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Penguin sweaters

The horrible oil spill off Tauranga in New Zealand affected vast numbers of birds, in addition to all the other catastrophes. Some of those birds are little blue penguins. Some of the birds could be cleaned off in time and have been saved.

But it’s essential to prevent the birds from trying to preen their crude oil-covered feathers before the people can bathe them. And for that, there are penguin jumpers. (Or, in the US, “sweaters.”)

little blue penguins in knitted sweaters, looking alert and important. Original photographer unknown.

I’m not sure why two self-important birds make me feel happy, but they do.

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Here we go again

As the Red Queen says, I’m for you, #OccupyWallStreet, but you make it so damn hard.

There’s the pathetic to nasty sexism that doesn’t get called out. The common reactions are either a deafening silence or protests that these are not official representatives. In a “leaderless” movement, who if not everybody should be the leaders calling out that BS?

There’s the early lack of concern about the very 99% the movement represents, when some dude wasn’t interested in helping a local LA hotel workers’ union. His only question was why the union wasn’t supporting his cause.

Then there are the reports filtering through that rather basic consideration for disabled people has been overlooked. Simple things like just letting people know how many steps are involved at #Occupy sites.

Now I see this in the LATimes:

The Occupy movement came to Los Angeles aiming for Wall Street titans, but farmers market vendors are the first to take a real hit.

Two weeks ago, about 40 vendors who sell on the City Hall lawn every Thursday were forced off the property after protesters refused to remove their city of tents. …

“The cause is good,” said Genaro Lopez, a vendor who initially helped protesters with free sodas and burritos. “But this is our bread and butter, and we’ve taken a huge hit.” …

Still, Fennelly said, protesters are choosing to stay put, because “an occupation means an occupation, not a three-week camp-out.”

The decision was made through a vote Oct. 19, she said. Close to a hundred demonstrators cast votes. Nearly everyone agreed to move, but a handful did not. Because decisions required unanimous approval, the handful won….”

I don’t suppose it would occur to the geniuses to move the Occupation to the less visible site for a few hours? (They’re in tents, if anything, right? Aren’t those made to be moved?)

Or to take one look at California politics and understand the downstream consequences of requiring super-majorities for decision-making? (Hint: gridlock or the jerks win.)

You know what, folks? This isn’t going to work. I think you need some of the ideas I’ve discussed here. Mainly that rights are for all, including the rights you’re fighting for. Including when you have to make way so that others don’t get pushed to the wall. Otherwise you’re just fighting for your own privileges.

Or maybe you need other ideas entirely. But whatever it is, it’s not more of the same.

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What part of “Stop Stealing!” is hard to understand?

Bank of America has now jumped the shark, gone right over the top, past the frozen limit, and exposed themselves.

This ought to be unbelievable. It only makes sense if the bank robbers are running the bank. Bank of America has transferred assets it acquired during its takeover of the Merrill Lynch brokerage to its deposit-taking arm.

Let me unpack that a bit.

Banks, officially, put people’s savings into safe investments. The FDIC insures those savings in case the banks fail, but to prevent that outcome there are strict regulations about how banks can only put that money in safe investments.

Brokerages, officially, exist to broker any transactions on any market. Those can be the staidest of riskfree investments, like Treasury bonds, or interesting things like ultrashort inverse contracts derived from the SP 500 basket of stocks. “Derivatives” may be two, three, four, or even more meta levels above the real underlying things they represent, such as a stock or tanker load of oil. With some derivatives, you can make many times the amount of your own money that’s tied up in the trade, or, likewise, you can lose more than everything you own. That means (duh, right?) they’re risky. They have legitimate functions, such as hedging other risks or providing a way to bet on being right, but nobody ever pretends they’re safe.

Nor is there any universe in which it is up to the FDIC (=taxpayers) to make them safe by writing blank checks to cover them.

So what does BofA do? It takes bets made by Merrill Lynch — bets which were fine for a brokerage — and makes them part of the regular bank assets that are covered by the FDIC. By the magic of modern accounting, the taxpayer gets to cover wild stock market gambles that didn’t pan out.

