The Year of Starting Over

Chinese New Year was early on the Western calendar that year but the real holiday happened in North Korea. State television interrupted the normal schedule for a speech by an Army colonel named Yee hardly known outside the barren state.

Colonel Yee announced that Great Leader Kim had passed peacefully in his sleep and none of his family members were ready to step into such huge shoes. Yee said he was asked by his colleagues to take up the chair of a new State Administrative Council, whose members included a Navy captain, colonels from the Army and Air Force as well as the senior administrators of the nation’s largest food and clothing collectives. The council would manage the brave Korean people through this difficult transition.

Yee finished his speech by stating that the Council’s first decision had been to withdraw troops and materiel from positions bordering “our family to the south.”

Confused American intelligence analysts had already seen this via satellite coverage, quickly notifying their bosses who had, in turn, interrupted the President and Secretaries of State and Defense from their dinners.

Colonel Yee ended by stating simply that the Council had also determined that nuclear enrichment was no longer a required element of the brave Korean peoples’ development. Accordingly he hoped that “our family members to the south” and their friends would see fit to resume shipments of desperately needed food and material aid.

World reaction was swift: astonishment. Had their been a coup? Yee was, after all, barely a part of the senior military cadre who commanded the Army regiment assigned to protect the North korean capitol. Conservative pundits were skeptical and urged the President to use American forces to roll north while the DMZ was still open. Liberals were just as vociferous in demands that aid be sent on the next available plane.

Before either side could get enough support to do anything, Colonel Yee and several other members of the State Administrative Council appeared again on television. This time the broadcast originated from Pyongyang and sitting with them were the South Korean President and his top cabinet members.

Colonel Yee spoke first.

“The time for the division in our family is over; as was said, a nation divided against itself cannot stand and so tonight we have agreed to end this separation. Together we will forge a bright future that our sons and daughters will build, one that will bring joy, health and prosperity along the entire length of our peninsula.”

Then South Korean president spoke, detailing their plans. He asked the people of the world to see their newly forged nation as an inspiration.

The world’s people did, for the most part. Stock and bond markets raced to new highs with aid loaded onto ships and planes less than 24 hours later.

Eventually details leaked out–as they will even from a place that had been for so many years shielded by secrecy–and we learned that Kim, his adult family members, the senior leadership of North Korea’s military and the top scientists and managers of their nuclear program had all died between noon and 3:00 the day of Yee’s first speech.

Yee was, in fact, the most senior North Korean inside their borders to survive.

Chinese New Year had indeed come early.

In mid-February the world was still sorting out what this new Korea meant when the next bombshell exploded. The CEOs and presidents of the ten largest banks in America, Britain and Japan, as well as the top executives of the largest hedge funds and private equity companies were all poisoned on George Washington’s birthday.

Different poisons were delivered via different channels but with total, fatal accuracy.

Capital markets and pundits were not joyful that day or the following weeks. Almost the entire gain recorded since the ‘good’ news from Asia evaporated by Friday and the remainder soon after.

“We heard a message and our organization is going back to basics, back to what we did that fueled economic growth for the US and for the world,” said Georgina Simand, the new CEO of Citibank, on Bloomberg TV the morning after her appointment. “No more financial engineering or creating Towers of Babel out of mounds of imaginary debt.”

March was the month the ayatollahs and hard liners in Iran, including most of the Republican Guard, died. In the riots that followed so many bodies were destroyed that cause of death died with them. Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States erupted too, none of the ruling families surviving the month. Oil markets temporarily crashed over fears of lost production but the rioters were smarter than that and did little damage to wells, pipelines or ports.

So ended financial support for Islamic terror groups; a few fought on while as supplies and money lasted but most channeled ambitions into political parties. As the Muslim Brotherhood had done some time before in Egypt, Hezbollah became the majority party in Syria while a reformed Taliban were once again atop Afghanistan. Palestinians merged the West Bank territory under their control into Jordan and the Gaza Strip with Egypt; Lebanon was a strange case still being figured out.

