Friday, September 30, 2011


Peter Clark . Mott Street Dash, 2011. Found vintage paper collage.

It Knows

by Daniel Soar

This spring, the billionaire Eric Schmidt announced that there were only four really significant technology companies: Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google, the company he had until recently been running. People believed him. What distinguished his new ‘gang of four’ from the generation it had superseded – companies like Intel, Microsoft, Dell and Cisco, which mostly exist to sell gizmos and gadgets and innumerable hours of expensive support services to corporate clients – was that the newcomers sold their products and services to ordinary people. Since there are more ordinary people in the world than there are businesses, and since there’s nothing that ordinary people don’t want or need, or can’t be persuaded they want or need when it flashes up alluringly on their screens, the money to be made from them is virtually limitless. Together, Schmidt’s four companies are worth more than half a trillion dollars. The technology sector isn’t as big as, say, oil, but it’s growing, as more and more traditional industries – advertising, travel, real estate, used cars, new cars, porn, television, film, music, publishing, news – are subsumed into the digital economy. Schmidt, who as the ex-CEO of a multibillion-dollar corporation had learned to take the long view, warned that not all four of his disruptive gang could survive. So – as they all converge from their various beginnings to compete in the same area, the place usually referred to as ‘the cloud’, a place where everything that matters is online – the question is: who will be the first to blink?

If the company that falters is Google, it won’t be because it didn’t see the future coming. Of Schmidt’s four technology juggernauts, Google has always been the most ambitious, and the most committed to getting everything possible onto the internet, its mission being ‘to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’. Its ubiquitous search box has changed the way information can be got at to such an extent that ten years after most people first learned of its existence you wouldn’t think of trying to find out anything without typing it into Google first. Searching on Google is automatic, a reflex, just part of what we do. But an insufficiently thought-about fact is that in order to organise the world’s information Google first has to get hold of the stuff. And in the long run ‘the world’s information’ means much more than anyone would ever have imagined it could. It means, of course, the totality of the information contained on the World Wide Web, or the contents of more than a trillion webpages (it was a trillion at the last count, in 2008; now, such a number would be meaningless). But that much goes without saying, since indexing and ranking webpages is where Google began when it got going as a research project at Stanford in 1996, just five years after the web itself was invented. It means – or would mean, if lawyers let Google have its way – the complete contents of every one of the more than 33 million books in the Library of Congress or, if you include slightly varying editions and pamphlets and other ephemera, the contents of the approximately 129,864,880 books published in every recorded language since printing was invented. It means every video uploaded to the public internet, a quantity – if you take the Google-owned YouTube alone – that is increasing at the rate of nearly an hour of video every second.

It means the location of businesses, religious institutions, schools, libraries, community centres and hospitals worldwide – a global Yellow Pages. It means the inventories of shops, the archives of newspapers, the minute by minute performance of the stock market. It means, or will mean, if Google keeps going, the exact look of every street corner and roadside on the planet, photographed in high resolution and kept as up to date as possible: the logic, if not yet the practice, of Google Street View, means that city streets should be under ever more regular photographic surveillance, since the fresher and more complete the imagery the more useful people will find it, and the more they will therefore use it.[1] If it doesn’t already have a piece of data, you can be sure that Google is pursuing a way of getting it, of gathering and sorting every kind of public information there is.

But all this is just the stuff that Google makes publicly searchable, or ‘universally accessible’. It’s only a small fraction of the information it actually possesses. I know that Google knows, because I’ve looked it up, that on 30 April 2011 at 4.33 p.m. I was at Willesden Junction station, travelling west. It knows where I was, as it knows where I am now, because like many millions of others I have an Android-powered smartphone with Google’s location service turned on. If you use the full range of its products, Google knows the identity of everyone you communicate with by email, instant messaging and phone, with a master list – accessible only by you, and by Google – of the people you contact most. If you use its products, Google knows the content of your emails and voicemail messages (a feature of Google Voice is that it transcribes messages and emails them to you, storing the text on Google servers indefinitely). If you find Google products compelling – and their promise of access-anywhere, conflagration and laptop-theft-proof document creation makes them quite compelling – Google knows the content of every document you write or spreadsheet you fiddle or presentation you construct. If as many Google-enabled robotic devices get installed as Google hopes, Google may soon know the contents of your fridge, your heart rate when you’re exercising, the weather outside your front door, the pattern of electricity use in your home.

Google knows or has sought to know, and may increasingly seek to know, your credit card numbers, your purchasing history, your date of birth, your medical history, your reading habits, your taste in music, your interest or otherwise (thanks to your searching habits) in the First Intifada or the career of Audrey Hepburn or flights to Mexico or interest-free loans, or whatever you idly speculate about at 3.45 on a Wednesday afternoon. Here’s something: if you have an Android phone, Google can guess your home address, since that’s where your phone tends to be at night. I don’t mean that in theory some rogue Google employee could hack into your phone to find out where you sleep; I mean that Google, as a system, explicitly deduces where you live and openly logs it as ‘home address’ in its location service, to put beside the ‘work address’ where you spend the majority of your daytime hours.

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Friday Book Club - A River Runs Through It

Just as Norman Maclean writes at the end of "A River Runs through It" that he is "haunted by waters," so have readers been haunted by his novella. A retired English professor who began writing fiction at the age of 70, Maclean produced what is now recognized as one of the classic American stories of the twentieth century. Originally published in 1976, A River Runs through It and Other Stories now celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary, marked by this new edition that includes a foreword by Annie Proulx.

Maclean grew up in the western Rocky Mountains in the first decades of the twentieth century. As a young man he worked many summers in logging camps and for the United States Forest Service. The two novellas and short story in this collection are based on his own experiences—the experiences of a young man who found that life was only a step from art in its structures and beauty. The beauty he found was in reality, and so he leaves a careful record of what it was like to work in the woods when it was still a world of horse and hand and foot, without power saws, "cats," or four-wheel drives. Populated with drunks, loggers, card sharks, and whores, and set in the small towns and surrounding trout streams and mountains of western Montana, the stories concern themselves with the complexities of fly fishing, logging, fighting forest fires, playing cribbage, and being a husband, a son, and a father.

By turns raunchy, poignant, caustic, and elegiac, these are superb tales which express, in Maclean's own words, "a little of the love I have for the earth as it goes by." A first offering from a 70-year-old writer, the basis of a top-grossing movie, and the first original fiction published by the University of Chicago Press, A River Runs through It and Other Stories has sold more than a million copies. As Proulx writes in her foreword to this new edition, "In 1990 Norman Maclean died in body, but for hundreds of thousands of readers he will live as long as fish swim and books are made."

"Altogether beautiful in the power of its feeling. . . . As beautiful as anything in Thoreau or Hemingway."—Alfred Kazin, Chicago Tribune Book World

"It is an enchanted tale. . . . I have read the story three times now, and each time it seems fuller."— Roger Sale, New York Review of Books

"Maclean's book—acerbic, laconic, deadpan—rings out of a rich American tradition that includes Mark Twain, Kin Hubbard, Richard Bissell, Jean Shepherd, and Nelson Algren. I love its sound."—James R. Frakes, New York Times Book Review

"The title novella is the prize. . . . Something unique and marvelous: a story that is at once an evocation of nature's miracles and realities and a probing of human mysteries. Wise, witty, wonderful, Maclean spins his tales, casts his flies, fishes the rivers and the woods for what he remembers from his youth in the Rockies."—Publishers Weekly

"Ostensibly a 'fishing story,' 'A River Runs through It' is really an autobiographical elegy that captivates readers who have never held a fly rod in their hand. In it the art of casting a fly becomes a ritual of grace, a metaphor for man's attempt to move into nature."—Andrew Rosenheim, The Independent


As Long As We Both Shall Love

by Mary Elizabeth Williams

When you live in a place with a 50 percent divorce rate, is "till death do you part" even a realistic concept? In a radical rethinking of matrimony, Mexico City's assembly is mulling a proposed civil code reform that would enable the city to issue marriage licenses with time limits.

