Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A fairy tale as grim as Grimm could ever be (second reprint)

I posted this first on December 8th, 2010, and this is the second time I have reprinted it, but with every passing year, the story seems even more relevant than it did back then. DS

David Seaton's News Links
Once upon a time in a far off and pleasant land, during the reign of King George the Idiot, there lived a young man who dreamed of fame and greatness.

He yearned so long and so deeply, that the Good Fairy was moved by his constant pleading and praying and appeared before him in all her beauty and magic splendor.

"Young man," she said, "because of the depth and especially because of the unusual insistence of your desires, I have decided to grant you three wishes. After each wish I shall disappear until the wish has been granted and then return to grant your next request. Now, think hard, what is the first boon that you wish for?"

The young man thought for a moment and said, "Oh Good Fairy, I would like to write my life story and have everyone in the kingdom read it and think that I am wonderful."

"Really?" asked the Good Fairy, "Since you are very young and haven't done very much, that will be a lot of work for me... Are you sure?"

"Puhleeeeeeeeeeze!" the young man begged.

"So be it!" said the Good Fairy, and disappeared.

No sooner had the Good Fairy left then the young man sat down at his table where the few sheets of paper on it magically multiplied into hundreds, and soon a magic quill pen appeared out of thin air, and taking it in his hand he began to write well into the night, as if his hand had a life of its own, which indeed it had.

He awoke the next morning to find that a thick manuscript sat on the table before him. As in a trance he took it in his arms and presented it to a publisher, who, as if hypnotized,  immediately ordered all other work in his print shop to stop and for all the printers to work at nothing else but printing the young man's life story.

The very next day the freshly printed life story of the young man appeared in all the book shops of the land, and it sold out immediately. In no time at all the entire Kingdom could talk of little else than the young man's fascinating life story.

He sat at home enjoying his new found fame, when the Good Fairy appeared for a second time.

"It is time for your second wish." the beautiful Good Fairy said, "Have you thought of what you want to wish for?"

"As a matter of fact I have." the young man replied, "I would like a golden tongue and the power of rhetoric, so that all who hear me will be enchanted by whatever I say, no matter how pompous and platitudinous it might be".

"That won't be so difficult." the Good Fairy said, "Talk is cheap. Are you sure that is all you want?"

"Puhleeeeeeeeeeeze!" the young man implored.

"So be it!" said the Good Fairy, and disappeared.

In a short time everyone in the entire kingdom sat in awe of the young man's marvelous speeches, their mouths dropping open, while visions of sugar-plums danced their heads, as they dreamed of the beautiful land of milk and honey that the young man's golden tongue evoked. Soon crowds followed him wherever he went hanging on his every word.

The Good Fairy appeared for the third time.

"Think carefully young man" she said slowly and gravely, "This is your last wish..." She paused, "Have you decided what you want now?"

"Oh yes!" he cried out, "Old King George is abdicating... I want to be King!"

The Good Fairy looked at him steadily and for a brief instant a cloud of melancholy crossed her charming features. "Are you absolutely sure, young man? George wanted the job as much as you do and look at what a horrible time he is having, all he wants to do now is to retire into the forest and cut brush like a common wood cutter. Are you absolutely sure?"

"Puhleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeze!" the young man wailed.

She shrugged her pretty shoulders.

"So be it!" said the Good Fairy and disappeared.

No sooner than she had disappeared a great clamor rose up in the land and great cheering crowds appeared before the young man's home and he was carried on their shoulders though the gates of the palace and crowned king of the land with all pomp and splendor. Masses were sung and soldiers paraded and all was feasting and wassailing for days on end as the kingdom reveled in the joy of having such a splendid new ruler.

And then...

The magic spell wore off: the money lenders appeared with insatiable demands and the treasury was emptied by endless wars and sadness gripped the people. In the market place and in the countryside the peasants and nobles muttered and plotted against the new king. The adoring courtiers that once clustered around him, showering him with flattery, abandoned him to his fate and returned to their homes to write their memoirs.

The young man tried to speak to the people as of old, but his tongue seemed glued to his palate and nothing but mumbling issued from his mouth.

One night in the darkened palace, with his hair turned gray, he slumped on his throne in the empty throne room, abandoned by all, weeping disconsolately and ruing his fate.

