Friday, January 30, 2009

You Aren't Going To Eat That, Are You?

What, I wonder, do the Chinese think about the latest food scandal here in the United States? According to some statistics I've read, about 300,000 people were sickened in the melamine-tainted milk scandal in China, and about 8 died. That's about .0027%. On the other hand, about 500 people have been made sick from eating salmonella-contaminated peanut products here in the United States - but there have been 6 fatalities, or about 1.2%. It seems pretty clear than salmonella is relatively much more dangerous than melamine. I suspect that this hasn't escaped the notice of the Chinese press.

To make a very (if not overly) broad generalization, the Chinese (those in China, and those abroad) are attentive, and sensitive, to what the foreign press says about "China." (Which is something of an overbroad term - being used to describe the nation, the actual landscape, the people and a government interchangeably.) Many Chinese felt humiliated by international press coverage of the Olympic protests and previous food scandals, and some had gone so far as to say that allegations were being trumped up or fabricated altogether. Americans, on the other hand, seem to be completely oblivious to what the rest of the world thinks about them. (Although, it must be said, this latest scandal might not be getting much international traction - I attempted to see what the BBC was saying about it, and couldn't find anything.) And, for some of America's more vocal conservatives, the idea that what foreigners think is too unimportant to be bothered with is a point of pride - that is, when they aren't priding themselves on their complete disagreement with what they've been told that foreigners think.

While the harsh sentences handed down in prosecutions of the China case are making international headlines, the fact that plant managers at Peanut Corporation of America understood that they were shipping contaminated items seems to be remaining local for right now - likely because in spite of the relatively high mortality rate, the overall scope of the outbreak is pretty small. (Good thing, too - an outbreak on the same relative scale as China's would have a pretty significant death toll attached to it...) There is a suspicion that the Chinese government is acting to show the rest of the world that they're serious about food safety, to protect their export markets. National governments can be really picky about what food they let in, even when it can't be shown to be dangerous - if Chinese food acquires a lasting reputation for being dangerous, it will be a long time before that market recovers. Given that Americans are less sensitive to (and less knowledgeable about) what others think, there isn't likely to be similar pressure for harsh and public punishment.

We'll find out if that's good or bad...

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Psst... Buddy! Wanna Job?

So I've been getting some rather suspect e-mails lately. I copied one to the bottom of this message. (Curiously, other than the title and From: address, they're all identical, so when you've seen one, you've seen them all...)

It was only a matter of time, really, before the current economic situation revived the scammers into attempting to separate desperate people from what money they have left by pretending to offer paying jobs. But one wonders why people still persist with obvious scams like the one copied out below. Does anyone still fall for this? This message is chocked so full of red flags that it looks like an old Soviet pass-in-review. Since when would you be getting pitches for insurance company jobs from "" The fact that they spoofed or invented a sender e-mail address is also suspect (just in case the fact that the contact information at the end is a Gmail account doesn't tip you off). And the poor grammar should be another clue - what business based in an English-speaking nation would hire someone with such a remedial grasp of the language to write business communications for them? (Unless poor "Julie Mathews" is actually being held in some basement somewhere against her will, and the mangled English is actually a coded plea for help. [Say... maybe there's a movie idea in that... the "419 Code." I wonder if Tom Hanks is busy...])

I could go on and on (like mentioning the fact that they misspelled the job title)... but you get the idea.

Newly opening at for you.
From: Koitiro Statelandscaping (
Sent: Mon 1/26/09 3:13 PM

