31 July 2014

Stock markets in need of price adjustment?


Slate has an article (with many graphs) by Henry Blodget about problems for the stock market:
After meandering higher for most of the year, the stock market is now sputtering. That's triggering chatter about a minor "correction," which many people believe is long overdue.
And maybe that's what we're at the start of: a minor "correction". Or maybe this is just a blip, and the brilliant and prudent Jeremy Grantham is right that we're on the cusp of a new bubble that will take the S&P 500 up another ten to fifteen percent over the next year to 2,250. (As a stockholder, I sure hope so!) Or maybe we'll get both— a minor "correction" and a new bubble spike. Or maybe we're just in the middle years of a fantastic bull market.
I don't know.  (Neither does anyone else, by the way.) I'm also not predicting a crash.
One thing I do know, though, is that stocks are extremely expensive on every valid historical measure I know of. In the past, this level of overvaluation has presaged poor long-term returns. So I'm not expecting my retirement account to do well from this level over the next seven to ten years.
The other thing that this level of valuation has also often preceded is something much worse than a "minor correction": a crash. And there are other things that are happening now that have also preceded crashes.
So I would not be surprised to see stocks fall about fifty percent from this level in the next few years. And, if that happens, you shouldn't be surprised, either.
A crash of that magnitude wouldn't even make stocks "cheap". It would merely take them back to their long-term average. And to deny the possibility that stocks might someday drop back to their long-term average seems the height of delusion to me.
Yes, maybe it's "different this time." Maybe, this time, stocks really have "reached a permanently high plateau". But I doubt it. And it's not just price that concerns me.
There are three basic reasons I keep warning you that I think future stock performance will be lousy:
Stocks are very expensive
Corporate profit margins are still near record highs
The Fed is now tightening
Below, I'll address those one at a time.
Lest you be concerned that I'm just "talking my book". I should be clear about one thing: I own stocks, and I'm not selling them. (For many reasons, including that I'm a long-term investor). From a personal finance perspective, I would like nothing more than for the market to keep going up.
I also want to point out one new thing that is worrying me lately: the rise of investor margin debt. Money is cheap right now, and the stock market has been going up for five years. As a result, lots of investors are borrowing money to buy stocks. This, in turn, is making stocks go up more, which encourages more investors to borrow more money to buy stocks. And so on. As you can see in the chart from Doug Short, investor margin debt is now higher than it was just before each of the two recent crashes, both of which took stocks down about fifty percent.
The problem with margin debt is that the cycle is just as self-reinforcing on the downside. Once stocks drop, investors are forced to sell stocks to meet margin demands. That selling causes stocks to drop more. And so on. Basically, if and when stocks reverse course, conditions are ripe for them to fall a long, long way before anything begins to prop them up.
Anyway, on to the broader concerns...
Price: Stocks are very expensive. In the past year or two, stocks have moved from being "expensive" to "very expensive". In fact, according to one historically valid measure, stocks are now more expensive than they have been at any time in the past hundred and thirty years with the exception of 1929 and 2000 (and we know what happened in those years).
The chart from Yale professor Robert Shiller shows the cyclically adjusted price-earnings ratio of the S&P 500 for the last hundred and thirty years. As you can see, today's PE ratio of 26X is miles above the long-term average of 15X. In fact, it's higher than at any point in the twentieth century, with the exception of the months that preceded the two biggest stock-market crashes in history.
Does a high PE mean the market is going to crash? No. Sometimes, as in 2000, the PE just keeps getting higher. For a while. But, eventually, gravity takes hold. And in the past, without exception, a PE as high as today's has foreshadowed lousy returns for the next seven to ten years.
While we're at it, please note that, sometimes— as in the entire first seventy years of the last century—PEs can be low even when interest rates are low. That's worth noting because, today, you often hear bulls say that today's high PEs are totally justified by today's low interest rates. Even if this were true— even if history did not clearly show that you can have low PEs with low rates— this argument would not protect you from future losses, because today's low rates could eventually regress upwards to normal. But it's also just not true that low rates always mean high PEs.
And in case some of your bullish friends have convinced you that Professor Shiller's P/E analysis is otherwise flawed, check out the chart from fund manager John Hussman. It shows six valuation measures in addition to the Shiller PE that have been highly predictive of future returns. It shows the predicted ten-year return for stocks according to each valuation measure. The colored lines show the predicted return for each measure at any given time. The actual return over the ten years from that point it ends ten years ago. Today, the average expected return for the next ten years is slightly positive— just under two percent a year. That's not horrible. But it's a far cry from the ten percent long-term average.
And, lastly, lest you're tempted to dismiss both Shiller and Hussman as party-pooping idiots, there's a chart from James Montier at GMO. Montier, one of Wall Street's smartest strategists, is also very concerned about today's valuations. He does not think it's "different this time". Montier's chart shows that another of the common arguments used to debunk Professor Shiller's PE chart is bogus. Bulls often say that Professor Shiller's PE is flawed because it includes the crappy earnings year during the financial crisis. Montier shows that this criticism is misplaced. Even when you include 2009 earnings, Montier observes, ten-year average corporate earnings are well above trend. This suggests that, far from overstating how expensive stocks are, Professor Shiller's chart might be understating it.
In short, Montier thinks that all the arguments you hear about why today's stock prices are actually cheap are just the same kinds of bogus arguments you always hear in the years leading up to market peaks: seemingly sophisticated attempts to justify more buying by those who have a vested interest in more buying.
So, by all means, go ahead and tell yourself that stocks aren't expensive. But be aware of what you're likely doing. What you're likely doing is what others who persuaded themselves to buy stocks near previous market peaks (as I did in 2000) were doing: saying "it's different this time".
That's price. Next comes profit margins. Today's profit margins are extremely, abnormally high. One reason many investors think stocks are reasonably priced is that they are comparing today's stock prices to this year's earnings and next year's expected earnings. In some years, when profit margins are normal, this valuation measure is meaningful. In other years, however— at the peak or trough of the business cycle— comparing prices to one year's earnings can produce a very misleading sense of value.
Profit margins tend to be "mean-reverting", meaning that they go through periods of being above or below average but eventually— sometimes violently— regress toward the mean. As a result, it is dangerous to conclude that one year of earnings is a fair measure of long-term "earning power". If you look at a year of high earnings and conclude these high earnings will go on forever, for example, you can get clobbered.
(It works the other way, too. In years with depressed earnings, stocks can look artificially expensive. That's one reason a lot of investors missed the buying opportunity during the financial crisis. Measured on 2009's clobbered earnings, stocks looked expensive. But they weren't. They were actually undervalued.)
Today's profit margins are the highest in history, by a mile. Note that, in every previous instance in which profit margins have reached extreme levels like today's— high and low— they have subsequently reverted to (or beyond) the mean. And when profit margins have reverted, so have stock prices.
Now, again, you can tell yourself stories about why, this time, profit margins have reached a "permanently high plateau", as a famous economist remarked about stock prices just before the crash in 1929. And, unlike that economist, you might be right. But as you are telling yourself these stories, please recognize that what you are really saying is "it's different this time". And "it's different this time" are described as "the four most expensive words in the English language."
And then there's Fed tightening... For the last five years, the Fed has been frantically pumping more and more money into Wall Street, keeping interest rates low to encourage hedge funds and other investors to borrow and speculate. This free money, and the resulting speculation, has helped drive stocks to their current very expensive levels.
But now the Fed is starting to "take away the punch bowl", as Wall Street is fond of saying. Specifically, the Fed is beginning to reduce the amount of money that it is pumping into Wall Street. To be sure, for now, the Fed is still pumping oceans of money into Wall Street. But, in the past, it has been the change in direction of Fed money-pumping that has been important to the stock market, not the absolute level.
In the past, major changes in direction of Fed money-pumping have often been followed by changes in direction of stock prices. Not immediately. And not always. But often.
Let's go to the history. In many of these time periods, you'll see that sustained Fed tightening has often been followed by a decline in stock prices. Again, not immediately, and not always, but often. You'll also see that most major declines in stock prices over this period have been preceded by Fed tightening.
One of the oldest sayings on Wall Street is "Don't fight the Fed". This saying has meaning in both directions, when the Fed is easing and when it is tightening. On the positive side, the Fed's tightening phases have often lasted a year or two before stock prices peaked and began to drop. So even if you're convinced that sustained Fed tightening now will likely lead to a sharp stock-price pullback at some point, the bull market might still have a ways to run.
In conclusion, those are three reasons why I'm still nervous about stock prices and think stocks will likely deliver lousy returns over the next seven to ten years: price, profit margins, and Fed tightening. I also would not be surprised to see the stock market drop sharply from this level, perhaps as much as fifty percent over a couple of years.
None of this means for sure that the market will crash or that you should sell stocks (I own stocks, and I'm not selling them.) It does mean, however, that you should be mentally prepared for the possibility of a major pullback and lousy long-term returns. Because unless it's "different this time," that's what we're likely to get.
Rico says he no longer (alas) owns even a single share of stock, but this will affect people he knows...

