Thursday, October 4, 2012

What Shall We Do with a Drunken Trader?

In the year of our Lord 2009, a fellow in Britain affected world oil prices during a drunken blackout. In an attempt to not say things like "I told you so" or "No shit, Sherlock", it is my duty to take severe notice of the, shall we say, flexibility of our commodities trading systems around the world.

The timeline, as I understand it, is this:

Steve Perkins, a trader at PVM Oil Futures left work after the end of a long, hard day.

(everything between now and 1:22 am is sheer speculation)

He went to his local, the Bung & Beaver, for five or six pints of the best bitter (or, to be exotic, five or six pint cans of Budweiser). He also stopped at a chip shop to get some delightful takeaway fish to go with the other few cans of beer sitting in his fridge at home. He also stopped at the offy to get a bottle of Scotch (unless he was upper class, in which case it was either Vodka or Gin).

After he arrived home, and haphazardly jammed the key into the lock, he opened the door to find his pet hamster waiting patiently for noms.

So he sits down at the telly, opens up his very hygenically-wrapped fish & chips (no more newspaper, folks!), cracked another can of beer (this time, some kind of shitty ale), and drank with his fish. More beer. More British Idol. More beer.

As we reach the late hour of ten o'clock, Steve is off beer and on to Scotch or one of the clear ones. On the rocks. Until getting up to get more rocks becomes too much trouble. He is sitting in front of his computer, surfing porn. Unfortunately, after ten pints of beer and half a pint of hard alcohol, he is no longer able to get it up, so he turns to the other manly thing he knows how to do: buy oil futures.

So, at 1:22 am (where we rejoin reality), he goes buck wild. And between 1:22 and 3:41 am, he buys up 69% of the world market in oil futures, equaling 7 million barrels of crude oil, valued at $9,763,252. Thanks to the volume and the fact that he kept raising his bids every single time he bid (being a drunken idiot), he raised the price on crude by $1.50 per barrel in a little over two hours. He calls in sick the next day, after an admin clerk calls to ask him why he went and bought 7 million barrels of crude, to which he probably replied, "bollocks."

Subsequently, an official investigation determined that he had a drinking problem.


They took away his traders' license, fined him around $116,000, and told him to go to AA or something like it. They say he will get his license back in five years if he can prove he is no longer a danger to the oil futures commodities market, or at least drinking a little less.

This is up there with the trader who wanted to get his firm in the Guinness book for first-time trading of oil at over $100 per barrel, or the computer-aided high-speed transaction systems sending the market into a tailspin after accidentally dumping stocks so fast the whole market lost a lot of value in a single afternoon. When do we start recognizing that human error and computer error should not have the power to affect the markets that much? It's up there with a mouse being chased by a cat being chased by a dog, etc., causing the fiery destruction of New York City.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Panera Cares but the Neighbors Don't

Panera has a small group of outlets called Panera Cares, essentially a pay-as-much-as-you-can restaurant that aids local homeless, while giving folks with more money a chance to subsidize the homeless and impoverished people in their neighborhood. This has led to an unfortunate side-effect - homeless and impoverished people becoming visible to the folks with money.

If there's one thing the well-off really hate to see, it's poor people in person.

Personally, I believe this is why the Occupy movement had such a hard time. A lot of people could simply look at the marginally hippie-esque garb of a lot of the participants, their obvious lack of resources, and think to themselves, "there but for the Grace of God, go I." And then yell "GET A JOB" at the few folks who actually had laptops or iPads or cell phones, because, of course, these were and continued to be people of means, who were just protesting to get a day off work or something. Or maybe, just maybe, they were people who had lost their decent paying jobs right after they bought iPads. Unfortunately, the media had a hard time with this dichotomy as well.

Don't forget, everything is either black or white.

Of course, the media latches onto the story and makes sure everyone is concerned about "safety", quoting one gentleman saying that if a sidewalk is blocked, well that's a concern. I dunno - a sidewalk is blocked in a minimall every time they have an outdoor shoe/handbag sale (sorry, ladies, but I'm married to a wonderful woman, and I've seen these things happen). Is safety an issue at that point? Are we afraid of roving bands of women who are blocking the sidewalks, trying to get cut-rate Manolo Blandniks at their favorite Needless Markup or at DSW Shoes (haven't they thought about how that reads? it's "Discount Shoe Warehouse Shoes" - while I realize they may sell other things, do they have any locations named DSW Cars, or DSW Fruit?).