Phone: (925) 237-9566 , Fax +(1) 520-844-0888
We value your response back regarding the open vacancy Prime Insurance is offering. We're currently seeking motivated and responsible individuals to attend the post of a 'Work at home Money Transfer Assitant'. This remote position itself covers a broad range of directions an individual would have to perform. It's a part time position, which let's you perform your duties directly from your home location. In the nearest future, we're planning to achieve the expansion of our company throughout the United States of America and United Kingdom, providing local offices and departments in the vast areas, where logistic and insurance services are definitely in demand. Until then, we're trying to fill in our personnel with new individuals, which will increase the efficiency of the services we're catering. If you wish to apply or have any questions regarding the position, feel free to contact me back either via e-mail. Hope to hear from you soon.
In order to reduce the corporate overhead, we've implemented the thrift solution of disseminating bases of control over certain regions of the United States of America. It provides a great opportunity for beginners to participate in the standard operations of the future subsidiary departments. Besides the expansion project, the upcoming regional accountants are expected to learn a great deal about different realms of the insurance market mainly through digesting the experience gained from the large scale practical assignments.
1) This is part time work at home position and can easily combine this vacancy with other work.
2) Your fixed salary is $2000 a month + 5% from each payment processed by you.
3) You will receive payments (Direct Bank Deposits and wire transfers) from client within United States and send it by instant payment sistem such as Western Union. You will receive 10% of processed amount.
4) You do not spend your own money and there are no startup fees. All charges for withdrawal or transferring the money will be deducted from the payment.
5) To start work with us you must only have basic checking account at any bank. Your financial information will never be disclosed to third parties.
6) You can work 1-3 hours per day or fulltime.
7) This is not insurance sales position and you don't need to sell insurance, this is Money Transfer Assistant vacancy.
8) Your education and status don't matter.
9) We do not ask any personal information and we run business according to laws of the United States of America.
Now I'll explain the details of this job.
1. An ACH or Wire transfer will be made to your bank account from our client. I'll let you know it's exact transfer amount and date.
2. You should receive the transfer and send me the confirmation that you've received it. Then you'll have to cash out this transfer at your bank.
3. Then you'll have to sent the money you took from you bank account via Western Union. I'll let you know all the necessary information on this transfer(the name of person who will receive the money and destination city/country).
4. Then you should send an email to me to confirm the Western Union transfer is sent. This email should include sender's name, name of the city the transfer has been sent from, exact Western Union transfer amount, and Western Union MTCN (it's essential for receiving the money).
5. We communicate with our agents mainly by e-mail, but we will also communicate by phone (if your e-mail is not available). It is your responsibility to check your e-mail daily and inform us about any change in your contact information. Supporting communication is your top-priority obligation.
6. The fixed monthly salary which is $2000 will be sent to you by direct deposit after 30 days period from first transfer.
Let's see how it works. For example, $1000 have been transferred to your account. The amount you'll receive for each transfer is 5% from the initial payment to your bank account. 5% from $1000 is $50 so you'll have to send $950 via Western Union. Western Union fee(it's about $50) should be deducted from $950.
Please ask me with more questions or just let me know you're ready to get started.
We do not need access to your bank accounts. This is information that you can see at any check and only let us to send ACH and Wire transfers to this accounts.
Note: Actions depicted below, are authorized by Prime Insurance Company, and therefore sustain legitimacy status. Our venerable organization doesn't condone or incite improper or out of border incentives, which may contradict to federal law.
Shall you have any enquiries, don't hesitate to contact our support department at . We're looking forward to our further communication.
Julie Mathews. HR department.
It almost makes you wish you could find out how many people they actually manage to sucker into this...

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Go me!

NPR's Planet Money Blog is always asking people to send in pictures that illustrate the current state of the economy. When I was in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood last week, I came across a store with big signs in the window that read "UNCLE," so I took a couple of pictures and sent one into them, along with a short write-up. And, surprisingly, they made it into one of the posts for today. Of course, it was all eclipsed by the inauguration, so it's likely that very few people will see it before it drops off the bottom of the Blog's home page.

But still, it's kinda cool to be a journalist for 15 seconds - even if no-one else ever knows.

On The Lookout

There are three things that one needs to be a nature photographer:

  1. Top-of-the-line equipment.
  2. Steady hands.
  3. A high degree of skill.
Given that I lack all three of these, I'm not going to be a good nature photographer anytime soon. Oh, well. Such is the way of things. But I'll get there, eventually. In the meantime, I managed to catch a juvenile Bald Eagle, hanging out in a tree overlooking Lake Washington. There was an adult eagle (the mother, perhaps), about a hundred yards away, giving the crows something to get excited about. (Although it was the red-tailed hawk that kept wandering through that really got the crows riled up.) Anyway, the eagle was spending a cloudy day keeping an eye open for fish, which gave him a reason to stand still long enough for be to get close enough for a good shot.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Truth In Media

One of the biggest gripes that I have with the media is that they don't seem to bother with getting facts straight when they report on what they understand to be trivial stories about places other than the United States.

Winter is always tough going for gladiators — or rather “centurions,” as Mr. Eluca described himself — but this season is proving particularly tough.
All Roads May Lead Here, but They Aren’t Bringing Big Spenders
If Mr. Eluca has intentionally costumed himself as a Roman Centurion, describing him as a "gladiator" is akin to describing someone dressed as a United States Army captain as a civilian Tactical Shooting contestant, and then putting the self-description of "Army captain" in scare quotes. (Okay, it's clumsy, but it's the most accurate analogy that I can come up with. In both cases one is describing a person who is attempting to portray themselves as a soldier as a civilian who uses military skills in a sporting context.)