There’s another wrinkle here. In the old high-flying days, financial institutions would sell derivatives to customers, e.g. one expecting price to go up, and then the institutions would, for their own account, buy the opposite derivative! There are two betrayals. It’s their fiduciary responsibility to tell their customers that the firm is itself investing in a fall in price. And it’s wrong to rake in money from customer commissions as well as customer losses on those same trades. It’s called a conflict of interest. It’s a big no-no.

After the crash, when it became clear that betting against the customer was fairly common in the financial industry, regulations were put in place against what’s called “proprietary trades.”

So what is BofA’s excuse for what it’s done?

Bank of America spokesman Jerry Dubrowski said the bank’s derivatives trades are subject to risk-management controls and are client-driven, not proprietary trades – meaning the bank is not betting with its own money.

In other words, it’s okay to stick taxpayers with the bill for somebody else’s failed stock market gamble because the gamble itself was not a criminal breach of ethics.

Hello? It’s the gambling that is not insured. We don’t really care who did it. And the fact that it wasn’t criminal gambling only makes it one of the few things for which BofA won’t need a lawyer.

The scariest part is that for all I know, the gross rip-off may be legal. Most of the laws for banks were written before they could turn themselves into FDIC-insured gamblers.

Bank of America posted a third quarter profit — i.e. just for the months of July, August, and September — of $5.9 billion.

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What’s right isn’t always what’s good

There’s something that bothers me about the current conversation (diatribe?) about the sins of the bankers.

The tone of a lot of the talk is as if they belong to some other species, as if they commit crimes nobody else does, but also as if they keep their heads when nobody else can.

Holding them to sub- or superhuman standards means it’s hard to understand why they do what they do. And that means it’s hard to make them do the right thing.

Let me explain what I mean.

After the crash, US banks were bailed out. People were outraged, and rightfully so. It’s just wrong for a thief to rob your house and then grab your savings when the jerk can’t make his rent.


The time to worry about the thieving was before the crash. While it was going on. Then it would have been possible to stop it without crashing the economy.

It would have also stopped the wild ride, and — at the time — not many people wanted that. Plenty of people are just like bankers without a bank. There’s a big difference in impact, but the difference is one of degree. They’re no more subhuman than everyone else.

When the crash happens the sad fact is the thief lives in the same house you do. When he (the high-flying financial mavens were almost all “he”) can’t make his share of the rent, you both get evicted.

The thieves are literally in the same house. They’re in the same economy. The 99% and the bankers all depend on it. If the economy is destroyed, everybody is just as homeless. Your pension loses money. Your job is destroyed. The value of your house goes down. That’s been made rather clear by now.

There is no way — during the actual crash — to limit the damage to the people who caused it. There is no choice but to bail out the jerks who caused the problem. It’s not right. It’s maddening. But doing anything else means more damage for you. It’s not about punishing the guilty at that point. It’s about saving the innocent.

That’s why the bailout was the right thing to do. It wasn’t done well, or enough, or with any of the necessary rules attached to it, but it did avert a much bigger disaster. That’s all clear by now, and leads even compassionate economists to point out that economics is not a morality play.

The time for retribution is afterward. That is, now. But now the 1% are going scot-free and raking in more money than ever. That’s criminal laxity. Not the bailout.

However, bankers are just people with banks, so they’re now going through the same process of preferring moral outrage to emergency assistance.

Europe is having a similar problem with inability to repay debts. In their case it’s a country, not mixed salads of mortgages, but the problem is the same.

Unless Greece is convincingly bailed out, everybody with money in the market will be worried about how much they could lose if they don’t get out now. If everybody pulls their money out, economies freeze up, and we all go broke.

So what have the bankers been arguing about? How to create the funds for an adequate bailout? No, it’s about not wanting to bail out those profligate Greeks. It’s the same routine, but with more numbers and graphs: I was frugal. It’s not fair to make me pay some gambler’s debts. They should just suck it up.

