November 1, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 7:28 AM


The 3 things that make the stock market tick (Brett Arends, Oct 31, 2014, MarketWatch)

After studying the movements of the stock market going back to 1952 [economics professors Daniel Greenwald and Sydney Ludvigson from New York University, and Martin Lattau from U.C. Berkeley] found that nearly all of it can be explained empirically -- in other words, by observation, not merely by theory -- by three uncorrelated factors. [...]

The first is the overall productivity of the economy. Short-term variations don't matter, only the long-term trends in total factor productivity -- the degree to which the economy makes use of labor, capital, resources and so on -- make a difference.

The second is the degree to which national output ends up in the pockets of either workers, on one hand, or investors on the other.

And the third, quite simply, is fear -- or "risk aversion" in the technical parlance.

That's it.

Changes in these three factors explain 85% of the stock market's movements over the past 70 or so years -- the modern era. That's quite something.

Posted by orrinj at 7:01 AM


How small changes to federal housing policy could make a big difference for poor kids (Emily Badger October 15, 2014, Washington Post)

Children are shaped in profound ways by the neighborhoods where they grow up. Perhaps this sounds like common sense (why else do we fret over where to raise them?). But it's borne out by research, too. High-poverty neighborhoods can be bad for children's health, school performance and even cognitive development. Low-poverty ones, meanwhile, often mean they have access to better schools and do better academically as a result.

It makes sense, then, that when we subsidize housing for poor families, we should try to help them into homes in the kind of neighborhoods that have lower poverty, less crime and higher-quality schools. Most government rental assistance, however, barely does this at all. [...]

The Department of Housing and Urban Development has three main programs (often run locally) that offer housing assistance to the poor. About a million households live in traditional public housing. Section 8 rental assistance subsidizes housing for another million families in designated but privately owned buildings. Then about 2 million households use Housing Choice Vouchers that they can spend on the private market. [...]

The above chart, from the CBPP report, suggests that Housing Choice Vouchers are much more effective than the other two programs at helping families live in census tracts where many of their neighbors aren't poor, too. This isn't surprising, since vouchers are the most flexible form of assistance. The government can't very well pick up public housing projects and move them to better neighborhoods.

Housing vouchers, by CBPP's count, also make a significant difference in the ability of poor black and Hispanic families to raise their kids in low-poverty neighborhoods (this is less true for whites). Only about 7 percent of poor black children nationwide live in low-poverty neighborhoods. But the same is true of nearly 17 percent of poor black children in families using vouchers:

This data suggests we should be doing a lot more to leverage the power of the one housing program -- also the largest housing program -- that seems to help families get into better neighborhoods.

The vouchers should be universal and generous enough to pay the mortgages on suburban/rural homes.

Posted by orrinj at 6:56 AM


Star Wars Rebels owes as much to Joss Whedon as it does to George Lucas (Graeme Virtue, 29 October 2014, The Guardian)

Every new Star Wars spin-off is guaranteed attention from hardcore fans, but as the first official chunk of Disney-curated content since the regime change, Star Wars Rebels has been scrutinised more than most. Set during the relatively unexplored period between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, the animated series premiered last month to 6.5m viewers worldwide - unusually high ratings for children's programming. (In the UK, new episodes screen every Thursday afternoon on cable channel Disney XD.)

Star Wars Rebels opens with the classic image of a Star Destroyer filling up the screen, and the universe has the same grimy, lived-in feel of the older movies - all the dings, dents and dust streaks lovingly recreated by state-of-the-art computer animation. Similarly, the familiar soundtrack and iconic sound effects are soothing throwbacks to the original trilogy, while the production and character designs deliberately evoke the 1970s Star Wars concept art by the late, great Ralph McQuarrie. [...]

If the overarching plot is designed to build toward the founding of the Rebel Alliance against the Empire, things starts small. After an Imperial entanglement, orphaned tearaway Ezra falls in with Kanan and his ragtag crew - a gifted pilot, a graffiti artist with a Boba Fett helmet, a gigantic grumpy alien in the Chewbacca mould and a wilful astromech droid. Crammed together on Kanan's Millennium Falcon-esque ship, they operate as outlaws, thieves and smugglers, chipping away at the might of the Empire while also bickering and bonding. A few episodes in - probably around the time Ezra hotwires a TIE fighter during a chaotic escape - you realise that the producers have quietly taken their cue from another sci-fi godhead. Shambolic heists, an emphasis on wisecracks and the unplanned formation of a surrogate family? Star Wars Rebels is the Firefly remake fans have been crying out for ever since Joss Whedon's space western got cancelled.

Of course, Whedon took a lot of inspiration from Star Wars for Firefly. But viewing Rebels as an unofficial continuation of the adventures of Mal and his merry band adds another layer of meta-enjoyment - it even has the equivalent of the ruthless Operative from Firefly's movie spin-off Serenity, in the form of zealous rebel-hunter Agent Kallus (voiced by David Oyelowo). It also helps that Star Wars Rebels is already an entertaining watch, assembled with a cinematic eye and punctuated by decent gags and skilfully assembled action scenes. Even Kanan's goatee can't spoil it.

Posted by orrinj at 6:50 AM


The Case for Witch-Hunts (Jeremy Lott, 10/31/14, Splice Today)

In his wartime radio broadcasts to rally the U.K. behind God and country and decency against the Third Reich, C.S. Lewis briefly addressed the subject of burning witches. The Oxford don told BBC listeners that one fellow had asked him pointedly, "Three hundred years ago people in England were putting witches to death. Was that what you call the Rule of Human Nature or Right Conduct?" He would concede nothing.

The only reason we don't execute witches these days, Lewis explained, "is that we do not believe there are such things." If that were to change, things would be very different. "[I]f we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbors or drive them mad or bring bad weather, surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then those filthy quislings did."

