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  1. "The Pomfret's are tiny in the U.S.", is what I thought when I first saw a Pomfret fish in a U.S. shop (the Chinese stores have them). Turns out, they're regular sized Pomfrets and it's just me who'd grown. That's what I figured after asking around. I realized that I had last eaten this fish when I was pretty young (and small). So, my memory of their size was relative to my own size then. Ever met people who spent their younger childhoods in a city where is snows and the piles go up to 3 or 4 feet, and and then they moved when they themselves were about 4 feet tall? Many of them, as 6 foot adults will say it used to snow and pile up about 6 foot high when they were kids! Damn this global warming! I suppose, in this sense, man is the measure of all things.Link to Original
  2. A couple of years ago, I was in a small mid-western resort town on July 4th and thousands of tourists (mostly from elsewhere in the state) had turned out to see the fireworks. Trucks streamed in from all the nearby little towns and farms. The atmosphere was festive. There was benevolence all around. The red-white-and blue was respected, not as a symbol of something above us on an altar, but as a symbol of who we are. Not on a pedestal to be saluted -- though that too -- but, in casual clothing, in funny head-dress, in flashing lights to be worn for the evening. All around was a feeling of family and of sharing a value. Very few cops in sight, and yet the thousands self-organizing in very orderly ways. If you asked those people, in that moment, if freedom was their top value, if the individual is important, if we should recognize the individual's right to his own life and happiness...you'd probably find lots of agreement. It's all good, but it is mostly emotional. As you peel away and understand the intellectual roots, contradictions appear. I won't say the emotions are unfounded, that there is no "there there". When Hollywood makes a movie of a maverick going up against the world and winning, huge audiences love the theme. It is who they are: sometimes, on some topics, and in some emotional states. Nationalism is dangerous when it goes beyond a general benevolent celebration of sharing good values like freedom and individualism. It usually does, and we have a good person like Robert E. Lee rejecting Lincoln's attempt to get him to lead a Union Army, even though he could "anticipate no greater calamity for the country than dissolution" and thought "secession is nothing but revolution". Why? For "honor" -- which really translates to honoring a convention where you are loyal to your home state. Throw in ideas about the role of government in helping people in all sorts of situations. Thrown in ideas about inequality being caused by oppression. And faulty ideas about economics. And suspicions about bankers running the world. Add back the occasional cheering of the maverick who defies authority; but also add back the desire to control other people's behavior: if they're gay, or marrying someone of another race, or smoking pot, or even having a beer when they're 20 years and 11 months! That is the contradiction that is America. Still, you should feel free to choose what emotions you wish to invest in symbols like the flag. You do not have to salute a flag and think you're saluting a tortured contradiction that is eating itself from the inside out :) . You can salute it for the right reasons, or for what you think it once stood for. Here's Frederick Douglas, speaking on the occasion, about a decade before the civil war: "This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn." It's worth reading, particularly if your first reaction is to dismiss it. Was he wrong? Was he right for his time and not for ours? Or, does his admonition still stand? "Should we celebrate 4th of July?" I don't think that's the right question. I think that -- right from Day 1 -- there were people who should have been celebrating it. Not just Americans.And, not all Americans. I think the question should not be addressed to a group, but to each individual: "Can you celebrate July 4th without hypocrisy?" I think this is the greal lesson from Douglas's speech. And, each individual may honestly answer "yes", even if the rest of the world cannot. Link to Original
  3. At one level, 451 is about oppressive government keeping books away from people, but the message is deeper than that. Peel back a layer and we find that it is not just about books and not just about government. Bradbury tells us that textured, varied, un-sanitized, life is the good life. The life of purely passive leisure -- the do-nothing life depicted in Mildred watching TV all day -- is bad (she almost kills herself with sleeping pills, and it doesn't really seem to bother her; after all, what is there to live for?). Bradbury fears we are losing touch with reality -- with doing things with our hands, with contact with the earth -- as all our comforts alienate us from nature. In 451, we see TV as a passive medium. Bradbury also criticizes it for being a broadcast medium, though we also see a degree of 'fake" individualization like the device that fills in the viewer's name at certain points. How does it compare to Facebook? Bradbury has the style of a poet. It makes for a brief book. Link to Original
