Archive for November, 2010
We brought home our new HP Photosmart Premium printer two days ago. It prints, scans, faxes and copies. Pretty cool. We installed the DVD full of software that came with the printer (and it was an immense installation). We tested the printer, but our new printer ate the copy paper. It chewed it up and ruined it. Bad start.
OK. Even good companies sometimes make defective products. It doesn’t mean that the design is bad. Sometimes it’s just an isolated bad machine. Therefore, I exchanged it for a new printer of the same model: HP Photosmart Premium printer. This one printed very nicely, including the printing of photos on special photo paper. Quite impressive.
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My law office recently moved to a new building in downtown St. Louis, Missouri. We’re now on the 17th floor, and we have unobstructed views in many directions. That led to conversations about how far we could actually see. That led to the purchase of a good set of binoculars (we bought a pair of Nikon 7223 16 x 50 mm binoculars at Amazon for about $100). We also invested in a tripod for the binoculars (another $24). This equipment has led to some rather surprising discoveries.
For instance, we can clearly see the McKinley Bridge, which is almost three miles away. Aiming upwards, we can clearly see the Chain of Rocks Bridge, which is almost ten miles away. We can clearly see the Mississippi water flowing under both of these bridges.
Looking even further in the distance, we can see several manmade structures in Alton, Illinois. That is 35 miles away by car, at least 25 miles away by air. Alton is also on the Mississippi River. We can’t see the river itself in Alton; the structures we can see are on elevated land past the river on the Illinois side. These sites are all to the north–we have yet to explore the other vistas.
I didn’t know that you could see so far with a good set of binoculars. Rumor has it that one can even see the moon, which is a quarter million miles away. More seriously, and much more impressive, I’m waiting for a clear night to train the binoculars onto Jupiter; it is apparently easy to see the four largest moons of Jupiter from Earth using only binoculars.
Back down to earth the question arises: how far can one see, before the Earth’s curvature drops the scene too far down? There are formulas to calculate this distance. Assuming the land is relatively flat, the answer depends on how high one’s eye are above the ground. Up on the 17th floor, we can supposedly see more than 16 miles over flat ground. Assuming most of that view is not blocked by other buildings, this gives us the ability to “see” (based upon the formula A= pi times r(squared). With a radius of 16, we can see an area of more than 800 square miles, an impressive area of land (I designated a reference-area based upon an 18 mile radius on the attached map).
I’ll end this post here. I’m now a king ruling over a large kingdom, and my subjects need me to keep a careful lookout.
As I’ve indicated in my previous posts, I am a practicing Roman Catholic who lives in St. Louis, Missouri. Therefore, the topic I’m addressing today is one that I find especially distressing.
An extremely conservative element in the Catholic Church seeks to re-affirm values and traditions not wholly consistent with Church doctrine and traditions. These Catholic “neo-cons” are revisionist and likely to adopt other tactics which served Karl Rove and his ilk well at forming governing majorities for the GOP. These Catholic neo-cons are trying to subvert Vatican II and also pander to the rich conservative supporters which have made up for the fall-off in the numbers of contributors to the various yearly Catholic Appeals.
The Catholic neo-cons don’t care about facts; they just spout platitudes and rely upon deliberate lies or appeals to false authority to have their way. The recent elevation of Archbishop Dolan of New York to preside over the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) instead of Archbishop Chaput, OFM. Cap. of Denver is a sign of the ascendancy of the neo-cons. So too is the recent elevation of former Archbishop of St. Louis Raymond Burke to cardinal and to head of the Vatican Courts.
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What do Wall Street Banks do for society? According to a New Yorker article called “What Good is Wall Street?,” not much. Many people assume that most of the money made by Wall Street banks is associated with raising capital for fledgling businesses. Not true:
Wall Street’s role in financing new businesses is a small portion of what it does. The market for initial public offerings (I.P.O.s) of stock by U.S. companies never fully recovered from the tech bust. During the third quarter of 2010, just thirty-three U.S. companies went public, and they raised a paltry five billion dollars. Most people on Wall Street aren’t finding the next Apple or promoting a green rival to Exxon. They are buying and selling securities that are tied to existing firms and capital projects, or to something less concrete, such as the price of a stock or the level of an exchange rate. During the past two decades, trading volumes have risen exponentially across many markets: stocks, bonds, currencies, commodities, and all manner of derivative securities. In the first nine months of this year, sales and trading accounted for thirty-six per cent of Morgan Stanley’s revenues and a much higher proportion of profits. Traditional investment banking—the business of raising money for companies and advising them on deals—contributed less than fifteen per cent of the firm’s revenue. Goldman Sachs is even more reliant on trading. Between July and September of this year, trading accounted for sixty-three per cent of its revenue, and corporate finance just thirteen per cent.