The idea, explains assemblyman Leonel Luna, is to help couples avoid "the tortuous process of divorce." Instead, couples could opt for a renewable contract for a minimum two-year term, complete with provisions for the division of assets and custody of children. "If the relationship is not stable or harmonious," Luna says, "the contract simply ends." Luna says there could be a vote on the new marriage contracts by the end of the year.

Unsurprisingly, the Catholic Church, still fired up over Mexico City legalizing same-sex unions in 2009, is none too pleased with the move. Mexican archdiocese spokesman Hugo Valdemar told Reuters this week that "This reform is absurd. It contradicts the nature of marriage. It's another one of these electoral theatrics the assembly tends to do that are irresponsible and immoral." Because anything other than a lifetime binding contract between a man and woman is hooey!

There's something irresistible about the notion of a love that can last forever. But matrimony has always existed as both a business relationship as well as a romantic one. Sure, plenty of arranged marriages have led to deep and lasting love, but they've also been built on practical social alliances between families. The blending of fortunes, the rearing of children -- they all factor into the culture of marriage.  It's not just about eternal ardor. So why not make it easier for couples to openly acknowledge another practical aspect of marriage – that it doesn't always last until one person gets the privilege of burying the other one?

Love, even under the best of circumstances, is not a static condition. Even if you're with the same person, the relationship you're in at 24 isn't the one you're going to be in at 64. And though it may sound harsh to subject it to periodic review, there is in fact both a pleasantly incentivizing reason to do so and a luxuriously liberating one as well. Think of any couple you've ever known -- or possibly participated in -- in which domesticity was taken as Let Yourself Go pass. Partnered life doesn't have the urgent frisson of early dating, but it's not an excuse to stop putting in the work, either. How different might the experience of marriage be if both participants in it were subject to periodic, mutual review? The chance to say, here's what's working, here's what's changed, here's what needs improvement? The opportunity, even, to say, maybe it's time to move on? Why not acknowledge that a great five-year run could be more satisfying than a 30-year sentence? After all, we leave jobs and houses and quietly distance ourselves from old friends all the time, and it's rarely considered failure. Instead it's understood to be part of growth and the nature of life. So why is permanence so highly prized? Why is endurance equated with commitment?

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Current Events: Eurozone Crisis

[ed.  There's so much economic news coming out today (nearly all bad) that I hardly know what to highlight (see also, the California and Bust post below).  We'll start with this article, by Pippa Malmgren.]

by Pippa Malmgren

News to expect in the coming days and weeks:
  • Greece defaults
  • Germany protects German banks but other countries cannot do the same thus quickly provoking multiple sovereign defaults and or bank failures, all of which may easily lead to a payments crisis in the global banking system. Derivatives are particularly at risk in terms of operation and execution.
  • The Euro falls in value especially against the US dollar
  • The Germans announce they are re-introducing the Deutschmark. They have already ordered the new currency and asked that the printers hurry up.
  • The Euro falls even more on any news that Germany is withdrawing from the Euro.
  •  Legal wrangling begins as to the legality of Germany’s decision. Resolution takes years.
  • Germany insists that the Euro continues to exist even they do not use it any longer. They emphasize that European unification will continue and suggest new legal instruments to strengthen European Unification including new EU Treaties.
The markets are focused on the imminent default by Greece. But, this is not the most important issue now. The historic development the markets have not priced in as that Germany is preparing to exit the Euro. The markets are very likely to have to contend with the re-introduction of Deutsche Marks in the near future. This is bound to mean a collapse in the value of the Euro for those countries that will remain in it (devaluation for the rest of Europe). This step may seem unthinkable but, I believe that the German government is telling us in multiple ways that there is no other solution from their point of view. It is also why you will hear various policymakers at the G7 meeting his weekend echo Christine Lagard’s comment that the world economy is entering a "dangerous new phase."[i] This was certainly the atmosphere at Jackson Hole where policymakers openly talked about entering a period of history where we would face challenges beyond the scope of anything we have seen in our careers. 

The Vice Chancellor of Germany, Philip Roesler[ii], gave a speech on September 11th in which he said there will be no more bailouts and any German politician who approves a single Euro for the debt problem of another European nation will not survive in office.  This is consistent with a German poll over the weekend that shows more than 70% of Germans oppose any more transfer of German wealth to nations with debt problems.

Please note his specific language: "Roesler told the Monday edition of Germany's Welt daily there should be "no limits to thinking" of possible scenarios of how to end the euro crisis."[iii]

The Germans have already concluded that if they are going to write any further checks then they are going to write them to their domestic institutions and protect their domestic investors.  Necessarily, this means that many Eurozone countries will default on their debt. It now seems this will happen within a matter of days. Germany has, therefore, already announced its intention to ring-fence and support their own banks and only their own. This may ultimately involve the nationalization of some or even all the German banks. This is necessary because a falling Euro will further weaken the ability of the other Eurozone members to meet their commitments and thus increases the risk of multiple sovereign defaults. Eurozone countries that are going to default will do so virtually simultaneously rather than sequentially.

Eurozone countries may or may not have the resources to nationalize their banks. Therefore, we have to expect that bank failures are a real possibility. Apparently, the Europeans are warning the US to come up with a plan to nationalize Bank of America given that it is already in a precarious position, despite the injection of capital from Warren Buffet. The multiple lawsuits against Bofa and other banks alone will render the US banking system vulnerable to any dramatic announcement out of Europe. But, no doubt US banks have immense exposures to European institutions and some may even have sovereign credit risk directly on their balance sheets.

It is hard to overestimate the shock that this will bring to the financial markets.  Risk aversion will set in quickly as people start to consider the multiple possible consequences, some unintended, of such a decision. Huge fortunes will be made and lost in this moment in history.

It is worth providing a review of the evidence that led me to this conclusion.

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Thursday, September 29, 2011

California and Bust

[ed.  Great article on a lot of different levels.  What's even scarier is that these isssues are just the tip of the iceberg; the structural and social upheaval that'll likely occur will be immense.  Be sure to click on 'Single Page' at the bottom for easier reading.]