This, then, follows the state of relations between the classes in America. Some people have money, and everyone else should just suck it up and, well, stay the fuck out of sight, because you're exacerbating my IBS. Or possibly my UBS. We got our dough, and we dislike the sight of people in stretch pants (unless they have a really fantastic personal trainer, plastic surgeon, or both). And we really hate to be reminded what greedy pricks we really are. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to live with such wealth? How much responsibility we have? - to make sure our children never have to lift a finger for as long as they live, and to be certain that they carry on our tradition of really hating the poor, because the poor are just shiftless, lazy bums, who didn't pull themselves up by their bootstraps with their trust funds, stocks, bonds, or college funds. And you know, God wants us to be rich.

Seems to me something about eyes, needles and camels is in there somewhere, but I forget - didn't someone of importance say that? Oh, right, he was poor - we don't have to listen to him.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Another Tragedy, Another Loud Yawn

Another twelve dead in Colorado, from yet another lunatic with a gun. Sorry, several guns, and many pounds of ammo. All purchased legally, and nowhere do we hear from the "responsible" gun owners a cry for better regulation or better enforcement of our laws. Only a "hang 'em high" attitude that doesn't bring anyone back, and didn't stop this whack job in the first place.

As a nation, do we care? These were young people, with their whole lives ahead of them. Conversely, they hadn't contributed very much yet, and with their future economic outlook, probably wouldn't have much chance of doing more. So will we miss them? Did we need them to begin with?

The NRA and their spokespeople (i.e., registered gun owners who defend everyone's right to bear any arms they can get) always bring up automobile deaths, as if driving a car and firing a weapon are the same thing. The thing is, an automobile accident is just that - an accident. And you have to take tests to be allowed to drive an automobile. Guns are test-free, unless you count the background check. And you don't always have to go through one of those, either.

But because the American way of politics is to ignore whatever happens in the next street, we will have forgotten about this tragedy by next week, or it will be eclipsed by another tragedy of equally horrifying proportions. We'll find a way to rationalize our apathy, since the NRA has so obviously gotten control of pretty much every politician's balls, and we know that no amount of popular outrage can fight against the right-wing money machine.

And we'll pass more "stand your ground" laws, so that we can have open gunfights in the public square, and more innocent bystanders will be killed by loose rounds, and no one will be to blame, since everyone was simply defending themselves from everyone else.

And I am numb and angry at the same time.

But what I'm not is afraid. I'm still not afraid of my fellow man. I refuse to see everyone as a potential criminal, the way that the folks in the conservative wing do. I get that some folks like to hunt for food, and I see nothing wrong with that. But self-defense? If you're a woman, I get it. Get a can of mace (which is often harder to get than a gun), and if some bastard tries to rape or sodomize you, give him the whole can, right into his eyes (or mouth - hurts like hell, still totally incapacitating, even lethal).

But if I were to live my life assuming everyone was out to get me, or that the government was out to get me, I'd get a house with much smaller, barred windows, better locks, steel doors, security systems and all that. Maybe I'm just naive, but I don't want to live my life in fear of everyone and everything. I was raised to be suspicious, and it never did me any good. Certainly, I've been taken for a ride occasionally, but otherwise, most people are decent.

And since we apparently won't be able to stop these bastards from getting guns and doing bad things, maybe the best we can hope for is to treat everyone as a friend, until they prove they're an enemy. To turn the other cheek, until they recognize our humanity. Because if we can't see other people as human beings, each worthy of life and happiness, we've failed our potential as a species.

In which case, dying off won't be such a tragedy after all.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Eat Like a Caveman, Act Like an Idiot

I have taken to the idea of losing weight, and I've begun a process of exercising and eating better, which will hopefully, eventually, turn me into a young buck of thirty. Seeing that I'm starting at age 51 might be a cause for concern but no matter! I can make this happen.