The summer months were quieter; a chance to catch one’s breath and find a new equilibrium. In Asia and South America rebels and governments found new ground to talk; Africa didn’t go easily but did find some calm. Tweeters and standup comics got their sarcasm back and @cuteemergency was trending again by making people smile with silly photos of kittens and puppies.

On September 11 the presidents of Russia, America, Korea and China made a joint offer to India and Pakistan to mediate a lasting peace. “Whether the respective national governments accept our offer of mediation or not,” said President Nezhanov of Russia, “multi-national teams are coming in one week to take control of both nuclear arsenals, which will be immediately dismantled.”

The four partners announced their own arsenals would be massively reduced in the same time frame. Behind closed doors, Israel was given a similar requirement for their atomic weaponry. Reluctantly their government agreed.

Thanksgiving in America was celebrated like no other. So much had changed for so many. The same question was asked around many tables that afternoon: who’s next?

An answer came from a surprising if not totally unexpected source.

An earthquake measuring 9.1 on the Richter scale ripped the earth at 2:00 am Eastern Standard Time on December 1st. Centered under the ocean south of Asia, it unleashing a horrendously devastating tsunami. Sea levels had been rising a few inches a year for the past decade but the tsunami unleashed a tidal wave that blasted through the low lying islands and coastal zones of South Asia.

Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Guam, Micronesia, Sri Lanka, the eastern coast of India, southern China, Taiwan and many smaller island countries were simply decimated. More huge quakes followed around the Rim of Fire as Japan, the American and Mexican west coasts, Argentina, the whole of Central America were inundated.

Death tolls throughout the affected zones were uncountable and continued long after waters calmed, from disease, starvation and pure misery. Banditry was rampant as governments struggled to restore basic services to the legions of homeless.

The world sank into a funk. People couldn’t believe that a year which had brought so much change for the better and generated real hope for the future could end in utter darkness and horrific loss.

Emotional whiplash, some geek tweeted, and in true Internet Age style the phrase went viral.

On January 2nd of the next year a tech billionaire tweeted a photo of himself with four other mega-wealthy retirees and their families standing in front of a row of 747 cargo haulers, with supplies being loaded on board. The only text was three hash tags:

#startingover #morecoming #wecandoittogether

The Difference between Obama and the Republicans

Robert Scoble recently wrote, in a comment to his G+ thread on the news blowing up around PRISM, that President Obama “hasn’t exactly been met with love and flowers by the Republicans for the past few years. Shows there still is a difference.”

Sadly I have to disagree. The President hasn’t gotten love or flowers from the GOP because he isn’t a member. If he was elected at the head of the GOP ticket, their response to his proposals would’ve been very different.

In fact we can look back to public statements by GOP Congressional leaders around 2010, they said that from their party’s perspective every single piece of legislation and appointment coming down from the White House should be dead on arrival. In other words the quality of the item being voted on was totally irrelevant.

Efforts like PRISM, and let’s remember that the Administration didn’t feel it needed any new legislation to authorize this monster, are being criticized by Republicans. But if it wasn’t PRISM, if the President had proposed a new MPG standard that treated trucks like cars or sent Secretary of State Kerry to launch a Kissinger-style shuttle diplomacy with the warring parties in Syria, the result would be no different; the GOP Congressmembers and pundits would be out in force telling us how bad this is for America.

Because how can anything proposed by the Democrats be good for America.

Letters to Congress: Stop muzzling Bruce Schneier

I sent this today to my Congressperson, Anna Eshoo, after reading Congressional Testimony on the TSA:

Congresswoman Eshoo,

I was extremely disappointed to read that Bruce Schneier was removed AT THE REQUEST OF THE TSA the from the witness list of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s hearing on the successes and challenges associated with Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT), the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program, the Transportation Worker Credential Card (TWIC), and other security initiatives administered by the TSA.

As a senior member of Congress I hope you will make every effort to reverse this blatantly self-serving ploy by the TSA to avoid an embarrassing public airing of their poor, possibly corrupt work.