The smart money says the U.S. economy will splinter, with some states thriving, some states not, and all eyes are on California as the nightmare scenario. After a hair-raising visit with former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who explains why the Golden State has cratered, Michael Lewis goes where the buck literally stops—the local level, where the likes of San Jose mayor Chuck Reed and Vallejo fire chief Paige Meyer are trying to avert even worse catastrophes and rethink what it means to be a society.

by Michael Lewis

On August 5, 2011, moments after the U.S. government watched a rating agency lower its credit rating for the first time in American history, the market for U.S. Treasury bonds soared. Four days later, the interest rates paid by the U.S. government on its new 10-year bonds were plummeting on their way to record lows. The price of gold rose right alongside the price of U.S. Treasury bonds, but the prices of virtually all stocks and other bonds in rich Western countries went into a free fall. The net effect of a major U.S. rating agency’s saying that the U.S. government was less likely than before to repay its debts was to lower the cost of borrowing for the U.S. government and to raise it for everyone else. This told you a lot of what you needed to know about the ability of the U.S. government to live beyond its means: it had, for the moment, a blank check. The shakier the United States government appeared, up to some faraway point, the more cheaply it would be able to borrow. It wasn’t exposed yet to the same vicious cycle that threatened the financial life of European countries: a moment of doubt leads to higher borrowing costs, which leads to greater doubt and even higher borrowing costs, and so on until you become Greece. The fear that the United States might actually not pay back the money it had borrowed was still unreal.

On December 14, 2010, the television news program 60 Minutes aired a 14-minute piece about U.S. state and local finances. Correspondent Steve Kroft interviewed a private Wall Street analyst named Meredith Whitney, who, back in 2007, had gone from being obscure to famous when she correctly suggested that Citigroup’s losses in U.S. subprime bonds were far bigger than anyone imagined, and predicted the bank would be forced to cut its dividend. The 60 Minutes segment noted that U.S. state and local governments faced a collective annual deficit of roughly half a trillion dollars, adding that another trillion-dollar gap existed between what the governments owed retired workers and the money they had on hand to pay them. Whitney pointed out that even these numbers were unreliable, and probably optimistic, as the states did a poor job of providing information about their finances to the public. New Jersey governor Chris Christie concurred with her and added, “At this point, if it’s worse, what’s the difference?” The bill owed by American states to retired American workers was so large that it couldn’t be paid, whatever the amount. At the end of the piece, Kroft asked Whitney what she thought about the ability and willingness of the American states to repay their debts. She didn’t see a real risk that the states would default, because the states had the ability to push their problems down to counties and cities. But at these lower levels of government, where American life was lived, she thought there would be serious problems. “You could see 50 to a hundred sizable defaults, [maybe] more,” she said. A minute later Kroft returned to her to ask when people should start worrying about a crisis in local finances. “It’ll be something to worry about within the next 12 months,” she said.

That prophecy turned out to be self-fulfilling: people started worrying about U.S. municipal finance the minute the words were out of her mouth. The next day the municipal-bond market tanked. It kept falling right through the next month. It fell so far, and her prediction received so much attention, that money managers who had put clients into municipal bonds felt compelled to hire more people to analyze states and cities, to prove her wrong. (One of them called it “the Meredith Whitney Municipal Bond Analyst Full Employment Act.”) Inside the financial world a new literature was born, devoted to persuading readers that Meredith Whitney didn’t know what she was talking about. She was vulnerable to the charge: up until the moment she appeared on 60 Minutes she had, so far as anyone knew, no experience at all of U.S. municipal finance. Many of the articles attacking her accused her of making a very specific forecast—as many as a hundred defaults within a year!—that failed to materialize. (Sample Bloomberg News headline: meredith whitney loses credibility as muni defaults fall 60%.) The whirlwind thrown up by the brief market panic sucked in everyone who was anywhere near municipal finance. The nonpartisan, dispassionate, sober-minded Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in Washington, D.C., even released a statement saying that there was a “mistaken impression that drastic and immediate measures are needed to avoid an imminent fiscal meltdown.” This was treated in news accounts as a response to Meredith Whitney, as she was the only one in sight who could be accused of having made such a prediction.

But that’s not at all what she had said: her words were being misrepresented so that her message might be more easily attacked. “She was referring to the complacency of the ratings agencies and investment advisers who say there is nothing to worry about,” said a person at 60 Minutes who reviewed the transcripts of the interview for me, to make sure I had heard what I thought I had heard. “She says there is something to worry about, and it will be apparent to everyone in the next 12 months.”

Whatever else she had done, Meredith Whitney had found the pressure point in American finance: the fear that American cities would not pay back the money they had borrowed. The market for municipal bonds, unlike the market for U.S. government bonds, spooked easily. American cities and states were susceptible to the same cycle of doom that had forced Greece to seek help from the International Monetary Fund. All it took to create doubt and raise borrowing costs for states and cities was for a woman with no standing in the municipal-bond market to utter a few sentences on television. That was the amazing thing: she had offered nothing to back up her statement. She’d written a massive, detailed report on state and local finances, but no one except a handful of her clients had any idea what was in it. “If I was a real nasty hedge-fund guy,” one hedge-fund manager put it to me, “I’d sit back and say, ‘This is a herd of cattle that can be stampeded.’ ”

What Meredith Whitney was trying to say was more interesting than what she was accused of saying. She didn’t actually care all that much about the municipal-bond market, or how many cities were likely to go bankrupt. The municipal-bond market was a dreary backwater. As she put it, “Who cares about the stinking muni-bond market?” The only reason she had stumbled into that market was that she had come to view the U.S. national economy as a collection of regional economies. To understand the regional economies, she had to understand how state and local governments were likely to behave, and to understand this she needed to understand their finances. Thus she had spent two unlikely years researching state and local finance. “I didn’t have a plan to do this,” she said. “Not one of my clients asked for it. I only looked at this because I needed to understand it myself. How it started was with a question: How can G.D.P. [gross domestic product] estimates be so high when the states that outperformed the U.S. economy during the boom were now underperforming the U.S. economy—and they were 22 percent of that economy?” It was a good question.

From 2002 to 2008, the states had piled up debts right alongside their citizens’: their level of indebtedness, as a group, had almost doubled, and state spending had grown by two-thirds. In that time they had also systematically underfunded their pension plans and other future liabilities by a total of nearly $1.5 trillion. In response, perhaps, the pension money that they had set aside was invested in ever riskier assets. In 1980 only 23 percent of state pension money had been invested in the stock market; by 2008 the number had risen to 60 percent. To top it off, these pension funds were pretty much all assuming they could earn 8 percent on the money they had to invest, at a time when the Federal Reserve was promising to keep interest rates at zero. Toss in underfunded health-care plans, a reduction in federal dollars available to the states, and the depression in tax revenues caused by a soft economy, and you were looking at multi-trillion-dollar holes that could be dealt with in only one of two ways: massive cutbacks in public services or a default—or both. Whitney thought default unlikely, at least at the state level, because the state could bleed the cities of money to pay off its bonds. The cities were where the pain would be felt most intensely. “The scary thing about state treasurers,” she said, “is that they don’t know the financial situation in their own municipalities.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because I asked them!”

All states may have been created equal, but they were equal no longer. The states that had enjoyed the biggest boom were now facing the biggest busts. “How does the United States emerge from the credit crisis?” Whitney asked herself. “I was convinced—because the credit crisis had been so different from region to region—that it would emerge with new regional strengths and weaknesses. Companies are more likely to flourish in the stronger states; the individuals will go to where the jobs are. Ultimately, the people will follow the companies.” The country, she thought, might organize itself increasingly into zones of financial security and zones of financial crisis. And the more clearly people understood which zones were which, the more friction there would be between the two. (“Indiana is going to be like, ‘N.F.W. I’m bailing out New Jersey.’ ”) As more and more people grasped which places had serious financial problems and which did not, the problems would only increase. “Those who have money and can move do so,” Whitney wrote in her report to her Wall Street clients, “those without money and who cannot move do not, and ultimately rely more on state and local assistance. It becomes effectively a ‘tragedy of the commons.’ ”

The point of Meredith Whitney’s investigation, in her mind, was not to predict defaults in the municipal-bond market. It was to compare the states with one another so that they might be ranked. She wanted to get a sense of who in America was likely to play the role of the Greeks, and who the Germans. Of who was strong, and who weak. In the process she had, in effect, unearthed America’s scariest financial places.

