Monday, January 30, 2012

Jive Talkin

     Well, he had to get up there and say something. In this particular winter of our discontent, the wispiest nostrums and baldest lies will do. America is not interested in reality. America is a nine-hundred pound man imprisoned in a fetid trailer bedroom begging for one more case of Little Debbie Cocoa Cremes before the front-end-loader bashes through the wall to haul him to intensive care. America just wants to hear another story about its own wonderfulness before that happens. America's soul is so lost that it has disappeared into the same cosmic wilderness that MF Global's client accounts were last seen entering.
     Mr. Obama keeps telling nationwide audiences that "we have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years." That is just not true. If he believes it then he is either 1) getting treasonously bad advice from dishonest advisors or 2) not reading reports issued by his own agencies or 3) just making shit up. This was the same week, by the way, when the US Department of Energy dropped its estimate for the Marcellus shale gas play by 66 percent, while the estimate for all US shale basins went down 42 percent. The shale gas industry is another Ponzi bubble that is about to founder on a scarcity of investment capital. Just watch.
     The "energy independence" trope is a lie, too. At least in the sense that Mr. Obama means - that we can run the suburban clusterfuck and all its accessories by other means than fossil fuels. He just says it because it makes voters feel better. By the time they find out it was just a story, he won't need their votes anymore. Meanwhile, we'll do nothing to prepare for a different way of life, and so, necessarily, the result will be an obscene scramble for power and resources that will leave a lot of people dead.
     The topper for me, though, was the President's cheeky announcement that he'd ordered the Department of Justice to form a "special unit" to investigate mortgage fraud and other lethal irregularities in the banking sector. The fact that his congressional audience did not bust out laughing shows what a convocation of craven and perfidious cat's paws they are. Note to readers: the DOJ has a long-established criminal division fully empowered to prosecute all the familiar scams of our time from NINJA lending to the robo-signing of titles to MERS mortgage mischief, to the bundling and sales of booby-trapped CDOs - up to and including whatever Jon Corzine thought he was doing at MF Global.
     Notice how lame the major newspapers and cable news networks were in responding to Mr. Obama's impudent japery. None of them, including The New York Times, bothered to ask Attorney General Eric Holder what he's been up to along these lines for the past three years. It is really hard to account for the stupendous incompetence of the news media in recent years. Of course, I'm allergic to conspiracy theories and the only explanation that adds up for me is the diminishing returns of technology. Among other untruths we've embraced collectively is the idea that computer-distributed information amounts to knowledge and understanding, tending toward judgment. Apparently, it's only made our society much dumber and more irresponsible. After all, none of the supposed media watchdogs even asked The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, or CNN and a hundred other outlets why they didn't interview the Attorney General of the United States and ask him why he has not been taking care of the business now assigned to this special unit.
     Not included in the State of the Union message was any reference to the provision in the recently signed National Defense Authorization Act that allows the US government to suspend due process of law and use the military to arrest and indefinitely detain US citizens on vague and opportunistic charges of "suspicion" You will remember a month ago when Mr. Obama signed the law and issued a "signing statement" that said his administration would not carry out these specific provisions. Did anyone notice that it is an impeachable offense for the president to state his opposition to enforcing the law? In which case, why isn't there a bill of impeachment making its way through Congress right now?
      I've had enough of Obama, though I voted for him in 2008. I won't vote for him again. But I'm not altogether confident that any of us will be voting for anyone in the fall of 2012. Too many systems we depend on are spinning out of control. I suppose we will continue feeding ourselves a diet of lies and evasions until circumstances become so extreme that language itself loses all relevance and only real action will answer. I believe that moment is approaching in the yet-to-be-acted-out political uproars of the spring and summer. In the meantime, American leadership is bankrupt. Just accept the fact that America has no legitimate leadership. The vacuum is total and we know how nature feels about a vacuum.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Elizabeth McDonald chatting with folks at the opening of her show at Laura Moore Fine Art..the show, "Fresh Nostalgia", runs thru February8th...

...Fun at Lee Harvey's...

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Pam and I in Bishop Arts District last year...
This was Charlie Mitcherson's old gallery I think...