These are people whose jobs are dealing with money. They, of all people, should know that economics is not a morality play. They, of all people, should know that when the sheriff is at the door with the eviction notice, it’s not the time to beat up the crackhead brother for squandering the rent. At that point, you just scrape together the rent. Later, you send the brother to rehab.

What’s funny, though, is how far the inability to recognize the common roots of feelings extends. Krugman is smarter than I am in practically every way, but even he is continually mystified by the non-rational adherence to austerity when austerity will cost the earth. (Read his blog. There are dozens of posts asking What were they thinking?.)

There’s nothing mysterious about it. It’s the same reaction everybody has. Don’t make me pay for someone else’s mistakes. It doesn’t matter whether you agree with the bankers’ definitions of mistakes. Nobody wants to pay for what they see as somebody else’s mistakes. And when something turns out to be a mistake, it’s amazing how fast it becomes somebody else’s.

The other unspoken, non-rational motivation is the equally simple one that austerity for thee but not for me is a great way for the rich to get richer. That, too, may be unmentionable, but it is not mysterious.

The point is this. Once the emotional roots of a non-rational stand are recognized, there’s a chance one could deal with it. It’s only a chance, but without that understanding, there’s none at all. Understanding allows us to start fighting the right battles instead of the distractions.

For instance, bankers are professionals, so they hang an economic story around their outrage. They come up with theoretical underpinnings for why austerity is such a good idea. None of those pins stays in place when examined, but they don’t care. And that is the hallmark of acting on feelings, just like an ordinary human being. They’re no more superhuman than everyone else.

I’m not suggesting that every argument one doesn’t like can be written off as “emotional.” All arguments have to be evaluated against the evidence, and evaluated several times to make sure the results are right. But once that’s done, if people keep clutching an anti-rational position, it is not insulting to figure out why they’re doing that. It’s essential.

And then when one argues with them, one needs to argue with their real reasons, not their stories.

So, in the present case, if the roots of the cries for austerity were faced squarely, we could clear the way for useful solutions. We could discount the more-for-me motivation as the bog-standard grabbiness we all have and decide to ignore it. And to the extent that the cries are rooted in a sense of unfairness, maybe we could get past it.

We could acknowledge the unfairness. We could resolve to deal with it after the crisis, instead of letting the rich and powerful off scot-free. And we could acknowledge that fairness is better served by helping millions of small people through the crisis, even if it also carries along some perps. That’s the good thing to do. Punishing the perps may feel right, but it’s stupid to let it cost us everything we have.

[Update Oct 27th: It remains to be seen whether today's agreement in Europe to help Greece did enough or just did the minimum to keep the markets from panicking this very minute. Still, any prevention of panic is better than none.]

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The obesity epidemic

People discuss obesity as an epidemic, but the solution somehow remains individual action. That doesn’t work for real epidemics. You can’t, for instance, not catch smallpox all by yourself. (You can be lucky and have natural resistance, but that’s different.)

It’s turning out that people spoke more truth than they realized. Evidence is accumulating that obesity is a real epidemic, i.e. a public health issue with social and environmental causes. It’s something I’ve suspected for years.

Obesity has become more prevalent over the last thirty to forty years. That means — at the population level — it can’t be caused by the human tendency to eat too much. People have always been primed to eat too much, but large numbers of very overweight people relative to the whole population is a phenomenon of the last few decades.

And note that this isn’t just a matter of changing measurements or statistics. When coffin makers have to upsize coffins because the ones they’ve used for decades no longer work, there’s a real change. It’s not just PR.

So the cause(s) of the problem have to be something that’s changed in the last few decades. I’ll list all the changed factors I can think of, but the one I want to talk about is the last. Some of them are most developed in the US, but if and when they manifest elsewhere, they can be expected to promote obesity likewise.

