Think

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Touch

Identifying Radical Islam

The massacre of nearly 200 civilians by a 10-man terrorist group in Mumbai, India, revealed a frightening new world. First of all, the terrorists' attack was thoroughly planned and efficiently executed, with help from elements within Pakistan's security and intelligence services. Their tactics are replicable in every country with a substantial Muslim presence.

Second, the attack on the Chabad House revealed that every Jewish institution in the world is a potential target. Attempting to guard all those institutions would be prohibitively expensive and likely ineffective, given that the attackers would inevitably be better armed, better trained and enjoy the element of surprise. Iran is believed to have sleeper terror cells all over the globe, and they will target Jewish institutions. Indeed, they already have in the 1994 bombing of the Jewish center in Buenos Aires, which claimed 85 lives.

Perhaps most frightening of all, the response to Mumbai showed that the West is still not prepared to acknowledge the threat of radical Islam. And it is pretty hard to confront a threat that one dare not call by name. As news of the attack broke, Western media pretended that the religious identity of the terrorists remained a mystery. US media outlets even speculated that perhaps the attackers were a radical Hindu group. Yet one would have to think back a long way to a terror attack not perpetrated by Muslims.

ONCE THE religious identity of the terrorists could no longer be denied, the media stole a page from British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith's playbook. She has gone beyond Orwell in ordering terror committed by Muslims to be described as anti-Islamic terror because it places Islam in a bad light. (Even US President George W. Bush has long since dropped Islamofascism from his lexicon.) Western media reporting from Mumbai consistently downplayed both the ideological and Islamic nature of the attack.

One Australian paper described "teenage gunmen run amok" as the source of the carnage, as if Mumbai were a particularly vicious rerun of Columbine High School and the terrorists had no clearly defined goals in mind. British TV Channel 4 was even more egregious in its description of the perpetrators as having shown a "wanton disregard for race or creed." Just the opposite was the case. The terrorists had a number of clearly identified target groups - Indians, Americans, British and Jews. Hostages who identified themselves as Muslims were spared.

Former congressman and current Princeton professor James Leach described the attack as one of barbarians against the norms of civilized society. But that formulation obscures that this was an attack by one particular civilization against another. Far from lacking goals, a brief Internet search turned up a full-blown ideological platform for the Muslim jihadist group to which the terrorists belonged, as William Kristol pointed out.

DISCUSSION OF the attackers' grievances - India's presence in Kashmir, anti-Muslim violence by Hindus, American military intervention in Muslim lands and, naturally, Israeli settlements - proved another tactic for diminishing the threat posed. In the manner of a visitor at a shiva house who insists on knowing every detail of the deceased's last five minutes in an effort to assure himself that he will not meet a similar fate, the media's focus on local grievances relegated the attack to events in faraway, exotic lands.

But discussion of local grievances misses the point entirely. Millions of Muslims live in a perpetually aggrieved state. Only among Muslims do such grievances predispose them to suicide bombings and terrorism; only among Muslims do perceived slights - the Danish cartoons, a toy pig, beauty contests - provoke murderous rampages involving hundreds of thousands of protesters.

Nor can that mind-set of grievance be assuaged. Its source lies in Islam's failure - at least so far - to conquer the world and impose Shari'a (Islamic law). That is the jihadists' goal, as they do not hesitate to proclaim, and all the localized conflicts are but subsets of the larger one.

Everywhere Muslims "suffer the humiliation of being visibly behind the West in so many ways," writes Thomas Sowell, despite their vast oil wealth. The source of their humiliation is real, but for that Muslims have only themselves to blame.

NOT ONLY are Muslims unique in their sense of perpetual offense at their inferiority vis-a-vis the West, but the choice of terrorism as a tactic also has deep roots in Islamic thought. Andrew G. Bostom, in the American Thinker Web site, quotes a 1979 Islamic military treatise by a Pakistani general in which the author describes "terror struck into the hearts of the enemies as not only a means but an end in itself. Once a condition of terror enters into the opponent's heart, hardly anything is left to be achieved."

"The test of utmost preparation [for total war] lies in our capability to instill terror into the hearts of our enemies," he writes.

Hand-wringing about Islamophobia has proven a valuable tactic in diverting attention from the threat posed by radical Islam. No sooner had the identity of the terrorists been confirmed than University of Chicago law professor Martha Nussbaum rushed into print in The Los Angeles Times lamenting not the carnage but the possible backlash against Muslims around the globe that might result from discussion of Muslims' unfortunate propensity for terrorism.

The UN Human Rights Commission is poised to pass resolutions making statements offensive to Islam and Muslims - a notoriously thin-skinned group - human rights crimes. And guess who will determine what constitutes offensive. Such rules are not only an affront to freedom of speech and the press; they are barriers to clarity of analysis. Self-censorship by the Western media may, in any event, render unnecessary the efforts of various human rights commissions to stifle freedom of thought.

THE MEDIA'S downplaying of the Jewish victims resulted, in part, from its desire to preserve its favorite narrative of Muslims as perpetual victims, the misunderstood, dehumanized Other of Western civilization. The shooting in cold blood of a pregnant mother and her husband, whose only sin was being Jewish and offering succor to strangers in one of the world's most fetid slums, doesn't jive with the view of Muslims as more sinned against than sinning. So it must be suppressed.

The BBC referred to Chabad House as an office building and refused to show footage from the scene. And The New York Times wondered whether the terrorists had accidentally stumbled onto Chabad House, a considerably less likely feat in a city of 15 million people than finding the proverbial needle in the haystack. Any doubts on that score, unfortunately, were put to rest by the reports of Indian medical examiners that the Jewish victims were singled out for brutal torture and the surviving terrorist's confession that Chabad House was on the list of targets from day one.

Once, there was at least one nation in the world that could be counted on to cut through such post-modern narratives and political correctness and defend itself. Now, alas, that nation has the distinction of being the only one in the world whose citizens are rocketed daily without response.

Source - Jerusalem Post

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

X

Mystery

A fund manager who lost more than $1 billion of his clients' money to Bernard Madoff was discovered dead Tuesday after committing suicide at his Manhattan office, marking a grim turn in a scandal that has left investors around the world in financial ruin.

Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet was found sitting at his desk at about 8 a.m. with both wrists slashed, NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said. A box cutter was found on the floor along with a bottle of sleeping pills on his desk. Police did not find a suicide note.

De la Villehuchet was one of several money managers and investors left reeling in the wake of Madoff's alleged $50 billion Ponzi scheme, and his suicide demonstrates how the repercussions of this gigantic scam are intensifying by the day.

De la Villehuchet, 65, was a distinguished financier who came from a long line of aristocratic Frenchmen, and he tapped his connections in the world of European high society to attract clients to his firm, Access International Advisors. It was not immediately clear how he knew Madoff or who his clients were.

He grew increasingly subdued after the Madoff scandal broke, arousing suspicion among janitors in his Madison Avenue office tower Monday night when he demanded that they be out of there by 7 p.m. Less than 13 hours later, a security guard checked on him in his 22nd-story office suite. But de la Villehuchet was dead — a trash can placed near his body to apparently catch the blood, Browne said.

His death came as swindled investors began looking for ways to recoup their losses. Funds that lost big to Madoff are also coming up against investor lawsuits and backlash for failing to properly vet Madoff and overlooking some red flags that could have steered them away. It's not immediately known what kind of scrutiny de la Villehuchet was facing over his losses.

De la Villehuchet (pronounced veel-ou-SHAY) comes from rich French lineage, with the Magon part of his name referring to one of France's most powerful families. The Magon name is even listed on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, a world-famous monument that was commissioned by Napoleon in 1806.

"He's irreproachable," said Bill Rapavy, who was Access International's chief operating officer before founding his own firm in 2007.

The Frenchman's firm enlisted intermediaries with links to upper-crust Europeans to garner investors. Among them was Philippe Junot, a French businessman and friend who is the former husband of Princess Caroline of Monaco, and Prince Michel of Yugoslavia.

De la Villehuchet, the former chairman and CEO of Credit Lyonnais Securities USA, was also known as a keen sailor who regularly participated in regattas and was a member of the New York Yacht Club.

He lived in an affluent suburb in Westchester County with his wife, Claudine. They have no children. There was no answer Tuesday at the family's two-story house. Phone calls to the home and de la Villehuchet's office went unanswered.

Guy Gurney, a British photographer living in Connecticut, was friends with de la Villehuchet. The two often sailed together and competed in a regatta in France in November.

"He was a very honorable man," Gurney said. "He was extraordinarily generous. He was an aristocrat but not a snob. He was a real person. When he was sailing, he was one of the boys."

The two were supposed to have dinner last Friday but Gurney called the day before to cancel because of the weather. But during the call, de la Villehuchet revealed he had been ensnared in the Madoff deceit.

"He sounded very subdued," Gurney said.

Gurney said de la Villehuchet was happily married to his wife.

"I can't imagine what it's like for her now," he said.

Source - Associated Press

Web

Legitimacy

Zounds! Public sentiment toward the accelerating economic fiasco has shifted, seemingly overnight, from a mood of nauseated amazement to one of panicked grievance as the United States moves closer to an apparent comprehensive collapse -- and so ill-timed, wouldn't you know it, to coincide with the annual rigors of Santa Claus. The tipping point seems to be the Bernie Madoff $50 billion Ponzi scandal, which represents the grossest failure of authority and hence legitimacy in finance to date in as much as Mr. Madoff was a former chairman of the NASDAQ, for godsake. It's like discovering that Ben Bernanke is running a meth lab inside the Federal Reserve. And out in the heartland, of course, there is the spectacle of Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich trying to desperately dodge a racketeering rap behind an implausible hairdo.