The word "quislings" has lost most of its rhetorical punch now but at the time it meant something awful. Norwegian strongman Vidkun Quisling was roundly hated for his Nazi-backed coup. After the war, he was tried and executed by firing squad for his crimes, including sending most of his country's Jews to the ovens. By calling witches quislings, Lewis was saying that if such things existed they were traitors to the human race, collaborators with an occupying power, opportunists of the deadliest sort.

Simply the attempt to manipulate magical forces places one beyond the Pale.

Posted by orrinj at 6:37 AM


The revolution is over : After decades of messianic fervour, Iran is becoming a more mature and modern country (Oliver August, Nov 1st 2014, The Economist)

The regime may remain suspicious of the West, and drone on about seeding revolutions in oppressor countries, but the revolutionary fervour and drab conformism have gone. Iran is desperate to trade with whomever will buy its oil. Globalisation trumps puritanism even here.

Revolution as a political lodestar has a limited shelf life. Adam Michnik, a historian who helped to overthrow the Soviets in Poland, once said: "Revolutions have two phases: first comes a struggle for freedom, then a struggle for power. The first makes the human spirit soar and brings out the best in people. The second unleashes the worst: envy, intrigue, greed, suspicion and the urge for revenge." Iran followed this pattern. First came courageous street protests during the 1979 revolution, then the infighting started. Thousands were executed, properties were seized, bread was short.

Arguably, there is a third phase to a revolution: the struggle for acceptance. Once power is secure, revolutionaries often seek recognition by strong outsiders. In a globalised world, that means engaging with the great trading countries. Children of Iranian revolutionaries have long followed this path. Privilege for them equals access to Western education and Asian consumer markets. Even hardliners allow their children to jet around the world. The offspring of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the revolution, have flocked to Instagram and embrace Western mores. Seven of his 15 grandchildren have openly criticised the regime. Many of the students who took American diplomats hostage 35 years ago have become reformists and wish to see closer ties with the West. Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, who was one of their spokesmen and then served on Tehran's city council, now says: "I no longer take radical actions and I believe gradual reforms last longer than radical change." [...]

Hardliners have long railed against "Westoxification" (the title of a book by Jalal Al-e Ahmad, published in 1962), yet in their daily lives they are now surrounded by Western consumer goods, computer games, beauty ideals, gender roles and many other influences. Iranian culture has not disappeared, but the traditional society envisaged by the fathers of the revolution is receding ever further.

The most visible shift is in public infrastructure. Tehran, the capital, is a tangle of new tunnels, bridges, overpasses, elevated roads and pedestrian walkways. Shiny towers rise in large numbers, despite the sanctions. Screens at bus stops display schedules in real time. Jack Straw, a former British foreign minister and a regular visitor, says that "Tehran looks and feels these days more like Madrid and Athens than Mumbai or Cairo."

Smaller Iranian cities have changed even more. Tabriz, Shiraz and Isfahan are working on underground railways. Half the traditional bathhouses in Qazvin, an industrial town west of Tehran, have closed in recent years. In a basement with a domed ceiling built 350 years ago, the forlorn manager sweeps around two kittens and bemoans the loss of a 700-year-old competitor, musing that "people now have bathrooms with hot running water." In Yalayesh, a remote village near the Caspian sea, entertainment remains old-fashioned: a Kurdish strongman, Ismail the Hero, shows off a lion in a cage on the back of his blue truck. Still, two years ago the government finished piping natural gas into every house, making winters with temperatures of -20ºC "tolerable for the first time", says a spectator.

During the eight-year presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which ended in 2013, prosperity spread rapidly. Loans, handouts and social-housing programmes, however corrupt and ineptly run, showered billions of oil dollars on the poor. Many found white-collar jobs in government agencies. The middle class ballooned. Villagers streamed into Tehran to buy property as GDP per person rose from $4,400 in 1993 to $13,200 last year (at purchasing-power parity). Despite the sanctions, Iran does not look like beleaguered Cuba; people drive new sedans made locally, not 1950s Chevrolets. Life became harder when sanctions were tightened in 2011, but even now Iranians live much better than most of their neighbours.

Prosperity has inspired an obsession with technology that restrictions on internet access cannot dampen. 

Posted by orrinj at 6:34 AM


Scotland would now vote for independence, poll finds (Press Association, 1 November 2014)

Independence now has the backing of 52% of people in Scotland compared with 48% for the union, a YouGov poll for the Times has found.

Posted by orrinj at 6:29 AM


Five Reasons Why Your Financial Outlook Just Got Better (Marilyn Geewax, 11/01/14, NPR)

[E]ven if a major raise isn't on your horizon, five factors will be helping stretch your current paycheck:

Cheap gasoline. In the summer of 2008, gas was $4 a gallon. On Friday, AAA said the national average, as of Saturday, will be below $3 for the first time in four years. The auto club says that downshift will save consumers $250 million a day, compared with earlier this summer when gas was $3.68.

A strong dollar. The U.S. dollar had more global purchasing power back in the early 2000s. Then its value fell compared with other currencies, reaching a bottom in 2011. Today, the dollar is strong again, allowing U.S. consumers to purchase imported goods and foods at lower prices. That change will help keep inflation low for Americans.

Low interest rates. Millions of homeowners have been able to get extraordinarily cheap mortgages. Just before the financial crisis, 30-year fixed mortgages were being offered at 6.5 percent. Today, rates are below 4 percent, allowing homeowners to lower their monthly payments.

Fierce retail competition. For shoppers, this should be a great holiday season because of cutthroat pricing. Wal-Mart told the Wall Street Journal it is testing a plan to match online prices. Best Buy and Target already are doing that, and Target is even offering free shipping on everything through Dec. 20. Analysts expect brutal price competition all around.