I’m not a person who thinks the Federal government can do nothing right, I’ve always voted for Democrats and try to avoid conspiracy theories. However I do feel the TSA has generally been a monumental waste of money, producing trivial results at huge cost in money and inconvenience.

Again I hope you will use your office to have Bruce Schneier, one of America’s greatest resources on real security, testify for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and further to help improve our government by bringing about a total reform of the TSA.

Regards,
Bill Lazar
@billsaysthis

10 Questions for President Obama and his re-election

While the crowd of clowns pursue the GOP nomination, President Obama is unopposed on the Democratic side (as we would expect). Though I expect to vote for him or not at all I would love to get answers to a few questions on positions he’s taken during his first term.

  1. Why has your Administration continued, and even increased, the use of top secret classifications, national security letters and similar dark side tools?
  2. Related: Why is Bradley Manning being prosecuted?
  3. Why are former partners and employees of Goldman Sachs so prominent in your Administration?
  4. Why has your Administration not acted on the Too Big To Fail financial institutions? That is, pushed for legislation and/or regulatory changes that would make them no long Too Big. If anything, these corporations are now even larger and potentially bigger catastrophes waiting to happen!
  5. Iran, North Korea and Pakistan still have nuclear weapons or the capability to build them. Why?
  6. Why is your Administration opposed to medical marijuana and legalization of marijuana and other recreational drugs?
  7. Why isn’t your Administration moving to better protect the environment from fraking and similar resource extraction technology?
  8. Why did your Administration participate in the secret ACTA treaty negotiations?
  9. Why is your Administration extraditing Richard O’Dwyer for creating a website that simply links to shared files, even though the site itself did not offer any shared files?
  10. Why is your Administration, via the DHS, monitoring the Internet for political dissent?

Note: “National security” in and of itself, with no further elaboration is not a sufficient answer to any of the above.

Johnny 99 and the 99 Percent

Well they closed down the auto plant in Mahwah late that month
Ralph went out lookin’ for a job but he couldn’t find none
He came home too drunk from mixin’ Tanqueray and wine
He got a gun shot a night clerk now they call’m Johnny 99

This classic Springsteen song from the Nebraska album went running through my head this morning. Now it’s true that America has always had some significant number of folks barely scraping by–Bruce wrote this 30+ years ago when we were passing through a nasty time with steel mills and factories shutting down all over the country–but seeing news reports showing that one in two Americans are poor or low income makes me think this country has turned a corner. We’re in a bad place, people.

On one end of the spectrum we get the Occupy movement and on the other the Tea Party. Both are fueled by the disparity in income and outcomes, though I like to think one is backed by love and optimism while the other by hate and fear. When Bruce wrote Johnny 99 the average CEO made 40-50 times what the average worker at the same company earned; today the difference has increased an order of magnitude, to 450-500X and this is simply not sustainable.

Well the city supplied a public defender but the judge was Mean John Brown
He came into the courtroom and stared young Johnny down
Well the evidence is clear gonna let the sentence son fit the crime
Prison for 98 and a year and we’ll call it even Johnny 99

Most Americans, naively as it turns out, thought that this could be dealt with through the political process. The two parties would balance each other and in the end act in the best interests of the majority. The two movements are recognition that we’ve been naive and that the political process has been captured by Wall Street and other massively wealthy families. How else do you explain Barack Obama’s actions in supporting ACTA, SOPA, NDAA and the unconstitutional use of police powers as well as his administration’s unwillingness to hold individuals criminally liable for the many acts of corporate fraud behind huge ‘settlements’ the SEC and DoJ have made?

I’m surprised we aren’t seeing more crime by men and women desperate after losing their jobs, homes and semblance of a normal life. The most likely explanations are that most people:

(a) are good and even when desperate not willing to take from others, and,
(b) have been distracted by the bread and circuses of false crises spread through modern media, Twitter and Facebook.

But there’s a limit to how long these two factors will stand in the way and I think we’ll reach it all too soon.

