can’t see the forest

A Nail on the Head

Posted in economy, political opinion, U.S. News, USA by Curtis on 3/19/09

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In a CBC News article from this time last year, University of Maryland economist Pete Morici perhaps unwittingly summarized (and prophesied) America’s economic woes with great honesty and simplicity:

Living within your means would seem to be a universal wisdom. Not here.

If we do that,” says Pete Morici, an outspoken professor of economics at the University of Maryland, “if we pay off our bills, we’re going to consume much less than we produce. When that happens, the global economy will go into a severe recession.”

Nobody wants that.

Still, if Americans had more collective fiscal sense, they would look at their aggregate consumer debt — $2.5 trillion, not including mortgages — and they would hold their credit cards over candles. They would get rid of the expensive behemoths parked in the driveway and enter into a long, sober, luxury-free period of financial detox.

They would then tell their government to stop borrowing unimaginable sums from Chinese and Middle East investors. They would try to live in their houses and enjoy them for a few years, instead of treating them like financial milking machines.

But none of this is likely to happen, thank goodness. Because Americans are addicted to the opium of leverage. They love to buy, usually without much down payment or any down payment at all and then, as a market frenzy inflates the value of the thing they have bought to nosebleed levels, siphon off the artificial wealth and spend it anew.

Bingo–Jackpot!

Posted in Alabama, Alabama news, Crime, gambling, Lifestyle, News, police, Politics, U.S. News by Curtis on 3/19/09

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slot-machine

From our Local Interest Department:

In White Hall, Alabama—a rural community near Montgomery in which about one third of folks live below the poverty line–a state task force raided a bingo hall before dawn on Thursday, seizing more than 200 alleged illegal slot machines and “a large amount of cash.”

From the Associated Press via al.com:

A spokesman for Gov. Bob Riley says the Governor’s Task Force on Illegal Gambling organized the pre-dawn raid Thursday and are seizing machines suspected of being illegal slot machines.

No charges were immediately filed.

Collins Pettaway, an attorney for the charity that operates the bingo hall, says the machines are all legal and he is trying to get an injunction to block the seizure.

Whitehall resident Doris Gresham says she was in the gaming center when state troopers arrived about 5 a.m.

The bingo hall is located on U.S. 80 about 20 miles west of Montgomery.

The thought occurs to me that if the great state of Alabama could just let good folks like Doris yank the lever in peace, perhaps my state university wouldn’t be turning off the air conditioning in shifts and considering a hiring freeze, the roads around here might get serviced regularly and in reasonable time, and maybe the police could divert their valuable resources to fighting some real crime.

Just possibly.

Gushing Irony

Posted in energy, Environment, Istanbul, News, police, Turkey, water crisis, World News by Curtis on 3/19/09

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On Monday, police in Istanbul dispersed a band of protesters at an international forum on water shortage—by blasting them with water cannons.

The meetings involved policymakers, scientists, and activists from more than 120 countries.

Reuters reports:

Turkish police, who on Monday fired water canons and tear gas to disperse protesters gathered at the start of the forum, told state-run Anatolian they prefer to use water because it is cheaper than tear gas.

Police officials said they normally use 13 to 14 tonnes (13-14 cubic metres) of water to disperse a crowd at a cost of 400 lira ($235). In similar circumstances, police have to use around 500 teargas bombs at a cost of 12,500 lira ($7,350), they said.

water-cannon

This is what a water cannon looks like.

Beautiful Horizon, where hunger is on its way out

Posted in activism, Brazil, Humanitarian Crisis, Latin America, News, world hunger by Curtis on 3/19/09

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People who know me are aware of my reverence for Brazilian music—from the primal, unfettered samba, to the forward-looking, nationalistic compositions of Heitor Villa-Lobos, to the smooth bossa nova of Gilberto and Jobim. But recently, an even sweeter sound has emerged from South America’s largest and most populous nation: the whoosh of hunger rapidly receding into the past, at least in the city of Belo Horizonte.

belo-horizonteBrazil’s third (or fourth) largest city, with a total metropolitan population of about 6 million, is the capital of Minas Gerais state in the country’s densely populated southeast. Portuguese for ‘beautiful horizon,’ Belo Horizonte rose quickly through the 20th Century to become one of Latin America’s major urban centers. The city hosts a wealth of industry and is currently the Latin American headquarters for Google. But in Brazil, a land of stark contrasts between affluence and poverty, many were left behind in the boom.