“So what’s the scariest state?” I asked her.

She had to think for only about two seconds.


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Art Streiber

Banks to Make Customers Pay Fee for Using Debit Cards

[ed.  I plan on visiting my local credit union next week.  I know it'll be a pain in the ass reassigning all my auto-pay accounts, but that's a short-term irritant compared to the incessant rip off schemes these banks come up with nearly every month.  Now, if there were just a credit union option for my cable company.]
by Tara Siegel Bernard and Ben Protess

Bank of America, the nation’s biggest bank, said on Thursday that it planned to start charging customers a $5 monthly fee when they used their debit cards for purchases. It was just one of several new charges expected to hit consumers as new regulations crimp banks’ profits.

Wells Fargo and Chase are testing $3 monthly debit card fees. Regions Financial, based in Birmingham, Ala., plans to start charging a $4 fee next month, while SunTrust, another regional powerhouse, is charging a $5 fee.

The round of new charges stems from a rule, which takes effect on Saturday, that limits the fees that banks can levy on merchants every time a consumer uses a debit card to make a purchase. The rule, known as the Durbin amendment, after its sponsor Senator Richard J. Durbin, is a crucial part of the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul law.

Until now, the fees have been 44 cents a transaction, on average. The Federal Reserve in June agreed to cut the fees to a maximum of about 24 cents. While the fee amounts to pennies per swipe, it rapidly adds up across millions of transactions. The new limit is expected to cost the banks about $6.6 billion in revenue a year, beginning in 2012, according to Javelin Strategy and Research. That comes on top of another loss, of $5.6 billion, from new rules restricting overdraft fees, which went into effect in July 2010.

And even though retailer groups had argued that lower fees were important to keep prices in check, consumers were not likely to see substantial savings. In fact, they are simply going to end up paying from a different pot of money.

Or as Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, put it after passage last year of the Dodd-Frank Act, “If you’re a restaurant and you can’t charge for the soda, you’re going to charge more for the burger.”

Chase is now charging customers for a paper statement. It also, like many other banks, scrapped its debit card rewards program. And customers that Chase inherited from Washington Mutual no longer enjoy free checking accounts.

The bank is also exploring a number of other fee increases, including for online banking, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

Bank of America’s debit fee is steeper than most of its competitors’, reflecting the broader challenges the bank is facing after the financial crisis. The bank has introduced an online-only account that charges customers for doing business at a local branch. It also plans to apply its new debit card fees to anyone who uses the card to make recurring payments like gym fees or cable bills.

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photo: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters, via NY Times

Hecho en América

by Jeanne Marie Laskas

Pedro awoke suddenly in the middle of the night, his eyes on fire. Out of nowhere—sharp, blazing pain. He sat up, rubbed his face, kept trying to unglue his eyes. He reached for his dad or his brother, fumbling frantically in the darkness of the damp tent. "Daddy! Juan! Daddy!"

Juan is Pedro's twin. They are exact replicas: slim, brown, shy, equally oblivious to the powers of their teen-idol good looks—the kind of twins who can survive by bamboozling people, taking tests and talking to girls for each other. Juan felt Pedro's panic as if it was his own. He grabbed a flashlight. "Daddy!" he hollered, waking his father, who reached into the light and pried open one of Pedro's eyes. It was yellow, the eyeball hidden beneath a thick curtain of pus."I can't see!" Pedro screamed. "Daddy, I can't see."

There are systems in place, of course—family doctors, pharmacies, and twenty-four-hour urgent-care centers. But a lot of those amenities are not immediately within reach if you're a migrant worker living out of your car, sleeping beside a field of blueberries. Perhaps you should have made preparations for your kid waking up blind, but you didn't. You just didn't. Urbano, a compact, worn-out version of his sons, sat in the tent wondering what to do. It was nearly 4 A.M., and Consuelo, on the other side of camp, would be up soon to start the biscuits and the soup. Urbano told theboys to stay in the tent, to be quiet and wait. They shouldn't disturb anyone. That was how he taught them. Keep a low profile. Don't ever make a scene. Not even if someone robs your tent; just hide your money better next time. If the family in the cabin next door is drunk and fighting and you can't sleep, put earplugs in. If the rain soaks your bedroll, get up and sleep in the car.

Surely someone in Consuelo's huge clan—thirteen people crammed into two cabins—would know what to do for Pedro. So Urbano hushed his son, wrapped his arms around him, and rocked him, even though at 14, Pedro was way too old for something like that. "Shshshsh," Urbano said, swaying back and forth, his mind soon rolling with the thoughts that can rattle like loose cargo in the back of his head. He was a man who had awakened to a thousand mornings of bad news, but these, he knew, had only made him stronger. He had acquired wisdom. He understood how the world was divided: kings over here, peasants over there. Kings live in palaces and want berries on their cornflakes; peasants need the money so they work the fields. And you? You were born king or you were born peasant, and that got decided long before you fell out of your mama's womb, so don't bother worrying about it. Say your prayers, be thankful for what you've got, and hang a crucifix from your rearview mirror so Jesus will protect your family from the chupacabras and other spirits lurking in the woods.
Wash the apple before you bite into it, because that's the way you were raised. Germs, pesticides, dirt, gunk, it doesn't matter—just wash it. The fingerprints, too, go down the drain with the rest. It's easy to forget that there are people who harvest our food. Sometimes, maybe, we are reminded of the seasons and the sun and the way of the apple tree, and if we multiply that by millions of apple trees, times millions of tomato plants, times all the other fruits and vegetables, we realize, holy potato chips, that's a lot of picking. Without 1 million people on the ground, on ladders, in bushes—armies of pickers swooping in like bees—all the tilling, planting, and fertilizing of America's $144 billion horticultural production is for naught. The fruit falls to the ground and rots.

Most of the people who pick our food come from Mexico. They blanket the entire country, and yet to most of us they're strangers, so removed from our lives we hardly know they're here, people hunched over baskets in the flat distance as we drive down vacation highways. If we imagine them having anything to do with our lives at all, the picture isn't good: 50 percent of the migrant-farmworker population is in the United States illegally, the one piece of the story Americans hear quite a lot about and are increasingly bothered by, or urged to be. On TV and talk radio and especially during election years, we're told we must work together to stop this national crisis. These people are robbing our homes and trafficking drugs and raping our children right there in our J.C. Penney dressing rooms. The bad guys make headlines, as bad guys will, and the rest, we're told, are a more insidious blight: taking American jobs, giving birth to bastard "anchor babies" in what Pat Buchanan once called "the greatest invasion in human history." Whether we buy into the rhetoric or not, one thing has been made clear: Illegal immigration is a problem reaching a breaking point, and something must be done.

Except there really is no invasion, no growing national crisis. In fact, recent statistics show that immigration from Mexico has actually gone down—and steeply so—over the past decade. (An estimated 80,000 unauthorized migrants crossed the Mexican border into the United States last year, down from 500,000 ten years ago.) More to the point: There is nothing new about this story. Importing foreign labor has always been the American way, beginning with 4 million slaves from Africa. Later came the Jews and Poles, the Hungarians, Italians, and Irish, the Chinese and Japanese—everything you learned in sixth-grade social studies about the great American melting pot. And with each group came a new wave of anti-immigrant, pro-Anglo rage.

