Thursday, January 22, 2009

Suggestion to Obama: Seek a Constitutional Amendment on Science

It seems Barack Obama is now just about as popular as one can imagine him being. Given the many promises he has made and hopes he has stirred, there is a good chance he will disappoint people to some extent. He may still be a good president -- he may have his highs as well as his lows -- but there seems to be at least some reason to think now is the time to achieve as much as possible. On that basis, I would recommend promptly seeking a constitutional amendment that in some sense safeguards science from political and economic meddling. A former constitutional law professor would seem to be especially well positioned to make the case for a constitutional amendment and, conceivably, make it somewhat more feasible to amend the constitution (if only in some tentative, state-by-state optional, temporary, or other limited regard). Such a change would offer the possibility of keeping the Constitution, and perhaps government, more on the ball -- making some changes in the judiciary, for example, so that there are expectations of efficacy and responsiveness to the needs of ordinary people, in place of the impractically self-absorbed system that presently burdens so many lives. The fine contours of an amendment safeguarding science (or, perhaps, intellectual inquiry) would have to be worked out by experts in law and in science policy. To introduce the idea in a bit more detail, I can only offer general remarks for purposes of illustration. There does appear to be a glaring need for elimination of the possibility that some future presidential administration or other political or financial force would be able to achieve the extremely dangerous and damaging distortions of scientific research in which the Bush administration engaged. The right to freedom of speech illustrates the danger that can arise when such a provision is enshrined in the Constitution, however. I am a big believer in the importance of free speech, and a big opponent of the chilling effect that penalization of free speech can have upon the speech of others. But I believe in free speech that is in some sense demonstrably accurate -- in an affordable sense, i.e., not in the form of today's defamation laws, which require even truthful and wrongfully accused speakers to withhold so much that needs to be said, lest they be bankrupted by the obligation to prove that their words were accurate. I am likewise not too fond of so-called "news" reporters who blatantly distort the realities of a situation, or of tobacco marketers or mortgage brokers who do their best to obscure the truth about their products, or of commissioned research that deliberately strives to misrepresent the dangers of some pharmaceuticals. If the law can come down so onerously on truthful speakers accused of defamation, it surely should come down at least as hard on untruthful speakers engaging in these sorts of behaviors. If some such perspective should happen to inform debate on a proposed constitutional amendment to protect intellectual inquiry from corruption, then it would appear possible to talk realistically about the kinds of restraints that might be imposed to prevent glaring abuses of the public trust, in the matter of finding and reporting research results. Possibly a lodestar in such an effort would come in the form of a vision of a collegial, common-purposed dialogue among lay people and experts alike, regarding the multifarious problems and quandaries that we all seek to overcome. This sort of public discourse might be the target that such an amendment would seek to promote and protect.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Coolness Advice to Obama

Barack Obama will probably be unable to be a cool cultural icon and, at the same time, a typical politician. My advice would be to go the Reagan route: stay above the fray. To the extent possible, keep it cool. Parlay your status into statesmanship. Fighting is what your deputies are for.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Few Thoughts on Deflation