Now judge judge I had debts no honest man could pay
The bank was holdin’ my mortgage and they was takin’ my house away
Now I ain’t sayin’ that makes me an innocent man
But it was more ‘n all this that put that gun in my hand

The ultra-wealthy are unwilling to be discrete. From apartments selling for $88 million to baseball players getting $250 million dollar contracts to the ridiculous antics of the Kardashian family, well, a father seeing this crap and then looking at a wife and baby he can barely afford to feed all sleeping in a beat up old car isn’t going to be too far from deciding some people have too much money and some not enough.

The Tea Party have taken a smart approach, much smarter than I’d have expected. Copying tactics from a previous generation of Republican activists they worked from the bottom up, getting control of local and regional party organizations before the national leadership noticed it. From there they got the likes of Michelle Bachman into Congress and into the Republican Presidential field as a candidate to be taken seriously. Which strikes me as an amazingly good job considering that Bachman is, after all, a complete nut.

The Occupy movement is eschewing the mainstream political arena entirely, recognizing that beyond having been co-opted by the money and drug-like high afforded national politicians the process itself cannot in any reasonable amount of time deliver the necessary changes. This is demonstrated by the widespread use of riot police to suppress Occupy camps and marches with the police action coordinated at the Federal level. Which is, sadly, another way that Barack Obama has disappointed many of the people who supported and voted for him.

Then throw in the onrushing climate change disaster, the looming nuclear threats from Iran, North Korea and Pakistan and the inability of manymost people to see the 18 wheelers running straight at them.

Where this will all end I can’t say. If any of the Sad Sacks who comprise the current GOP field beat Obama next November I think we’ll find out sooner rather than later but even the re-election of Obama is unlikely to defer for long a violent and sad future for many Americans and our companions on this small globe.

At least I get to listen to Bruce for as long as the power grid lets me keep a charge.

Pierce the Corporate Veil: Companies are People too

[Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.]

The corporation is one of the greatest intellectual innovations, enabling activity on a scale otherwise impossible and, I’m convinced, leading to technical and social developments centuries faster than would otherwise be possible.

Historically one of the great aspects is that liability is limited to the corporation and its assets, enabling entrepreneurs and investors to take risks building new technologies and exploring new geographies, from the Erie Canal to Hollywood to Silicon Valley.

But the corporation is not a Platonic Ideal, perfect in conception and required to be unfettered by restriction. Corporations are a tool conceived by and composed of imperfect humans and subject to all the fallibilities of same; how we organize and regulate must and should evolve as circumstances and our understanding change.

So today I assert that the time has come to reduce the liability shield corporations afford its executives. When companies pay multi-million and multi-billion dollar settlements in criminal investigations and civil suits the executives responsible must pay a personal price. After all a corporation doesn’t build a plant that dumps toxic waste or decide that some securities are so solid that insuring them is literally without risk, humans who work for them do.

Matt Taibbi, I think, pointed out that since its founding in 1869 the US Government has bailed out Goldman Sachs 14 times and the companies innovations have lead directly to the last five major recessions/depressions. But no Goldman Sachs executive has gone to prison or suffered much more than a (slightly) reduced annual bonus.

In 2008 we–the American taxpayers and, to be fair, the Chinese and other foreigners who buy our government bonds–put trillions of dollars into Goldman Sachs, AIG, Citi Bank and the other large financial companies so our economy wouldn’t collapse. These banks were “too big to fail” and the people in government and on Wall St who make such decisions turned on the cash firehose.

What the powers did not do, though, was rectify the problem of them being too big to fail but made them even bigger by merging, for instance, Citi with Merrill Lynch and JP Morgan with Bear Stearns.

What they also did not do is bring criminal charges against any executives responsible for such horrendous decisions. Even when independent investigations by ProPublica and others uncovered massive illegal activities in the Magnetar and Hudson Mezzanine offerings, billions of dollars of outright fraud, when the investment banks paid hundreds of millions in fines and restitution, not a single executive at Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan was held personally responsible.