What seems to spook people now is the possibility that everybody in charge of everything is a fraud or a crook. Legitimacy has left the system. Not even the the legions of Obama are immune as his reliance on Wall Street capos Robert Rubin, Tim Geithner, and Larry Summers seem tainted by the same reckless thinking that brought on the fiasco. His pick last week for chief of the SEC, Mary Shapiro, is already being dissed as a shill for the Big Bank status quo. In a few days we'll discover what kind of bonuses are being ladled out by the remaining Wall Street banks with TARP money and a new chorus of howls will ring out.

This is very dangerous territory. In dollar terms, the numbers being applied to the various problems are so colossal -- trillions! -- that the death of our currency seems assured. And in defiance of congress's express intentions, none of the TARP "money" has been applied to its targeted purpose of buying up "toxic" (i.e. fraudulent) securities hidden in the vaults of banks, pension funds, and municipal portfolios.

George W, Bush's personal bailout of General Motors and Chrysler is designed solely to postpone their bankruptcy and mass job layoffs until after the holidays. Otherwise, the $17.4 billion will probably be used by the companies to underwrite the extensive legal work required for the moment they must declare bankruptcy -- when Mr. Obama is in the White House. Meanwhile, the President-elect has ramped up his job-creation target overnight from two to three million, and some observers are catching a whiff of Soviet-style economic engineering ("...we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us....").

The years since Jimmy Carter have produced an astoundingly flaccid public, sunk in various addictions and distractions, but this is about to change. The darkling mood of political protest and violent activism that saturated my own young adult years is scudding up again on the horizon. Mr. Obama's pick for attorney general, the mild-looking Eric Holder, may be the key figure in the early months of the new government. If he doesn't commence some aggressive investigations and prosecutions -- beginning with Henry Paulson for insider trading when he was in charge of Goldman Sachs and shorting his own company's mortgage-backed securities -- then the whole Obama enterprise could fall under suspicion of illegitimacy. The bums who ran the US banking sector into a ditch have to account for their turpitudes. They can't be allowed to hide under a TARP.

Unfortunately, the legal system, and probably the legislative system, will be so buried in procedural bullshit from the unwind of countless enterprises and institutions, and the sorting out of the remnants, that it remains to be seen whether this generation of people-in-charge can even embark on a fresh start of anything connected to real everyday life in America. All this is starting to alarm the tattered residue of the middle classes, and from here it's a very short path to them being really pissed off.

When legitimacy erodes, anything goes. Nothing is respected including rules and personalities. The center doesn't hold and the new vacuum there is a tumultuous place. The same crisis of authority and legitimacy is spreading from nation to nation now. Soon, China will contend with a discontented army of the unemployed. Greece has been in an uproar for two weeks. Belgium's government just collapsed. Trade barriers are going up. Exports are falling away. The world's energy markets are not immune to these disorders. I would expect problems with the currently seamless supply lines that bring America two-thirds of the oil we use. Even a mild disruption of oil supplies could attach an anvil to the ankle of an economy already falling off a cliff.

Right now, the overwhelming sentiment is to get this country back to where we were, say, ten years ago, when everything was humming nicely: Clinton nostalgia. We're definitely not gong back there, though. It's an idle wish. And any set of policies designed to lead in that direction will prove very disappointing. Our destination is a land of much smaller-scaled local economies. We could retain our federal ties if the federal government can scale back appropriately from the bloated, feckless enterprise it has become. Otherwise, it might only get in the way and make matters worse, and the public in one region or another of North America might reach a decision that they are better off without it. That would be what's called a revolution.

Source - James Howard Kunstler

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Full Circle

Slowdown

Japanese exports plunged a record 26.7 percent in November, the Ministry of Finance said Monday, highlighting the drop in global consumer demand for automobiles, electronics parts and other Japanese products.

Economists warned that exports — a mainstay of the world's second-largest economy — would tumble further with no recovery in sight for the global economy. Even exports to the rest of Asia are falling sharply.

"Demand is rapidly cooling not only in the United States and Europe but also in Russia and the Middle East, and we are expecting a further plunge in exports as the global economy is deteriorating," said Hideki Matsumura, a senior economist at the Japan Research Institute in Tokyo.

Battered by plunging global demand and a strengthening yen, major exporters like Toyota Motor Corp. and Sony Corp. have scaled back production, jobs and earnings projections.

Toyota on Monday said it would barely break even this fiscal year through March, slashing its profit forecast to 50 billion yen ($555 million) — a fraction of the 1.7 trillion yen it earned the previous year.

"The change that has hit the world economy is of a critical scale that comes once in a hundred years," President Katsuaki Watanabe said at the company's Nagoya office. The drop in vehicle sales over the last month was "far faster, wider and deeper than expected."

Indeed, exports suffered their biggest year-on-year drop since the current system of statistics went into effect in 1980. Exports totaled 5.3 trillion yen ($60 billion), while imports fell 14.4 percent from a year earlier to 5.55 trillion yen ($62 billion), the ministry said.

That resulted in a trade deficit of 223.4 billion yen ($2.5 billion) — the fourth time this year Japan said its imports exceeded exports after January, August and October. August's deficit was the first in 26 years, excluding the month of January, when trade deficits are more common because of the slowdown for the New Year holidays.

For years, Japan was blasted by its trading partners over its trade surpluses. But now, the global economic slump is turning Japan into a net importer, at least in recent months.

"The plunge in exports in November clearly reflected a severe global downturn," said ministry official Yu Oki. "Demand for Japanese goods, especially cars and electronics products, is falling sharply everywhere."

The latest figures, however, do not necessarily signal a fundamental structural shift of Japan's export-driven economy. With a quickly shrinking population, many Japanese companies have nowhere to look but abroad for future growth and have planned accordingly.

Exports to the United States, the world's largest economy, plummeted by a record 33.8 percent in November, marking the 15th consecutive year-on-year fall.

Among U.S.-bound shipments, vehicle exports plummeted by 44 percent in the month, while exports of auto parts fell 40 percent and those of audio equipment was down by 48.2 percent.

Japan's exports to the European Union tumbled by 30.8 percent, with vehicle shipments to the region falling by 37.2 percent, the ministry said.

Asia-bound exports fell 26.7 percent as semiconductor shipments dropped by 30.2 percent. Japan's exports to China alone plunged by 24.5 percent.

Exports are also shrinking as the yen appreciates against most major currencies. That means overseas sales in dollars and euros translates into fewer yen.

The ministry said the yen traded to 97.97 to the dollar on average in November, up 16 percent from the same month last year.

The yen continued to climb against the dollar in December, hitting a 13-year high as investors dumped the greenback on U.S. economic worries. The Japanese currency was quoted at 90.02 to the dollar in Tokyo Monday afternoon.

Source - Associated Press

Arth

NZ On The Brink

Economists are warning that an adjustment in New Zealand's current account is imminent, and if not carried out voluntarily it will be forced on the country.

Figures out from Statistics New Zealand (SNZ) today show the current account deficit was $6 billion in the September quarter.

The current account, also known as the balance of payments, measures all of New Zealand's transactions with the outside world.

The annual deficit was $15.5b, which was 8.6 percent of gross domestic product, up from 8.4 percent of GDP in the June year and 8 percent in the March quarter.

"Given the credit-centric nature of the shock facing the global economy, New Zealand's current account cannot continue its current trajectory," ANZ bank said after the release of today's data.

"An adjustment is imminent, either undertaken voluntarily or forced up on it externally."

The deterioration in the annual balance was entirely due to a growing goods and services deficit, which rose in annual terms from $2b to $2.7b.

The investment income balance improved slightly courtesy of a fall in profitability of foreign firms operating in this country.

While an improvement in the seasonally adjusted deficit was encouraging, much of the improvement could be put down to the lagged effect of high commodity prices, ANZ said.

Seasonally adjusted, the September quarter deficit was $4.1b, $571 million smaller than the June quarter deficit.

With this country's main commodity prices falling, any improvement in the trade balance would rely on a sharp fall off in import volumes, ANZ said.

"Years of imbalanced growth have resulted in a ballooning current account deficit, which by definition means we are spending much more than we save as a nation."

Running large current account deficits was not an issue in an environment where credit was cheap and abundant, as was the case in the first part of the decade.

But the economy was now in a more vulnerable position, with credit much more expensive and difficult to come by.

Typically, a current account adjustment had two distinct dynamics -- a period of weak activity in the domestic economy, and a depreciating currency.

"Both of these dynamics have already begun, but considering the large starting position for the external balance, and the worst credit shock in 80 years, there is still some way to go yet."

During the September quarter, New Zealand's investment income deficit shrunk by $396m to $3.2b.

ASB economists said the investment income deficit was by far the biggest component of the current account, so a nascent turning was positive, even if much of the cause of it was a weak domestic economy.

The weakening domestic economy was starting to have an impact on the equity earnings going to foreign owners of New Zealand corporates, somewhat perversely helping in containing the deficit.

Income paid out to foreign creditors did increase moderately relative to a year ago, but with interest rates now falling that component of the current account would increasingly become less of a drag than during the interest rate tightening cycle.

