Saturday, January 08, 2011

Te Aworo

By the time you read this, I will be wheels up on a two week vacation.

I'll be taking my iPad with me, so posting will continue sporadically. See, I'll be wet most of the time...

Anyway, enjoy the middle of winter. I'll be working, sort of, on my photography and videography portfolio. The best thing about visual arts is the rehearsals.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Nobody Asked Me, But...

1) There's a lot of unnecessary panty-twisting over the remarks made by Antonin Scalia this week with respect to the Constitution. The relevant quote:

Q. In 1868, when the 39th Congress was debating and ultimately proposing the 14th Amendment, I don't think anybody would have thought that equal protection applied to sex discrimination, or certainly not to sexual orientation. So does that mean that we've gone off in error by applying the 14th Amendment to both?

A. Yes, yes. Sorry, to tell you that. ... But, you know, if indeed the current society has come to different views, that's fine. You do not need the Constitution to reflect the wishes of the current society. Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn't.

    A lot of people on the left and even the right are interpreting this to mean that Scalia believes the Constitution endorses misogyny, which is an interpretation you have to stretch a bit to include, altho I can see how and why, and even understand the degree of anger. I disagree with that sentiment, however. That does not mean I think Scalia should be NOW's poster boy or that Scalia is not a cad and a bigot.

    I think Scalia's original quote was not incorrect. I read it as "The Constitution does not set aside women as a preferred class with respect to constitutional rights, and the 14th Amendment does not, either."

    He's right. It doesn't. Aside from slaves, the constitution only refers to "person" as pertains to whom the document covers. Not man, not woman, not black, not white, not brown, not gay, not straight, but person. It does not make any "requirement" (his word) of gender or race.

    The Reconstruction amendments (13th, 14th, 15th) attempt to redress the only definition the Constitution has of personhood and that is in the negative: slaves were 60% of a "person".
    All other protections, with one notable exception which I'm surprised Scalia did not mention, are gender and/or race blind. The 19th, of course, gave women the vote (and in the context of preventing anyone from being denied the vote), and this was a curious omission on the part of a man who usually is very thorough.

    All treatments that the US has applied to redress private and public civil rights wrongs have been statutory. Here, the whims of the people could revoke those rights at any time (else why would we need an ERA, and why would we need to fight to protect Roe v Wade?). What Scalia is responding to is the need for a Constitutional redress of discrimination. This is where people should get angry, in my view.
    American history makes it very clear that we have come a long way from the time when women were ornaments and slaves were less than that. I would find it hard to believe that men like John Adams or Thomas Jefferson would not have recognized the value of their wives and friends in terms of intellect and problem-solving. Particularly Adams.
    This is why I believe the Constitution was deliberately written with gender neutrality in mind (and race neutrality, beyond the slavery issue). Compare the "person" to the Declaration, which uses the words "man" and "men" as a gender neutral noun. If the Founders had meant for the Law of the Land to be so written, they would not have had any problem doing so. They clearly signaled that the law was to apply to all people, all humans..except slaves.

    On that very narrow point, Scalia, whom I usually believe is a douchebag, is correct. In practice, he's still a douchebag.
    OK, flame away in comments. I won't be around much to read them :-)
2) Attention my British readers! This is important!
3) The best explanation for the dead birds in Arkansas. You may recall I posted about this earlier this week. It's still spreading.
4) Unemployment dips to 9.4% as the US added 103,000 brand spanking new jobs last week. Stock futures tanked. Why? Well, the private sector added 113,000 jobs, while states and municipalities dumped 10,000 jobs. The estimates were for 120,000 net jobs gained. The private sector falls short by only 7,000 jobs (but beating the average since January 2009 by nearly 20,000 jobs!), while states and local governments dump workers because they've been forced to cut taxes. Yet, the economic royalists get upset. WTF???
5) President Obama named Gene (no Sy, although he could stand a bit of Sy's handiwork) Sperling as his chief economic adviser.
6) Wassamatter, Cryboehner? Afraid you might have to cry on the house floor again? Seriously, for a bunch of testosterone-addicted asshats, the right wing sure has a lot of...emotional disbalance.
7) Like Nixon going to China, only Bob Gates could successfully cut the Pentagon budget with a Republican house.
8) The Naderites really need an enema. He could run another forty times and still not amass enough votes in total to win the Presidency. Grow up, grow a set, and get involved in fighting for the party. Either one. I don't give a rat's ass, but stop with the holier-than-thou shit.
9) I didn't realize the wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq have opened a new front in Miami!
10) Finally, for all you folks opposed to the Park51 Cultural Center...two words: Suck. It. Not one of you would head to Mecca to do this at Eid ul-Fitr, would you?



Thursday, January 06, 2011

Well, Now, Another Use For Porn: Predicting The Future!

Some of the methodology of this study is dodgy, but there are some interesting subnotes that bear further inspection:

One of psychology’s most respected journals has agreed to publish a paper presenting what its author describes as strong evidence for extrasensory perception, the ability to sense future events.

The decision may delight believers in so-called paranormal events, but it is already mortifying scientists. Advance copies of the paper, to be published this year in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, have circulated widely among psychological researchers in recent weeks and have generated a mixture of amusement and scorn.

The paper describes nine unusual lab experiments performed over the past decade by its author, Daryl J. Bem, an emeritus professor at Cornell, testing the ability of college students to accurately sense random events, like whether a computer program will flash a photograph on the left or right side of its screen. The studies include more than 1,000 subjects.

