Friday, October 31, 2008

Smallville episode "Identity" -- an analogue of "don't ask don't tell", right before the election


On Thursday, Oct. 30, CWTV’s Smallville had one of the most interesting episodes in recent years, called “Identity.”

Reporter Jimmy Olsen (Aaron Ashmore) captures a blurred image of a red “cape” in a trail left by Clark saving someone. He connects the dots and confronts Clark with the possibility that Clark is “it” – the mystery alien. Jimmy says that’s all right, Clark is still the same person.

Clark keeps denying his outing, because, as he says, everyone who knows is put in danger. Clark (who is supposed to be 21 now; Tom Welling is actually 31) has become much more manipulative and assertive than he was a few seasons ago. He is working as a quasi-professional reporter while saving people secretly.

Finally, Oliver, the Green Arrow (a smoothed-over Justin Hartley) takes credit for the miracles, and Jimmy retreats to his childlike faith.

This program came as close as any show to the subject of “don’t ask don’t tell” as any in Smallville’s eight seasons. The analogy became obvious, and it’s great to see this episode broadcast five days before the presidential election.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

History Channel: UFO Hunters: 2004 sightings near Chicago


The 2008 season of the History Channel’s “UFO Hunters” opened with an examination of the Tinley Park, IL lights that were first observed on Aug. 21, 2004. The link is here. The lights maintained a stable triangular form with about a 1500 foot spread in a 30 mph wind. Tinley Park is SW of downtown Chicago. Lights would actually be seen very close to an outdoor block party.

Lights were seen shortly thereafter in Houston TX and then about 24 hours later in Melbourne, Australia.

Similar lights would be seen in the Chicago suburbs on Halloween, Oct. 31, 2004.

In 2008, researchers would try an experiment with helium balloons holding flares, to see if this could be a hoax. The balloons could not hold a harness in the air, and, with 12 mph winds, the still wobbled much more than the crafts in the original sightings.

Investigators (from MUFON) and witnesses included Sam Maranto, Pat Uskert and Bill Birnes.

(See Oct. 27 on this blog for a North Carolina CE III case.)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Dr. Phil probes gender identity in children


For a second consecutive weekday, Dr. Phil took on a controversial topic, “gender confused kids,” who may or may not actually be trans-gendered. Dr. Phil’s own treatment of this sensitive topic was balanced and avoided any of the moralism of some of his positions.

He started with Melissa and Tim, whose child, now 8, was born as a biological male but had announced at 3 that he felt that he was a girl, and later that “God made a mistake.” Clinical psychologist Dan Siegel said that brain gender runs a spectrum and can run a range from male to female regardless of chromosomal gender. About 80% of children who say they want to be of the opposite sex develop with their original sex and tend, as they get older, to conform to their genders. Siegel said that sexual orientation, brain gender, and chromosomal gender should be regarded as independent variables. I could not find a lot about Dr. Siegel online, but he is Director for the Cenre for Human Development in Los Angeles and here is a reference for a seminar in New Zealand.

Siegel’s position was countered by Glenn Stanton from Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs. Stanton’s FOTF profile is here.Stanton insisted that developing gender identity is the responsibility of the parent, and a sizable portion of the Dr. Phil audience applauded his position. Stanton appears to be active in other “family values” concerns, such as with this USA Today story from June 14, 2007 by Wendy Koch, link here about single men adopting children (encouraged in more liberal parts of the country, because of the overwhelming need for parents).

Mary’s son had once wanted to be a girl abut at age 16 said that he was a heterosexual male.

Dr. Phil also presented an African American couple that had resisted allowing their son to develop a female identity. The mother’s attitude was “you play with a toy appropriate for your gender, or you don’t get a toy.”

I remember liking to play with male-like toys, like electric trains, but I would tend to play in non-aggressive ways and set up model “kingdoms” with them.

The “moral” position of evangelical or religious organizations on gender, while stated in supposedly scriptural terms, tend to relate to the idea of “karma.” A person benefits from the family that brings him up (well, not always in the real world), and therefore owes his family loyalty and owes the world the performance of duties associated with gender. Men have an intrinsic duty to protect women and children in this view, which became familiar in past eras when we had a military draft. People are “born” with all kinds of “problems,” so, according to this view, none of this should interfere with carrying out one’s basic “obligations” to pay back his world. When someone subscribes to this view, it tends to be self-reinforcing and seem to be rationalized in a closed fashion.

The Dr. Phil show link is here.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

PBS Frontline: "The War Briefing" on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the tribal areas


On Tuesday, Oct. 28 PBS Frontline aired a one hour segment of “The War Briefing”, information that the next president (Obama or McCain) would have to consider immediately upon taking office. The link is here.

The film shows that allied military control of Afghanistan has gradually deteriorated in the past two years, and now generates more military casualties than Iraq. The Taliban tends to befriend the men of villages and promise them stability. The Taliban also uses the opium trade to make money.

But the more alarming part of the film dealt with the tribal border areas with Pakistan (including Waziristan), which have always lived outside of control of almost any government. Sir Winston Churchill had visited the area at age of 23 and written about it. The film shows scenes from the city of Peshawar. Pakistani government troops have been inept in the region and have tended to strike deals with the tribal leaders. Some troops are under the influence of Al Qaeda.

The film covered the return of Benazir Bhutto to Pakistan, and her assassination. Musharraf was forced to resign, and a weak government is presided by Bhutto’s widower Asif Ali Zardari. He has pledged not to tolerate terrorism, but the United States has gone after targets with drones without his permission. The obvious danger is that Zardari could fall and that a radical Taliban-like government could take over Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. Pakistan has over 50 small nuclear weapons that could fall into radical hands.

Pakistan also fears that the government of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan is “pro India”, and this seems also to be destabilizing.

Dr. Phil tackles cyberbullying in hard-hitting show; legislation urged


Today, Oct. 28, 2008, the Dr. Phil show was very difficult to watch, as it dealt with cyberbullying.

Dr. Phil introduced his son Jay McGraw, whose new book “Life Strategies for Dealing With Bullies” is published today by Simon & Schuster Children’s division (Aladdin). Jay had worked with kids in a number of school systems around the country with bullying issues. The Amazon link is here. Jay says that he aims his book for a teen audience, telling teens how to approach parents and authorities. He also tells parents how to look for the warning signs of bullying, which they may not know about.

Dr. Phil's general comment was that cyberbullying is cowardly behavior often facilitated by the possibility of anonymity on the Internet, meaning there is "no accountability" (to quote him).

In one case, a 14 year old boy had posted a video of girls fighting on YouTube, took it down when requested, but then put it back up again. It has been widely reported that kids sometimes stage fights and tape them. In some communities, police have been able to make arrests based on Internet videos.

As the show progressed, much more serious cases were presented. One girl had her Myspace page hacked, and she was even locked out. Very inappropriate content was placed by the hacker. The parents went to the school and to the police. Since it did not happen on school grounds, administrators could do little. Police said the parents should have been supervising her at home.

But then another boy who did not even have a Myspace page reported that one was created in which he was impersonated in most uncomplementary ways. Again, there was little that law enforcement could do. Of course, the boy and parents can ask or force Myspace to remove the page and ask the search engine companies to remove all the caches. They could ask for help from a company like “Reputation Defender.” (Michael Fertik was not on the show, but it seems that he could have been.) The boy quite understandably was concerned that colleges would find the page and not know that it was fake.

Another segment told the story of a suicide of a Florida teenage boy after cyberbullying. This reminds us of the Myspace case in Missouri, now well known, where a grown woman impersonated a boy friend of a teenage girl. That case was not mentioned in the show. I cover that case, and a few others, on my Internet Safety blog with this URL.