    On last week's podcast, Duncan and I yakked about an important concept introduced by Nicole Foss at The Automatic Earth blog site. This concept was "the trust horizon," which outlines how legitimacy is lost in the political hierarchy. That is, people stop trusting larger institutions like the federal or state government and end up vesting their interests much closer to home. Thus, life de-centralizes and becomes more local by necessity. Your own trust horizon extends only as far as other persons, businesses, institutions, and authorities immediately around you - the banker who will meet with you face-to-face, the mayor of your small town, the local food-growers. At the same time, distant ones become impotent and ludicrous - or possibly dangerous as they flounder to re-assert their vanishing influence.
     It is obvious that we are in the early stages of this process in the USA (and Europe), as giant institutions such as the Federal Reserve, the Executive branch under Mr. Obama, the US Congress (the ECB), the SEC, the Department of Justice, the Treasury Department, and other engines of management all fail in one way or another to discharge their obligations. 
     The people of the USA, having been let down and swindled in so many ways by the people they placed their trust in, and even freely elected, appear to be in a daze of injury. Maybe this accounts for the obsession with zombies and persons drained of blood - who yet seem to carry on normal lives (at least in TV shows). This odd condition is best defined by the familiar cry from non-zombies: "where's the outrage?" Which brings me to today's point.
     Investment guru James Dines introduced another seminal idea on Eric King's podcast last week. Dines's work over the years has focused much more on human mob psychology than technical market analysis - which he seems to regard as akin to augury with chicken entrails. Dines now introduces the term "murmuration" to describe the way that rapid changes occur in the realm of human activities. The word refers to behaviors also seen in other living species, such as the way a large flock of starlings will all turn in the sky at the same instant without any apparent communication. We don't know how they do that. It seems to be some kind of collective cognitive processing beyond our understanding.
     Dines goes on to suggest that the political stirrings and upheavals of the past year represent an instance of human "murmuration" that will lead to even greater epochal changes in geopolitical and economic life. Now, I've often said 1) history doesn't repeat, but it rhymes [thank you, Mark Twain], and 2) that these times are like the 1850s. To be more precise today, these two concepts of "the trust horizon" and "murmuration" point to a moment in time that I believe we are now rhyming with: the revolutions of 1848 and the events that grew out of it.
     The spring of that year was an inflection point when discontent over the changes sweeping through European society broke into open insurrection in France, Prussia, Austria, Italy, Poland, South America, and other places all seemingly at once - despite the absence of television and the internet. However, the upheavals of 1848 occurred not long after the first practical installation of a telegraph line from Annapolis, Maryland, to Washington, DC (and then in Europe). It was also a time when the first railroad networks were linking up.
      In February that crucial year, the liberal "Citizen King" Louis-Philippe of France was driven off the throne after an 18-year-reign characterized by tranquility and prosperity compared to the decades that preceded it. In March, street protests and violence spread through the grab-bag of kingdoms, dukedoms, and obscure principalities (Prussia... Saxony... Hesse... Fulda...) that would eventually make up the super-state of greater Germany. The Austrian empire began its slide into senility as its constituent states rioted. Even the people in Switzerland went batshit. And so on. Enter, stage left, Marx and Engels with a new political theory, for the excellent reason that the industrial revolution was reaching its stride and the conditions of daily life were changing very rapidly. Country people left farms for factory jobs all over the continent, and the ill-effects of the new wage-slavery drove them into solidarity. The uproar of 1848 was widespread and left many changes in its wake. But it was short and it produced odd instances of right-wing reaction.
     In France, for instance, Louis-Philippe was sent packing (to England), and a new republic was established - but the president it elected was Napoleon Bonaparte's nephew, Louis Napoleon who, in a matter of months declared himself president-for-life, and then Emperor. He was not at all a bad ruler, as things turned out. Among other achievements, he presided over the massive physical renovation of Paris that produced the "city of light" beloved today. But he was driven off his throne twenty-odd years later from the ill effects of the opera bouffe known as the Franco-Prussian War.
     In any case, the main point is that so many people across a continent got the same idea in the first weeks of a particular year, and then set about expressing themselves violently. More to my point is how things worked out in America. You have no doubt realized by now that there was no uprising in the USA in 1848 (though we did prosecute a war with Mexico). Yet, in the best Fourth Turning sense of history, a new generation had come of age and was producing the revolution in ideas that included Emerson and Thoreau's Transcendentalism, and the abolition movement, dedicated to ending slavery. This combination of broadly-held idealistic notions boiled away for another decade and led to the "mumuration" that precipitated the biggest bloodbath of the civilized world in the 19th century: the American Civil War. The Revolution of 1848 expressed itself most horrifically in the place that thought itself most specially insulated from its effects.
     Hence, when you read an idiot such as Paul Krugman in Monday's New York Times Op-Ed kindergarten, prating on the end of hard times in the USA, swallow a good half-pound of kosher salt. James Dines is right, a great human "murmuration" is underway, vibrating like a bass chord through bodies politic all over the world. Wait until you see what breaks loose at the Democratic and Republican conventions later this year.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Young people in the reflecting pool outside the Opera House in Downtown Dallas...

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Why SOPA is Dangerous...

’m sure you’ve heard by now that SOPA is bad and would ruin the Internet, but have you actually read the bill? If not, it’s worth reading, for two reasons. First, if you are going to oppose a bill, you should know exactly what you’re opposing, not just the vague principle behind it. Second, it’ll provide you with a valuable insight: that these bills are written in an attempt to obscure the truth.
First off, I’m going to qualify that I’m not a lawyer. However, I am a programmer, and that’s made me pretty good at unraveling spaghetti code. If ever a bill was spaghetti, this is it. If a programmer on my team wrote code as convoluted as this bill, I would fire him on the spot. That being said, there may be provisions I’m wrong about; if there are, please do correct me. My intent is to communicate the truth of this bill as cleanly as possible.
Here is the full text of the bill, as of Jan. 15, 2012. Open a copy, because I’ll be referring to it. It helps to click the “Printer Friendly” link to access a single-page view of the bill.

The Scalpel

Section 102(a)(2) permits the attorney general to take action against foreign sites (i.e., sites that do not fall under U.S. jurisdiction) if “the owner or operator of such Internet site is facilitating the commission of [copyright infringement].”
We’ll expand on this further down, but the really scary thing here is that there isn’t any qualification that the site be solely for the purpose of theft, only that it facilitate it. Since copyright violation is ridiculously easy, any site with a comment box or picture upload form is potentially infringing. Furthermore, DMCA Safe Harbor provisions are no defense. You, as a site operator, become liable for copyright infringement committed by your users, even if you comply with DMCA takedown requests.
This isn’t quite as bad as the rest of the bill because the power lies with the attorney general, rather than the copyright holder. But it’s not good, either. The language is so broad that it could be wielded against most any foreign site the AG chooses to target.
If the AG chooses to take action against a site (either against the operator, if they are subject to U.S. jurisdiction, or against the site itself if no one under U.S. jurisdiction can be found), then a subsequent court order would require the following:
  • Internet service providers will be required to block your access to the site (section 102(c)(2)(A)(i)) within five days.
  • Search engines (Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc.) will be forced to remove all references to the offending sites from their indexes (section 102(c)(2)(B)).
  • Ad providers (Google AdSense, Federated Media, etc.) will be required to stop providing ad service to the site.
  • Payment providers (PayPal, Visa, etc.) will be required to terminate service to the site.
Effectively, this bill gives the attorney general the power to fully censor foreign sites that the government does not have jurisdiction to take down directly. The most immediate example is WikiLeaks — under such an order, your ISP would be forced to block your access to Wikileaks. Once the technical means to do this are in place, then it becomes very easy for this power to be extended.
Implementing censorship protocols and giving the keys to the government is a scary, scary thing, and SOPA should be opposed simply based on this provision alone. But that’s not all.