In 1993, Belo Horizonte enacted a policy of “food as a citizen’s right.” Working to creatively balance the interests of local farmers and consumers, the city administration brought family farmers into prime vending locations throughout town, where they could sell their products to the appreciative impoverished for well under market price. This move saw many farmers dramatically increase their livelihood against the broader national decline in agricultural revenues. The city also opened three large “People’s Restaurants” and a number of smaller eateries where homegrown food vendors could sell their wares to the public for something like 50 cents a meal.

Writing at CommonDreams.org, Frances Moore Lappé says:

What does a democracy look like that enables citizens to have a real voice in securing life’s essentials? Does it exist anywhere? Is it possible or a pipe dream? With hunger on the rise here in the United States-one in 10 of us is now turning to food stamps-these questions take on new urgency.

To begin to conceive of the possibility of a culture of empowered citizens making democracy work for them, real-life stories help-not models to adopt wholesale, but examples that capture key lessons. For me, the story of Brazil’s fourth largest city, Belo Horizonte, is a rich trove of such lessons. Belo, a city of 2.5 million people, once had 11 percent of its population living in absolute poverty, and almost 20 percent of its children going hungry. Then in 1993, a newly elected administration declared food a right of citizenship. The officials said, in effect: If you are too poor to buy food in the market-you are no less a citizen. I am still accountable to you.

Lappé goes on to remind us that, while the tenets of capitalism may render such concepts strange to our ears, food sharing is actually one of the fundamental social innovations which provided a competitive edge to the human species. When people can work together to solve large problems to the mutual benefit of all involved, we see the human spirit at its finest. Belo Horizonte has lived up to her name in more than one way.

The ‘Thirsty ’30s?’

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Speaking to the United Kingdom’s 2009 Sustainable Development conference, top government scientist John Beddington projects that by 2030 the world as a whole will face critical shortages in food, water, and energy beyond anything yet experienced on a large scale.

According to Professor Beddington, the world of 2030 will be populated by about 8.3 billion people. Demand for food and energy will have increased by 50%, and fresh water demand will have jumped up 30%.

BBC News reports:

Prof Beddington said the concern now – when prices have dropped once again – was that the issues would slip back down the domestic and international agenda.

“We can’t afford to be complacent. Just because the high prices have dropped doesn’t mean we can relax,” he said.

Improving agricultural productivity globally was one way to tackle the problem, he added.

At present, 30-40% of all crops are lost due to pest and disease before they are harvested.

Professor Beddington said: “We have to address that. We need more disease-resistant and pest-resistant plants and better practices, better harvesting procedures.

“Genetically-modified food could also be part of the solution. We need plants that are resistant to drought and salinity – a mixture of genetic modification and conventional plant breeding.

Better water storage and cleaner energy supplies are also essential, he added.

Prof Beddington is chairing a subgroup of a new Cabinet Office task force set up to tackle food security.

While unstable geopolitics, environmental issues such as climate change and pollution, and financial mayhem all clamor for the attention of today’s busy technocrat, some scientists point out that this simple, potent mixture of rising demand for resources and an aggressively booming population is perhaps the biggest problem our global society has currently to address.

Glenn Beck, the “912 Project,” and US Human Rights Abuses since 9/11

Posted in 9/11, conservative, FoxNews, Glenn Beck, human rights, media, News, Politics, Propaganda, USA by Curtis on 3/18/09

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To those in the U.S. and elsewhere who have remained blissfully unaware of just how retarded certain segments of the American mainstream media have become in recent years, I proudly and yet regrettably present FOX News commentator Glenn Beck and his “912 Project.”

Beck’s power base is his nationally syndicated radio show, The Glenn Beck Program. He was also aired on CNN/Headline News between May 2006 and October 2008, billed as “an unconventional look at the news of the day,” to say the least. But Beck has risen to greater prominence through his prime-time FOX News program, which began airing in January, pretty much concurrently with the beginning of the Obama presidency. It is only from this new soapbox that Beck has begun pulling out all the stops. The headlining guests on Beck’s first FOX show were Karl Rove and Sarah Palin, for starters.

