March 2009

The nameless scourge

by Limbic on March 29, 2009

“Courage alone is not enough in war: victory will go to the side that best organises that courage” – Peter Watson, “A Terrible Beauty”, 2000

I harbour a strange, nameless bigotry. It is a visceral loathing of a common type of person I recognise easily but struggle to classify. There is no -ism that defines my prejudice.

Some times I see them in traffic, driving badly and breaking the law. Normally I hear them, their sonic signature is unmistakable: the violent blast of the horn, the revving of engines at 4AM, the chanting of the hooligan songs and the thumping of degraded euro-techno.

More often than not, they appear to have plenty of money. They drive massive, expensive cars but they are bereft of taste, class or education.

Many are members of the criminal elite (or the brutes that guard them), which where I live means war-profiteers, looters, people smugglers, child rapists, terrorist armourers, assassins, knee-cappers, and mass murderers. Some are just lowly common thugs, thieves and woman-beaters attempting to ape their Mafia betters.

I see these people every day but the problem is I cannot define exactly what they are. All I have are examples:

There’s one, phone pressed to his ear as he corners his behemoth SUV at tire screeching speed, scattering pedestrians. In the passenger seat a shapely, over made-up simpleton gapes out, scheming of fashion purchases, avoiding his simian touch.

There’s another one. He is jumping the queue at the turn-off, or breaking a red light, or reversing back-wards the wrong way up a one way street, delighting in his own cunning. He is quick to attack, but like all cowards, only with sound and mouthfuls of air. His weapon of choice is the horn. He will ruin a quite Spring morning to punish those too slow away from the traffic light, or decent enough to allow a pedestrian right of way. If you catch his hooded eye, he will flinch. Aggression only prospers in the cowardly heart when escape or victory are certain.

Occasionally you see them dismounted:

There’s one by the riverbank, in his shiny Adidas tracksuit tucked into his matching boxing boots, he clutches his man purse (murse) and looks sullen. His lopsided gait combines a saunter, with a jaunt, with a Hyenas sneaky low-necked slink. He pats his companion on her backside, and as she swishes her ponytail (cutely tucked though her Versace cap), she imagines holding his greasy head under the water until mutant river crabs eat his blue lips whilst he screams a bubbly accompaniment to his own sub-aquatic death opera.

There’s one in the restaurant, clicking his fat fingers at the gentle waiter, his beard stained as he hurriedly forks pasta into his sucking lizard lips (held close to the plate, pig style). He spends the entire meal shouting into his phone as his dinner companion looked on, dreaming of jabbing a red hot fork into his pallid eye, and melting that damned phone into the smoking socket as he choked in shock on his cold pasta.

Who are these people? What are these people?

The Danes call them “Brians”, but that is not it. Brians are boy-racers, a dangerous urban irritant indeed, but a mere sub-class of the scourge I am describing . In Africa they call them Wabenzi – a ruling elite, rich on stolen taxes and corruptiuon. Whilst this is close,  it does not fit. The African Wabenzi occasionally have taste or an education, no so the people I am trying to identify.

I am sure they have a secret, universal name – possibly in Latin – and a formal classification in a sociology textbook somewhere, but I have no idea what it is.

They are not a class (in the sociological sense). They are not a stable section of society, a social level, a layer.  These are not a lumpenproletariate or underclass. Quite the opposite, they are an economic elite

They are not a family or a tribe, as apart from their behaviour they have no relation to each other. They span every nation, ethnicity and culture. Most are men, but they have attendant womenfolk. Their provenance is diverse. They are an unstable phenomenon.

I am starting to see them as monsters in the classical sense, warnings to us about the state of our society. They are human symptoms. Part of a syndrome. The side effects of a particularly vile form of societal rot, the pustules of society, the poultice that draws (and stores) the narcissism, vulgarity and violence out of the body politic. Thankfully, they mostly kill their own – be it in fiery crashes or shoot-outs. This keep their numbers below then critical threshold above which civilization itself breaks down.

Perhaps they have a positive role? Perhaps they are the gut bacteria of our society. There to soak up and process the cultural filthy, and to give off the cautionary gas, a miasma, a stink that reminds us why education, culture, civility and decency require such aggressive defence.

I am still deciding which of these it is.

Whatever they are, they are a scourge, and I for one an devoted to curbing their power and influence. If I could eradicate them (as a cultural phenomenon, not as people) I would do so.

I would love to see an army form. A cadre of gentlemen and gentlewomen, countervailing against this scourge with eusocial activism (civility and kindness), education and the cultural dreadnoughts of literature, art, science and philosophy.