There is a photograph that accompanies the article. The caption reads, in part: "A man dressed as a Roman gladiator, passing by Bulgari, on Via Condotti." This man isn't dressed as a gladiator - the style of helmet that he's wearing is unique to the Praetorian Guard - the men who once guarded Rome's generals, and then its emperors. This isn't the costume of a slave prizefighter - it's the regalia of the Secret Service of the age. And it's unlikely that any Italian who would go through the trouble of dressing up to to pose for pictures with tourists would be unaware of the distinction. I know all of this simply because I'm a ancient military history buff - I'm fully aware that the average person on the street is unlikely to know any of this, or care. But that's no reason to no bother to get it right.

(And this isn't the first time that I've seen this happen. In our local newspaper, they printed a photograph, some time back, claiming to show a number of men in gladiator costumes, in front of the Forum in Rome. The men were actually in Legionnaire costumes - and in front of the Flavian Amphitheater [better known as the Colosseum].)

I know that I've harped on this before, but I'll harp on it again. If a story isn't worth getting the details right, it's not worth reporting. How can we use the media to become informed about the world, if they can't be bothered to be accurate?

Monday, January 12, 2009

'Cuz White Folks Is Stupid

Dave Chappelle, as funny as he is, did a disservice to the idea of reparations with his skit on them, which many average white people are likely to reference if the issue is brought up.
Paul Devlin "Reparations as Bailout"
If the most cogent argument that "many average white people" can muster against reparations is a skit on "The Chappelle Show," the reparations gravy train should be pulling into the station any minute now. There have been plenty of arguments for and against the idea of reparations for slavery, some sound, some less so and some simply moronic. But the idea that a black satirist's mocking take on what the money will be spent on forms any significant part of the opposition to the idea seems wildly uninformed. I would expect more white Americans to simply argue, from their own personal (if self-serving) feelings on the matter, that black America has not, in fact, earned the money that would be given to them than to cite Comedy Central.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Three Kinds

There are politicians who understand how to make the media work for them to get their message out, and to present themselves in the best light. On the other hand some politicians put themselves at odds with the media, and then complain when they aren't presented in the way that they want to be. Of course, there are also those that understand that blaming their political woes on the media is simply a workable tactic for their next campaign.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Doing More With Less

So I happened to catch part of today's "To the Point." One of the points that guest David Smick made was that the "Marginal Propensity to Consume" (oversimplified, this is the amount of spending that an extra dollar of income would inspire) has dropped quite a bit. During the high-leverage times of the recent economic boom, Americans' MCP was, on average, $1.20 for every extra dollar that they earned, up from what was considered a normal level of about 75¢ for every dollar earned. In the present economy, MCP has dropped sharply - down to about 52¢ per extra dollar of earnings. (For comparison, the MCP for the last round of stimulus checks came in at about 66¢ per dollar.)

What this means is as follows - back in the day, an extra $1,000.00 windfall would prompt about $1,200.00 in new spending. Now, that same $1,000.00 of extra cash will only add up to $520.00 in new spending, with the rest of it going into the bank. So people are talking about how to raise the MCP, by buttressing consumer confidence. But the problem is that as people go up the income ladder, the smart ones don't spend all of the money - they save or find safe places to invest it. So if we can't find a way to keep the economy humming on a relatively low (read: sustainable) level of MCP, we're still going to be in trouble. While President-Elect Obama can channel John F. Kennedy and say that the question we should be asking ourselves isn't "What's good for me, but what's good for the country my children will inherit?" not only does this leave those of us without children free to be selfish, ☺ but postulates a scenario where one can't have both. And this is a situation that strikes me as fundamentally broken.

I don't see how an Obama administration is going to be able to convince people that sacrificing their economic well-being for the chance of a better outcome for future generations is the thing to do. In the same way that "98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others," most Americans are going to want their neighbors to do this - so they won't have to.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

What's The Solution?

Stand still in a room with Robert Reich for more than 30 seconds, and he'll tell you the same thing that he's been telling everyone else who will listen. The big challenge with the American, if not the world, economy is that activity that's good for the overall economy is bad for individuals, and what's good for individuals is often bad news for companies.

Whether or not you like Reich's politics, his basic logic is fundamentally sound. And that leads to a simple conclusion - the economy is going to remain broken until we have a simple (but not easy) reform - what's good for the whole economy needs to be good for companies and corporations and needs to be good for individuals at the same time. While it's a common Conservative trope to complain that Liberals like to stoke "Class Warfare," this tends to ignore the fact that the interests of wealthy members of society versus the middle class versus the poor have diverged so greatly that any gains for one group tend to be at the expense of the others. If this isn't a recipe for contention, I don't know what is.

So the $64,000,000,000.00 question (adjusted for inflation) is whether or not the current plans for fixing the economic crisis are going to address this, or if the plan is going to be an attempt to restore the previous status quo?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Can I Get That In Pill Form?