  • The baby boom generation, which is large relative to the whole population, has aged, and older people are often heavier. (A factor beyond anyone’s control.)
  • Advertising for high-calorie fast food has grown very sophisticated and ubiquitous, and fast food is much more available. (A social environment factor that requires changes to industries.) (A side note: advertising is not something that can be simply ignored. It functions to steer choices whether you’re paying attention or not. The only way to avoid its effect is to avoid the advertising itself, which involves avoiding almost all modern media. Individuals may do that, but it’s not going to happen at a population level, and that’s where public health issues operate.)
  • Related to that is the increase in drinking sweetened sodas. That’s upped average calorie intake by a couple of hundred calories per day. (Again, advertising and availability combine to make this a social environment factor.)
  • Related to both of the above is the use of refined sugar, which has never before been used on the huge scale of the last few decades. It promotes obesity by the simple mechanism of making it too easy to get too many calories. There’s also a potential added wrinkle involving high fructose sweeteners. Scientists argue about its effect. Fructose is processed differently than glucose, and given the way it’s regulated, it could be a contributing factor to the problem. (A social environment factor due to industry practices and agricultural subsidies.)
  • Urban factors contribute as well. Urban sprawl makes distances too big for walking. Use of mass transit, which requires walking to and from stops, has declined versus personal cars. And many urban areas don’t have adequate parks or play spaces where adults and children can be physically active. Epidemiology indicates that (lack of) urban planning is a measurable factor in increasing obesity. (NYTimes 2003 article) (Another social environment issue.)
  • Last, there’s my pet peeve: endocrine disruptors. These are pollutants that are byproducts of some plastics, some agricultural chemicals, some hormone therapies, and the like. Bisphenol A (BPA) is a well known example. Once they’re in the environment they can break down into related compounds, they get into the food chain, and once they’re ingested, they latch on to some of the same receptors as the body’s own hormones. Once they’ve latched on, they can rev up or shut down the normal function, or they can cause strange results not in the body’s normal repertoire. Widespread endocrine disruptor pollution has happened only in the last few decades. (An environmental factor involving dozens of industries.)

Recent research (press release, article summary in Cell Metabolism) has shown that estrogen receptors in the brains of female mice regulate hunger and energy expenditure. (Male brains likewise have various androgen and estrogen receptors and are expected to have similar regulatory pathways. However, that wasn’t the topic of this research. The recent increase in the phenomenon of “man-boobs” on young and not-obese men shows rather plainly that endocrine disruptors have no less effect on fat deposition in men.)

Interestingly, one implication the researchers draw is that estrogen replacement therapy for postmenopausal women may have an overlooked benefit by keeping weight down and therefore keeping the complications of obesity down.

However, they don’t draw the far more significant implication for the entire population. If sex hormone receptors regulate energy balance, and if we’ve flooded the environment with bad substitutes for sex hormones, is it any wonder that people are having trouble regulating energy balance?

It’s one more instance where the flood of chemicals released by modern industry is affecting the environment, in this case the environment of the human body.

Like all public health issues, nothing less than a population-level approach will work. Dysentery, cholera, and typhoid are never wiped out by drinking boiled water. They’re wiped out by building municipal sewers. Smallpox wasn’t eradicated by avoiding smallpox patients. It was eradicated by universal vaccination. The individual actions aren’t useless. They just don’t change the widespread causes of the widespread problem.

Modern health problems like cancer and obesity aren’t going to be wiped out by eating fresh vegetables. Eating veggies is good, but it doesn’t address the basic problem. That’s going to take nothing less than a change to clean sustainable industry.

It’s almost enough to make you wish a mere diet really was all that’s needed.

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The Not-so-hot Knobs of Wall Street

The story so far: Some idiot decides to photograph attractive women demonstrating in Occupy Everywhere events. They probably think they’re part of a narrative on all the great ideas happening in the movement.

What he publishes on youtube is something he calls “Hot Chicks of Wall Street.”

Okay. So far it’s just a bog-standard sad tale of a male who says he has no idea how revolting he is. Jill wrote about it. Now comes the bad part.