Unfortunately I see no such phenomenon. We are neither “sustaining our own morale” nor are we “attracting the uncommitted”. We are in wholesale retreat. Our culture now effortly produces these people. Auden’s prophecy has come true:

“One doesn’t have to be a prophet to predict the consequences . . .

Reason will be replaced by Revelation . . . Knowledge will degenerate into a riot of subjective vision – feelings in the solar plexus induced by undernourishment, angelic images generated by fever or drugs, dream warnings inspired by the sound of falling water. Whole cosmogonies will be created out of some forgotten personal resentment, complete epics written in private languages, the daubs of schoolchildren ranked above the greatest masterpieces . . .

Idealism will be replaced by Materialism . . . Diverted from its normal outlet in patriotism and civic or family pride, the need of the masses for some visible Idol to worship will be driven into totally unsociable channels where no education can reach it. Divine honours will be paid to shallow depressions in the earth, domestic pets, ruined windmills, or malignant tumours.

Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish. Every corner-boy will congratulate himself: ‘I’m such a sinner that God has come down in person to save me.’ Every crook will argue: ‘I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged.

The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Tragedy, when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire.”  WH Auden “”For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio”

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The US debt-consumption economy

by Limbic on March 29, 2009

“In the United States, the average man lives in a house he can’t pay for, drives a car he can’t afford and waits for the next shipment from Hong Kong for distractions he can’t resist. He saves nothing and believes the Chinese will lend him money forever, on the same terms.”  – William Bonner

[From The Empire of Debt ]

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From Adbusters #74, Nov-Dec 2007, via joshuatree on Flickr (click photo for original)

The Economist and the New York Times are both probing the neo-Populism exposed by the AIG bonuses issue and the vandalism attacks on UK bankers. It seems the authorities are genuinely worried about popular outrage leading to violence and insurrection.

The response? Inoculation. Give the plebeians a taste of blood to distract and pacify them. Hope that they never find out the scale of the robbery committed against them by their own elites:

A WEEK or so ago America was seized by a spasm of fury over the bonuses paid to executives at AIG, a troubled insurance company. Across the country Americans were enraged that people who had helped to cause the financial meltdown were being rewarded for their incompetence. And Washington responded in kind.

Congressmen queued up before the television cameras to tell everybody how upset they were. Larry Summers, the president’s chief economic adviser, described the bonuses as “outrageous”. Even Barack Obama tried to drop his ultra-cool persona to say how “angry” he was. The House voted overwhelmingly to impose a 90% tax on such bonuses.

The media responded to the storm of outrage by producing a stream of articles on American populism—the political disposition that damns established institutions, from Wall Street to Washington, and tries to return power to “the people”. Newsweek devoted almost an entire issue to the subject.

But no sooner was the ink dry on these articles than the populist storm seemed to blow itself out. Many of the journalists who had been fanning the flames of anger attended a white-tie Gridiron Dinner in Washington on March 21st to perform silly song-and-dance routines. Wall Street rallied two days later when the treasury secretary, Tim Geithner, published his plan to tackle toxic assets held by banks. Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader, suggests that bonus legislation “may not be necessary” now that 15 of the top 20 “bonus babies” at AIG have agreed to give their bonuses back.

Was the fuss over AIG a sign of a new populist mood in America? Or was it just a storm in a teacup? It is hard to answer this question in a country in which anger is a form of entertainment and where the political parties have turned partisanship into a fine art. Television personalities such as Bill O’Reilly are always angry about something or other. Many of the politicians who proclaimed their outrage at the “malefactors of great wealth” are delighted to take campaign contributions from the very same malefactors.

But, for all that, there are good reasons for taking the resurgence of populism seriously.

[From: Will There Be Blood – The Economist, 26 March 2009]

Meanwhile, in the UK…

LONDON — Tempers are flaring across Europe as the economic pain deepens and more people lose their jobs.

Just ask Fred Goodwin, the former chief executive of the ailing Royal Bank of Scotland, whose house and car were vandalized early Wednesday. Or Luc Rousselet, the manager of a 3M factory in France, who was barricaded in an office for a second day by workers demanding better severance packages for 110 employees who are being laid off.

While such instances are scattered so far, the angry mood threatens to overshadow the Group of 20 summit meeting next week in London, where world leaders hope to find approaches to the financial crisis.

Several protests are planned in London’s financial district, and the police are warning financial institutions to bolster security, cancel unnecessary meetings and keep employees inside. Bankers are being advised to wear “casual clothing” so they do not attract attention.