  4. John Masters's novels aren't for everyone, but I enjoy them immensely. Masters tells a good story, and tells it well. His heroes are far from perfect; they are works-in-progress, who develop through the book, occasionally tempted by Dostoyevsky-like inner dialogs. Sometimes, they weaken and succumb to temptation. The books are mostly adventures without deep themes. Indeed, the rare times that Masters tries to step back and find a broader moral theme, he is unconvincing: the narrative does not support his commentary. The books are all based in India, and the protagonists are British. Each book is set at a different time, across the few hundred of years that the British traded with and ruled India. Two of the books are set during very significant events in British-India: the 1857 mutiny (Nightrunners of Bengal) and 1947's independence (Bhowani Junction). The historical interest made me curious, but I stayed for the story, and bought the other books. Two of the books have been made into movies: Bhowani Junction and The Deceivers. The movies are nice enough, but miss much from the books. As a first book, I would recommend "The Deceivers": it is a story about the criminal tribe of "thugs" in India, and how a British officer tries to take them on. (On Amazon-UK, and Abe Books) Link to Original
  5. Why do some gurus endure? Jesus was not the only Jewish preacher, and I bet Mohammad and Buddha had competition too. In modern parlance: why did they "go viral"? Christianity really took off in Rome. Buddhism declined in India, but spread in China. Clearly, early advocates -- Paul in Christianity -- were critical. I listened (thanks to Librivox) to about half of an old book, titled History Of The Christian Church During The First Six Centuries. The book documents Christianities leaders, branches and debates up to around 600 AD. The book documents the growth of the church. It also explains how they changed some practices -- e.g. did not insist on circumcision -- in order to make conversion more palatable to gentiles. However, the author did not explain why those gentiles (or other Jews) would switch to the Christian sect of Judaism. After Constantine moved the Roman empire to Christianity around 300AD, the rise of the religion can be explained by political sponsorship. However, I did not find what I was looking for: i.e., an explanation of the motivation (intellectual or other) of people who adopted Christianity in the first three centuries. Three of the four largest religions -- Christianity, Buddhism and Islam -- spread very widely. I'm curious about how religions spread without political sponsorship. Why did Christianity grow in the first century or so? Why did Buddhism spread in China? (Political sponsorship was the key to its spread in India, and it faded when that sponsorship ended.) Perhaps a lot of Islam's success may be explained by early political sponsorship; but, here too, its spread to Indonesia and to the south-west coast of India seems to have been via evangelism and its message of individualism. Older faiths just "were". Conquerors would convert new kingdoms to their faith, but there seems to have been little evangelism in older religions like Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Mithraism or the old Greek or Roman practices. Could a large part of the success be explained by the evangelical impulse itself? Could it be as simple as that? I.e. that only a few religions made an organized effort to spread their faith, and that the three major ones are among the few that did? Apart from the desire to evangelize, perhaps these religions owe much of their spread to the fact that they developed some types of methods, institutions and networks that were geared toward evangelism. Looking at the original theology of these three religions, I cannot find anything radically unique to set them apart from other sects of their time. So, though I don't know enough to rule out that they really did fill some intellectual need that was not filled by their successors, I suspect that theology is only a minor factor. One tidbit that I found interesting was that the author identifies two hold-outs against Christianity after the Roman emperors had adopted it officially. The first was rural areas, particularly if they were isolated. No surprise there. The other holdout was the scholars in universities, who continued to dismiss Christian mysticism for a while after others had converted. One negative with this book is that the author hints at mystical explanations for some historical events; but, it is not enough to distract. All in all, it was a mildly interesting book. It helped make the period more real to me, but I'm still left with the questions I began with. Link to Original