Ourcurrent debate over how to control our borders is really just a rehashed version of a very old one cycling over the reach of history. It's a lively conversation about fairness and purity, about who belongs and who does not, and as a result, the people who pick our food are shamed into the shadows, nameless, mostly afraid, and certainly inconvenient to the experience of the satisfying first crunch and explosion of sugar that happens when we discover that this, oh yes, this apple is awesome.

Read more:

illustration: John Ritter

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Kate Montgomery, North Beach. Art Chicago

The Hidden Symbolism in 20 Clever Logos

[ed.  The creativite world of logo design.  Very cool.]

In the world of advertising, logo design & branding is one of the key pillars of a company’s identity. The amount of thought and work that goes behind the seemingly simplest of logos would boggle the mind of any advertising outsider. Below we will review 20 clever logos that have hidden symbolism you may have not noticed before. Some are obvious, others are subtle, but all of them are interesting to examine. Enjoy!

More logos here:

How to Peel a Head of Garlic

Almost Infamous

by Wayne Drehs

As the baseball climbed into the dark October night and began making its way toward Wrigley Field's left-field corner, Pat Looney had no doubt. The ball was his.

He had caught a pop foul once before, reaching high above the fans sitting around him to snag a ball he later handed to a kid sitting nearby. This play felt the same -- as if the baseball gods had targeted his hands as the final resting place for a memorable souvenir. But this ball, from this game, wouldn't be going to any stranger. His wife had recently learned she was pregnant, so this ball would go to his first-born child.

"It was coming right at me," he says.

They say baseball is a game of inches, life a game of chance. A few more inches here, five more seconds there, and everything is different. The lightning strikes someone else's house. The swerving car just misses the deer. The lottery ball comes up one digit away from the number on your ticket. These are the twists of fate that fill our lives, most of the time going completely unnoticed.

The story of Pat Looney is one of these tales. When the most famous foul ball in baseball history went up for grabs in Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series, no one reached farther and tried harder to take that ball home than Looney. But he missed -- by two inches. Instead, the man standing next to Looney was the first to touch the ball -- and to catch everything else that came with it. As fate would have it, the quiet, unassuming man in his blue Cubs hat, green turtleneck and black headphones would become a household name. His life would become a nightmare. For Looney, there were death threats, and interview requests from as far away as Japan. But life eventually would return to normal. All because he came up two inches short.

"The truth is, I should have caught that ball," Looney says. "I should have been Steve Bartman."

The fateful foul ball should have come with a warning label. Something like: "Caution: Handle With Care." Or: "Warning: Contents Flammable." But who could have known then that a play that initially seemed so innocent -- a lazy fly ball into the left-field corner -- would wind end up nearly ruining the lives of the men who came closest to it.

That night, who would have predicted that ball would fetch $100,000 at an auction and later be blown up on national television? Who would have guessed that a 5-ounce ball of string would come to represent a century of Cubs futility? And who could have known that the ball would polarize Chicago and become the central figure in one of the ugliest nights in Wrigley Field history?

"If I would have known then what I know now, there's no way in hell I would have gone for that ball," Looney says. "No f---ing way."

But with one out in the eighth inning that night, when Luis Castillo lifted that ball in Looney's direction, the only thought on his mind was a souvenir. At the time, he and the three friends he went to the game with were doing the same thing as every other Cubs fan around the world -- counting outs until a celebration that was sure to rival Carnival. Six outs to go, five outs to go. The Cubs hadn't been to a World Series since 1945. They hadn't won it all since 1908. Up 3-0 on the Florida Marlins, baseball's lovable losers stood five outs from the sport's grandest stage.

In anticipation of the party that was about to commence, Looney and his friends lined up a dozen beers at their feet. Although last call had come an inning earlier, these guys were prepared.

"Our thinking was, 'If they win, we'd just hang out and celebrate,'" Looney says. "We had the perfect spot."

Read more:

Adrian Tomine - Missed Connection

The 'Worm' That Could Bring Down The Internet

by NPR, Fresh Air from WHYY

For the past three years, a highly encrypted computer worm called Conficker has been spreading rapidly around the world. As many as 12 million computers have been infected with the self-updating worm, a type of malware that can get inside computers and operate without their permission.

"What Conficker does is penetrate the core of the [operating system] of the computer and essentially turn over control of your computer to a remote controller," writer Mark Bowden tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "[That person] could then utilize all of these computers, including yours, that are connected. ... And you have effectively the largest, most powerful computer in the world."

The gigantic networked system created by the Conficker worm is what's known as a "botnet." The Conficker botnet is powerful enough to take over computer networks that control banking, telephones, security systems, air traffic control and even the Internet itself, says Bowden. His new book, Worm: The First Digital World War, details how Conficker was discovered, how it works, and the ongoing programming battle to bring down the Conficker worm, which he says could have widespread consequences if used nefariously.

"If you were to launch with a botnet that has 10 million computers in it — launch a denial of service attack — you could launch a large enough attack that it would not just overwhelm the target of the attack, but the root servers of the Internet itself, and could crash the entire Internet," he says. "What frightens security folks, and increasingly government and Pentagon officials, is that a botnet of that size could also be used as a weapon."

When Russia launched its attack on Georgia in 2008, Russian officials also took down communication lines and the Internet within Georgia. Egypt also took down its own country's Internet service during the uprisings last spring.

"It's the equivalent of shutting down the train system during the Civil War, where the Union troops and the Confederate troops used trains to shuttle arms and ammunition and supplies all over their area of control," says Bowden. "And if you could shut their trains down, you cripple their ability to function. Similarly, you

The Conficker worm can also be used to steal things like your passwords and codes for any accounts you use online. Officials in Ukraine recently arrested a group of people who were leasing a portion of the Conficker worm's computers to drain millions of dollars from bank accounts in the United States.

"It raises the question of whether creating or maintaining a botnet is a criminal activity, because if I break into a safe at the bank using a Black & Decker drill, is Black & Decker culpable for the way I use the tool?" he says. "That's one of the tools you could use the botnet for. With a botnet of 25,000 computers, you could break the security codes for, you could raid people's accounts, you could get Social Security numbers and data — there's almost no commercial security system in place that couldn't be breached by a supercomputer of tens of thousands."

Read more:

Learn more about the symptoms of the Conficker worm and test to see whether your computer is infected at the Conficker Working Group website.

A Guilty Pleasure

by Sarah Digregorio

There are white-meat people and there are dark-meat people; there are those who swear by the drumstick, thigh or breast.

And then there are skin people. They are the ones who cannot help themselves around roast or fried chicken, ripping off the crispiest bits of skin before the bird makes it to the table.

Nate Gutierrez, the chef and owner of Nate’s Taco Truck and Nate’s Taco Truck Stop in Richmond, Va., could not stop snacking on the skin left over from his roast chickens. So about six months ago, he decided to make the skin crisp on the flattop and offer it in a taco. The chicken-skin tacos sell out whenever they are on the menu.

By using chicken skin for its texture and powerful flavor in all sorts of dishes, chefs are legitimizing what used to be a guilty pleasure, whether they call it gribenes, yakitori kawa or cracklings.