Cheaper food (eventually). Corn harvests were enormous this year, sending prices much lower. In 2008, a bushel cost around $8; now it's about half that. It takes a long while for low commodity prices to work their way through the food chain, but the huge corn harvest should help cut animal feed prices, which eventually could tone down the high beef prices that have hurt shoppers.

October 31, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 7:53 PM


Happy "Groundhog Day" (PETER LAWLER,  FEBRUARY 3, 2011, Big Think)

We like to think people are screwed up because they're going to die.  Free them from the misery of their mortality, and they'd be fine, unalienated.  The Bill character probably would have bought into that "transhumanist" insight (see, for example, the more explicit whining of various Woody Allen characters).

But mysteriously freed from time and death or stuck in the eternal return of the same 24 hours, Bill soon becomes suicidal. Life is hell if other people become mere playthings at your disposal and if your life is deprived any w[ei]ght or point or purpose beyond enjoyment.  Hell is being freed from the necessities of birth, love, work, and death.  And the experience of hell is the remedy for self-indulgent, self-denying irony.

Bill doesn't have the option of suicide, and so he has to invent order and necessity for himself to make life endurable.  He begins to practice the virtue of charity for people who can't have any enduring meaning (in the ordinary sense) for him.  He devotes himself to cultivating his untapped talents.  He masters the piano and even finds the joy of life in music.  And of course he discovers personal love through his meticulous attention to the details of the longings of a particular woman.  She becomes more strange and wonderful to him as she continues to elude his complete comprehension and control. And he becomes more strange and wonderful to her as he becomes more virtuous and talented and loving--as he becomes more than a typical BILL MURRAY CHARACTER.

So being mortal isn't the deepest cause of our misery.  And our happiness is found in understanding who we are--our personal longings in relation to our capabilities.  That means, of course, that happiness is found in discovering and performing the responsibilities we've been given.

From his terrific new book, Allergic to Crazy. Contrast with Ernest Becker's insipid Denial of Death.

Posted by orrinj at 7:41 PM


Can America Rule Rugby? (MATTHEW FUTTERMAN, Oct. 31, 2014, WSJ)

A classic barroom debate centers on whether America could dominate sports it doesn't excel in if only we could repurpose some of our many elite athletes. Ordinarily, it's just talk.

But as the U.S. scrambles to field two competitive rugby teams ahead of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, where seven-on-seven rugby will debut as an Olympic sport, that hypothetical discussion has become a practical exercise here on the parched grass of the U.S. Olympic Training Center, a few miles north of the Mexican border. Each day, men and women who starred in football, soccer, basketball and hockey--some as recently as a few months ago--try to learn the art of rugby, a form of football that is largely foreign to Americans.

Ahman Green, a former Green Bay Packers star running back, tried out last year. Elana Meyers, a U.S. bobsledder who won a silver medal in this year's Sochi Winter Olympics, gave it a whirl in the spring. Neither is in the current player pool, but plenty of others are showing promise.

"If I'm getting a terrific college hockey player who just graduated, she's the right age, she's disciplined and I know I don't have to teach her how to train," said Ric Suggitt, the head coach for the U.S. women, "I just have to teach her how to play rugby."

This grand experiment is happening against the backdrop of rugby's first major push to become part of the U.S. sports landscape. On Saturday in Chicago, the world's most famous rugby team, New Zealand's All Blacks, will take on the USA Eagles--the U.S. national team--at sold-out Soldier Field.

Posted by orrinj at 7:29 PM


The Boring Brilliance of VW's New Electric Golf (Kyle Stock  October 31, 2014, Businessweek)

The E-Golf, meanwhile, doesn't make much of a statement. In fact, part of its charm is that the "e" features are decidedly low key. Perhaps what's true of wearable devices such as fitness trackers and smart glasses is also true of electric cars: They will fully arrive only when they stop announcing themselves to the world and just resemble "normal" products. From this perspective, the electric Golf might be downright futuristic.

The car looks like a regular Golf and has all the German engineering Volkswagen likes to brag about: tidy fit and finish, tight gaps between body panels, and more room than one would expect. It even drives like a regular Golf, particularly between zero and 30 miles per hour, when it's peppy. Ticking up to 65 mph on Manhattan's West Side Highway took a bit of prodding, but the car showed no problem zipping out in front of an pushy taxi cab at a light change.

Bells and whistles are scarce. The control panel doesn't fill up with animated leaves and butterflies when the driver pilots with particular efficiency. The center-stack screen isn't usurped by a flow chart of the car's vitals.

The Volkswagen's take on e-monitoring is Teutonic in its simplicity. A single gauge--the analog kind--with a needle tilts into a green area when the brakes are recharging the battery and ticks the other way when one steps on the accelerator. A tad to the right, the Golf displays a digital number showing how many more miles the car will go before it goes to sleep, just like an overworked iPhone (AAPL). 

Posted by orrinj at 7:25 PM


Why democracy took root in Tunisia and not Egypt (Fareed Zakaria, October 30, 2014, Washington Post)

 I recently asked a secular, liberal Egyptian from Cairo who was involved in the uprising against Hosni Mubarak whether the current regime feels like a return of the old order. "Oh, no," he said. "This one is far more brutal, repressive and cynical than Mubarak's." On Monday, Egypt's president, Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, issued a decree allowing the trial of more civilians in military courts. [...]

[T]arek Masoud , the author of a fascinating new book on Islamists and elections titled "Counting Islam," suggests that Tunisia's success and Egypt's failure have less to do with the qualities of its Islamists than with deep differences in those countries' political environments. In Egypt, Masoud argues, Islamists were able to defeat secular parties in the first elections after Mubarak was deposed because they could piggyback on the country's rich network of mosques and Islamic associations to reach everyday citizens. Secular parties didn't have anything equivalent. And so, after losing election after election, they turned to the army to overturn the results of the ballot box.