Using USB firmware to spread malware


Lily Hay Newman has a Slate article about another hacker trick we didn't need:
Flash drives and USB peripherals— that is, basically every gadget— could be carrying malware without any evidence in their flash memory. According to new research that will be presented next week at the Black Hat security conference, it is possible to hide malware deep within USB technology at the firmware level. Oh, great.
Wired, which first reported on the findings, says that researchers Karsten Nohl and Jakob Lell from the security firm SR Labs can take over and control a PC with the BadUSB malware they developed to lurk in the base-level software that mediates between hardware and higher-level software like an operating system. They’re white hat hackers, trying to find and exploit security flaws as a proof of concept and a way of motivating the tech community to develop fixes.
Wiping a flash drive or scanning it with anti-virus software won’t detect the malware. Only reverse-engineering the firmware the way Nohl and Lell did can expose the foreign code lurking in it, and few consumers have the know-how to do that. Plus, even if you could do that, it might be hard to identify the malware code as malicious, because USB firmware varies and there isn’t a single standard to compare to.
So with BadUSB, or something like it, safely in place, the malware can do pretty much anything, like controlling a keyboard to type commands, leaving backdoors in software, or monitoring Internet use on a device. University of Pennsylvania computer science professor Matt Blaze also told Wired that he suspects the NSA has already developed attacks like this. “I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the things Nohl and Lell discovered are what we heard about in the NSA catalog,” he said referring to Cottonmouth, an NSA malware distribution program that uses USB drives.
There’s no patch for this problem, so the best way to defend yourself for now is to think about how you protect yourself from getting sick and apply the same approach to your computer. Don’t share your thumb drives, don’t plug them into a public or untrusted computer, and don’t plug a USB peripheral or thumb drive that isn’t yours into your computer. It’s difficult to do, because we all use USB technology for easy sharing, but hopefully it’ll just be a stopgap measure while researchers work on long-term fixes. For example, USB firmware could have a signature that indicates if the original code has been tampered with or changed. And companies working on anti-virus for peripherals— like Red Balloon Security, which Slate reported on earlier this year— should be able to detect the changes.
Or what about USB condoms?! For now, you’ll have to practice safe sharing.
Rico says safe software is hard...

Time to get out of Gaza


Slate has an article by William Saletan about Gaza:
More than three weeks ago, responding to rocket fire from Gaza, Israel launched a campaign of airstrikes against Hamas. Two weeks ago, Israeli ground forces went in. The balance of military power is so lopsided that Israel can do whatever it wants. But that freedom makes it difficult for the winning side to recognize when it’s time to stop. Here are some clues that suggest that that time is now:
1. Your enemy refuses to protect its people. Normally, if you invade a country and pound the daylights out of it, you can expect its government to seek, or at least accept, a cease-fire to stop the bleeding. Not here. Hamas has refused to endorse or honor a simple cease-fire despite the ridiculous imbalance of casualties.
Israel argues, correctly, that Hamas doesn’t care about Gazan civilians. Hamas also seems fragmented, unable to make decisions. Arab governments aren’t stepping in, either; they seem to hate Hamas more than they love Gazans. But the absence of competent advocacy for Gazans isn’t a reason to keep shooting. It’s a reason to stop. When your enemy shows no mercy for its own people, that responsibility falls to you.
2. You’re killing too many civilians. Last time I checked, on a per-strike basis, Israel’s rate of inflicting civilian casualties was lower than NATO’s in the Kosovo war. But, in just three weeks, Israel has launched so many strikes that its civilian casualty toll has eclipsed NATO’s.
Even if you set aside mass-casualty incidents for which Israel has denied responsibility (sometimes with independent evidence), there are too many other cases in which its excuses don’t begin to justify the death toll. When the UN cited evidence that Israeli Defense Forces had killed nineteen civilians in an artillery strike on a UN school, Israel said it was only shooting back at militants who had fired mortars “from the vicinity”. A recent airstrike apparently injured fifteen Gazans at a UN school during a strike on a nearby mosque (presumably targeted for housing military assets). Another seventeen people died in a strike on a market. An Israeli military source told reporters that in two of these cases, terrorists “fired at IDF troops... and our troops returned fire. It may be that one of our shells fell in the market.”
That’s unacceptable. There’s nothing “pinpoint” about these strikes. What’s happening is entirely predictable: Israel has shifted from guided weapons to old-fashioned shelling. Everyone, including Israel, knows that this will increase the error rate, with lethal results. “When they started naval bombardment, artillery, and tank fire, that’s just not as accurate as airstrikes,” says a UN official in Gaza. “They can’t see what they’re shooting at.”
3. Your civilian protection measures are failing. I’ve praised the IDF for its exemplary double-layered warning system: phone calls to residents of buildings, followed by dummy bombs designed to scare people out of the building before the real strike hits. The IDF has also robo-called and leafleted neighborhoods, warning people to clear out before the area is invaded. But these measures are failing. Some people never got phone calls. Others misunderstood the dummy bombs and went back into their houses, thinking the strike was over. Some stayed in targeted neighborhoods, afraid to move. Others moved only to end up in places they mistakenly thought were safe. The further the IDF advances into overpopulated Gaza, the harder it is for civilians to find a refuge. At some point, you have to acknowledge that your worthy efforts aren’t enough. Once you’ve devised a moral argument that excuses anything you do, you’re lost.
4. Your mission and methods keep expanding. First the IDF was just going to hit Gaza from the air. Then it went in on the ground, but assured everyone that the target was just the tunnels. Then Hamas killed a bunch of Israeli soldiers in a surprise attack, and Israel retaliated with widespread shelling. This week, the Israeli air force has been hitting a hundred to two hundred targets a day. How does that fit a campaign against tunnels? The strikes are on suspected weapon storage sites and “homes of terrorists”. Israel keeps moving the goal posts, redefining the conditions that would meet its vague objective of “sustainable quiet”. That’s the beginning of mission creep. Where does it end?
5. The payoff is declining. In the early days of the ground invasion, the IDF bragged about all the tunnels it had found. But, in the last few days, the rate of discovery has trailed off. To find the rest, Israel would probably have to expand its areas of operation in Gaza, and that means more gunfire, bombing, shelling, and civilian deaths. Israeli soldiers would die, too. Recently, three of them were killed on a tunnel mission.
6. You’re losing too many soldiers. Before the ground invasion, the IDF’s casualty count was zero. Now it’s more than fifty. Hamas, which measures success by how many Israelis it kills, is getting the blood it wants. Why give them more?
7. You’re close to losing another Gilad Shalit. The last time Gaza militants captured an Israeli soldier, Israel released more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners to buy his release. In the last couple of weeks, Hamas has made several attempts to grab another IDF soldier alive. If it gets one, imagine the leverage it will gain.
8. You’re picking fights with everyone. First it was the UN Relief and Works Agency. Then it was the UN Security Council. Everyone who speaks up, no matter how carefully, about the pain Israel has inflicted in Gaza gets an insulting rebuke from Israel. As if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s face-to-face, on-camera lecture of President Obama three years ago wasn’t enough, government sources have reportedly leaked to the Israeli press a cease-fire proposal from Secretary of State John Kerry and a fabricated transcript of an Obama-Netanyahu phone call, apparently in an attempt to embarrass Kerry and Obama. In the last week, Israeli columnists have derided Kerry in articles that implicitly channeled the contempt of Israeli officials. One article said that “very senior officials in Jerusalem” had called Kerry’s proposal a “strategic terrorist attack”. Israel’s deputy transportation minister said it was as though “the United States is working in the service of Hamas.”
This kind of escalation against anyone who doesn’t affirm all your beliefs, including your friends, is mental illness. In foreign policy, the damage and self-destruction are that much greater. Now Kerry is wondering aloud whether he can take Netanyahu’s stated support for a cease-fire “at face value”, and the State Department is expressing dismay at the accusations from Israeli ingrates. The department’s spokeswoman says: “It's simply not the way partners and allies treat each other.” And Israel doesn’t have any other genuine ally.
9. Your eldest statesman says it’s time to stop. A week ago, Shimon Peres stepped down after seven years as Israel’s president. The job is ceremonial, but Peres has stratospheric prestige, having served as prime minister in three different decades. Recently, he visited wounded Israeli soldiers and praised them for fighting Hamas terrorists “who have no respect for human lives”. But he also concluded that the war had “exhausted itself” and “now we have to find a way to stop it.” For this, Israel’s housing minister called Peres’ remarks “unacceptable” and accused him of undermining military morale.
Top Comment
10. Your army hints that it’s time to stop. An anonymous “high-ranking military official” told Israeli reporters that “the political leadership must decide now—either we push deeper into Gaza, or we backtrack”. He cautioned that “we won't be able to take out every tunnel” and added (in a country where polls overwhelmingly favor further prosecution of the war) that “our responsibility is to lead the offensive to where it needs to go, not to where the public wants.” That sounds like a warning that the wise course, at this point, is to get out.
11. Your ethics are degenerating. Israel accuses Hamas of using Palestinian civilians as human shields. As an indictment, that’s correct. But Israel has also peddled this as an all-purpose excuse for the IDF’s role in civilian deaths. Here’s how Netanyahu frames the argument:
They’re using their civilians to protect their missiles. So naturally, they're responsible for all the civilian deaths that occur accidentally. We're sorry for any accidental civilian death, but it's Hamas that bears complete responsibility for such civilian casualties.
That’s a fully self-absolving mentality. It pre-emptively removes all blame from the trigger-puller and his government. Some ministers in Netanyahu’s government have gone further, arguing for a cut-off of food, water, and electricity to Gaza. A deputy minister blames Palestinians for their predicament, noting that they elected Hamas eight years ago. Once you’ve devised a moral argument that excuses anything you do, you’re lost.
12. The West Bank is boiling. So far, the war has been confined to Gaza. But Hamas has been doing everything possible to inflame anger in the West Bank. Over the last two weeks, the Palestinian Ma’an News Agency has tracked an increase in “armed attacks on Israeli military sites and settlements in the West Bank”. If Israel doesn’t end one war soon, it may soon be facing two.
Rico says it probably is time...