"Woe is me," he sobbed, "How did I ever get into this mess?"

And then...

The Good Fairy appeared for a fourth time.

The young king fell on his knees and implored her, "Can you help me?" he groaned.

"Sorry, you're on your own now, buster", she replied, a hardness he had never seen before was in her eyes and a coldness he had never heard before was in her voice... once so sweet, now metallic. Slowly her beauty vanished and before him stood a hideous hag.

"You had your three wishes" the apparition said, "I gave you everything you asked for. You could have asked for wisdom, you could have asked for a long life and the gift of contentment, but this is what you wished for, so you have made this misery all by yourself."

"I wish I had never seen you!" the young king shouted, "I wish you didn't exist!"

"So be it." said the Good Fairy and disappeared for the last time.

Moral: Everyone has their wants and their wishes but if a fairy asks, don't tell. DS

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Obama, the (socially challenged?) president?

David Seaton's News Links
Something that has always fascinated me is how Barack Obama ever got into politics in the first place. As we have seen on many occasions, but most clearly during the shutdown, he seems to be lacking the basic tools of  common and garden variety politics: he is totally unable to get close to people on a personal level and talk them into doing what he wants them to do.

Sociability and politics go hand in hand in democracy, the knack for connecting with strangers on a human level is what democratic politics are all about and Obama seems to be lacking this basic skill most notably. 

I can imagine a North Korean "dear leader", being a trifle distant, dictators don't schmooze much, Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator, was famously frosty and aloof, but in democracy, an antisocial politician is a contradiction in terms, like a one-legged tap dancer or a tone deaf violinist.

This tone deafness is extraordinary in any professional politician: even the most modestly endowed of them, down to a town alderman, usually possess an innate ability to connect with people. Even George W. Bush, America's worst president, was able to take a bullhorn, climb up on a pile of rubble, put his arm around a fireman's shoulder and be, if only for a moment, an inspiring leader on a personal, human level.

Obama having so little natural talent for human contact, more than once has made me think that there was something "magic", truly supernatural, about his rise to power. The magic seems to have worn off nowadays, at least internationally, if the following snippets are any sample:
The Democrat, who prefers to spend his evenings with his family or alone in front of his computer, has made it no secret in Washington that he does not want to make new friends. That maxim especially applies to his foreign diplomacy. Unlike his predecessor George W. Bush, Obama is loved by the people of the world, but much less by their heads of government. On the heels of recent revelations that US spy agencies might have monitored Chancellor Merkel's cell phone, the complaints about Merkel's "lost friend" Obama are misplaced. Obama doesn't want to be a friend. During a recent visit by a European head of government to Washington, the atmosphere was described as frosty by those in the entourage from Europe. Obama didn't find the time for even a little small talk, the sources said, and "it seemed to some like an appointment with a lawyer."(...) So much non-diplomacy is new among US presidents. Reagan wooed Margaret Thatcher. George H.W. Bush confided in Helmut Kohl as Bill Clinton did in Tony Blair. George W. Bush, who many thought was an isolationist, could count on a whole team of "buddies," such as the then-prime minister of Spain, JosĂ© Aznar, and the Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. He even entertained them at his ranch in Texas. Merkel was also invited there, and in return Bush ate a dinner of wild boar in her German electoral district. The chancellor has from time to time said that she values such trans-Atlantic closeness. That is over. "Coolness has its price," Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl wrote in 2010, adding that Obama appeared to have no genuine friend among world leaders. But what for? He has the NSA.  Der Spiegel
In stark contrast to Mr Obama Merkel has a tendency to under-promise and over-deliver.(...) If the Americans really have been listening in, they might be able to confirm an interesting rumor – that Ms Merkel does not really rate President Obama and considers him to be something of a gasbag. Gideon Rachman - Financial Times
This was all well defined by Obama's lovely wife Michelle, (the best First Lady I can remember) who described him perfectly when she said, "sometimes I think Barry was raised by wolves". "politician" and "introvert" are contradictory terms.

