Sunday, August 31, 2008

Grotesque

"In the house that had just been raided, those inside described how a team of roughly 25 officers had barged into their homes with masks and black swat gear, holding large semi-automatic rifles, and ordered them to lie on the floor, where they were handcuffed and ordered not to move. The officers refused to state why they were there and, until the very end, refused to show whether they had a search warrant. They were forced to remain on the floor for 45 minutes while the officers took away the laptops, computers, individual journals, and political materials kept in the house. One of the individuals renting the house, an 18-year-old woman, was extremely shaken as she and others described how the officers were deliberately making intimidating statements..."

Massive police raids on suspected protestors in Minneapolis
Federal government involved in raids on protesters

Optimism (unfortunately unwarranted...)


Crusader sees wealth as cure for India caste bias - Apparently Chandra Bhan Prasad, born a Dalit (an "untouchable", or as Mahatma Gandhi preferred a Harijan, or "Son of God") has broken out of his 'box' and achieved a position of prominence. He believes that "Economic expansion is going to neutralize caste in 50 years, it will not end caste." He's right about the second part and wrong about the first...

It's true that economic growth can lift Dalits out of poverty and raise their lot in life, but it is by no means clear that this will translate into growing equality. The optimism he feels is similar to that of those who point to the Indian computer industry (e.g. Indian women getting jobs in call centers, working alongside and supervising men, etc.) and their expectations that this will fundamentally change the mores of Indian society. Perhaps, it is to be hoped, but this blogger is less sanguine about the chances of this happening anytime soon. Caste is too embedded in the religion, psyche, being of Indians, and there are too many for whom it provides a solace and an opportunity to have others to look down upon. This blogger fears that it will take many, many, additional generations to attenuate.

Sad to say, despite his success Chandra Ban Prasad himself shows that even he is not free of all of the prejudices and beliefs that underpin the caste system when (as an example of his success no less) he boasts that while he married a woman from his own caste, she is light-skinned!

Previous entries on this topic:

Updates - #3 - (Aug 25th)
Frame of Reference - (June 27th)
Caste - (May 26th)

Business department, editorial staff...



In the latest Foreign Policy (September/October 2008) is a "Special Advertising Supplement" - "Surprising Kazakhstan - Think you know Kazakhstan? You might be surprised." In this you can read 'The Surprise of the Steppe' (e.g. "The streets of Almaty, the commercial center, and other cities throughout the country are clogged with Mercedes, BMWs, and Porsche SUVs. At night the cafes and restaurants are as full as those in any European capital, as well-heeled clientele sip white wine and cappuccinos..."); an interview with Prime Minister Karim Massimov - "Steward of Economic Growth"; "A Question of Balance" (e.g. "Its foreign-policy strategy blends pragmatism and ideology through skillful and sensitive management"); and other hagiographic "articles" and "interviews."

Kazakhstan - Wikipedia
Kazakhstan - CIA World Factbook
Kazakhstan - US Dept of State

Previously, in 2002, this blogger had commented on another such advertising supplement that lauded the Andean countries, including Venezuela (OPED11 reprinted below), and wondered at the risk of running puff pieces when the subjects of these puff pieces were very likely to figure (unfavorably) in future editions of Foreign Policy! The magazines obviously need the advertising revenue, but it seems to this blogger that it might be better to find alternative sources. Although the pieces are prominently marked as advertising and provide disclaimers, one wonders if this does any harm to the magazine's reputation....



The latest edition of Foreign Policy (Jan/Feb 2002) contains a special advertising supplement, The Andean Surprise, sponsored by Foreign Policy and the Andean Development Corporation. The introduction briefly acknowledges that some of the Andean countries (Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador) are facing difficulties (see quote below), and then the supplement goes on to highlight positive developments in the various countries.

"What follows is a country-by-country review that highlights surprises not wishful thinking or romantic ideas, but impressive accomplishments that deserve recognition and offer solid ground for optimism. This is not to deny the region’s troubles, a number of them no doubt considerable."

This OPED will take a quick look at Venezuela- at some of the positives highlighted in the supplement and then at some of Venezuela's "troubles". According to the supplement one of the 'impressive accomplishments' achieved by Venezuela is that:

  • "Venezuela is one of the first countries in the world where cellular mobile telephones surpassed subscribers to fixed-line services." In developed countries the level of cellular penetration has almost become a proxy for the telecommunications technology level of a country, with greater cellular penetration being seen as evidence of greater advancement (for example the higher cellular penetration in the Scandinavian countries as compared to the United States is taken by some as a sign that the US is falling behind some European countries in this field.) This is because cellular includes a host of advanced technologies such as SMS, WAP, 2.5G and 3G technologies, etc. Thus, superficially, the assertion that cellular penetration in Venezuela has exceeded fixed-line services might seem to be very positive. However, cellular penetration in less developed countries does not have the same meaning as it does in developed countries. In developed countries cellular penetration comes on top of fixed-line services in the 99% range. In less developed countries a significant portion of cellular penetration is among new subscribers that have not previously had fixed-line access (since often the telecommunication sector had been state-owned, inefficient, with long wait times to obtain services...). Thus with cellular subscribers in Venezuela representing approximately 16 percent of the population, it can be inferred that total access to telecommunications services is still at under 30 percent of the population.