The Expendables 3


Rico says he can hardly wait...

Warning flyers fall on Gaza


Slate has an article by Ben Mathis-Lilley about Gaza:
Violence in Gaza continued, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling up thousands of additional reserve soldiers, and vowing to completely destroy Hamas' network of tunnels before agreeing to end hostilities. (An Israeli general said the tunnel operation will take "a few more days.") (Photos above are of fliers dropped by Israeli forces over Gaza City urging residents to evacuate.

Rico says it's nice; now they'll have toilet paper...

Language for the day

Rico says he noticed, in a song by The Starboard List, the use of gimme (as in gi(ve) me), a word in common usage now.

Quote for the day

"Harkaman looked at his half-empty glass, then filled it to the top. It was the same drink he had started with, just as a regiment that has been decimated and recruited up to strength a few times is still the same regiment."
From Space Viking by H. Beam Piper

Armed militia protecting the border


Buzzfeed has an article about the border:
The photos provided to BuzzFeed by a group that helps organize the militias shows one group patrolling with guns and gear. They have ten teams on the ground in Texas, three in Arizona, and one in California.
State Senator Leticia Van de Putte, who is running for lieutenant governor, said the militias are inspired by Republican rhetoric on the border. “The presence of these outside independent militia groups does nothing to secure the border; it only creates an unsafe situation for law enforcement officials that are protecting our communities,” she said. “Unfortunately, the vile rhetoric of my opponent inspires misguided efforts. Pointing guns at children solves nothing,” she added.
Customs and Border Protection has said they do not "endorse or support any private group or organization from taking matters into their own hands, as it could have disastrous personal and public safety consequences," the Houston Chronicle reported. One picture, though, shows a border patrol agent giving militia members directions.
A spokesperson at Patriots Information Hotline told BuzzFeed things are going swimmingly, but they want help. “Everything is pretty well and good,” said Barbie Rogers of the Patriots Information Hotline. “We’re trying to get more property owners so that we can cycle people in and out, because a lot of people don’t understand, we’re doing this with our own money.” Patriots Information Hotline acts as a resource for those who also want to take up arms and join the cause at the border. “There are some that can only afford to go down there for three days and then they have to go home. Some guys go down for a week. Whatever they can manage, we have to cycle the guys in and out,” Rogers added.
In a deleted 21-minute YouTube video, the commander of one of the groups, Secure our Borders, detailed how to stop undocumented immigrants, with guns. “How? You see an illegal. You point your gun dead at him, right between his eyes, and you say: ‘Get back across the border or you will be shot,’” Chris Davis said.
Otherwise, the militia is keeping busy with Bust the Bank, a campaign where “we’re asking everybody to sign up and take all your money out of the bank.”
They are also meeting for a rally in Murrieta, California on 1 August 2014, the scene of earlier protests to stop buses full of children from dropping them off there, and heading to Laredo, Texas, on 2 August 2014.
Rico says, hey, this was his idea... (But that mask's fucking scary.)

Women shouldn't laugh in public


Rico says that some things are funny enough on their face, and this, from  ClarionProject.org, doesn't require comment:
The Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey, Bülent Arınç, said that women should refrain from laughing in public, because it’s immodest. In response to Arınç’s remarks, hundreds of Turkish women posted pictures of themselves laughing on social media platforms.
Arınç, who spoke at an Eid el-Fitr gathering yesterday, said, “The woman will know what is forbidden and not haram. She will not laugh in public. She will not be inviting in her attitudes and will protect her chasteness.”
Following Arınç’s remarks, hundreds of women protested by posting pictures of themselves laughing on Twitter and other social media sites like Instagram.
Arınç chided Turkish women saying, “Where are our girls, who slightly blush, lower their heads and turn their eyes away when we look at their face, becoming the symbol of chastity?” he said.
This is not the first time that a member of Prime Minister Erdogan’s AK Party revealed misogynist views in public.
Erdogan himself announced plans to crack down on abortions and Caesarean section births. In 2008, he gave a speech on International Women’s Day in the city of Usak in which he advised women to have at least three children, but he said that he preferred that they have five. In 2010, he told a group of women’s rights activists who he invited to Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul: "I don't believe in equality between men and women."
Rico says that the women he knows don't either; they can't imagine any man equal to a woman...