Ironically he may go down in history as a good president for what he doesn't do, like going to war with Syria and Iran... Hillary Clinton would already be at war there if she had been elected president, not to mention either McCain or Romney. DS

Thursday, October 17, 2013

USA: the twerking hegemon

Twerking: The act of moving/ shaking ones ass/buns/bottom/buttocks/bum-bum in a circular, up-and-down, and side-to-side motion. Urban Dictionary

Congress capped off a tense and exhausting day Wednesday with back-to-back House and Senate votes on legislation to re-open the shuttered government through Jan. 15 and avert a catastrophic default on the country’s debt until at least Feb. 7. Talking Points Memo

"Brevity is the soul of wit"

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Democracy without human beings?

David Seaton's News Links
I think we can be almost grateful for the idiotic crisis in Washington, which even with its possibility of a default which may do heavy damage to the world's economy, is giving us an ample warning of a far greater crisis looming in the foreseeable future, a crisis of democracy itself.
Reading the snippets below in the order they appear will help give you the shape of what I am talking about:
During the downturn, 78% of jobs lost were either mid-wage or high-wage jobs and, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), three out of five newly created jobs are part-time, low-wage jobs. A growing number of Americans are realizing that “good jobs” aren’t coming back, and that for things to get better, they’re going to have to fight to turn their McJobs into something better. Nicole Aschoff - Dollars and Sense

W. Brian Arthur, a visiting researcher at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center’s intelligence systems lab and a former economics professor at Stanford University, calls it the “autonomous economy.” W. Brian Arthur, a visiting researcher at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center’s intelligence systems lab and a former economics professor at Stanford University, calls it the “autonomous economy.” It’s far more subtle than the idea of robots and automation doing human jobs, he says: it involves “digital processes talking to other digital processes and creating new processes,” enabling us to do many things with fewer people and making yet other human jobs obsolete. (...) And, he says, “digital versions of human intelligence” are increasingly replacing even those jobs once thought to require people. “It will change every profession in ways we have barely seen yet,” he warns. McAfee, associate director of the MIT Center for Digital Business at the Sloan School of Management(...) doesn’t see the recently vanished jobs coming back. The pressure on employment and the resulting inequality will only get worse, he suggests, as digital technologies—fueled with “enough computing power, data, and geeks”—continue their exponential advances over the next several decades. “I would like to be wrong,” he says, “but when all these science-fiction technologies are deployed, what will we need all the people for?” MIT Technology Review Magazine

"Insecurity of employment is a new strategy and a tactic for increasing profits by reducing as much as possible the reliance on human labor or by paying employees less. In the modern capitalist economy, the only factor whose productivity cannot be easily increased and whose costs cannot easily be reduced is human beings. There is therefore enormous pressure to eliminate them from the production process. This would be true, whether or not there were global competition. It is more the case that this is the excuse by which this process is justified today." Eric Hobsbawm - "The New Century", pg128

At the same time that Republicans want to increase the influence of the rich on our elections, they want to decrease the influence of the poor at the ballot box by passing a raft of new voter restrictions. This is a sinister, last-gasp move of gangsterism: when you’re losing the game, tilt the table. You must understand this larger plot to fully appreciate the Republicans’ current budget ploy. This is not so much about limiting government as it is about measuring power. Charles M. Blow - New York Times
So simply put our economic system is fast reaching a point where it can run profitably with very little human input, or put more precisely, to run profitably it must reduce human input to a minimum. Logically this process will make more and more people increasingly unhappy as it unfolds. In a democracy of universal suffrage such unhappiness would naturally have far reaching consequences as it did during the Great Depression, when it led to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "New Deal", which freed millions of Americans from despair and destitution.
Avoiding the possibility of such a new New Deal is the fundamental raison d'ĂȘtre of the radical so called "conservatives", who go under the name, "tea party" and their "fellow travelers" in the US Supreme Court.
The simple goal of those who fund all of this is to limit or neuter universal suffrage and to effectively return things to where they were in the early 19th century when only those who owned substantial property were allowed to exercise full citizenship.
This is terrible but it could be worse. In the days of the Wiemar Republic of Germany (1919-1933) the German super-rich, to avoid any danger to their power, wealth and privilege, funded one Adolph Hitler, who blamed all Germany's problems on the Jews and led the country into a disastrous war, which left Germany in smoking ruins with many millions of Germans, Jew and Gentile, soldiers and civilians, dead. However it should be noted that those super-rich German families made money before the war, during the war and even after the war and today, are still the richest people in Germany.
This goes to show that what could be a disaster for everyone else in the entire world would not necessarily be a bad outcome for the super-rich. DS