There is no more-committed evangelist than Sean Brock, executive chef of Husk and McCrady’s in Charleston, S.C. If it can be done in the kitchen, Mr. Brock has done it to chicken skin: He marinates it in buttermilk, then smokes and deep fries for a crunchy appetizer served with hot sauce and honey. He layers it with rabbit in a terrine. His twist on Southern chicken and dumplings includes a block of braised shredded chicken thighs sandwiched between rendered sheets of the stuff.

“Everyone knows deep down that they are closet chicken-skin lovers,” he said. “They just need some help.”

The appetite for chicken skin is a logical outgrowth of fried chicken mania and the fashion for over-the-top foods. Last year, in the aftermath of the KFC Double Down sandwich, a rumor that the chain was testing a “skinwich” flew around the Internet. The rumor was met with disgust and excitement before it was proved to be false.

But the skinwich seems practically restrained next to an invention by Jesse Schenker, the chef and owner of Recette in the West Village: deep-fried, chicken-skin-wrapped gravy, a crunchy parcel with a molten interior. The dish, served with roast foie gras and a black pepper biscuit, is one of the richest in New York and is the only item on Recette’s menu that routinely elicits loud, happy cursing.

“If it weren’t so time-consuming, I’d offer it as the ultimate bar snack, 10 to an order,” he said.

Read more:

Recipe:  Chicken Skin Tacos

A for Higher Ed

[ed.  Overview of the typical college admissions process and a proposal for a new algorithmic selection model.] 

by Kevin Carey
The existing admissions system is also remarkably archaic. To a large extent, it still involves students submitting pieces of paper (or electronic copies of pieces of paper) containing information about grades, test scores, high-school profiles, essays, and personal recommendations. Colleges then apply a few crude filters, like a minimum SAT threshold or whether the student's parents are rich, and consider the remaining applicants via a "holistic" process of decision-by-committee. Because the information isn't stored in a database, it's hard to perform post hoc analyses to see if the "yea" and "nay" decisions were good ones. The fact that most students drop out of or transfer from the first college they choose suggests that many are not.
A for college admissions

The solution lies with information technology. At the moment, college admissions is stuck in the well-recognized first stage of technology adoption, where the same people keep doing the same things in the same ways, but faster and for less money. So college applications and transcripts are increasingly sent electronically instead of via the U.S Postal Service, and read by admissions officers on laptop computers instead of paper files. But there are still applications and transcripts, and decisions are still made by people sitting around a table.

The second stage of technology adoption involves people outside of the current system rethinking the logic of the process from the ground up, given the full possibilities of what technology can do. This tends to upset existing power structures and put people out of comfortable jobs, but it's inevitable, and the buyers and sellers in the market are ultimately better off. We may lament the loss of our friendly neighborhood travel agent and CD stores for a little while, but middlemen are rarely missed for long.

This is where college admissions needs to go. One analogue is marriage--millions of people trying to make a complicated, life-altering decision based on limited up-front information. As Nick Paumgarten described in The New Yorker earlier this year, online dating services like eHarmony and have compiled vast databases that can be mined for insight into what kind of matches are likely to create fruitful long-term relationships--and which are not. In the same way, Amazon makes book recommendations and iTunes Genius auto-compiles the perfect playlist.

This kind of specialization points toward an even more radical higher-education future, one where the basic unit of consumer choice is not the institution but the course. Students currently pick colleges based on a general sense of quality, and trust the college to apply it throughout its programs. As everyone who's been to college knows, even the best colleges have terrible courses, and vice versa. Since students have a hard time knowing which is which ahead of time, there's not much they can do to protect themselves, and in any case they can't simply pick and choose among the best courses from Michigan, Yale, Berkeley, and Vanderbilt--yet.

Read more:

Traders More Reckless Than Psychopaths

[ed. Now, if they'd only do a similar study of politicians.]

by Marissa Taylor

Disturbing new research about financial traders and their personalities may shed some light on the behavior of Kweku Adoboli, the so-called “rogue” UBS trader who allegedly lost the bank $2.3 billion through unauthorized trading.

A new study from a Swiss university finds that financial traders are more uncooperative than psychopaths and that they have a greater tendency for lying and risk-taking.

As part of their executive MBA thesis at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, forensic psychiatrist Thomas Noll, a chief administrator at the Pöschwies prison near Zurich, and co-author Pascal Scherrer studied the behavior of 28 financial traders in a decision-making game, comparing their performances with those of people who were diagnosed as psychopaths.

They expected to find that, like the psychopaths, the traders would be uncooperative with others, but that they’d perform better at the game because, as Noll said, traders “are supposed to be good at making money. In social interactions, they’re supposed to be good at performing.”

But the two authors were shocked to discover that the traders were actually more uncooperative and egocentric than psychopaths when playing a prisoner’s dilemma game -- a type of gaming scenario where participants can choose to cooperate or betray each other.

Read more:

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Felix Gephart

U.S. Health Insurance Costs Rise Sharply

[ed.  Good thing we got rid of that nasty old public option and can now turn our attention to deregulating every industry under the sun -  for, you know, jobs or something. Why are the most rapacious elements of our society the only ones deemed too big to fail?] 

by Reed Abelson and Nina Bernstein

Major health insurance companies have been charging sharply higher premiums this year, outstripping any growth in workers’ wages and creating more uncertainty for the Obama administration and employers who are struggling to drive down an unrelenting rise in medical costs.

A study released on Tuesday by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a research group, showed that the average annual premium for family coverage through an employer reached $15,073 in 2011 — 9 percent higher than in the previous year. And even higher premiums could be on the way, particularly in New York, where some companies are asking for double-digit increases for about 1.3 million New Yorkers in individual or small-group plans, setting up a battle with state regulators.

The higher premiums are particularly unwelcome at a time when the economy is sputtering and unemployment is hovering at about 9 percent. Many businesses cite the cost of coverage as a factor in their decision not to hire, and health insurance has become increasingly unaffordable for more Americans. The cost of family coverage has about doubled since 2001, compared with a 34 percent gain in wages.

How much the new federal health care legislation pushed by President Obama is affecting rates remains a point of debate, with some consumer advocates and others suggesting that insurers have raised prices in anticipation of new rules that would, in 2012, require them to justify any increase of more than 10 percent. Kaiser pointed out that the increase this year could be an anomaly, after several years of 3 percent to 5 percent increases during the recession.
Since last year, the Insurance Department has posted more than 4,000 policyholder objections online. In one typical letter, a small businessman, citing six years of annual increases of more than 15 percent, raged, “There are no words to express how utterly greedy and unconscionable another double-digit increase in health care costs are to the world of small companies and those employed by them.”

Such messages are not lost on Benjamin M. Lawsky, the state’s superintendent of financial services, who oversees the department. “We get it,” he said. “These increases are often hitting people who just can’t afford it.”

“At the same time,” he added, “we have to make sure these companies stay healthy. What keeps us up at night is the need to strike a responsible balance.”

Read more:
hearts (by hildaDS)

Eat, Smoke, Meditate: Why Your Brain Cares How You Cope

by Alice G. Walton

Most people do what they have to do to get through the day. Though this may sound dire, let’s face it, it’s the human condition. Given the number of people who are depressed or anxious, it’s not surprising that big pharma is doing as well as it is. But for millennia before we turned to government-approved drugs, humans devised clever ways of coping: Taking a walk, eating psychedelic mushrooms, breathing deeply, snorting things, praying, running, smoking, and meditating are just some of the inventive ways humans have found to deal with the unhappy rovings of their minds.
But which methods actually work?