Tunisia was a different story, Masoud says. More developed, more urban, more literate and more globalized than Egypt, Tunisia had a more diverse civil society than Egypt's -- stronger labor unions, civic associations, professional groups -- so there was relative parity between Islamists and their opponents. Though Islamists did well in Tunisia's first elections, so did non-Islamists. Ennahda won only a plurality in the country's first freely elected legislature -- far less than the majority won by Islamist parties in Egypt -- and had to govern in coalition with two secular parties. It shared power not because it was nicer than the Muslim Brotherhood but because it had to. And Ennahda's opponents stuck with the democratic game even after losing, instead of calling on the army, because they, unlike the Egyptian secular parties, rightly felt they had a chance of winning in the future -- as they did this week. (Tunisia is fortunate in that its army has always been subordinate to civilian authority.)

That parenthetical is the difference in its entirety.  Egypt's military needs to be deciimated; Tunisia's didn't.

Posted by orrinj at 7:20 PM


Solar Flair : How do you make ray-soaking roof panels a hot investment? By making them a boring one. (Daniel Gross, 10/31/14, Slate)

Back when it was an expensive, unproven technology, solar energy was driven by hippies in sandals rigging up off-the-grid systems. About a decade ago, change-the-world Silicon Valley types hoping to make gazillions of dollars entered the fray, raising venture capital and promoting moonshot projects, like futuristic solar farms in the Southwestern desert.

Now come the financial service professionals. Because when it's structured properly, the business of building solar panels and generating carbon-fee electricity can be a solid investment. Not a killer one that will mint billionaires overnight, and not a do-gooder plunge that will pay socially conscious investors below-market returns. But rather a mainstream vehicle that appeals to middle-aged guys in khakis who are more concerned with creating reliable streams of income and beating benchmarks than they are with saving the planet.

Solar, in other words, has become basic. 

Posted by orrinj at 7:10 PM


Is The Human Species Still Evolving? (Bill Nye, 10.31.2014, Popular Science)

Without geographic isolation, I am not sure we can get a new species of hominid, not ever. But that is not the same thing as saying that humans are no longer evolving, because we surely are.

Are smart people actually producing significantly smarter offspring, who end up making more money and ever so slowly outcompeting other families? Or is intelligence a losing trait, because highly educated couples tend to have smaller families, so when something goes wrong there are fewer siblings left to carry the genes forward? Or since highly educated men and women have babies later in life than those that don't squander their best childbearing years in universities, do the babies of the highly educated enter the world with more trouble in childbirth, and are they prone to more subtle gene troubles that result from later mother and fatherhood? Cue the spooky music.

More likely than a future race of hyper-smart people who outcompete the rest of us is a strain of Homo sapiens that can beat a disease. Probably the most important evolutionary sieve that any future person is going to have to get through is going to have to do with germs and parasites. Recall that in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-1919, some 50 million people were killed by something far too small to even see, let alone hunt and destroy. The Black Death of the fourteenth century may have killed up to 200 million. You and I are descendants of people who just happen to have the genes to fight off deadly viruses and bacteria. Those who survive into the future will probably have resistance to certain diseases that none of us have today.

Even its defenders aren't Darwinists any more.

Posted by orrinj at 7:05 PM


China's Missing Babies (Adam Minter, 10/31/14, Bloomberg View)

In one of the signature reform measures of his early presidency, Xi Jinping declared last November that China's notorious "one-child" policy would become a "two-child" policy for couples where either husband or wife was an only child. While the change didn't abolish the often brutally enforced population control measure, it was a start. Chinese officials hoped the announcement would usher in a mini-baby boom, predicting as many as 2 million additional births per year to parents who had long been denied full reproductive rights.

Xi's government, of course, wasn't merely expressing its love of children. The point was to find a quick fix -- let them have more kids! -- to a looming demographic disaster: By 2050, one in four Chinese will be 65 or older, placing intense pressure on families, social services, and the economy. Yet what's fast becoming clear is that there's no easy solution to China's population problems.

The proof is in data released on Wednesday by China's National Health and Family Planning Commission. Of the more than 11 million Chinese couples that became eligible to have a second child, only 700,000 have applied to do so. (Around 620,000 were approved.) No national-level data was provided as to how many children have been born to those couples. But the city of Chongqing, whose population of more than 33 million is sometimes called the world's largest, was disappointed to claim a mere 5,015 births as a result of the reform.

Who would bring children into such a society?

Posted by orrinj at 7:01 PM


Nevada Race Could Set Stage for a Reid Challenge in 2016 (ALEJANDRO LAZO, Oct. 30, 2014, WSJ)

If a Republican wins the lieutenant governor slot, Gov. Brian Sandoval, a popular Republican incumbent expected to easily win re-election, would be free to challenge Mr. Reid in 2016 without turning over his office to a Democrat. If a Democrat wins, the governor likely would feel more tied to his current position, political experts say.

While Mr. Sandoval has said he remains focused on this year's race, political observers say pressure would build for him to mount a Senate bid. A poll this summer by Harper Polling shows Mr. Sandoval could be a legitimate threat, leading Mr. Reid 53% to 43% in a hypothetical 2016 matchup.

Posted by orrinj at 6:54 PM


Scott Brown's U-Turn : The carpetbagger candidate was supposed to be a long shot. So why is he so close to winning? (JAMES PINDELL, October 30, 2014, Politico)

Shaheen is the only woman in the nation's history to serve both as a governor and senator. During 40 years as a campaign operative and a candidate and aided by demographic shifts and national political realignment, Shaheen essentially built New Hampshire's Democratic Party and in so doing, made New Hampshire a swing state.

Heading into Thursday's final debate and just days away from the election, she remains popular with voters, with her approval ratings well over 50 percent. But that likeability hasn't completely translated into the most recent polls, which show Shaheen up a point or two, well within the margin of error. This is explained, in part, because she is seen by many here as too close to Obama, whose 40 percent approval rating locally is dragging Shaheen and other Democrats down.