The Sledgehammer

The really unsettling part of the bill is section 103. It is titled “MARKET-BASED SYSTEM TO PROTECT U.S. CUSTOMERS AND PREVENT U.S. FUNDING OF SITES DEDICATED TO THEFT OF U.S. PROPERTY.” On a first reading, it doesn’t sound that frightening. Read through section A1.
  1. DEDICATED TO THEFT OF U.S. PROPERTY- An ‘Internet site is dedicated to theft of U.S. property’ if–
    1. it is an Internet site, or a portion thereof, that is a U.S.-directed site and is used by users within the United States; and
    2. either
      1. the U.S.-directed site is primarily designed or operated for the purpose of, has only limited purpose or use other than, or is marketed by its operator or another acting in concert with that operator for use in, offering goods or services in a manner that engages in, enables, or facilitates–
        1. a violation of section 501 of title 17, United States Code;
        2. a violation of section 1201 of title 17, United States Code; or
        3. the sale, distribution, or promotion of goods, services, or materials bearing a counterfeit mark, as that term is defined in section 34(d) of the Lanham Act or section 2320 of title 18, United States Code; or
      2. the operator of the U.S.-directed site–
        1. is taking, or has taken, deliberate actions to avoid confirming a high probability of the use of the U.S.-directed site to carry out acts that constitute a violation of section 501 or 1201 of title 17, United States Code; or
        2. operates the U.S.-directed site with the object of promoting, or has promoted, its use to carry out acts that constitute a violation of section 501 or 1201 of title 17, United States Code, as shown by clear expression or other affirmative steps taken to foster infringement.
    3. QUALIFYING PLAINTIFF- The term `qualifying plaintiff’ means, with respect to a particular Internet site or portion thereof, a holder of an intellectual property right harmed by the activities described in paragraph (1) occurring on that Internet site or portion thereof.
Wow, now there’s a chunk of legalese that’ll make your eyes gloss over. Let’s cut straight to the nasty bits.
An `Internet site is dedicated to theft of U.S. property’ if [a portion of the site is US-directed] and is used by users within the United States and is primarily designed or operated for the purpose of offering services in a manner that enables or facilitates [copyright violation or circumvention of copyright protection measures].
Still doesn’t sound that bad, but consider this: Any site that allows users to post content is “primarily designed for the purpose of offering services in a manner that enables copyright violation.” The site doesn’t have to be clearly designed for the purpose of copyright violation; it only has to provide functionality that can be used to enable copyright violation.
This means that YouTube, Facebook, Wikipedia, Gmail, Dropbox and millions of other sites would be “Internet sites…dedicated to theft of U.S. property,” under SOPA’s definition. Simply providing a feature that would make it possible for someone to commit copyright infringement or circumvention (see: 09 F9 11 02 9D 74 E3 5B D8 41 56 C5 63 56 88 C0) is enough to get your entire site branded as an infringing site.
Furthermore, you may be painted as infringing if you, the site owner, “take deliberate actions to avoid confirming a high probability of the use of…the site to carry out acts [of copyright infringement or circumvention].” This means if you deliberately decide that it’s not cost-effective to screen every piece of content and determine whether or not it is copyright-free before it is posted to your site (whether there is infringing content on your site or not), then you are labeled as an “Internet site…dedicated to theft of U.S. property.” Simply the act of not actively screening every piece of content makes you a criminal under SOPA.

So, We’re All Infringing, Now What?

Section 103(b) is really hairy, but we’ll attempt to parse through it. I’m not going to copy the whole text here, for the sake of brevity, though I do encourage you to read and understand it. Instead, we’ll discuss the most salient parts.
Payment providers (section (b)(1)) and ad networks ((b)(2)) are required, upon receiving a claim against a site by a copyright holder (section (4)(A)(i)), to cut off all services to the accused site within five days, unless they receive a counter-notification from the operator of the accused site. Note that there is no requirement that the accused be notified of said accusation, and thus, they would have no opportunity to provide a counter-notice. In practice, you’d probably find out about it when you notice that the money stops coming in, maybe a week or two later.
The only way to provide a counter-notice is to agree to submit to U.S. jurisdiction (section (5)(A)(ii)) if you are a foreigner (yikes), and to state under penalty of perjury that your product does not fit the definition of an “Internet site…dedicated to theft of U.S. property.” As we discussed above, it’s nearly impossible to not fit that definition. If you have a comment box, and you state that you aren’t guilty under that definition, you just committed perjury. Enjoy prison. Furthermore:
Any provider of a notification or counter notification who knowingly materially misrepresents under this section…that such site does not meet the criteria of an Internet site dedicated to the theft of U.S. property shall be liable for damages, including costs and attorneys’ fees, incurred by the person injured by such misrepresentation as a result of the misrepresentation.
So, if you provide that counter-notification that you aren’t an infringing site, but if you can possibly be painted to fit the definition of an infringing site (and again, you will be), you are now liable for all of the attacking party’s attorney fees. By replying, you give them carte blanche to sue you with no cost to themselves.
Now, if you provide a counter-notice, or an ad network or payment provider fails to cut off service within five days, then the accusing party may then serve you (the site owner) with a lawsuit. If they can’t get a hold of you, they may serve an in rem lawsuit against your site. If they win the lawsuit (and they will, if nobody is there to challenge them), then the court will award them ownership of your site (likely, the domain). This is the point where your accuser is required to notify you that they are taking action against you. This is how the situation could play out.
  1. Plantiff accuses your site of infringement and serves notice to PayPal and Google, et al. PayPal and Google must shut off your payment services and ad services in 5 days. You are never notified.
    • If a service provider fails to shut off service, then the plantiff may may now take you to court for infringement.
  2. Once you become aware that you’ve been accused of infringement, you either a) let your services get cut off by taking no action, or b) serve a counter-notice, which places you under US jurisdiction (if you’re not in the US) and sets you up for a perjury charge.
    • If you respond with a counter-notice, then Plantiff may now take you to court for infringement.
  3. Plantiff accuses your site of infringement, and you don’t respond. Plantiff files an in rem lawsuit, and seizes control of your domain.

