Monday, July 27, 2009

Blogging From The Obama Room

No, really. I am. It's located in a cafe that houses the Museum of Bad Art. The picture of the topless chimp masterwork above was taken with my replacement 3G-S iPhone, long live the iPhone, while getting jiggy with all its new features and toys. The old first-gen iPhone slowly expired as its touch-screen lost sensitivity, then all usability, like some poor Alzheimer's victim which would have to be painfully re-booted on every drama-filled visit: "You're here to kill me, aren't you? Agghhh!"

It's probably not above 100 degrees in the Obama Room, a torporous 91 outside. I can continue to blame a terrible bout of blogger-block on the weather, or come clean. Truth is I've been 'whelmed by the momentum of Big Events swirling in the flushes of a ridiculously petty News Cycle. Scores of posts have passed through my head, of course, but few even reached draft stage. I've been almost silent on the tumult in Iran that's playing out, on Health Care Reform (a.k.a. "Obama's Stalingrad"), and on moon-walking to the car in Michael Jackson's memory. It all seems transitory, minor when compared to The Anomaly reaching for us. If you say the sky is falling, best to explain how and why. Tricky, that.

I've dined with heads of state and have cleaned up the vomit of the developmentally disabled. I've worked for and passed through the doors of many edifices, majestic and humble, and all I've ever found anywhere is human nature. Forces ignored at peril. Maybe the pull I've been feeling is a vast, inexorable vacuum of denial between reality's arc and its PR firms and stockbrockers.

Put in Star Trek terms, Captain Obama is asking too much of Scotty's thrusters, Mr. Sulu doesn't have a frigging clue and something is about to bust. I will try to form my dread in more direct terms. Admittedly, I'm looking at a perfect reproduction of Van Gogh's "Starry Night," made out of yarn, so enjoy your day to the full.

Monday, July 20, 2009

RIAA Spokesman Declares DRM, Self Dead

Interesting. More accurately, however, DRM is undead, a deceased business model which will continue to behave as if legally alive until incinerated. The Recording Industry Association of America, the very folks who helped craft the DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act) might better have questioned the wisdom of suing senior citizens whose grandchildren copy DVDs. And going after universities? Oooom. Big No-No. The RIAA's high-water moment came in 2006, when it won a court ruling which declared all online file-sharing illegal.

iTunes may have scrapped DRM, but the heart of what constitutes digital ownership remains dark. Under the DMCA (which I was forced to read while strapped down in a Microsoft "therapy" center, metal eye-lid claws clamped firmly in place), when you buy something and download it to your machine, you do not own it. You have merely secured the rights to use it under certain conditions. Thus can Amazon brotherfully erase George Orwell's 1984 from its Kindle e-readers, without notice, redress, nor mindfulness to all that is holy and good. Surprisingly, the definitions of book ownership used to be similarly constrained before rights to loan and even re-sell were won. Via Daily Tech:

The RIAA is one of the most controversial corporate organizations in America. It has carried out a prolific lawsuit campaign against file sharers, including its record $1.92M USD judgment against Jammie Thomas-Rasset. It has also taken other less high-profile, but equally contentious positions including declaring making CD backup copies of legal bought works "stealing" and supporting Digital Rights Management (DRM), a means of trying to prevent individuals from copying digital works for backup or other purposes.

One of the staunchest supporters of DRM, RIAA chairman and CEO Mitch Bainwol once commented two years ago, "DRM serves all sorts of pro-consumer purposes."

Even last year as DRM floundered against public opposition, the RIAA held hopes for a comeback. However, it now appears the RIAA has forsaken DRM, the tool it once held dear. In an interview for an upcoming SCMagazine article, Jonathan Lamy, chief spokesperson for the RIAA comments, "DRM is dead, isn’t it?"

With iTunes going DRM free, DRM indeed seems set to go the way of the dinosaur. However, a few commercial entities like Electronic Arts continue to cling to DRM implementations like the controversial SecureROM for their brick-and-mortar sales. Even EA, though, has removed SecureROM from copies of its game Spore sold on Valve's Steam download service.