Google and Yahoo impersonators


Apex, Rico's ISP, has an important warning:
Don’t trust Google and Yahoo just yet; they might be fake! On 10 July 2014, Microsoft issued a warning concerning the nature of identical SSL certificates and domains of some popular sites that might allow malicious copycat sites to emerge. As of now, the cause is unknown, but we know that this could be dangerous if you’re not prepared to deal with it.
The bulk of the security advisory warns that the National Informatics Centre (NIC) of India released a number false domains and security certificates. Many of these domains belonged to Google and Yahoo, and could potentially lead to spoofing attacks by companies posing as the real deal (or what Larry Seltzer of ZDnet calls “man-in-the-middle” attacks). The worst part of this whole debacle is that programs will likely trust these certificates.
The Microsoft advisory states that they have updated the Certificate Trust List for all supported versions of Windows, which resolves the issue for many users of Microsoft’s operating system. However, it should be noted that Windows XP does not receive this fix, and XP users will be vulnerable to this threat.
The advisory provides a list of all affected software. Several domains were also assigned, including, but not limited to:
google.com
m.gmail.com
gstatic.com
mail.yahoo.com
static.com
If you are currently running Windows 8 or higher, your system will use an automatic updater that will fix the issue for you. Windows 7 received a similar fix last year that has resolved the problem. Not to beat the dead cyber-horse, but if you haven’t upgraded away from Windows XP, you should strongly consider it; not only is your company’s data on the line, but so is your personal information.
If you have any concerns about the latest security threats and vulnerabilities, contact Apex IT Group at 877-799-2739. We’ll work with you to make sure that your network is as secure as can be.
Rico says that, of course, he wouldn't use Windows with a gub to his head, so he's less worried...

Bananas and foreign policy



DelanceyPlace.com has a selection from Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed The World by Dan Koeppel:
In the early twentieth century, with American industry just beginning to expand overseas and Latin America still just emerging from its colonial shackles, bananas became one of America's first powerhouse industries:
Bananas are the world's largest fruit crop and the fourth-largest product grown overall after wheat, rice, and corn. In Central America, American banana companies built and toppled nations: a struggle to control the banana crop led to the overthrow of Guatemala's first democratically elected government in the 1950s, which in turn gave birth to the Mayan genocide of the 1980s. In the 1960s, banana companies, trying to regain plantations nationalized by Fidel Castro, allowed the CIA to use their freighters as part of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Eli Black, the chairman of Chiquita, threw himself out of the window of a Manhattan skyscraper in 1974 after his company's political machinations were exposed.
On 12 August 1898, Spain surrendered Cuba in the Spanish-American War, and the United States gained control over the island, opening a naval base at Guantanamo Bay. Over the next thirty-five years; the US military intervened in Latin America twenty-eight times: in Mexico, in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba in the Caribbean; and in Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and El Salvador in Central America. The biggest consequence of those incursions was to make the region safe for bananas. One of the first businesses to enter Cuba was United Fruit. The banana and sugar plantations it established would eventually encompass three hundred thousand acres. An 1899 article in The Los Angeles Times described Latin America as Uncle Sam's New Fruit Garden, offering readers insight into 'how bananas, pineapples, and coconuts can be turned into fortunes'. But the US public knew little about events like the 1912 US invasion of Honduras, which granted United Fruit broad rights to build railroads and grow bananas in the country. They weren't aware that, in 1918 alone, US military forces put down banana workers' strikes in Panama, Columbia, and Guatemala. For every direct intervention, there were two or three softer ones, accomplished by proxy through local armies and police forces controlled by friendly governments. One of the few observers to take note of the situation was Count Vay de Vaya of Hungary, who, upon returning from a visit to Latin America, described the banana as 'a weapon of conquest'.
Rico says he's still awaiting Fidel's death, so we can more easily go to Havana for the 150th of the arrival of the CSS Stonewall...

The song in Rico's head


Drone hunting



A.J. McCarthy has a Slate column about hunting drones:
In the not-too-distant future, privacy will be a thing of the past, with drones roaming the skies and keeping tabs on the American public like the subjugated citizens of Panem. With a real-life Katniss nowhere to be found, who will be the only hope for us in this bleak, dystopian future? A tattooed vigilante named Johnny Dronehunter and his silenced shotgun, apparently.
That's the premise of a new— and particularly absurd— ad from Utah-based company SilencerCo for its new suppressor line, the Salvo 12. In the hyperbolic promo (video, above), our hero is seen chasing down a drone via car before he pulls over, grabs his large, silenced shotgun, and blasts the hovering symbol of tyranny right out of the sky. When five more drones close in, they meet a similar fate. Johnny Dronehunter does one thing exceedingly well (and quietly), and that's hunting drones. Sorry for the spoiler.
According to SilencerCo CEO Josh Waldron—interviewed via email for the Vice blog Motherboard— the company "created Johnny Dronehunter and intend to continue a series of videos in this vein, with him as the main character to represent the Americans who feel they don't have an appropriate voice in this privacy debate." As well as to, presumably, increase the sales of what SilencerCo is calling "the first commercially viable shotgun silencer".
There are, of course, a numbers of flaws in this general premise; like, for instance, is a suppressed shotgun really the optimal weapon for hunting drones? Also, why would there be a cluster of drones in the middle of the desert? That seems to be an especially wasteful use of surveillance resources. Mostly, though, given that the use of government drones on American soil is an issue that demands to be taken seriously, fantasizing about blowing them to pieces doesn't seem to lend itself being an appropriate voice in what should be an important and thoughtful debate. Plus, not for nothing, but shooting down a drone is, by all accounts, almost impossibly hard to do.
But hey, sick silencer, Johnny.
Rico says they're in the desert because that's where you can blow drones out of the sky with your suppressed shotgub...