Does everyone in Occupy Wall Street rise up to say That Is Not Cool? To say that the knob is no longer welcome in any part of the movement? To ask everyone in it not to give the tripe any air? To affirm that women and men are partners in the movement, not decorations rated on fuckability?


Instead there are complaints about how it’s not an official video from the officially official representatives of OccupyWallStreet so it doesn’t count. (E.g. comments here.) It’s just some lone jerk. He’s no part of the “brand.”

Really? Here’s MarketWatch, not a site otherwise much concerned with OWS. This, however, did catch their eye. (click to enlarge) picture of main MarketWatch page with attractive female demonstrator story highlighted in the top right corner

You know what? OWS didn’t officially kick him out. And don’t tell me, “It’s leaderless. There are no officials.” If the video doesn’t count because it’s not official, then there’s somebody who could officially repudiate it. You can’t have it both ways. Now the knob’s work is the mainstream face of OWS. Deal with it.

Furthermore, the knob is getting plenty of air. So much so that Jill had to write a follow-up post about his rape jokes.

Did OWS shut down the jerks whining about how this is nothing but healthy men liking healthy sex and you just have no sense of fun?


They could have pointed out that women like sex too. That doesn’t mean everyone has to listen to endless talk on the size of men’s packages. You keep that stuff to yourself, and to your partner(s). And if you’re a rude jerk to the 99% — any of the 99% — they could have said they don’t want you in the movement.

Then it gets steeply worse. There have been reports of rapes. Did OWS affirm strong support for the women in their ranks, and provide what they could in the way of medical, legal, and police resources?


One group said such reports should go through an OWS committee of some kind, which would vet it for report-worthiness. If they passed it, then it was okay to go to the police.

Uh, hello? Earth calling Dude Nation. Those are the tactics of KBR. They were the military contractors in Iraq who imprisoned a worker after she’d been gang-raped to prevent her from talking about the crime. OWS isn’t imprisoning anyone, but they do seem more worried about reporting than they are about the crime. The tactics differ in degree, not in kind. That is wrong.

Apparently, the official officials at OWS don’t know that. Apparently, they can’t figure out that the way to have enough credibility to fight false accusations of rape is to take the crime seriously. Because I suspect that’s the real issue. They’re terrified of fabricated charges being used to discredit the whole movement.

So they’ve decided to beat everyone else to the punch and discredit the whole movement themselves.

Don’t try to tell me these are just individuals who don’t represent the movement. If they don’t represent the movement, then tell me this:

Where is the outrage shutting them down?

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The Unseen

This picture hit me. Like a wet fish slapped in my face.

It’s part of a BBC photoessay about the poorest of boys in Nigeria finding something to love in their lives in the game of football (what the US calls soccer).

Nothing wrong with that. Good for them!

But this was the second picture in the series:

Group of boys playing on a grubby slum street. They and the photographer are oblivious to the woman passing within a few inches of them, a black-shrouded ghost

What I saw was this:

Moves the point of view halfway to the woman

Focuses on the woman

The caption says nothing about the black-shrouded ghost in the picture. She’s closer than a hand’s breadth away from the nearest boys because she’s trying to stay on the dirt road and out of the open sewer that is the gutter. They don’t seem to see her. They don’t give her any space. She doesn’t ask for any. She doesn’t exist.

Nor does the photographer see her. “Ibadan’s youngsters file into teams wearing different jerseys.” (No. Ibadan’s boys file into teams.) “Their goal is simple. … [T]o improve their standard of living and that of their families.” “Akeeb Kareem, chairman of Ibadan’s Sango Community Youth Forum, says the street game is invaluable in keeping the city’s young men constructively occupied.” But the woman, swaddled in black when it’s sweltering, couldn’t play outside even if such an idea occurred to her. Nobody’s worrying about how to make it easier for her to be constructively occupied. She already is, carrying a bag of food home, by the look of it.

Women do nearly three quarters of the work in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s good that the boys are trying to beat poverty. If that’s good, the people already doing 70% of the work to help their families are even more worthy of focus. Helping them in their constructive occupations will lead to even better results. Assuming anyone is interested in results.