Friday, October 04, 2013

The magnificent quest for Shinola (updated)

David Seaton's News Links
This is a revised version of something I wrote a couple of years ago, which I felt that, with a few minor changes, would be more timely today than when I first wrote it.
In American-Speak someone of little understanding is said to be unable to distinguish between excrement and shoe polish, we say then that he or she "can't tell shit from Shinola." It appears that in the Occupy Wall Street movement, a perhaps critical mass of Americans have taken it upon themselves to investigate the why and the how of the odor coming from the collective "shoe" and have set about to do something about it. Not a moment too soon if the the recent antics of the Republican House of Representatives are any sort of a leading olfactory indicator of the nation's mental health. One gets the feeling that the spirit of the republic is a little like the Bruce Willis character in The Sixth Sense, he's dead but doesn't know it yet and only one small boy seems to understand the situation. Perhaps the Occupy Wall Street movement is that "small boy."
There is certainly a sense that something is terribly wrong, something mysterious, but I think it could be something quite simple, if intractable, that is afflicting the system. Like the Bruce Willis character, we really don't understand our true situation. In my opinion we are going through something similar to what the USSR went through only a little more than twenty years ago. Twenty years may seem a long time to someone under forty, but in historical terms it is nothing more than a blink of the eye. From the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 to the outbreak of World War Two in 1939 is only twenty years.
Absurd, you say, the two systems are totally different, like oil and water ... I would say that the similarities are more interesting than the differences and that America has simply been more efficient than the USSR was in resisting the same acids that are eating away at its structures in much the same way as they did at the Soviet's.
Both the USSR and the USA have relied on huge government spending to propel their economies. The role of government funded research has been essential in almost every high tech area: computers, the Internet, aviation, etc, in all of them the input of the state has been paramount. Where the United States won hands down was in turning the sophisticated technology so expensively acquired into affordable consumer products and fomenting never-never credit to keep them affordable when salaries stagnated.
"What about freedom?" you say, to which I would reply that the social control of the Soviet system was extraordinarily brutal and primitive compared to our system of social control, which is infinitely more sophisticated than theirs was. I never lived in the Soviet Union and my experience of how a well-oiled dictatorship controls public opinion comes from having lived in Franco's Spain. Franco lasted forty years and the Soviets lasted seventy. Although the USSR was communist and Spain's regime was authoritarian/fascist, the similarities in maintaining control would be great.
Under Franco, all newspapers were of course owned by people approved of by the regime, however until very late into the dictatorship, all articles appearing in them were previously censored before publication, after that any violation of the regime's standards could be punished by imprisonment and fines. There was only one television channel to begin with, later two, both state owned and censored, as were all books, stage plays and films, which were previously dubbed into Spanish. There were private radio stations, but they all connected to the state radio for all their hourly news programs. Here is something that will give you an idea of how paranoiac such a regime can be: radio dispatched taxis came into use in the USA in the late 1940s, but they were still forbidden in Spain until well after the dictator's death, as they constituted an independent communication network outside state control. There is no way that the Franco regime could have ever tolerated the Internet, cell phones, SMS or social networks.
Getting back to the Soviet Union I have read that you needed very high level permission to even have access to a photocopying machine. A system of social control cannot operate successfully in an environment of free movement of information.
This is where the USA has always been more sophisticated and effective, however, like the mysterious intruder in Edgar Allen Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death," you can run, but you can't hide and the same forces that brought down the Soviets and would have made Franco's regime impossible, have morphed under the combination of US military technology, hooked to an insatiable consumer society and are now even eating away at the American system.
As we observe in the political paralysis of today, the Founding Fathers of 18th century, WASP, America created a political structure that is not designed to reflect a society as complex and multicolored as contemporary America's has turned out to be.
The centrifugal forces of a country as huge and diverse as America's have been kept more or less under control until recently by what Edward Bernays and Walter Lippmann called, "the management of consent," that is to say the American science of public relations applied to forming public opinion. Heretofore "freedom of the press" required the money to buy a press in the first place, therefore the creation of opinion was in the safe hands of people with enough money to pay to play. The major newspapers, radio and TV networks and of course Hollywood all worked together naturally to manufacture a national opinion leading to political consensus.
Herein lies the importance of the OWS, with its 99% slogan: this is a self generating phenomenon, which has required minimal capital outlay to influence the opinion of millions of people, which is helping many millions to tell the shit from the Shinola. This is totally outside the control of those who have always manufactured consent until now. OWS is only the beginning, in a couple of years it will be looked back on tenderly like watching a home movie of a baby's first steps.
However "our" system has been reacting to this danger its own technology and marketing have produced -- again with much more sophistication than the USSR or Franco could have ever have mustered -- and under the cover of the war on terrorism, or the protection of intellectual property, is putting mechanisms in place that only await a "national emergency" to tug on our leash.
In short "shoe sniffing" is a fight that is never fully won, but never must be lost.
A toast to Shinola! DS