Speaking of God

Slate has a column by Reihan Salam about the splitting of America:
Independence Day weekend is a time for barbecues, illegal fireworks, and gratuitous displays of nationalism. This year, I’m planning to get matching bald eagle tattoos on my biceps. But for me, at least, Independence Day is also an opportunity for reflection on who we are as a nation, and where we’re headed. I’ll admit that I’m worried.
Earlier this week, Belgium eliminated the United States from the World Cup. But consider that there is a decent chance that Belgium might not exist by the time the next World Cup rolls around, because of the bitter divide between its Flemish speakers and its French speakers. I say this with a heavy heart. Yes, Belgium. Congratulations on scoring your goals. Now enjoy the dustbin of history as your nation is torn apart by deep-seated ethnopolitical resentment. Meanwhile, the United States, a sprawling and spectacularly diverse continental republic with a heavily armed and famously irascible population more than 28 times that of Belgium, will almost certainly be around come 2018, at which point we will easily trounce the soccer teams of Flanders, Wallonia, and the Grand Duchy of Brussels, or whatever random assortment of states emerges from Belgium’s wreckage.
But Belgium-bashing aside, we Americans should not rest on our laurels. America is big, awesome, and beautiful. We’re also divided in ways we can’t afford to ignore.
This is not to say that the Union is tottering on the brink of collapse. There are many good reasons as to why the United States has stayed intact for so long. We had the bloody Civil War some years ago, and the idea of secession has long been discredited as a result. Recent years have seen a number of peaceful secessions, such as the “velvet divorce” between the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It is far from obvious that the United States would be willing to use its military might to coerce Hawai'i or Alaska from leaving the Union if, for whatever reason, their electorates were determined to do so. So I doubt that it is the threat of chaos and violence alone that keeps us together.
Unlike Belgium, the United States does not have linguistic divisions that map relatively neatly onto geographical divisions, which helps dampen secessionist sentiment. Yet there is no question that the differences in the cultural sensibilities of, say, the Deep South and the Pacific Northwest are far greater than the differences between Ontario and America’s neighboring Great Lakes states. A few wild-eyed dreamers have thus wondered if we’ve necessarily divvied up North America in the right way, from environmentalists dreaming of an Ecotopia west of the Cascade Mountains to white nationalists looking to build an Aryan ethnostate in northern Idaho and Montana. George Kennan, the renowned foreign policy thinker and all-purpose crank, fantasized late in life about a fragmentation of the United States, not unlike that which befell the Soviet Union.
Could America break apart along religious lines, with devout Christians going one way and the rest of us going another? Think of the old Jesusland meme— the map of a North America divided between Jesusland, the states that backed George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election, and “the United States of Canada”, consisting of the states that backed John Kerry and Canada that delighted liberals enraged by Bush’s re-election. At least some devout religious believers fear that, as the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated grow, and as secular Americans insist on imposing their values on others, the faithful might face persecution. In 2000, Father John McCloskey, a conservative Catholic with a polarizing reputation, penned a controversial fictional take on how America might break apart. In it, a new religiously infused country, the Regional States of North America, secedes from the United States in the wake of a “short and relatively bloodless conflict” with their secularist oppressors.
Fortunately, good sense usually prevails. Way back in March of 2012, Vice President Joe Biden, he of the loose lips, told an audience at Iowa State University that the Obama administration had “screwed up” the first version of its contraception mandate by failing to provide some accommodation for religious nonprofits that wanted no part of it. Yet the President did eventually accommodate religious nonprofits. And though the White House didn’t want to extend this accommodation to companies like Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court intervened to suggest, gently, that if the accommodation worked for religious nonprofits— that is, if the goals of the contraception mandate could still be achieved without forcing these organizations to do something they’d prefer not to do— it could work for closely held private companies. Rough-and-ready compromises like this one are why McCloskey’s nightmare vision will never come close to coming to pass.
But there are other threats to American national unity looming on the horizon. My admittedly unscientific sense is that we are living through a period in which Americans’ sense of solidarity or group cohesiveness is declining. Liberals tend to see this decline in solidarity as a symptom of income and wealth inequality. Conservatives blame it on a rising emphasis on ethnic identity over national identity, or the turn to moral relativism. I see it as a product of the economic and social isolation of huge chunks of our population.
One challenge is a thoughtless immigration policy, which makes it hard for immigrants currently living and working in the United States to find a foothold in American life. When we debate immigration policy, we tend to focus on the economic impact of future immigration on native-born workers. What we forget is that thirteen percent of the people living in the United States were born abroad, and immigrants make up sixteen percent of the US workforce. These immigrants are already a part of our society, and their interests should count for something. While some of these immigrants are the kind of high-fliers who found Silicon Valley startups and hedge funds, far more of them are people with modest skills struggling to find their footing in a changing economy. Poverty among naturalized immigrants— that is, those who have become US citizens— is lower than poverty among native-born Americans. Poverty among unauthorized immigrants, however, is extremely, heartbreakingly high, both because it is hard to make a living when you’re living in the shadows, but also because unauthorized immigrants tend to have the lowest skill levels. If we grant legal status to unauthorized immigrants, and if we accept that we have a responsibility to protect the interests of the immigrants who currently live and work in the United States, the last thing we should do is increase future immigration, which will intensify labor market competition for these workers. Moreover, it will tend to delay the assimilation process, as immigrants will be less likely to settle in integrated neighborhoods and form bonds with Americans from backgrounds different from their own.
Then there is the intense concentration of poverty, the issue that keeps me up at night. While fifteen percent of the US population was below the poverty line in 2010, a quarter of all poor Americans lived in neighborhoods with poverty rates above twenty percent. These “poverty areas” are, as a general rule, disconnected from employment opportunities and high-quality educational options, and their inhabitants suffer from disproportionately high rates of violent crime and incarceration. The result is that the legitimacy of American institutions— the criminal justice system in particular, but other institutions as well— is on shaky ground in these parts of the country, as they seem to be rigged against those who live in them. There is no danger that America’s poor neighborhoods will secede from the United States. The real problem is that the rest of us have, in a cultural and spiritual sense, seceded from these neighborhoods.
So, as we celebrate the United States, let’s remember the forgotten corners of this country, where the promise of American life has yet to be fulfilled.
Rico says it's complicated but, yet again, he's happy he was born here, with all its attendant benefits...

Deviant behavior, and proud of it

Ruby Rose has a selfie-video:


Ruby Rose, the creator of this short film, wrote that, only forty-eight hours after posting this video, she got sixty thousand new Likes, forty-five thousand Shares, and nine hundred thousand Plays on Facebook. Those numbers have gotten a lot bigger since then. Click to see why.
Bottom line: gender isn't just something we're born with, it can also be a function of expression. I love how this film blasts rigid expectations of who can rightfully present as "masculine" or "feminine". I love even more how it helped me realize that, even though gender and sexuality may be cut-and-dried to many of us, it's not for a lot of people. And for that matter, it shouldn't even have to be viewed as a choice.
Slightly NSFW: a cameo appearance by a dildo.

Speaking for God


Joseph Lamour has an Upworthy article about religion:
The bearded and caped omnipotent hero (above) has one simple goal for us: to be kind and compassionate to our fellow man. But his sidekick, Fan-Boy? He thinks the good thing for everyone is, well... like us, he's only human. But there's always room to learn. (Comic by Ruben Bolling, who you can follow on Twitter and Facebook. Originally published on Medium's The Nib. Reprinted with permission.)

Rico says that's pretty funny, even for a guy who doesn't believe in Him...