The bigger problem is Scott Brown. Out in the diners and country stores that serve as informal salons in this most retail of states few ever want to talk about Shaheen. This is what makes her supporters nervous. Her latest ad declares that "Scott Brown is NOT for New Hampshire. Never has been. Never will be." But many of the good people of the Granite State, it seems, are intrigued. They want to know if you've met Scott Brown, they want to know what he's like in person, they want to talk about his positions on national security and the economy and Obamacare and guns and abortion. And, oh yeah: What about that truck?

The best part of her campaign is all the signs that read "New Hampshire First"

Posted by orrinj at 6:49 PM


What if Leo Strauss was right? : A new book by Arthur Melzer convincingly defends Strauss' theory of esotericism, which could have major repercussions on Western thought (Damon Linker, 10/31/14, The Week)

Philosophy originally arose as a way of life singularly devoted to determining whether a particular society's customs are good and whether its origin stories are true. This placed philosophy in a fundamentally antagonistic position to society, which understandably viewed radical philosophical questioning as a grave threat. Theory and practice, contemplation and social-communal-moral life, were presumed to stand in ineradicable tension with one another. It was because of this seemingly permanent tension that philosophers chose to practice protective esotericism.

Today, in societies that allow and even encourage the criticism that virtually all other forms of political life have sought to control or stamp out, philosophers are perfectly free to pose any subversive question they wish. Yet Melzer wants his readers to see that even our own open societies typically refrain from questioning certain foundational customs and opinions -- and that the pursuit of philosophic wisdom requires that we subject even these most cherished convictions to relentless examination and scrutiny.

Take the account of the "noble lie" in Plato's Republic. In this passage of the classic dialogue, Socrates tells his conversation partners that the perfectly just political community they are constructing in speech will require a four-part foundational lie or salutary myth: that all of its citizens are born from the ground on which the community makes its home; that all citizens are brothers; that each citizen is born as one of three races (gold, silver, or iron/bronze); and that each comes into the world along with certain tools that indicate the job he was meant to do in life.

On Melzer's reading (which closely follows the interpretation of Strauss' student Allan Bloom), each element in this myth is meant to expose a lie that can be found at work in every human society, even our own.

Every society denies the fact that the land it occupies was taken by force from some group of human beings who was there first. (Hence the need to teach the lie that citizens are literally children of the land the society occupies.) Every society arbitrarily grants the rights and benefits of citizenship to some people and denies them to others. (Hence the need to teach the lie that all citizens are members of a natural family.) Every society allows some people to rule over others -- in a democracy, the majority rules over everyone else -- and attempts to justify this arrangement as founded in the natural order of things. (Hence the need to teach the myth of the metals.) Finally, every society requires that certain undesirable jobs be done, even when they are harmful to the individuals who do them -- coal mining, for example, or soldiering. (Hence the need to teach the myth of the tools.)

In sum, every society makes use of myths and lies to cover over injustices that are coeval with political life as such. This isn't to deny that liberal democracies strive to lessen these injustices in some areas. In comparison to most societies in history, for example, the U.S. permits a relatively large number of immigrants to become citizens. The upward mobility fostered by capitalistic exchange likewise alleviates the worst economic injustices.

Yet we still exclude people from citizenship, and we still need some people to do dangerous or otherwise harmful jobs. There is no complete solution to the problem of political injustice. Even though every society uses a variation on the noble lie to convince itself that it has somehow achieved exactly that.

Strauss didn't teach his students to tell lies. He taught them how to liberate themselves from the lies we tell ourselves.

...that we don't actually lie about them, they just aren't injustices.  

Posted by orrinj at 6:41 PM


An Iranian who could balance Tehran's factions? (David Ignatius Opinion writer October 30, 2014, Washington Post)

"He is a person in the middle," with close links to both President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, says Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian official who teaches at Princeton University and knows the leadership well. "Shamkhani can play an influential role in managing the crisis in the Arab world," he argues, in part because he is from an Arabic-speaking region of southern Iran. [...]

Shamkhani's rise is noteworthy because he appears to bridge the radical and moderate camps at a time when opinion in Iran is divided about a nuclear deal. Khamenei will have to bless any agreement made by Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

"In contrast to Iranian foreign ministry officials, Shamkhani is a former Revolutionary Guard [IRGC] commander who has the clout to challenge his former comrades," says Karim Sadjadpour, a leading Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. A European intelligence official agrees that Shamkhani may be "an honest broker" between Rouhani and Khamenei.

"Since this summer, Shamkhani has taken on a more prominent role in Iranian regional policy, especially in Iraq, which previously was the exclusive purview of the IRGC Quds Force commander, Qassem Suleimani ," explains a U.S. official who follows Iranian events closely.

Posted by orrinj at 6:14 PM


What's wrong with mindfulness? More than you might think : Separating meditation from faith is a dubious business, morally and sometimes in its effects (Melanie McDonagh, 1 November 2014, The Spectator)

I would suggest also that if mindfulness helps with mental health, then let's not forget that so does organised religion. This 'active ingredient' isn't some new miracle cure: it's the same grounding effect that Christianity has, or Judaism, or any prayerful religion. We've all, over the years, seen studies show that religious people are happier, and that both meditation and prayer are beneficial to the brain. Mindfulness can join the queue. Seldon's 21st-century boys may find it beneficial to meditate, but their 20th-century counterparts may have found it just as calming to sit in the chapel for morning prayers and just as bonding to sing hymns together. Mind you, at Wellington, they do both.