  6. "We come from a line of strong Norse and Celtic mix. We take what is our due." This is a line I read from a father, to a daughter, advising her to demand something she considered her right. It is interesting how people look to their history in this way, because -- in fact -- this is myth. There's no biological transfer of philosophy across that time, and yet people invoke the myth, because it stirs emotion. It works like good heroic literature: it shows us what humans can do. We are inspired. If "these people could do so, so could I". The emotional reality is stronger, if we add "my own ancestors could do this,…" which translates to "people just like me could do this… and, so can I". I was always puzzled by Rand's mention of the TV series "Roots". Though she said the author's idea of tracing his biological ancestors was tribalist, she also praised him for producing "a representative image of black people in America, from an aspect that had not been presented before". Wait! Why would it be tribalist to look for one's biological ancestors, but praiseworthy to look more broadly, at "black ancestry"? Rand's answer is that he portrayed black slaves as moral heroes: as people who never relinquished the idea that they were human beings with equal rights, in whose hearts the desire for freedom would never be extinguished. Like the father in the quote above, the father saying "we can be heroes… because, this is who we are", the Roots series was saying "blacks can be heroes… because, this is who we are". Rationally, logically, factually ... we can be heroes because we are human, not because we are Norse/Celtic or Black. Yet, by narrowing down from "human" to "Norse" or "Black" or anything more specific, we make the picture more concrete, closer to reality, more achievable, and thus more inspiring. This is the role of literature in myth: it makes the abstract concrete. This gives it a reality that is more real, and makes it a more effective motivator of emotion. The point, then, is not to look for family merely to know the nitty gritty, but to look for inspiration. It does not need to be all positive either. We look to myth for strength, but we can spin inspiring tales from negatives too. A jailed swindler in the family, can become a cautionary myth of "people like us can be tempted by short term gain". Or, if the swindler's children were regular folk: "people like us, do not simply ape our parents" (Yes, that's a bit ironic.) Link to Original
  7. The FDA has now allowed 23andMe to give their customers some health-related information. This is not everything: it is only the results tat the FDA considers more reliable. On the face, this might look like a good thing, but it is probably the first step to corrupting one more little industry. Already, 23andMe is running ads saying it is the only genetic testing company offering FDA-approved health results. This is really deceptive because the FDA only approved a small sliver of their tests and because competitors can do the same even if the FDA has not approved them yet. Consider the people who run 23andMe. Until recently they were fighting against FDA control. Now, how would they view a competitor who wants to offer a non-approved test? They'll probably insist on a "level playing field". Fast forward a year or two and they'll have a relationship with the FDA and may even sue a competitor who tries to offer something new saying it does not need FDA approval. Fast forward a few more years and they would have employed some ex-government folk, and would have initiated joint sessions where they try to get ahead of the FDA, by laying out what they think the rules and standards ought to be. That's when outsiders will scream "regulatory capture". Two decades ago, Wal*Mart was proud to have a very tiny lobbying office. Microsoft boasted almost no "Washington-man" until the government came after them. Google started that way too. Step-by-step, each of them learnt how to play the game until, finally, they're close enough to government that libertarians can re-write history and say that businessmen are the evil drivers behind "crony capitalism". No, all along it is the idiot citizen buying something at Wal*Mart saying "they should be forced to pay their workers better", or installing Windows and saying "they should be forced to install their competitors' products automatically", or "they should be forced to give me search results for free", or "they should be forced to get approval from government panels before they offer me genetic tests". [url={url}]Link to Original[/url]
