September 16, 2012

Posted by orrinj at 4:54 PM


The Road to Retirement (NY Times, 9/16/12)

The crux of the problem is that as traditional pensions have disappeared from the private sector, replacement plans have proved woefully inadequate. Fewer than half of the nation's private sector workers have 401(k) plans, and more than a third of households have no retirement coverage during their work lives, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. [...]

Working longer can help to rebuild savings, and, more important, allow one to delay taking Social Security, which improves the ultimate payout. As a practical matter, however, keeping a job is no sure thing. Workers ages 55 to 64 have been less likely than younger ones to lose their jobs in recent years; their jobless rate has averaged 6.1 percent in the past year, compared with 7.3 percent for workers ages 25 to 54. But when older workers become unemployed, they are much more likely to be out of work for long periods and less likely to find new jobs, while those who do become re-employed usually take a big pay cut.

More saving is clearly needed, along with ways to protect retirement savings from devastating downturns. The question is how. In addition to strengthening and preserving Social Security, the nation needs new forms of retirement coverage, along the lines of the "Automatic Individual Retirement Accounts" that President Obama has proposed in recent budgets, which would require companies that did not offer retirement plans to automatically divert 3 percent of an employee's pay into an I.R.A., unless the employee opted out. A similar plan was recently proposed by Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa.

When even the Timesmen favor such privatized SS accounts--for what else are government mandated savings for retirement?--you know you've won.  W, once again, seems to have simply been a man ahead of his time.

Posted by orrinj at 9:03 AM


Woodward's Verdict: Obama Didn't Lead (Jay Ambrose, September 16, 2012, Scripps Howard)

Obama miscalculated, and badly, in negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner on getting Republicans to allow more borrowing and avert default by convincing them something significant would be done about a wildly growing, ruinous debt. Despite Republican travails about stiff tax hikes to help fix the mess, Boehner was willing to go along with an $800 billion revenue increase achieved through reform. The grand compromise was about done when Obama asked for another $400 billion. That was it. Finis. End of the game.

How bad a negotiator do you have to be to not get it that when you have a bird in hand you forget the two in the bush? After the fact, Obama said the $400 billion was just a suggestion and fumed that Boehner stayed away from the phone for a day before he unleashed his fury on the speaker. Angrily blaming others for your own mistakes strikes me as the kind of pomposity that makes things worse.

The president was outraged again when Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress, seeing the White House as a roadblock, swerved around it to negotiate their own deal. Dismissing the effort and later threatening a veto, Obama earned himself a rebuke from an aide to Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. This man, David Krone, found it a major lapse that the White House had no fallback plan when its initial bartering went astray.

Among others casting doubt on Obama as negotiator were Lawrence Summers, the former Harvard president and presidential financial adviser who said Obama just did not like the game, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, who accused the White House of having no strategy or "core principles." There's hearsay in the book that Vice President Joseph Biden, who himself seemed pretty able at reaching understandings with recalcitrant Republicans, said he would approach the negotiating "totally different" if it were up to him.

After 16 years of transformation, it is understandable that the American people hit the "Pause" button in 2008, but electing someone uniquely unqualified for, and unsuited to, the presidency had consequences.  We don't have a competent Executive, just a teleprompter and an autopen.

Posted by orrinj at 8:57 AM


FOYLE IN A NEW ERA : New episodes coming to MASTERPIECE MYSTERY! on PBS in summer 2013 (PBS, September 12, 2012)

Starring Michael Kitchen and Honeysuckle Weeks and created by celebrated novelist and 
screenwriter Anthony Horowitz, the series will see Foyle and loyal friend Sam (Weeks) in 
a new post-war era as their worlds shift into those of MI5.

With many stories based on real life cases, Foyle will focus his attention on the world of 
espionage as he gathers secret intelligence in support of Britain's security, defense and the 
Government's foreign and economic policies.

In his new role as a Senior Intelligence Officer, Foyle discovers that the British 
establishment is rife with communist sympathisers and traitors. In this delicately balanced 
period in history, 1946-47, Foyle will use all his intelligence, guile and intuition to keep 
the country safe.