Inflation is familiar to most of us. Inflation tends to occur when the economy is growing. People demand things faster than the market can produce them. To some extent, production capacity grows; but to some extent, smart sellers keep supply a bit tight so they can justify charging more. If you really want the thing, and can't get it at your preferred price, you may be willing to pay a somewhat higher price. Deflation is less familiar. Deflation tends to occur when the economy is not growing or is actually shrinking. People don't demand so much in this case. Sellers still have to pay their bills, so they don't have much choice but to cut prices, in a bid to keep some dollars coming in the door. Now, unlike in an inflationary scenario, there's more stuff than anyone wants to buy; and in the "worst" case, people just plain lose interest in buying. It's really the opposite of the shop-'til-you-drop mindset of the inflationary situation; it's people who realize it makes sense to mind their money carefully, not waste it -- and hold off buying that thing for a little longer, because prices keep dropping. The inflationary scenario is good for people who have enough money but not enough stuff. The economy is growing, the money is there, not much to worry about, so just buy whatever you want (relatively speaking). It doesn't work for everyone, of course -- there are lots and lots of very poor people in this scenario -- but it works for enough people to set a general tone or expectation for what is economically normal or average. When that goes away, as is now happening, it feels like things are no longer normal. The deflationary scenario is good for people who have enough stuff but not enough money. They weren't really feeling a desperate need to acquire more crap right now, so it's OK to postpone purchases while prices drop; and they become more aware that jobs are endangered (because the economy is slowing down), such that they may not be able to get money when they really need it, sometime in the future. When growth continues, it encourages continued consumption. When it continues for long enough, the notion of saving and being cautious can seem quaint. People who learned hard lessons from the Great Depression were sometimes too fearful to take bold risks that could have really paid off financially in, say, the 1960s. But eventually those people passed from the scene -- retiring, dying, being muscled aside by their numerous Baby Boom progeny -- and their restraining hand was loosened. We went from fear of risks to payoffs for wise risks to acceptance of all kinds of risks. It would have been nice if we Boomers could have bottled some of that advice our parents were handing us in the 1960s and kept it, like a vintage wine, to be opened in the 1980s, when the Reagan Administration began dismantling Depression-era regulatory safeguards. So debt became normal -- not only for credit card users, but for financial institutions and government. They fed us tons of debt, in mortgages and cash advances and student loans and military adventures. Debt continues to be the answer, this late in the day, as government tries to employ FDR's Depression-era spending as an antidote to deflation. People in power want to return to "normalcy" -- that is, to an inflationary economy. They have not yet made the transition to realizing that consumers are broke, indebted, and scared. If you gave each American consumer $100,000 right now, there is a good chance that half of it (if not all of it) would go into savings, hiring a bankruptcy attorney, catching up on some bills, and otherwise trying to undo the personal exposure created by the inflationary years. That sort of behavior is not going to recreate a growth economy. It could lay the foundation for a solid, savings-based economy in coming decades, except for that debt problem. Unlike the 1930s, the amounts of individual, corporate, and governmental debt are simply beyond anything that a deflationary economy can pay off. Debts taken out with an expectation of an income of $60,000 look very different when that income drops to $25,000, or below, and many people will be unable to avoid that kind of drop as we continue to transition to a world in which American workers compete against Asian and robotic workers. The U.S. government can continue to spend borrowed money, as long as people continue to be willing to lend to it. There are recent signs that China may finally be starting to back off from that, though, and in any event they should do so if repayment becomes more doubtful. The present impression appears to be that today's deficit spending enhances tomorrow's inflation. So if the lending from China and elsewhere did get consumers spending again, it would be counterproductive for those investors in the sense that they would have helped to arrange a return to a growth economy with, it appears, some potential for high inflation -- which would erode the real value of their investments. In other words, they would have loaned us $1 billion (or whatever), and that would have helped a bit to get things going again, but now that $1 billion would have lost maybe 10% of its value because the dollars with which it is repaid are able to buy less than before. Given the rate at which the U.S. government is now spending money, it appears the next step will be for the spigot to be partly closed. If Obama stumbles and/or if the economy continues to unravel, confidence in the federal ability to repay borrowed money will decline, and the government will have to pay higher interest rates. Other borrowers will have to pay even higher rates if they are to stay competitive with the "safe" rate of interest being offered by investors in U.S. Treasury securities. This will make it harder for the economy to stay in a growth mode, because loans to companies will become more expensive. This all happened because we developed a financial system that was too complexly interwoven for anyone to understand or fix. And that happened because transparency and other regulated behaviors were shut down. The go-go economy that developed under such circumstances is not likely to be replicated under the more restrictive regulations that will be emerging in the coming year or two. The "Roaring Twenties" were a legend even into the 1960s. It increasingly appears that the twin bubbles of the dot-com era and the housing frenzy will stand out, for decades to come, as historically remarkable phenomena. I suspect that what Obama *will* say, in his inaugural address, is that we all need to hope and pitch in and make things better again -- and that what he *should* say is that we may very well be at the start of a second Great Depression, and the remedy is to take a lot of bitter medicine immediately if we don't want it to drag on for years. The bad financial instruments have to be mopped up, regulations must return, a calming social safety net needs to be put in place, financial blood must flow in the streets, and then he will have credibility. They will say he wasn't trying to make it look better than it is; he was just no-nonsense. We need a 5.5-month time-out for bad behavior, with the goal of making this July 4 a heartfelt rededication to a fiscally solid, sensible economy and government. That, I think, is the sort of thing that would make a sufficiently strong impression on where we are and where we are going. One part of that bitter medicine is to accept that retailing has changed. We can get there the fast way, maybe, or we can get there the slow way. The slow way may involve some years of getting used to the sight of boarded-up stores, to the point where old movie scenes of busy downtown business districts look strange and even unrealistic. Slowly, the stores will be converted or bulldozed, malls will become skating rinks and indoor jogging tracks, or in other ways the whole face of the retail world will change -- and that new world will seem normal.