In the end, DRM struck the public as simply too anti-consumer -- you already bought the content, so why shouldn't you be free to use or copy it? Malware-like implementations also did not help DRM proponent's case, nor did the fact that the protections were easily defeated -- as evidenced by Spore being the most pirated game in history. Now it appears the end is at last near for the scheme as its last advocates forsake it.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Quiet Coup

From 1973 to 1985, the financial sector never earned more than 16 percent of domestic corporate profits. In 1986, that figure reached 19 percent.

In the 1990s, it oscillated between 21 percent and 30 percent, higher than it had ever been in the postwar period. This decade, it reached 41 percent, and finance became the United States' largest industry.

Pay rose just as dramatically. From 1948 to 1982, average compensation in the financial sector ranged between 99 percent and 108 percent of the average for all domestic private industries. From 1983, it shot upward, reaching 181 percent in 2007.

Banks won't be healthy until they write down bad assets, recognize their insolvency and become nationalized. They would start making loans again, and after stabilizing, they'd be broken up into regional entities and spun back into the private sector.

That's what the IMF would have them do, but none of that is happening. Because what's good for Goldman Sachs is good for the country.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Obama's War

I had hoped Obama wasn't actually serious about nation-building in Afghanistan, that stony place, because it could serve as a useful diversion for filtering troops out of Iraq, for declaring quick victory, and then bouncing them home. A hemi-surge, if you will, a ready means to cut losses. But all signs indicate he is set to take his babblings about moral obligations seriously, eating foreign policy lotus blossoms in a temple by a bubbling fountain, burning incense while chanting over a copy of the Wall Street Journal. In short, this is the stuff epic disasters are made of, and if his pronouncements are not pure and brilliant sophistries, the war in Afghanistan is already lost. Via his mouth, our stated aims are to:
promote a more capable and accountable Afghan government . . . advance security, opportunity and justice . . . develop an economy that isn’t dominated by illicit drugs.
None of that is going to happen. Those goals are "off the table," Vietnamistan-style, so it's time for us to "move on." Obama can't wave a Hopey Wand and achieve any of those objectives, and in a world where states like Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Niger, Georgia, Lebanon and Alaska are vulnerable to al-Qaeda and unsafe for Wal-marts, it should not take a genius to realize one screamingly obvious fact:


Rather, it is a vacuum the US has amply filled after sponsoring both sides in the current conflict. Past proxies are fighting our new proxies. That may be confusing, but it means we have no excuse for getting paranoid-schizo over control, as all within its borders know. Rory Stewart, the modern Lawrence of Arabia for Iraq and Afghanistan, has written a devastating critique of Western policy re: those parts in the London Review of Books, titled 'The Irresistible Illusion.' His advice is to scale back objectives, combat troops, and to emphasize development. He donned hip-waders for examining the official BS, and came back to translate realistic, lower-cost prescriptions into ambassadorial language:
...the presence of NATO special forces, the challenging logistical and political conditions in Afghanistan and lack of technological capacity, are likely to impede al-Qaida in Afghanistan from posing a significant threat to UK or US national security. Instead development in South Asia should remain the key strategic priority for the UK government in the region.
Custer should not have attacked at Little Big Horn, and he would've gotten much further by focusing on the dwindling buffalo herds.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Can't We Seize Resources Right Anymore?

(Snark Tag is "On.") There was a time when a US President could call the ambassador of a country on the carpet and say, "%^&@ your democracy, %^&@ your country, and %^&@ you. You're nuthin' but a fly on an elephant's ass." (Quotes are from Lyndon Johnson's chastising of Greece's ambassador, circa 1968, before sponsoring a coup to depose that country's elected Prime Minister over a perceived slight.)

How times have changed. Even after invading Iraq and Afghanistan with our energy reserves firmly in mind, after Cheney's energy task force divvied up the fields beforehand, and after the BushCo Administration openly stated that the new oil fields would pay for the war, we apparently can't even grant our companies pillage rights to one measly little subjugated hell-hole. Maybe it's their hell-hole now that we've withdrawn combat troops, but it's still sitting over a whole bunch of our oil, and we can still bomb the ingrates back into the camel age. What's going on here?