One of the difficulties mindfulness will face as it sweeps across the globe is that it quite clearly in fact is a religion, however much it might shy away from the word. It's remarkable the number of classes advertised with the caveat 'No religious content', which of course makes it palatable to the growing number who shy away from religion. It's ritual for those who don't pray; communal practice for the individualist. It's non-doctrinal, non-prescriptive, non-demanding in terms of conduct apart from an insistence on not being judgmental. It seems to be the perfect religion for a Britain which is in full flight from its state church. Most other religion substitutes -- the Sunday Assembly gatherings for atheists, for example, which Andrew Watts wrote about in this magazine back in February -- are self-consciously modelled on Christian services. But mindfulness is squarely based on Buddhism. In fact, from the focus on breathing to the insistence on compassion, it really is Buddhism. At one interesting class I attended in a Buddhist temple -- gold images galore -- the teacher declared cheerfully that this mindfulness session was going to be a cut above the rest because it got you to the fons et origo of the thing, viz. Buddhist teaching.

Taking an established religion -- Buddhism in this case -- and picking bits from it piecemeal can be a more dangerous business than it might seem. However much people may dislike the idea, the major world religions have developed incrementally over time to be a comfort and support for humans in their quest for meaning. Even the seemingly eccentric bits can serve a vital purpose, hidden from non-believers. One rejects 'the boring bits' of an established religion at one's peril. Mindfulness, based as it is on meditation, is not simply a path that leads nowhere in particular. It can lead you to that dangerous place, the heart of yourself. And there you may find a great, scary emptiness, or worse, your own personal demons.

Not everyone is strong enough to confront their inner self: in that case, meditation can be an affliction, not a therapy. That phenomenon is being studied at the so-called 'Dark Night Project' at Brown University Medical School, where Dr Willoughby Britton deals with the psychic disturbance that meditation can sometimes cause. And that's of a piece with Buddhist as well as Christian understanding of contemplation; that you can undergo what St John of the Cross called the Dark Night of the Soul. The contemplative life, in Christianity, isn't for everyone. It is understood that only a few, those with a vocation for it, have the strength to take it on.

There are other aspects of mindfulness which strike me as problematic, not to say unchristian. An important element of the practice is to eschew judgmentalism; to observe and accept ourselves and our surroundings with compassion. Which sounds dandy, except that there are some things about ourselves and our situation which we jolly well shouldn't be non-judgmental about, which we should be trying to change. One of the best things about the collective culture is that we have a strong moral sense; we consider selfish behaviour unacceptable and hold others to account. Where Buddhism causes us to go within ourselves, to meditate inwardly, Christianity takes you out of yourself -- to God and from there to others. Would a 'mindful' Britain have the same emphasis on helping others? that many of us have minds worth looking into.

Posted by Glenn Dryfoos at 6:56 AM


Dizzy Gillespie/Sonny Stitt/Sonny Rollins: Sonny Side Up

"On the Sunny Side of the Street" (from the CD) - 

"Wheatleigh Hall" (Dizzy and Sonny together in 1987, 30 years after this album) -  

I've made it all the way to week 7 of ATJ without featuring a Sonny Rollins album because I couldn't decide which one to write about.  But after the "Body and Soul" post in ATJ#5, OJ commented that he really liked a version by Sonny Stitt that he had found on YouTube.  Well, that solved my problem.

Norman Granz was a jazz promoter and label owner (Norgran, Verve and Pablo) who was known for bringing together groups of jazz all-stars for live and recorded jam sessions, including his famous "Jazz at the Philharmonic" concerts.  In December 1957, he brought into the studio one of his most inspired groupings of musicians, the great trumpeter and co-creator of bebop, Dizzy Gillespie, along with Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt, two of the titans of the tenor sax.  Although both Sonnys were disciples of Charlie Parker, there were significant differences in their playing.  Stitt, who first gained fame on alto and moved to tenor in part because he was perceived as sounding too much like Parker, was a player of astounding technique and improvisational skill.  But, he rarely moved outside the template for improvisation laid down by Bird...his playing was fiery, but he blazed no new paths.  Rollins was also an absolute virtuoso, but he was a searcher who stretched the boundaries of bop and reinvented himself multiple times over the course of a career that still continues into his mid-80's.  Among Rollins' contributions was an emphasis on thematic development within his improvisations; his solos weren't just a string of notes (no matter how fast or beautiful)...they told a story, and that story was often infused with a romance, humor, yearning or swagger that seemed almost tangible.

Sonny Side Up starts with the pop tune "On the Sunny Side of the Street."  Besides being a pun on the name of two of the participants, this track provides a jaunty, moderately paced warm up.   Stitt leads off the soloing, followed by Dizzy and Rollins before Dizzy offers a lighthearted hipster vocal.  (Although bop is often described as a protest against some of the pop/entertainment elements of earlier forms of jazz, when it came to clowning, mugging and generally having fun while making great music, Dizzy had a lot of Louis Armstrong in him. When listening to the YouTube version of "Sunny Side," try to hear the differences in the tone, attack and phrasing of the two Sonnys.

Legend has it that a few days before this session Dizzy called Rollins and Stitt and told each that the other planned to "cut" him in the studio (meaning that he would outplay him...jam sessions were often somewhat less bloody forms of Old West shootouts).  Whether this is true or not, both tenors came to the next song, "The Eternal Triangle" well armed and well prepared. The level of playing throughout this 14-minute romp over the chord changes of "I've Got Rhythm" (a favorite harmonic framework for beboppers) is simply astounding.  Played at a rapid tempo, first Rollins and then Stitt fly over the changes without a misstep.  After they each solo (if you're testing your ability to tell them apart, Rollins ends and Stitt begins at around the 2:55 mark), they "trade 4's" (that is, alternate 4-bar phrases) before Dizzy comes in and reminds everyone that he invented this bebop stuff.

"After Hours" is a slow blues that starts with a wonderful and soulful statement from pianist Ray Bryant (whose brother, Tommy is the bass player) and again has great solos from the three horns.  The set closes with "I Know That You Know," the kind of old pop standard that Rollins loved to resurrect and modernize.  The highlight is Rollins leading off with a stop-time solo, meaning the rhythm section only hits on the first beat of each measure, leaving the rest of the bar open for Sonny to explore without the usual rhythmic and harmonic guideposts provided by the piano, bass and drums.  (Within a few years, Rollins would take this to its logical extreme and perform completely alone, as in the version of "Body & Soul" covered a few weeks back.)  