Friday, January 9, 2009

WinXP Error: Invalid UI Language Registration List

I got this error inside a VMware virtual machine (VM), running Windows XP Pro in VMware Workstation 6.5.0 on Ubuntu Hardy Heron 8.04:

Registry Corrupt The UI Language registration list is invalid.
This registry corruption was not detected and fixed by either System File Checker (Start > Run > sfc /scannow) or Advanced WindowsCare. Clicking OK on the dialog also did not end it; it just came back with the same message. Rebooting did not remove it: it came back when I went into WinXP's Disk Management and right-clicked on my C drive. A Google search suggested that this was probably due to my recent installation of Corel WordPerfect Office X4. That seemed likely; it wasn't happening in any other VM, and this was the only VM in which I had installed Corel Office. It was apparently related specifically to CorelDraw, which was odd because I hadn't even installed that part of Corel Office. The solution, according to one post, was as follows:
Open the c:\Programs\Corel\CorelDRAW Graphis Suite setup files\CGS13 directory and look for the EN.msi file. Double click on this installs the language pack and then all is sweet.
In my case, a search indicated that the EN.msi file was in two locations: C:\Program Files\Corel\WordPerfect Office X4\Setup\WPO14 and C:\Program Files\Corel\WordPerfect Office X4\Setup\WPO14\Lightning I went into the first one, double-clicked on EN.msi, and the Windows Installer fired up. It said "Preparing to install ..." and then, "Please wait while Windows configures WordPerfect Office X4 - EN." Then it said, "1: EN.msi: This installation cannot be run by directly launching the MSI package. You must run setup.exe." So, OK, I found setup.exe (which would have been on the installation CD, but this was a downloaded version so I had to look in the installation files), ran it, and chose the Repair option. I got an error message:
WordPerfect Office X4 The system cannot find the file specified. c:\program files\corel\wordperfect office x4\setup\ica_en.msi
That seemed relevant. I clicked OK (the only option) and allowed the repair to complete. The ending message said, "Your system has not been modified" and "The system cannot find the file specified." So I ran setup.exe again, and this time I selected Remove. Meanwhile, I found another post that identified the problem as being caused by installing a version of Corel on a machine where another version had been previously installed; but that wasn't the case in this virtual machine, where I had not installed any version of Corel previously. Anyway, after removing Corel, I rebooted the virtual machine. When it came back, I ran Advanced WindowsCare (now called Advanced SystemCare Free), which had a registry fix feature that, I hoped, would eliminate any traces of Corel (since that was what others had said they had needed to do, in order to resolve this problem). (I didn't run the Startup Manage and Privacy Sweep options.) I re-ran AWC until there were no more errors, and then tried running Disk Management again. This time it ran OK. I noticed that my virtual machine was running out of virtual disk space, so I shut it down and used VMware to expand it, thinking that maybe this was why it had not installed correctly. To do the resizing, I went to my previous (very long) post on the process, searched that webpage for "resize," and followed the procedure described there. When I was finally back in the (now enlarged) VM, I reinstalled Corel and rebooted. Disk Management gave me no more problems. Apparently I got the installation problem because I didn't have enough disk space available, and making more space available resolved it.