  8. "The Richness of Life: The Essential Stephen Jay Gould" is a collection of Gould's essays, mostly about evolution. This is not a breezy book; even skipping, it took me months. Nevertheless, it is a rewarding book to anyone who is already past the basic misconceptions about evolution and wants to understand it in a little more detail. If you still have doubts about evolution vs. creationism/"intelligent design", this may not be the book for you. If you think evolution is a process where individual organisms adapt to their changing environments, or if you think things like "since modern society rewards intelligence, humans will continue evolve into more intelligent beings", you will need a more basic book than this one. Here are examples of a few misconceptions this book does tackle, and which resonated with my personal level of ignorance: 1. If a feature exists and has lasted for centuries, it must have some evolutionary advantage. (Perhaps a biologist would think this is a laughable misconception, but I've always thought it was plausible.) 2. Features have to develop very incrementally. So, it is not good enough to explain the advantage of some feature. In order to show that it was produced by evolution, one must also explain the evolutionary advantage of hypothetical features that must have existed and grown into the final feature. 3. Slow changes explain the bulk of evolution, and major cataclysms, warmings, coolings, asteroids, and so on only explain a small part of historical changes. 4. Natural variation is entirely random. Of course this could be true depending on the usage of "random". However, take Gould's example of a few islands where one could classify snails on the islands by two distinct patterns: A and B. One might think that the "A" types on the different islands all had a common ancestor, as did all the "B". However, in fact, they do not. The similar distinguishing factor evolved independently in the different populations. In a similar example, three types of Zebra, evolved their striping independently. [And, on an unrelated note, Zebras are white with black stripes, not black with white stripes.] 5. Evolution favors intelligence, and it is somewhat inevitable that humans would finally rise to become the dominant species. On this last, Gould says that the typical "fish-to-mammals" charts gives us a false picture of evolution as a left-to-right movement. In fact, evolution often proceeds in the opposite direction: toward simpler forms. He suggests a different visual model: something like a sphere formed from strands emanating from the center. There are organisms at all diameters of the sphere and they are all evolving, not just the ones that are furthest from the center. Also, each evolutionary step can go outward toward more complexity or inward toward simplicity. Even if we assume a equal probability of either, over time the sphere will increase in diameter, with complex organisms emerging, but the center of gravity (measured by number of species) will continue to stay fairly near the core. [Caveat: Everything above is my paraphrase, and integration, and not to be taken as "essential Gould.' [url={url}]Link to Original[/url]
  9. "There was a time when the reader of an unexciting newspaper would remark, 'How dull is the world today!' Nowadays he says, 'What a dull newspaper!' " Daniel Boorstin's in The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. This book is Boorstin's diatribe against the promotion of "image" over reality. Even with his refusal to see the other side of the argument, and even 50 years after it was published, this is a must-read for the questions is raises, even if though it does not attempt any answers. In 2014 a Malaysian airliner disappeared with almost no trace. When little is known, people want to know more: someone will pretend to provide. Someone will take arbitrary speculation and make it "newsworthy": if we assume this is true, what would it mean; and if not true, what would that mean? "Experts" jump up to discuss pros and cons. At one stage a CNN anchor even asked if a black hole could have caused the disappearance; and, what about the supernatural, can we really rule it out? In Boorstin's terminology, so little was known about the event that so much time was spent analyzing "pseudo-events". When there's not enough to report, reporters entertain.When Jim Cramer literally blows a horn and prances during his investment-advice program, the line between entertainment and reality is blurred.Entertainment is great, comedy shows are fine, excitement is fun. It is the blurring that causes a problem, because instead of the emotion that might flow from the facts, we have the hyped up emotion from the entertainment "buy! buy! buy!", he shouts. Yet, at least Cramer is blatantly over-the-top. When news-anchors adopt an urgent tone, the message is more insidious: under all the excitement about the employment report coming in 0.2% above the "consensus estimate" they ignore that it is an extremely rough estimate: +/- 0.3%. That way, if it reverts to the mean, it will excuse excitement in the opposite direction! At the end of this