Friday, November 30, 2007

Of course, she should be lashed or shot

Now some Sudanese have taken to the streets in protest of the 'light' (15 days in a Sudanese jail) sentence given to the English schoolteacher who allowed her students to name a stuffed animal Mohammed. This is another fine example of the wonders that religion has wrought in our world.

There's at least one idiot loose in New Hampshire.

The BBC reports that hostages have been taken at a Clinton campaign office in Rochester. The hostage-taker supposedly has a bomb ready to detonate.

One way to ask for your vote

In Thailand there is a rumor going around that one of the candidates for parliament is giving Viagra to elderly male voters in an attempt to get their vote.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

What would Rudy or Mitt think of this?

Maria Carolina, one of Chile's leading prostitutes, is donating her earnings from 27 hours of love to a telethon to benefit disabled kids.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

What you can learn from crossword puzzles

I discovered a few puzzles from the 1940s in a NY Times puzzle book I bought for the plane. Each of these puzzles had clues related to the war. You may call it propaganda. But, I think it was due to the fact that, unlike today, the war was the central event of people's lives.

Brief Impressions of a Trip to France

Spending $12 on a mediocre scotch whiskey is something I probably won't be doing again very soon. But that's what 8 Euros converts to - $12. I suspect that not that many Americans will be traveling to Europe over the next year or so. Travel the other way - from Europe - will be strong as this country has become a bargain basement.
Contrast the experience of Americans with that of Orientals. Half the passengers in the plane from Paris to London were Oriental and were weighed down with packages. About 30-40% of the guests at our hotel in Paris were from Japan, China, etc.
Hell is traveling by airplane. An inner circle of hell can be found at Heathrow. Purgatory is a buffet breakfast at a popular 1000 room hotel.
Paris may just be the most beautiful city in the world. Is it because they seem to have been civic-minded for centuries? At the same time, the police have to accompany firefighters to some some sections of Paris.
Boating on the Rhine is a lot more interesting than boating on the Rhone.
Observing a true business team at a 50-seat bistro, Le Paradis on Rue du Maine in Paris. Whoever was free cleaned the tables. The bartender served drinks at your table. The owner delivered the meal. The waitress made drinks. Someone just automatically did whatever had to be done at that moment. Best of all was the price: a three course lunch with a carafe of wine for $55 including tip, a complementary Sangria to start and a complementary brandy to end.
The lack of SUVs and the predominance of small vehicles. I guess gas at $8 a gallon may have some effect on what we drive.
A true vacation, as I hardly ever thought about our 21st century world. Now, it's back to the salt mines.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Yea, though I pass through the valley of the euro

We're off to France for two weeks, despite the decline of the dollar. I will be away from a computer until the 28th. Come back then. Maybe I'll have something to say about an American in France in 2007.

Fortunately, we won't be traveling by train, nor will we be in Paris for 10 days. Perhaps the transportation strike will be over by then.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Who's paying the price?

That's the question Lily Hamourtziadou tries to answer. Yes, this country is paying the price in our wounded and dead soldiers, in dollars and in loss of respect in the world. But how many of us are fearful that their children will be killed on their way to school? Or, that we will be shot on the way to work? Or, a bomb will explode in the supermarket?

Honoring our veterans

The Veterans Administration has not been winning any awards lately. It seems to have a hard time serving its customers, the people who have put their lives on the line for us. Deb Derrick has an article in the American Prospect describing some of the difficulties veterans have in receiving the services they have earned.

Derrick's article focuses on those who served on the USS Calhoun County, whose job it was to dump radioactive and other waste into the ocean in which my kids and grandkids swim, the Atlantic. The fact that the ship was involved with radioactive materials is something that each claimant has to prove, although the ships records clearly prove that the ship was dealing with radioactive materials. There is even a document confirming that the Navy's attempts to remove radioactive contamination had failed and the ship should be sunk. Apparently, the system of processing claims is based on the premise that only evidence produced by the military is accepted. Evidence found in the National Archives, for example, will not typically be considered and its merits evaluated.

Is this really how we want our veterans to be treated?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A growing share

According to Paul Kasriel at Northern Trust, the profits from the country's financial sector now make up 31% of our corporate earnings. In 1990 it was 20%. In 1950 it was 8%. So, these massive writedowns by such as Merrill Lynch, Citibank, Wachovia, AIG, etc. will have a much larger impact today than in the last century.

I wonder what the drop in manufacturing's share of corporate earnings has been.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Renew the mandate?