Private sector debt accumulation would be modest, although sovereign debt issuance was set to increase.

Source - National Business Review, NZ

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Tree Of Life

A To Z

What’s the worst that could happen?

That’s a question that James Rickards spends a lot of time pondering these days, as he sifts through the national security implications of the financial crisis facing the United States.

Rickards will lay out his worst case scenarios in a lecture sponsored by the Navy and the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy tonight. And his forecasts aren’t for the faint of heart.

Rickards calls it the “A to Z” problem: What are the threats that could make the U.S. economy look less like America and more like Zimbabwe? He sees them everywhere – in the Chinese ownership of vast amounts of American debt, in Russia’s increased centralization of its economy, in Al Qaeda’s long-established fascination with damaging the U.S. economy.

In many ways, Rickards is the ultimate bear. He’s not just thinking about whether the stock market will decline, but whether or not the stock market will survive.

All that puts Rickards decidedly outside mainstream economic and political thinking in America. But he does have an influential audience: the United States intelligence and defense communities.

Rickards is a regular adviser on financial issues to the director of national intelligence's office, and he lends his financial advice to the national security community.

His lecture comes as part of an annual “Rethinking Seminar” produced by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Rickards argues that government is not doing nearly enough to prepare for the worst. “Here’s the policy problem for the United States,” he said in an interview. “We have experts in defense and intelligence, and huge depth in capital markets experience at the Fed and at Treasury. But they’re separated by the Potomac River. And they’re not talking to each other.”

Rickards came by his economic experience the hard way. He was the general counsel at Long Term Capital Management, the hedge fund that collapsed in spectacular fashion in the late 1990s and nearly took the global economy along with it. That near-economic death experience gave him a healthy appreciation for risk. Today, he’s the senior managing director for research at Omnis, an applied research firm.

Four of the scenarios keep him up at night:

The Bait Effect

Terrorists, and al Qaeda in particular, are fascinated with the idea of destroying the U.S. economy. Rickards worries that the economic meltdown in the United States could serve as bait of sorts for a terrorist attack, as plotters calculate that a strike now could have a “force multiplier” effect because of the already skittish U.S. stock market.

The China Syndrome

The Chinese own more than $500 billion worth of U.S. Treasury bonds, and billons more in the debt of other U.S. entities such as those held by Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. And a general sense of mutually assured financial destruction keeps them from wielding that debt like a weapon: if the Chinese dumped U.S. debt on the global market, their own holdings of U.S. debt would decline in value, the U.S. economy would be damaged, ultimately harming the Chinese economy by reducing American ability to buy more Chinese goods.

They’d have to be crazy to try it. But Rickards points out that governments don’t always do the rational thing. And in the meantime, their holdings give the Chinese incredible power over American decision making.

“It gives the Chinese de facto veto power over certain U.S. interest rate and exchange rate decisions,” Rickards explained. “For example, there’s a limit to how much dollar depreciation the Chinese would tolerate.”

That potentially closes off one American economic strategy: allowing the dollar to decline in value in order to help boost U.S. exporters. And China’s leverage is only growing as each federal bailout adds to the U.S. deficit.

The Existential Crash

A pessimist by nature, Rickards believes that many economic forecasters are wrong, and the recession will get far worse than predicted.

He sees an epic disaster scenario in which the U.S. gross domestic product declines by a staggering 35 percent over the next six to seven years. Crippling deflation could take hold. Unemployment, he says, could approach 15 percent.

That’s a calamitous rate, but it would not be an all-time high: unemployment hit 25 percent during the Great Depression.

“The national security community needs to be conversant with this,” Rickards said. “In defense, intelligence, and national security, you earn your money by preparing for things that may be remote, but pose an existential threat if they come to pass.”

In this scenario, the possibilities for global unrest increase dramatically as a staggering United States retreats from foreign aid and global diplomacy and the list of dangerous failed states grows sharply.

The Alternate-Dollar Nightmare

“The Number One vulnerability is the dollar itself,” Rickards concluded. “We’re printing them and shoving them out the door, and the Fed is basically out of bullets. So why hasn’t the dollar collapsed? The short answer is, global investors don’t have any other choice.” That is, there simply aren’t enough Euro- or Yen-backed securities for investors to shift their money out of dollars and into some other currency.

But what if some kind of global coalition – say a trillion-dollar sovereign wealth fund allied with several countries around the world – banded together to create a gold-backed alternative to the dollar?

Rickards says investors – many of whom already resent that they have no alternative to the dollar – would sell American currency in huge numbers to take advantage of the new opportunity. “If that happens, that’s the end of the dollar,” Rickards said. “You’d have high unemployment, deflation, and interest rates would go up. It would take what already looks like a strong recession and make it a Great Depression or worse.”

Still, even Rickards sees a silver lining to all this. He looks around the world to the problems facing other countries such as Russia, China, Iran, and those in the Middle East.

“There are vulnerabilities for the United States, but also opportunities,” he said. “I’d rather be the United States than any of these other countries.”

Source - Politico

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Sleepy

Ivy League Dunces

The multiple failures that beset the country, from our mismanaged economy to our shredded constitutional rights to our lack of universal health care to our imperial debacles in the Middle East, can be laid at the feet of our elite universities. Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford, along with most other elite schools, do a poor job educating students to think. They focus instead, through the filter of standardized tests, enrichment activities, advanced-placement classes, high-priced tutors, swanky private schools and blind deference to all authority, on creating hordes of competent systems managers. The collapse of the country runs in a direct line from the manicured quadrangles and halls in places like Cambridge, Mass., Princeton, N.J., and New Haven, Conn., to the financial and political centers of power.

The nation’s elite universities disdain honest intellectual inquiry, which is by its nature distrustful of authority, fiercely independent and often subversive. They organize learning around minutely specialized disciplines, narrow answers and rigid structures that are designed to produce certain answers. The established corporate hierarchies these institutions service -- economic, political and social -- come with clear parameters, such as the primacy of an unfettered free market, and with a highly specialized vocabulary. This vocabulary, a sign of the "specialist" and of course the elitist, thwarts universal understanding. It keeps the uninitiated from asking unpleasant questions. It destroys the search for the common good. It dices disciplines, faculty, students and, finally, experts into tiny, specialized fragments. It allows students and faculty to retreat into these self-imposed fiefdoms and neglect the most-pressing moral, political and cultural questions. Those who defy the system -- people like Ralph Nader -- are branded as irrational and irrelevant. These elite universities have banished self-criticism. They refuse to question a self-justifying system. Organization, technology, self-advancement and information systems are the only things that matter.

"Political silence, total silence," said Chris Hebdon, a Berkeley undergraduate. He went on to describe how various student groups gather at Sproul Plaza, the center of student activity at the University of California, Berkeley. These groups set up tables to recruit and inform other students, a practice know as "tabling."

"Students table for Darfur, no one tables for Iraq. Tables on Sproul Plaza are ethnically fragmented, explicitly pre-professional (The Asian American Pre-Law or Business or Pre-Medicine Association). Never have I seen a table on globalization or corporatization. Students are as distracted and specialized and atomized as most of their professors. It’s vertical integration gone cultural. And never, never is it cutting-edge. Berkeley loves the slogan 'excellence through diversity,' which is a farce of course if one checks our admissions stats (most years we have only one or two entering Native Americans), but few recognize multiculturalism’s silent partner -- fragmentation into little markets. Our Sproul Plaza shows that so well -- the same place Mario Savio once stood on top of a police car is filled with tens of tables for the pre-corporate, the ethnic, the useless cynics, the recreational groups, etc."

I sat a few months ago with a former classmate from Harvard Divinity School who is now a theology professor. When I asked her what she was teaching, she unleashed a torrent of obscure academic code words. I did not understand, even with three years of seminary, what she was talking about. You can see this absurd retreat into specialized, impenetrable verbal enclaves in every graduate department across the country. The more these universities churn out these stunted men and women, the more we are flooded with a peculiar breed of specialist. This specialist blindly services tiny parts of a corporate power structure he or she has never been taught to question and looks down on the rest of us with thinly veiled contempt.

I was sent to boarding school on a scholarship at the age of 10. By the time I had finished eight years in New England prep schools and another eight at Colgate and Harvard, I had a pretty good understanding of the game. I have also taught at Columbia, New York University and Princeton. These institutions, no matter how mediocre you are, feed students with the comforting self-delusion that they are there because they are not only the best but they deserve the best. You can see this attitude on display in every word uttered by George W. Bush. Here is a man with severely limited intellectual capacity and no moral core. He, along with Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who attended my boarding school and went on to Yale, is an example of the legions of self-centered mediocrities churned out by places like Andover, Yale and Harvard. Bush was, like the rest of his caste, propelled forward by his money and his connections. That is the real purpose of these well-endowed schools -- to perpetuate their own.

"There’s a certain kind of student at these schools who falls in love with the mystique and prestige of his own education," said Elyse Graham, whom I taught at Princeton and who is now doing graduate work at Yale. "This is the guy who treats his time at Princeton as a scavenger hunt for Princetoniana and Princeton nostalgia: How many famous professors can I collect? And so on. And he comes away not only with all these props for his sense of being elect, but also with the smoothness that seems to indicate wide learning; college socializes you, so you learn to present even trite ideas well."