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An open letter to #OccupyWallStreet

Sometimes I think I may have something to contribute to #OccupyWallStreet. Sometimes I don’t know. The only people who would know are you, if you’ve seen what I’m talking about. So, well, here goes. Sorry that I’m talking about my own stuff. I don’t know any other way to let you know about it, and it may be worth your time.

I’m not trying to answer the question about “What’s the message?” The message is “A fair deal for the 99%!” Obviously.

Nor does anyone need help with some of the great tactics OccupyWallStreet is already using.

But I might have something to contribute to the discussion about the kind of society we want to have.

#OccupyWallStreet is focusing on the crimes of Big Money, and the story is the same wherever you look. Environmental pollution, cell phone privacy, copyright law, marriage equality, living wages, everything is tied together by an understanding of what individual rights really mean and what they are.

For instance, the right to life is a matter of law, but the right to a living is not. And yet, without the right to a living, life becomes a privilege. The right to a living implies enormous changes to economic systems. It makes sense to think about how to make those changes as fairly as possible. OccupyWallStreet is not about getting new privileges and making a new underclass.

Another example. The level of acceptable environmental pollution is set by assuming only a few people will pollute. But if we’re all equal, then we can all pollute equally. Based on rights, rather than a privilege to pollute, acceptable levels have to be set according to what is scientifically defensible if everyone polluted equally.

And a final example. If everyone is equal, nobody can have more access to the law than anyone else. An open legislative process is one implication. It’s a right, part of being equal before the law, to know who authored which laws . Nor is it hard to do. Software writers have shown the way with versioning systems such as Plone that can track millions of changes in large collaborative projects.

My ideas aren’t necessarily new or unique, but I haven’t seen them all together in one place with their interrelationships spelled out. Those ideas, in my work or anywhere else, show that the issues raised by the 99% aren’t just grievances. Not that that’s news either, but non-sympathizers try to make it sound as if protestors are whining about not getting theirs.

Grounding the movement in the big picture makes it easy to show that the issue is rights. Not complaints and not grievances and not money. The protests are about being deprived of rights. The goals are to regain rights.

I try to explore the concepts of equal rights in our current context. Whether I come up with anything plausible or useful will show up in time if people want to have a look at it. In case anyone does, in the long fall evenings camped out in the Occupation zones, here’s the link to the whole nine yards, aka Re-imagining Democracy. If it does nothing else, it moves the Overton window back to the left.

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They say delay is a sign of depression

(Updated below)

You have to admit, I have plenty to be depressed about. The rule of law has been dead in the US for years. Now, with the killing of al-Awlaki in Yemen, they put a marker on it, a great big gravestone.

“…[T]he Obama administration had compiled a hit list of American citizens whom the President had ordered assassinated without any due process, and one of those Americans was Anwar al-Awlaki. No effort was made to indict him for any crimes (despite a report last October that the Obama administration was “considering” indicting him). Despite substantial doubt among Yemen experts about whether he even had any operational role in Al Qaeda, no evidence (as opposed to unverified government accusations) was presented of his guilt.

“…[T]he U.S. Government has seized and exercised exactly the power the Fifth Amendment [of the Constitution] was designed to bar (“No person shall be deprived of life without due process of law”), and did so in a way that almost certainly violates core First Amendment protections (questions that will now never be decided in a court of law).” (Greenwald, Sep. 30, 2011)

And, as far as I can tell, most people here see that as a good thing. That’s the real death. Tumors are just a symptom of cancer. The cause is all the immune system cells, not enough of whom can tell right from wrong.

Update Oct 6: Now I read that there was another person, also a US citizen, Samir Khan, who was killed as collateral damage together with al-Awlaki. The government isn’t even pretending he committed a crime. All he did was write a pro-Al-Qaida blog. And have what my grandmother would have called “bad friends.” Meaning al-Awlaki. But I gather killing Khan is okay because he committed thought crimes. Or something.

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