path of non-objectivity, we end up in a world where ignorant people get their news from Jon Stewart: insidiousness on steroids. However, there is a second theme in this book: a curmudgeonly Luddite broadside against various aspects of modern life: Boorstin criticizes what might be termed "faux experiences". For instance, the American who travels to a third-world country, but stays in a luxury hotel, commutes in air-conditioned taxis, and steps out occasionally to get taste of local life. I mostly disagree with this theme, but I'm fine to have him perch on my shoulders as conscience, asking me to think twice about modernity. Amused, I wonder how much more appalled he would be in a world of Tweets and snapchat. In an ultimate irony, I ought to condense his book into a Tweet. I recommend this book as a "must-read" even if you have to plow through the negatives. Boorstin's denunciation of image over reality, is even more relevant today, 50 years after it was published. [url={url}]Link to Original[/url]
  10. Grapes of Wrath follows a family leaving Oklahoma to look for (elusive) work in California. While the family seems stoic about their suffering and oppression, the book's title warns of a revolution to come. The protagonists are honest, but ignorant, folk unable to cope with changing society. No heroes, just ordinary people, trying to make sense of their world, and to make the best of a situation they do not understand. The rich are the villains, with "the big bank" as the fountainhead of villainy. Steinbeck paints with a realistic lyricism reminiscent of good country lyrics, but more delicately. Unfortunately, like country-lyrics, the troubles become repetitive and the author provides few explanations -- let alone possible solutions! We're never really told exactly how the big bank is guilty. The guilty: The problem, we're told, is that "property accumulates in too few hands" while "a majority of the people are hungry and cold". The author's sympathies are with the poor. He focuses on their virtues, as he sees them, but his descriptions are shallow. ["Our people are good people; our people are kind people. Pray God some day kind people won’t all be poor."] ["If you’re in trouble or hurt or need— go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help— the only ones."] In times of trouble, says Steinbeck, the poor hang together, helping strangers beyond family. In the closing scene, Steinbeck shows us an example of this sharing, in a concrete example that is both poignant and poetic. We are told that the rich ignored history and refused to change the system, choosing repression instead; but the author never substantiates his claim. If we ignore the commentary and look at the facts the author presents, we see a different picture. Innovation and industrialization is making older ways uneconomical. While the author's accusing finger points to the rich when he engages in commentary, the only guilt we're really shown as concrete facts is that the poor have remained ignorant of the changes and have not kept up. Clearly, some poor adapted: they probably left their uneconomical farms and went to work for a Henry Ford. The one's we are shown are those who are hanging on, in the face of change that will finally sweep away such stragglers. Objectively, the Okies are not innocents. They share some culpability. With hindsight, they admit their land could not sustain them. ["I know this land ain’t much good. Never was much good ’cept for grazin’."] We cringe when Californians use "Okies" as a pejorative, but again the victim is not without guilt: the Okies look at "niggers" with their own -- far less justified -- prejudice. And, don't forget, Grampa took up the land and killed Indians and drove them away. We see an admission that Californian orchards cannot sustain so many Okies either. ["... peach orchard I worked in. Takes nine men all the year roun’.’’ He paused impressively. “Takes three thousan’ men for two weeks when them peaches is ripe."] Solutions and Utopias: The closest that Steinbeck comes to portraying a happy community is in a government-run camp for migrants: where the inhabitants are mostly living off welfare. The camp disallows private charity with its pity and obligation. "We don’t allow nobody to give nothing to another person. They can give it to the camp, an’ the camp can pass it out. We won’t have no charity!’’ Her voice was fierce and hoarse. “I hate ’em,’’ she said. “I ain’t never seen my man beat before, but them— them Salvation Army done it to ’im.’’ Yet, what is this camp if not government-enforced "charity"? Are we really to believe that taking welfare from others by force is superior to taking from condescending but willing donors? And, what are these poor supposed to do other than live off welfare? The author does not even attempt to show us how things ought to be different, other than wanting the poor to have more somehow... but how? No answer. Instead, he threatens the rich with revolution. "In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage." Concretely, the author shows that attempts at revolution fail (like the dead preacher, Casey). Yet, via the book's title, Steinbeck is warning his middle-class readers. One day... revolution will come. It is the trite warning from advocates of redistribution: give "willingly" or much more will be taken from you. Modernity and Industrialization - the truly guilty: The author condemns the alienation that comes from industrialization, romanticizing an older time, with a simpler economy. "We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours— being born on it, working it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it." Now, life is different, with the evil tractor symbolizing modernity. ["So easy that the wonder goes out of work, so efficient that the wonder goes out of land and the working of it, and with the wonder the deep understanding and the relation."] The convenience of packaged foods is described as "...a piece of pie branded like an engine part... " The author thinks that the multi-tiered economy makes cogs out of men. ["“It’s not me. There’s nothing I can do. I’ll lose my job if I don’t do it. And look— suppose you kill me? They’ll just hang you, but long before you’re hung there’ll be another guy on the tractor, and he’ll bump the house down. You’re not killing the right guy.’’ “That’s so,’’ the tenant said. “Who gave you orders? I’ll go after him. He’s the one to kill.’’ “You’re wrong. He got his orders from the bank. The bank told him, ‘Clear those people out or it’s your job.’ "] And, he wants to change it. ["“We all got to figure. There’s some way to stop this. It’s not like lightning or earthquakes. We’ve got a bad thing made by men, and by God that’s something we can change.’’]. Steinbeck is right that the changes are man-made, but he can never find a solution as long as he romanticizes primitive ways as being more real, and criticizes modernity. Psychological insight: Though the book's ethical and political message is boring and bankrupt, Steinbeck writes well. Like most good authors, we see snippets that feel real for their psychological truth. Here's are some snippets of dialog from various characters in the book. Some of it is close to poetry. "The women studied the men’s faces secretly, for the corn could go, as long as something else remained." "Seems like he’s ’shamed, so he gets mad." Said by a car-dealer, about his customers: "Get ’em under obligation. Make ’em take up your time. Don’t let ’em forget they’re takin’ your time." "...muscles aching to work, minds aching to create beyond the single need— this is man." "...the children listening with their souls to words their minds do not understand." "...one person with their mind made up can shove a lot of folks" "Don’t even wash potatoes ’fore we boil ’em. I wonder why? Seems like the heart’s took out of us." “Take a man, he can get worried an’ worried, an’ it eats out his liver, an’ purty soon he’ll jus’ lay down and die with his heart et out. But if you can take an’ make ’im mad, why, he’ll be awright. Pa, he didn’ say nothin’, but he’s mad now. He’ll show me now. He’s awright.’’ Style: And then there is the lyricism in the author's voice too... "When the night came again it was black night, for the stars could not pierce the dust to get down, and the window lights could not even spread beyond their own yards." "And the people listened, and their quiet eyes reflected the dying fire." Anti-Establishment thinking: Woven into the rest are some valid anti-establishment, anti-conservative ideas "Got a lot of sinful idears— but they seem kinda sensible.’’ Joad said, “You’re bound to get idears if you go thinkin’ about stuff." "when a bunch of men take an’ lock you up four years, it ought to have some meaning. Men is supposed to think things out. Here they put me in, an’ keep me an’ feed me four years. That ought to either make me so I won’t do her again or else punish me so I’ll be afraid to do her again’’— he paused—“ but if Herb or anybody else come for me, I’d do her again. Do her before I could figure her out. Specially if I was drunk. That sort of senselessness kind a worries a man.’’ In summary: The book is an example of good writing from a viewpoint that I disagree with: lots of pluses for aesthetics, but thumbs down for its philosophy. Link to Original