Glenn Beck describes himself as a recovering alcoholic, a man whose early life was liberally peppered with tragedies in the family. Beck says, essentially, that God “stalked” him and forced him to reform. For overcoming personal tragedy and hardship, I heartily salute and warmly empathize with Mr. Beck; but it seems apparent that this recovery has come at a considerable . . . err . . . mental cost. Here’s a small sample of his polemics:

Beck, who once asked America’s first Muslim congressman, on air, to prove that he wasn’t working for “America’s enemies,” who uses his platform to “crush” atheists and to debunk anthropogenic climate change as some sort of leftist hoax, and whose commentary most generally consists of tearful, emotionally charged laments on the deplorable state of American society—though probably not in the sense you or I would mean—is launching “The 912 Project.” We’ll let Beck speak for himself on this one. Here’s an excerpt from the project’s mission statement as displayed on theglennbeck912project.com:

This website is a place for you and other like-minded Americans looking for direction in taking back the control of our country. It is also a place to find information that will assist you in navigating the rough waters we face in the days, weeks and months ahead. . .

. . .This is a non-political movement. The 9-12 Project is designed to bring us all back to the place we were on September 12, 2001. The day after America was attacked we were not obsessed with Red States, Blue States or political parties. We were united as Americans, standing together to protect the greatest nation ever created.

That same feeling – that commitment to country is what we are hoping to foster with this idea. We want to get everyone thinking like it is September 12th, 2001 again.

Glenn Beck is proud to invoke a state of tightly unified, pseudo-patriotic ecstasy in the U.S., as long as it operates according to the “9 Principles” (including “I believe in God and He is the center of my life,” and “Government cannot force me to be charitable”) and “12 values” (such as “reverence,” “thrift,” and “gratitude”) of his project. Which is to say, as long as everyone wholeheartedly agrees with Glenn Beck.

But, wait a minute. The United States on September 12, 2001 was a nation in the grip of fear, hysteria, and uncertainty. The things which brought the country together during that time were compassion for the bereaved (good) and lust for revenge on the perpetrators (bad). Aren’t most of us taught as children that decisions made in confusion and anger tend to be . . . well . . . bad decisions? And isn’t an appeal to return to “9/12” at least in some sense a roundabout way of asking for another “9/11”?

Of course it is! Beck appeals to a certain segment of the conservative populace in the U.S., one which is undereducated, underinformed, and overzealous with respect to issues they don’t really even grasp. Such people can only operate meaningfully when there is a common enemy into which they can channel their frustrations, some of which are legitimate until they are so sorely mishandled.

Joanne Mariner, via Counterpunch, gives a full and insightful survey of human rights violations committed by the U.S. beginning on September 12. Is this the America to which Beck wishes to return?

Since September 2001, the U.S. government has been directly responsible for a broad array of serious human rights violations in fighting terrorism, including torture, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, and unfair trials. In many instances, US abuses were carried out in collaboration other governments.

To cite one example—albeit a particularly notable one—Pakistan’s intelligence agencies worked closely with the CIA to “disappear” terrorist suspects, hold them in secret detention, and subject them to torture and other abuses.

With Barack Obama’s term as U.S. president, the U.S. approach to fighting terrorism has changed. The scope of the Obama administration’s reforms is not yet clear, but it is obvious that the new administration wants to rethink many of the policies that were instituted over the past eight years.

This change in the U.S. approach is long overdue. What is called for, however, is not only for the United States to reform its own abusive policies, but also for U.S. officials to try to counteract the negative influence of past policies worldwide. As a brief review of US counterterrorism efforts will suggest, the human rights impact of the US-led “war on terror” has been felt across the globe.

There is great cause to be anxious and even outraged in the realm of current events. Why does the United States support rogue states such as Israel and befriend human rights behemoths like Saudi Arabia, while making bellicose overtures to Iran for brandishing its own rhetoric and pursuing a peaceful nuclear energy program? Why does it stand idly by through the Ossetias and Darfurs of the world, while plunging hundreds of billions of dollars and countless lives into Iraq and Afghanistan? But the moment we stop thinking critically, asking and researching questions, and start vegging out in front of the TV with twinkies and soda, we enter the fruitless province of Beckistan. Within those too clearly-defined borders, the important things to be concerned about are illegal immigrants, God in the classroom, and the Satanic bane of homosexuality.

Even Shephard Smith, FOX News anchor and veritable conservative posterboy, found time to ridicule Project 912:

Horowitz plays Schubert

Posted in Classical Music, Horowitz, Music Videos, Piano, Schubert by Curtis on 3/17/09

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The eight Impromptus (Op. 90 & 142, D. 899 & 935) of Franz Schubert represent the finest in early-Romantic character pieces for the piano. They are elegantly crafted, diverse in mood and expression, and they showcase Schubert’s unique sensitivity as a melodist. The title suggests music of an improvisatory character, and there are great moments of spontaneity, but the pieces are carefully structured and balanced.