A recession has all sorts of knock-on effects,” said Christopher Husbands, a professor of sociology at the London School of Economics. “Crimes go up, relationships break down and there are instances of civil disturbance. ”

[From: Hurt by Economy, Europeans Vent Their Anger – New York Times, 26th March 2009]

I have been deeply cynical about this recession and the related pantomimes played out in the media. They reek of disinformation, Flat Earth News1 and agnotology.

I think there is a groundswell of anger. I think that choreographed outrage over AIG is an attempt to head it off by publicly slaughtering a few scapegoats. It is as futile as the broader attempt to revive the moribund and unsustainable debt-based economy itself.

There will be blood, and lots of it.

You see, its not just the economy. The crisis is only just starting, and already people are stunned by the scale and violence of the systemic collapse they are seeing. The worst pessimists of a year ago have turned out to be optimistic naifs. The economic system is vastly worse off than previously thought, and that is only one of the great disruptions we are facing.

Whilst millions of jobs are are being lost, stocks portfolios are rendered worthless, and an entire generation is facing poverty in old age as their pension funds implode, at least there is food, and peace, and the lights are on. For now.

The other factors of the long emergency have not gone anywhere. Every one of the meta-threats is being worsened by this crisis. The Oil Shock is being worsened as energy projects are cancelled:

Sharp reductions in investments and low oil prices could curb future supplies by almost eight million barrels a day within the next five years, according to a study scheduled for release Friday, the latest warning that the world could face a new energy shock when the economy picks up.

[From: Rising Fear of a Future Oil Shock – New York Times, 26th March 2009]

The same is likely in the medical field, retarding efforts against microbial resistance. Terrorism and extremism will be aggravated by poverty and collapsed states. It will be much harder for countries to respond to environmental crises. Food production will be disrupted.

Imagine the “public anger” and “outrage” when people are starving, without electricity, freezing or sweltering, or have local mafia warlords control their towns and cities.

For a superb insight into the real story behind the whole damned mess, I strongly recommend a new piece in Rolling Stone by Matt Taibbi called “The Big Takeover“:

It’s over — we’re officially, royally fucked. no empire can survive being rendered a permanent laughingstock, which is what happened as of a few weeks ago, when the buffoons who have been running things in this country finally went one step too far. It happened when Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was forced to admit that he was once again going to have to stuff billions of taxpayer dollars into a dying insurance giant called AIG, itself a profound symbol of our national decline — a corporation that got rich insuring the concrete and steel of American industry in the country’s heyday, only to destroy itself chasing phantom fortunes at the Wall Street card tables, like a dissolute nobleman gambling away the family estate in the waning days of the British Empire.

The latest bailout came as AIG admitted to having just posted the largest quarterly loss in American corporate history — some $61.7 billion. In the final three months of last year, the company lost more than $27 million every hour. That’s $465,000 a minute, a yearly income for a median American household every six seconds, roughly $7,750 a second. And all this happened at the end of eight straight years that America devoted to frantically chasing the shadow of a terrorist threat to no avail, eight years spent stopping every citizen at every airport to search every purse, bag, crotch and briefcase for juice boxes and explosive tubes of toothpaste. Yet in the end, our government had no mechanism for searching the balance sheets of companies that held life-or-death power over our society and was unable to spot holes in the national economy the size of Libya (whose entire GDP last year was smaller than AIG’s 2008 losses).

So it’s time to admit it: We’re fools, protagonists in a kind of gruesome comedy about the marriage of greed and stupidity. And the worst part about it is that we’re still in denial — we still think this is some kind of unfortunate accident, not something that was created by the group of psychopaths on Wall Street whom we allowed to gang-rape the American Dream. When Geithner announced the new $30 billion bailout, the party line was that poor AIG was just a victim of a lot of shitty luck — bad year for business, you know, what with the financial crisis and all. Edward Liddy, the company’s CEO, actually compared it to catching a cold: “The marketplace is a pretty crummy place to be right now,” he said. “When the world catches pneumonia, we get it too.” In a pathetic attempt at name-dropping, he even whined that AIG was being “consumed by the same issues that are driving house prices down and 401K statements down and Warren Buffet’s investment portfolio down.”

Liddy made AIG sound like an orphan begging in a soup line, hungry and sick from being left out in someone else’s financial weather. He conveniently forgot to mention that AIG had spent more than a decade systematically scheming to evade U.S. and international regulators, or that one of the causes of its “pneumonia” was making colossal, world-sinking $500 billion bets with money it didn’t have, in a toxic and completely unregulated derivatives market.