Most people would agree that a lot of our unhappiness comes from the mind’s annoying chatter, which includes obsessions, worries, drifts from this stress to that stress, and our compulsive and exhausting need to anticipate the future. Not surprisingly, the goal of most adults is to get the mind to shut up, calm down, and chill out. For this reason, we turn to our diverse array of feel-good tools (cigarettes, deep breathing, and what have you). Some are healthier and more effective than others, and researchers are finally understanding why certain methods break the cycle and others exacerbate it.

Last year, a Harvard study confirmed that there’s a clear connection between mind wandering and unhappiness. Not only did  the study find that if you’re awake, your mind is wandering almost half the time, it also found that this wandering is linked to a less happy state. (You can actually use the iPhone app used in the study to track your own happiness.) This is not surprising, since when your mind is wandering, it’s not generally to the sweet things in your life: More likely, it’s to thoughts like why your electric bill was so high, why your boss was rude to you today, or why your ex-husband is being so difficult.

Another study found that mind wandering is linked to activation of network of brain cells called the default mode network (DMN), which is active not when we’re doing high-level processing, but when we’re drifting about in “self-referential” thoughts (read: when our brain is flitting from one life-worry to the next).

Meditation is an interesting method for increasing one’s sense of happiness because not only has it stood the test of time, but it’s also been tested quite extensively in the lab. Part of the effect of mindfulness meditation is to quiet the mind by acknowledging non-judgmentally and then relinquishing (rather than obsessing about) unhappy or stress-inducing thoughts.

New research by Judson Brewer, MD, PhD and his group at Yale University has found that experienced meditators not only report less mind wandering during meditation, but actually have markedly decreased activity in their DMN. Earlier research had shown that meditators have less activity in regions governing thoughts about the self, like the medial prefrontal cortex: Brewer says that what’s likely going on in experienced meditators is that these “‘me’ centers of the brain are being deactivated.

They also found that when the brain’s “me” centers were being activated, meditators also co-activated areas important in self-monitoring and cognitive control, which may indicate that they are on the constant lookout for “me” thoughts or mind-wandering – and when their minds do wander, they bring them back to the present moment. Even better, meditators not only did this during meditation, but when not being told to do anything in particular. This suggests that they may have formed a new default mode: one that is more present-centered (and less “me”-centered), no matter what they are doing.

“This is really cool,” Brewer says.” As far as we know, nobody has seen this type of connectivity pattern before. These networks have previously been shown to be anti-correlated.”

Read more:


by Anthony Kuhn

Imagine you're trekking through the concrete jungle of just about any Southeast Asian city. The first thing you notice is the smorgasbord of smells, some enticing, others downright rank. Amid the urban odor-rama, one sweet herbal fragrance stands out. It's lemongrass. And it's just about everywhere.

This herb is essential to Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Indonesian and other Asian cuisines that have become popular in the West in recent years. And lemongrass takes much of the credit for the light and aromatic character of Southeast Asian cooking. It's prized for lightening meat-laden, oily dishes and strong seafood smells. Thai people also swear by its legendary medicinal properties.

To really understand the role of lemongrass in Thai cuisine, visit Naj, a family-run restaurant and cooking school located beside Bangkok's bustling Convent Road. The founder's son, Tanaporn Markawat shows us where he gets some of his ingredients.

"So now we are in our herbs garden. We have more than 50 herbs," he says, pointing out over the yard. "We have lemongrass, basil, cumin, pandanus...the main ingredients that we use in Thai food."

Tanaporn removes the tough, fibrous outer layers of a stalk of lemongrass, revealing its pink insides, and unleashes an incredible smell.

Inhale deeply, and you will absorb a fragrance that is intense and ornate, like a filigreed eave curlicuing from the roof of a Thai Buddhist temple.

Asian restaurants rely heavily on stir-frying and deep frying, and too much oil can be a problem. But lemongrass, Tanaporn says, can lift the weight of the meat and oil, and replace that weight with an herbal pungency and an exquisite lightness.

"In most of the Thai dishes, we use the lemongrass, it's very important," he explains. "Sometimes when you have the curry, the curry is oily, and the lemongrass can help you digest, it can help your blood circulation. It's very healthy," he says.

To really understand the power of lemongrass, eat a pile of the stuff the form of a Thai lemongrass salad. It's a dish you seldom find in restaurants outside Thailand, but it's not hard to make yourself. Lemongrass is increasingly available at Asian markets and grocers in the U.S.

Tanaporn cuts several lemongrass stalks into little discs. Bits of dried shrimp, squid and peanuts add crunch. Tiny chili peppers provide punch – far above their weight. Finally, Tanaporn pours on a dressing of lime juice, fish sauce and sugar. He tosses the salad and serves it wrapped in jade green-colored betel leaves. The resulting dish is typically Thai in its combination of citrus, seafood, hot, sour, salty and spicy flavors.

Read more:

Monday, September 26, 2011

Michael Carson, The lost ring somewhere in this area (21st century)

Your Next Partner

I believe that we, that this planet, hasn’t seen its Golden Age. Everybody says its finished … art’s finished, rock and roll is dead, God is dead. Fuck that! This is my chance in the world. I didn’t live back there in Mesopotamia, I wasn’t there in the Garden of Eden, I wasn’t there with Emperor Han, I’m right here right now and I want now to be the Golden Age …if only each generation would realise that the time for greatness is right now when they’re alive … the time to flower is now.
Patti Smith

Elton John

Contemporary Batik and Tie Dye, Crown Publishers  1973

Protesters Bare All Over a Proposed San Francisco Law

[ed.  Ahhh...I love San Francisco.]

by Malia Wollan

Perhaps it should not be a surprise that San Francisco does not have a law against being naked in public, nor that a small, unselfconscious segment of the city’s residents regularly exercise that right.

That tiny minority was joined this weekend in the autumn fog and cold by unclothed sympathizers at a “Nude-In.” One of their objectives was to draw attention to a proposed law — introduced by Scott Wiener, a city supervisor — that would prohibit nudity in restaurants and require unclad people to put a towel or other material down before sitting bare-bottomed on benches or other public seats.

Mr. Wiener said the law was introduced in response to an increase in nakedness in parks, streets and restaurants.

“It used to be that there would be one nude guy wandering around the neighborhood and no one thought twice about it,” said Mr. Wiener, who represents the city’s Castro district. “Now it’s a regular thing and much more obnoxious. We have guys sitting down naked in public without the common decency to put something down underneath them.”

Mr. Wiener’s effort was destined to grab headlines, but he probably did not anticipate that his legislation would inspire even more people to disrobe.

“Wiener might as well have shot lasers and fireworks into the sky announcing that public nudity is legal,” said George Davis, 65.

A self-described “urban nudist” who once ran for mayor and often campaigned in the buff, Mr. Davis now spends most afternoons lounging in his birthday suit in a public plaza in the Castro.

Putting a towel between your backside and a seat is “basic nudist etiquette,” said Mr. Davis, adding that the legislation requiring it was “totally unnecessary.”

Still, Mr. Davis said, the publicity about the proposed law could be credited for the new faces at the Nude-In, which was held Saturday at the Jane Warner Plaza in the Castro.