It has been common for boys, especially, to be attacked for their perceived (often incorrectly) sexual orientation.

The question comes up, should this not be a crime? Some states have passed laws. Tennessee state senator Diane Black sponsored an anti cyber bullying state law a few years ago, and it may be strengthened. There is a bill in Florida called “Jeffrey Johnson’s Stand Up for All Students” or “Jeff’s Law”, link here (PDF).

The Dr. Phil link show link for today is here. A running poll showed that 89% or respondents think that free speech on the Internet has gone too far. There are “related resources” on the right side of the page with a sample letter to send to law makers.

I was bullied in the “real world” of the 1950s, especially in seventh grade and then a little in ninth grade, for “non conformity.” It seemed to me then that for boys the world was an unstable, competitive place that seemed to demand its rites of passage and to need to weed people out. In ninth grade, I once made a very insensitive comment to another student in gym about his own illness. I got called in by the school nurse who started the reprimand with “I want this stopped.” I still remember this.

A minority of school systems have good programs to instruct students on the problems of bullying and especially cyberbullying. This needs to become a major initiative.

This link on my books blog has a review of an earlier book on cyberbullying by Nancy E. Willard and a couple books on the question “Should Myspace be banned?”

I did not see this problem in northern Virginia schools when I worked as a substitute teacher from 2004-2007.

Update: Nov. 11, 2008

Today, in the last portion of the show, Dr. Phil (on show 1167) covered the dangers of teenagers (especially girls) taking risque pictures of themselves with cell phones and sending them, where they could wind up on the Internet or be misused at any time in the future.

Picture: Demonstrators protest Equality Virginia's dinner in Richmond in 2005.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Discovery Channel: UFOs Over Earth: The Fayetteville Incident


On Oct. 27, 2008 the Discovery Channel broadcast “UFOs Over Earth: The Fayetteville Incident”, link here. Another site, called “Above Top Secret” has an interesting link on this show here. The documentary film covers a MUFON investigation (investigators Richard Lang and James Carrlton and Norman Gagnon) of the incident.

On a relatively mild winter evening in the Fayetteville, NC and Cape Fear general area, January 8, 2007, a father and young adult son, both named Chris Bledsoe (Sr. and Jr.) and presented in the film as “key eyewitnesses”, say that they saw orange-ball UFO’s (rather like the ING Direct Orange!), and translucent beings that seemed to look like glass toys. Three other local men saw the apparent craft (but not necessarily the aliens). The father says he lost a couple hours of time, and was put under hypnosis. He described being in some sort of examination room (presumably after being taken on board), although he did not recall the actual examinations. He was under the impression that the glass aliens were their “children.”

The craft also took on other shapes, like huge white viruses with spikes.

Subsequently, Chris Sr.’s wife described the strains the incident caused in their family, until the family decided to go public. The film describes psychological tests and interviews (given in July 2008), and Bledsoe Sr. describes the real estate business in 2001 which was stressed (perhaps because of recession and 9/11) in a way similar to what is happening today, but in a less severe manner. The film describes some of the personality disorders that may occur when people make false reports based on fantasy (such as narcissistic personality disorder) but none of this was found. The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory was given (a test that I remember from my own troubled days). The psychological tests showed none of the possible abnormalities. He was shown playing with a pet parrot. Finally he (Sr.) is given a polygraph (“pure of heart” test), which is shown. The answers concerning seeing the beings are reported by the examiner as potentially deceptive, but most was just inconclusive. It's unclear how reliable a polygraph is in a situation like this (as it is generally thought to be unreliable, although people with high level security clearances have to take and pass them).

Fayetteville NC is the home of Fort Bragg, NC (mentioned late in the film), a large Army post with airborne divisions. It would sound reasonable that some craft in the area would be military vehicles. I remember passing through Fayetteville on the bus at night on Feb. 8, 1968 right after my own induction into the US Army, on the way to Fort Jackson to start my own “adventure” (Basic Training). I would visit Fort Bragg again in November 1992 (as well as Jacksonville NC, near Camp LeJeune), for reasons discussed elsewhere on my sites. I’ve described my own sighting in Arizona in 1978 elsewhere (very different from this). In May 2000, I would, while driving between Phoenix and Yuma in a rental car, pause at an isolated desert rest stop and lose a whole hour mysteriously.

MUFON interviewed Bledsoe again and investigators say that they believe in his sincerity, whatever the nebulous polygraph results.

MUFON found a case in Wisconsin in 2001 with similar craft descriptions (no CE III's -- below). The Wisconsin case was considered likely to add to the credibility of this case. The organization says that these are things that happen to people every day. “This is not science fiction. This is science fact.”

MUFON has a link on how to become a field investigator, here.

The evidence in a few of the shows on the History Channel, Larry King Live, and now Discovery is starting to sound a little more convincing. Something may be happening. What if something really happens "in public"? We have the movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still" remake coming in December. I have a review of Discovery's "Investigation X" on another blog, here.

Wikipedia has an entry on "Close Encounters" of various "kinds" (from 1 to 5) here.

Picture: The Moon, and Mars. (Sorry, not a UFO. Venus really can look like a UFO sometimes.)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

ABC 20/20: couple lives with wolves and as wolves


Last night ABC 20/20 aired a fascinating look at daily life inside the animal world, specifically in a pack of wolves.

Shaun Ellis had long consorted with a pack in southwestern England. But to continue a relationship, girl friend Helen Jeffs joined in.

The biologists filmed a society that has subtlety and social hierarchy. Animals communicate with a complex mixture of vocalizations, body languages and body contact, but it is real communication. This is a real society.

They were filming the life of a pregnant female wolf whom they named Cheyenne. To communicate, Helen had to assume a submissive position, below, in order to join the social group. Wolves seem to accept humans into their social organizations as being comparable to them, meat eating carnivores. We seem simply to be hairless wolves who wear clothes. Helen had to learn to feed other animals with regurgitation, share the entrails of a carcass, and at one point she allowed a male go grip her neck in his jaws. Eventually, the couple spent nights with the wolves.

Besides primates and cetaceans, carnivores are among the most intelligent of animals. It takes intelligence, problem solving and communications skills to hunt for a living. Sometimes it requires a social order. More and more, we find that most carnivores have many skills that approach those of humans.

The story is by Kimberly Launier and it titled “Learning to Speak Wolf: Woman risks her life for the wolf man she loves” here.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Oprah presents more young entrepreneurs


Some time back on my books blog I interviewed self-told autobiographies of Cameron Johnson (on Oprah’s “Big Give”) and Aaron Greenspan (not Alan), young entrepreneurs that have made a mark on the world already. And we have gotten to know design architect (and 2004 tsunami survivor) Nate Berkus on Oprah, with various home makeover projects, as in New Orleans. Today, Oprah presented us with three more young role models. The link for the Oct. 23 show is here.

First up were twin sisters Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, authors of a new book called “Influence.” Oprah spend about half the show on their design business, and the sisters are now only 22. Their website is “Mary-KateandAshley”, here.