Meanwhile, Sam is happily married to local MP Adam and finding her feet as a wife with 
a daunting role in local politics. Reunited with Foyle, she is also offered a surprising new 
working role.

Three x 120 minute films have been ordered from Eleventh Hour Films, the production 
company founded by producer Jill Green.

What makes Kitchen's portrayal; of Foyle great is that he uses a meek demeanor to mask a genuine moral ferocity.  It will be interesting to see if they're really willing to turn that loose on communism and fellow travelers.

Posted by orrinj at 8:36 AM


The Outing of a Right-Wing Rocker :The Olympics' opening night star Frank Turner becomes, overnight, a class enemy. (DANIEL J. FLYNN, 9.14.12, American Spectator)

Last week, the Guardian's Michael Hann posted excerpts from old interviews in which Turner opined that "socialism's retarded," decried the Treaty of Lisbon's European Union as "the end of about 800 years of continuous parliamentary history," and suggested that politicians should "concentrate on ways of minimising the impact on ordinary people's lives and allow them to get on with their lives and not be bothered by the state."

If you didn't catch Olde-England-troubadour Turner's so-fitting three-song set at the opening ceremonies of the London Olympic Games, the folk-punk phenomenon is perhaps best thought of as Billy Bragg with Bruce Springsteen's talent. So once critics discovered that their darling shared Bragg's full-throated folk style but not his hard-left politics, their love notes become "Dear Frank" letters. [...]

Turner responded to the national controversy by denying affiliation with any political party or rigid ideology. The London School of Economics graduate humbly noted, "I just think the world works better when people are left alone to do what they want as much as possible."

Patriotism isn't politically correct, particularly among the citizens of the EU superstate. The title of Turner's album, "England Keep My Bones" -- consequently, not "Britain Keep My Bones" or "UK Keep My Bones" -- subtly points to his politics. So does the album, a rollicking ode to the island Turner calls home. Closing with an overtly anti-God number -- not surprising since atheism has replaced the C of E as the national religion -- that may have helped mislead his leftist fans into thinking Turner one of their political cult, the album nevertheless strangely obsesses over sin, redemption, and the life after. And, oh yeah, it's also about William the Conqueror, navigating the labyrinth of drunks on Winchester's Jewry Street, and the pastoral past.

If England didn't have a national anthem, Frank Turner would write a better one. In "Rivers," he sings: "When I die I hope to be/buried out in the English sea/So that all that then remains of me/Will lap against these shores/Until England is no more." In the energetic "One Foot Before the Other," Turner imagines another fate for his corpse, with his ashes dumped into London's reservoir to flow into his thirsty countrymen to ensure continuity, an imprint, eternal life.

Is Turner pondering his mortality or England's?

Posted by orrinj at 8:30 AM


How Buzz Aldrin's communion on the moon was hushed up (Matthew Cresswell, 9/13/12,

Before Armstrong and Aldrin stepped out of the lunar module on July 20, 1969, Aldrin unstowed a small plastic container of wine and some bread. He had brought them to the moon from Webster Presbyterian church near Houston, where he was an elder. Aldrin had received permission from the Presbyterian church's general assembly to administer it to himself. In his book Magnificent Desolation he shares the message he then radioed to Nasa: "I would like to request a few moments of silence ... and to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way."

He then ate and drank the elements. The surreal ceremony is described in an article by Aldrin in a 1970 copy of Guideposts magazine: "I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup. It was interesting to think that the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the first food eaten there, were communion elements."

He also read a section of the gospel of John. During it all, Armstrong, reportedly a deist, is said to have watched respectfully but without making any comment.

The story of the secret communion service only emerged after the mission. Aldrin had originally planned to share the event with the world over the radio. However, at the time Nasa was still reeling from a lawsuit filed by the firebrand atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, resulting in the ceremony never being broadcast. The founder of American Atheists and self-titled "most hated woman in America" had taken on Nasa, as well as many other public organisation. Most famously, she successfully fought mandatory school prayer and bible recitation in US public schools.