Other nearby cities like Berkeley and San Jose have passed laws prohibiting public nudity, but in San Francisco it remains legal. In accordance with state law, public nudity is only illegal when accompanied by “lewd thoughts or acts” or “where there are present other persons to be offended or annoyed.” But since state law prohibits police officers from being the offended party, it takes a citizen’s arrest— a rare occurrence in a city that prides itself on its open-mindedness and tolerance — to take a naked person into custody.

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How Life Arose on Earth, and How a Singularity Might Bring It Down

by George Musser

It didn’t take long for the recent Foundational Questions Institute conference on the nature of time to delve into the purpose of life. “The purpose of life,” meeting co-organizer and Caltech cosmologist Sean Carroll said in his opening remarks, “is to hydrogenate carbon dioxide.” Well, there you have it. Carroll is one of the most reflective scientists I know and would never claim to reduce all of human existence to molecular disequilibrium. Still, it’s nice to know your place in the grand scheme of things. The FQXi meeting had much to say about where we came from—and where we’re headed.

Last year, Carroll blogged the backstory of where his purpose-of-life line came from. He had bumped into Mike Russell of JPL, an expert on the origin of life, on an airplane and got to chatting about the role that living things play in the geochemical cycles of our planet. Russell was on hand at the FQXi conference, too, and elaborated on his engrossing thesis tracing our descent to inorganic chemical reactions.

In Russell’s picture, the primeval Earth looked uncannily like a giant bacterium. At the seafloor, in spots like the Lost City hydrothermal vents, the chemically reduced interior met the oxidized exterior, creating a state of chemical disequilibrium. Hydrogen bubbling up from the interior sought to combine with carbon dioxide dissolved from the atmosphere to form methane, but this reaction has a bottleneck because intermediate stages such as formaldehyde require an input of energy (see this helpful graph). A geochemical reaction known as serpentinization can push through the bottleneck, using metals such as iron as catalysts, but biological reactions are more efficient, and Russell mapped out a series of steps whereby serpentinization would evolve into membrane-encased cells.

Evolution at this stage was not by natural selection, but by the spontaneous generation of complexity; the Darwinian version came later as information-bearing molecules arose. The scenario is commonly referred to as “metabolism-first” as opposed to “genetics-first.” It is the protobiological version of the principle that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.

The process would have given birth to two of the three kingdoms of life, bacteria and archaea. Russell suggested that life might have arisen multiple times on Earth and, indeed, on any planet with similar chemical imbalances. Phylogeny replicates geology.

Read more:

Photo of Lost City​ hydrothermal field, courtesy of NOAA

Inappropriate Force

[ed.  The officer in question has now been identified as Deputy Inspector Anthony V. Bologna of the NYPD Patrol Borough Manhattan South.]

by James Fallows

Unless there is something faked about this video, which is on the New York Times' City Room site and is based on annotation and slow-mo apparently from, a uniformed New York City police officer abused power in a way that was cruel and cowardly during yesterday's Wall Street protests. It's worth the time to watch.

He walks up; unprovoked he shoots Mace or pepper spray straight into the eyes of women held inside a police enclosure; he turns and walks away quickly (as they scream, wail, and fall to the ground clawing at their eyes) in a way familiar from hitmen in crime movies; and he discreetly reholsters his spray can.

You may have already seen this. If you haven't, it is worth knowing about. If this is what it looks like, it is outrageous. The mayor and others should say something. And this man can certainly be identified.
Update: according to the NYT, the chief police spokesman, Paul Browne, said that the policeman used pepper spray "appropriately." Great. On the video we can't hear what either side is saying. But at face value, the casualness of the officer who saunters over, sprays right in the women's eyes, and then slinks away without a backward glance, as if he'd just put down an animal, does not match my sense of "appropriate" behavior by officers of the law in a free society.

Think about it: If this were part of some concerted, "appropriate" crowd-control plan, then presumably the pepper-spray officer would have talked with the other policemen trying to control the women. He would have stayed on the scene; he had done something dramatic to affect a situation, so -- again, if this were "appropriate" -- presumably he would have talked with the other officers about what to do next. But look at that video and see what seems "appropriate" to you.

Police officers make countless hard decisions every day, often at the risk of their own safety or lives. It's a harder job than I have. But everything about this scene suggests an officer who has forgotten about some of these hard choices. He just zaps 'em and walks away as they scream.

Update I  Video taping makes a difference.


Personal Best

by Atul Gawande

I've been a surgeon for eight years. For the past couple of them, my performance in the operating room has reached a plateau. I’d like to think it’s a good thing—I’ve arrived at my professional peak. But mainly it seems as if I’ve just stopped getting better.

During the first two or three years in practice, your skills seem to improve almost daily. It’s not about hand-eye coördination—you have that down halfway through your residency. As one of my professors once explained, doing surgery is no more physically difficult than writing in cursive. Surgical mastery is about familiarity and judgment. You learn the problems that can occur during a particular procedure or with a particular condition, and you learn how to either prevent or respond to those problems.
It wouldn’t have been the first time I’d hit a plateau. I grew up in Ohio, and when I was in high school I hoped to become a serious tennis player. But I peaked at seventeen. That was the year that Danny Trevas and I climbed to the top tier for doubles in the Ohio Valley. I qualified to play singles in a couple of national tournaments, only to be smothered in the first round both times. The kids at that level were playing a different game than I was. At Stanford, where I went to college, the tennis team ranked No. 1 in the nation, and I had no chance of being picked. That meant spending the past twenty-five years trying to slow the steady decline of my game.

I still love getting out on the court on a warm summer day, swinging a racquet strung to fifty-six pounds of tension at a two-ounce felt-covered sphere, and trying for those increasingly elusive moments when my racquet feels like an extension of my arm, and my legs are putting me exactly where the ball is going to be. But I came to accept that I’d never be remotely as good as I was when I was seventeen. In the hope of not losing my game altogether, I play when I can. I often bring my racquet on trips, for instance, and look for time to squeeze in a match.

One July day a couple of years ago, when I was at a medical meeting in Nantucket, I had an afternoon free and went looking for someone to hit with. I found a local tennis club and asked if there was anyone who wanted to play. There wasn’t. I saw that there was a ball machine, and I asked the club pro if I could use it to practice ground strokes. He told me that it was for members only. But I could pay for a lesson and hit with him.

He was in his early twenties, a recent graduate who’d played on his college team. We hit back and forth for a while. He went easy on me at first, and then started running me around. I served a few points, and the tennis coach in him came out. You know, he said, you could get more power from your serve.

I was dubious. My serve had always been the best part of my game. But I listened. He had me pay attention to my feet as I served, and I gradually recognized that my legs weren’t really underneath me when I swung my racquet up into the air. My right leg dragged a few inches behind my body, reducing my power. With a few minutes of tinkering, he’d added at least ten miles an hour to my serve. I was serving harder than I ever had in my life.

Not long afterward, I watched Rafael Nadal play a tournament match on the Tennis Channel. The camera flashed to his coach, and the obvious struck me as interesting: even Rafael Nadal has a coach. Nearly every élite tennis player in the world does. Professional athletes use coaches to make sure they are as good as they can be.

But doctors don’t. I’d paid to have a kid just out of college look at my serve. So why did I find it inconceivable to pay someone to come into my operating room and coach me on my surgical technique?

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Illustration: Barry Blitt