Nor did anyone mention that when AIG finally got up from its seat at the Wall Street casino, broke and busted in the afterdawn light, it owed money all over town — and that a huge chunk of your taxpayer dollars in this particular bailout scam will be going to pay off the other high rollers at its table. Or that this was a casino unique among all casinos, one where middle-class taxpayers cover the bets of billionaires.

People are pissed off about this financial crisis, and about this bailout, but they’re not pissed off enough. The reality is that the worldwide economic meltdown and the bailout that followed were together a kind of revolution, a coup d’état. They cemented and formalized a political trend that has been snowballing for decades: the gradual takeover of the government by a small class of connected insiders, who used money to control elections, buy influence and systematically weaken financial regulations.

The crisis was the coup de grâce: Given virtually free rein over the economy, these same insiders first wrecked the financial world, then cunningly granted themselves nearly unlimited emergency powers to clean up their own mess. And so the gambling-addict leaders of companies like AIG end up not penniless and in jail, but with an Alien-style death grip on the Treasury and the Federal Reserve — “our partners in the government,” as Liddy put it with a shockingly casual matter-of-factness after the most recent bailout.

The mistake most people make in looking at the financial crisis is thinking of it in terms of money, a habit that might lead you to look at the unfolding mess as a huge bonus-killing downer for the Wall Street class. But if you look at it in purely Machiavellian terms, what you see is a colossal power grab that threatens to turn the federal government into a kind of giant Enron — a huge, impenetrable black box filled with self-dealing insiders whose scheme is the securing of individual profits at the expense of an ocean of unwitting involuntary shareholders, previously known as taxpayers.

So bankers oversaw a gargantuan transfer of assets from the prudent and judicious of the world to to the profligate and untrustworthy by disguising their schemes as complex but safe financial instruments and made vast sums for themselves as they orchestrated this theft. Now their victims, without consent, are being forced to bail them out so they can restart the same insane cycle which is at the heart of our insanely wasteful and unsustainable economic system?

Let there be blood.

  1. “British journalist Nick Davies defines “flat earth news” in an eponymous book as as a story that appears to be true and is widely accepted as true, such that eventually it becomes a heresy to suggest that it is not true — even if it is riddled with falsehood, distortion, and propaganda.

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John Gruber & Merlin Mann on Blogging

by Limbic on March 27, 2009

Wonderful podcast from Merlin Mann and John Gruber on Blogging.

Merlin man is hilarious. I love his quoting Ira Glass (of this American Life fame) on the folly of trying to emulate the success of others1. This can he heard around Around 23:38:

“People of out there and they are always trying to emulate the success of other people. You get on TV and you try to pretend you are Ted Koppel. But you know what? They’ve already got a Ted Koppel, they don’t need you. Your competition is somebody who had a unique opportunity a long time ago and now you are going to try and trace the shadow of that on a side-walk and hope its a career. We’ve got our Koppel, now who are YOU?

Do yourself a favour and listen to the rest of it, its superb.

43f Podcast: John Gruber & Merlin Mann’s Blogging Panel at SxSW | 43 Folders.

  1. After Nassim Nicholas Taleb,  Malcolm Gladwell and others have finished with this topic, no one will ever admit to copying a success story or having a role model ever again!

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Papal condoms

by Limbic on March 27, 2009


noquedanblogs.com » Blog Archive » Benedicto XVI

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Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Homeless Vehicles

by Limbic on March 27, 2009

From Wikipedia:

Krzysztof Wodiczko is an artist currently living in Boston and teaching at MIT. The son of Polish conductor Bohdan Wodiczko,[1] he was born in 1943 in Warsaw, and graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts, Warsaw in 1968 with a degree in industrial design, and taught at the Warsaw Polytechnic until 1977. He emigrated that year to Canada to teach at the University of Guelph in Ontario. In 1979 he taught at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto and from 1977 to 1981 at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax.

Wodiczko is most well known for his over 40 large-scale outdoor projections, which have been installed in over a dozen countries. His works are usually socially conscious, and often political in nature. Examples include projections onto buildings of hands or faces of people who speak about personal experiences or crimes they have suffered, allowing the public airing of issues usually kept private. He has labeled this style of art Interrogative Design. His most well-known installation took place in 1985 when he projected the image of a swastika on the South African embassy during a protest march in criticism of the country’s apartheid system.