These institutions cater to their students like high-end resorts. My prep school -- remember this is a high school -- recently built a $26 million gym. Not that it didn’t have a gym; it had a fine one, with an Olympic pool. But it needed to upgrade its facilities to compete for the elite boys and girls being wooed by other schools. While public schools crumble, while public universities are slashed and degraded, while these elite institutions become unaffordable even for the middle class, the privileged retreat further into their opulent, gated communities. Harvard lost $8 billion of its endowment over the past four months, which raises the question of how smart these people are, but it still has $30 billion. Schools like Yale, Stanford and Princeton are not far behind. Those on the inside are told they are there because they are better than others. Most believe it.

The people I loved most, my working-class family in Maine, did not go to college. They were plumbers, post office clerks and mill workers. Most of the men were military veterans. They lived frugal and hard lives. They were indulgent of my incessant book reading and incompetence with tools, even my distaste for deer hunting, and they were a steady reminder that just because I had been blessed with an opportunity that was denied to them, I was not better or more intelligent. If you are poor, you have to work after high school or, in the case of my grandfather, before you are able to finish high school. College is not an option. No one takes care of you. You have to do that for yourself. This is the most important difference between them and the elites.

The elite schools, which trumpet their diversity, base this diversity on race and ethnicity, rarely on class. The admissions process, as well as the staggering tuition costs, precludes most of the poor and working class. When my son got his SAT scores back last year, we were surprised to find that his critical reading score was lower than his math score. He dislikes math. He is an avid and perceptive reader. And so we did what many educated, middle-class families do. We hired an expensive tutor from the Princeton Review, who taught him the tricks and techniques of taking standardized tests. The tutor told him things like "stop thinking about whether the passage is true. You are wasting test time thinking about the ideas. Just spit back what they tell you." His reading score went up 130 points. Was he smarter? Was he a better reader? Did he become more intelligent? Is reading and answering multiple-choice questions while someone holds a stopwatch over you even an effective measure of intelligence? What about those families that do not have a few thousand dollars to hire a tutor? What chance do they have?

These universities, because of their incessant reliance on standardized tests and the demand for perfect grades, fill their classrooms with large numbers of drones. I have taught gifted and engaged students who used these institutions to expand the life of the mind, who asked the big questions and who cherished what these schools had to offer. But they were always a marginalized and dispirited minority. The bulk of their classmates, most of whom headed off to Wall Street or corporate firms when they graduated, starting at $120,000 a year, did prodigious amounts of work and faithfully regurgitated information. They received perfect grades in both tedious, boring classes and stimulating ones, not that they could tell the difference. They may have known the plot and salient details of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but they were unable to tell you why the story was important. Their professors, fearful of being branded political and not wanting to upset the legions of wealthy donors and administrative overlords who rule such institutions, did not draw the obvious parallels with Iraq and American empire. They did not use Conrad’s story, as it was meant to be used, to examine our own imperial darkness. And so, even in the anemic world of liberal arts, what is taught exists in a moral void.

"The existence of multiple forms of intelligence has become a commonplace, but however much elite universities like to sprinkle their incoming classes with a few actors or violinists, they select for and develop one form of intelligence: the analytic," William Deresiewicz, who taught English at Yale, wrote in The American Scholar. "While this is broadly true of all universities, elite schools, precisely because their students (and faculty, and administrators) possess this one form of intelligence to such a high degree, are more apt to ignore the value of others. One naturally prizes what one most possesses and what most makes for one’s advantages. But social intelligence and emotional intelligence and creative ability, to name just three other forms, are not distributed preferentially among the educational elite."

Intelligence is morally neutral. It is no more virtuous than athletic prowess. It can be used to further the rape of the working class by corporations and the mechanisms of repression and war, or it can be used to fight these forces. But if you determine worth by wealth, as these institutions invariably do, then fighting the system is inherently devalued. The unstated ethic of these elite institutions is to make as much money as you can to sustain the elitist system. College presidents are not voices for the common good and the protection of intellectual integrity, but obsequious fundraisers. They shower honorary degrees and trusteeships on hedge-fund managers and Wall Street titans whose lives are usually examples of moral squalor and unchecked greed. The message to the students is clear. But grabbing what you can, as John Ruskin said, isn’t any less wicked when you grab it with the power of your brains than with the power of your fists.

Most of these students are afraid to take risks. They cower before authority. They have been taught from a young age by zealous parents, schools and institutional authorities what constitutes failure and success. They are socialized to obey. They obsess over grades and seek to please professors, even if what their professors teach is fatuous. The point is to get ahead. Challenging authority is not a career advancer. Freshmen arrive on elite campuses and begin to network their way into the elite eating clubs, test into the elite academic programs and lobby for elite summer internships. By the time they graduate, they are superbly conditioned to work 10 or 12 hours a day, electronically moving large sums of money around.

"The system forgot to teach them, along the way to the prestige admissions and the lucrative jobs, that the most important achievements can’t be measured by a letter or a number or a name," Deresiewicz wrote. "It forgot that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers."

"Only a small minority have seen their education as part of a larger intellectual journey, have approached the work of the mind with a pilgrim soul," he went on. "These few have tended to feel like freaks, not least because they get so little support from the university itself. Places like Yale, as one of them put it to me, are not conducive to searchers. Places like Yale are simply not set up to help students ask the big questions. I don’t think there ever was a golden age of intellectualism in the American university, but in the 19th century, students might at least have had a chance to hear such questions raised in chapel or in the literary societies and debating clubs that flourished on campus."

Barack Obama is a product of this elitist system. So are his degree-laden cabinet members. They come out of Harvard, Yale, Wellesley and Princeton. Their friends and classmates made huge fortunes on Wall Street and in powerful law firms. They go to the same class reunions. They belong to the same clubs. They speak the same easy language of privilege and comfort and entitlement. They are endowed with an unbridled self-confidence and blind belief in a decaying political and financial system that has nurtured and empowered them.

These elites, and the corporate system they serve, have ruined the country. These elite cannot solve our problems. They have been trained to find "solutions," such as the trillion-dollar bailout of banks and financial firms, that sustain the system. They will feed the beast until it dies. Don’t expect them to save us. They don’t know how. And when it all collapses, when our rotten financial system with its trillions in worthless assets implodes, and our imperial wars end in humiliation and defeat, they will be exposed as being as helpless, and as stupid, as the rest of us.

Source - AlterNet

Monday, December 15, 2008

Child

United States Of Fraud

Some of the world's biggest banks have revealed that they are victims of a fraud which has lost $50bn (£33bn).

Bernard Madoff has been charged with fraud in what is being described as one of the biggest-ever such cases.

Among the banks which have been affected are Britain's RBS, Spain's Santander and France's BNP Paribas.

One of the City's best-known fund managers has criticised US financial regulators for failing to detect the alleged fraud.

'Financial scandal'

Nicola Horlick, boss of Bramdean investments, said US regulators had "fallen down on the job".

Mrs Horlick told the BBC: "I think now it is very difficult for people to invest in things that are meant to be regulated in America, because they haven fallen down in the job."

"This is the biggest financial scandal, probably in the history of the markets - $50bn is a huge amount of money," she said.

Among those financial institutions which have so far announced investments with Bernard Madoff:

* The Royal Bank of Scotland said on Monday it could potentially lose about £400m from the alleged fraud, if all its investments had to be written off
* Spain's largest bank, Santander, which also owns the UK High Street banks Abbey, Alliance & Leicester and Bradford & Bingley, said one of its funds had $3.1bn invested in the firm run by Bernard Madoff
* France's BNP Paribas estimated its exposure to be more than $460m
* The French bank, Natixis, a subsidiary of Caisse d'Epargne and Banque Populaire, said it could potentially lose up to 450m euros (£402m; $605m)
* One of the world's biggest investment groups, Man, said it had invested about $360m through its RMF institutional fund of funds business, representing 0.5% of its total funds
* Japanese bank Nomura said its exposure was relatively small, at about 27.5bn yen (£201m), and added: "We regard this as non-material, considering our capital base."

'Systemic failures'

Mrs Horlick said 9% of Bramdean's funds were invested with Mr Madoff, but she said even if the money was written off, the fund involved would be down just 4%.

"I just want to make it clear to investors that even after this, they they would have done extremely well, relative to anything else they could have invested in," she said.

In a statement, Bramdean said: "It is astonishing that this apparent fraud seems to have been continuing for so long, possibly for decades, while investors have continued to invest more money into the Madoff funds in good faith.

"The allegations made appear to point to a systemic failure of the regulatory and securities markets regime in the US."

Correspondents say the case is likely to fuel uncertainty about the entire hedge fund industry.

US prosecutors say Mr Madoff, a former head of the Nasdaq stock market, masterminded a fraud of massive proportions through his hedge fund and investment advisory business.

Mr Madoff is alleged to have used money from new investors to pay off existing investors in the fund.

A federal judge has appointed a receiver to oversee Mr Madoff firm's assets and customer accounts, while the 70-year-old banker has been released on $10m bail.

High returns promised

Mr Madoff founded Bernard L Madoff Investment Securities in 1960, but also ran a separate hedge fund business.

According to the US Attorney's criminal complaint filed in court, Mr Madoff told at least three employees on Wednesday that the hedge fund business - which served up to 25 clients and had $17.1bn under management - was a fraud and had been insolvent for years.

He said he was "finished", that he had "absolutely nothing" and "it's all just one big lie", and that it was "basically, a giant Ponzi scheme", the complaint said.