Then she presented 26 year old Gurbaksh Chalal, from his palatial condo in San Francisco (at least that’s where it looked), founder of Internet businesses ClickAgents and BlueLithium, which he sold to Yahoo! for $300 million. His website is this. Born in India and brought to America at age 4 and brought up with strict values of hard work and discipline (very common in India’s “silicon valley”), he started businesses at 16 and has followed a “serial entrepreneur” technique similar to Cameron Johnson. His family was in the audience. His site now links to his blog with a transcript of the interview with Oprah. He also has an Electronic Press Kit about his career (there is a five-minute YouTube video that even contains shots of his disco dancing) and plans a book and reality TV show for entrepreneurs. He seems to be beyond “The Apprentice” although his life "looks" a bit like Trump’s. It will be very interesting to see how he responds to the recession and how he thinks the advertising world should be managed given the complexity and ambiguity of the challenges today. He certainly acts very optimistic despite the challenges (with none of the gloom and negativity common in the media – Oprah’s expert Suze Orman included -- these days), an observation that could help investors in the markets even right now. He calls himself “G”. He says he outgrew his introversion as a teen. A new venture seems to be Planet Bollywood. (Remember, the previous NBC Soap “Passions” ventured into Bollywood at one point.) I wonder if he is interested in independent film.

The Oprah presented Tony Hsieh of Zappos, a designer-shoe company. It showed him, as CEO, working like a “prole” in a cubicle in the Henderson NV (near Las Vegas) headquarters, in a office that looked a bit like a playpen.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Dr. Phil on men's responsibilities; Oprah and Suze on family money matters


Today, Oct. 22, 2008 Dr. Phil aired a show called “Forced to be a Father.” He presented several situations where men found out, after the fact, that they were fathers and were forced to support their children.

It would sound like a no-brainer that any man is legally responsible for a child that he sires. But, in some cases, a man believes that a woman cannot get pregnant, or believes (perhaps wrongly) that contraception should have reliably presented pregnancy. On the program Mel Feit (The National Center for Men) and attorney Gloria Allred appeared. One case on the show today has been called “Roe v. Wade for Men”. There was another case where a man was pursued after a sperm donation.

The show today has the following link.

The interesting comparison in my own mind is that involuntary family responsibility can occur without having children at all. In 28 states, adult children can be held legally responsible for supporting their parents and sometimes siblings (“filial responsibility laws”). These laws have not been enforced much, but stretched state Medicaid budgets could change this.

I'd also mention that about six months ago, the NBC Soap "Days of our Lives" had a sequence where the character Nick (Blake Berris) had to take custody of small children that he had not fathered. It really can happen.

On Oprah today, Suze Orman appeared with “the Best Money Lessons You Can Teach Your Child,” link here.

One of her major points is that parents should start teaching the right values regarding money and possessions before hard financial times come because of external events. She presented a small multiple choice quiz on financial responsibility that every teen should pass before having a credit card. One question was simply based on the compound interest calculation at credit card interest rates. But the alarming question showed the teen that a bad credit score can keep someone from getting a job, getting an apartment, and even getting one’s own cell phone (now, at least). And without a cell phone, you can hardly play “gossip girl.”

Suze thinks that parents should pay their kids for chores when they “help the family out”, 10 cents a minute, with raises if work gets better, and no pay if work is sloppy. She sees this as a first lesson in learning the demands of the workplace in the real world. (My father used to call it “learning to work”.) But it could be seen as a form of socialization, too.

I’ve noticed that credits on the Dr. Phil show mention Harpo Productions, which is Oprah Winfrey’s film production company.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

PBS Frontline: "Heat": weak progress in dealing with global warming


Tonight (Tuesday Oct 21, 2008) PBS stations aired the two-hour Frontline film “Heat,” written by Martin Smith, with the web link here.

The film starts out with a stroll-like hike at 19000 feet in the Himalaya, to view a glacier whose ice has dropped by 40% when compared to a 1921 black-and-white photo.

There is now an emerging consensus that the world must reduce its carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. There is a karma problem because the developed world uses much more energy and emits much more carbon per person than the developing world.

It covered the history of international accords, including Kyoto. At one meeting in Indonesia, the United States, previously refusing to sign because the bill let developing countries off the hook, was ambushed into an agreement when China accepted some restraints.

The film covered coal-fired electric plants. In the southeast, especially Florida, there are serious liability problems with storing carbon because it could leak and actually come into homes, causing suffocation (events like that have actually happened near a lake in Africa). The film showed the Powder River (Arch Coal’s Black Thunder mine near Gillette) basin in Wyoming, which feeds the largest rail conveyor belt in the world. One pound of coal (or a “scuttle”) will run a large television for 4 hours, and the typical American household consumers 9.5 tons of coal a year.

The film mentioned the carbon emissions associated with cement manufacture, as 5% of all the carbon emitted in the world.

The film then moved on to cover the slow rise in car mileage, and the new hybrid vehicles like the GM Volt, which is shown creeping up an incline at 10 mph. The efficacy of biofuels is debated, but they tend to consume a lot of energy to produce (especially corn), and they tend to encourage deforestation (carbon storage) in other areas (the Amazon basin) for food that we don’t grow.

The film discussed oil companies, especially ExxonMobil, and show XOM’s rig off the coast of Newfoundland, the largest in the world. An XOM spokesperson was questioned on the low support of renewable energy (which may have increased very recently, according to other news stories) and about its lobbying activity. There was a segment shown tar sands mining in northern Alberta.

The movie concluded with the defeat in the Senate of the Warner-Lieberman “cap and trade” bill.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Jose Canseco biography about steroids and baseball; Oprah on police and false confessions


Tonight (Oct. 20, 2008), A&E aired a one hour documentary about baseball player Jose Canseco, who started with the Oakland Athletics in 1985, but whose career crashed and burned because of anabolic steroids. The film is called “Jose Canseco: The Last Shot.”

He says that when he started using steroids, there will little discussion about them and they were not controversial. Early in his career, he was known for his tremendous, tape measure home runs, rivaling Mickey Mantles in a previous generation.

The film shows him having a medical evaluation, including EKG, and the test shows that constant steroid use has caused him to be unable to produce testosterone naturally, after coming off of it, partly at the demands of his girl friend, Heidi Northcott. He gets a prescription gel for testosterone.

The film shows his losing his palatial house and being locked out from his belongings by foreclosure. To play any sports at all, he joins in at a Fullerton CA slow pitch softball field.

He wrote a “revengeful” book about his experience. "Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big," (published by Harper) and other players were named. But then he says, “I should never have written than book.” The other players were investigated by Congress (Senator Mitchell).

In a scene late in the film, he attends a semi-pro game in Long Beach. He sits off alone, and kids come and get signatures. Suddenly a process server shows up and serves him papers over a dispute.

Today, Oprah Winfrey presented a disturbing segment about wrongful convictions. The link is here. (The visitor comments are particularly important on this story.) The most important point is that sometimes police, under political pressure, lie to vulnerable suspects when they question them to get false confessions. This problem was well known in minority communities, but it also happens with minor defendants, or with any vulnerable suspect that police believe does not have a good social reputation with others in the community. Painful existential questions occur. Cases in Long Island, New York and California were discussed.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

History Channel airs "Banned from the Bible II"


Tonight (Oct. 19), the History Channel aired the second of the “Banned from the Bible” series, the first having been produced for A&E. This series examines passages and whole books not included in the accepted Bible. Wikipedia provides the catchup for the first program from 2003 here. Kenneth Hanson provides much of the commentary. The film often shows omitted scriptures and many of the passages delve into social controversy, especially over the family and the role of women, and of the openness or "privacy" of religious "information". The text of the banned scriptures is often shown in panels.

The program starts with the discussion of the Testament of Solomon, after Jesus attributes his healing powers as following the tradition of Solomon. The program actually simulates an exorcism as Solomon might have performed it, and suggests that the Temple might have been built by supernatural beings. The testament refers to a boy Ornias and has some events that might contribute to cultural notions of homophobia.

The Alphabet of Ben Sira may provide a larger version of how the female was formed. (Biologically, the female is more fundamental than the male.) Lilith was apparently created as Adam’s “equal” but became a demon, and actually a threat to single young men when alone. (A 1964 Hollywood movie about such a girl in a mental institution “preying” on a male attendant played by Warren Beatty exploits this idea.) Once again we find these mysterious religious texts suggesting in some way that young men can be vulnerable and can fail physically.