From YouTube, Vladimir Horowitz (1903-89) here performs the Impromptu in G-flat major (Op. 90, No. 3). The video is a little out of synch with the audio, but it’s well worth the listen.

Horowitz could play the thunderous virtuoso very well. The depth of his artistry is even more apparent in intimate, lyrical music such as this. The command of tone color and the crystal clarity of the texture even at a pianissimo evidence amazing technical control. Horowitz’s imaginative and perfectly executed phrasing and shading–in which, at times, each note of the melody seems to simply melt into the next–identify him as one of the last of the great romantic pianists from the old tradition. The ability to sculpt melodies and harmonies in this sonically delicate but emotionally powerful fashion is a lifelong pursuit for many pianists.

If it’s THAT broke, don’t fix it

Posted in economy, human rights, money, US by Curtis on 3/17/09

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The signs of recession are everywhere. At university, there is talk of combining classes and even of laying off untenured instructors. Air conditioning in the school buildings gets cut off at night and on weekends. Tuition rates are rising faster than usual. My drive from home to school is peppered with newly built strip malls, which are mostly vacant. Some families I know that were already living on the edge are not sure how they’ll make it through the year. Job loss is up, and new home sales are down.

I think by now everyone is familiar with the theme and variations which have been presented to explain the economic ‘crisis.’ These explanations sound, to my ear, a bit more complicated than necessary. Is it the fault of starry-eyed first-time homeowners looking to begin their lives fresh out of college with the kind of spacious, effulgent lifestyle mom and dad worked 25 years to attain, or is it the fault of the beady-eyed lenders who agreed to finance them? Are the big banks to blame for using questionable mortgage securities as a profit scheme, or is the government responsible for allowing that investment paradigm to blossom unhindered?

These rhetorical questions dance around complex issues, but in and of themselves, I’m afraid their answers don’t speak to the central problems in the modern economy, which are systemic rather than specific, ideological rather than individual. There are lessons to be learned by inquiring into what went wrong where, but time marches on, and it seems to me that we ought to focus on things we can fix in the future, going forward.

For one, free market, capitalist economies require perpetual growth in order to remain stable. This means, above all, a growth in consumption; people are immersed in an environment in which products are seen as the answers to their problems, and when there are no more problems, new ones are created. This is a favorite strategy of tech gadgeteers and big pharmaceuticals. Yes, it’s funny how medical diagnoses like Restless Leg Syndrome or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder seem to enter into parlance at about the same time as the drugs which treat them. You might as well not even own a cell phone if it can’t spit out the latest baseball scores or play your favorite MP3s at the touch of a button. Advertising and marketing people are, regrettably, something like the shamans of our shiny new civilization. The way to drive the economy forward is through ever-increasing consumption, even when it outstrips expendable income. The condition of being broke, after all, is merely the stepladder to a whole new level of product promotion and consumption: the product of credit.

Economies like ours also require continual growth in the pool of available resources, and continual shrinkage in pesky overhead costs, such as labor (with the recent trend being to divert a lot of those costs to marketing). This is why we have long, explosive, bloody, multi-trillion-dollar wars in places like Iraq, why we support states like Israel and Saudi Arabia while decrying the human rights records of states like Iran, why Nike runs massive production facilities in Indonesia in which the costs of grossly underpaid labor operations are calculated down to fractions of a second, and why veritable crises in humanitarian wastelands like Darfur or Palestine aren’t very interesting to policymakers.

The new U.S. administration’s solutions to the problem have mostly entailed government spending: hundreds of billions of dollars to wealthy corporations just to keep them afloat for another quarter, mortgage relief to beleagured homeowners, and the creation or beefing-up of social programs, some of which are sorely needed. But one wonders what kind of band-aid such policies represent, and how long it can hold together. Talk of increased regulation is interesting and welcome, but what about a more fundamental discussion of what is being regulated, and why? I was taught that a state in which the government enters into a limited, supposedly need-based fiscal partnership with large-scale industry is practicing fascism. I guess that’s not the case when we do it.

Maybe it’s time that we began thinking of a healthy economy not as one which continually grows and deepens of its own accord (“It’s alive! It’s aliiiiiiive!”), but as one which maintains a healthy equilibrium with nature and promotes well-being and security across society, not just to the top-earning 1 percent or so. Let’s develop tenably altruistic concepts like microcredit and equitable distribution of resources. Perhaps accounting curricula need to be rewritten . . . maybe the numbers we’re tracking aren’t the right ones.