Under a Ponzi scheme, which is similar to pyramid schemes, investors are promised very high returns on their investment, while in reality, early investors are paid with money collected from later investors.

If found guilty, US prosecutors say he could face up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $5m.

Source - BBC

Friday, December 12, 2008

Taj

Big American Banks Bankrupt

Jim Rogers, one of the world's most prominent international investors, on Thursday called most of the largest U.S. banks "totally bankrupt," and said government efforts to fix the sector are wrongheaded.

Speaking by teleconference at the Reuters Investment Outlook 2009 Summit, the co-founder with George Soros of the Quantum Fund, said the government's $700 billion rescue package for the sector doesn't address how banks manage their balance sheets, and instead rewards weaker lenders with new capital.

Dozens of banks have won infusions from the Troubled Asset Relief Program created in early October, just after the Sept 15 bankruptcy filing by Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. Some of the funds are being used for acquisitions.

"Without giving specific names, most of the significant American banks, the larger banks, are bankrupt, totally bankrupt," said Rogers, who is now a private investor.

"What is outrageous economically and is outrageous morally is that normally in times like this, people who are competent and who saw it coming and who kept their powder dry go and take over the assets from the incompetent," he said. "What's happening this time is that the government is taking the assets from the competent people and giving them to the incompetent people and saying, now you can compete with the competent people. It is horrible economics."

Rogers said he shorted shares of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac before the government nationalized the mortgage financiers in September, a week before Lehman failed.

Now a specialist in commodities, Rogers said he has used the recent rally in the U.S. dollar as an opportunity to exit dollar-denominated assets.

While not saying how long the U.S. economic recession will last, he said conditions could ultimately mirror those of Japan in the 1990s. "The way things are going, we're going to have a lost decade too, just like the 1970s," he said.

Goldman Sachs & Co analysts this week estimated that banks worldwide have suffered $850 billion of credit-related losses and writedowns since the global credit crisis began last year.

But Rogers said sound U.S. lenders remain. He said these could include banks that don't make or hold subprime mortgages, or which have high ratios of deposits to equity, "all the classic old ratios that most banks in America forgot or started ignoring because they were too old-fashioned."

Many analysts cite Lehman's Sept 15 bankruptcy as a trigger for the recent cratering in the economy and stock markets.

Rogers called that idea "laughable," noting that banks have been failing for hundreds of years. And yet, he said policymakers aren't doing enough to prevent another Lehman.

"Governments are making mistakes," he said. "They're saying to all the banks, you don't have to tell us your situation. You can continue to use your balance sheet that is phony.... All these guys are bankrupt, they're still worrying about their bonuses, they're still trying to pay their dividends, and the whole system is weakened."

Rogers said is investing in growth areas in China and Taiwan, in such areas as water treatment and agriculture, and recently bought positions in energy and agriculture indexes.

Source - Reuters

Value

American Experts

1. Political “Experts”

George W. Bush, Sept 2007:

The Federal government will not bail out lenders — because that would only make a recurrence of the problem more likely. And it is not the government’s job to bail out speculators, or those who made the decision to buy a home they knew they could never afford.

Christopher Dodd, Chair, Senate Banking Committee, Financial Post, July 12, 2008:

These institutions [Fannie and Freddie] are fundamentally sound and strong. There is no reason for the kind of [stock market] reaction we’re getting.

Phil Gramm, July 10, 2008:

Misery sells newspapers. Thank God the economy is not as bad as you read in the newspaper every day.

Barney Frank regarding Fannie & Freddie, 2005:

I do think I do not want the same kind of focus on safety and soundness that we have in OCC [Office of the Comptroller of the Currency] and OTS [Office of Thrift Supervision]. I want to roll the dice a little bit more in this situation towards subsidized housing.

Barney Frank regarding Fannie & Freddie, 2007:

I believe there has been more alarm raised about potential unsafety and unsoundness than, in fact, exists.

2. Financial “Experts”

Alan Greenspan, October 2004:

Improvements in lending practices driven by information technology have enabled lenders to reach out to households with previously unrecognized borrowing capacities.

Alan Greenspan, 2005:

There is a chance that housing prices could fall, but its effect on the economy will be limited.

Alan Greenspan, May 2005:

The use of a growing array of derivatives and the related application of more-sophisticated approaches to measuring and managing risk are key factors underpinning the greater resilience of our largest financial institutions .... Derivatives have permitted the unbundling of financial risks.

Alan Greenspan, October 1, 2006:

I suspect that we are coming to the end of the housing downturn, as applications for new mortgages, the most important series, have flattened out…I think that the worst of this may well be over.

Henry Paulson, January 2007:

The market impact of the U.S. subprime mortgage fallout is largely contained and that the global economy is as strong as it has been in decades.

Henry Paulson, April 20, 2007;

All the signs I look at show the housing market is at or near the bottom. The U.S. economy is very healthy and robust.

Henry Paulson, March 2, 2008:

I’m not interested in bailing out investors, lenders and speculators.

Ben Bernanke during Congressional Testimony March 2007:

At this juncture, the impact on the broader economy and financial markets of the problems in the subprime market seems likely to be contained.

Ben Bernanke, May 5, 2007:

We will follow developments in the subprime market closely. However, fundamental factors—including solid growth in incomes and relatively low mortgage rates—should ultimately support the demand for housing, and at this point, the troubles in the subprime sector seem unlikely to seriously spill over to the broader economy or the financial system.

Ben Bernanke, October 15, 2007:

It is not the responsibility of the Federal Reserve—nor would it be appropriate—to protect lenders and investors from the consequences of their financial decisions.

Timothy Geithner, May 15, 2007:

Changes in financial markets, including those that are the subject of your conference, have improved the efficiency of financial intermediation and improved our confidence in the ability of markets to absorb stress. In financial systems around the world, the capital positions of banks have improved and capital markets are becoming deeper and playing a larger role in financial intermediation. Financial innovation has improved the capacity to measure and manage risk. Risk is spread more broadly across countries and institutions.

3. Investment “Experts”

Warren Buffett, on Bloomberg TV, May 3, 2008:

The worst is over.

Moody’s internal email:

Sometimes, we drink the kool-aid.

S&P internal email:

It could be structured by cows and we would rate it.

S&P internal memo:

Let’s hope we are all wealthy and retired by the time this house of cards falters.

Mike Thomson, Financial Post, April 25, 2007:

Chairman Bernanke has succeeded; the economy has been positioned on a sustainable track for manageable expansion: A Goldilocks scenario that is neither too hot nor too cold.

Jim Cramer regarding Bear Stearns, June 22, 2007:

And I believe there will be NO FALLOUT whatsoever beyond the funds, despite the innate desire by so many people to rumor and panic the marketplace.

Jim Cramer, August 4, 2008 – market is down 28% since then:

I am indeed sticking my neck out right here, right now… declaring emphatically that I believe the market will not revisit the panicked lows it hit on July 15, and I think anyone out there who’s waiting for that low to be breached is in for a big disappointment and [they’re] missing a great deal of upside. My bottom call isn’t gutsy. I think it’s just a smart call that all the evidence points toward. Bye, bye bear market. Say hello to the bull and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

Ben Stein, August 13, 2007 – market down 40% since then:

The stock market is cheap on a price-earnings basis, profits are fabulous, both here and abroad, stocks are a lovely place to be. I have no idea what the S&P will be ten days from now, but I am confident it will be a lot higher ten years from now, and for most Americans, that's what we need to think about. The subprime and private equity and hedge fund dogs may bark, but the stock market caravan moves on.

Ben Stein, January 27, 2008;

The losses in the stock market since the highs of October 2007 are about 14 percent. This predicts — very roughly — a fall in corporate profits of roughly 14 percent. Yet there has never been a decline of quite that size for even one year in the postwar United States, and never more than two years of declining profits before they regained their previous peak.

4. Corporate “Experts”

Stanley O’Neal, former CEO of Merrill Lynch, January 2007:

We finished the year positioned better than ever to capitalize on the array of opportunities still emerging around the world as a result of what we believe are fundamental and long-term changes in how the global economy and capital markets are developing.

John Thain, another former CEO of Merrill Lynch, April 8, 2008:

We deliberately raised more capital than we lost last year ... we believe that will allow us to not have to go back to the equity market in the foreseeable future.

Charles Prince, former CEO of Citigroup, July 2007:

When the music stops, in terms of liquidity, things will be complicated. But as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. We’re still dancing.

Angelo Mozilo, former CEO of Countrywide Financial, July 2007 after he sold $138 million of stock:

But as I do reflect on it, and I do a lot, that nobody saw this coming. S&P and Moody's didn't see it coming, but they simply just downgrade bonds, they don't take hits. Bear Stearns certainly didn't see it coming. Merrill Lynch didn't see it coming. Nobody saw this coming.

KenThompson, former CEO of Wachovia, October 2007:

I’m confident our company is in the right businesses for the long term and that our strategy of being in high growth businesses and markets, our laser focus on customer service, our expense discipline, and our commitment to strong credit risk management, will create value for our shareholders in the future.

Source - Seeking Alpha

Veins

Light Pollution

If humans were truly at home under the light of the moon and stars, we would go in darkness happily, the midnight world as visible to us as it is to the vast number of nocturnal species on this planet. Instead, we are diurnal creatures, with eyes adapted to living in the sun's light. This is a basic evolutionary fact, even though most of us don't think of ourselves as diurnal beings any more than we think of ourselves as primates or mammals or Earthlings. Yet it's the only way to explain what we've done to the night: We've engineered it to receive us by filling it with light.