I've been hearing about yet another fad diet, called the Paleo, or Neaderthin diet (wow, there's a marketing concept). Many of my cow-orkers have taken it up. Several are also on the Kettlebell thing (the old Russian Special Forces, or Spetznaz, exercise involving cannonballs of varying sizes with handles). I can assure you that Spetnaz guys ate plenty of meat, and a lot of grains, and a few of them really, really like vodka. I have begun the hard process of Convict Conditioning, which is a set of bodyweight-only exercises, mixed with running and stairclimbing (real stairs, that is, not the machine version). I continue to eat my usual diet, with a higher level of protein and vegetables, and fewer (but not NO carbs).

Here's the issue I'm having with all this dieting advice: it's BULLSHIT. The Paleo diet tells us that human beings have only altered .005% in their genetic makeup since Paleolithic times, say, three million years ago. Therefor, we should eat the same kind of diet that they had available to them, high in protein and fat, mixed with non-legume veggies and minimal grain. There's a lot of stuff about keeping coffee and alcohol out of the diet, coffee because it interferes with digestion, and alcohol for the same reason, as well as the sugars in alcoholic drinks. Minimal dairy as well (depending on which version of the diet you read, since between 3 million years ago and 90,000 years ago, humans began tending animals as society moved to a more village-based organization - and hell, even the nomadic tribes dragged goats along with them).

So, pork rinds good, rice & most fruit bad.

Tell that to the native peoples of India.

Here's where this becomes a political subject rather than just a bunch of stupid dieting tips: all of this nonsense about Paleo vs. Atkins vs. Moosewood depends entirely on factory-farmed, commercially fished, already-been-processed or ruined food that you can buy in the supermarket, covered in God-knows-what pesticides or fungicides or herbicides. I had friends who worked in an organic grocery store, who were very careful to wear gloves when handling non-organic celery, lettuces or herbs, because if they didn't, their skin would be burning by the time they'd uncrated the day's take of celery.
The solution: stop eating processed, genetically altered, nitrogen-enhanced foods that don't grow during the time of year near where you live. Local, fresh produce, meat, fish and dairy are all good. I understand the vegetarian/vegan impulse, but I figure if I know where the animal came from, and make sure it really didn't die screaming, I'll be okay with the meat I eat. I also won't eat any farmed fish. Organic whole grains are great, but white rice is a staple all over Asia, and, sure, people get fat on that diet, but mostly because they eat too much of any given thing, not because one specific part of their diet causes them to blow up like a balloon. One of the strictures of the Paleo diet is to not eat anything you couldn't eat raw.

I dunno about you, but I've never liked raw pork rinds.

We get fat because we eat a lot of highly-processed, chemically preserved and genetically altered food products that I don't count as "food." Michael Pollan pointed out in his book, "In Defense of Food" that the stuff they call "non-fat sour cream" would have been called "artificial sour cream" back in the seventies. Even Dorothy Sayers pointed out the wonderful faculties within the worlds of advertising where "of, with and from" determined the quantity of apples used to make cider (one had to be made of nothing but apples, one had to made chiefly with apples, and one could be made from a peck of apples and a ton of turnips). So, in our modern times, we find ourselves eating food whose ingredients are not only unpronounceable but wholly unfathomable. We fight like hell to get GMO crops identified within our food supply, but the FDA keeps edging away from labeling things that come from animals fed on GMO crops.

The Paleo diet speaks of eating more fish, when our earliest ancestors didn't catch fish. They talk about our ancestors spending a lot of time lounging about, waiting for the next hunt or sending the women off to collect roots or berries or nuts (most of which are not allowed in the Paleo diet). The true paleolithic exercise program included (according to Christopher MacDougall in his excellent book "Born to Run") the pleasure of persistence hunting: running after your prey in a concerted effort to keep it running as well, keeping it away from the pack, until the animal's heart gave out - a process that could take hours. Then you have to butcher the damn thing and carry the parts miles back to the village or your encampment. Butchering an animal with stone tools is not the easiest thing to do, even by a skilled hunter.
Paleolithic humans worked hard to eat, worked hard to stay alive, and when food wasn't plentiful, they'd occasionally eat each other. They maybe didn't get ulcers, but life expectancies were very short compared to ours. They didn't have jobs that left them stranded in cubicle land all day, and they didn't have microwaves or blenders or juicers. We cannot possibly reproduce (perfectly) the circumstances of their existence in modern life, but what we can do is stop murdering the nutritional value of our food before it even shows up on market shelves. To quote Mr. Pollan again, "eat food, not too much, mostly plants."

