealand, and still another from the Isle of Man.  The date was set for 160 days before the opening of the London Summer Olympics, on the theory that the winner will arrive in London during the event.

The Young Woody Allen

[click on the video for fullscreen]


Sunday, February 26, 2012

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The World's Policeman

I have often heard it said, most recently by congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul, that the US should not be the policeman of the world.  That is just conventional nonsense.  It is a platitude people say because they've heard it and not heard it contradicted. A moment's thought shows how preposterously wrong it is. Our cities are often plenty dangerous with policemen.  Imagine urban life without them.

That is what the life of nations would be like were it not for a world policeman.

Except for Antarctica and the oceans, the whole surface of the earth is under some government or other.  And every one of those governments at least in theory attempts to suppress crime and other anti-social behavior.  But among the governments themselves there is no government, no one to suppress crime and anti-social behavior of governments.  History has shown that governments have been the worst malefactors, committing crimes and monstrosities that reduce the worst efforts of the Tony Sopranos and street corner muggers of the world to insignificance by comparison.

To deal with this lack of a world order there are only the US and the UN.  The UN is more than just useless - it is part of the problem.  That leaves the US.  Without the US there would be even more anarchy and violence than there is now.

And please don't reply by claiming that the US is responsible for most of the violence.  That is just fatuous and not worth your saying or my replying.


Japan, A Year Later

[click on video for fullscreen]

Friday, February 17, 2012

What the Future Will Be Like


I don't have a better idea than capitalism or socialism.  I just have an idea.  My idea is that all forms of human society contain contradictions, injustices and frictions.  Formulating an ideology of how to best organize society so as to resolve and end contradictions is utopianism, a fool's errand.  Human societies are inherently unstable so no choice of social order will stay put.  
There is no right way to do it, not even a best way.  Societies are mixmasters of evolving forms.  

All one can hope for is a general tendency of societies to evolve toward less violence - notably the diminution of slavery, persecution, authoritarianism, and so on.  I really believe that there is progress in human life, just not linear and not according to anyone's notions of how things should be. 

Specific reforms, like prison reform, treatment of the insane, abolition of slavery, diminution of wife-beating, abolition of child labor, have no     ideological content.  

They are reductions in the level of violence with which people are treated.  Universal education, abolition of smallpox, typhoid, malaria, cholera, diphtheria, and so on, are all improvements in human life that are 


independent of choices about ownership of the means of production and distribution of incomes.

Even in our own time we have seen a diminution in the prevalence of war.  While there have been wars aplenty, it is 67 years since there has been a 


 global war of the scale of those that wrecked half the world in the first half of the 20th Century.  Already wars seem largely confined to the more backward and undeveloped parts of the world.  After a millennium of wars, Europe has at very long last largely disarmed.  There have been few wars between countries in the Americas in living memory.  This is not 

a matter of ideology - capitalist America and  communist Russia were equally belligerent.

One can hope that as living standards rise around the world, including in Africa and the Muslim countries, birthrates will fall, childhood mortality will fall, literacy will rise, hunger will abate, the status of women will improve, religious fanaticism will decline, and overall social violence will diminish.

Last night Rita asked me what time in history I would most like to live.  I unhesitatingly and without coyness said, "two hundred years from now".  Whether there will still be corporations and capitalists and Republicans then, matters less than whether there is still war and disease and social violence. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Talk to the Hand

I have always despised capitalism.  I have a low opinion of socialism as well.  The only thing I am still in favor of is vandalism.  And I don't approve of that either.

I am not going to vote.  Did you see the President's new budget proposal?  Modest increases in some departments, notably State and Commerce (i.e. Hilary's constituency and the business class) small cuts in most departments, and one and only one big cut - in the budget of the Department of Labor.  The Obama administration has apparently decided that the main budget problem the government faces is that it is spending too darn much money on protecting workers' rights.

Wait, wait.  Maybe I am wrong.  The administration announced as part of the budget package the Buffet Tax.  It would ensure that those with incomes over a million a year would pay a minimum 30% tax rate.  Tax the rich.  Can't get more progressive than that, right?

But the same proposal would also repeal the Alternative Minimum Tax, the AMT, which has been in place for decades.  The switch from AMT to the Buffet Tax would cost the government $100 billion in lost tax revenue, according to the Wall Street Journal.  Which is to say that the Obama Administration has just proposed reducing taxes on the rich by a $100 billion.  Which would have to be made up by everyone else.  Pretty damned progressive, huh?