The Bulldozer

Section 201(b)(1) expands criminal copyright infringement to include:
…At least 10 copies or phonorecords, or of at least 10 public performances by means of digital transmission, of 1 or more copyrighted works, during any 180-day period, which have a total retail value of more than $2,500.
Now, the way that the value of a work can be computed in court is the very crude (value of the work times number of views).
…Total retail value may be shown by evidence of the total retail price that persons receiving the reproductions, distributions, or public performances constituting the offense would have paid to receive such reproductions, distributions, or public performances lawfully.
This means, for example, if you upload a video to YouTube of you singing a popular song, and that song might sell for $1, and your video gets 2,500 views, you are guilty of felony copyright infringement. Furthermore, you can tack on “willful infringement for commercial gain or valued at more than $1,000.”
This would make you a felon, and if a copyright holder were to bring a suit against you, would give you a criminal record that would make it virtually impossible to gain future employment, and may subject you to up to three years in prison for singing a song. You don’t have to receive any money. You don’t have to gain anything from your video. Simply receiving 2,500 views on a song you sung, which happens to have copyright held by someone else, makes you a felon.
Section 201(c) of SOPA includes a new rule of construction: a person with “a good faith reasonable basis in law to believe that the person’s conduct is lawful shall not be considered to have acted willfully for purposes of the amendments made by this section.” By implication, a person who believed her conduct was protected (e.g., fair use) might be found to have acted “willfully,” if her belief about the law is held to be unreasonable.
SOPA expands “willful infringement” to include those who don’t understand the law, not just those who understand it and choose to ignore it.

To Sum Up

  • Gives the government the right to unilaterally censor foreign websites.
  • Gives copyright holders the right to issue economic takedowns and bring lawsuits against website owners and operators, if those websites have features that make it possible to post infringing content.
  • Makes it a felony offense to post a copyrighted song or video.
This bill turns us all into criminals. If it passes, then you either stop using the Internet, or you simply hope that you never end up in the crosshairs, because if you’re targeted, you will be destroyed by this bill. You don’t have to be a big, mean, nasty criminal — common Internet usage is effectively criminalized under this law. This bill will kill American innovation and development of the Internet, as it will become too risky to do anything of value. It is toxic and dangerous, and should not, under any circumstances, be supported.
I hope that this helps you to more clearly understand why SOPA is bad. Rhetoric is efficient, but you should know what you’re opposing and why you’re opposing it. It’s difficult to read and understand, but if you care about the Internet, free speech and personal freedom at all, you owe it to yourself to understand and oppose SOPA.

Monday, January 16, 2012

...out back...iPhone 4 and snapseed...

What Gives

     The awesome exertions of the global banking system to evade the mandates of reality finally yield in a sickening slippage to epochal unwind. What a bad idea: to try to juke nature itself. In case you weren't paying attention over the weekend - and who really wants to? - the cosmic Brinks truck of free money went over a cliff, and the darn thing will keep free-falling until (at least) the American markets open again on Tuesday.
    So, everybody and his uncle over in Europe got a sovereign debt downgrade and now the math changes for all the pretend bail-outs and back-stops that had been so exquisitely rigged through the long, nauseating autumn. Math is an annoying representation of reality, but hard to argue with. Bail-outs and back-stops finally became unaffordable even as poetic constructs.
     Thus, we also approach the dreaded inflection point for the credit default swaps. Nobody believes that this Mount Everest of jive bond "insurance" can actually pay out, since the first instance of any attempt will bankrupt everybody. And yet there are the holders of all that paper who will object to, say, an 80 percent haircut on their Greek (and other) bonds. Surely some of them will try to invoke their CDS contracts. What then? Three possibilities that I see: 1) all parties and counter-parties go down the drain faster than you can say Benedict Cumberbatch; 2) all parties declare in unison that CDS were a prank that should now just be ignored, as if the cast of Downton Abbey showed up naked at the dinner table; and 3) every sort of loan on God's Green Earth is instantly re-priced and the entire world turns into a flea market. How will America do with its stock of slightly pre-owned Dunkin' Donuts stores, a million-odd Elvis lunch-boxes, and all those old videos of Friends? Don't you wish you'd invested in some hand tools?
     In the background of these grave machinations lurks the tragedy of Iran. Subtract the Islamic maniacs who seized the levers of government there thirty-three years ago, and you'd actually find a perfectly modern society, complete with industries, skyscrapers, highways, TV  shows, and people eating nice food in restaurants. One can understand why the last Shah was hated and resented. But here you now have a whole class of despotic maniacs much worse than the Shah ever was and they cannot be gotten rid of. Worse, they are devoted to exacting vengeance on the USA and its kindred western nations.
     This may be just a tragic case of collective psychological scripting, but it is tending in the direction of a full-dress play-out. Our government believes that their government is determined to build an atomic bomb. Iran's government says, over and over, "...what an idea...!" The trouble is, our guys don't buy their vaudeville act. They will not be allowed to have a bomb, and that's all there is to it. We are doing everything short of all-out war to prevent it, but let's face it, a lot of these things could be construed as acts of war: Stuxnet attacks... blowing up nuclear scientists in their cars. These things are making already-crazy people even crazier, and more reckless.
     If events continue down this path then there will be some action in the Persian Gulf. The oil markets will be thrown into disarray. Iran may sink a US naval vessel or two, but we know about their sunburn missiles and we won't put the whole fleet in harm's way, and before too long we will fuck them up very badly. The Iranians are capable of busting up a lot stuff in their neighborhood even as their air force is vaporized and their electric grid goes down. They could launch missiles into the Saudi Arabian oil terminals, for instance. Surely they will try to rain hell down on Israel. That would be a recipe for turning Teheran into an ashtray and a terrible tragedy for those otherwise normal Iranians who are not religious maniacs who wanted nothing more than to raise their children and once in a while go out for a nice lamb dinner.
      I don't see any percentage in China and Russia coming into this rumble, though more than a couple of European nations may want to forget their troubles for a moment and, at least, cheerlead from the sidelines.
     The result of all this - if the action doesn't get totally out-of-hand - is sure to be a gigantic step down in worldwide energy consumption, trade, and advanced economic activity. It would make the Great Depression look like a sit-com. The American suburban nexus would fail in a matter of weeks. The USA would have to commence the greatest work-around the world has ever seen. In the event, governments everywhere are liable to fall, even here, with elections postponed. There will be little in the way of real money to repair all the things that are falling apart. 
      Most amazing of all is how quiet the world scene has been, really, since 2001. The buildup of tensions must be out-of-this world. Something had to give.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Photographer Ralph Gibson at Richland College back in March, 2011...
An interesting lecture to say the least!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A few years ago, when they were widening the sidewalks downtown...