There is an unauthorized extension of the Genesis story of Joseph accounting for his marriage to Aseneth, with her conversion from Egyptian idolatry to monotheism,

The Septuagint contains many extra texts, including an expanded version of Daniel, having him slay a dragon. These texts present Daniel as more “active” as a hero (rather like a biblical Clark Kent) rather than a quiet, prayerful servant. There was a tradition that the books accepted as “scriptural” had already been settled, and Daniel got in only because it was so popular (rather like an ancient “Smallville”). Some the the Septuagint became the Catholic Apocrypha. Wikipedia provides more details on the matching up of various versions in its article on Deuteocanonical books, here.

The Acts of Peter expands upon Peter’s role, with a “Suze Orman” style smackdown in Rome with “Simon” after an encounter with Jesus, and many extra miracles, and an upsidedown crucifixion. Peter (especially in the expanded Acts) challenges the monolithic model of how early Christianity evolved. But a complication in the story is the controversy over celibacy. Roman authorities had laws and policies to make sure that the upper classes bore enough children, and found the ideas of marital abstinence or celibacy, probably motivated by apocalyptic thinking, politically threatening to social order.

“The Acts of Paul and Thecla” likewise presents a complicated problem with respect to Paul’s teachings on sexual abstinence and celibacy, which are generally seen as voluntary and a matter of a “gift of the spirt.” Thecla gets in trouble because of Paul’s ascetic teaching, and winds up in the Coliseum when Paul is absent. She is protected by a female lion at one point, and eventually baptizes herself. The story challenges the beliefs in what women are allowed to do in early Christian society. Her celibacy and ascetism made her seen as a “feminist” because she broke the authority of men, by refusing to submit to her a father until submitting to a husband. These ideas help explain “patriarchal family values” that have some subtle influence on our thinking even today in “family values” debates.

The Secret Gospel of Mark, developed by Morton Smith and the Mar Saba letter, raises several issues. One starts just with the laborious way books were prepared and bound in ancient times when paper was expensive. Another concerns the idea of mystical or secret teachings, known today with Rosicrucians, but in contradiction to modern ideas about transparency of knowledge (as with the Internet). The additional text includes a raising of a young man, and the suggestion of the possibility of an intimate or homoerotic relationship with Jesus, partly because of omissions in the “storyboard” of the accepted text of Mark, and the apparent reappearance of the young man at one critical point before the passion.

The last hidden text is the Gospel of Judas, a Gnostic work about the passion that National Geographic has already made and aired a film about. Once again, the idea of secret knowledge is developed, and it seemed to threaten the idea of a unified faith. The Gnostics would eventually recede into a relatively low profile, with their views not represented much in the final Bible.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

CNN: Fall of the Fat Cats: Will Greed Be "Good" Ever Again?


Today, at 8 PM EDT, CNN Special Investigations broadcast “Fall of the Fat Cats” about the life of the very rich on Wall Street, before their “bonfire of the vanities.”

The show pointed out some interesting stats. The top ½% of executives in America spend more than the population of Italy (about $250 billion). The ratio of CEO pay to ordinary worker pay has risen from 25:1 to 500:1. A CNN link summarizing the show is here.

The show featured CNN reporters (Andy Serwer) and a variety of people, including a plant manager who had lost his job, and a college student and finance intern, Brandon Lawrence. The audience could contact the show by Twitter, Facebook and Myspace. Serwer says “the party is over on Wall Street, until it comes back again.”

A realtor showed an $11 million apartment in the old Plaza Hotel Building on 57th St, with a million dollar view of Central Park.

The show went on the present former Wall Street tycoon Brandon Belfort. He admits a variety of cons and drug use, and spent 22 months in prison. He now lives in Manhattan Beach, CA in an apartment on his income as an author, which he says not easy. (I know that from my own “Do Ask Do Tell” books – just search my blogs and sites for them). His first book is called “The Wolf of Wall Street” from Bantam, which he says was painful to write. The sequel comes out in early 2009 and is called “Catching the Wolf of Wall Street: More Incredible Stories of Fortunes, Schemes, Parties and Prison.” Belfort says, however, that one can get rich honestly on Wall Street and live a life to be proud of. He says that earning an honest living on Wall Street isn't as hard a writing (or making movies, probably, or especially soap operas). I wonder how these books compare to the tale of insider trading by Foster Winans, "Trading Secrets" (1986).

Should there be a “maximum wage”? Bruce Ellig, who publishes “Executive Compensation” says executives should be paid salaries only and the maximum now should be $10 million a year. (The Peoples Party of New Jersey – Dr. Benjamin Spock’s creation – back in 1972 proposed a maximum income of $50000 a year on its party platform!) Naomi Klein (“The Shock Doctrine,” a book about disaster capitalism reviewed in my books blog in August 2008) says that Wall Street traders may feel they have “safer” lives than average workers, but Win Hornig from Minneapolis disagrees. He founded the neat “Banker Gone Broke” blog, which is quite sophisticated, link here. Track the “about us” link to the “About Us” link to a Business Times Online article.

Friday, October 17, 2008

ABC 20/20: Stossel questions the power of politicians to do any good


John Stossel hosted a hard-hitting ABC 20/20 (“An Insider’s Guide to Politics”) this evening about the libertarian idea that “government doesn’t work.” It started with the “faith” we are supposed to place in candidates who run for office, as if running (instead of just blogging) were a civic duty. People have said that to me. In 18 days, we decide who decides “run the country.” Yet, it is ordinary people who do good for the country. Politicians have the power to do a lot of harm. There was a clip from the Ivan Reitman’s movie “Dave” (1993).

He gave as a prime example successive presidents who keep promising energy independence, especially from foreign oil, all the way back to Nixon.

Stossel interviewed David Boaz of the Cato Institute, and them went on to give examples of “spontaneous order”, a concept that Boaz has often discussed (as in his books “Libertarianism: A Primer” and “The Libertarian Reader” from the Free Press back in the good old 1990s). Stossel used the skating rink as a an example of spontaneous order. But let Brian Boitano (“Southpark”) try to direct the skaters waltz, and it’s no longer fun. Flocks of birds, swarms of insects, schools of fish, and livestock herds all exhibit spontaneous order.

Stossel also pooh-poohed the bailout of the financial crisis, which he claims the government caused in the first place, by pressuring the banks to give weak loans to people with poor credit for left-wing political reasons. He says we are supposed to believe that we need a federal bailout to unlock credit, but after the bailout the stock market continued to tank. Better to let it liquidate and start over, he says.

He then showed examples of the devastation from Hurricane Katrina, and the failure of government to help rebuild. But nearby a nice neighborhood of pastel-painted houses built by Habitat for Humanity flourishes. He talked about the spontaneity of the volunteers, even people who stop by in lower Ninth Ward neighborhoods.

John Stossel, Chris Kilmer and Sarah Netter with the article “Wal-Mart, Private Sector Moved Faster After Katrina than FEMA,” link here.

Stossel then covered the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law. Many states followed suit with similar laws. Now even in local initiatives in Colorado, supporters of measures have to go through hoops to express their views on issues like urban annexation. McCain-Feingold pushed to money from campaigns to outside “attack groups” (pseudo-lobbyists). Remember the controversy where around 2005 there was a fear that McCain-Feingold could shut down blogging?