Ubuntu DVD Burning Problem

I was trying to burn a DVD in Ubuntu Hardy Heron 8.04. Using Brasero, I got this message:

Burning error Error while burning: An unknown error occured. Check your disc.
Or, for those who are searching for phrases, the spelling should be: "An unknown error occurred." I found nothing when searching for the correctly spelled phrase, but the incorrect one brought up a few Google hits. Before digging into them, I clicked on the "View log" button. There, I saw what appeared to be two error messages:
BraseroGrowisofs stderr: File [file path and name] is larger than 4GiB-1. BraseroGrowisofs stderr: -allow-limited-size was not specified. There is no way do represent this file size. Aborting.
Again, presumably the spelling was supposed to be, "There is no way to represent this file size." Apparently the problem was that I was trying to burn a too-large file. It was perplexing that it was too large, because 7-Zip had created it as one in a series, supposedly in the right size for DVD burning. I killed Brasero and tried again to burn the DVD, this time using CD/DVD Creator (the default Ubuntu file burner, which seemed to be the same as the Nautilus program that some people referred to. This time, I got
Error writing to disc There was an error writing to the disc: Unhandled error, aborting
There was no option of reading an error log. When I closed that dialog, I got "An error occurred while writing." The Google search gave me a couple dozen hits this time, but in refined form it really only gave me one or two. The first discussion that came up offered some ideas: (1) they (in 2005) recommended using KB3 as my disc-burning program; (2) they said that ISO filesystems cannot handle files larger than 2GB, and beyond that I would need to use the UTF file system; and (3) they said you get better results if you put your files into an ISO disc image first, and then burn the DVD from the disc image. I started with option (3), using Brasero to create an ISO image. It didn't appear to give me a UTF option, and in the ISO option it gave me the same "no way do represent this file size" error, plus another "HUP" error. Turning to option (1), one source recommended tinkering with the large ZIP file using PgcEdit, which I had no interest in doing. That source also said it might be a problem unique to Hardy 8.04. Another source said KB3 wasn't the solution, but KB3 looked like it had a better user interface, so I decided to install it and take a look, just in case they had somehow upgraded it to handle the problem. Using Ubuntu's System > Administration > Synaptic Package Manager, I searched for KB3 but didn't find it. From its name, I guessed it might be a KDE package, which wasn't the default with Hardy and (to my knowledge) wasn't installed on my computer. I decided to try a different approach. I was using VMware Workstation as a virtualization tool in Ubuntu, which meant that I was running copies of Windows XP in several virtual machines (VMs) on Ubuntu. So I went into VMware, opened one of those VMs, and tried starting a CD burning program. It didn't seem to be recognizing the DVD drive from inside the VM, but eventually I found that a version of Nero would at least burn the large ZIP file to an ISO file, named "CURRENT 01," using its Image Recorder. What I actually got, though, was three ISO files: CURRENT 01.iso, CURRENT 01.iso.001, and CURRENT 01.iso.002. Then, back in Brasero, I selected the option that said, "Burn image: Burn an existing CD/DVD image to disc." I pointed it to the folder where I had put those three ISO files. It would only let me indicate one of them, so I indicated CURRENT 01.iso. It burned the DVD, but ended with this:
Burning error Error while burning: some files may be corrupted on the disc.
The log had a number of messages of this type:
BraseroReadom stderr: addr: 7808 cnt: 64
I closed the error dialog and looked at the DVD in Ubuntu's File Browser (a/k/a Nautilus). It did report that it had burned the entire 4.4GB file to DVD, so apparently selecting CURRENT 01.iso to be burned was the right move. The file I had burned was named Reference.7z.001. It had the .001 extension because I had told 7-Zip to save the Reference folder (containing a bunch of materials I was keeping for reference purposes) in 4.4GB chunks. So this was just the first of several that I would then have to copy back to the hard drive and restore via 7-Zip in order to recover my complete Reference folder. Using Synaptic, I searched and saw that I had already installed 7-Zip in Ubuntu (I had done the zipping using 7-Zip in a Windows virtual machine), under the name of p7zip-full. Using File Browser, I searched File System for p7zip and found it in /usr/lib/p7zip. But it didn't appear I could run it directly as a standalone program, or at least it didn't respond when I double-clicked on it or right-clicked and selected Open. I copied the 4.4GB file back to an NTFS drive to test it, perhaps by using 7-Zip in Windows rather than in Ubuntu, but I kept getting "Error while copying 'Reference.7z.001'." The resulting file, back on the NTFS drive, was substantially smaller -- only about 1GB. So apparently the burn had failed. I tried again. Another failure; pretty much the same problems as before. This approach was not working. I went back into the WinXP VM, and this time I used Nero to create an .NRG Nero image file instead of an ISO. It did the same thing -- created three files, none larger than 2GB. Then I rebooted the computer into native Windows (i.e., not just a virtual machine) and tried burning a DVD from the ISO, using Nero there too. Nero reported that the burn was successful, so it seemed the NRG version would not be needed. I copied Reference.7z.001 from the DVD back to a separate folder on the hard drive and used 7-Zip in WinXP to extract its files. But it wouldn't work right; apparently I needed all of the Reference.7z files (i.e., Reference.7z.002, etc.) before I could check this thing. So, OK, I burned another DVD (there was only one more Reference file, i.e., Reference.7z.002) and then copied its contents back to the hard drive and tried again to test the results by running 7-Zip to unzip the complete contents of the Reference folder. Since there was space on the second DVD, I also burned a couple of other 7-Zip files onto it and copied and unzipped them on the hard drive too. They all worked fine; all my files were back. So the problem was indeed with the Ubuntu DVD-burning software. The hard drive and DVD drive hardware were working fine; 7-Zip was fine; Nero was fine. I just couldn't burn a DVD in Ubuntu if any of the files were larger than 2GB.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Like Father, Like Son: Another Bush's Parting Shots