This kind of engineering is no different than damming a river. Its benefits come with consequences—called light pollution—whose effects scientists are only now beginning to study. Light pollution is largely the result of bad lighting design, which allows artificial light to shine outward and upward into the sky, where it's not wanted, instead of focusing it downward, where it is. Ill-designed lighting washes out the darkness of night and radically alters the light levels—and light rhythms—to which many forms of life, including ourselves, have adapted. Wherever human light spills into the natural world, some aspect of life—migration, reproduction, feeding—is affected.

For most of human history, the phrase "light pollution" would have made no sense. Imagine walking toward London on a moonlit night around 1800, when it was Earth's most populous city. Nearly a million people lived there, making do, as they always had, with candles and rushlights and torches and lanterns. Only a few houses were lit by gas, and there would be no public gaslights in the streets or squares for another seven years. From a few miles away, you would have been as likely to smell London as to see its dim collective glow.

Now most of humanity lives under intersecting domes of reflected, refracted light, of scattering rays from overlit cities and suburbs, from light-flooded highways and factories. Nearly all of nighttime Europe is a nebula of light, as is most of the United States and all of Japan. In the south Atlantic the glow from a single fishing fleet—squid fishermen luring their prey with metal halide lamps—can be seen from space, burning brighter, in fact, than Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro.

In most cities the sky looks as though it has been emptied of stars, leaving behind a vacant haze that mirrors our fear of the dark and resembles the urban glow of dystopian science fiction. We've grown so used to this pervasive orange haze that the original glory of an unlit night—dark enough for the planet Venus to throw shadows on Earth—is wholly beyond our experience, beyond memory almost. And yet above the city's pale ceiling lies the rest of the universe, utterly undiminished by the light we waste—a bright shoal of stars and planets and galaxies, shining in seemingly infinite darkness.

We've lit up the night as if it were an unoccupied country, when nothing could be further from the truth. Among mammals alone, the number of nocturnal species is astonishing. Light is a powerful biological force, and on many species it acts as a magnet, a process being studied by researchers such as Travis Longcore and Catherine Rich, co-founders of the Los Angeles-based Urban Wildlands Group. The effect is so powerful that scientists speak of songbirds and seabirds being "captured" by searchlights on land or by the light from gas flares on marine oil platforms, circling and circling in the thousands until they drop. Migrating at night, birds are apt to collide with brightly lit tall buildings; immature birds on their first journey suffer disproportionately.

Insects, of course, cluster around streetlights, and feeding at those insect clusters is now ingrained in the lives of many bat species. In some Swiss valleys the European lesser horseshoe bat began to vanish after streetlights were installed, perhaps because those valleys were suddenly filled with light-feeding pipistrelle bats. Other nocturnal mammals—including desert rodents, fruit bats, opossums, and badgers—forage more cautiously under the permanent full moon of light pollution because they've become easier targets for predators.

Some birds—blackbirds and nightingales, among others—sing at unnatural hours in the presence of artificial light. Scientists have determined that long artificial days—and artificially short nights—induce early breeding in a wide range of birds. And because a longer day allows for longer feeding, it can also affect migration schedules. One population of Bewick's swans wintering in England put on fat more rapidly than usual, priming them to begin their Siberian migration early. The problem, of course, is that migration, like most other aspects of bird behavior, is a precisely timed biological behavior. Leaving early may mean arriving too soon for nesting conditions to be right.

Nesting sea turtles, which show a natural predisposition for dark beaches, find fewer and fewer of them to nest on. Their hatchlings, which gravitate toward the brighter, more reflective sea horizon, find themselves confused by artificial lighting behind the beach. In Florida alone, hatchling losses number in the hundreds of thousands every year. Frogs and toads living near brightly lit highways suffer nocturnal light levels that are as much as a million times brighter than normal, throwing nearly every aspect of their behavior out of joint, including their nighttime breeding choruses.

Of all the pollutions we face, light pollution is perhaps the most easily remedied. Simple changes in lighting design and installation yield immediate changes in the amount of light spilled into the atmosphere and, often, immediate energy savings.

It was once thought that light pollution only affected astronomers, who need to see the night sky in all its glorious clarity. And, in fact, some of the earliest civic efforts to control light pollution—in Flagstaff, Arizona, half a century ago—were made to protect the view from Lowell Observatory, which sits high above that city. Flagstaff has tightened its regulations since then, and in 2001 it was declared the first International Dark Sky City. By now the effort to control light pollution has spread around the globe. More and more cities and even entire countries, such as the Czech Republic, have committed themselves to reducing unwanted glare.

Unlike astronomers, most of us may not need an undiminished view of the night sky for our work, but like most other creatures we do need darkness. Darkness is as essential to our biological welfare, to our internal clockwork, as light itself. The regular oscillation of waking and sleep in our lives—one of our circadian rhythms—is nothing less than a biological expression of the regular oscillation of light on Earth. So fundamental are these rhythms to our being that altering them is like altering gravity.

For the past century or so, we've been performing an open-ended experiment on ourselves, extending the day, shortening the night, and short-circuiting the human body's sensitive response to light. The consequences of our bright new world are more readily perceptible in less adaptable creatures living in the peripheral glow of our prosperity. But for humans, too, light pollution may take a biological toll. At least one new study has suggested a direct correlation between higher rates of breast cancer in women and the nighttime brightness of their neighborhoods.

In the end, humans are no less trapped by light pollution than the frogs in a pond near a brightly lit highway. Living in a glare of our own making, we have cut ourselves off from our evolutionary and cultural patrimony—the light of the stars and the rhythms of day and night. In a very real sense, light pollution causes us to lose sight of our true place in the universe, to forget the scale of our being, which is best measured against the dimensions of a deep night with the Milky Way—the edge of our galaxy—arching overhead.

Source - National Geographic

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Focus

Music Review - Berlin City Focus

>~scape

In 1999 label founders Stefan Betke and Barbara Preisinger created ~scape: a fertile breeding ground for self-contained, self-confident music. With a healthy mix of spontaneous enthusiasm, precision and continuity ~scape endeavours to offer its artists more natural scope for exciting projects and creative excursions. Drawing on their collective experiences as DJs, musician, remixer, mastering engineer, producer, promoter, studio owner and publisher they handpick their artists, bypassing clones of their current label sound in favour of those who create consistent, distinctive and, of course, simply great music.

From techno and dub to electronica to hip-hop, dubstep and beyond. Since its inception ~scape has remained on the move while staying true to its roots during the founders' eagle-eyed, loving search for those special talents and unique, fleeting moments between a wide range of musical markers. The swung dash in front of the labelエs name provides free space for thought and experiment, styles and ideas.

>Thomas Morr

Pop is a sound. Pop is melodies. Pop is a feeling; a tiny, excellent, gigantic feeling. A feeling which at best lasts for a long time. In this special case it lasts for six years already. Six years sound storage mediums from Berlin, Prenzlauer Berg, Raumerstrasse. Actually the address is not that important. What is even more important are the sounds from music playing people from Weilheim, Munich and from Vienna, from Antwerp, Oakland, and increasingly also from Berlin. Sometimes melancholy autumn-music, sometimes sunrises. There is equally contemporary chamber music and, besides, gushing moments of pop. White noise, folk songs, abstract Hip Hop, electronic listening.

It is Thomas Morr who has found these sounds. He has picked them up and keeps bringing them again and again to listeners in all corners of the world. These sounds are published by his label Morr Music that gradually has become the label of reference for "Electronica". It has been with the Powerbook becoming the new guitar and the guitar becoming the new Powerbook. When the sound reclaimed the song and electronic music made its way from the hard disc into the band context. What came of this process are marvellous half digital songwriter albums such as Lali Puna's "Scary World Theory" from 2001 or Masha Qrella's "Unsolved Remained", as well as the Tied & Tickled Trio's boundless jazz landscapes around the two Notwist brothers Markus und Micha Acher. Or Tarwater's cool, slightly dark reinterpretation of the 1980s, as on their record "the needle was travelling".

Morr Music started in 1999. Or rather: It continued. As Thomas Morr linked his label to different traditions of popular (and not that popular) music: He took up the narrative of the self-administrative do-it-yourself-story, a minor economy whose reserve currencies are friendship and enthusiasm. He further took up a very British narrative of a pop wonderland full of strong and emphatic feelings.

It is not without reason that a poster of Morrissey hangs above the jukebox in Morr's office: The label's first compilation from 2000 was called "Putting The Morr Back Into Morrissey". And the second, two years later, called "Blue Skied An' Clear" was a homage to the British shoegazers of Slowdive whose floating clear guitar pop has been something like a blueprint for lots of electronica artists. It is further this kind of indie socialization that most of the Morr artists share. Morr Music achieves a great deal of convincing by means of sounds. Morr Music releases affairs of the heart.

>Get Physical

The name says it all: Get Physical tracks could hardly be more moving and corporeal, brimming with new beats and sounds by up-and-coming talents. Thanks to this emphasis, it has taken Get Physical less than four years to become one of the fastest risers and strongest brands of the international club scene. The Berlin/Prenzlberg-based label is backed by a collective of six people, each of whom had a long-standing career in music before making their way from Frankfurt to the capital at the beginning of the new millennium: Booka Shade alias Walter Merziger and Arno Kammermeier, M.A.N.D.Y. alias Patrick Bodmer and Philipp Jung and Thomas Koch aka DJ T. Gradual changes, like allowing other styles to join the mix and opening the label up to become today's musical home for almost 20 artists from around the globe, go hand in hand with rising expectations, changed structures and new concepts.