  • Other "accomplishments" are that "Venezuela is endowed with reserves in gold, bauxite, iron, and coal", "Venezuela's natural gas reserves are the seventh-largest in the world", and "Venezuela produces the highest-quality cacao in the world." While this certainly puts Venezuela in a better position than if it had been poor in natural resources, mineral reserves do not necessarily translate into greater prosperity. Many raw materials are commodities, for which world prices are fairly low. Raw materials exports contribute much less to the economies of developing countries than if they are converted to final processed goods with a higher value-added prior to export. These statements do not provide sufficient information to draw any inferences as to the value that these reserves translate to for the Venezuelan economy.

The following is a short list of some of the factors (not mentioned in the supplement) that contribute to Venezuela's "considerable troubles":

  • Tariffs: Venezuela has an average tariff rate of 13.1 percent. While Venezuela has regional free trade agreements (e.g. the G-3 agreement with Colombia and Mexico) that are reducing tariffs and liberalizing trade, significant barriers exist with other countries. For example, while fresh and dried fruit from the Andean Community and Chile may enter Venezuela duty free there is a 15 percent duty on similar imports from the United States.
  • Non-tariff Barriers - Services: The government imposes a number of restrictions in certain service areas. Only Venezuelan nationals may be licensed as architects, act as accountants for companies with more than 25% of public stock, and eighty percent of a firm's employees must be nationals (companies with more than 10 employees may only have a maximum of 10% foreign employees, and the foreign employees' salaries may not exceed 20% of the payroll.)
  • Non-tariff Barriers - Standards & Certification: Importers of US products have complained that the government applies product standards more rigorously to imports than to domestic products.
  • Non-tariff barriers - Customs: Barriers to imports exist through onerous requirements that are part of the customs clearance requirements. For example, importers of agricultural commodities (or their byproducts) are required to register in the Importers Registry at the Ministry of Production and Commerce and provide copious documentation (e.g. of their import history - items, volume, point of origin, valuations, etc.) before they are allowed to apply for import permits. The government was also considering implementing preshipment inspection of all imports along with an inspection fee, thus potentially causing import delays.
  • Non-tariff Barriers - Export subsidies: The government provides export subsidies to some industries e.g. exporters of cocoa and some seafood products receive tax credits equal to 10 percent of the export value.
  • Non-tariff Barriers - Intellectual property rights protections: Though they have improved in recent years, intellectual property protections are still weak, trademark counterfeiting is common, and the piracy of software and videos is widespread.
  • Economic problems - Government intervention/regulation of the economy: According to the Economist Intelligence Unit "Venezuela has one of the most pervasive governments in South America, in so far as it is involved in the economy... The state still dominates production of oil, liquefied natural gas, aluminum... Other sectors dominated by the state include electricity generation and distribution and petrol retail sales, though both are being opened to the private sector..." Bureaucracy and red tape are substantial, with the government employing sixteen percent of the workforce. Corruption is endemic.
    Monetary problems: The annual rate of inflation has averaged 21.9 percent over the period from 1991 to 2001.
  • Economic Problems - GDP: The Gross Domestic Product of Venezuela was positive in 2000 (3.2%) and 2001 (2.7%) following a contraction (-6.1%) in 1999.
    Government debt levels: Government spending levels are increasing faster than revenues, leading to increased deficits.
  • Country rating: Moody's 2001 rating for Venezuela is B, while S&P's is B2 - sub investment grade, with Venezuela only beating out Argentina. This means that the costs of international borrowing will increase as Venezuela is forced to offer higher interest rates to offset the increased riskiness of its bond issues.
  • Capital flows and foreign investment: Several industries are not open to foreign investment e.g. foreign ownership of television, radio, and the press is restricted to under 19.9 percent. All foreign investments need to be registered with the government and must be approved by Congress if they effect the "national interest." Capital flight has increased as the political and economic uncertainty has increased.
  • Wage and Price controls: The government controls the prices of many products e.g. utility and telephony rates, petrol, the wholesale and retail prices of a number of staples, etc. Venezuela maintains a minimum wage.
  • Political problems: Venezuela's political problems are even more pressing than her economic woes, and they are due to one man - President Hugo Chavez Frias. Decades of stable oil prices had led to a stable Venezuelan democracy, unusual in South America, until things went off the rails in the '80's. Falling oil prices seriously damaged Venezuela's prosperity and led to a decade of great poverty, which led to an explosion of riots by slum dwellers in 1989. After attempting a failed coup in 1992 that put him in prison until his sentence was commuted in 1994, Chavez was first elected in 1998 with 56% of the vote. Chavez won the election based on popular disgust with the established political elite that was perceived as corrupt, uncaring of the plight of the poor, and responsible for squandering the country's vast oil wealth. Chavez's Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) won a majority in the Venezuelan Congress. Following his victory Chavez proposed a new Constituent Assembly, which assumed powers to curtail the activities of Congress and wrote a new 350-article constitution. This constitution abolished the judicial council and created a unicameral Congress and was approved in a referendum in 1999. Following this Chavez was re-elected in July 2000 with 59.5% of the vote. Chavez's party also won a majority of state governors, mayors, city councilors, etc. Since then Chavez has restructured the armed forces under his command, has brought military officers into the government, and promoted his supporters into command positions. However, despite Venezuela's substantial oil revenues poverty is not falling and the common lot has not improved. With the lack of progress and the weak economy Chavez's popularity slipped substantially in 2001, and political opposition has been increasing. The middle class that never liked Chavez is increasingly alienated by Chavez's authoritarianism and attempts at compulsory political indoctrination. The labor unions have also become disenchanted with Chavez. December 10th the country was closed down by a strike called by the private sector and the main labor federation to protest a number of decrees increasing government control of the economyChavez has also done much to alienate the United States and western countries. In 1999 he became the first leader to visit Iraq since the Gulf war, has denied the US permission to conduct anti-drug flights in Venezuelan airspace, has voted against censoring Cuba, Iran, and China for human rights violations, and denounced US imperialism in a speech in Beijing. He has visited Cuba and cultivated close ties between the two countries, also providing Cuba with oil. In October 2000 Chavez announced that Venezuela and Cuba would join to oppose US influence in the hemisphere. Chavez also has denounced Plan Colombia, and has maintained relations with the FARC and ELN rebels in Colombia. Two years ago Chavez wrote to Ilyich Ramirez (the famous terrorist also known as 'Carlos the Jackal') in his French prison expressing his admiration and "profound faith in the cause and in the mission." Venezuela's government has said that Carlos should be sent back to Venezuela, and the Venezuelan Defense Minister said that Carlos wasn't considered a terrorist since he hadn't been tried in Venezuela. Following this the general commanding the armed forces felt compelled to make a statement that a terrorist is a terrorist wherever he is convicted.