A quote from BusinessWeek:

Stoking the controversy is the sudden activism of the Bush Administration, which U.S. manufacturing lobbyists often accused of being soft on China. The Bush White House filed lots of dumping cases but tried to head off bigger trade disputes with quiet diplomacy. But on Dec. 19, in one of her last acts as U.S. Trade Representative, Susan C. Schwab filed a sweeping petition with the World Trade Organization alleging that China illegally aids local exporters of Chinese-branded products.
LinkGood partisan move: burden the new Democratic president's first days in office with a no-win controversy that, oh by the way, also burdens the nation. I can't remember if Dick Cheney was also directly involved in the last-minute decision, by Bush Sr., to immure the U.S. in the Somalian imbroglio:
In December 1992 (in other words, after he had lost the election to Bill Clinton), President George H.W. Bush committed US troops to Somalia. With weeks left in his one-term presidency "Bush assures the American people and troops involved that this is not an open ended commitment .... He assures the public that he plans for the troops to be home by Clinton's inauguration in January." .... Less than a year later (the troops were not, of course, sent home before the new president took office), the situation is anything but funny, and after the "Blackhawk Down" episode, President Clinton starts the draw down of American troops.
Not to mention that the current Bush Administration has also taken a sudden interest in putting troops ashore in Somalia again, this time to hunt for pirates.