After the Apollo 8 crew had read out the Genesis creation account in orbit, O'Hair wanted a ban on Nasa astronauts practising religion on earth, in space or "around and about the moon" while on duty.

Posted by orrinj at 8:21 AM


The case for outsourcing jobs (Steve Hargreaves, September 14, 2012, CNNMoney) 

Cheaper prices for consumer goods are often the first thing cited by defenders of outsourcing. Indeed, many items such as clothing, toys and electronics are getting cheaper, even without adjusting for inflation.

But the efficiencies extend beyond the cash register.

Companies can use the cost savings to staff up in other parts of their business, said Steven Leslie, a financial services analyst at the Economist Intelligence Group.

For example, if Apple can knock, say, $100 off the cost of producing the iPhone by making it in China as opposed to the United States, the company is then apt to spend that $100 in hiring people in other parts of its businesses -- such as sales, marketing or design.

A forthcoming paper in the American Economic Review looked at 57 American industries from 2000 to 2007. The study found that even though some people lost jobs due to outsourcing, the greater efficiencies the industries realized allowed them to hire even more people in the United States than were laid off.

Which is how globalization and technology helped fund three decades of white collar boondoggling.
Posted by orrinj at 8:08 AM

Gorecki's 'Miserere,' An A Cappella Oasis Of Calm (TOM HUIZENGA, 9/11/12, NPR)

Like the "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs," Górecki's Miserere is simple in its construction but not simpleminded. The entire text consists of just five words -- "Domine Deus noster, Miserere nobis" (Lord our God, have mercy on us). He builds the piece slowly, in layers, beginning with low tones in the basses and eventually rising to the sopranos. The repeated phrase "Domine Deus" washes over in peaceful waves -- its meditative mood about as far as you can get from a ferocious police beating.
The Miserere is bookended by the short Lobgesang in German and a set of Five Marian Songs (Pieśni Maryjne) in Polish.

Górecki wrote his Lobgesang (Song of Praise) in 2000 to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the birth of Johann Gutenberg, inventor of movable-type printing. Punctuated by boisterous cries of "lobet" (praise), the chorale's mighty sound eventually gives way to some terrifically soft, low and sustained notes, over which Górecki magically introduces chromatic pings from a solitary glockenspiel.

In the Marian songs, it's Górecki's simple approach that touches the heart. Inspired by Polish folk and church music, he sets these sweetly melodic songs in uncomplicated harmonies with subtle splashes of dissonance. "Most Holy Mother," the second and longest of the songs, shows off the ensemble's lustrous blend, handsomely recorded in Walt Disney Concert Hall's warm but precise acoustic.

Posted by orrinj at 7:49 AM


Here Comes the Data Economy : New companies are creating services using government data on health care, education, and more. (Alexander B. Howard, Sept. 10, 2012, Slate)

[O]pen data and application programming interfaces, more commonly known as APIs, increasingly look like fundamental infrastructure for digital government in the 21st century.
There's good reason to think that open data could have an overall effect on the economy akin to open source and small business. Gartner, the IT research analysis firm, recently highlighted how open data creates value in the public and private sector.

You may not realize it, but services you use on a daily basis have been built upon data released by the government. Weather data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association has an annual estimated economic value of $10 billion, according to U.S. Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park. NOAA data sets are used by, Weather Underground, and the Weather Channel--and the nation's farmers consult these forecasts to manage both their crops and the risks of loss. VanRoekel and Park estimate the annual economic value of the data from the U.S. global positioning system at some $90 billion. From companies like TomTom or Garmin to dashboard GPS systems to smartphones and associated location-based applications, GPS data sets are baked into an expanding number of services and products.

Now, as Park seeks to scale open data across the federal government, we're on the verge of the next generation of services driven by open data, which will involve everything from energy to health care to consumer finance to transit sectors. The challenge is that the cities and federal agencies that hold vast amounts of data may not always understand the value of the information they hold or how to create or sustain businesses using it. That's where open innovation in the public sector and the dynamism of entrepreneurs will play an important role in making the people's data more useful to the people.