The UN is about to considering renewing its mandate re the use of multi-national forces in Iraq. Last year, Maliki unilaterally recommended renewal. This year the Iraqi Parliament (at least a few more than half the members) has voted against renewal. It appears, however, that this vote will not be a factor in the UN's decision. If the authors of the article are correct, then what does this say about democracy and freedom in Iraq?

Our leaders seem to believe that we should support those 'democratic' nations that vote the way we want them to.

Youth speaks

You really should read this article by a senior at Columbia.

Friday, November 09, 2007

A debt to RJ

RJ Adams of Sparrow Chat features this movie on his site. More of us should do so.

A Blank Check

That's what it looks like we've given Pakistan when it comes to financial aid. Spencer Ackerman has an illuminating article in TPM Muckraker in which he claims that most, if not all, of the aid we send Pakistan is spent on whatever Musharaff wants. We give him $100,000,000 a month for his military needs and $200,000,000 a year for non-military needs.

Note that use of the word 'give' in the previous sentence. Unlike much of our aid to other countries, aid to Pakistan is not funneled through AID or some other agency; it's paid directly to Pakistan. And the only accounting is at an annual meeting which is secret. So, we have no idea how this money is being spent. We do know, however, that the military owns a fair share of Pakistan's economy. Is there a connection?

Pakistan ranks fourth in the amount of aid we have given other countries since 9/11. We've given $10.5 billion that can be traced. Only Israel, Egypt and Jordan have received more.

Then, you read a report about our relationship with Pakistan. The report, entitled "A Perilous Course ", by the Center for Strategic and International Studies argues that we have not been operating with a strategic goal(s) in mind; things have been very much ad-hoc and not at all aware of the importance of the relationship for at at least the next twenty-five years.

The Mafia's 10 Commandments

Courtesy of the BBC

1. No-one can present himself directly to another of our friends. There must be a third person to do it.

2. Never look at the wives of friends.

3. Never be seen with cops.

4. Don't go to pubs and clubs.

5. Always being available for Cosa Nostra is a duty - even if your wife's about to give birth.

6. Appointments must absolutely be respected.

7. Wives must be treated with respect.

8. When asked for any information, the answer must be the truth.

9. Money cannot be appropriated if it belongs to others or to other families.

10. People who can't be part of Cosa Nostra: anyone who has a close relative in the police, anyone with a two-timing relative in the family, anyone who behaves badly and doesn't hold to moral values.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Retention or Recruitment?

In order to meet its goal of increasing its size, the Army seems to be moving towards retaining its current cadre rather than trying to recruit new troops. The reason for the shift is, "We have a sinking pool of qualified candidates", in the words of the fellow in charge of recruiting at the Pentagon. The Army estimates that 26% of those between the ages of 17 and 24 are qualified to serve. The rest have drug or alcohol problems, criminal records, dependents or are just plain stupid. Of this 26%, 11% are in college. So, the base is pretty low. And, as a result, the Army has lowered its standards.

The recruiting problem is particularly acute with regard to officers. The Army needs 3500 more than they have

Who are the homeless?

Some think many of the homeless are veterans, particularly of the Vietnam era. Estimates are that 23 - 40% of the country's homeless are veterans of our many conflicts.

It took almost seven years

Finally, Congress has overridden a Bush veto. I'm not sure it was the right bill to do so. It was the water resources bill which will give a fair amount of money to the Corps of Engineers, whose reputation is not what it was.

It's a start. Will there be any more overrides? I'm not optimistic.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

A Dream World

Some details are coming out as to how CDOs were valued by financial institutions. It seems that credit ratings were a key factor in determining value. The institutions compared the value of similarly-rated securities (e.g., corporate AAA bonds) in the marketplace. They would then value their AAA-rated CDO based on the value of corporate AAA-rated bonds.

There was one small problem in this valuation process: 90% of CDOs were rated AAA by Moody's etal, yet far fewer than 90% of corporate bonds were rated AAA.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Will it ever stop?

Now Mattel is recalling 155,000 toys made in Mexico.

S**t happens

The problem is it's happening right over and onto the heads of people trying to live in the Baghdad Police Academy. Over a year ago, Parsons Corporation, the contractor, told the U.S. that it would remedy all the problems at no cost to us. The problems have not been fixed. Parsons says that's the problem of its Iraqi subcontractor and the Army. Stuart Bowen, the IG for Iraq, suspects fraud was involved in this project which has cost $72,000,000 so far.

More word play

Isn't the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights supposed to be concerned with whether citizens are able to exercise their rights? Then, why would it criticize efforts to desegregate schools or make it tougher for minorities to enjoy the rights of full citizens?