The label's sound, too, continues to ramify and proliferate - it has become virtually impossible to squeeze their output into any style- or genre-related pigeonhole. Club compatibility is an absolute must, as is a penchant for the atmospheric and an emotional intensity which invariably hit the nerve of the boiling dancefloor. The crew of fifteen at Milastrasse 2 consider themselves a true artist collective. By taking their sound and vision to the outside world, all members of this family, above all the label's three in-house acts Booka Shade, M.A.N.D.Y. and DJ T., have contributed to the label's exceptional reputation. Ignore at your own peril!

>Takeshi Nishimoto

Guitarist Takeshi Nishimoto embraces and expresses music from the European, Northern Indian, and American jazz classical traditions. He has performed extensively as a solo artist, as well as in collaborations with musicians that range from the late sitar master Rahul Sakyaputra to electronic composer John Tejada. Born in Fukuoka, Japan, Takeshi came to the United States for one primary reason-to study guitar. As a student in the University of Southern California guitar program, Takeshi gained a firm foundation in the classical tradition from some of the world's premiere guitar players such as James Smith, Scott Tennant, Bill Kanengizer, and Brian Head.

In addition to European classical music, Nishimoto also explored jazz with Joe Diorio and David Oaks. Also, Takeshi had the jazz guitar legend Phil Upchurch as his mentor. In 2004, Nishimoto start playing the northern Indian classical instrument "Sarod" under the guidance of Pt. Rajeev Taranath. Beyond USC, Takeshi also received personal instruction from the legendary Pepe Romero, playing in four of his master classes. What these teachers, as well his audiences appreciate in Takeshi is his relentless pursuit of musical innovation. He is very open, and that openness extends to his playing. He sees no conflict between the new and the old, and that is part of what makes his music so compelling. He relocated to Berlin in 2005 and has called it home ever since working with local artists and labels.

>Persona Records

Persona Records originally began in Boston, Massachusetts in 2001 as an outlet for the music of Stewart Walker. The name "persona" was chosen to respond to the trend of artists working solely under pseudonyms thus obscuring the humanity involved in electronic music. At the time, electronic dance music was perceived by American audiences as merely the product of computer algorithms.

Words like "computer" and "digital" when used to describe music were epithets with a true meaning of inhuman, soul-less, and anonymous. Electronic music artists since Kraftwerk were happy to explore the artistic possibilities of the man-machine or avatar via their own artificial pseudonymous personalities.

But this denial of humanity prevented acceptance and understanding from those more comfortable with traditional bands or singer-songwriters of rock, folk, punk, etc.

Stewart realized around this time, after being locked in bedroom studios for most of the 1990's, that there is a purity of intent within electronic music. One artist typically creates the entire presentation from the concept of the music, to the graphic design, the label management, and so on. This stood out in stark contrast to the amount of effort required to produce and sell one folkie -- with teams of songwriters, producers, engineers and A+R reps involved in the creation of a pop single and career.

The development of music and artists electronic music world was simpler and more direct. More personal. Punk bands called it "DIY," Rock bands called it "indie," and other techno artists called it "the underground." Persona's first web communique called it new folk music, and the modern equivalent of a girl with a guitar busking in a subway station.

>Antye Greie

AGF alias Antye Greie is an east german singer and digital songwriter, producer, performer, e-poet, calligrapher, digital media artist. The start of her solo career was marked by the artistic exploration of digital technology. On her first solo album HEAD SLASH BAUCH (Orthlorng Musork 2001), she converted fragments of HTML scripts and software handbooks into a form of electronic poetry and deconstructed pop. The follow-up work, WESTERNIZATION COMPLETED, won an Award of Distinction at the 2004 Ars Electronica festival. Her collaboration with Sue Costabile involving live audio-visual improvisation resulted in the 2006 AGF.3 + SUE.C CD/DVD release called MINI MOVIES (on Asphodel). 2008 releases WORDS ARE MIssING and DANCE FLOOR DRACHEN (AGF Producktion) experiment with absence of poetry and repetitive statements on simple to complex rhythm.

Her poetry, which she converts into electronic music, pop songs, calligraphy and digital media, has been presented as live performances and sound installations in museums, auditoria, theatres, concert halls and clubs throughout Europe and in North America and Asia in festivals such as Ars Electronica Linz, Sonar Barcelona, Transmediale Berlin, GRM Festival Paris, Roskilde, Sync festival Athens, AudioVisiva Milan, Intern. Open Book Festival Moscow, Sonic Acts Amsterdam and staged solo performances in venues like Pompidue Paris, ICC Tokyo, Akademie der Kuenste Berlin, ICA London and many more.

>Tyree Cooper

It probably all began with the old R & B dusties of his mother, Tyree Cooper was impassionedly listening to. Growing up on the streets of Chicago's South Side Tyree Cooper discovered his love for the soul music of the 60ies. A first step was to join his Grammar school band at the age of 13 - playing the flute! His other passion at that time was playing basketball. Both passions followed him to the high school where he met Mike Dunn and learned how to DJ. Listening to Farley "Jackmaster Funk", " The Hot Mix 5", Ronny Hardy and the electrifying energies of Frankie Knuckles, Tyree was well schooled at an early age. Two years after college Tyree was already one of the most popular and highly sought-after DJs in Chicago. Then Vince Lawrence, of the garage funk band "Jesse Gang" (founded by Jesse Saunders) persuaded Tyree to put together a demo tape of his music to start a career as a recording artist. From now on it was only a question of time before signing the first record deal with the Chicago-based underground label D.J. International - that was in 1986.

The first 12" "I Fear The Night" (with female vocalist 'Chic') - promptly became an underground classic in Chicago. Other hits followed: "Acid Over"(1988), "Turn Up The Bass" (1988/89),"'Let's Get Hyped" (feat. Kool Rock Steady, 1989), "Let the Music Take Control"(1989) and "Hardcore Hip House" (1989). That was the time when Tyree Cooper created a crossover version of house music together with his friend and fellow DJ 'Fast Eddie' Smith and which was known as hip house. It then caused a furor on the hip hop scene, while today rap vocals are a common feature of the commercial house scene.

Tyree Cooper is now regarded as one of the most influential artists in the international house scene. Already looking back to a respectable discography Cooper founded his own label in 2002: Supa Dupa Recordings. Later one of the most important hip house tunes was released on Epic with the original and some new remix versions: "Turn Up The Bass", which is surely one of the most important hip house tracks of all times. Other remixing highlights and hits were undoubtedly Fast Edde "Yo! Yo! Get Funky", "It's Alright" from the Pet Shop Boys and the Mixmasters "In the Mix" which was featured in Madonna's Truth or Dare. True to the scene Tyree still maintains a base in Chicago but has recently spread his roots to setup home Berlin - doing what he does best.... spinning and traveling within Europe for gigs and producing new tracks on his own record label Supa Dupa Records.

>Timeblind

A veteran producer spanning genres from techno to dub to grime Timeblind is a sonic technician that has continually been at the boundaries of electronic music. With releases spanning 15 years and labels such as Richie Hawtins Plus 8, Kid 606's Shockout Records and DJ Rupture's Soot Records.

As a DJ Timeblind has always blended dancehall, jungle, hip-hop and techno, so when UK Garage and later Grime started happening it was a natural style for him and he started spinning it at his NYC club night The Bunker.

With the classic dub-tronica joint The Rastabomba a liquid hip-hop groove gets grafted onto a mysterious (and still untraced) late-night radio transmission from "the beautiful village of 'arlem". Subject: the apocalypse, cycle change, how to survive it.

The full length CD Rugged Redemption Orthlorng Musork, 2001) slyly blurred genre boundaries and made it onto numerous top 10 lists for that year. In 2002 he played at the Sonar and Mutek festivals and did several tours of Europe.

From 1998 till 2004 he lived in New York, founding the Polar Bear Club (with Mike Wolf) and later The Bunker (with DJ Spinoza) club nights at Tonic. It was a sonic collision where things like Coltrane, Mego, Timbaland and Roll Deep got squished together on the turntables. UK Garage, disco, funk, arabic dance music, psychedelia to full-on breakcore. It became one of the hot spots of downtown NYC with guest DJs like Matmos and Anti-Pop Consortium. The Bunker continues today (after Timeblind split to Berlin) and is a regular venue for excellent New York parties: Dan Bell (DBX), Sammy Dee (Perlon) and Suburban Knight (UR). One of the hotspots of US techno.

While in New York Timeblind was also a regular player at DJ Olive and Toshio Kajiwara's Phonomena, exploring the outer limits of downtown improv with laptop, turntables or saxophone.

Timeblind currently lives in Berlin. He used to live in New York, but that got too stressy and the rents are just too high. Berlin is relaxed and cheap and therefore filled with musicians. He is currently working on a new EP and album for release on Laboratory Instinct.