Best of the Month, Three Years Ago: January 2006

Here are the best items from my personal newsletter postings for January 2006: * * * * * Late-Night Political News from About.com "Have you watched any of these confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sam Alito? Senators are given thirty minutes to question the guy: thirty minutes exactly. Senator Joe Biden’s question took 23 1/2 minutes. His question took 24 minutes. And Alito is smart. He’s brilliant. Do you know what he said? 'I’m sorry, could you repeat the question?'" --Jay Leno "This week, New Jersey voted to temporarily suspend the death penalty. Lawmakers say it sends a strong message to death row inmates: If we can't leave New Jersey, neither can you." --Conan O'Brien "France and Germany warned Iran this week not to pursue their nuclear research program. In fact, France and Germany warned Iran that if they didn't stop their program they would, you know, warn them again." --Jay Leno "Congressmen are actually now returning illegal gifts. I called the weather bureau, and sure enough, hell has frozen over." --David Letterman "You know how sometimes during war time, civil liberties can take a back seat to national security? Well, I got good news and bad news. The good news is this -- no Japanese people are being sent to any camps. The bad news is, that time you got hammered and drunk dialed your ex-girlfriend who's studying abroad and sang her that WHAM! song that was 'your song' -- uh, the government's got that on tape." --Jon Stewart "There's a rumor going around that we have killed Al Qaeda's number two man. And if true, it will be the 387th time we've killed their number two man." --Jay Leno "Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted during an interview this week that he has smacked his children, though only because he believed reports that they were carrying weapons of mass destruction." --Tina Fey "New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin is being criticized for saying that God wants New Orleans to be a chocolate city and that the hurricanes were because God was mad at us. The good news, today he was nominated for the Pat Robertson Lifetime Achievement Award." --Jay Leno "NASA launched its first-ever mission to Pluto, did you see this? The rocket took off to Pluto. President Bush is very excited about this. I didn't even know Pluto had oil." --Jay Leno "And here's your government at work. This week -- this week, the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a recall for thousands of Christmas lights that they say may pose a risk of electric shock. They're recalling Christmas lights. Good timing. What is it, January now? You think this is maybe where the ex-head of FEMA wound up?" --Jay Leno "President Bush met with the Prime Minister of Belgium and things got tense when the Prime Minister demanded the U.S. close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. President Bush quickly replied, 'The prison is closed. That's how we keep them in there.'" --Conan O'Brien "According to a study at the University of Colorado, researchers say morning grogginess can give you a feeling of being legally drunk and unable to think straight. They say this condition can last anywhere from a few minutes in some people to as long as two entire terms in office." --Jay Leno * * * * * Borowitz Report Breaking News FORMER FEMA CHIEF VOWS TO MAKE NEW YEAR'S RESOLUTIONS BY MARCH 1 Michael Brown Apologizes For Delay Former Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael Brown said today that he had not yet made his New Year's resolutions for 2006 but vowed to have them done by March 1 "at the very latest." Mr. Brown apologized for the delay at a Washington press conference that was originally called for ten o'clock this morning but was not actually held until four in the afternoon. The former FEMA chief, visibly embarrassed by not having made his New Year's resolutions in a timely fashion, said that he had been "caught unawares" by the change in years. "I turned on the TV and saw that ball dropping, and I was like, holy cow, I better get on this," Mr. Brown said. * * * * * Clippings Common honey bees can be trained to recognize individual people. One of the newly discovered [types of bacteria in the human stomach] is a relative of Deinococcus radiodurans, one of the hardiest organisms alive. D. radiodurans is a so-called extremophile .... While a radiation dose of 10 grays (Gy) would kill a human, D. radiodurans can take up to 5,000 Gy with no visible effect. It can survive heat, cold, vacuum, and acid. Brown University's library boasts an anatomy book that combines form and function in macabre fashion. Its cover--tanned and polished to a smooth golden brown, like fine leather--is made of human skin. ... The practice of binding books in human skin was not uncommon in centuries past, even if it was not always discussed in polite society. Some 3.5 million of today's Ashkenazi Jews—about 40 percent of the total Ashkenazi population—are descended from just four women, a genetic study indicates. Those women apparently lived somewhere in Europe within the last 2,000 years, but not necessarily in the same place or even the same century. Some whale species sing in different dialects depending on where they're from, a new study shows. Blue whales off the Pacific Northwest sound different than blue whales in the western Pacific Ocean, and these sound different than those living off Antarctica. And they all sound different than the blue whales living near Chile. Scientists have recently discovered that dogs can distinguish, with almost unerring accuracy, between breath samples from people with lung cancer and from people without. Contrary to researchers' expectations, a poll of 439 college students found seniors and grad students were more likely than freshmen to believe in haunted houses, psychics, telepathy, channeling and a host of other questionable ideas. What if some of your memories aren’t really yours? ... In past research, the team found that people, especially twins but others as well, sometimes spar over who owns a memory—and both can’t be right. Thus, “some