One reason might be because it appears as though the law was violated when new commissioners were appointed. The law says that no more than half of the commissioners can come from one political party. Yet, the commission consists of two Democrats, four Republicans and two others who were Republicans when appointed but changed to Independent just before two new commissioners - Republicans both - were appointed. The ability to violate the law was approved by Alberto's DOJ, which could not say no to George W.

Since the new commissioners have come on board, the commission has pulled back from many hearings that used to be held to discover the facts. I know that many conservatives believe that they know all the facts and do not have to test their theories against reality. I just don't think that this is what a civil rights commission should be doing with our money.

Nearing the end?

The F-15 has been the country's premier fighter plane for thirty years and more. Last week an F-15 broke up in mid-air. As a result, all F-15s have been grounded, including those working in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Will we get thirty years out of the F-22, the successor to the F-15 and the most expensive fighter plane yet? Critics think its design is outdated and geared to the Cold War.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Should we start worrying?

Some people want to get paid in euros, not dollars. Jim Rogers, a successful American investor, is not holding dollars.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Is $8 billion the magic number?

Last week Merrill Lynch announced an $8 billion dollar loss due to CDO problems and Stan O'Neal, the president, resigned. Today Citigroup announced an $8 billion loss and its CEO, Charles Prince, resigned. As with Merrill, a few weeks ago the CDO loss at Citi was much smaller.

Who's next?

Whose got the advantage?

AARP seems to be of two minds with regard to the Medicare Advantage plans. In one mind, they inveigh against these plans, which are sold by insurance companies to which the government pays 12% more than it does for services performed under the standard government-sponsored and run Medicare Parts A and B. In the other mind they advertise a Medicare Advantage plan of their own.

Which is the real AARP mind?

Your district or your country

Sure, most of our politicians try to get federal funds for their districts. But, are these funds being spent wisely? You've got to wonder when one legislator's district will get $192,500,000 from the bills currently being debated in Congress. Or, when $1.8 billion was added to a defense bill to pay 580 companies for work the Pentagon did not ask for. Or, when only 21 legislators were able to split $1 billion in earmarks, otherwise known as sole-source contracts (i.e., there is no bidding, if the legislator likes you that's it. There is no competition.)

I'm certain that some of this work that has been earmarked is of decent quality and of use to this country. But, why do we need a third National Drug Intelligence Center at a cost of $509,000,000? And why does it have to be located in Johnstown, PA? Is that really a hotbed of drug use for the nation?

Of what use is the National Defense Center for Environmental Excellence when it gives $350,000,000 to the 'non-profit' Concurrent Technologies, also of Johnstown, PA, and there is no way to measure the results we got from this money?

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Strategic Solvency

Linking solvency with defense strategy is something that has not been practiced in this country in the 21st century. Richard Betts, from Columbia and the Council of Foreign Relations, does make the link in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. Essentially, Betts argues that our defense policy has been based on fear rather than a clear view of just what our challenges are. Further, the real challenges are not necessarily going to be solved by spending more and more money.

Of course, Betts has to address the argument that the share of GDP spent on defense today is quite a bit less than that of the Cold War days. Betts points out that such an argument is one-sided in that it focuses only on spending and does not consider the "scope of commitments, the choice of strategy, and the degree of risk accepted", all of which are relevant to the issue. Further, the defense budget has increased at an annual rate greater than 6% in the past ten years; that's larger than any other decade since WWII.

Betts takes the straightforward position that the military does not always need the latest and greatest weapons; it needs weapons that can counter the enemies' capabilities. He considers finding terrorists as being a major challenge; what is needed is intelligence and special ops, not a hydrogen bomb.

Betts worries that we may be investing a huge amount of money in weapons that, when needed, will be technologically obsolete. And we've seen that our belligerent attitude has generated a fair amount of hostility and resistance to us around the world.

Friday, November 02, 2007

No more Mr. Nice Guy

Burma expelled the UN representative because he issued a statement urging the junta to listen to the protesters. In the junta's view, the statement should have been cleared with them before being issued.

Who does it serve?

The Consumer Safety Product Commission, that is. A few days ago I wrote about the commission attempts to water down some proposed laws. Now, I learn that the commissioner, Nancy Nord, and her predecessor felt that it was okay to have their travel expenses - including a trip to China - paid for by the companies the commission is supposed to regulate. The commission appears to be led by someone who is certainly a consumer. The question is what does she consume.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Let's hope it bankrupts them

The father of a dead Marine was awarded $11,000,000 in winning his suit against the Westboro church which has been going around the country disrupting soldiers' funerals because the church feels that the war in Iraq is our punishment for tolerating homosexuality.