In conclusion, with economic problems mounting, with Chavez's popular support slipping among the poor and even the military, with Chavez threatening to rule by decree and to remain as president until 2021 even though this would violate the constitution, Venezuela looks headed for an extended period of political and economic turmoil.

The small type at the end of the advertising supplement says "This special advertising supplement was produced by FOREIGN POLICY's business department, and did not involve the editorial staff of FOREIGN POLICY." Given the enormous challenges facing Venezuela at this juncture it would seem that the business department should talk to the editorial department, given that there is a good possibility that future editions may soon have articles on negative developments in Venezuela!

Gadget - Sony DPF-V900

Sony DPF-900V 9-inch Digital Photo Frame - unboxed:





PC Advisor review
PC Magazine review
Reviews on amazon.com

Veep


One thing Senator McCain's pick of Sarah Palin as his running mate has done is set off an orgy of opinion re who is qualified to be VP, the experience needed, etc. News talking heads, bloggers of all stripes, "scholars" have all chimed in with their opinions... Perhaps not exactly the effect McCain intended! This blogger would ask a (rhetorical) question - would any other pick have made a difference? No matter the person picked Democratic stalwarts, acolytes, and hangers-on were ready to jump in and find fault - too little experience, too much, too young, too old, blah, blah, blah. Beyond this, this blogger has three observations:

1. There seems to be a quantum difference in reactions towards men and women. Would anyone make fun of a male candidate for having been on a high school state champion basketball team?? Would anyone say the following about a male candidate? "What's more is that the woman is 44 years old and still having kids. Honestly, five kids? Must be true what they say about Alaska: there really isn't much to do up there."? Or "Sarah f*+ing" Palin?" Or "Palin has a degree in "journalism" from the University of Idaho." (notice the quotes). Would people dig up old "beauty" photos and snicker about them (wasn't George W. Bush a cheerleader at Andover? This blogger doesn't remember this being made out to be a big deal, even though that isn't the most masculine of pursuits...). Would people fuss about a man's hair, clothes, looks? This blogger thinks not, and despite all the recent nattering about "18 million cracks in the glass ceiling" it is apparent that most people are not ready for a woman to be (close to) running this country.

