About Me

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Armchair theorist, poet, and occasional IT manager, Sascha B. is equipped with a Master's Degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Texas, and is not afraid to use it. His work has been published by the University Press of America, Edwin Mellen Press, University of Texas Press, and a variety of small journals nationwide. He is also the proprietor and baker for 3141 Pie, of which you should eat many.

The Deal

I stopped blogging in 2013, when life overtook me. My father became ill and died shortly thereafter, and my mother was left with increasing dementia. I became the primary caregiver, and now orchestrate my mother's care and our family estate.

Now, I am coming up for air again.

Looking for the next book to read. All suggestions welcome.

My reading list is over here.







Friday, November 21, 2008

Rough Friday

It's not all bad news; it's just disheartening. With Obama seemingly
set to anoint Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, I wonder what the
outcome will be; I'm really not sure she is the best person for this
critical role right now. At the same time, we've survived Condi's
managerial ineptitude. And given the choice between Kerry and Clinton
on the job out in the world, I think I'd pick Clinton. But still, I
wish she were staying in the Senate to raise hell there. I suspect
she'd do far more good.

WaMu is axing more than 1,500 workers here in the Bay Area, and with
the bellwether of Citi, I suspect that's just the beginning of the
next wave of layoffs we are going to see in the finance sector.

In other news, it seems that allowing your neighborhood to look like
crap tends to make people act like crap too:
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/n/a/2008/11/20/national/w110053S84.DTL

Somehow, that doesn't surprise me.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Desperate For Ledes?

The AP headline?

"Jobless claims jump unexpectedly to 16-year high "

No. Seriously: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20081120/ap_on_bi_go_ec_fi/economy_45

While the jump is significant, I have a hard time calling it 'unexpected.' This is probably the most expected trend we could have. Certainly more expected than GM trying to reorganize as a bank holding company in order to grab at some of Paulson's bailout billions before it's too late: http://money.cnn.com/2008/11/20/news/companies/gmac/index.htm?postversion=2008112008 (hat tip: http://talkingpointsmemo.com)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Ouch!

(11-19) 12:59 PST NEW YORK, (AP) --

Dow Jones industrial average falls below 8,000; S&P 500 down more than 6 percent.

You Go, Yugo.

Yugo manufacture in Belgrade closes up on Thursday for good. Somehow, I'm not crushed. Others differ:

"This is driving in its most natural form. You feel every bump, squeak and jolt, and one can enjoy the sweet smell of gasoline and exhaust fumes," he said. "No car can replace it."

The Team Of Rivals

I don't want to say much on this, as I've mentioned, because I think the time to discuss the new cabinet is when it has been formed----not during the rumor-mill. But, that being said.....

Daschle for HHS is a good solid choice. He's solid, powerful, can win folks over, and knows where the bodies are buried.

Clinton for State....I dunno. All else aside, I agree with those who say that she has simply not shown herself to be a good executive manager (cf. the health care fiasco, and her presidential campaign); the State Department bureaucracy is not one known to be forgiving of poor managerial skills. And along with that, Thomas Friedman has some sharp insights worth considering:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/19/opinion/19friedman.html?em

So. Let's see where things fall. I trust Obama to make mostly smart choices. I just hope he also makes the right ones.

More Education Woes

At least some people are trying to restore playtime for children:

"...diminished time to play freely with other children is producing a generation of socially inept young people and is a factor behind high rates of youth obesity, anxiety, attention-deficit disorder and depression.

Many families turn to organized sports as a principal non-school activity, but Thompson noted that this option doesn't necessary breed creativity and can lead to burnout for good young athletes and frustration for the less skilled."

Read the article:
http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/sns-ap-fighting-for-play,0,2644946.story
It notes the decline of recess, the reduction of free thought in early years, parental and school restrictions on movement and thinking. It's no wonder we are a mess.

At the same time, another thought: what about trying to bring back the idea of play to the adult world as well? If independent thinking is critical for children, then how much more so for the adults who must govern those children?

Unconscionable

This is depressing: California State University system has just approved executive and management raises and hires amounting to an annual additional cost of more than $300,000.00. At the same time, they are slashing lecturers, untenured teachers, reducing campus and classroom budgets, and capping enrollment (thereby excluding upward of 10,000 eligible students).

If the charter of the California Universities and schools at large is to provide education to all eligible students in the state, then the governor should step in at this time of fiscal crisis, and lay down the law: Managers of the system should take a voluntary pay reduction of 10% for two years. Open executive positions should remain unfilled. Nontenured faculty should be retained at current pay levels (all increases put on hold). Tenured faculty should be retained with a voluntary 2% pay reduction for two years. The cap on incoming students is unavoidable for now, unfortunately.