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

...Checking lights in the Gulch...
Photo by Kiran I think...long time ago...

This Ripe Moment

     The narcolepsy of the long Yuletide draws to a close and the world reawakens to its self-spun web of mutually reinforcing fiascos. Just before the holiday, a sense of futility darkened the European banking landscape as cascading sovereign default looked more and more inevitable. It was halted by a bazooka-caliber currency swap Ponzi that allowed the European Central Bank to pretend it had a $700-billion bag of sugar-plums to hand out to more than 200 banks there. That gambit will only keep up the appearance of normality for a couple of months, until the late winter bond rollover provokes a new crisis stage.
     Likewise, in the USA, some pressure-cooked December employment statistics gave the false impression of a brightening jobs picture, but no major news network dared to glance behind the curtain at the short-term holiday hires, the uncounted long-term jobless, the ones who don't show up at the government offices anymore, the ones who stopped getting checks, the legions of the hopeless. A nation that can't call 'bullshit' on its own lies deserves all the suffering that might rain down upon it, and that's exactly where we are heading as things economic morph into things political.
     How quaint the current Republican jousting tournament will seem in a few months when real violence rides in on the zephyrs of springtime. Each new primary is like the unloading of a Ringling Brothers clown car. There is an inverse relationship between the seriousness of these times and the laughable personalities vying for a place in history. Are they running for high office or auditioning for the role of Parson Weems in a new Lifetime Network TV mini-series? Are you charmed by their absurd casual clothing? Comforted by their know-nothing jabber about the "game-changer" of shale oil and their sincere doubts about the climate change "story?" Is it morally satisfying to know that one or another of these candidates won't drink a beer? (They'd make good Ayatollahs.) In what sort of Creationist parthenogenetic incubator are such pietistic idiots hatched? What these sanctimonious pricks don't realize they are doing is destroying the very legitimacy of the idea that we're capable of governing ourselves per se.
     This is the long-term direction of life in North America, by the way - a breakup into small autonomous governing units. It's just that the current cast of characters brings an aura of low comedy to the process. By the time they're through with Washington, the credibility of Federalism will sound like a knock-knock joke.
     As for the other side, the "folks" now occupying the White House and its folkster-in-chief, Mr. Obama - the time has come to abandon them. Their failure is complete with the new national security act that allows for suspension of due process of law. The cheek of Mr. Obama in offering a "signing statement" to the effect that his administration would not enforce the law! - as he signed it! For one thing, Obama tacitly invited his own impeachment by declaring he had no intention of enforcing federal law, since enforcement is the chief duty of his office. If John Boehner were not himself such a fraud, he would have started a motion for impeachment before sundown that day.
     Occupy Wall Street will seem like a mere harvest dance when we look back from the uproars later in 2012. Both organized parties have managed to banish the rule of law in America. Both parties need to be driven into the wilderness of history and the rule of law has to be rescued from the oblivion they sent it to. What group of clear-thinking adults can get behind that simple project? What voices will resolve out of the phenomenal noise of gadget America, with its deafening tweets, incessant advertising, instant messaging, idiotic robo-calling, and ever-present flat-screen assault on the senses? 
     I discern the distant sound of rebellion, a spirit that won't be appeased by bytes of Disney-babble from the pandering snouts of Romney, Santorum, Gingrich, Paul or Obama. They are interested only in keeping a set of suicidal rackets going. All the yammer about "freedom" and "liberty" is hollow when the rule of law is AWOL. This ripe time is the natural moment for a true opposition to rise. A few months from now neither major party will have a credible candidate or a plausible platform of ideas. This will be painfully obvious. What angels and demons will rush into that awful vacuum? 

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Turner Falls State Park...