2. It all depends on whose ox is being gored! There is no doubt in this blogger's mind that had Obama picked an identical Democratic "Palin equivalent" all the Democrats currently finding fault with Palin would be in the midst of paroxysms of joy and extolling the brilliance of the move... while all Republicans would be 100% the opposite of where they are now with respect to this? (Note; this blogger can't wait for the elections to be over and all these addle pated purveyors of tripe to fade back into the woodwork!)

3. Finally, (more of a question than an observation) what exactly constitutes preparation for the VP to be "a heartbeat away from the Presidency"? (a long shot, even if in the country's history the VP has stepped up nine times). Much is being made about Palin's lack of foreign policy knowledge and experience... Is this important, did Presidents Carter, Reagan, Cinton, or George W. Bush have much in the way of foreign policy chops before being elected? What about experience? Is a long resume a good judge of effectiveness? Prior to becoming Vice President, Richard Bruce "Dick" Cheney had a ton of experience - as did Gore, Mondale, George H.W. Bush, Spiro Agnew. Yet Agnew resigned in disgrace, the American people rejected Mondale and Gore as President, and Dick Cheney's fingerprints have been all over every single failure of the Bush administration! Only George H.W. Bush was elected (and to a single term, which the American people saw fit not to extend!)

P.S. If 'distance from the Presidency' is that all-important, this blogger assumes that most people haven't spent much time thinking about the Presidential line of succession. If something were to happen to the President & VP the next in line for the Presidency would be Nancy Pelosi (D-CA, elected by 148,435 Californians), followed by Senator Robert Byrd (D-Antediluvian, sorry, actually D-WV and former Exalted Cyclops of the KKK), then Condoleezza Rice, and Henry Paulson (the last two not having been voted for by a single person)...

Mental Health Break



Saturday, August 30, 2008

Petty and stupid


OK, so there's a ton of reaction to Senator McCain's pick of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate. Opinions, pro and con. This is natural, to be expected, part of the process. However, it is amazing how petty and (frankly) stupid some of the reaction is e.g. go trawl through the HuffPo articles and reader feedback. An example


Apparently Palin was earlier asked by Larry Kudlow if she would be interested in the second spot on the ticket. Her response was "As for that VP talk all the time, I’ll tell you, I still can’t answer that question until somebody answers for me what is it exactly that the VP does every day? I’m used to being very productive and working real hard in an administration. We want to make sure that that VP slot would be a fruitful type of position, especially for Alaskans and for the things that we’re trying to accomplish up here for the rest of the U.S., before I can even start addressing that question.”


Well, a number of dimwits over at the HuffPo are hyperventilating over this - a sample comment "Let's see here now. We have someone running to be Vice-President of the United States who does not know what the Vice-President does. Out-bleeding-standing!"


Egad, how ridiculous can you be? She knows what the Vice President does - exactly as much or as little as the President allows. The constitution only specifies that the VP "shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be evenly divided" (See article I, section 3); and has a duty to receive from the states the tally of electoral ballots cast for president and vice president and to open the certificates "in the Presence of the Senate and House of Representatives," so that they can be counted (see article II, section 1).

It is clear to this blogger that her point was that her level of interest would depend on what role a President McCain would devolve to his VP - if merely attendance at funerals she would have no interest; if a more substantive role then she probably would be interested.

There are plenty of valid criticisms that can be leveled against Sarah Palin, without making up stuff out of whole cloth (e.g. she doesn't know what the vice-president does) or making gross exaggerations. Reactions like these say more about the intelligence of the poster than of the candidate. Ack !


Vice President of the United States (President of the Senate)

Palin(dromically) yours....


Democratic supporters of Obama/Biden are pooh-poohing Senator McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. Many hope that any euphoria, buzz, or initial positivity generated by this choice will evaporate as her experience, credentials, etc are attacked by the Democrats (e.g. Biden) and that her Box Office draw will wane. You might even say that they are anticipating the following headline:

NWO = New World Order (OK, so it was tough coming up with a perfect palindrome!)

Friday, August 29, 2008

Joe, meet Joe


Apparently although Joe Biden has been picked/nominated as the Democratic VP candidate, he will still run for relection to his Senate seat (D-DE). Shades of another Joe - Lieberman that is, in 2000...