This action would not only provide a cost savings of millions --- MILLIONS --- of dollars, it would also show that the state and the university system are dedicated to preserving and maintaining an acceptable standard of education, rather than the preservation of the bureaucracy which is supposed to support that standard.

If those who serve the educational system cannot provide even a symbolic measure of sacrifice, along the lines of what classroom teachers have had o do for years now, then clearly the state education system has not only lost its way, but the government has lost its ability to keep the system in conformance with its charter. Where's accountability in all this?

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/n/a/2008/11/19/state/n083520S34.DTL&tsp=1


Generation Y?

More like Generation Lame:

(11-19) 08:35 PST Santa Ana, CA (AP) --

A Huntington Beach motorist allegedly texting on his cell phone when he struck and killed a 14-year-old bicyclist has been indicted for vehicular manslaughter and driving under the influence of drugs.

Investigators say 21-year-old Jeffrey Woods was apparently negotiating a drug deal when he allegedly struck and killed Danny Oates in August 2007.

The Orange County grand jury indicted Woods for felony vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence while intoxicated and felony driving under the influence causing bodily injury. He was allegedly taking Vicodin and Xanax.

Police investigators say Woods may have been texting on his cell phone, negotiating a drug deal, when his truck struck the teen.

So: hitting and killing a cyclist while driving under the influence, while TEXTING on his phone to score some drugs...

where do these people come from?

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/n/a/2008/11/19/state/n083520S34.DTL&tsp=1

Morning Thoughts

What's on my mind this morning?

The trachea transplant completed this week in Spain, with a tracheal tube grown from the patient's own stem cells. This is an incredibly significant move forward. Also significant that it did not --- and likely right now could not --- happen in the US:  http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20081119/hl_nm/us_transplant_2

Al-Qaeda lobbing racial insults at Obama. If they believe this is an effective tactic to stir up the hornet's nest again, then they truly have misjudged the new president-elect. And that bodes well for us: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20081119/ap_on_re_mi_ea/ml_al_qaida_obama_9

India appears to have taken a lead in the fight against our modern day pirates of Aden, and blown a ship out of the water: http://feeds.reuters.com/~r/reuters/topNews/~3/YSeE4421w1o/idUSTRE4AH4Q120081119

Beyond that, I'm still struggling with my back; while things were better yesterday, today has been a bit of a setback so far, with stiffness and sciatica ruling the morning. Getting my shoes and socks on was grievous. Of course, it's satisfying in a weird, masochistic way to know that I've already endured more pain today than some people ever feel at all.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

More Things Piratical

An interesting article on the Barbary Wars, by Christopher Hitchens:

http://www.city-journal.org/html/17_2_urbanities-thomas_jefferson.html

Without drawing any direct comparisons, either between the current state of affairs, or between Obama and Jefferson, I think that our history with the Tripolitan pirates and the eventual resolution of the issue is well worth some time from anyone intersested in the future of US power in global trade and middle eastern affairs.

And yet: 7 ships in 12 days. 90 ships in the year. And ransom demands ever increasing, range of action ever increasing.

We'll see.

Somali Pirate Update

That last ship taken was a Hong Kong ship bound for Iran, not an Iranian vessel:

http://uk.news.yahoo.com/5/20081118/twl-pirates-attack-second-cargo-ship-3fd0ae9.html

And for the record:

"This year, Somali pirates have attacked 90 ships, more than double the number in 2007, according to the International Maritime Bureau.

Pirates are still holding 16 ships and more than 250 sailors."


Yeah, this will be fun for the next Sec. of State.

Totally Cool

This is really pretty neat:

http://uk.news.yahoo.com/22/20081118/twl-uk-hungary-cave-d59542a.html

Not just for the discovery of the world's largest underground thermal bath, but for the use of the word "speleologist."

Noice!

Updates

On the one hand, the disaster of the Israeli blockade of Gaza should be noted higher up in the news: today, Israel sent in tanks to the strip, while the UN has restarted the distribution of food to keep people from starving --- but say that supplies will only last a short time. And with more and more violence on both sides of this supposed "ceasefire" there is little sign of hope that the siege will be lifted any time soon without direct international intervention.

On the other hand, Somali pirates (yes, those guys again) have taken 7 ships in the last 12 days, including an Iranian tanker and a Saudi supertanker. The US fought some of its very first international battles, both militarily and diplomatically, with these pirates. More than two centuries down the road, it looks like everything that is old is new again, and that a major challenge for the incoming president and secretary of state will be to conceive of an effective strategy for reducing the piracy threat in the region.