That sounds primitive enough for me.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Death of Stuff

I'm in a weird space these days (no, NOT because of the medication). The music industry has decided to end the standard CD format by the end of 2012, except in cases of special editions, box sets, etc. Amazon and iTunes and others will provide us with all the digital downloads we can eat. More and more films are being released in 3D format, and we're being charged extra for the regular ones to offset the cost of showing the 3D ones (even though Walter Murch has essentially made fun of us dumb humans for even thinking our brains and eyeballs can properly process 3D movies as the technology currently works). I've even seen "3D-ready" stereo receivers. 3D-ready? It's just an HDMI cable, and the other one has the same cables. Different circuitry? Different cable? (actually, yes, but why bother?) Does Monster charge a premium on 3D HDMI cables over regular HDMI cables?

(answer: yes, they probably do - it's the Monster Cable way)

To add insult to injury, it appears Apple is both allowing Blu-Ray movies to be produced in their new version of Final Cut (the software the Coens and the aforementioned Murch like to edit in), but not incorporating the same functionality that they'd previously had for mastering regular DVDs. Steve Jobs was dead set against physical manifestations of digital creativity in a lot of ways (except in Apple's overpriced hardware*) - he was trying to create a world in which the creator could conveniently distribute his/her creations via the interwebs without the necessity of people buying pieces of stuff, like CDs, or DVDs, etc. And there's that whole printed page, thing, as well.

While I deplore the hyperconsumption of our society, and I realize that resources are finite, does anyone else here really believe that a download of the White Album sounds better than the LP? Or watching a movie on your iPhone is as good as going to the movies? Or that staring into the anemic screen of a Nook is somehow an improvement over the physical appearance of the etchings of Gustave Dore?

I know, call me a curmudgeon.

On top of all that, we have the DMCA, ACTA, SOPA, and other Acts that will compromise our ability to use the power of the Internet through corporate fiat. Walt Disney films are now copyrighted out to 75 years after the death of the rights' holder (and when do corporations die anymore). So, when you can't buy the CD or the DVD anymore, and the rights' holders can turn off your connection if they even so much as suspect you've bootlegged something, where does that leave parody? What if you release something on your own, through your own website, and the big labels or studios have the right to turn off your connection by saying they "suspect" you're doing something with their material, and they don't even have to show cause, or ask a judge?

I find myself in a quandary. I like the idea of having the physical book or LP or CD or DVD or whatever form of media it is, even if I can't rip it for myself. I'm downloading the content into my brain anyway. And I own too much stuff, like a lot of people my age. I love the idea of kids having their textbooks on iPads, and not having to go to a chiropractor at twelve when their book bag is heavier than they are. A balance is necessary in all of this, and I feel like the tipping point is already past. Sure, I'll be able to get previously owned copies of books for a while. I might even be able to get small press books whenever I get down to Powell's in Portland (assuming they're still in business).

I HAVE TOO MUCH STUFF. Talk about your stuff owning you, we had thirty or more boxes of books when we last moved, and it hasn't gotten better, I can tell you. I've also inherited my parents' record collections, and they began in the 1940s, buying albums when they really were albums of records. (having the original 78 of Charles Trenet's "La Mer" would be awesome, except I can't play 78s on any turntable I own) But I wouldn't give up these things. They're history, my history, my parents' history, my family's history. When my Dad passed away, I think my brother got the Encyclopedia Britannica. I got the Oxford English Dictionary (Compact Edition) with the supplement and the magnifying glass. In England, they joke about the probability that if all the books were taken away, heating bills would go up by 25%.