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

2012 Forecast: Bang and Whimper

     There's a lot to be nervous about, even if you don't subscribe to the undercooked Mayan apocalypse lore moving through the gut of the Internet like a Staphylococcus-infected tamale. The casual observer might say that nothing seemed to give on the world scene in 2011 despite the Fukushima meltdown, the Arab Spring uproars, the train wreck of European finance, the disappearing act at MF Global, and the assorted injuries done to the Kardashian brand by the giant walking dildo Kris Humphries.
     I demur. On close examination, the industrial world underwent complete zombification in 2011. Its member states and their institutions are now lurching across the stage of history like so many walking dead. Whole European nations are dead, their citizens squirming around the ruined bones of failed speculative condo projects, housing estates, and luxury hotels like botfly larvae. The USA lies in complete moral ruin despite the exertions of ten thousand evangelical preachers in dusty back-road tilt-up chapels from Texas to Carolina, several new museums of Creation Science, and the shining example of former Senator Rick Santorum. Just look at how we behave, from the cloakrooms of Congress to the piercing parlors of West Hollywood to the 7-Elevens of suburban Maryland: a nation of thieves, racketeers, reality TV sluts, wannabe road warriors, light-fingered gangsta-boyz, and crybabies living in an anomie-drenched decrepitating demolition derby landscape of failure. When everybody is a zombie, whose brains are left to eat? Echo answers.... On to the predictions for 2012 then.
     The biggest political shock awaiting us is the massive disruption of the major party nominating conventions next summer, when thousands of angry citizens descend on Tampa and Charlotte demanding a reality test. The parties will attempt to go about their ritual business, ignoring the mischief outside the convention centers, and both parties will make the mistake of siccing the cops on the protestors. The result will be a much bigger mess than the one I personally witnessed on the streets of Chicago, 1968, when the party hacks anointed the grinning sell-out Hubert Humphrey to run against Ole Debbil Nixie. Just before getting tear-gassed on Michigan Avenue that night, I saw some kid hoisting a sign that depicted the nominee with a Hitler mustache over the epithet: Mein Humph! It made my night, despite the subsequent retching in the gutter.
     The two major parties are completely bankrupt zombie organizations and this election may be their last stand - if they even survive the conventions. Neither of them can come to grips with the reality-based issues of the day: epochal financial and economic contraction, peak energy (and many other resources), climate change, the absence of the rule of law in banking, and generational grievance - or, perhaps more to the point, the manifestations of these giant trends as presented in unemployment, debt slavery, foreclosure, bankruptcy, homelessness, hunger, and X-million family tragedies. Both parties can only promise the return to a bygone status quo that is largely mythical.
     President Obama, the putative "progressive" - spokesman of the Ivy League, Silicon Valley, Lower Manhattan, and all the other precincts where "folks" imagine themselves to be advanced thinkers - can't even wrap his mind around the simple fact that we will never be "energy independent" if we think that means running 260 million cars and trucks, no matter how many algae farms we pretend to invest in. Here is man who ought to know better and either doesn't, or is lying about it. He has other failures to answer for, too. Why, following the Citizens United decision in the Supreme Court, did Mr. Obama not prompt his party to sponsor federal legislation (or a constitutional amendment) that would redefine a corporation as not identical in "personhood" to a human being? Why does he still employ an Attorney General who has not started one prosecution for financial misconduct amid a panorama of arrant swindling and fraud? (Ditto: heads of the SEC, CFTC, etc.) And why did he not object loudly to the provision in the latest defense appropriations bill that allows for the capricious arrests and indefinite detention of anyone in the USA on suspicion of "terrorism?" Does this graduate of Harvard Law remember what habeas corpus means?  
     A lot of voters projected on Mr. Obama some notion of supernatural brilliance - our Hollywood fantasies are rife with wishes to be saved, and therefore redeemed, by our former victims - but he turned out to have a pedestrian mind. Could he possibly believe we have "a hundred years of natural gas" in the ground? Or that we're in a position to ramp up another cycle of industrial economic "growth?" Or that we can continue the web of cruel rackets that passes for medical care in this country? When the Democratic Party re-nominates Obama, it will be sealing its death warrant, and it will be on its way to the same cosmic vacuum where the memory of the Whigs lingers on.
     Meanwhile, the Republicans labor to convert themselves into the party of corn-pone Nazism with all their unconcealed lust to push everybody around under the plastic eagle rubrics of "Freedom" and "Liberty." Look at the dismal lineup of morons, hypocrites, and religious fanatics arrayed for the Iowa caucus: a doctor who is also a creationist!? A leveraged buyout artist! A grifter fresh from K Street! A lady Christian theocrat wholly owned by the "dominionist" New Apostolic Reformation cult! A George W. Bush imitator showing symptoms of early onset senility! The whole posse is preoccupied with things supernatural. And being so dedicated to things unreal, they're the prime representatives of the suburban clusterfuck, who will do anything to keep that obsolete machine running, even if it means national suicide, because they lack the brains to understand where history is taking us and what the mandates of reality are shouting at us about the urgent need to reorganize American life. They are also the vassals of corporate despotism - where the Democrats are mere footservants. They masquerade as "job creators," but they promote the off-shoring of every activity that corporate America can shed in its quest for ever-greater executive compensation. The lip-service they pay to "freedom" is belied by their intent to control everybody's personal life, commoditize the public interest, and sell out their grandchildren's future for a few extra rounds of golf.
     I think this gang, too, will be sent packing by the mobs of 2012. I have a nagging intimation that some third party candidate will emerge. The two personalities I keep seeing in that role are Howard Dean and Michael Bloomberg. Both of them are imperfect, but both of them are clear-headed and action-oriented, and I have a feeling that both of them are stewing in the background over the spectacle of idiocy, inertia, and dithering they see at every political compass point. Maybe somebody else will crawl out of the woodwork. I've said before in the weekly blog that conditions could deteriorate so badly that a Pentagon general might have to step into national leadership just to keep the grocery stores supplied with basic rations - but that is an outcome in my personal asteroid belt of  probabilities.
    Whatever party ends up running things, and whomever fronts it, is going to be in for a helluva wild ride. The USA is diving into an economic depression that will make the 1930s look like a Busby Berkeley production number. Compressive contraction will have its way with us, whatever Ben Bernanke thinks. There will simply be less activity of the kinds we're used to - Big Box shopping sprees, hamburger sales, theme park visits, house closings, you name it - than our hypertrophic system requires to keep its own destructive momentum going. Instead, the whole thing will just topple over, inert, like a 99-cent gyroscope giving into the forces of entropy. There will be a lot of bewildered, angry, dispossessed people from sea to shining sea. Not a few of them will "act out," that is, start breaking things, stealing things, targeting easy prey, hurting bystanders, and even tangling with police. Personally, I don't believe in the internment camp meme so popular among the doomer paranoiacs, but surely a lot of people will be cooling their heels in some slammer - while many other miscreants will just get away with crimes against persons and property.