The right name matters


Aisha Harris has a Slate article about what black people want to be called:
One of the first times I recall being asked the question “Where are you from?” was also one of the first times I realized that being black wasn’t a sufficient answer. For a sixth-grade project, I had to create my own version of a family crest to be presented to the class. The idea was for each student to celebrate her ethnic heritage. I knew my ethnicity, but where were my ancestors from? While almost all of my classmates in my predominantly white Connecticut elementary school could proudly claim that their grandparents— or great-grandparents— had come to America at some point from Ireland, or Italy, or Greece, I was forced to acknowledge that I had no idea where my forebears had lived, as they were brought here against their will and any records of their origins had long since been lost. My grandparents and great-grandparents on both sides of my family were born in the South and the mid-Atlantic— hardly an interesting story, or so I thought at the time.
I was recently asked where I’m from again— multiple times— in an entirely different context: while in Kenya for a wedding. On one occasion, I struck up a friendly conversation with a young armed guard (and aspiring engineer) who stood watch within the gate of the compound where my boyfriend and I, along with several of the other foreign wedding guests, were staying. “Where are your parents from?” he clarified, after I told him I was a visiting American. “They’re also from America,” I explained, slightly confused about what he was getting at.
Eventually, it dawned on me: he was asking the same question my school project had asked: he was curious what non-American country my family was from. Kenya, Nigeria, both? I tried to explain that as far as I know, I have no immediate or extended relatives outside of the States, but he didn’t seem to fully grasp what I meant.
Later, another Kenyan I met— the cousin of the bride— posed the same question to me during the wedding after-party. His complimentary response: “Ah, you look like you could be African!”
I am at least partially African, genetically speaking. A few years ago, my father took an ancestry DNA test, which revealed that some of his roots can be traced to Nigeria. But I don’t consider myself Nigerian-American, or even African-American. Where I’m from is America, and who I am is a black American.
I was about seven or eight when my dad sat me down to watch Roots (photo) all five hundred hours of it, recorded on VHS tapes from a 1980s cable rebroadcast. Alex Haley’s tale of genealogical discovery resonated with my father as a powerful attempt to re-establish the lineal connection between Africans and African-Americans that had been erased by slavery. Roots was just one of the African-themed cultural artifacts that my father introduced to my sister and me: There was also the gorgeous soundtrack to Sarafina!, a Broadway musical about the Soweto Uprising in South Africa; the African-themed art in our home; Anansi tales; Kwanzaa celebrations. He attempted to instill in us not just a sense of pride as black Americans, but as Americans of African descent, and throughout my adolescence, I identified as black and African-American interchangeably. All of this without knowing, at the time, from what country our ancestors had come, due to the loss and erasure of their birth records prior to the turn of the twentieth century.
Despite my father’s efforts, however, my first in-depth encounters with first- and second-generation Americans who had immediate family from African countries made me question my adherence to the label of African-American. To me, people with such explicit connections to their relatives’ home countries accurately embody the term; they truly have access to both cultures. As someone who grew up with a much stronger sense of my black American roots, and an understanding of African culture distilled primarily through an American sensibility, I feel as though the term African-American doesn’t quite suit my identity.
That didn’t stop my father from (sort of) jokingly asking, upon my return from Kenya last month, “Did you feel different when you landed in the motherland?” What he meant, of course, was whether I felt as if I’d returned “home” to a place I’d never before been. People have spent their whole lives hoping to find the equivalent of their own personal Zion. Had I?
My answer to him, without hesitation, was no, at least not in the way he meant it. I definitely felt different in Kenya, but it was the kind of difference I imagine everyone experiences when exploring an entirely new place for the first time: that of a tourist. (I suspect that visiting my supposed ancestral homeland of Nigeria would produce the same effect.) In addition to the obvious differences in transportation and living conditions (livestock roam the streets even in urban areas of Kenya), there were smaller but significant cultural gaps. While the wedding featured familiar traditions like the tossing of the bouquet (accompanied, naturally, by a sound bite from that universal anthem Single Ladies), many parts of the ceremony were in Swahili, the country’s official working language alongside English. Even some of the jokes the emcee made in English delighted the Kenyan guests, but flew over my head— I later had one of the guests, a cousin of the bride who also lives in the US, explain the playful digs to me.
But it’s not just the lost-in-translation humor that made me frequently aware of my outsider status. Having to explain what I am— an American with American parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents— emphasized the gulf between the Kenyan understanding of race and my own. For the Kenyans I interacted with, having black skin also means being African. For me, being black means, well, being black.
During that sixth-grade project, I envied my classmates’ apparent abilities to trace their lineages as far back as the turn of the twentieth century. My teacher surely intended to instill pride in family heritage, and to celebrate the varied paths each student’s family had taken to this country. The assignment, made in the mid-1990s, was likely a product of America’s obsession with hyphenated identities (Kiss Me—I’m Irish!), formed in the decades following the civil rights movement. As Matthew Frye Jacobson notes in his book Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post–Civil Rights America, the rise of black nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s coincided with a growing emphasis, among white Americans, on the idea of America as a “nation of immigrants”. He argues the two phenomena are not unrelated:
This blunted the charges of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, and eased the conscience of a nation that had just barely begun to reckon with the harshest contours of its history forged in white supremacism.
Americans who traced their ancestries to the Great Wave of immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island at the turn of the twentieth century couldn’t be blamed for the horrors of slavery or Reconstruction, or so the thinking went.
In hindsight, I had nothing to be ashamed about; the family crest I created was just as valid as any of the other kids’, even if I couldn’t claim to know for certain the foreign lands in my family history. But it wasn’t the last time I felt a tinge of inferiority. Later, when I was in college and met African immigrants or first-generation African-Americans, I felt it again.
I’ve since changed my point of view on that as well, however, and am comfortable now with defining myself by my upbringing rather than by where my ancestors may have come from. The distinction between black and African-American has been expounded upon in recent years, on both a semantic level (Slate just this year changed its standard from African-American to black American) and, by extension, a cultural one. I know I’m not alone in wishing to identify as a black American. And I believe that every individual, and especially people of color, who so often have their existences defined by the standards of a white majority (recall, for example, the one-drop rule), should be able to identify as they see fit.
I don’t see my preference for being called a black American as a way of denying or distancing myself from my genetic African heritage. Rather, I believe it acknowledges the similarities that do extend to all black people— in spite of our differences— as black people: the prejudices we can face from non-blacks (from police brutality to skewed standards of beauty) to the cultural influences we share with one another, like the aesthetic notion of “black cool”, traced to West Africa and translated more recently into black American art.
Having never lived in the land of my ancestors, I will never truly understand what it means to be Kenyan, Nigerian, or, more generally, African. But my recent travels, which included a cross-country road trip from Nairobi to Diani Beach and Mombasa on the coast, gave me my first immersive understanding of an African country, and I did feel a kinship with the people I met: it was fascinating to spend time in a country where the majority of the population was not white, and to interact with such a wide range of social classes and cultures, from the traditional Masai tribes to the rural farmers and city dwellers. Finally, after years of learning from afar, I got to understand a small slice of African culture for myself. I’m eager to experience even more in the future, even if it’s only as a tourist and not as a long-lost family member returning “home”.
Rico says that very few people are actually black, but 'dark brown' covers too broad a spectrum...

Cramming used to be a sport; now it's business


Back in the Dark Ages, when Rico went to college, cramming was seeing how many idiots fit into a phone booth (remember phone booths?), but now it's a corporate behavior, and Lily Hay Newman has a Slate column on why it needs to stop:
Earlier this month, the Federal Trade Commission accused T-Mobile of cramming, or adding unauthorized charges to users’ cellphone bills. And now both the FTC and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation are coming out against the practice and reporting on its problematic ubiquity.
Cramming works by burying deceptive third-party charges in a bill’s list of fees, so consumers won’t even notice or will assume the line item is warranted. Cramming dates back to bills for landlines, and telecom companies later evolved to hide charges in extra-cost text messages, known as premium short message services. But even though the practice has mostly been stopped for wired telephones and texts, it lives on in a system called direct carrier billing.
In a report released recently, the FTC noted, “In six recent enforcement actions, the Commission has alleged that such practices have cost consumers many millions of dollars, and in just three of these actions, defendants have agreed to orders imposing judgments totaling more than a hundred and sixty million dollars.”
Meanwhile, in a Senate report, the committee described cramming as a billion-dollar industry that garners revenues for AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. The committee said that these carriers can hold on to as much as thirty to forty percent of the vendor charges on customer bills, and that the telecom industry has wrongly dismissed cramming as a minor problem, when it actually costs consumers millions of dollars a year. The report explains, “vendors using websites and apps connect to carrier billing platforms. Direct carrier billing methods are relatively nascent, and it is not possible at this stage to predict the extent to which scammers will find ways to cram charges on wireless bills.”
The FTC and Senate committee both claim that they will prevent cramming from continuing. The commission concludes that it “will continue to monitor the issue of cramming on mobile phone accounts and evaluate whether other potential solutions, including legislative measures and additional regulatory changes, are necessary to ensure consumers are protected from unwanted and unauthorized charges.” And it outlines five industry best practices that would create a safer environment for consumers:
1. Mobile carriers should give consumers the option to block all third-party charges on their phone accounts.
2. Advertisements for products or services charged to a mobile bill must not be deceptive.
3. It is critical that consumers provide their express, informed consent to charges before they are billed to a mobile account, and that reliable records of such authorizations are maintained.
4. All charges for third-party services should be clearly and conspicuously disclosed to consumers in a non-deceptive manner.
5. Carriers should implement an effective dispute resolution process.
Based on how hard it’s been to shake the con so far, it seems unlikely that this wave of scrutiny will stamp it out for good, but, in the meantime, consumers can dispute charges they think are unwarranted, and, hopefully, with multiple agencies working on the issue, it will be easier for customers who think they’ve been wronged to seek protection.
Rico says this is nasty, and should be stomped out, preferably on the heads of the telecomm presidents...

International scam for the day

re: How is the family?
From:
Mrs.G SaludAdd to Contacts
Sent:
Wed, 30 Jul, 2014 at 21:43
To:
undisclosed-recipients
Good Day,

I am Mrs.G Salud, I am the Administrative manager at a vault of a financial & security Institute here in Barcelona.
I am contacting you based on a financial opportunity I discovered here in our Bank. It's about an abandoned sum of 26.7m Us
dollars (Twenty six million seven hundred thousand United State dollars) in our safety deposit vault, that belongs to one of our
foreign customers, a citizen of your country that share the same surname with you, who died along with his entire family on the
11th march 2006 in a ghastly car accident in Porto Portugal.