  11. When oil was first discovered in Pennsylvania, it was transported to the nearest rail head by horse. It was poured into liquor barrels, put on a cart and pulled by a team of horses. In 1865, Samuel Van Syckel procured a right of way and built a 5 mile pipeline. He faced a lot of technical challenges. The oil had to be pumped, and the pipeline's joints would need to withstand high pressure. Van Syckel was working with 15 foot sections of 2-inch wrought pipe. After sabotage by unhappy teamsters, he hired guards to protect the line, and it was successful enough (he charged $1 per barrel) that he built a second line soon after. Today, pipeline builders don't just have to get a right of way from farmers. They have to petition the government. And, they do not face desperate teamsters wielding pickaxes in a futile attempt to hold back competition. Instead, the government does the job more effectively. If the people's government, duly elected, says "no", their refusal trumps private property rights. And, it cannot be challenged by a measly force of private guards. Behind the "no" from the voters' representatives is the ultimate power of force. Not just pickaxes: try to defy it and bulldozers will raze your line; resist that and police with guns will haul you away and throw you in jail. Who needs teamsters with pickaxes when we have SWAT teams to enforce the people's will. Link to Original
  12. Overview: Like last year, 2014 gave us a slowly improving economy, and a rocketing stock market! Since the 2007-08 downturn, most measures of the economy have stabilized and have started to improve from their bottom. Even total-employment got back, though the more important number (Employment-to-population) is still low. The broadest GDP measure has been increasing very slowly. House-prices came well off their bottom, someway half-way to the old peak, but have recently flattened for a few months. Meanwhile, the stock market is at an all-time high. Corporate profits are high since GDP is growing slowly while firms have kept a reign on costs. Companies have kept buying back stock at above-average levels. This is different from the type of excitement that drove the dot.com boom, because it does not cascade into higher salaries and expenditures: quite the opposite. In the short/medium term, this is "blah" for employment numbers and wages. Here are some of the details: Employment: After seeming to flatten last year, the Employment-to-population ratio jumped up by a percentage point. If we define recessions by level rather than by direction, and if we use this single measure, then we are still in a recession. This measure is closely related to why people still don't think things are fine. Real GDP per Capita: Real GDP per-capita picked up after seeming to flatten last year. 2014 was a bit better than 2013 and what looked like a flattening now looks like a resumed (though slower) trend. Home prices: The Case-Schiller index has been rising for two years now. Price-rise: The 10-year CPI expectation (using TIPS spreads) dropped under 2% almost to 1.5% [Which means that anyone who thinks the official CPI will actually rise much more than this over 10 years should buy TIPS.] This probably reflects the generally low interest rates on US government debt as the dollar has been one of the strongest relative to other currencies. Stock market: The stock-market is on a "what me worry?" tear. Rumors of its death appear to have been discredited. But that's how stock markets are: up, until they aren't. In terms of months and level, it is looking long in the tooth, but history also says it is probably pointless to jump out. Summary: There is a bit more enthusiasm about the economy, but not much. Lower gas prices will lower the GDP metric directly, but Christmas-related buying will probably improve to compensate. No great improvement is expected and, consequently, companies are unlikely to raise hiring or wages much more than they've been doing. Government entities aren't likely to go gang-busters either, but here too voters are a little more willing to approve funding for roads and schools. A "new normal" seems like a good guess: growth, but slow. Even though the stock-market is booming, it is without excitement: more like "there's no other game in town, while the FED keeps rates low; and, profits are high through cost-control". The divergence cannot go on forever, but it can resolve itself in various ways. Much of the market-sentiment is driven by what John Hussman calls "superstition" about the Fed's ability to keep this playing out for a many more years. The FED continued to say that the turning point is far away, so the game could go on. The biggest "anticipated wildcards" for 2015 will how the market reacts to the FED, and how the drop in oil-prices filters through (given that a lot of capital investment and employment growth came from the U.S. oil sector). A new downturn -- particularly in the stock market, if not the economy -- is likely before Obama's term ends, but he might squeeze through... and Democrats will have something to brag about. Link to Original