Finally, Stossel covered farm subsidies. In farm states, all local politicians of either party must lobby for them. But actually, towns in areas with heavy farm subsidies actually shrink, because the subsidies favor big agribusinesses. Subsidies actually help non-farmers buy homes, but the real estate agent didn’t want to admit that, so a journalist went in and pretended to be a home purchaser. This is an example of what I talk about on my main blog, needing to make all issues transparent to the public in a straightforward way on the Internet.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Obama win the debate series with a "three game sweep" -- last game in New York (Long Island)


Tonight (Oct. 16) the candidates held their final debate, at Hofstra University on Long Island, with CBS’s Bob Schieffer moderating. The two candidates sat at a table.

McCain seemed a little more assertive tonight than previously. He started out immediately by reiterating his call that the federal government step in and help renegotiate (and perhaps purchase) up to 11 million upsidedown mortgages. Obama was critical, saying that this would help banks more than homeowners (I don’t get that). In truth, the fiscal crisis has exploded way beyond the damage done by bad mortgages, to the amplification of the credit default swaps (not mentioned directly in the debates).

Early McCain said to Obama, "I'm not President Bush. If your wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago."

Obama talked about his middle tax class cuts and tax increases for the rich, and there was discussion about easing the rules for IRA withdrawals. McCain accused Obama of spurring “class warfare” and said that American businesses are taxed at a 35% rate whereas in Ireland the rate is 11%. Some people pay higher taxes just because they start businesses. McCain wants to offer tax credits for business owners who hire workers.

Obama mentioned ExxonMobil’s 12 billion dollars of profit the past year, and it sounds like that’s a signal to the stock market that oil prices will rebound quickly and that XOM’s shares, which nosedived today even more than the entire market, will bounce back quickly. But oil company shares will have problems if Obama get his “windfall profits” taxes unless they can become renewable energy companies.

In the middle of the debate, McCain fired accusations at Obama, about his past association with William Ayers (from the 1960s) – McCain called Ayers an “old washed up terrorist” – and suggested that Obama’s campaign somehow got a jumpstart from Ayers. There was a lot of confusing discussion of Acorn.

There was a pretty routine debate about the “pro-life” issue, and screamed at Obama for not supporting a ban on partial-birth abortions, which Obama denies. Obama said that people should not be involved in “cavalier activity”. McCain talked about adoption, and then ventured to special needs children. He mentioned Sarah Palin’s appreciation of the autism problem (although her youngest child actually has Down Syndrome, not the same thing).

McCain made a constructive solution of “troops to teachers,” where former or retired military become teachers without having to take all the education credits. It would be a good question as to supporting such programs for other retired workers. Both candidates seem sympathetic to the idea that schools do not have adequate support for “no child left behind” (Obama said "They left the money behind", and also said that parents should get their kids away from the TV set, just like they used to say in the 1950s when television was still a novelty -- remember "read, don't watch television!"). Obama suggested a strong carrot for young adults to do national service, with extensive tuition support for students who have served in either the military or Peace Corps or any comparable service.

The C-span link for the debates is this.

The Myspace link is called “My debates” and is this. It will prompt you to log on to Myspace (as a member or guest) and it is very resource intensive on computer memory.

The CNN link for the transcript is here.

George Stephanopolous gave each candidate a “B” tonight on ABC Nightline, but George thinks that Obama made the debates a three-game sweep. He says Obama talked more about people, whereas McCain talked about "policy." He says Obama would win more than 300 electoral votes right now.

(The question about "don't ask don't tell" never came up in the debates, although SLDN had primed all three debate moderators with questions submitted by the public, as on my GLBT blog.)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

PBS: Frontline: The Choice 2008: McCain v. Obama


Tonight (Tuesday Oct 14) PBS Frontline presented a two-hour film “The Choice 2008” about Barack Obama and John McCain. The link is here. The film is directed by Michael Kirk, with Jim Gilmore.

This film differs from the CNN film presented Sept. 6, 2008 (see on this blog) in that it presents the stories of both men in tandem, and emphasizes mostly more recent history, starting with each candidate’s tour in the Senate. The CNN film had consisted of two separate biographies, both going back to youth.

The film starts with the assertion that these are “implausible” candidates. Very early, it does mention Barack Obama’s birth, and Obama mentions his aware of the history of the miscegenation issue, as well as the idea that in the deep South at the middle of the past century, African Americans were lynched for “looking” at white women. (See the blog post yesterday on Ted Koppel’s film.) But pretty soon the film tracks to covering both candidates, back and forth, with the conventions in Boston and New York at 2004 as a focus point.

McCain was seen as much too moderate (and a bit of a maverick) at one time for the Republicans, and not everyone agreed with his ideas on subjects like campaign finance reform. (In fact, McCain-Feingold caused quite a flap in the Internet community because for a while it sounded like it could shut down political bloggers.) At one time, it was rumored that McCain would consider changing parties.

The film shows both candidates in the early primaries and caucuses, and shows McCain’s extravagant bus.

McCain would eventually make peace with the “religious right”, even speaking at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Discovery: Ted Koppel's documentary "The Last Lynching"


Tonight The Discovery Channel aired a one-hour film by Ted Koppel, “The Last Lynching,” which focused upon the murder of Michael Donald in Mobile, AL in 1981. The best web reference is here. Two young white men in the Ku Klux Klan (Knowles and Davis) kidnapped Donald, in the wrong place at the wrong time, took him out into the pine barrens and killed him, and brought him back and hung him on Herndon Ave, which would be renamed after Donald. In 1987, the boy’s mother would bring a wrongful death civil lawsuit against the Klan and win, although she would collect little of the judgment, and would pass away herself soon (she did get the hall).

The film briefly traces the history of lynchings from the late nineteenth century through the early 20th Century (including the Rosewood incident). It mentions an incident in 1915 where all the relatives of a family were killed when an African American man accidentally shot a white sheriff. The film then summarizes the civil rights movement, particularly the Freedom Busses from the North to Mississippi. White civil rights activists were arrested and kept in prison, actually the death row in Parchman Farn, for two months or more. The film shows many photos of segregate busses, water fountains and restaurants and many scenes of fires and hosings. That is how it was until well into the 1960s.

Another film project that some visitors will want to look at is a documentary film in progress, American Lynching.

Picture: The Amistad, slave ship from the 19th Century, in dock at the National Harbor, Potomac River, Prince Georges County, MD.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Bill Moyers interviews George Soros, critic of "market fundamentalism": Americans can no longer outconsume what they produce


Last night (Oct. 10), PBS and WETA presented Bill Moyers’s Journal with an interview of George Soros. The segment was called “Market Fundamentalism and the Madness of Crowds.” The link for the broadcast description is here. And the transcript of the interview is here.

Soros was critical of the ideology of “market fundamentalism”, the idea that markets, without intervention, can always correct themselves from random disturbances because the perturbations are simply statistical outliers that can be modeled. Instead, some of the economic storms are the result of a mathematical runaway (in mathematical analysis, something like an unbounded function racing to infinity).

Soros has a new book "The New Paradigm for Financial Markets: The Credit Crisis of 2008 and What It Means". New York: Public Affairs, 2008. His 1998 book (appearing after the Russian and Asian financial crises) had been "The Crisis of Global Capitalism: Open Society Endangered". (Remember Ken Kurson’s (and Walter Russell Mead’s) October 1998 Esquire story with the broken piggy bank cover, “What Did You Do After the Crash Daddy?” discussed here and also at this back issue.

Soros made the observation that the value of houses has been inflated by the availability of questionable credit, and that is one reason why housing values plummeted.

He said that Treasury secretary Henry Paulson was more like “one of them” and that restructuring credit markets requires a fresh perspective. He says it is more important to inject capital into markets than to purchase toxic assets.