In effect, many of the big banks have turned themselves from businesses whose profits rose and fell with the capital-raising needs of their clients into immense trading houses whose fortunes depend on their ability to exploit day-to-day movements in the markets . . . Other regulators have gone further. Lord Adair Turner, the chairman of Britain’s top financial watchdog, the Financial Services Authority, has described much of what happens on Wall Street and in other financial centers as “socially useless activity”—a comment that suggests it could be eliminated without doing any damage to the economy. . . “Why on earth should finance be the biggest and most highly paid industry when it’s just a utility, like sewage or gas?” Woolley said to me when I met with him in London. “It is like a cancer that is growing to infinite size, until it takes over the entire body.”
Yet Wall Street is where great amounts of money exist, and that is why many of America’s best and brightest are flocking there to engage in careers of . . . well . . . making money.
A starting point for this article is that financial markets are grossly inefficient, and that instead of directing money into productive projects, Wall Street financiers follow trends and “surf bubbles.”
These activities shift capital into projects that have little or no long-term value, such as speculative real-estate developments in the swamps of Florida. Rather than acting in their customers’ best interests, financial institutions may peddle opaque investment products, like collateralized debt obligations. Privy to superior information, banks can charge hefty fees and drive up their own profits at the expense of clients who are induced to take on risks they don’t fully understand—a form of rent seeking.
I’ve been hesitant to write about this, because the tendency to indulge self pity creeps in around the edges. I’m hesitant because for me this is personal. But in the past year we’ve seen a rise in attention being paid to a great human tradition—bullying.
A gay youth outed by his peers committed suicide. Other gays under a microscope all over the country have found themselves driven to the edge. National “movements” to deal with this problem have sprung up like mushrooms after a spring rain. The last time we witnessed this level of discussion about bullying was after a couple of disaffected youths murdered several of their peers at their high school and then took their own lives, leaving behind ample testaments that what had driven them to do this had been years of bullying.
A recent episode of Glee dealt with the subject, the lone out gay boy in the school having come under the daily assault by an oversized pituitary case who, for no apparent reason, had decided to make life hell for the outsider.
I suppose it was this episode that prompted me to write about this. Because it indulged some pop psychology, which I stress is not baseless, to explain the bully’s behavior—he, too, was a closeted gay who hated himself for it. The idea being that we hate that which we are which we cannot accept in ourselves.
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During a recent visit with my 12-year old daughter’s science teacher, I mentioned that I had read a few books on cell biology over the past couple of years and that I was interested in sitting in on one of the upcoming sixth grade science classes–my daughter had mentioned that they were beginning to study cell biology. I mentioned a few of the things that I had found interesting about cells to the science teacher. After noticing my enthusiasm, she retracted her invitation to watch the class and, instead, invited me to teach part of the class. A few days later I made my science teaching debut.
I advised the sixth-graders that although I work as a lawyer during the day, I often read science books, and I often write about science on my website. I told them that I had no serious science education at the Catholic grade school I attended. I didn’t have any biology class at all until I was a sophomore in high school. That was mostly a nuts and bolts class taught by a Catholic nun who failed show the excitement the subject deserved. She also forgot to teach by Theodosius Dobzhansky’s maxim that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”
I told “my” class that anyone who studies cells with any care will be greatly rewarded. Studying cells is actually autobiographical because “you are made of 60 trillion of cells.” These cells are so small that people cannot even see them.
One of the students then confused trillions for millions. “Keep in mind,” I cautioned, “that a trillion is a million million.” With regard to their size, there is only one human cell–the human ovum–that you can see with the naked eye—it is much bigger than the other cells in your body. Despite its tiny size, the human ovum is so incredibly small that it’s smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. See this wonderful illustration of the size of human cells, and many other small objects.
The volume of a eukaryotic cell is typically 1000 times larger than that of a prokaryotic one.
I told the students that the study of cells is autobiographical “because each of you is a community of cells. You are a self-organized community.”
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Michael Moore is well acquainted the the track record of corporations who want to spread misinformation in order to crank up profits:
[W]hen “Sicko” was being released in 2007, the health insurance industry’s PR firm, APCO Worldwide, discussed their Plan B: “Pushing Michael Moore off a cliff.” But after looking into it, it turns out it’s nothing personal! APCO wants to push everyone off a cliff.