of the memories in which we play a leading role might in fact have been the experiences of others” .... Many twins have noticed the phenomenon for years. But the researchers, one of whom is a twin herself, say they’re the first to document it scientifically, along with its occurrence among non-twins. Doing novel things together triggers dopamine in the brain, stimulating feelings of attraction. So first encounters that involve a nerve-wracking activity, like riding a roller coaster, are more likely to lead people to pursue a relationship. ... Swiss researchers asked women to choose which T-shirts worn by a variety of men smelled the best. They found women preferred the scent of a shirt worn by a man whose genes were most different from their own .... Love and obsessive-compulsive disorder could have a similar chemical profile: low levels of the brain chemical serotonin. Thus, love and mental illness may be hard to tell apart. ... Oxytocin, a chemical thought to be plentiful in long-term couples with warm, comfortable relationships, is a hormone that promotes feelings of connection and bonding. It is released when we hug our children or our long-term spouses or when a mother nurses her infant. The world record-holder for sleeplessness, Randy Gardner, stayed awake for 11 days straight in 1964. He hallucinated after four days, but held a coherent press conference at the end of the ordeal. According to the first study to put people and their pets on a simultaneous diet and exercise program, experts found both lost weight and kept it off. Dogs did better than owners, but owners said they had fun, something people rarely say about their diets. ... Owners said their dogs had more pep and were anxious to go outside for walks and play. "One of my treatments is to tell them they should move from six hours to seven hours of sleep. When they're less sleepy, they're less hungry," he said. Hurricanes and other strong storms have been known to blow spiders and insects over the ocean. * * * * * When a woman wears leather clothing, a man's heart beats quicker, his throat gets dry, he goes weak in the knees, and he begins to think irrationally. Ever wonder why? Because she smells like a new truck. * * * * * About Selling Your House January 25, 2006: 12:25 PM EST NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - Home sales continued to slow in December, according to a reading of real estate market strength released Wednesday that came in well below Wall Street forecasts. ... The report is just the latest of many to suggest the white-hot real estate market is over. ... Some economists have been worried about the popping of a so-called "housing bubble" caused by the sharp run up in home prices in recent years. ... [M]ost housing economists are forecasting that there will be a slower housing market in 2006. The Realtors' own forecast sees existing home sales are expected to fall to 6.79 million in 2006. * * * * * Bad Analogies From the attic came an unearthly howl. The whole scene had an eerie, surreal quality, like when you're on vacation in another city and "Jeopardy" comes on at 7 p.m. instead of 7:30. (Roy Ashley, Washington) Her eyes were like two brown circles with big black dots in the center. (Russell Beland, Springfield) Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever. (unknown) He was as tall as a six-foot-three-inch tree. (Jack Bross, Chevy Chase) Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph. (Jennifer Hart, Arlington) The moon looked like a discarded toenail clipping submerged in a puddle of saliva on a black formica countertop. (Lindsay Robertson, Brooklyn, NY) John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met. (Russell Beland, Springfield) The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while. (unknown) The thunder was ominous-sounding, much like the sound of a thin sheet of metal being shaken backstage during the storm scene in a play. (Barbara Fetherolf, Alexandria) His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free (Chuck Smith, Woodbridge) He felt like he was being hunted down like a dog, in a place that hunts dogs, I suppose. (unknown) The red brick wall was the color of a brick-red Crayola crayon. (unknown) The lamp just sat there, like an inanimate object. (unknown) His fountain pen was so expensive it looked as if someone had grabbed the pope, turned him upside down and started writing with the tip of his big pointy hat. (Jeffrey Carl, Richmond) * * * * * A PRAYER.... Dear Lord, I pray for Wisdom to understand my man; Love to forgive him; And Patience for his moods. Because, Lord, if I pray for Strength, I'll beat him to death. AMEN * * * * * A Guy Walks into a Bar A guy walks into a bar and there is a horse behind the bar serving drinks. The guy is just staring at the horse, when the horse says, "What are you staring at? Haven't you ever seen a horse serving drinks before?" The guy says, "No, I never thought the parrot would sell the place." A man walks into a bar with a dog. The bartender says, "Hey buddy, can't you read that sign? It says no dogs allowed! Get that mutt out of here!" The man replies, "No, I can't read the sign - I'm blind, and this is my seeing eye dog." The bartender is embarrassed and gives the man a beer on the house. Later that day, the guy is telling his friend about it: "I told him I was blind and I got a free beer!" The friend then takes his dog into the bar and sits down, and the bartender says, "The sign says no dogs allowed! You'll have to leave!" The friend says, "Sorry, I can't see the sign because I'm blind, and this is my seeing eye dog." The bartender replies, "Since when do they give out Chihuahuas as seeing eye dogs?" The man says, "They gave me a Chihuahua?" A giraffe walks into a bar. The bartender says, "Why the long face?" (This joke never gets old) A man walked into a bar holding an alligator. He asked the bartender, "Do you serve lawyers here?" The bartender said, "Yes, we do!" "Good," replied the man. "Give me a beer, and I'll have a lawyer for my alligator." A polar bear, a giraffe and a penguin walk into a bar. The bartender says, "What is this -- some kind of joke?"