I'm sure there will be more Dizzy, Rollins and Stitt in future ATJ posts.  But this is a "desert island"-worthy introduction to three of the true giants of jazz

October 30, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 6:51 PM


Journalists need a point of view if they want to stay relevant (Jay Rosen, 10/24/14, The Conversation)

Instead of trying to stay in the middle between polarized extremes and avoid criticism, political journalists and their bosses could recognize that there is no escape from charges of bias because these charges are just a further aspect of polarization. If you're going to be attacked anyway, might as well let it rip.

That's what the Washington Post did when earlier this month it hired Chris Mooney to cover the environment in blog form. Mooney is the author of two books -- The Republican War on Science and The Republican Brain (subtitle: The Science of Why They Deny Science - and Reality) -- that leave no doubt about where he stands. In announcing his appointment, the Post described Mooney as a writer with a distinctive voice and a consistent argument: "that people's preconceptions - political, religious, cultural - color the way they view science."

Newsrooms are better off with reporters who know their beats, nail their arguments, make clear where they're coming from and meet high standards of verification, always. Intellectual honesty is a more reliable basis for trust than a ritualized objectivity. A clear voice is more valuable than a nonpartisan veneer.

Posted by orrinj at 6:48 PM


Jail cells 'made from modern art' (BBC, 3/28/03)

A Spanish art historian has found evidence that suggests some Civil War jail cells were built like 3-D modern art paintings in order to torture prisoners.

The cells were built in 1938 for the republican forces fighting General Franco's Fascist Nationalist army, who eventually won power, historian Jose Milicua told the Spanish newspaper El Pais.
Milicua told the paper he had found court papers from the 1939 trial of French anarchist Alphonse Laurencic, a republican, by a Franco-ist military court.

During the trial Laurencic revealed he was inspired by modern artists, such as surrealist Salvador Dali and Bauhaus artist Wassily Kandinsky, to create the torture cells, said Milicua.

Posted by orrinj at 6:40 PM


Dems Rush to Save Suddenly Vulnerable Incumbents (Donna Cassata, October 30, 2014, AP) 

Desperate Democrats are rushing to save suddenly vulnerable House incumbents, even in states where President Barack Obama cruised to double-digit victories, amid fresh signs of Republican momentum less than a week before the midterm elections.

The once friendly terrain of New York, California, Obama's native state of Hawaii and adopted state of Illinois all now pose stiff challenges to Democrats who are determined to limit their losses next Tuesday. [...]

"We're in trench warfare. I'm not going to sugarcoat it," Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an interview.

In one sign of Democratic concern, Vice President Joe Biden was heading to Massachusetts on Wednesday for a rally with Seth Moulton, who is trying to hold onto a Democratic seat against Republican Richard Tisei. Then Biden was traveling to California on Saturday to campaign in an open-seat contest east of Los Angeles that surprisingly looks closer than a sure-fire Democratic gain.

"Heck, it's been so long since a Republican was elected to the Congress in Massachusetts, most Republicans don't know how to spell Massachusetts," joked Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. He said the GOP is spending 78 percent of its independent money in districts that Obama won.

Winning these types of unexpected seats is the easy part.  The hard part is governing well enough to deserve re-election.
Posted by orrinj at 6:34 PM


Why you should worry less about Ebola and more about measles (William Moss, 10/30/14, The Conversation)

The fact is, in the United States the risk of infection with measles virus or death from influenza virus is far greater.

Although the outbreak in West Africa is increasing exponentially, Ebola is not as contagious as many other infectious diseases. Transmission requires direct contact with infected body fluids. Measles, influenza and pertussis (whooping cough) on the other hand, are spread by respiratory secretions. They are much more explosive because transmission does not require direct contact with an infected person.

The speed with which an outbreak grows depends on how many additional people are infected by each infectious case and the time interval between infections. To put the current Ebola numbers in context, one person with Ebola will on average infect only 1.5 to 2.2 additional people. The relatively low number of people infected by a single case should make it easier to interrupt transmission. Further facilitating control is the fact that a person with Ebola is most infectious after the onset of signs and symptoms.

By contrast, a person with measles is infectious for several days before they become sick. And a person with measles will on average infect 12 to 18 additional people. This year 594 measles cases have been reported in the United States through September 29th, the most in two decades. These cases represent 18 measles outbreaks in 22 states.

An estimated 122,000 people - mostly children - worldwide died of measles in 2012, about 330 measles deaths every day. In the US the increasing number of measles cases is mostly due to people visiting countries with measles outbreaks and carrying the virus back home and into communities in which large numbers of people are not vaccinated.

Posted by orrinj at 6:30 PM


Feed your garden with fall leaves : Shredded leaves layered into a bed makes for rich spring soil. (Jane Shellenberger,  OCTOBER 29, 2014, CS Monitor)

Leaves are one of the best ingredients for healthy vegetable garden soil. They contain all three major plant nutrients (nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus), plus mineral micronutrients that plants need. These nutrients and micronutrients become available to plants through decomposition by soil microbes. Earthworms pull leaf pieces down from the surface, eating them as they tunnel through soil. The worms aerate and fertilize the soil with their castings (poop), making nutrients available to smaller soil critters and microbes, including the beneficial bacteria and fungi that play a major role in the decomposition and growth processes. 

If you start building healthy soil now, using leaves to feed the worms and microbes, they will do the heavy lifting for you. By the time spring arrives, you'll be ready to plant without backbreaking digging or rototilling, which rips up the tapestry of soil life.