Basically, what Dr. Bem...and there's a SciFi name if I've ever heard one...did was turn a traditional memory test on its head, in the first phase of this study. He gave students a memory test consisting of vocabulary words, then gave them the list of words to study afterwards. Turns out the students scored higher on words they later studied more.

As I said, dicey methodology, but it advanced to a later study in which subjects were asked to predict which of two computer screens behind a curtain would present a picture. After the prediction was made, a random generator choose a screen. The outcome was slightly higher than that presented by chance (50%, of those of you who didn't do so good in statistics).

Interesting outcome, to be sure. It's hard to get really excited over slightly better odds of choosing in a simple "left/right" scenario, of course, but who's to say?


Still, the participants beat chance, by 53 percent to 50 percent, at least when the photos being posted were erotic ones. They did not do better than chance on negative or neutral photos.

“What I showed was that unselected subjects could sense the erotic photos,” Dr. Bem said, “but my guess is that if you use more talented people, who are better at this, they could find any of the photos.”

Dr. Bem has his critics. For example, a Dr. Hyman in Oregon claims it might all be a practical joke, which would reflect poorly on the Journal.



Wednesday, January 05, 2011

What The Hell Is Going On???

First it was Arkansas. Next, Louisiana, Kentucky, and Maryland, and now Sweden????

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) -- Just four days after thousands of dead blackbirds are found in Arkansas, residents in Sweden are cleaning up their own version of the unusual happening.

Officials in Sweden say about 50 birds were found in the southern Sweden city of Falkoping Wednesday morning.

Earlier in the week, another case of dead birds hit Louisiana, leaving those residents just as confused as others.

Now, the accepted wisdom is that somehow fireworks are responsible for the bird deaths, and the fish are dying of unusually cold water (possible effect of global climate change and the shift of the Atlantic conveyor in Sweden? Stay tuned).'s summer in Brazil. And New Zealand, which is also reporting tons of dead fish washing up on shores.

And fireworks would explain birds dropping out of the sky, ohhhhhh, sayyyyyy, one minute past midnight on the first, but many of these events are happening days after the last fizzles.

There are plenty of conventional, prosaic explanations for any one of these events, to be sure, but that all of them are happening about the same time in the same mysterious manner leads one to suspect there's something greater at work here.

So what the hell IS going on???


Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The Insurance Crisis You Didn't Hear About

Everyone remembers AIG, and how it was too big to fail, since its insurance propped up everything from major construction projects to risky mortgages.
But the insurance industry as a whole was grossly destabilized by the banking crisis. Any risk upsets insurers, and there was plenty to go around.
Including one particularly noxious little instrument: The death bet, or life settlement industry, to use the polite term.
Intended as an estate planning tool, the death bet works as follows. I'm rich. Filthy rich. So I take out a life insurance policy in the millions. It's probably more than I need, but I've got an inflated sense of self-worth.
Oops. Now I need cash. Quick cash. I turn around and sell that policy to an investor pool who agrees to make the premium payments in exchange for an annuity payment to me based on the benefit, plus assignment of that benefit to the pool. (NB This is not the only purpose these policies serve, but it's a good example of how ugly this can be)
The new owners then sit back and begin to cheer every single sniffle I get. The faster I die, the more profitable the policy is.
In the scramble of the subprime mortgage market, insurers, much like Captain Renault in Casablanca were shocked! SHOCKED! to find out that many of the highly profitable transactions were mere gambles on the lives of policyholders!

Since the bust in the market, insurers have portrayed themselves as the victims. They have filed hundreds of lawsuits over the past two years seeking to cancel policies they say weren't intended as estate-planning tools, as buyers purported, but were instead meant to enrich investors speculating on old people's lives. The industry also asked regulators to stop investors from wagering with their products.

Now, some investors are striking back. They are asserting that insurers' own agents and managers encouraged investor-driven sales to boost their compensation, and that the industry cried foul only when faced with big payouts on the policies and bond-market declines that made some policies less profitable than expected.

The investors want the insurers to be forced to honor the contracts, or to refund all of the premiums they have paid. Some are seeking punitive damages. The claims appear in filings in state and federal courts nationwide.

The irony is, of course, that this market was already in a tizzy not because of the financial shenanigans of the bond markets (bonds and annuities are usually the underlying instruments behind life insurance policies and included mortgage-backed securities) but because, well, people are living longer.

See, actuarial tables may be the last bastion of inefficiency in financial markets, because they rely on information after the fact: when a person dies, that's how long you know he or she has lived. The average age of people dying is compared to the numbers of people still living who are that age and that's one way life expectancies are calculated, or at least that's the basis for the calculations.

Radical epidemic or natural disaster...can appear nearly instantaneously. Subtle changes take months if not years to come to the fore. And there's the problem because these same rich people can afford the best medical care and thus confound the statistics which can adjust for income but have a much harder time adjusting for accumulated wealth. Remember, they've likely retired when they sell these policies so annual income is reduced significantly, but wealth continues to accrue.

So how does this affect you? Well, estimates of the current market for these instruments remains over $10 billion new policies every year. Not much, but if insurers are forced to recapture premiums and refund them to investors, the size of the market could make the AIG bust look like a run on a Bedford Falls building and loan.

And then, if no bailout is forthcoming, your insurance premiums-- car, life, and home-- will skyrocket.