Not only is Obama no socialist, he is not a liberal either.  He is no friend of those unfortunate enough not to make a million a year, and especially no friend of those unfortunate enough to have to work for an employer.  

Do they think we're idiots?  I am NOT voting for the bastard.  I am going to be in Australia in November for the eclipse and indisposed.


Wednesday, February 08, 2012

High Finance (with translations)

From the Wikipedia article on volatility (financial) -

Volatility over time

Although the Black Scholes equation assumes predictable constant volatility, none of these are observed in real markets, and amongst the models are Bruno Dupire's Local VolatilityPoisson Process where volatility jumps to new levels with a predictable frequency, and the increasingly popular Heston model of Stochastic Volatility.[5]
{i.e. these are great models but not of anything that actually happens.}

It's common knowledge that types of assets experience periods of high and low volatility. That is, during some periods prices go up and down quickly, while during other times they might not seem to move at all.
Periods when prices fall quickly (a crash) are often followed by prices going down even more, or going up by an unusual amount. Also, a time when prices rise quickly (a bubble) may often be followed by prices going up even more, or going down by an unusual amount.
The converse behavior, 'doldrums' can last for a long time as well.
{i.e. Sometimes stocks prices go up and down, sometimes a lot.  Other times they don't.}

Most typically, extreme movements do not appear 'out of nowhere'; they're presaged by larger movements than usual. This is termed autoregressive conditional heteroskedasticity
{OK, now you're just messing with us.}

Of course, whether such large movements have the same direction, or the opposite, is more difficult to say. And an increase in volatility does not always presage a further increase—the volatility may simply go back down again.
{So these large movements of volatility indicate that the market is going to up - or down.  Or not.  Definitely messing with us.}


Tuesday, February 07, 2012

How the Two Party System Works

[Shays Rebellion - the 1786 uprising of the not-rich that spooked the ownership class into convening the constitutional convention the next year.]

I was walking the dog today amid the big three and four story houses that line Vicente Canyon where I live now.  At the top of the hill overlooking everything was one house much bigger than the others, with an even more commanding view, on a much bigger lot.  I wondered if I was seeing the physical representation of the bourgeoisie on the pinnacle and the petit bourgeoisie in the mere three and four story houses.  

I mentioned the big house to a woman walking her dog in the opposite direction.  She told me that the owner had applied to the city for a permit to build a helicopter landing facility there.  I asked what happened.  She said the city had turned the helicopter down because the neighbors had objected to the noise.  She clearly was one of the objecting neighbors and just as clearly her objection was not only to the noise but also to the hubris of the very rich guy having a helicopter in her neighborhood.  Had there been such a thing as a silent helicopter, she would have objected anyway.

Which made me wonder.  If the richest rule, as the left insists they do, why were the merely rich neighbors able to prevail against the much richer helicopter guy before the city authorities?  It occurred to me that I was seeing the two party system in action.  The Democrats are rich and favor professionals and small businesses - because they own them.  The Republicans are very rich and favor corporations and big businesses - also because they own them.  

Down below, in the rest of Berkeley were the great majority of the people, people who are not rich.   Elections are when the rich vie with the very rich to see which can fool the greater number of the not-rich, into supporting them.  It is no alliance because neither party of the rich ever reciprocates by supporting the not-rich.  It is not a political alliance proposed by the parties of the rich -- it is straight-up fraud.

An example from history is that England had a two party system, the Whigs and the  Tories, since at least the end of the English Civil War and the Restoration in 1660.  And until the founding of the Labour party in 1905, 245 years later, no one in either party made any pretense of representing the common people (ironic, considering they were in the House of Commons).  Hard-fought elections and endless appeals to the good of the people of England were all just empty chatter, a quarter millennium of it.  Though both parties canvassed the middle class for votes and contended fiercely, both Whigs and Tories represented the interests of the wealthy and aristocratic and no one else.

Similarly, from the end of the American Civil War until the New Deal, both Republicans and Democrats were pro-business, anti-labor parties.  Both were unabashedly parties of the rich.  And that was in the self-consciously democratic United States.  That era has come again.