Ann Coulter is upset with NBC, stating that she was bumped from Tuesday's Today show because of her right-wing rhetoric, and not, as NBC claims, because they wanted to devote the time to the fighting in Gaza. On Hannity and Colmes, she said "I know the whole thing was a setup to block me from other TV shows."

She'd been set to promote her new book, "Guilty: Liberal 'Victims' and Their Assault on America."

I think that I've just hit my daily allowance for Irony in my diet.

Explain That To Me

[Monsignor Juan Antonio Martínez Camino, the secretary general of the Spanish Bishops Conference,] called the 2005 [Spanish] law legalizing gay marriage and adoption "very strange and very irrational and very unjust."
For Vatican, Spain is a key front in church-state battle.
Okay. Strange, I get. There aren't that many countries in the world that have legalized homosexual marriage. Irrational, I get. If you believe in a deity that punishes people for sins (and societies for legalizing sins), such a law would be irrational from the point of view a a devout believer.

Unjust, I don't get. I don't see the injustice that's being done to anyone with allowing same-sex couples to marry. Of course, the International Herald-Tribune gives us only a snippet of the Monsignor's comments - he may well have gone on to elaborate his message in a way that would have made his logic clear. But in a sound-bite culture, this is, I suspect, part of the problem that the Church has with charges of bigotry - claiming, in effect, that anything that contravenes Church doctrine is necessarily unjust seems well into the territory of sanctimony and self-righteousness.

Making a Middle-Eastern Omelette

As the fighting in Gaza wears on, people are continuing to make a big deal out of the numbers of civilians being killed and injured.

Um, okay... But aren't ALL the Palestinians being killed and injured "civilians?" Last I looked, Hamas wasn't a recognized government, and it seems to be as about as legitimate a military force (in international legal terms) as the local Rotary Club. A civilian with a gun and a chip on his shoulder is still a civilian - we don't think of insurgents in Afghanistan, say, as being actual soldiers.

But in the end, the final tally of the dead and wounded is completely beside the point, along with concepts such as "proportionality." What's really at issue here are priorities. And both the Israeli military and Hamas have higher priorities than the body count among non-combatants in Gaza. Therefore, the final body count is secondary, at best. Why are we surprised by this? What else were we expecting? Everyone is making a ruckus about lowering the casualty count, but no-one, it seems, is offering a way for either side to get what they claim to be after in a way that doesn't leave the populace of Gaza at ground zero. And the backers of both sides are also okay with a mounting body count, or they would have withdrawn that backing by now.

And so the current fighting will continue for the same reason that fighting anywhere else continues - because one or both sides think that they're getting closer to their desired goal(s) (or keeping the other side from its goals) because of it.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Best. Wisecrack. In. History.

"I’m pretty sure “No Artificial Flavors” was meant as a warning."

Describing eating Campbell's V8 Garden Broccili soup with a panino as "an apparent suicide attempt" comes in a close second. But with 590 mg of salt per serving (seemingly to counteract the health benefits of the 3 grams of dietary fiber), this suff seems like a one-way ticket to hypertension, so maybe Ben wasn't trying to be funny about that part.

Thursday, January 1, 2009


The saddest, truest thing that I've ever heard about the [Israel-Palestine] conflict is [from] a friend who said that it seems to him like a stable equilibrium.
Megan McArdle. "The problem with Israel-Palestine blogging."
Here's my question - given the fact that Israel generally runs up the casualty score on Palestine by about one hundred to one, and the population of Gaza and the West Bank isn't one hundred times that of Israel... What happens when they run out of Palestinians?

Just Blow Up Another One

After the bursting of the Internet and housing bubbles, I think we're done with bubbles for a while.
Eugene Robinson. "The Year of Madoff"
I suspect that "a while" will turn out to be shorter than Barack Obama's first term in office. Investors, looking for ways to recoup their losses after the disaster that was 2008, will be on the lookout for the next can't-miss economic opportunity, and will be just as blind to the patently unsustainable nature of the next bubble as they have been to the previous ones. We'll either hear a chorus of "this time it's different," and/or "last time, the problem was those crooks/idiots that were running the show." And people will want to believe it. Including regulators, who will helpfully look the other way. So investors will pile on, some people will make an absolute fortune, things will get wildly out of control, the system will detonate spectacularly and then everyone will express wonderment that we've brought yet another disaster down upon our heads.

A real change will require a painful reorganization and restructuring of the American economy. And if there's one thing that we, as a nation, have demonstrated time and again, it's a very low tolerance for pain.

This Year

I don't normally make New Year's Resolutions anymore. Back in 2004, I resolved "to become more involved in the political process," and by June I was sorely regretting ever having had the thought.

But I think that this year, I'm going to be Different. I'm not sure I know how yet, but I think that it's Time For A Change. Let's see what I can come up with.