Posted by orrinj at 6:26 PM


TFSAs Spur Canada Savings Revolution (CHRIS EDWARDS, 10/24/14, Cato)

There are 27.7 million Canadian adults, so about 47 percent of them own a TFSA, according to the data from Investor Economics. A 2013 survey by a bank found a similar figure of 48 percent. In just five years, TFSAs have become the most popular savings vehicle in Canada, outstripping the Canadian version of 401(k)s. TFSA growth is expected to continue, and the accounts may soon play a central role in virtually every family's financial planning.

The American vehicle most similar to the TFSA is the Roth Individual Retirement Account (IRA). But Roths are far inferior, and thus just 16 percent of U.S. households own them. Indeed, just 38 percent of U.S. households hold any type of IRA, even though these accounts have been around a lot longer than TFSAs.

TFSAs are like supercharged Roth IRAs. Here are some of the key features: 

*Individuals can deposit up to $5,500 after-tax each year. Annual contribution limits accumulate if you do not use them. So if you contribute $2,000 this year, you will be able to put away $9,000 next year ($3,500+$5,500).

*All account earnings and withdrawals are tax-free.

*Withdrawals can be made at any time for any reason with no penalties or taxes. That greatly simplifies the accounts and increases liquidity, both of which encourage added savings.

*There are no income limits and no withdrawal requirements. All Canadian adults can contribute and withdraw at any time during their lives.

*TFSAs can be opened at any bank branch or online. They can hold bank deposits, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and other types of assets.

*TFSAs are great for all types of saving, including saving to buy a home, a car, or to start a business, and saving for health expenses, unemployment, or retirement.    

Why are we letting Canadians have all the fun?

Posted by orrinj at 6:18 PM


Can Democrats hold the Senate by running away from Obama -- and their own records? (Karen Tumulty, October 28, 2014, Washington Post)

Another senior Democrat who advises the White House, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the current feeling among Obama and his aides is "exasperation."

"He doesn't think they have any reason to run away from him," the adviser said. "He thinks there is a strong message there."

The president has hinted at the tension in recent remarks. "Make no mistake, these policies are on the ballot, every single one of them," Obama said earlier this month. He restated the obvious a few weeks later in a radio interview when he said of the Democratic senators who are struggling this year: "The bottom line is . . . these are all folks who vote with me; they have supported my agenda in Congress."

Posted by orrinj at 6:15 PM


The U.S.-Iran non-alliance alliance against Islamic State (Aki Peritz and Faris Alikhan, October 29, 2014, Reuters)

The Iraqi Army is largely a wreck, unable to retake northern Iraq from Islamic State and its allies. The army is in such a sorry state that it allied over the summer with murderous Shi'ite militias -- many trained by Iran and Hezbollah outside of the country -- to make limited gains.

In addition, Iranian handlers, led by the omnipresent Quds Force chief Qasem Soleimani (who has appeared in a lot of photos lately), backed Shi'ite militias, Iraqi troops and Kurdish peshmerga and repulsed Islamic State from the Iraqi town of Amerli, all aided by U.S. warplanes. Those involved strenuously denied that Washington and Tehran coordinated any military action -- but U.S. airstrikes helped turn the tide against the militants.

Presumably military planners on all sides view this as a model -- if a terribly flawed one -- for future battles against Islamic State. The United States provides airpower, the key piece of modern warfare that Iran and its proxies cannot replicate, and one that Islamic State militants now do not seem to have effective countermeasures against.

Iran has also appeared willing to deploy its elite and regular ground forces to achieve specific goals in the Iraqi battle zone. Both countries are also concerned with "mission creep," so each seems willing to stay out of each other's way.

Posted by orrinj at 6:13 PM


Senate Democrats' Last Bastion: Single, College-Educated Women (RONALD BROWNSTEIN, October 29, 2014, National Journal)

Socially liberal white-collar and single white women look like the fragile last line of defense for Democrats hoping to avoid a Republican sweep in next week's election, according to detailed results from a broad array of new polls.

For the third consecutive election, congressional Democrats are facing the prospect of a decisive rejection by most white voters, including not only white men but also white women who are either married or lack a college degree. But in surveys of both individual Senate races and national preferences on the generic congressional ballot, Democrats are showing stubborn strength with college-educated and single white women.

That performance--combined with preponderant leads among minority voters in almost all surveys--represents the Democrats' best chance of overcoming gaping deficits with the remainder of the white electorate in the key contests. Yet in a measure of the party's vulnerability, even that advantage rests on an unsteady foundation: National Pew Research Center and ABC/Washington Post polls conducted in October found that college-educated white women, though strongly preferring Democrats on issues relating to women's health, actually trust Republicans more on both managing the economy and safeguarding the nation's security.

Posted by orrinj at 6:03 PM


The real lesson of the looming Martha Coakley disaster  (W. James Antle III, 10/30/14, The Week)

Yes, Martha Coakley is that bad.

The Massachusetts attorney general is most famous for blowing a huge lead in 2010 to lose the commonwealth's special Senate election for the late Ted Kennedy's seat to Scott Brown -- then a no-name Tea Partier best known for driving a truck. And while next Tuesday's gubernatorial contest is much closer, she seems poised to follow up her 2010 debacle with a loss to Republican Charlie Baker in this year's governor's race.

While only one major survey has Baker ahead by anything like a comfortable margin, Coakley has trailed in six of the last eight polls. A seventh had the race tied. Even the down-the-line liberal Boston Globe endorsed Baker over Coakley, concluding the Republican would provide the "best counterpoint to the instincts of an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature."

Coakley doesn't inspire anyone, not even her fellow Democrats. She seems oddly detached from Boston culture, as if a UFO dropped her in the middle of Yawkey Way from an alien planet. [...]

Overall, the Massachusetts political climate has a feel similar to 1990, when Bill Weld -- Baker's former boss -- kicked off 16 straight years of Republicans in the governor's mansion.

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