The banking policy can only allow the release of such funds to a benefactor through an application as next of kin to the deceased.
After his death, the bank has been expecting a possible beneficiary, but no luck, this institute has exploited all its ethical
possibilities in other to contact his possible relation or inheritor, but no success. Since no one has come up since six years,
I have made my own research with the help of private investigator, it is my knowledge that this man has been living in Barcelona
for the past 22 years and has never returned back home. I also learnt that his wife and 13 year old daughter died with him during
this accident. I am almost 110% sure that no one is aware of the existence of these funds. However, because of the international financial crises,
a lot of reform has been made within the Spanish financial system, this
includes the new law on succession/claims which indicates a duration in which such inheritance could be tolerated. The Bank of
Spain has mandated our institute to release the funds to the inheritor, Failure to respond to this ultimatum would legally allow
the Bank of Spain confiscate these funds as unclaimed estate (Which of course would go straight to the Government's pocket). It
is therefore upon this entire discovery that I have decided to contact you. I want you to know that I am a senior member of this
office. As an insider, I am equipped with all classified secret information regarding the release of these funds. I would be
dedicated to making sure that I feed you with all possible documentation and information required for the approval and release
of these funds.

Upon your acceptance to cooperate, I agree that 40% of this money will be for you, 50% for me and 10% goes to any acceptable
charity organization in Spain or your country. Please note that I have ONLY discussed this with my husband. For time difference
and confidential reasons, I strongly advice that you communicate with me via my husband's contact details above, this should
be done firstly fax or phone. Immediately you get in touch with me, I would be able to inform you on how this could be concluded.
In conclusion, it's my concern to demand your ultimate honesty, co-operation and confidentiality to enable us conclude this
transaction. Please keep this very confidential and do not discuss it with anybody. I GUARANTEE that this process would be
executed under a legitimate arrangement that would legally protect you from any breach of law.

Please kindly Reply to My Email: gracesaludaresg@aol.com

Mrs.G Salud

30 July 2014

Burning Man 2014


Rico went twice, once upon a time, and had a wonderful (in all senses of the word) time, but Grover NorquistDavid Weigel has a Slate article about his visit:
Grover Norquist is not shy about media availability, but yesterday was spectacularly busy. Norquist had recently tweeted that he and his wife were "off to Burning Man" this year, after ages of wishing and hoping. According to Norquist's office, he got "eight or ten" calls from the press; the running joke was that reporters were never this curious about his capital gains tax stances. One of the reporters on the line was former Slate-ster Emma Roller:
Norquist insists that the drug-filled utopia in the desert shares some common values with his own group, Americans for Tax Reform: "Burning Man was founded in 1986, the same year as the Pledge, and the first Burning Man had twenty people at it, and our first Center-Right Meeting— the Wednesday Meeting— also had twenty people. So I think there's a real kinship there," Norquist says. "These are very similar operations, except we tend to wear more clothes perhaps at the Wednesday Meetings.
But the most learned take on the news came from Brian Doherty, my friend and former colleague at Reason, whose book about Burning Man should have been a clue that anti-state radicals were fond of the festival. Doherty had reported, in 2012, on how festival founder Larry Harvey made the rounds in DC; it was under those circumstances that Norquist met him.
What does he make of the shock about this eventful news, that Grover goes to Burning Man? "The Right has a good idea of what guys on the Left are like. We live in a world and a culture they dominate, we know what they think. They tend not to have a clue what conservatives do and think, all they have is a caricature." Norquist notes that it's pure ignorant prejudice to assume someone who wants to lower taxes can't possible appreciate, understand, or enjoy a culture filled with those who don't, or might not.
Honestly, had someone like Bill Bennett or Rick Santorum decided to check out Burning Man, the proverbial man would have bitten the proverbial dog. But Norquist, perennial bard of the Leave Us Alone Coalition, is a Burning Man natural. Modern libertarians have always overlapped with, and grown out of, the counterculture.
A more intriguing aspect of that is how wealthy businessmen, who come to politics less out of a desire to build desert sculptures and more to prevent regulation of their businesses. That's the story suggested by Lee Fang, who covered the annual Las Vegas FreedomFest— a studiously cool conference that stands apart from the dry klatsches you see in DC— and ran into Don Blankenship. Yes, Don Blankenship, he of Massey Energy, he of many pro-coal rallies in West Virginia. "I’m basically looking for information and fresh ideas,” Blankenship told Fang, from the meeting, which he attended right after the Heartland Institute's annual climate change skepticism conference. “We’re in a reg-cecession." The hipness of libertarianism was a much more attractive storm port than the messy, villifiable activism he'd paid for before. This, it's pretty clear, is a reason why Pando is publishing so many pieces about the unsung past of Reason and the (increasingly well-known) background of the Koch family and Rand Paul. There's an effort to close off an escape hatch, before these people can rebrand themselves as relatable, radical, and cool.
Rico says he'll await Norquist's report.

Quote for the day

Gandalf, from The Lord of the Rings by the inestimal JRR Tolkien:

I was talking aloud to myself. A habit of the old: they choose the wisest person present to speak to; the long explanations needed by the young are wearying.

Rico says that, as he grows older, it becomes more true...

Siblings

Rico says the ladyfriend has a girl/boy set of grandkids much like these:

Paranoid? Maybe

Rico says he came upon this:

Crazy? Sure.

Rico says his arch-perv friend Dave forwards this sage advice:

Taking a bath


DelanceyPlace.com has a selection from What Hath God Wrought by Daniel Walker Howe:
In 1815, Americans were young, went barefoot, and didn't take baths:
Life in America in 1815 was dirty, smelly, laborious, and uncomfortable. People spent most of their waking hours working, with scant opportunity for the development of individual talents and interests unrelated to farming. Cobbler-made shoes being expensive and uncomfortable, country people of ordinary means went barefoot much of the time. White people of both sexes wore heavy fabrics covering their bodies, even in the humid heat of summer, for they believed (correctly) that sunshine was bad for their skin. People usually owned few changes of clothes, and stank of sweat.
Only the most fastidious bathed as often as once a week. Since water had to be carried from a spring or well and heated in a kettle, people gave themselves sponge baths, using the washtub. Some bathed once a year, in the spring, but, as late as 1832, a New England country doctor complained that four out of five of his patients did not bathe from one year to the next. When washing themselves, people usually only rinsed off, saving their harsh, homemade soap for cleaning clothes. Inns did not provide soap to travelers.
Having an outdoor privy signified a level of decency above those who simply relieved themselves in the woods or fields. Indoor light was scarce and precious; families made their own candles, smelly and smoky, from animal tallow. A single fireplace provided all the cooking and heating for a common household. During winter, everybody slept in the room with the fire, several in each bed. Privacy for married couples was a luxury.
It was a young society: the census listed the median age as sixteen, and only one person in eight was over forty-three years old. Women bore children in agony and danger, making their life expectancy, unlike today, slightly shorter than that of men. Once born, infants often succumbed to diseases like diphtheria, scarlet fever, and whooping cough. One-third of white children and over half of black children died before reaching adulthood. The women had enough babies to beat these grim odds. To help them through labor, neighbors and trained midwives attended them. Doctors were in short supply, and hospitals almost unknown. This proved a blessing in disguise, for physicians then did as much harm as good, and hospitals incubated infection. The upside of rural isolation was that epidemics did not spread easily.
Rico says he can't go more than a day without a shower, and wouldn't be alive without hospitals...

How many men are pedophiles?