A controversial project of his was the design and construction of a special cart for homeless people. After consultation with homeless people in New York City, the cart could be used to transport a small number of belongings, provided space for the collection of bottles, and could be used as a primitive shelter.

Here is a visualisation:

via Media Art Net | Wodiczko, Krzysztof: Homeless Vehicles.

A full biography of Krzysztof Wodiczko, with supporting information and images, is also available in English from Culture.pl . This is well worth exploring if you are interested in him.

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How to grow your own fresh air

by Limbic on March 27, 2009

In a wondeful short TED video “Researcher Kamal Meattle shows how an arrangement of three common houseplants, used in specific spots in a home or office building, can result in measurably cleaner indoor air.

via Kamal Meattle on how to grow your own fresh air | Video on TED.com.

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Problem Solving 101

by Limbic on March 27, 2009

 

This little book is getting rave reviews, most notably from “Back of the Napkin” author Dan Roam who writes:

“A truly wonderful book has just hit the stands: Ken Watanabe’s Problem Solving 101. If you like The Back of the Napkin’s approach to looking at the world, you owe it to yourself to get this book.”

Problem Solving 101 – Official site

“Problem Solving 101” by Ken Watanabe – Amazon.com

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The Epidemiology of Happiness

by Limbic on March 26, 2009

There is a brilliant new(ish) study published in the British Medical Journal about the “Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network“.

Here is the Abstract:

Objectives: To evaluate whether happiness can spread from person to person and whether niches of happiness form within social networks.

Design: Longitudinal social network analysis.

Setting: Framingham Heart Study social network.

Participants: 4739 individuals followed from 1983 to 2003.

Main outcome: measures Happiness measured with validated four item scale; broad array of attributes of social networks and diverse social ties.

Results: Clusters of happy and unhappy people are visible in the network, and the relationship between people’s happiness extends up to three degrees of separation (for example, to the friends of one’s friends’ friends). People who are surrounded by many happy people and those who are central in the network are more likely to become happy in the future. Longitudinal statistical models suggest that clusters of happiness result from the spread of happiness and not just a tendency for people to associate with similar individuals. A friend who lives within a mile (about 1.6 km) and who becomes happy increases the probability that a person is happy by 25% (95% confidence interval 1% to 57%). Similar effects are seen in coresident spouses (8%, 0.2% to 16%), siblings who live within a mile (14%, 1% to 28%), and next door neighbours (34%, 7% to 70%). Effects are not seen between coworkers. The effect decays with time and with geographical separation.

Conclusions: People’s happiness depends on the happiness of others with whom they are connected. This provides further justification for seeing happiness, like health, as a collective phenomenon.

There are two great articles summarising the study:

Strangers May Cheer You Up, Study Says – New York Times

“How happy you are may depend on how happy your friends’ friends’ friends are, even if you don’t know them at all.

And a cheery next-door neighbor has more effect on your happiness than your spouse’s mood.

So says a new study that followed a large group of people for 20 years — happiness is more contagious than previously thought.

“Your happiness depends not just on your choices and actions, but also on the choices and actions of people you don’t even know who are one, two and three degrees removed from you,” said Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, a physician and social scientist at Harvard Medical School and an author of the study, to be published Friday in BMJ, a British journal. “There’s kind of an emotional quiet riot that occurs and takes on a life of its own, that people themselves may be unaware of. Emotions have a collective existence — they are not just an individual phenomenon.””

Happiness Can Spread Among People Like a Contagion, Study Indicates – The Washington Post

Happiness is contagious, spreading among friends, neighbors, siblings and spouses like the flu, according to a large study that for the first time shows how emotion can ripple through clusters of people who may not even know each other.

The study of more than 4,700 people who were followed over 20 years found that people who are happy or become happy boost the chances that someone they know will be happy. The power of happiness, moreover, can span another degree of separation, elevating the mood of that person’s husband, wife, brother, sister, friend or next-door neighbor.

“You would think that your emotional state would depend on your own choices and actions and experience,” said Nicholas A. Christakis, a medical sociologist at Harvard University who helped conduct the study published online today by BMJ, a British medical journal. “But it also depends on the choices and actions and experiences of other people, including people to whom you are not directly connected. Happiness is contagious.” “

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Teams and Team Work

by Limbic on March 26, 2009

Two good article on teams and teamwork showed up on my news radar today and are worth a post:

Project@Work has a very good article on choosing the right team model for your project:  Choose The Right Team Model (Registration required)

Genuine Curiosity covers the same topic is a mega-post:  Putting the work in Teamwork

Both are worth a look.

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