This is the only analysis which can explain why 75 senators, 37 of them Democrats, voted yesterday to make it impossible for airline employees to unionize.  It is the only analysis which explains how a supposedly deadlocked Congress was somehow able to join together to prevent the extension of unemployment compensation eligibility last month.  It is the only analysis which explains how a supposedly deadlocked Congress was able last year to pass an extension of the 2003 Bush-Obama tax cuts for those with incomes over $250,000.  It is the only analysis which explains why Mr. 'Hope and Change' signed it into law.

Monday, February 06, 2012

The Iron Lady


Saw 'Iron Lady' yesterday.  Wonderful acting by Meryl Streep.  She won the Academy Award for Best Actress within the first 15 or 20 minutes of the film.

I think the movie exaggerated both the amount of street violence in Britain during her years in power and the amount of internal resistance she encountered in her cabinet and among the Tory MP's.   There is no disputing that she was defeated for leadership of her own party while a sitting prime minister, but it was after 11 years in office, when she had become the longest serving prime minister in modern times..

It was also unfair to suggest, as the moviemaker does, that her sinking of the Argentine cruiser the 'General Belgrano' was an act of murder because it was sailing away from the Falklands.  Had the Belgrano turned and sunk a British ship, taking British sailors to the bottom instead of the Belgrano and its crew of Argentine sailors, how could she have justified it to Britain and to the parents of the sailors?  It is also strongly implied that the subsequent sinking of the destroyer HMS Sheffield was in reprisal for the sinking of the Belgrano.  

According to Wikipedia, subsequent interviews of the commanders involved showed that the Belgrano was not returning to port, only moving to another position to await orders.  Similarly, those responsible for the attack on the Sheffield said they did it because the two countries were at war, and not in reprisal for the Belgrano.  Which makes the accusation against Thatcher both unfair and dishonest

Since this information has been public record for a long time, one has to wonder what the purpose of rehashing 1982 press speculation, much less treating it as true, could be in the making of a 2012 movie.

The movie went out of its way to suggest that Thatcher was horribly unpopular and that no one agreed with her.     But what it actually succeeded in showing was that Thatcher was unpopular with London street protesters and with her rivals for leadership of the Tory party.  In fact, she was elected leader of the Tory party by its MP's in 1975, and then, as leader of the Tories and as prime minister, won the general election of 1979, that of 1983, and that of 1987.  The historical record is quite different than the story presented in the movie.

The dialogue at the cabinet meeting which led to the Tory rebellion against her, on the other hand, has to have been carefully researched.  I am comfortable that with some twenty or so observers in the room all interviewed separately, as well as an official note-taker, the dialogue in the movie was probably word-for-word what was said that day.

The movie is told in flashback from Margaret Thatcher's current life and thus also tells a story about a recent episode in her life.  As a very old lady she accomplished something personal that took great force of character and courage.

The Right Honorable, The Baroness Thatcher, Lady Thatcher LG OM PC (The brand of her vacuum cleaner, her mantra, and her computer?) is 86 years old and lives in London.  Her husband, the late Denis Thatcher, died in 2003.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Which European political party would they be ?

[Can you find the product placement in this picture?]

Ironically, if Romney were running in Europe, Gingrich's accusation of his being a liberal would be true.  In Europe liberalism means wanting laissez-faire capitalism, no government interference in the economy, and no regulation.  Like his fellow liberals, Romney regards society not as a community but as a venue for a few to make as much money as possible.   They see the nation not as their country but merely as a market for whatever they're selling.  

An angry conservative with a big ego and grandiose ideas for radically transforming his country, this politician's frequently changing positions and amorphous ideology make support for him more of a cult of personality than a coherent political vision.  By inflating a former position as a minor academic political writer, this leader purported himself to be the intellectual leader of the Right.

That is a description of Benito Mussolini, leader of the Italian Fascist Party.

[Santorum making unverified claim]

In America a politician who touts his plebeian origins and claims to stand for the interests of working people yet consistently and invariably takes socially conservative positions and supports economic policies favorable to the rich, is called a Right Populist.  The obvious example is the later years of William Jennings Bryan when he went from a fiery orator for the cause of the common man, to being a pro-business religious evangelical.

The left narodniki wanted radical redistribution of land in Russia, from the rich landowner class to the peasants.  They wanted the abolition of Tsarism, the church, and of big business.  They wanted a new Russia.

The right narodniki wanted restoration of the 'mir' the almost mystical commune of the peasants, just as Santorum wants restoration of the American family. Right narodniki wanted more power and respect for the church and for the Tsar.  Like Rick Santorum's vision for America, they wanted the restoration of an old Russia that never was.