And how far do we take this removal of reality into the digital world? At what point do we find ourselves in a place where we lose track of the Thirteenth Century, because the computer had a brain fart, or a malicious bastard decided we shouldn't know about this stuff? Buildings burn down, and computers get hacked. No matter what, we lose things to history - it's all a matter of time. But that doesn't mean you can't tell people about such things, and it doesn't mean your children won't ever know the pleasures of listening to Spike Jones on their record players. But if we keep going down the path of digital this and iThat, we're going to lose the physical expressions of human creativity where information is the primary subject - i.e., books, music and movies.

Where am I going with this? I worry about my kid. I waver about whether these gadgets that we've attached ourselves to will become more a part of her life than reality, because they don't represent reality - they mediate it for us. I recall a passage from Neal Stephenson's excellent little book "In the Beginning was the Command Line", regarding a father videotaping his walk down Main Street USA in Disney World, and how the dad was literally having a vicarious experience of the experience he could have been having in person, while being there in person. (and of course, Dad was vicariously experiencing a false history, but that's a topic for another time)

Is this how we want our kids to live - one vicarious moment after another, one more thing to experience through the viewfinder of your smart phone to be posted  on Facebook so that other people can also have the same vicarious experience of something you could have really enjoyed, had you simply stopped recording, and looked up at the face of the world? Is everyone's life meant to be played out on Reality TV? How do we want to remember the great moments of our lives - as a perfect digital copy, or as an imperfect human memory?

At some point, the digitizing of our history needs to be re-mediated by a collective act of rebellion, of oral traditions that we've nearly lost, of a written historical record that (even with all of its' biases) is better than some multi-media extravaganza written by a corporation for the edification/commodification of our children, seen through a glowing screen that they can't live without. We're losing touch with our humanity with every new gadget that removes the creativity from the physical to the digital.

*Apple fanboy here, so please, no flames about my so-called hatred of the Mac - it's more love/hate

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Middle Class Retooling

This article in the New York Times, published January 21st, talks about how Apple (and other electronics manufacturers) works to make their consumer electronics less expensive, and details the requirements of manufacturing as well as the requirements of American workers versus Chinese workers.

While I get that globalization and the like make it all the more difficult for such work to be performed by Americans (since the Chinese are willing to live in dorms and work 6 12-hour days a week in order to pay their families back home or not pay anyone but a bank account somewhere), the part that's so depressing about it is that it appears there's no end in sight.

Workers willing to work long hours for low wages is as old as history. They're always available, there will always be someone who'd prefer 12 hours a day in an air-conditioned building and a warm place to sleep versus starving to death. Well, mostly, anyway.

What will Americans do now? Foxconn hired 85,000 engineers (so-called) to oversee the 250,000 workers in the plant. These engineers don't need a BS to do their job, something the equivalent of an AA would do. While it might take 6 months for an American manufacturing firm to find this many engineers, in China it took three weeks to ramp up. Why?

Simple. Infrastructure. Which we don't invest in much anymore.

Even if you could hire this many employees to work a single building like this in the States, OSHA would disallow it on the basis of safety. Foxconn has had to hire traffic cops to guide employees coming and going from the building during shift change.

Essentially, what they're telling us is that, in order to make it in the middle class, you really need to rethink the idea of human dignity and worth. We really need to get back to the days when humans were simply interchangeable cogs in a great machine, hired for cheap when young, and discarded as soon as the part wears out or a cheaper, younger, hungrier version becomes available. Metropolis wasn't just a movie, it was the shape of things to come.

Side note: I wonder if we know what happens to former Foxconn workers? Anyone done that bit of reporting yet? We know that many of them kill themselves (or threaten to do so)...

As a consumer in a consumer society (and an Apple fanboy to boot), I know there are things that are expected of any modern person in America: you own a car, a cellphone, maybe a laptop or a pad computer - but some kind of computer and some sort of portable computing device. Many businesses are asking their employees to provide their own devices at work, and are building new wireless networks that are at once more simplified and more complex in order to both facilitate the employee bringing in their own gear, but also protecting company information. In the old days, policemen had to provide their own uniforms, their own nightsticks, even their own guns. (ammo was provided, generally) So it's good to know there's been progress in this regard.