Unelectable


On January 24th 2004 this blogger wrote re Howard Dean's "Munch" moment. "Much has been made about Howard Dean's speech to his supporters after coming in third in the Iowa caucuses. Or, more accurately, "the scream." Apparently this was "unpresidential" (unlike President Bush's "Fuck Saddam. we're taking him out") and Dean is now "unelectable." Two points: First, I thought it was great that a candidate actually felt comfortable enough to let go a primal screen, as opposed to sticking to speeches and sound bites carefully calibrated by political consultants.. Second, if there is anything that will hurt Dean's electability it is the fact that he is rather short! And if unelectable, he will be in good company in the U.S. - including all women, all minorities, anyone fat and/or short, and all single males....."

If the Democratic nominee for president Barack Obama is elected in October then this blogger will have to revise his list of "unelectables." However, the list of "unelectable" characteristics remains very long!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Taxing...


Ran some numbers through the Obamataxcut.com engine, and found something interesting (Note: this blogger is not interested in the Obama vs. McCain aspect of the site, which is meant to highlight the fact that a President Obama would cut taxes on more people than a President McCain would).

A single person with two children and an AGI of $10,000 a year would get a tax cut of just under $500. A two-earner family with two children and an AGI of $10,000 a year would get a tax cut of just under $600. Huh? This blogger wonders why anyone that incredibly poor would be paying any taxes at all! Tax cut, tax cut? How about tax elimination!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Toto... in New York


Emmanuel "Toto" Constant, one-time (some-time) CIA asset, founded the "Front pour l'Avancement et le Progrès Haitien" (FRAPH, or the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haïti) a Haitian death squad accused of carrying out many rapes and murders of supporters of Jean Bertrand Aristide. After fleeing Haiti "Toto" was convicted in absentia and sentenced to life in prison. Having made his way to the U.S. "Toto" was arrested in 1995. A deportation order was set against him; however the Clinton administration ordered his release in 1996. The deportation was canceled ostensibly because "Toto" faced assassination if returned to Haiti, though some felt it was to prevent evidence of his CIA ties from being exposed.

So, "Toto" eventually got a job as a branch manager (in New York) working for New Jersey-based D&M Financial. In 2006 he was arrested and charged with mortgage fraud. He was convicted of mortgage fraud in July 2008. Sentencing will take place in September, and "Toto" faces the possibility of 5 to 15 years in prison...

Emmanuel Constant - Wikipedia
Former Haitian Strongman Found Guilty of Fraud
Haitian paramilitary leader Emmanuel Constant convicted of fraud
Return documents to Haiti; Deport death squad leader


Mental Health Break




Monday, August 25, 2008

Updates...

1. Kashmir (2002 reprint) gave a brief background on the problem of Kashmir. Well, the area has been on the boil for the last few weeks:

Kashmir Flashpoint: In Depth (BBC Special Report)
The Future of Kashmir?
Perspectives on Kashmir

2. Some further articles on oil prices (without comment or endorsement):

Are Oil Prices Rigged?
Oil Speculators Cost Consumers $31 Billion this Summer (Rep. Ed Markey)
TIME Blames Speculators: "We Are Slaves To This Black Gold Standard"
Past Its Peak

3. The blog entries Caste & Frame of Reference spoke to the horror of casteism and poverty in India. A couple of links on the subject:

Exploring India's Prosperity Through the Eyes of the Invisible Men
Verse for classmate gets Dalit boy death

Immediate Response?!?

In the multitudinous articles on the subject, this blogger hasn’t seen much mention of the military activities that occurred in the region not long before the latest flare up in South Ossetia between Georgia and Russia.

Apparently in the second half of July 2008 the Russians ran a military exercise, code-named Caucasus 2008, near the Russian-Georgian border. The Russian exercise scenario included a counterattack in support of Russian “peacekeepers” after they had come under (unspecified) attack, with additional aims to protect Russian citizens and provide humanitarian assistance, and involved approximately 8,000 troops.

Interestingly enough, in response Georgian troops conducted an exercise of their own at the same time. Code-named Immediate Response 2008, it also included a thousand U.S. troops, along with smaller contingents from the Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Armenia.

Internally, in South Ossetia, things started heating back up – an exchange of artillery between Georgian troops and South Ossetians on July 30th; a roadside bomb that killed five Georgian policemen and sparked fighting from August 2nd to the 4th; and then on August 7th South Ossetians claimed that Georgia had shelled Tskhinvali, while Georgia claimed that the South Ossetians had attacked Georgian villages. President Saakashvili initially announced a unilateral ceasefire and called for peace talks, but then sent ground forces into South Ossetia (since he/Georgia claimed that the South Ossetians had continued their attacks). The next day Russia intervened, took Tskhinvali and South Ossetia while expelling the Georgians, then advanced further into Georgia proper (Gori, etc.) and sent forces into the other breakaway province of Abkhazia…

There has been a lot of back and forth in the press and on many blogs, etc. re who “started” the war. One argument by the “Russia started the war” side that this blogger has seen has been “the Russians must have been planning this, how else could they have mobilized so quickly in response?” Well, this seems like a good explanation - they had just war gamed the entire episode. This raises the question of how smart it was of President Saakashvili to send in Georgian troops at this juncture, and why/how he could have been surprised by the Russian response! An “immediate response,” as it were….