     The global banking system was on death-watch all through 2011. Somehow the various doctors in the central banks and finance ministries were able to muster enough accounting legerdemain to give the appearance of a system still showing a pulse. But in a compressive debt deflation, there are only so many accounting tricks you can pull off as money (and wealth) literally disappears down a cosmic worm-hole. In Europe, the process has moved from the margins toward the center. The people of Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Belgium will have less income, fewer government services, lost wages and pensions, less comfort than they have had for a couple of generations. Meanwhile, France is drowning in bad paper and the German banks are choking on it. There is really only one plausible outcome and that is default. The reckoning of the bondholders is at hand. Everybody will get poorer simultaneously - and if not, there will be not just regime change but civil war and revolution. The fantasy of a fiscal union in Europe is impossible because it means two things: that Germany will have to issue orders to everybody else; and that Germany would have to pick up the tab for everybody else while telling them what to do. Both are intolerable and implausible. Let's just think of the Euro experiment as an interesting side effect of the peak energy era... now drawing to a close.
    These professional economists with their jabber about QEs and "financial repression" and bond-term "twists" and debt-to-GDP ratios are missing the point. The advanced industrial nations will not be re-jiggered onto any "growth" runway. Rather, we're entering the rutted wagon-road of de-industrializing and un-advancing. What awaits us in a "time-out" from hyperbolic technological progress. Forget about Ray Kurzweil's nanobot nirvana. That is not in the cards. Instead, wrap your mind around life in an economy organized around farming, with a much sparser distribution of big urban centers, and far fewer people overall. Don't imagine for a moment that your grandchildren will be zinging across the landscape in electric cars sampling one theme park after another while "networking" with "friends" on cyborg social networks implanted in their brain jellies. Think of them grooming their mules in the summer twilight. Anyway, you get the picture: everything that the finance ministries and treasuries and central banks are affecting to do is mere shadow theater performed in support of wishful thinking.
     The question, then, is what kind of hardship and disorder will attend our journey out of the industrial era into post-technological age we are entering. Will we just turn the world into a Michael Bay movie and blow everything up? Or will we make some graceful descent and retain what is really best about the human spirit?
     2012 will be the year of internal strife in these "advanced" nations, of people fighting over the table scraps of modernity among their own, in their own backyards, a desperate sorting out of the remnants. I don't think we'll see fighting between the European nations until the internal conflicts are resolved and that will take a few years.
     The hot-spots for 2012 are very likely to be in the Middle East. You already know that. What could be more obvious than the tinderbox character of that region? Islamic extremism is poised to take over governments (and armies) in Egypt, Syria, Libya, possibly Algeria, and probably Pakistan.  Iran lost its mind decades ago and seems determined to dominate the region by means of a strategy that can only get it into trouble (and perhaps the whole world if it goes really badly). Saber-rattling is one thing; making an actual move something else. Block the Straits of Hormuz? Not if you don't want Teheran to turn into an ashtray. That may happen anyway if Iran rattles a nuclear saber. Germany, France, Britain, and Italy, all struggling with terrible problems at home, would breathe a sigh of relief if the mullahs were chastened. The chatter around the Web about an Israeli preemptive attack never ceases. But it is a possibility. 
Oh, and don't forget Turkey. Formerly the "sick man" of Europe, Turkey has become strangely resurgent, prompting some recollections that the Ottoman Empire actually administered over much of the Middle East until 1914, and not with complete incompetence, either. They just sort of imploded from empire fatigue, which is not the worst way to go down, if history is taking you there anyway. But empires come back, too, and what passes for Turkey today is a polity that in one incarnation or another has been around since the ancient Greek days, and was, for quite a long while, Rome Release 2.0.
     Don't be surprised if some hostilities break out between Turkey and Iran, since a battleground named Iraq lies between them. Iraq is a basket-case despite an immense reserve of oil under its sands, and having had the US military babysit it for eight years. The last American combat units left Iraq this fall, but there are still plenty of US soldiers there, maintaining our garrisons and keeping an eye on things. The question is: can they control what the Kurds do in the north, and whatever meddling Iran engages in around the Basra oil region in the South? These American support troops remaining in Iraq could find themselves looking like a ham-and-cheese sandwich between a lot of crusty mischief north-and-south. The Turks have already had a dustup or two with Syria lately - Syria occupies a big wedge between Turkey, Iraq and the Mediterranean Sea - and Turkey will take a dim view of that nation falling into the hands of Islamic extremists if Assad gets booted.
     All bets are off in Egypt. Anything can happen there.
     The dangerous position of Israel vis-à-vis all these quarreling players is probably as bad as it has been in two generations. An attack by a neighbor or getting caught in a crossfire between neighbors would stimulate a lusty response, and perhaps World War Three. As if the world needed this added aggravation. It makes my kishkas ache just to think about it. Sometimes I wonder why the whole Israeli nation doesn't just pack up and move to Nebraska.
     2012 is the year that China proves to be a mortal nation and rolls over with a very bad case of the vapors. Their banking system is a sham. Their property bubble is a fiasco. Their government has no formal legitimacy and will install a new leadership group this year, while exports crash and mass factory layoffs happen. There will be a lot of pissed off people in China, and they may express themselves politically in ways that have seemed unthinkable for decades. The aura of social control looms large in China, but an aura is a light garment not recommended for stormy political weather. 2012 could be the year that China begins its journey into a "Balkanized" collection of smaller autonomous parts, which is the big fat trendline for all the nations of the world, including the USA.
     It is hard to think about the bizarre case of India, a nation with one foot in the modern age and the other in a colorful hallucinatory dreamtime. Their climate-change related problems are doing heavy damage to the food supply. Their groundwater is almost gone. The troubles of the wobbling global economy will take a lot pep out of their burgeoning tech and manufacturing sectors. It wouldn't be surprising if these travails prompted distracting hostilities with its failed-state neighbor, Pakistan. Pakistan, with its inexhaustible supply of Islamic maniacs could easily start a rumble with some crazy caper like the Mumbai hotel assault of two years ago, but this time India would answer with a heavy cudgel, perhaps even a nuclear sortie designed to neutralize Pakistan's dangerous toys at a stroke. And that would be that. Like cleaning out an annoying neighborhood crack house. It's not a very appetizing scenario, but what else can you do about failed states with nuclear bombs?