He says that efforts to restructure markets should have started several months ago. Now, there is at least some risk of a depression or major lasting damage to ordinary citizens.

He said that, although the American dream is not dead and capitalism is not gone, we are at a historical turning point. American consumers will no longer be able to consumer 6.5% more a year than they produce.

He said that all pure ideologies have flaws. One must be pragmatic. Communism was also a failed ideology. All of them, he said, have the “Principal-Agent Problem” . The Agent tends to view his own interest as the same as his clients but behave in a way to give himself preferences. That was true in Communism (in the Soviet Union, the Communist Party members were the elite). The Principal-Agent problem tends to run wild and contribute to the breakdown of confidence in the markets (as well as the breakdown of ethics in general). All ideologies fail in some way, he said. Ideologies result when individuals do not become socialized properly into sharing at deeper levels with others (in and outside the family), resulting in the need for the legal system and government to eventually compel them to do so.

Soros was, therefore, critical of hyper-individualism. He disagrees that society works best if every individual simply looks out for his own best interests. People tend to think short term. People need to have some sense of common good and underlying psychological or emotional debt to others (karma). In a sense, we all lead subsidized lives. (I remember the article in Mother Jones, June 2004, by Bill McKibben about “hyperindividualism and solidarity” titled “In Search of Common Ground”.)

George Soros (alongside Oprah Winfrey) is often mentioned as a major supporter of Barack Obama's campaign for the presidency.

In a related discussion in the next hour, on Charlie Rose, observers noted that during the financial bubble, talent was employee in the wrong things (financial engineering, that would eventually self-destruct) instead of in creating real wealth by addressing green technologies and renewable energy. Instead of building big houses that ordinary people could not afford, invest in smaller, inherently more affordable housing units with locally renewable energy sources like solar panels.

Moyers also interviewed Kathleen Hall Jamieson, author of “Dirty Politics: Distraction, Deception and Democracy” (Oxford University Press). She pointed out that in campaigns words are brought up in bad faith just to shoot them down (like mentioning Muslims in connection with Barack Obama). She also feels that the debate on issues, especially health care and social security, has been deceptive. Would John McCain really consider cutting social security benefits from existing beneficiaries based on means? He needs to be pinned down in a targeted debate.

Update: Oct. 12

Fareed Zakaria interviewed George Soros today. Afterward, Zakaria interviewed Jeff Sachs (Columbia University’s “Earth Institute” and author of “Common Wealth”), Fred Bergstrom and Sebastian Mallaby. Soros and the three other columnists took the position that the Fed’s allowing Lehman Brothers to fail on Sept. 14 was a tactical blunder that triggered the crisis. The columnists noted that the “Reagan Revolution” is over, that Americans (especially richer ones) must pay more taxes for basic infrastructure, and that foreign debt could seriously imperil foreign policy and national security. Taiwan was mentioned as an example of what is at risk.

Update: Oct 13

ABC Nightline covered the culture of Washington Mutual before it collapsed, including the extreme pressure to look the other way on risks because managers earned money on commissions. Employees who spoke up or were too cautious with mortgages were fired.

Friday, October 10, 2008

ABC "GMA" reports on "cheating culture" problems on Internet (with YouTube, with Flickr)


Good Morning America, on Friday Oct. 10, 2008 had a couple of provocative stories this morning about the Internet.

One story reported that there were a number of YouTube videos made and uploaded by high school students showing how to cheat on tests in school. No, I won’t give the Youtube links here – I’ve been a substitute teacher, and maybe I’ll do it again some day, and I will not encourage it. But the interesting thing was that the kids regarded themselves as film or TV producers and some of them regarded these as “jokes” or exercises in filmmaking. Remember the movie “The Perfect Score” about teens cheating on the SAT, or even a couple of episodes about cheating in “One Tree Hill” (on CWTV).

The cheating issue, of course, maps out to what is going on today – “The Cheating Culture” of David Callahan’s 2004 book – in the financial markets. Cheating trickles down, from pressure on executives to pressure on sales employees to meet quotas in the short run. It comes out of a misplaced focus on “performance” as measured in short-term numbers as a measure of one’s worth.

When I was in high school and college, Honor Codes were common (they still are on some campuses and particularly in military service academies) and they had a particularly sharp-edged meaning in view of the military draft and student deferments, that could depend on grades. People could die in Vietnam if they didn’t make it in school. So, if you cheated, were you just cheating yourself? Teachers would say, “Everybody does it, but it doesn’t make it right.”

The YouTube story does not help in the litigation with Viacom, which claims that YouTube's model is predicated on promoting copyright infringement!

A related issue in all schools and colleges is plagiarism in term papers and themes, for which turnit.com is available for teachers to check work. Even Chess Life had an issue in April 2004 with the cover story "Is your opponent cheating?"

The other interesting story is that advertising companies have used personal photos posted on Flickr in Internet ads without permission or without paying royalties. The story said that Flickr offers the option to make photos private and unavailable for others to use. Nevertheless, one company was sued for invasion of privacy and copyright infringement by a Flickr poster. The company claimed that the photos had been placed in a kind of public domain.

I once had a photo of a can of Hormel Foods's Spam (that I took myself) embedded on someone’s Myspace page, resulting in very heavy volume. I had to remove the photo for a while to prevent bandwidth problems. Come on, kids, all you have to do is take your own photo of a can of Spam with your own camera and then use it. You don't really need to infringe on me! (Linking to another photo is OK; embedding without permission is not, although YouTube seems to give permission and many video content providers and copyright owners, including NBC Saturday Night Live, voluntarily give permission to embed with HTML code).

ABC News offers the video of this story under its “Good Morning America” link (no direct URL).

Thursday, October 09, 2008

ABC reports on NSA eavedropping on domestic American conversations


On ABC News today, Oct. 9 (both World News Tonight and ABC Nightline) there appeared a report about the interception by National Security Agency intercept operators of ordinary cell and land phone conversations of American citizens. One operator said that the listening job (which can lead to hearing loss) is about finding a needle in a haystack, listening to explicit personal conversations increases the size of the haystack.

A few times the eavesdropping did provide valuable foreign intelligence, especially in Iraq.

The story is by Brian Ross, Vic Walter and Anna Schecter, is called “Exclusive: Inside Account of U,S. Eavesdropping of Americans,” link here. The nature of some calls resembled the old “900 numbers.”

I actually played in a chess tournament at Fort Meade, MD (where the NSA is located, halfway between Washington and Baltimore, near the Parkway) in 1969.

James Bamford has a new book on the issue called “A Shadow Factory: The Ultra Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America,” from Doubleday, to be published Oct, 14, 2008.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Dr. Phil covers O.J. trial(s)


Remember O.J.? In the mid 1990s, the OJ Simpson saga, starting with the “reality TV” low speed chase through much of LA, the bizarre “Mr. Ree” (50s board game) stories (especially from the winsome Kato Kaehlin), the “what a mess” stories about the trial, leading to the acquittal (again live) in Oct. 1995, created a tragic-comic epic. Radio talk show host Victoria Jones (in the DC area) used to take polls on her show.

After the acquittal, the Goldman family won a huge civil wrongful death judgment against Simpson, because the standard of evidence is less in civil trials. So Simpson has spent the past 13 years hiding from debt collectors in open sight.

Then there is the business of OJ’s “book”, “If I Did It, Here’s How It Would Have Happened.” I blogged about the legal convolutions of such “fiction” in January 2007, here. The book eventually emerged (sort of) as “If I Did It: Confessions of a Killer”, by the Goldman Family (check Amazon here) from Beaufort Books.