At the time of the Russian Revolution, the Narodniki were by far the biggest parties in Russia.  But they were agrarian parties with their support among the peasants in the countryside, while the Bolsheviki were a workers party with their support in the cities.  When the Reds seized power in Saint Petersburg and Moscow, they dragged the rest of Russia kicking and screaming behind them. 

Unhelpfully, 'Right Narodnik' translates into English as 'Right Populist'.

There was a European political movement which considered government to be an inherent evil and advocated reducing it as much as possible.  They said that wars were not conflicts between peoples but conflicts between governments and wanted the reduction of armies to a few border guards.  This party looked back to a vaguely described and entirely mythological golden age in the past and looked forward to a vast transformation of society from masses dependent on the state, to free individuals who rely on themselves.  Never quite able to articulate how such a society would work in practice, they were derided by most as impractical visionaries.   Because of their enthusiasm they were more powerful than their numbers.  This movement, the anarchists, consistently received 15% to 20% of the vote in Spain, Italy, and France for decades.

Like the Narodniki in Russia and the Populists in America, the anarchists also split into left and right factions.  The left anarchists wanted to free the workers by the abolition of the state and also of all other authoritarian hierarchies in society, by violence if necessary.  This made them the enemies of the church, of armies, of school hierarchies, of all bureaucracies, and, most of all, of capitalist corporations.  Left anarchists were idealistic about the workers.

Right anarchists wanted the abolition of the state, and to have social institutions like the church, school hierarchies, and, most of all, capitalist corporations, replace it.  Right anarchists were not idealistic about the workers, but merely cynical about the state.  Needless to say, Ron Paul would be among these.

Aside from the occasional assassination, invariably by left anarchists, they accomplished little.  In their defense however, the collective accomplishment of the other parties was to twice reduce much of Europe to smoking rubble and to kill tens of millions of Europeans.  Ironically, the two world wars having conclusively proven the truth of the anarchist position on war and the state, they became all but extinct thereafter.

Unlike their rivals, the Socialists, the Social Democrats wanted to keep a capitalist economy (and, implicitly, with it the class system).  But they wanted to tax and regulate it, to reform its worst abuses, and to provide social benefits and social services to the public.  This system was widely adopted in countries from Iceland to Israel.  It was easy to adopt because it was a compromise position between capital and labor.

The British social democrats, though literally called 'Labour', never quite changed anything much of the upper crust monopoly on Eton, Oxford, and Cambridge, and on the Eton, Oxford, and  Cambridge monopoly on every plum job in the kingdom.  (This is very different than in the egalitarian US where people are treated the same if they went to Harvard as if they had gone to Yale.  And both of those are considered nearly as equals by graduates of Goldman Sachs.)

Nor did any of them object much to being made peers and being promoted to the House of Lords when the opportunity came.  Labour in spite of its name was frequently at war with the TUC (Trades Union Council - the British AFL- CIO) and with the miners.

Derided as the Welfare State, social democratic programs became ever more expensive and consumed a larger and larger fraction of national resources.  Their popularity sank and social democratic parties were voted out of country after country.  In the end it was voted out even in its homeland of Scandinavia.  Today no country in Europe has a Social Democratic government.  (Except maybe Spain, since the election last year).

Nevertheless the legacy of the SD's is enduring.  Every country in Western Europe considers its social welfare benefits (health care, education, trade regulations, retirement pension plans, et cetera) as much a part of its landscape as its cathedrals and universities.

But it should be noted that most of them are hopelessly mired in debt on account of it and on the verge of bankruptcy.....

The National Front in the UK and the Front National in France are residuary parties, which is to say they are a collection of those having in common only that they are to the right of all the other parties.  Each stoutly denies racism while simultaneously expressing visceral hatred of everyone darker, more Jewish, or more Muslim than they are.  No one believes their denials.  

Neither the Tories in the UK nor the UMP in France will have anything to do with the National Front parties.  In England being in the National Front "is just not done."  In France it is outre.  

In the United States however, the Republicans are falling over themselves in competitively pandering to the Tea Party in election after election.  In the United States, so far from being political pariahs, the Tea Party have at least a veto over every act of the Congress, and are dominant in many state governments.

It is hard to know whether to have more contempt for the Tea Party or for their accomplices, the Republican Party.