     Turning to Japan....That sore beset kingdom is suffering all the blowback of modern times at once: the Godzilla syndrome up in Fukushima; a demographic collapse; an imminent bond crisis; the collapse of export market partners; and a long, agonizing death spiral of its banks. I stick by a prediction I tendered back in March, after the deadly tsunami: Japan will decisively opt for a return to pre-industrial civilization. Why not? The rest of the world will be dragged kicking and screaming to the same place. Let Japan get there first and enjoy the advantage of the early adapter - back to an economy of local, hand-made stuff, rigid social hierarchy, folkloric hijinks in whispering bamboo groves, silk robes, and frequent time outs for the tea ceremony.
     Russia? The big bear might have just sat out another decade and enjoyed its remaining fossil fuel supply, but the temptation to project power is a demanding habit, so they make all sorts of noises about watching Iran's back - though mutual hatred abounds - and generally rushing into the power vacuum occupied by a US with dwindling mojo. There were stirrings of political discontent just  few weeks ago, after the rigged early rounds of national elections, and who knows where that will lead. Vlad Putin has held things together there impressively after the meltdown of the 1990s, but apparently the tranquil veneer is thin. Except for two big cities, the sprawling nation is broke and decrepitating, with little to offer the world but oil and gas - not an inconsiderable offering, but one with certain limits especially as they drain their oil fields for export cash. The rule of law is also pretty sketchy there. The government, as ever, is a kind of gangster affair, only this time one that allows some people to get really rich, not just connected. Their 70-year experiment with Marxian dogma has probably put them off ideology for a few centuries to come, which means less money spent on prisons for people with independent thoughts and more for call girls and home furnishings. I imagine that Putin will maintain his grip through the year. The Russians will appreciate relative order more when they see a few other countries devolve into internal conflict.
    I don't see much action around South America this year. Some Americans are already fleeing to Argentina. Perhaps they'll enjoy it, but there is always the menace of property confiscation, and worse. Brazil will continue to appear vibrant while it grows more population, shoving it toward eventual ruin. They will see setbacks in the development of their deep-sea oil due to an international shortage of investment capital.
     Mexico's fortunes depend on its oil industry, Pemex, which faces remorseless depletion. Revenue from oil production and (dwindling) exports can't hope to keep up with continuing population growth (and ever more poverty). These trends suggest a continued loss of control for the central government and more territorial fighting among the drug gangs and other criminal mafias. As long as all those loose heads roll on the south side of the Rio Grande the US will just tut-tut off to the side. But if the gangs get bold and start venturing cross border to make mischief we will make like Woodrow Wilson did and send the regular army down to spank them. It would be a satisfying diversion for that portion of the US demographic that enjoys Ultimate Fighting on TV, though it won't get them their job back at the Pontiac plant.
     The global oil picture is not so reassuring. The fragility of our supply is simply unnoticed by commuters enjoying Lady Gaga on their iPods. Meanwhile, our politicians retail fantasies of endless domestic reserves, which is total horse shit. Global exports are in remorseless decline, apart from geopolitical fissures and strains that could just paralyze allocation cold. If a hot war breaks out in the Middle East, you'll see the American supermarket shelves empty in three days. Won't that be fun. Note, too: the manias over shale oil and shale gas will reveal themselves as just more bubbles in a long cavalcade of bubbles, and both will begin to founder on a shortage of investment capital. The shale plays will prove to have been a national self-esteem-building program, not any part of an energy policy.
     The abiding question as we turn the corner into the New Year is: how come Jon Corzine is still at large? (Not to mention Angelo Mozilo, plus the entire executive floor of Goldman Sachs, and about 5000 other assorted Wall Street grifters still on the loose.) There is plenty of dire talk that the collapse of MF Global, and the shenanigans around its demise involving the evaporation of segregated accounts, has gravely and permanently damaged the entire investment industry, but especially the commodities funds, who can no longer depend on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange to honestly clear trades and regulate behavior. The whole affair, and the thundering silence from the oval office, makes Barack Obama seem not just inept but somehow complicit in the looting of America. As if he needs another mark of discredit in his record of consistent fumbling. There are signs that a lot of people who still have something resembling money invested in various funds will go to cash in the weeks ahead, including under-the-mattress style. The distrust and paranoia is palpable now, with the frenzies of Yuletide bygone for another year. After all, why trust banks, especially the TBTF monsters. Such a mass move could take the starch even out of highly manipulated equity markets.
      Nemesis may have her day, though. Jamie Dimon might have just gone a swindle too far for the fates to ignore him another year. JP Morgan looks to be in a peck of trouble for its role in the confiscation of MF Global accounts, not to mention its hijinks in the precious metals markets. The impudence of these rascals! In a nation when all sorts of people are murdered every day for little more reason than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, is it not a wonder that some poor swindled Grampa with nothing left to live for has not tossed a Molotov cocktail through the window of a Wall Street watering hole known to be frequented by banking poobahs? Perhaps this sort of action awaits us in 2012.
     Longtime readers of this blog know how much I love predicting the Dow Jones Industrial Average to crash down to 4000 every year. I never disappoint - though I am often disappointed. In 2011, the SP index managed the delightful trick of finishing a fraction below its previous January kickoff. The stock markets have churned in range-bound purgatory for a decade while the price of a jar of pickles has multiplied four-fold. Applying the calculus, and given the pickle-DOW differential, I'd say my call was actually pretty good. In any case, this year I change the tune slightly: I predict the DJIA will go to 4000, with the catch that the number is only a way-station to 1000, which it will hit in 2014. We may be short of snow here in the Northeastern US - thanks to La Nina - yet not short of confidence that the mills of the Gods grind slowly, but grind exceedingly fine.
     Finally, look for the publication of my next book round July 2012, a non-fiction work titled Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology and the Fate of the Nation... from The Atlantic Monthly Press. In a week, I begin work on World Made By Hand 3.
     Good luck to you in 2012, and report any suspicious characters adorned with ear-plugs, quetzel feathers, and carrying obsidian knives to your nearest office of Homeland Security.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Happy New Year friends!