  13. Private debt is often a bigger problem than government debt, in a mixed economy. Governments encourage private borrowing, and force some citizens to underwrite the losses of others. The great recession is essentially a tale of private debt gone wild. Greenspan's folly: After the dot.com bust, Americans did not tighten their belts for long. Look at the first chart. After dropping slightly for two years (2003-04), debt payments rose as a percent of disposable income. This was Alan Greenspan's "clever plan" ™ to get out of the recession: "borrow against your house". A different (private) response: Then came the housing bust of the "great recession". Bernanke would have liked to repeat the Greenspan "solution", but this time, Americans were more scared. They have been repairing their balance sheets (see 2008 and beyond). Flat levels of liability: Meanwhile, the total level (nominal) of household liabilities has flattened out (2nd chart) for the first time since the 1950's. On a log-scale (3rd chart), and compared to household net worth, one can see the flattening is less dramatic, but still real. This is not just about people borrowing less; large amounts of debt were written off: foreclosures, bankruptcy, etc. Not enough: Households have not done enough. The Fed's response to the great recession has caused a financial asset boom that has introduced complacency. The rise in household net-worth (chart below) might even convince households to start borrowing again. Household ought to have cut back more drastically, but lets take what we can get. Gross figures: One problem with the numbers above is that they are across the whole economy. The stock-market boom could implies that much of the increase in net-worth has been seen by the upper half of the population, with the lower half still in bad shape. Going forward: A pause in borrowing usually precedes a turn toward confidence, and a credit-boom. That's a danger today: that people will forget the lessons of the recession and go back to splurging. Time will tell. Link to Original
  14. In a previous post I predicted Social Security will be around for a long while. Briefly, if you are between 30 and 50 you will likely receive social security, but you will receive less than promised if you're in the upper-middle income range. (If you're 20 or so, I have no prediction to make. I wouldn't rely on it. Still, by the time you're 30, you you can re-evaluate the situation.) The math of Social Security does not add up, but each time it has faced a crisis, the tax-rate has been raised. The Wiki has a table showing how it crept up, along with a list of changes, showing how "benefits" were cut, particularly at the higher end. Even among "conservatives", only about 10% think social security should be phased out. Therefore, the program will stay. About 30% of voters, across the political spectrum, think benefits should be reduced, while the majority (60%) want the program kept as is. This means raising taxes is the most viable political solution. Voters show a similar reluctance to changing Medicare (and Medicaid). c Link to Original
  15. Sinclair Lewis's "Babbitt" is a middle-aged, middle-class, real-estate broker, who votes Republican, goes to church, and belongs to the right club. Babbitt is not a fountainhead of evil; he is not particularly zealous about his values; he is even open to toying "in theory" with alternatives in morality and politics. We sense the author's sympathy -- perhaps pity -- for his protagonist. Here is a man who has chosen values which are about average for his background, not quite happy with his choices, theoretically open to alternatives, practically going to stay put in his comfort zone. But, why not? The alternatives presented by the author are hardly inspiring. Should Babbitt move to the backwoods and get in touch with nature, or should he mingle with the bohemians in the city, or should he aspire to move into the upper classes? The author gives us a brief look into each of these, and what we see is not inspiring. Each of these is simply another type of life, not better, but just as routine in its own way The message seems to be that we have some choice, but -- in essence -- it does not make much difference. The differences are only cosmetic; we are born into a social class, or we work our way into it, and then we adopt its customs, which are no better or worse than the others. Lewis's book is naturalism at its best. The actors introspect, and make choices, and direct their lives... and yet, in the end this agency and action is essentially futile... we still end up "choosing" some type of routine, boring conformity. The characters are not inexorably carried along with the average trend; but, not do they battle against it either. The actors are not born with some inherent flaw that they cannot will away; yet, we find them constrained by their own values and choices, unable to radically change the choices they have made. Clearly not inspiring fiction, but it is worth reading a few such books. I think this type of naturalism has didactic (and "cautionary tale") value. While the naturalism will leave the reader uninspired, the plot carries one along as if one were watching a real reality show. It could serve a purpose, in small doses. Link to Original
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