The BBC has an article by Wesley Stephenson about that terrible question:
The Pope was recently reported to have said that about two percent of Catholic clergy are pedophiles. But how does this compare with society as a whole: is it more or less than average? As soon as you give this question a moment's thought, you realise that it's not going to be an easy one to answer. Pedophiles are not easy to identify.
"Because pedophilia is so secretive and so few people are willing to admit it, there is no meaningful way to get a reliable estimate," says Dr. James Cantor, a psychologist and sexual behavior scientist at the University of Toronto in Canada. "There's no meaningfully ethical way of taking two hundred men, hooking them up to detectors, showing them pictures of adults and children and seeing how many respond most to children."
One person who has attempted an estimate is Dr. Michael Seto, a clinical and forensic psychologist at the Royal Ottawa Healthcare group. In 2008 he wrote a book in which he put the prevalence of pedophilia in the general population at five percent.
The figure was based on surveys conducted in Germany, Norway, and Finland, in which men were asked whether they had ever had sexual thoughts or fantasies about children or engaged in sexual activity with children.
But Seto stresses that five percent was an upper estimate, and that the studies were limited in what they revealed. "What those surveys do not include are questions on the intensity of those thoughts and fantasies, whether they were repeated or not. Someone might say 'Yes' because they once had a fantasy, but our understanding of pedophilia would be that that person had sexual thoughts and fantasies about children." Now, with more data and better methodology, he has revised his figure down to about one percent of the population, though he makes clear this is still only an educated guess.
One problem is that the term "pedophile" means different things to different people.
"It's very common for regular men to be attracted to eighteen-year-olds or twenty-year-olds. It's not unusual for a typical sixteen-year-old to be attractive to many men, and the younger we go the fewer and fewer men are attracted to that age group," says Cantor.
He thinks that if we say that a pedophile is someone attracted to children aged fourteen or less, then he estimates that you could reach the two percent figure. "If we use a very strict definition and say pedophilia refers only to the attraction to pre-pubescent children, then it is probably much lower than one percent," he says.
The term is often applied to a person who sexually abuses someone below the age of sixteen, but given that in some countries, and even some US states, you can marry below the age of sixteen, this definition would clearly not be universally accepted.
There is consensus on the clinical definition. Michael Seto and his colleagues agree that a pedophile is someone who has a sexual interest in pre-pubescent children, so typically those under the ages of eleven or twelve.
But whether the prevalence using this definition is a half a percent, as James Cantor says, or one percent, as Michael Seto says, you can be assured than in any large group of people, whether they be politicians, entertainers, or Catholic clergy, you are likely to find some pedophiles.
Pedophilia is not restricted to men; some women also sexually abuse children, although research suggests this is much less common.
But back to the Pope. How would he define "pedophile"? We don't know, but there is a clue. There is one well-known study of pedophilia among Catholic clergy, carried out by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. Its researchers went to each diocese in the US and found all the plausible accounts of abuse involving clergy who served between 1950 and 2002, and they found that just over four percent had been plausibly accused of abuse.
That included allegations of abuse of adolescents as well as pre-pubescent children.
But if you use the stricter, clinical definition of pedophilia the figure drops to between one and two percent according to Professor Philip Jenkins from the Institute of Studies of Religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. This corresponds, more or less, with the figure attributed to the Pope. "If he was using a different word like 'abusive clergy' then I think he would be going for a higher figure," says Jenkins.
The John Jay College study is not perfect, though. For some reason, forty percent of the allegations referred to abuse said to have been carried out in a six-year period between 1975-1980. It seems unlikely that cases of pedophilia in the clergy would have been so heavily concentrated in one period. Furthermore, even if there was a peak in the 1970s, a lot of the perpetrators are probably no longer active in the church.
All we can confidently say is that, firstly, the figures are imperfect, both for Catholic clergy and the general population. And secondly, that these imperfect figures are in the same ballpark.
Rico says we're back to Shakespeare again: Who will rid me of this troublesome priest? (But, since you asked, no, not with a gub to Rico's head...)

Somalis, at it again


The BBC has an article about Somalia:
Militant Islamists in Somalia have shot dead a Muslim woman for refusing to wear a veil, her relatives say. Ruqiya Farah Yarow was killed outside her hut near the southern Somali town of Hosingow by gunmen belonging to the al-Shabab group (photo), they say.
The militants had ordered her to put on a veil, and then killed her after returning and finding she was still not wearing one, the relatives said. An al-Shabab spokesman denied the group had killed the woman. al-Shabab does not fully control the area where she was living, he added.
Relatives, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals, told the BBC that Mrs. Yarow was killed at about 04:30 GMT. She was shot twice and died instantly, they added. She is survived by her husband and children, the relatives said.
al-Shabab, which controls much of southern and central Somalia, imposes strict rules of behavior, including dress codes for men and women.
BBC Somalia analyst Mary Harper says the fact that al-Shabab has denied killing Mrs. Yarow suggests that rogue elements within the group may have been responsible for her death. It is also possible that al-Shabab wants to distance itself from the shooting because it is likely to provoke a strong public reaction, she says.
Rico says a 'strong public reaction' should include killing as many al-Shabab assholes as possible...

Martha loves her drone


Martha Stewart has a Time article about an unlikely love affair:
There’s been a lot of discussion and a tremendous amount of speculation lately about the nature of drones and their role in our society as useful tools and hobbyist toys. In just a few minutes, however, I was hooked. In near silence, the drone rose, hovered, and dove, silently and surreptitiously photographing us and the landscape around us. The photos and video were stunning. By assuming unusual vantage points, the drone allowed me to “see” so much more of my surroundings than usual. The view I was “seeing” on my iPad with the help of the drone would have otherwise been impossible without the use of a private plane, helicopter, or balloon. With any of those vehicles, I would have needed a telephoto lens, and all of them would have made an unacceptable commotion on the beach. What’s more, I would not have been in the photos!
So much has been done in the past without drones, airplanes, hot air balloons, or even extension ladders. It is hard to imagine André Le Nôtre laying out the exquisite landscape designs for Vaux-le-Vicomte, and later the magnificent Château de Versailles, with no high hill to stand on, no helicopter to fly in, and no drone to show him the complexities of the terrain. Yet he did, and with extreme precision, accuracy, and high style.
Earlier, Henri IV drew up complicated plans for the immense and elegant redesign of Paris, the capital of France. In England, Capability Brown somehow had the innate vision and perspicacity to reconfigure thousands of acres into country estates fit for royalty. He and Sir Humphry Repton invented an entirely new style of landscape design that had little to do with the grand châteaux of France. It became all about the “axis of vision”— relaxed, looming views of the distance that, without an aerial view, required the utmost in fertile imagination.
In the late 1800s, more people wanted the bird’s eye view of city and country and went to extreme lengths to rig up guy-wired telescoping towers, build extension ladders of dangerous lengths, and man hot-air balloons, from which intrepid photographers could capture remarkable images— such as those of the Chicago Union Stock Yards and the US Steel Corporation—from heights of two thousand feet.
What about the Great Wall of China, or the Nazca Lines in southern Peru? I began reflecting on how the engineers and architects of the past accomplished so much without the modern tools we have at our disposal. My mind started racing, and I imagined all the different applications for my drone. I knew that every type of use had already been thought of by others (governmental agencies, businesses, Amazon.com, Google Maps), and I knew I could not even begin to fathom even a fraction of the social, ethical, and political challenges the widespread use of drones would create.
Do they raise legitimate privacy concerns? Should they be regulated? Should we have a national debate? I don’t have all the answers. But I forged ahead, using a Parrot AR Drone 2.0, photographing my properties, a party, a hike in the mountains, and a day at the beach. I did my best to master the moves and angles that would result in most arresting pictures and video.

One of my farm workers used his drone, a DJI Phantom flying camera, to capture amazing images of my farm in Bedford, New York (photo, above). Suddenly we could see with astonishing clarity the layout of the open fields, the horse paddocks, the chicken coops, the greenhouses, the hay barn, the cutting gardens and henhouses, the clematis pergola, and the long allée of boxwood. The photos were so good I posted them to my blog on Marthastewart.com. The response was phenomenal!
Henry Alford wrote a satirical essay about me and my drones in The New Yorker that was really funny, but missed the point about why I love my drone. Drones can be useful tools, and I am all about useful tools. One of my mottos is “the right tool for the right job.”
A few facts:
The hobbyist drones we can all purchase online or in stores are technically known as UAS: unmanned aerial systems. Many can fly up to nine hundred feet. With practice, a novice photographer can take really great photos.
The shots of my farm were breathtaking and showed not only a very good landscape design— thanks to the surveyors and landscapers who worked with me on the overall vision, much as le Notre worked with Louis XIV— they also showed me what more I can do in the future, and revealed unexpected beauty.
An aerial shot of the vegetable garden looked very much like my Peter Rabbit marzipan embellished Easter cake, which was designed without the help of a drone.
Rico says leave it to Martha to tout not only her 153-acre farm, but her fucking marizpan cake...
 

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