BrightScope is a notable example of what dogged persistence can create. The California startup made a profitable business using government data to help the American people understand the fees associated with their 401(k)s. Last May, BrightScope went further, launching financial adviser pages based on open government data from the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, the largest independent securities regulator in the United States. Previously, financial adviser profiles could only be found through exact queries at an obscure URL on the regulators' websites. Now, information that citizens care about--the records of financial advisers in their geographic region--is available where they're looking for it: in search engine results.

Just as labor and regulatory data fuels BrightScope's business, there's an expanding number of startups that are tapping into other data released so-called "smart disclosure" initiatives. Smart disclosure is when a private company or government agency provides a person with periodic access to his or her own data in open formats that enable them to easily put the information to use. Startups like and Hello Wallet are already using a combination of private sector and public sector data to enhance consumer finance decisions. The success of such consumer finance startups suggests an important lesson: The most successful apps and services will combine government, industry, and user-generated data.

The key open data story to watch in the federal government, however, centers on health care. McKinsey and Associates estimates the annual economic value of big, open liquid health data at about $350 billion annually. The explosion of mHealth apps are just the beginning of the disruption in health care from open health data. The effort to revolutionize the health care industry by making health data as useful as weather data is still in its infancy--but the early results are promising. iTriage, which was acquired by Aetna, is enabling people to make better mobile health care decisions where and when they need to do so. It uses a combination of government and private sector data to evaluable symptoms or conditions and point users to nearby medical care. Another startup, Castlight, is analyzing health care data to empower patients, acting like for those who want more transparency about costs. In May, Castlight completed a $100 million round of financing. how a democratic government can justify keeping any data closed.

Posted by orrinj at 7:41 AM


How not to manage a boom : Neither presidential candidate has the vision now required in energy policy (Lexington, Aug 11th 2012, The Economist)

[P]olicy has been crucial to the revival of America's energy industry. But the sorts of policies that matter most are so basic that they would never seem weighty or visionary enough to grace a political platform. First and foremost, the boom depends on a free, liquid, competitive market in gas, underpinned by an extensive and well-regulated pipeline network. A relatively mild system of royalties and taxes makes drilling lucrative, and a relatively permissive bureaucracy allows it to happen. Thanks to its particular mix of policy and culture, America has the engineers to dream up and perfect the necessary technology and the investors to fund their work. These are rarer qualities than one might imagine; at any rate, no other country has seen its shale gas exploited so vigorously, though many have equally promising geology. [...]

The lesson of the shale gas boom, after all, is not that government should forswear any part in shaping the energy mix, but rather that innovation and entrepreneurship can yield dramatic results in a short time if the right incentives are in place. That should provide great encouragement to those, like Mr Obama, who worry about climate change--as long as they are willing to embrace market forces.

Posted by orrinj at 7:33 AM


A Philosopher Defends Religion : Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism by Alvin Plantinga (Thomas Nagel, 9/27/12, NY Review of Books)

One of the things atheists tend to believe is that modern science is on their side, whereas theism is in conflict with science: that, for example, belief in miracles is inconsistent with the scientific conception of natural law; faith as a basis of belief is inconsistent with the scientific conception of knowledge; belief that God created man in his own image is inconsistent with scientific explanations provided by the theory of evolution. In his absorbing new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, Alvin Plantinga, a distinguished analytic philosopher known for his contributions to metaphysics and theory of knowledge as well as to the philosophy of religion, turns this alleged opposition on its head. His overall claim is that "there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism." By naturalism he means the view that the world describable by the natural sciences is all that exists, and that there is no such person as God, or anything like God.

Plantinga's religion is the real thing, not just an intellectual deism that gives God nothing to do in the world. He himself is an evangelical Protestant, but he conducts his argument with respect to a version of Christianity that is the "rough intersection of the great Christian creeds"--ranging from the Apostle's Creed to the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles--according to which God is a person who not only created and maintains the universe and its laws, but also intervenes specially in the world, with the miracles related in the Bible and in other ways. It is of great interest to be presented with a lucid and sophisticated account of how someone who holds these beliefs understands them to harmonize with and indeed to provide crucial support for the methods and results of the natural sciences.