Of those two, which gets higher billing? I dunno. I do know that if the US can take an effective lead in defusing these two issues---even if they are not resolved, but merely reduced in scope and impact----then we will have gained an enormous tactical advantage in the international arena, and that will come in handy as we address the wind down of Iraq, the wind-up of Afghanistan, the rise of Iran, and the rebuilding of the global economy.


Have YOU Been Getting Less Spam?

I pay little attention to my spam inbox, but in any case, this is a fascinating (if ultimately depressing) story. We unplugged one single ISP in Silicon Valley, and global spamming dropped by 65%.

"By nearly all accounts, spam volumes have remained at far diminished levels, though experts interviewed for this story expect spam to soon bounce back or even exceed previous levels. But the question remains: How could such a massive concentration of spam activity be hosted for so long from the servers at a single U.S.-based facility, in the belly of the security and tech community in Silicon Valley?"

Read, and learn:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/11/18/AR2008111801120.html?nav=rss_email/components


Morning Coffee Thoughts

Apropos of everything and nothing, here is a very articulate comment from the always insightful and sharp-sighted George Friedman on the necessity of a global and holistic approach to understanding what goes on ion our all too complicated world:

"Economics, war and politics are not separate spheres. They are a single entity together constituting the reality of the nation-state. There are those who argue that economic life should be left alone, not interfered with by political or military power. We won't engage in that argument. What we know, empirically, is that political and military power constantly impinge on economic life, and vice versa. It is impossible to imagine war without taking into account politics and economics. It is impossible to think of domestic or foreign policy without considering economic and military issues. By the same token, it is also impossible to think about economics without thinking about military and political matters. If it can be made otherwise, then someone will do so and then we will change our opinion. Until then, we cannot think of the free market as a meaningful independent reality. It is always shaped by other factors. Perhaps it should be otherwise. It isn't.

An integrated approach to social reality requires that these distinctions, so important in the organization of a university or a newspaper, be overcome. They were created in order to organize human activities into manageable pieces. Our argument is that in so doing, reality is only apparently made more manageable, and in fact is falsified. The standard approach to these issues creates distinctions that don't exist and complexities that conceal rather than reveal the nature of the problem at hand. A general who tries to wage war without consideration of political ends and economic means is going to fail. An economist who tries to understand and predict the behavior of the economy without a comprehensive understanding of the political and military realities which shape the economy will not do particularly well."

And so, in these times of economic volatility, it is good to remember that the hue and cry from every faction --- regardless of bias --- is best ignored if it is not deeply informed by numerous other factions as well. A single focus will only cause confusion.

 

Monday, November 17, 2008

Sardonic

(11-17) 13:02 PST SAO PAULO, Brazil (AP) --

"A stock exchange trader has shot himself on the trading floor in Brazil."


"Trading was halted for a few minutes after the shot was fired..."


Well thank goodness that startled the other traders adn market makers....for a few minutes.

What if 60 young traders had shot themselves on the floor? Would they have halted trading for a few hours? Or isn't it a cumulative issue when it comes to the value of human life vs. the value of falling shares and options?


read it all here: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/n/a/2008/11/17/financial/f130253S32.DTL&tsp=1


A Long Time Coming

After 15 years, the government finally fesses up regarding Gulf War Syndrome:

http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20081117/ts_nm/us_usa_health_gulfwar_1

Remarkably, the study concludes what many non-government (and thus not on the hook to pay) experts and vets have been saying since the issue first came to surface after the close of that war---that the likely cause is our own actions:

"The panel found two possible causes: a drug given to troops to protect against nerve gas, known as pyridostigmine bromide, and pesticides that were used heavily during the war."


At the same time, while the release of this long overdue study is laudable, I doubt it will mean much relief for the 200,000 or more veterans dealing with this issue. Like the article says,

"The U.S. government has spent roughly $440 million on Gulf War health research since 1994, but spending has declined in recent years and often is not focused on improving veterans' health, the committee said."

If the VA and government money devoted to veterans' health issues isn't being spent on improving their health, then what on god's green earth are we paying for? Let's hope that this issue is addressed by the new administration in some more more effective way than it has been since 1994.

Interesting

So now Paulson is going to leave off dealing with the 2nd half of the $700 billiion, and let the new Administration take the reins over its release: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20081117/ap_on_go_co/meltdown_money_6

This will be very interesting. I wonder how much of that, if any, Obama and his crew might use to craft more directed "bailout" actions----like a works program focused on health care renovation.