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Washington: insanity made simple

David Seaton's News Links
What is going on in Washington, why are the Republicans in Congress acting in what would appear to be such a suicidal fashion?
I think I have found the answer in  Mark Leibovich's "This Town", a book which I have mentioned repeatedly in recent posts.
Cutting directly to the chase: what Leibovich makes clear is that being a senator or congressman, instead of being the high point of person's career, is merely the necessary qualification, or apprenticeship, for moving up to become a millionaire lobbyist. Really it is that simple. It is called the "revolving door".
In short, not to worry, if any elected representative should happen to commit political "suicide" in a way that pleases the money, he will soon reincarnate as a successful lobbyist.
Why should the money want to paralyze the American Res Publica
Because they want to corrupt and intimidate the democratic system in such a way as to put off, or preferably, avoid permanently, a series of changes which could cost them a lot of money and entangle them in endless re-regulation and permanently cramp their style no end.
To get a handle on what is coming down the pipe that could cause the elected representatives of the people to intervene on behalf of the voters that elected them, I'm afraid gentle reader that you are going to have to take a deep breath and read carefully the following excerpts from an article in the MIT Technology Review.
The pattern is clear: as businesses generated more value from their workers, the country as a whole became richer, which fueled more economic activity and created even more jobs. Then, beginning in 2000, the lines diverge; productivity continues to rise robustly, but employment suddenly wilts. By 2011, a significant gap appears between the two lines, showing economic growth with no parallel increase in job creation.(...) the same technologies making many jobs safer, easier, and more productive were also reducing the demand for many types of human workers. (...)
A less dramatic change, but one with a potentially far larger impact on employment, is taking place in clerical work and professional services. Technologies like the Web, artificial intelligence, big data, and improved analytics—all made possible by the ever increasing availability of cheap computing power and storage capacity—are automating many routine tasks. Countless traditional white-collar jobs, such as many in the post office and in customer service, have disappeared. W. Brian Arthur, a visiting researcher at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center’s intelligence systems lab and a former economics professor at Stanford University, calls it the “autonomous economy.” It’s far more subtle than the idea of robots and automation doing human jobs, he says: it involves “digital processes talking to other digital processes and creating new processes,” enabling us to do many things with fewer people and making yet other human jobs obsolete. It is this onslaught of digital processes, says Arthur, that primarily explains how productivity has grown without a significant increase in human labor. And, he says, “digital versions of human intelligence” are increasingly replacing even those jobs once thought to require people. “It will change every profession in ways we have barely seen yet,” he warns.
McAfee, associate director of the MIT Center for Digital Business at the Sloan School of Management, (...)despite his obvious enthusiasm for the technologies,  doesn’t see the recently vanished jobs coming back. The pressure on employment and the resulting inequality will only get worse, he suggests, as digital technologies—fueled with “enough computing power, data, and geeks”—continue their exponential advances over the next several decades. “I would like to be wrong,” he says, “but when all these science-fiction technologies are deployed, what will we need all the people for?” (emphasis mine) MIT Technology Review Magazine
In short, in the foreseeable future, or the United States of America is going to turn into a nightmare of human misery something like Calcutta, or a universal Detroit, or the elected representatives of the millions of "unneeded human beings" are going to have to fund the massive government expenditures that are going to have to be made in public education, social support, socialized medicine, day care centers and public "make work" projects of all kinds. The money is cool with the nightmare scenario and like a boxer tying up his opponent in a clinch, will happily finance every nutcase and corrupt politician they can find to avoid this future sacrifice of their power, wealth and privilege.

That simple. DS