Plantinga discusses many topics in the course of the book, but his most important claims are epistemological. He holds, first, that the theistic conception of the relation between God, the natural world, and ourselves makes it reasonable for us to regard our perceptual and rational faculties as reliable. It is therefore reasonable to believe that the scientific theories they allow us to create do describe reality. He holds, second, that the naturalistic conception of the world, and of ourselves as products of unguided Darwinian evolution, makes it unreasonable for us to believe that our cognitive faculties are reliable, and therefore unreasonable to believe any theories they may lead us to form, including the theory of evolution. In other words, belief in naturalism combined with belief in evolution is self-defeating. However, Plantinga thinks we can reasonably believe that we are the products of evolution provided that we also believe, contrary to naturalism, that the process was in some way guided by God.

If Thomas Nagel, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and David Hume can't demonstrate that Reason is self-sufficient, but can get on with their lives on the basis of Faith, mightn't we all?

Posted by orrinj at 7:16 AM


So you want to be an artist ... (Simon Kuper, 9/07/12, Financial Times)

The fantasy of yourself as an artist works best as a fantasy. It provides a pleasing back-story to tell yourself and others. On paper you might be an accountant, but your authentic self is Emily Brontë. That's fine until you try to live the fantasy. I knew a girl who as a child wrote lovely poems. Writing was her vocation. In adulthood, she didn't just talk about writing a novel, she actually wrote one. It even got published. And the critics panned it. She won't ever publish another. Her fantasy is shattered. That fear, almost as much as Connolly's famous "pram in the hall", is what stops most hacks from leaping.

Staying put saves them lots of unhappiness. The hack's life is fairly easy. Your work just has to be good enough. You don't have to put your soul into it and aim for perfection. You know how to do the job, you hand it in and they pay you. I know a film director who made commercials. Occasionally, he talked to film executives about making a movie, but he said he'd only do it if they gave him total creative control. Of course, they never did. So he kept making commercials, got rich, grew old and never found out whether he could make a good movie. He even posed as an artist who refused to sell out to Hollywood. It's a good life. Art is harder.

In any case, it may turn out one day that you weren't a hack at all. Arthur Conan Doyle thought his Sherlock Holmes stories were dreadful hackery. Yearning to devote himself to "better things", he even killed Holmes off at the Reichenbach Falls. Now we know that Holmes was his greatest creation. The stories weren't hack work at all, just as Georges Simenon and Alfred Hitchcock weren't hacks.

In short, if you are a hack thinking you were made for higher things, you are probably wrong. Don't give up the day job. Perhaps your authentic self is the accountant.

Posted by orrinj at 6:13 AM


The trouble with atheists: a defence of faith : Francis Spufford has heard all the arguments against Christianity. He understands the objections of Dawkins and Hitchens and he realises it's a guess as to whether there's a God or not. But here he offers a defence of his faith (Francis Spufford, 8/31/12,

No: the really painful message our daughter will receive is that we're embarrassing. For most people who aren't New Atheists, or old atheists, and have no passion invested in the subject, either negative or positive, believers aren't weird because we're wicked. We're weird because we're inexplicable; because, when there's no necessity for it that anyone sensible can see, we've committed ourselves to a set of awkward and absurd attitudes that obtrude, that stick out against the background of modern life, and not in some important or respectworthy or principled way, either. Believers are people who try to insert Jee-zus into conversations at parties; who put themselves down, with writhings of unease, for perfectly normal human behaviour; who are constantly trying to create a solemn hush that invites a fart, a hiccup, a bit of subversion. Believers are people who, on the rare occasions when you have to listen to them, like at a funeral or a wedding, seize the opportunity to pour the liquidised content of a primary-school nativity play into your earhole, apparently not noticing that childhood is over. And as well as being childish, and abject, and solemn, and awkward, we voluntarily associate ourselves with an old-fashioned, mildewed orthodoxy, an Authority with all its authority gone. Nothing is so sad - sad from the style point of view - as the mainstream taste of the day before yesterday.