APCO was hatched in 1984 as a subsidiary of the Washington, D.C. law firm Arnold & Porter — best known for its years of representing the giant tobacco conglomerate Philip Morris. APCO set up fake “grassroots” organizations around the country to do the bidding of Big Tobacco. All of a sudden, “normal, everyday, in-no-way-employed-by-Philip Morris Americans” were popping up everywhere. And it turned out they were outraged — outraged! — by exactly the things APCO’s clients hated (such as, the government telling tobacco companies what to do). In particular, they were “furious” that regular people had the right to sue big corporations…you know, like Philip Morris. (For details, see the 2000 report “The CALA Files” (PDF) by my friends and colleagues Carl Deal and Joanne Doroshow.)
Right about now you may be wondering: how many Americans get pushed off a cliff by Big Tobacco every year? The answer is 443,000 Americans die every year due to smoking. That’s a big cliff.
With this success under their belts, APCO created “The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition.” TASSC, funded partly by Exxon, had a leading role in a planned campaign by the fossil fuel industry to create doubt about global warming. The problem for Big Oil speaking out against global warming, according to the campaign’s own leaked documents, was that the public could see the “vested interest” that oil companies had in opposing environmental laws. APCO’s job was to help conceal those oil company interests.
And boy, have they ever succeeded.
Philosopher of Art Dennis Dutton gives a succinct description of art as a Darwinian concept. He begins his well illustrated talk by noting that many disparate things are seen to be “beautiful,” most of those cross-culturally. What is it about all beautiful things? For instance, we all prefer landscapes with trees, water, animal and plant life and paths extending into the distance. This preference is universal, and this type of landscape has been termed the “ideal landscape.” It also offers protection, water and food.
Dutton argues that beauty is an adaptive effect that we extend and intensify in the enjoyment of works of art and entertainment. Natural selection explains many of out attractions and repulsions in art. But Darwin’s theory of sexual selection is equally applicable; it functions as fitness signals. This function goes all the way back to pre-lingual hand-axes, many of which have been intricately carved and never used to actually cut anything. They did serve, however, as a display of competence, and that is yet another universal aspect of beauty: Beauty is the appreciation of something well done. Lovers of beauty especially love virtuoso performances.
So Sarah Palin tells Barabara Walters that she believes she could beat President Obama in 2012.
Now, she has a big following, which I understand has extended to her daughter Bristol on Dancing With The Stars. I don’t watch the show, so I can’t say for sure, but if my Facebook friends are any indicator, Bristol’s longevity on the show is due solely to the fans (I hear Tea Party?) and not due to her skill as a dancer. I also understand that both Bristol and Willow demonstrated less than cultured restraint when Facebook commenters dissed the new reality show that attracted considerable viewers, but we’ll not let the children as a reflection on the character of the parents come into this discussion (more than I’ve already introduced.) Nonetheless, that following has significant influence on popular culture. Can it have similar influence on political culture?
Let’s examine the hypothetical possibility that Ms. Palin might somehow get elected. Who would be her handler? That’s a question I cannot answer, and wonder if DI readers might have a thought on the matter.
As far as I can tell from what I’ve seen and what I’ve read, she has virtually no knowledge of national security, foreign policy, how Washington works…..pretty much any clue about governance on a federal level. (Opinion, folks. Let it pass with the hypothesis.) Governors are like that. George W. Bush was an exception, having grown up around it, but then he also had Karl Rove. Bill Clinton was also an exception, but then he had been around major politics for a long time prior to his election in 1992. He was and remains a naturally skilled politician that managed to navigate the warrens of D.C. that President Carter couldn’t (familiarity with warrens?) Reagan had national presence and a loyal group of advisors. Carter had virtually no national experience and it showed in some of his decisions, but he attacked Washington in his campaign (sound familiar) and as we all know, won.
So who does Sarah have? Karl Rove is less than supportive (if you read Media Matters) and probably would not be on hand to advise her. Randy Scheunemann is her foreign policy advisor. Andrew Davis is her political (campaign) advisor. Kim Daniels (legal?), and Fred Malek (financial advisor?), Bill Kristol (The weekly Standard editor and press secretary?) have all been linked in the press, but according to a NY Times article are no longer in daily contact.
So if the hypothetical could happen (remember, a professional actor got elected) and the Mayans were wrong, neglecting the very possibility that her own party would resist inanity (please! it’s hypothetical) thus rendering her ineffective…
…who would advise her so that we don’t go down in flames while she learns the ropes?