I suspect that we will have some very intriguing---and possibly very controversial---proposals floated by the time February rolls around. Remember that all that cash requires Congressional approval, unlike the first $350 billion of free money, so there will be (even with a powerful majority) a significant amount of dickering and qui bono before we see action.

Zowie!

Yikes. So along with Japan officially declaring recession, right in line with the eurozone and the US, Citi is going to cut 53,000 jobs. And that's on top of the 25,000 or so they've already axed.

I suspect that the predictions of the length of the recession (14 months) and its depth (7.5% unemployment) are lowball, and that we will see them surpassed. And that Paulson will spend his bailout money like a sailor in a brothel at christmas, and will have little to no impact on the trends.

My prediction? We are looking at a slump of at least 21 months, with lagging sectors like tech taking a late and hard hit; and the unemployment rates will rise up near 9%, and as we did in 2001 there will be a significant undercount of the long-term unemployed and under-employed as they drop off the rolls.

January and a changing of the guard can't get here soon enough.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

On that Cult of Personality thing...



When Mussolini took power in Italy, it wasn't through violence, or undermining the will of the people; it was with huge popular appeal, and the assistance of a philosophy that combined aggressive nationalism, technocracy, a strong support for the arts in the context of modernization, and the gut-level appeal of a charismatic frontman. And thus we were brought Fascism.

Too often we relegate would-be tyrannies to the drawer in our minds labeled "Small Man In Search of a Balcony." But this is to denigrate and misrepresent one of the fundamental lessons of the 20th century, in terms of authoritarian government, and the balance between democracy (or at least relatively free government) and the totalitarian states that came to being in Italy, and Germany, and Spain, and Russia*.

As I mentioned earlier, we have a penchant for leader worship; there is little difference in this between the Left and the Right. And one of the key problems with this is that there is also little distinction of value for anything other than charisma. One of the greatest criticisms of the Obama campaign during the election was the irrational adoration provided him by a subset of his supporters: the "Obamamaniacs" or whatever you wish to call them. While I think that the criticism was certainly overblown, and I didn't see much of it personally, there was certainly enough truth to it to cause even the Onion to take note, and parody them.

Charisma is a critical character trait for effective leadership; we have little tolerance for leaders toward whom we don't feel attraction, and we are attracted to those who have that ineffable quality that gives them the spark of whatever it is we find in a spirit that enraptures us, like moths to a flame. Both presidential candidates this season had it; but one had it in quantity and quality that outshone the other. The reason for the epithets slung at Obama by his opponent and other detractors --- "celebrity", "messiah", "The One", and all that ---- was because of this very trait. For better or worse, Barack Obama has the characteristics of a charismatic leader. The same that we find in megachurch preachers, in cult leaders, and in authoritarians.

There are good leaders and bad leaders; and my interest and concern lies less in the ability and philosophy of the leader than in the response they engender in those whom they lead. Consider Obama. Like Kennedy, he has the capacity to bring thousands to a level of sincere dedication---and some would say blind adulation---that we haven't seen in some time. At the same time, we saw an astonishingly similar aspect in Sarah Palin. It is interesting to note how they both used their appeal during the race: Obama pretty consistently manipulated his audiences toward a sense of communal empowerment. They were adoring, but that adoration helped to spread a blanket across the entire group, and provide a sense of positive connection for those involved. Palin had a tendency to play on the frustrations of her audience, and to use her sexual energy as a conduit for tapping into deeper, more primal individual constructs than community and empowerment. She generated energy, but that energy only barely maintained a level below that of frenzy. While not being hateful, it often helped to feed hate. I'd draw a parallel here (in comparison to the Obama-Kennedy link) to that of someone like David Duke, or the young Malcolm X, or Mussolini, or Franco, where the key is bringing people to a point where they are more in touch with the differences than the similarities of themselves and their enemies, neighbors, and fellow citizens.

The nature of Difference is a key. But again; this is merely the outcome of charismatic leadership. The issue is that we are so easily swayed by the nature of personality to begin with.

Why is it we desire to carry placards depicting the idealized profiles of our leaders? When this country was founded, and broke away from the British crown, it was at a time when kingship was still a nominally divine right, and the sovereign was designated so by the grace of God. One of the very issues that drove the philosophy of the nation's beginning was a distancing from that idea, and the endowment of a President with the burden of respect, but not the authority of suzerainty. So why do we continue to insist on finding ways to worship those who lead us?



*I leave out Japan and the rest of Asia, because while there are similarities in cause and implementation, the differences between Japan's nature 1890-1940 and the nature of European nationalism outweigh them).