Today Dr. Phil ran a program on the recent OJ memorabilia trial about his kidnapping and robbery in Las Vegas, resulting in conviction on all counts. The kidnapping charge comes from the fact that people were detained against their will, and all perpetrators can be charged with the “armed” portion of the charge if just one person was armed.

Four of the jurors were interviewed, and they talked about repeatedly viewing videos to get unanimous verdicts on each count. The Dr. Phil link is here. There was interesting discussion of how all visitors to casinos are under video camera surveillance at all times.

Dr. Phil also talked to Tony Riccio, who looked rather dapper with his moppy white hair. He also interviewed former “friend” (that doesn’t mean Myspace of Facebook) and sports agent Mark Gilbert (not Jerry Maguire), author of “How I Helped O.J. Get Away with Murder,” published by Regnery (a conservative book publisher) link here,

I got called for jury duty four times in Dallas in the 1980s, as Texas has a “one day, one trial” system. In 1982 I was foreman of a 6-person jury that convicted someone on a weapons charge, and getting unanimity was difficult and took several hours. In 1986, I was impaneled on a civil malpractice trial, which was settled once the jury was seated. Later defense attorneys told me that the plaintiffs found out that I had quite a bit of layman’s experience with the medical issues associated with HIV, and that helped pressured them to settle.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Obama and McCain duel in Debate #2, a "Town Hall" in Tennessee


The second debate between Barack Obama and John McCain took place tonight at Belmont University in Nashville, TN (beset, incidentally, by hurricane-related gasoline shortages, not mentioned in the debate). Tom Brokaw was the moderator, and the debate had a townhall format. There were pre-selected questions answered live from the audience and from the Internet. The d├ęcor sported garish red and blue. The CNN transcript is available here.

The first question came from a retiree, and Obama said that we were in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Obama talked about failed policies of the Bush administration, with relaxed or incompetent regulation (hint: the SEC) and an ideological belief that prosperity would trickle down from the rich. McCain talked about reducing spending and taxes, but proposed that the government should buy failed mortgages to save homeowners. (“As president of the United States, Alan, I would order the secretary of the treasury to immediately buy up the bad home loan mortgages in America and renegotiate at the new value of those homes -- at the diminished value of those homes and let people be able to make those -- be able to make those payments and stay in their homes.”) McCain also attributed most of the collapse to "companies you've never heard of" -- Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

They were asked whom they would appoint to Secretary of the Treasury, and both talked about Warren Buffett, who has supported Obama.

McCain referred to the Emergency Economic Stabilization Bill as a “rescue” rather than “bailout.” Obama referred to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as special interests guilty of much corruption and misbehavior, leading to the crisis.

One question asked both candidates about sacrifice. McCain gave a rather superficial answer about cutting spending and pork. Obama reached back, and started his answer with the observation that after 9/11 Bush effectively told Americans to “go shopping.” Obama talked about personal behavior in saving energy, as well as a need for policies that emphasized green energy. He also talked about national service, at least for young adults, and doubling the size of the Peace Corps. He mentioned the sharing of burdens. But he said that 95% of Americans would have no tax cut.

Their positions on health care had not changed, and neither candidate satisfactorily explained how everyone could be covered.

On foreign affairs, Obama mentioned an Iraqi budget surplus, and re-emphasized the need to be aggressive with Pakistan in tracking down the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden.

The last question, rather Zen-like, was "What don't you know and how will you learn it?"

Another source for the debate content is C-SPAN, here.

Monday, October 06, 2008

ABC Nightline provides stinging report on Fuld's (Lehman Bros. CEO) testimony


ABC Nightline produced a stunning report tonight about the testimony of Richard S. Fuld, Jr. today before the House of Representatives. Fuld was the CEO of Lehman Brothers. Five days before its collapse on Sept. 15, he told investors that Lehman Brothers was strong. The FBI is investigating.

Some of the hearings were covered on CNN at around 1 PM for a while, and on CSPAN. Henry Waxman asked questions about Fuld’s personal wealth, even though Fuld says he did not sell his own stock in advance of the collapse. Fuld owns an apartment on Park Avenue in New York and homes in Florida and Connecticut. Fuld looked a bit dapper during the hearings.

A Congressman from Dayton Ohio (Michael Turner, Republican) queried Fuld on mortgage fraud, of which Fuld denied knowledge. But former employees of a mortgage company in California (apparently a Lehman Brothers subsidiary) told of being told to falsify applications. Another mortgage origination company called First Alliance was presented and depicted as a “sweatshop.” This is an example of "trickle down" of ethical problems to hourly and/or commissioned employees on quota.

It is possible for loan processors to falsify applications because of pressure to meet quotas. It is also possible for appraisal values to be misrepresented when the loans are packaged into securities. Congress asked about both possibilities.

As Fuld left, he was met by protestors who demanded jail for him. The protestors were shown on the Nightline report.

Other reports blame Fannie Mae, under pressure by competition from outside GSE’s, for selling toxic securities to investment banks and blowing up the whole economy. Imagine that. A whole global economy goes under because of one GSE.

There was a brief report on Palin’s suggestion of Obama’s early connection to an early radical activist.

There was also a report on a high school football team (the Whalers) in Barrow, Alaska.

ABC News's website, under Nightline, gives a link to a stunning AP story about Lehamn's funneling money to executives while seeking federal bailout.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

CBS 60 Minutes: How we almost got bin Laden; Wall Street's Shadow Market; Electric Car


CBS "60 Minutes" had three controversial segments tonight.

The most amazing was the confidential story by “Dalton Fury” (pseudonym) and Col. R. David Hunt, published (by St. Martin’s Press) in the book “Killing bin Laden: A Delta Force Commander’s Account of the Hunt for the World’s Most Wanted Man.” The report, with on location scenes of the Tora Bora area near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border (including the exactly rumpy peak on which Bin Laden was located at one point), of the ill-fated attempt to kill bin Laden in Dec. 2001. There were a couple of plans. One was to come from Pakistan across a 14000 foot ridge. Another involved setting a lot of land mines to cause injuries to his party and attract heat seeking choppers. Both plans were nixed, possibly by the President. Instead, they had to work with the CIA and local mujhadeen and locals, some of whom turned out to be loyal to bin Laden. There was a brief truce, and when they resumed they thought they had him cornered in a cave, which he bombed. But apparently Bin Laden was taken to a local house for treatment of a shoulder injury, and then carried to Pakistan. He could still be there, or conceivably could have fled south through Karachi and the Indian Ocean. Scott Pelley reported. The report showed him being covered with pasty facial makeup and fake beard disguises. The link (“Elite Officer recalls hunt for bin Laden”) is here.

Also tonight the show, Steve Kroft discussed the bailout and financial crisis with Jim Grant. (Grant’s Interest Rate Observer) and Partnoy, a former derivatives broker who showed the selling documents for derivatives of mortgage securities, many of which were contracts for subprime borrowers. They went on to discuss the credit default swaps. All of these instruments were designed by mathematical models that failed to predict how human beings really would behave. The use “swap” is used to avoid calling the security an insurance contract, which would require it to be regulated (and to express insurable interest). In the end, the story suggests that a lot of Wall Street executives just aren't good at their jobs. It's unclear whether incompetence is prosecutable as criminal neglect, even if it violates common sense. The story is called “A Look at Wall Street’s Shadow Market: How Some Arcane Wall Street Financial Instruments Magnified Economic Crisis” with link here.

Leslie Stahl also provided a report “The Race for the Electric Car”. She discussed the Roadster from Telsa Motors (with discussion of lithium battery technology), and then GM’s Chevrolet Volt, with pictures of the “opulent” Detroit headquarters of GM.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

SNL skits get to the bottom of the sub-prime mess


Anne Hathaway hosts SNL (Saturday Night Live) tonight. You know what they did, make fun of the way an entire economy can run out of money to lend just because of the mathematics of geometric progressions.