Source - Samurai FM

Children

Film Review - "Edge Of Heaven"

Context can make or break a film. The Edge of Heaven, by the Turkish-German director Fatih Akin, drew the short straw in competition in Cannes last year. Among a vintage stack of entries including Zodiac, 4 Months, 3 Weeks ... and Silent Light, Akin's thoughtful, somewhat novelistic drama was admired by some, discussed by few. Now Akin's film arrives in Britain during one of the release schedule's several silly seasons: in the week of Be Kind Rewind and the woefully flimsy My Blueberry Nights, The Edge of Heaven comes into its own as the substantial offering that it is.

Cannes wasn't entirely unkind to The Edge of Heaven: it did win the screenwriting award. Indeed, you could come away from the film thinking it was primarily a clever feat of script construction. But it's simply a detached, rather undemonstrative film – certainly compared with the one that made Akin's name, the 2004 Berlin winner Head-On, a tale of amour fou among ferociously charismatic outsiders. Its follow-up marks a neat shift of register, from Head-On's raging oratorio to pensive fugue.

The Edge of Heaven is divided into three parts: two introducing separate sets of characters, both announcing in their titles that two people are fated to die, while the third, entitled "From the Other Side" (also the film's German title), threads the stories together.

Akin's narrative is a meticulously woven fabric of accidents and chance encounters – and, just as importantly, missed encounters. In Bremen, Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz), an elderly Turkish man, takes a fancy to prostitute Yeter (Nursel Kose) and proposes a deal: that she move in and sleep with him on an exclusive basis. Menaced by two Muslim hardliners who warn her to change her ways, Yeter accepts Ali's offer, but things don't go rosily.

Ali's son Nejat (Baki Davrak), who lectures on German literature, goes to Istanbul, looking for Yeter's missing daughter Ayten (Nurgul Yesilcay). He doesn't find her, but we do, in part two: she's a radical activist on the run. Arriving in Germany to look for her mother, she meets Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska), a young student: the two women become lovers, to the dismay of Lotte's mother Susanne (Hanna Schygulla, Fassbinder's former muse), who once had radical leanings, but has now opted for a quiet life and unquestioning faith in governments. Turkey, Susanne argues, is about to enter the European Union: how bad can things really be there for a dissident like Ayten?

In fact, things are pretty bad one way or another in The Edge of Heaven: if tangled fate doesn't mess things up for people, the authorities, in Germany and Turkey alike, certainly will. Yet this is really an optimistic film, suggesting that it's the crossing of individuals' paths that offers hope for the world: it's all down to people's readiness to make exchanges, take generous risks, seize the moment.

Akin's drama is one of those intricate multi-stranders that have become the rage in recent years; perhaps it's no accident that the closing credits include thanks to Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, who perfected this line of construction in his films with director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

But Akin's is a much more astute achievement than Inarritu's recent Babel. Where that film painted a fuzzy, we-are-the-world picture of universal interconnectedness, Akin sets his entanglements against concrete politics: globalisation, migration, the decline of the Left, the specific cultural and economic traffic between Germany and Turkey.

You could object that there are no real characters here, that everyone flatly represents a particular social conflict: the bourgeois German daughter embracing Turkish radicalism, the Turkish academic defining his identity in terms of German high culture .... But I don't think Akin primarily wants us to feel deeply for flesh-and-blood people – not in the way we were consumed by the traumatised passions of the couple in Head-On. In its thoughtful, deliberate pace and low-key acting, The Edge of Heaven feels like a mathematical demonstration of how the world (at least the world of this story) works.

Nor does Akin give his contrivances the metaphysical spin of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colours trilogy: he doesn't seek to make us shudder at frissons of the uncanny. He coolly announces that he's manipulating his repetitions and symmetries: a coffin arrives in Turkey, gliding down the ramp of a plane; later, another rolls up a ramp, bound for Germany. This transparency removes any hint of mystification. If Akin depicts a world of mirrorings and crossings, it's because he's interested in the theme of exchange, of crossed frontiers, both as an abstraction and a political reality.

The acting is sensitive, unflashy: the film is that rarity, a genuinely democratic ensemble piece. Still, the story's weight can't help resting finally with Schygulla's character, whose taking stock more or less binds and gives meaning to the fates of the others. Akin leaves us a minor-key open ending: a long take of a character sitting on a beach, musing as he waits for someone else to draw into view. Musing on what? It's our guess.

This elegant, complex drama builds its virtuoso layerings, but then grants us the intelligence to think about their real-world implications – to discern the pattern beyond the pattern. You'll come out thinking, rather than (as in Head-On) reeling. For that, Akin's modest achievement – modest in the best sense – deserves your attention.

Source - The Independent

Friends

Asian Trade In Free Fall

A blizzard of grim data this week points to a full-blown trade slump across Asia, confirming fears that the region's strategy of export-led growth would backfire once the West buckled.

Flemming Nielsen, from Danske Bank, said exports from Korea and Taiwan both shrank by over 20pc last month. "The numbers are terrible. Intra-Asian trade is in free-fall. Taiwan's exports to mainland China in November were down a whopping 42pc."

The Baltic Dry Index measuring freight rates for bulk goods began to collapse in June, dropping 96pc over the five months in the most dramatic fall in shipping fees ever recorded. It was a leading indicator of what we are now seeing in Asian trade.

Fan Gang, a top adviser in Beijing, said China's exports would also show a decline when data is released this week. "Things are not good: industrial growth will be around 5pc and export growth will be negative," he said. Economic expansion of 5pc would be a major shock and entail recession in the Chinese context.

Japan's economy shrank 0.5pc in the third quarter and risks sliding back into deflation and perma-slump. Exports fell 7.7pc in October on crumbling demand for cars and machinery.

Over 1,000 Japanese companies went bust last month as the high yen squeezed margins. Sony is laying off 16,000 staff. Japan's industrial output is expected to fall by a post-War record of 8.6pc in the fourth quarter.

Tokyo is already planning "purchase vouchers" to kick-start spending in the world's second largest economy. A fresh stimulus package worth 20,000bn yen (£146bn) is being prepared for early next year.

"We need policies to keep the economy from falling apart," said economics minister Kaoru Yosano. "Japan will endure hardship next year."

Zahra Ward-Murphy, from Dresdner Kleinwort, said Japan has slimmed down its bloated debt structure since its Lost Decade, but is still half-reformed and over-reliant on exports. "It has not rebalanced the economy towards internal growth: now exports are tanking," she said.

Tokyo is once again running low on policy options. The Bank of Japan is wary of cutting rates below the current level of 0.3pc for fear of damaging the money markets, a key lubricant of the credit system. It may soon need to revert to emergency forms of monetary stimulus know as 'quantitative easing'.

Earlier rescue plans have already pushed Japan's national debt to 170pc of GDP, the world's highest. Private savings have collapsed from 14pc of GDP in the early 1990s to 2pc today. Japan goes into this downturn without a cushion.

Source - Telegraph

Monday, December 08, 2008

Lux

Pollutants Make Us Fat

Many people who eat organic food and use natural products are trying to avoid pesticides that are linked to cancer and other diseases. Now Japanese researchers say there is another advantage to "going green" and avoiding toxins and chemical additives in the environment. A common pollutant has been found to have a potent effect on gene activity and could be contributing to the obesity epidemic.

According to an article published in the December issue of the journal Bioscience, the chemical tributyltin affects sensitive receptors in the cells of a host of animals, ranging from water fleas to people. What's more, tributyltin has an impact at extremely low levels -- a thousand times lower than pollutants that are known to interfere with the sexual development of wildlife species, for example. The chemical is known to be damaging to the liver as well as the nervous and immune systems in mammals . But what has just been recognized is that tributyltin also has powerful effects on the cellular components known as retinoid X receptors (RXRs) in a range of species. That's important because RXRs can move into the nuclei of cells and turn on genes that cause the growth of fat storage cells and regulate whole body metabolism. This raises a disturbing possibility: The pollutant could be harming humans by causing slowed metabolism and weight gain.

Scientists Taisen Iguchi and Yoshinao Katsu of the Graduate University for Advanced Studies in Japan, who wrote the BioScience article, point out that effects of tributyltin on RXR-like nuclear receptors could be widespread throughout the animal kingdom, including the human species. And they note that the enormous rise in obesity over the past four decades coincides with the increased use of industrial chemicals over the same period.

Several other ubiquitous pollutants with strong biological effects, including environmental estrogens such as bisphenol A and nonylphenol, also have been found to stimulate the growth of fat storage cells in mice. In a statement to the mediam Iguchi and Katsu said it is "plausible and provocative" to associate the obesity epidemic to chemical triggers found in our modern, polluted environment.

Unfortunately, it isn't easy to avoid tributyltin -- it is frequently used as a preservative in paints for boats, wood and textiles and it is also used as a pesticide on high-value food crops. And if you are expecting the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to make sure you are protected from this potentially dangerous chemical , think again.

A new report just released by the National Research Council warns the EPA's process of generating risk assessments of the adverse effects posed by harmful chemicals found in the environment is bogged down. The EPA is rarely able to connect available scientific data with the information officials need for an accurate risk assessment. The reports states the EPA is struggling to keep up with demands for hazard and dose-response information and doesn't have enough resources to adequately cope.

The risk assessment for trichloroethylene is an example cited by the report. A chemical used to remove grease from metal parts and an ingredient in adhesives, paint removers, typewriter correction fluids, and spot removers, trichloroethylene has been associated with cancer, heart problems and liver and lung damage for decades. However, although a risk assessment for trichloroethylene has been under development since the 1980s, official EPA risk management decisions about the chemical is not expected until 2010.

Source - Natural News