What goes on inside believers is mysterious. So far as it can be guessed at it appears to be a kind of anxious pretending, a kind of continual, nervous resistance to reality. We don't seem to get it that the magic in Harry Potter, the rings and swords and elves in fantasy novels, the power-ups in video games, the ghouls and ghosts of Halloween, are all, like, just for fun. We try to take them seriously; or rather, we take our own particular subsection of them seriously. We commit the bizarre category error of claiming that our goblins, ghouls, Flying Spaghetti Monsters are really there, off the page and away from the CGI rendering programs. Star Trek fans and vampire wanabes have nothing on us. We actually get down and worship. We get down on our actual knees, bowing and scraping in front of the empty space where we insist our Spaghetti Monster can be found. No wonder that we work so hard to fend off common sense. Our fingers must be in our ears all the time - la la la, I can't hear you - just to keep out the sound of the real world.

The funny thing is that, to me, it's belief that involves the most uncompromising attention to the nature of things of which you are capable. Belief demands that you dispense with illusion after illusion, while contemporary common sense requires continual, fluffy pretending - pretending that might as well be systematic, it's so thoroughly incentivised by our culture. Take the well-known slogan on the atheist bus in London. I know, I know, that's an utterance by the hardcore hobbyists of unbelief, but in this particular case they're pretty much stating the ordinary wisdom of everyday disbelief. The atheist bus says: "There's probably no God. So stop worrying and enjoy your life." All right: which word here is the questionable one, the aggressive one, the one that parts company with recognisable human experience so fast it doesn't even have time to wave goodbye? It isn't "probably". New Atheists aren't claiming anything outrageous when they say that there probably isn't a God. In fact they aren't claiming anything substantial at all, because, really, how would they know? It's as much of a guess for them as it is for me. No, the word that offends against realism here is "enjoy". I'm sorry - enjoy your life? I'm not making some kind of neo-puritan objection to enjoyment. Enjoyment is lovely. Enjoyment is great. The more enjoyment the better. But enjoyment is one emotion. To say that life is to be enjoyed (just enjoyed) is like saying that mountains should only have summits, or that all colours should be purple, or that all plays should be by Shakespeare. This really is a bizarre category error.

But not necessarily an innocent one. Not necessarily a piece of fluffy pretending that does no harm. The implication of the bus slogan is that enjoyment would be your natural state if you weren't being "worried" by us believers and our hellfire preaching. Take away the malignant threat of God-talk, and you would revert to continuous pleasure, under cloudless skies. What's so wrong with this, apart from it being total bollocks? Well, in the first place, that it buys a bill of goods, sight unseen, from modern marketing. Given that human life isn't and can't be made up of enjoyment, it is in effect accepting a picture of human life in which those pieces of living where easy enjoyment is more likely become the only pieces that are visible. If you based your knowledge of the human species exclusively on adverts, you'd think that the normal condition of humanity was to be a good-looking single person between 20 and 35, with excellent muscle-definition and/or an excellent figure, and a large disposable income. And you'd think the same thing if you got your information exclusively from the atheist bus, with the minor difference, in this case, that the man from the Gold Blend couple has a tiny wrinkle of concern on his handsome forehead, caused by the troublesome thought of God's possible existence: a wrinkle about to be removed by one magic application of Reason™.

These plastic beings don't need anything that they can't get by going shopping. But suppose, as the atheist bus goes by, you are povertystricken, or desperate for a job, or a drug addict, or social services have just taken away your child. The bus tells you that there's probably no God so you should stop worrying and enjoy your life, and now the slogan is not just bitterly inappropriate in mood. What it means, if it's true, is that anyone who isn't enjoying themselves is entirely on their own. What the bus says is: there's no help coming. Now don't get me wrong. I don't think there's any help coming, in one large and important sense of the term. I don't believe anything is going to happen that will materially alter the position these people find themselves in. But let's be clear about the emotional logic of the bus's message. It amounts to a denial of hope or consolation on any but the most chirpy, squeaky, bubble-gummy reading of the human situation. St Augustine called this kind of thing "cruel optimism" 1,500 years ago, and it's still cruel.