Going for the gold?

Going for the ultimate gold, the U.S. Presidency, have the DNC convention planners been inspired by the Olympics?


Photo credit: Getty Images

Sunday, August 24, 2008

What makes an "expert"?

Senator Obama has picked his running mate and candidate for vice president, and it is Senator Joe Biden. Reactions have been mixed, but most people seem to agree that Biden is considered an expert on foreign policy, international relations, and what is going on in the world. Reading and re-reading about Biden's expertise, this blogger began to reflect on what it takes to be seen as an expert in political circles in Washington, D.C.

There seems to be a strong correlation between serving in a leadership position on a Senate or House committee and a perception of expertise in the area covered by the committee. So, for foreign affairs it is Biden on the Democratic side and Lugar on the Republican; for judicial-related affairs it is Patrick Leahy (D) and Arlen Specter (R); for banking it is Chris Dodd (D) and Richard Shelby (R); for the armed services Carl Levin (D) and John McCain (R), etc. Attaining a leadership position on an important committee is tied to Senate seniority. Also important is a perception of "gravitas" usually achieved by a professorial air or grandfatherly mien along with a good speaking voice... Not to forget assiduous courting of the press and making oneself readily available to the press, especially the talking head Sunday shows.

Bottom line, to become perceived as an expert in Washington D.C. is in large part a function of time - sticking around long enough to get to a leadership position; getting called up often enough to comment on current events in the appropriate field, and when that happens being able to provide interesting sound bites; and, paradoxically, being seen to be an expert. Somewhat circular, it must be admitted...

For example, (prior to his retirement) if something unexpected happened internationally one could always count on seeing Lee Hamilton (D) trotted out on television to opine on the situation... He always could be counted on to have something to say... Unfortunately, 99.9 percent of the time it was just a restatement of the conventional wisdom of the day, with no particularly useful insights.

It is mostly the same case with Joe Biden - he is always prepared and always has something to say, however, he can be counted on not to stray too far from the conventional wisdom. Given that this is his job and that he has massive resources at his disposal e.g. his Senate office staff; Senate committee staff; and the availability of briefings by the best experts in every field, both in and out of the government (think tanks, professors, experts in various fields, the GAO, the CRS, the intelligence agencies, etc.), he should be much more knowledgeable than most people. He certainly is more knowledgeable than most of his fellow Senators, some of whom don't know the difference between Sunni and Shia, but that is apparently not all that hard to do! Overall, this blogger isn't that impressed with Biden's expertise!

And the results are in... (updated)

Prediction #1:

Prediction #2:

Actual results:

Modeling the medals (July 30th) looked at the predictions from three different models. Clearly Both China and Great Britain exceeded the predictions, while Japan underperformed... The PwC model did well on the rankings but not as well on the total medal count...
Updated 08/25: FWIW, Médailles olympiques : l'Europe écrase (rait) la Chine et les USA, points out that if Europe was one country it would have come in first with 203 total medals, of which 62 were gold...

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Biden reax confusion

Andrew Sullivan approves of the choice of Joe Biden, but this blogger is a little confused re his reaction - is it "...the Clintonian defensive crouch is over..." or is it "... Clintonism without the Clintons: that's what Biden is now offering..."

Given his "balls to the wall" pro-Obama and anti-Clinton blogging during the Democratic primaries, the second statement combined with approval of Biden is a little confusing...

Friday, August 22, 2008

Mental Health Break





Rooms filled with priceless antiquities and works of art! Thank God they are protected from the elements by the highest technology possible...



Thursday, August 21, 2008

Oil price follies - II


Oil Speculators provides information on a private Swiss energy conglomerate called Vitol, which apparently has taken huge positions (quote "... at one point in July, the firm held 11 percent of all the oil contracts on the regulated New York Mercantile Exchange...").

The article goes on to say "CFTC documents show Vitol was one of the most active traders of oil on NYMEX as prices reached record levels. By June 6, for instance, Vitol had acquired a huge holding in oil contracts, betting prices would rise. The contracts were equal to 57.7 million barrels of oil -- about three times the amount the United States consumes daily. That day, the price of oil spiked $11 to settle at $138.54. Oil prices eventually peaked at $147.27 a barrel on July 11 before falling back to settle at $114.98 yesterday. The documents do not say how much Vitol put down to acquire this position, but under NYMEX rules, the down payment could have been as little as $1 billion, with the company borrowing the rest... So much for supply and demand."