In any case, it’s easy to lust for quick fixes and immediate relief when we’re living with the reality of economic recession. But think of the hundreds of millions of people in the world who are hungry, thirsty, and ridden with disease. For them, there are no quick fixes and there is no way forward. How many meals or vaccines would an iPod or a Blackberry be worth to one of those individuals? The way we conduct our state and our economy are, in many senses, directly responsible for the plight of the world’s less fortunate, and they outnumber us perhaps 5 to 1, speaking optimistically. So is this economy worth fixing?

Israel Declares ‘Ceasefire’

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Citing that its objectives “and more” have been met over the course of its three-week offensive in Gaza, Israel has declared an end to military action in the Gaza strip which is currently thought to have claimed more than 1,000 Palestinian lives in addition to a much smaller number of Israeli casualties.

The BBC reports:

The Israeli prime minister’s announcement came in a televised address following a late-night cabinet meeting.

Israel’s “goals have been achieved, and even more”, Mr Olmert said, with Hamas badly damaged both militarily and in terms of infrastructure.

But the success of the ceasefire depended on Hamas, he said. If militant rocket fire into Israel continued, Israel would return to force, he said.

How Hamas responds remains to be seen.

The group says any ceasefire must involve Israeli troops withdrawing from Gaza and an immediate lifting of the Israeli blockade.

It has been widely speculated that Israel would halt its incursion before the inauguration of a new U.S. President, since it is roundly understood—and of course denied by the Israeli government—that the support of the White House is a crucial factor in such actions. And Israeli officials know all too well that, regardless of whether or not their stated objectives have been achieved, the appeal of Hamas as a retaliatory vehicle for disenfranchised, ravaged Palestinians has been no more than temporarily shaken and, on the long term, probably vastly deepened. In light of that basic reality, one must ask what the real objectives of the assault have been. It is likely that they had little if anything to do with sporadic rocket fire and much more to do with inflicting the maximum amount of pain and suffering while the time was ripe.

Rockets from the North

Posted in Gaza, Israel, Lebanon, middle east, Palestine, World News by Curtis on 1/8/09

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katyushaReports are surfacing that Katyusha rockets fired from within Lebanon  landed in the Israeli town of Nahariya early on Thursday morning, injuring at least one Israeli. Though no group has yet taken responsibility for the attacks, the Israeli Defence Forces have countered by firing artillery shells over the Lebanese border.

Al-jazeera reports:

Micky Rosenfeld, an Israeli police spokesman, said the Katyusha rockets fell around the town of Nahariya, about 8km south of the Lebanese border, early on Thursday.

The Israeli military fired mortars into southern Lebanon in response to the missile barrage.

Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin, reporting from Beirut, said there had been no immediate claim of responsibility, but Lebanese security forces were confirming that “one or two rockets” had been fired across the border.

At least one Israeli was slightly injured in the attacks, media reports said.

Jacky Rowland, Al Jazeera’s correspondent southern Israel, said analysts were suggesting that the rocket attack could have been carried out by Palestinians in southern Lebanon.

She said the firing of rockets from Lebanon “could mean the opening of a second front” in the war on Gaza.

The Israeli military has been on alert in the north since it intensified the Gaza offensive, which it says is aimed at stopping rocket and mortar attacks by Palestinian fighters in the Gaza Strip.

And, according to the BBC:

No group has claimed responsibility for the latest attacks.

But it came a day after the leader of militant group Hezbollah, a strong ally of Hamas, spoke openly about the possibility of a renewed conflict with Israel.

Hassan Nasrallah said Hezbollah had already put its fighters on high alert along the Lebanese-Israeli border.

Northern Israel came under attack from rockets fired by Hezbollah during the brief war with Lebanon in the summer of 2006.

Israel said it had responded to the latest attack from inside Lebanon with a “pinpoint response at the source of fire”.

Reports from inside Lebanon said five Israeli mortar shells fell near the border inside Lebanon, but there were no injuries.

For the sake of human life, one hopes that this does not mark the opening of a whole new front in the conflict against Israeli hegemony. In its “self-defense,” Israel is not likely to show any more restraint in conflict with Lebanese groups than it has exercised in the Gaza raids which have claimed nearly 700 Palestinian lives to date. The events of 2006 doubtless yet burn fresh in the memories of the majority of Lebanese, whose farmland remains strewn with unexploded cluster bomblets of U.S. make.