We might be seeing the next stirrings of a free and independent Iraq, and that would be a complete disaster. Saddam himself would've been easier to deal with, and as anyone knows, "free and independent" is just high and mighty wonk-talk for "pain in the ass." Here is how they are resisting sucking up their only valuable commodity:
Only one of the bidders for the eight contracts to run oil and gas fields in Iraq has accepted oil ministry terms.

Six oil fields and two gas fields were available in a televised auction that was the first big oil tender in Iraq since the invasion of 2003.

Iraq has asked the rest of the companies to consider resubmitting bids for the other seven contracts.
In short, Iraq is setting a cap on how much money each oil contract can make, an unexpected wrinkle oil companies don't find very sporting. Oh, they can still make nice money, honest profits, and could treat the fields as a non-OPEC hedge pools, but that's not the point. The point is, nobody gets away with this, and the Iraqi parliament has taken all the fun out of free market oil extraction. They're offering complex government-interference contracts which unfairly limit the upside, and what self-respecting oil company wants to play that?

For this we spent trillions, killed millions, and tortured thousands? Policy Fail!! (Snark Tag "Off.")

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Researchers Describe 90-year Evolution Of Swine Flu

Note their recurring "accidental release from labs" suspicions:

June 30th, 2009 (via

The current H1N1 swine flu strain has genetic roots in an illness that sickened pigs at the 1918 Cedar Rapids Swine Show in Iowa, report infectious disease experts at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health in the New England Journal of Medicine. Their paper, published online today and slated for the July 16 print issue, describes H1N1's nearly century-long and often convoluted journey, which may include the accidental resurrection of an extinct strain.

"At the same time the 1918 flu pandemic was rapidly spreading among humans, pigs were hit with a respiratory illness that closely resembled symptoms seen in people," said senior author Donald S. Burke, M.D., dean, University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. "Early experiments confirmed that this 1918 swine virus and a human strain emerged about the same time. Since then, this ancestor virus has re-assorted genetically with other influenza strains at least four times, leading to the emergence of the new 2009 strain, which has retained some similarities to the original virus."

In the paper, Dr. Burke and lead author Shanta M. Zimmer, M.D., assistant professor, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, describe the temporary "extinction" of the H1N1 virus from humans in 1957 and its subsequent re-emergence 20 years later. They note a small 230-person outbreak of H1N1 in 1976 among soldiers in Fort Dix, New Jersey that did not extend outside the military base. Then, H1N1 influenza re-emerged in 1977 among people in the former Soviet Union, Hong Kong and northeastern China. Careful study of the genetic origin of the 1977 strain showed that it was not the Fort Dix strain, but, surprisingly, was related closely to a 1950 human strain. Given the genetic similarity of these strains, re-emergence was likely due to an accidental release during laboratory studies of the 1950 strain that had been preserved as a 'freezer' virus, they said.

The authors hypothesize that concerns about the Fort Dix outbreak stimulated a flurry of research on H1N1 viruses in 1976, which led to an accidental release and re-emergence of the previously extinct virus a year later. The re-emerged 1977 H1N1 strain has continued to circulate among humans as seasonal flu for the past 32 years. Although originally traced to Mexico, the exact physical origins of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic virus are unknown. Because the current strain shares common ancestry with older flu strains, it is possible that portions of the population may have partial immunity to the new pandemic virus.

The authors also go on to explain that the danger posed by a virus isn't based solely on its lethality, but also on its transmissibility, which is the ability to jump from animals to humans and to survive by mutating to adapt to its new human host. H1N1 influenza viruses have demonstrated this ability throughout their history. "Studying the history of emergence and evolution of flu viruses doesn't provide us with a blueprint for the future, but it does reveal general patterns, and this kind of information is critical if we are to be as prepared as possible," said Dr. Burke.