Apparently this must be "proof" that it is speculators such as Vitol that are responsible for the run up in world oil prices... Vitol bought huge while "betting prices would rise." They did, and no doubt Vitol made out like a bandit. Seems like a post hoc ergo propter hoc argument, however, assuming causality... Buying a huge position while gambling that prices will rise can hardly be the cause of prices rising, otherwise why have we had fiascos like the "Nick Leeson/Barings Bank" and "Jerome Kerviel/Societe Generale" blowouts?

Also, what if Vitol had bought huge positions after July 11th while "betting prices would rise?" Would prices have continued to rise due to speculation, instead of falling as they did in reality? Hmm, so much for "so much for supply and demand."

Oil price follies - I


Earlier this blogger had noted that there doesn't seem to be an accepted "correct" answer re why oil prices climbed so high, the three dominant theories being a) supply/demand and external factors, b) speculation, c) the fall of the dollar (or perhaps, a fourth theory, a combination of the previous three).

In How to Burn the Speculators the onus is placed squarely on the speculators. Perhaps, perhaps not. This blogger, however, was wondering about a statement included i.e. "And as economist Tom Palley has pointed out, consumers can help too. An awful lot of gas is stored in cars. If people stop topping off and make do with half a tank, they'll back up supply and lower demand. It's a brilliant suggestion and definitely worth a try." Hmm, brilliant? Over the past year this blogger has averaged 550 miles a month. Assuming that this stays constant, as does his mpg, this blogger is not sure how he is reducing his demand one iota by only filling up half a tank each time. It seems like this would only require twice as many trips to the gas station, wasting a little more gas (unless the gas station is always along the daily route). Multiply by all the other motorists out there... What was so brilliant about that suggestion?

Previous blog entries:
Who (or what) is responsible for high oil prices?
Dunces

Monday, August 18, 2008

Founders...

After Dennis Quaid's twins had a close call with a heparin med error, the Quaids set up a foundation "to try to do something about this pervasive, yet solvable problem (med errors)." Earlier, after their child died following a series of errors in Florida, the Ferreros set up a foundation in memory of their child. Several years ago, after their child died (also from a med error), the Kings set up a foundation in her memory to fight the scourge of med errors.

OK, so perhaps having a foundation in one's child's name may be part of the grieving process and making sense of it all, but it seems to this blogger that perhaps it might be better to funnel the funds, efforts, and resources into an already existing foundation (to concentrate efforts, avoid duplication of overhead, etc.) rather than every family starting their own. When Warren Buffet looked to donate a large part of his fortune to good work, he gave it to the Gates Foundation rather than setting up a Buffet Foundation...

Dennis Quaid Acts on Medical Errors
Florida Hospital Error Prompts Parents to Prevent Similar Accidents
Patients, Families Take Up The Cause of Hospital Safety

The Quaid Foundation
Sebastian Ferrero Foundation
Josie King Foundation

Universal stupidity

Acid throwing criminality around the world, Pakistan, Israel...

'Modesty patrol' suspected of spilling acid on teenage girl
Pakistan burn victims turn beauticians

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Greatest Olympian?

Picture credit: Getty

Michael Phelps - eight gold medals in eight events, seven world records and one Olympic record. What can one do but bow down in awe? A-bloody-mazing! Though a couple of races were close, he dominated his rivals in most of the events....

What this blogger doesn't understand though, is the need of so many people to boil it all down to "the best athlete in the world." Why can't we just marvel at this amazing performance in a particular sport, without making it a competition with other Olympic sports, athletes present and past, and other non-Olympic sports events?

So, his nine golds are the largest haul in any single Olympic Games, but that is not a metric that is comparable across all disciplines. A boxer (or wrestler, fencer, and sportspersons in many other disciplines...) could be totally dominant in their sport and unable to win a comparable number of medals because there are fewer separate events... Why do we have to boil it down to a "number one", as opposed to adding his performance to the pantheon of amazing Olympic performances, including those such as:

  • Fencing: Fencer Aladar Gerevich of Hungary won gold medals in six consecutive Olympic Games, in the team sabre event (1932 to 1960), along with a seventh gold in the individual event in 1948…
  • Figure skating: Norwegian Sonja Henie won her first gold medal at the 1928 Olympics, then successfully defended her gold medal at the 1932 Winter Games and the 1936 Winter Games…
  • Javelin: Czech javelin thrower Jan Zelezný won gold medals in three consecutive Olympic Games between 1992 and 2000 and is widely regarded as the best javelin thrower in history, having recorded more throws over 90m than any other athlete. Oh, also throw in three world titles and five world records, and an Olympic silver medal and two World Championship bronze medals…
  • Discus: Al Oerter won gold medals in four consecutive Olympic games in the discus (1956 to 1968). A week before the 1964 Tokyo games Oerter slipped on wet concrete, tearing cartilage in his rib cage. Although team doctors told him to forget the Olympics, Orter’s reply was "You die before you quit" He went on to win gold. Each gold also set an Olympic record, he had four world records (1962–64), and was the first to ever throw the discus more than 200 feet.
  • Boxing: Cuban Boxers Teofilo Stevenson (1972-76-80) and Felix Savon (1992-96-2000) both won heavyweight gold in three consecutive Olympic Games…
  • Rowing: Sir Steve Redgrave won gold in rowing events in five different Olympic Games (1984 to 2000), along with an Olympic bronze. Thrown in 9 gold medals, 2 silvers, and a bronze at the Rowing World Championships….
  • Wrestling: Alexander Karelin won gold medals in three consecutive Olympics (1988, 1992, and 1996) and silver in 2000, while going undefeated in international competition from 1987 until 2000. Prior to losing the gold medal match to Rulon Gardner at the 2000 Summer Olympics, Karelin went the last six years of his unbeaten streak without giving up a point.
  • Track and Field: Carl Lewis won nine gold medals and one silver across four Olympic Games… Throw in ten World Championship medals (eight golds); 65 consecutive victories in the long jump achieved over a span of 10 years (one of the sport’s longest undefeated streaks); and an indoor long jump world record that has stood since 1984.

And how do you compare Phelp's performance to the Tour de France? The Tour lasts 23 days, consists of 21 daily stages with just 2 rest days (10 “flat” stages, 5 mountain stages, 4 medium mountain stages, and 2 time trials)... Twenty teams each of nine riders compete for a total distance of 3,000.5 kilometers, (winning time: 87 hours 52 minutes and 52 seconds!). Answer: You don't! (and it was a silly thing for his team mate to say!) Apples and oranges, this blogger salutes them all - Michael Phelps, Olympic champions past and present, Tour riders, all those who pull off these remarkable feats of physical prowess and endurance to the cheers of the armchair spectators (this blogger included!).



Saturday, August 16, 2008

Friday, August 15, 2008

Georgia (updated...)

Georgians rally in support of President Saakashvili. Photo credit: AFP

The delusional:
President Bush Discusses Situation in Georgia
Perhaps they miscalculated
Someone got taught a lesson
Bush, Rice demand Russia quit Georgia

On the money:
Intellectual Dishonesty and the Culpability of All
Russia-Georgia Conflict Fueled by Rush to Control Caspian Energy Resources
Georgia: A Blow to U.S. Energy
Illarionov: Thirteen Conclusions about the War
Conflict Exposes Obsolete Hardware
Russia's big Caucasus win
This is a tale of US expansion not Russian aggression
'We Are All Georgians'? Not So Fast.

Misc:
Georgia - Wikipedia
South Ossetia - Wikipdia

War photos:
Photos - milkavkaz.net
Photo Gallery - Spiegel Online


What the U.S. should do... a) Stop the blathering and unhelpful sabre-rattling, everyone knows there is not much we can do right now, all that the yakking from the administration is doing is reminding everyone of this fact! b) Work, quietly, to defuse the situation... that is reduce the confrontation and possibility of flare ups... c) Get both sides to pull back - initially partial pullbacks are OK, don't insist on the (unachievable) maximum... d) Deploy the humanitarian aid... e) Georgians have rallied around their President, but once things calm down they are going to start questioning his tactics and effectiveness... When that happens, don't prop him up, in fact a slight shove might be a good idea (we want allies but not hotheads who can't control themselves in sticky situations)! f) Later move cautiously towards recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The South Ossetians have voted for independence in 1992 and 2006 in referenda as democratic as the Georgian elections (that the administration is trumpeting). Short-term some will perceive this as a Russian victory, long-term it will be their worst nightmare (giving ideas to the North Ossetians, Chechens, and a whole host of host of other "Russian" provinces... )

Updated August 18th: Examples of bluster: On her way to an emergency meeting of NATO foreign ministers, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that Russia is playing a very dangerous game... warned that NATO would not allow Moscow to win in Georgia... that the alliance would punish Russia for its invasion of Georgia... "We are not going to allow Russia to draw a new line..."... that the French would be seeking "an explanation from the Russians for why the Russian president either won't or can't keep his word."... and so on.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

 
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