So, as far as progress is concerned, we've managed to outsource much of our manufacturing, we're underfunding school systems, so fewer and fewer high-caliber people will be entering the workforce (and we won't need them anyway, so long as there's a China), we've built more prisons than anywhere else, and we keep building the armed forces larger and larger. We'll need people to pick crops (and the Hispanics are being scared off by our own draconian immigration laws, as well as the decline of such opportunities), serve food, wash cars, trim lawns, etc., etc.

Was this what the Founding Fathers had in mind? A great nation, wealthy beyond their wildest dreams, wherein 90% of the population will eventually (if current trends maintain) be living on the margins?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

We Hate Us, and Nothing We Stand For

When the GOP runs its convention in the future and they decide who they want to run the country as soon as Obama implodes and vanishes (since that's what they're trying to make happen), we will then discover that Republicans can, after all, vote for someone with a strange religion, even if he's robotic and painful to watch, has no sense of humor, and actually believes that he was (at some point) in real danger of receiving a pink slip. Where's the danger when you're a multi-millionaire, right? If I was a multi-millionaire, losing my job wouldn't really hurt me all that much...

But what really gets us libs going is the idea that Romney is actually stupid enough to think he can win. Besides his extraordinary number of doofusy misstatements, he epitomizes the old joke about the guy whose stick up his ass has a stick up its ass. Meanwhile, his version of humor is kind of creepy - when he gets close to a woman on stage, he reacts as if she just grabbed his ass, you know, "ha. ha. ha."

Now that we've lost Hermain Cain as a human comedy punching bag, and Michelle Bachmann has to go back to saying insane things to smaller groups (while still being a congresscritter), we're stuck with Mittens, Newt, Santorum, Huntsman and Paul, all of whom think they can capture the undecided, independent voter.

Republican strategists haven't forgotten one key fact in their calculations - the independent voter is actually a liberal who hates the term. Kind of like closeted gay Republicans, the "independent voter" is actually a self-loathing liberal who has been trained by years of well-publicized misinformation that liberals and liberal causes are bad for the country, and yet would vote for them if presented individually on a ballot. When asked questions like, "would you prefer a public option in the Health Care Bill", seventy percent of the nation says yes, while half of that group calls the Democrats "Socialists." When asked if taxing the super-wealthy would be a good idea, that same seventy percent says yes, and the same half of that group refers to the Occupy Wall Street protests as "Class Warfare", as if class warfare is a bad thing.

This is the problem we face, and we still haven't found a way to change their minds. It doesn't help that the only reasonably leftie news source is MSNBC, and I don't get that, since I hate network TV. Most people like network TV, and that may be why so many people are so wildly disinformed. Every time I see someone defending the Iraq war, or indefinite detention, or whatever, in a fictional TV show (like NCIS, or Law And Order: SVU, or Bones), the person with the Liberal/Leftist point of view is always, ALWAYS, portrayed as a screechy conspiracy-monger who alienates everyone around them, or a scientific-type, knowitall weenie (and nerds are invariably annoying). Fair and Balanced doesn't exist in fictional shows, let alone in the newsrooms of America. Even video games have a highly one-sided view of the current states of war and conflict. Americans are always a force for good, even if what they're doing violates Geneva or would cause an even greater rift between us and whoever it is we're supposed to be "protecting." The last time I ever saw a truly thorny political football handled with a reasonable level of balance was Steven Soderbergh's Traffic.

Unless and until we manage to figure out a way to get people to listen without first having to say "will you just LISTEN TO ME", we are going nowhere as a force for much of anything, let alone good.

The only way we're winning this year is if the economy continues its snail-like pace towards improvement. If Obama ratchets up the rhetoric, and then actually follows through (the appointment of Cordray to the CFPB was a step in the right direction, though a very, very short step), things may improve. The signing of the NDAA was a sad blip on the radar, and I do hope he does something publicly to denounce the various provisions regarding the rapidly crumbling edifice of habeus corpus. But we are voting for him, right? Probably, anyway? Because we really really don't want Romney or Paul or Sanitorium in the White House, right?


Note: Some of the reason I have gathered enough hope to my bosom in order to write again is because I'm watching the DVD collection of The Wire my wife bought me for Christmas. If the "entertainment industry" is capable of producing this, what else is America capable of?