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Prediction: Obama Won't Pull It Off

I was wrong once: I thought I had made a mistake, but it turned out I hadn't. (I love that line.) Seriously, I couldn't figure out why Hillary was being such a good sport for Obama. Their meeting in Dianne Feinstein's living room seemed to change everything. Now we can guess why. Hillary didn't mind being passed over for vice president because Obama told her that she would be his pick for secretary of state. Instead of being a mere back-bencher to Number One, she would be strutting her stuff across the world stage. But I do seem to have been wrong about the part where I said Biden wasn't such a shrewd choice for VP. Or at least wrong enough: Obama won the election, Biden does seem to have helped, he has avoided making many huge gaffes, and he still seems like a pretty good guy. So I am predicting the economic outcome of Obama's arrival in office, again taking a critical position, hoping again to be wrong -- not like when I anticipated that Paulson's bailout plan was clueless. Obama is a smart guy. So far, he has seemed to know exactly what he is doing. My prediction, at any rate, is that this won't last. The specific reason is that he's taking a centrist approach to a revolutionary financial situation. He was apparently on board for Paulson's bailout, which wasted not only money but also credibility (Paulson's, at least, and also the government's). Obama's got smart economists backing him, but they generally seem centrist too. Priming the pump isn't going to do it this time. The consumer-driven economy is history. People have been sufficiently scared, by this point, that the money you give them -- like the money Paulson gave the banks -- is going to go into their savings accounts, or to pay some of their bills. Too many people have faced the possibility of simply and absolutely running out of money. They aren't going to be buying a boatload of stuff from China anytime soon. Months from now, maybe. Possibly. But lots will have happened by then. Putting lots of people to work on road repairs and other infrastructure projects is not a bad move. It builds confidence, to some extent, because it seems practical. Nobody can find fault with fixing a bridge that we all need. But it doesn't build confidence in a different sense: it's a stopgap. What happens when all the potholes are fixed? Whatever the answer is, it doesn't counteract the very real sense of financial disaster that you get when you tour the mall and see all the stores that have closed. That was normalcy; this isn't. Trillions of dollars vanished when house prices went south. If you want that money back, you restore the house prices. I doubt there are enough people in the world with the cash to buy those foreclosed homes; but if there are, that would be one possibility: give them instant U.S. citizenship upon their cash purchase of a foreclosed U.S. home costing at least $150,000. Other than some gimmick like that, though, it'll be long years before house prices return to their previous levels. High inflation could make it happen sooner, but in that case the dollars may no longer go far toward purchases from China. Basically, the party is over. Planning for the U.S. economy at this point is a lot like financial planning for the foreclosed homeowner: salvage what you can, walk away, and learn quickly to find pleasure in rental housing. Overstay your welcome, and you and your stuff are going to get thrown out on the sidewalk. In other words, it's a new day. If the federal government wastes its ammo on shots in the dark, it may not have enough left for when a guy can finally see what he's shooting at. The more we toss around loose talk about trillions for this and that, the more we provoke investors to doubt that the U.S. can ever afford to pay it all off. Someday, even the people who buy U.S. Treasury securities are going to put their money in gold or something else instead. What would have a chance of succeeding at this point? That depends on how you define success. We aren't yet ready for a definition that would truly fit the occasion. For instance, a year or two ago, Americans weren't (and many still aren't) ready for the idea that burning food as biofuel is obscene, in a world where people starve and even some Americans go hungry. Right now, people aren't ready for the ideas that American lifestyles were better when America's population was smaller, or that automobiles and highways are wasteful of resources and destructive of the social fabric. It's not a question of whether those statements are true or false; it's that we haven't even yet reached a point of being willing to take such unorthodox ideas seriously. People do want change; they're just not ready for Change. Unfortunately, I suspect FDR's solutions won't work this time. FDR had an increasingly wealthy America to backstop faith in his deficit spending. Obama is going to have to do things differently. My sense is that he needs to act on his liberal convictions and present a vision of a very different country, with particular emphasis on the concept that we will no longer abandon our own. Even in our current economic difficulties, it is just a bad idea to send the message that ordinary Americans may actually find themselves hungry and homeless in the event of financial disaster. That sort of thing creates panic, not confidence. If Obama can take steps to quell the waves of fear that people now experience -- if he can get himself out in front of the country, and can moreover get the country to come his way -- then he's got a chance to inspire enduring confidence rather than mere desperate hope in his abilities. But that isn't where centrism will lead him, and centrism is where he's been headed. That's my bet.