No, they used simpler language. One homeowner says something this, “I met all the qualifications. They said, this is one of those houses you live in for a while for free, and pay for later. If you can’t pay, well, you just mail the keys, or the government will pay for it. Well, and look, I really met their requirements. No job, no income, drug conviction. In the country illegally.” Well, I can’t remember the exact script. Earlier this week Ali Velshi from CNN gave Oprah a lesson in mortgages with Annie, who gets the sales talk to “buy” the house she can’t afford. Always be closing.

Seth Meyers said that OJ Simpson was convicted today for armed robbery and kidnapping and “really murder.”

Will Forte sung an ad that sounded like the free credit reports guy, explaining how democracy works. When Amy Pohler interrupted him, he said, “I assume you come from a culture where it isn’t rude to interrupt somebody who’s singing. That means you’re not American.” Will is “learning to sing” from Clay Aiken.

Seth Meyers also talked about commercial air flights in holding patterns around the Island of Lesbos.

Marcus and Jerome did their skit as pseudo-lovers, as Marcus pretends to be gay to win over a girl from Craigslist (not Myspace or Facebook). Make sense?

Katy Perry held a cat (a real cat, from Andy Samberg's "Laser Cats", not quite as big as Ellen DeGeneres's black leopard this week via Jack Hannah), and Marky Mark Wahlberg talked to the animals (like on the farm in "The Happening"). It is sort of like St, Francis talking to the birds (the Franz Liszt piano piece.)

In one of the live comedy ensembles, an actor threw up. I've never seen this happen on live television before (it happens in the movies a lot). Maybe that wasn't faked after all. The greatest dread of what could happen in a debate came true. Gwen Ifill (or her surrogate) pointed this out as the night began. She also prodded Sarah Palin aka Tina Fey about being an "outsider" and appealing to "Joe Six Pack".

“The Killers” seemed to be a quite clean cut boy band, without all the activity of the old ‘Nsync.

It seems to me that SNL could take a math lesson explaining the credit default swaps that engulfed the economy like Steve McQueen's Blob and make it funny. (What? Calculus is funny? Economics if funny?)

Barack Obama had some ads. Instead of prosperity trickling down, pain trickled up. He promised that seniors making less than $50000 won't pay any income taxes at all. Jump start the economy. Ross Perot always said, "Trickle down didn't trickle."

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Biden-Palin debate in St. Louis: Palin does well


Thursday, Oct. 2, 2008 Sarah Palin and Joseph Biden held their vice-presidential candidate debate, their only debate, at Washington University in St. Louis, MO, with Gwen Ifill as moderator. The major broadcast networks and CNN carried it.

There was a lot of anticipation of this debate, especially as a test for Palin. There were jokes in the media this morning that you have to get through a debate without “passing out” or “throwing up”. What was the old adage from a 1998 Libertarian Party email: “laugh a little, cry a little”? It’s, “Public speaking is easy.”

One of the questions is, each candidate capable of being President of the United States. There might be a particular question as to Sarah Palin (would she be a good “hire”), but she was quite lively and articulate in her answers. Her voice still kept that northern (rather Minnesota-like) accent.

One of the earliest questions concerned the financial crisis and bailout issue. Sarah Palin talked about the need for reform, but particularly that Americans want to live to learn within their means. She used the terms “Joe Six Pack” and “Soccer Moms” and that seemed a bit racy. I’ve gotten angry emails before from people who say they are “average Joes” (especially regarding how someone interpreted a comment I made about the fishermen in a movie review of “Perfect Storm” in 2000) and it seemed to me that comment could bring back that kind of emotion.

Biden said that McCain had repeatedly called for deregulation to an inappropriate degree, and that Obama was willing to regulate when there is actually a danger of economic breakdown because of the non-sustainable way some mechanism in the markets works. Conceptually, his remark is a bit disturbing if applied in other areas; Palin, I felt, was trying to reassure us that regulation should not affect the freedom of ordinary Americans to run business within the law as they see fit. Biden often called Obama “Barack”, first name basis.

Biden mentioned Republican tax breaks for ExxonMobil and wanted them to go to the middle class. He said this was not “redistribution” but “fairness.” Biden neglected to realize that many ordinary investors own oil company stock and some retirees depend on the “windfall profits” of energy to live on. (If you bought Exxon in the 1970s you did very well.)

Biden mentioned that McCain would tax employer-paid health care benefits, replacing that with a $5000 tax credit to purchase individual insurance. He says 20% of all employers “standing” would drop health insurance in that scenario.

The question of gay marriage came up in the middle of the debate. Biden said he supported absolutely equal rights in the law for gay couples, but when pressed said he did not support “gay marriage.” Does he mean equal tax and social security treatment? Palin said she was “tolerant” of people with different values (remember how Newt Gingrich had distinguished the words “tolerance” and “acceptance”), but said that marriage should be reserved for one man and one woman. When pressed, she said she would never interfere with individual rights, and that gay partners should be willing to enter into any contracts. She would not promised equal treatment under the law. She mentioned that she understood how arguments could be “nuanced”, which I took as a buzzword for “existential problems.” In the post mortem on CNN, Anderson Cooper brought this encounter up, and the panel seemed to feel that the two candidates had the same position. (They don’t.) Then they speculated that the far right on the Republican Party might criticize her (unless Log Cabin keeps them from doing so, perhaps).

On foreign affairs, Biden placed particular emphasis on the importance on bringing Pakistan under control, since it has nuclear weapons already and has rogue elements in its military. Palin sounded a little less familiar with the problems in Pakistan and Afghanistan (that’s not good – it’s the most grave risk we have, almost) and emphasized the need to complete the job in Iraq. Both candidates emphasized that Iran must not be allowed to get nuclear weapons, and both remain guarded about North Korea. Palin talked about a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine.

Biden make a comment rejecting the idea that because he is a man, he did not know how to raise two kids alone.

Palin quoted Ronald Reagan as having said, "Freedom is just one generation away from extinction."

The transcript of the date on CNN is here.

We learned on Oprah Oct 3 that Gwen Ifill conducted the debate just after having broke her ankle.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

PBS Nova: "Sputnik Declassified"


On Tuesday, Sept. 30 PBS stations, in their NOVA series, aired a one-hour film “Sputnik declassified” about a critical episode in the cold war, the space race. Sputnik I (“co-traveler”) was launched Oct 4, 1957 and was the first man-made satellite to orbit the earth. Sputnik 2, launched Nov. 3, carried a dog. The website for the film is here. Much of the material comes from formerly classified documents.

The government chose the Naval Research Laboratory’s Vanguard to be America’s first answer, but it exploded on takeoff (Dec. 6, 1957), on national television, with footage shown in the film. I recall the event, and it was very traumatic at the time for the country, which was starting to fear that the Soviets would win the space race. President Eisenhower acted as if this were the case, but was silent on the fact that the Soviets’ lead was not as great as was thought.

I also remember, in grade school, hearing in kids papers like “My Weekly Reader” about the International Geophysical Year 1957-1958, and the plan to launch satellites into space.

Vanguard 1 would eventually be launched in March 1958. But the first successful US launch would occur on Jan. 31, 1958, of JPL’s Explorer I.

The film also covered the career of Wernher von Braun, from his career in Nazi Germany, where 3200 rockets were launched, to his immigration into the United States, and his work leading to the creation of NASA in 1958.

The Sputnik affair helped jump-start a change in our national culture, where people with “book learning” and science and math were suddenly more valuable, and where conventional norms of male competition would gradually be transformed as a result, especially in the 60s.