This has to change. When a small number of executives can make decisions that end up putting millions out of work or thousands out of their homes, those individuals need to be held accountable. The nearly impermeable corporate veil must be loosened and I propose this:

When a company agrees to a settlement, criminal or civil, of more than $50 million or 10% of annual revenues in the year the actions in question took place (or the last year, when multiple years) the CEO and two other executives most closely involved in approving the actions are to be held personally accountable. At the very least they must pay a fine equal to their total compensation for any year in which the actions occurred and depending on certain criteria which I’ll leave unspecified here the fines increase to 150 or 200% of that amount. If the settlement is over criminal actions (e.g., SEC, FDA, etc. investigations) then the executives should also serve jail or prison time equivalent to a Class A felony.

Would such changes make companies far less likely to settle investigations and lawsuits? Of course but if the evidence, as in the Goldman Sachs/Abacus case is strong enough to command a $550 million dollar fine I expect its strong enough to win a conviction.

After all, corporations are increasingly claiming all the rights of real people as in Citizens United and other children of Southern Pacific Railroad vs. Santa Clara County. They should suffer the same consequences if they do wrong. Frankly I think this is one change the folks involved in Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party ought to agree on.

“Jewish Problems”

While I rarely post here about Jewish web things I can’t resist with this.

Two (Jewish) researchers have published a paper titled “Jewish Problems” and while you might expect this to be somewhere in the social sciences, that would not be nearly so interesting.

Instead the paper covers a set of questions used by the Math department at Moscow State University in the Soviet era to limit the number of Jewish students accepted.

The paper spawned a healthy discussion on Hacker News–but not about the specific problems of course.

The reason for my post is one pseudonymous comment, my favorite comment on Hacker News in a long time.

In this post, which he starts with “Answering as someone Jewish. . .”, the commenter goes on for a number of paragraphs calmly and logically explaining the (illogical and sad) reasons for most of the historical discrimination against Jews.

Nothing earth-shatteringly original but the simplicity and completeness as well as lack of emotion really made it memorable for me. In this new year, when so many things are decided by shouting and money, I very much appreciated reading this.

Blaming the gun

Today a man in Pittsburgh shot and killed three police officers who had responded to a report of domestic violence. Yesterday another man shot and killed thirteen people in Binghampton, NY. Both gunmen were wearing body armor, apparently prepared to take on any police response.

Online comments, in this case on the Yahoo Buzz discussion of the Pittsburgh story, are certainly not to be taken as more than anecdotal evidence of community sentiment but still I was seriously wound up by the majority of those posted as of now.

Most of the posters seemed more concerned that President Obama and the Democratic congress were trying to override their Second Amendment right to own guns than with the 16 dead people and their grieving families. A couple of particularly sad examples:

these brainwashed killers are brought out intentionally, so to take away our 2 amendment. bring on the chaos so to create more control. gun control that is. biden is on it!said dorite.

Will Obama insist on calling the shooter something other than a murderer? Perhaps this event will be called a “Disturbed Citizen Confrontation.” If we can’t call terrorists “Enemy Combatants.” how can we call Americans “murderers?” said (the ironically nicknamed) Patriot.

Seriously, sixteen people who were doing their jobs or else in the same boat as the murderer are being buried and these dunces want to make up absurd claims with no basis in reality?!

Let’s for a moment, though, take them seriously. Another poster makes the valid point that the majority of gun owning Americans do not use them to murder people or commit other crimes.

Is that a good enough reason to continue allowing Americans unfettered access to all types of guns? The NRA and the rest of the gun lobby use their muscle to prevent any limitations on gun ownership.

The primary arguments I have seen are that people need guns to protect themselves and for hunting. If this is so then why are laws that cover guns and ammunition which are not used in either of them a problem?

The Second Amendment is not, after all, as absolute in its language as the First. “Congress shall make no law” is much stronger than “shall not be infringed.”

Some people will argue that what the Founders wrote should be taken literally and not interpreted, either in regards to the times in which they lived and their other writings or in light of changes since then and current thinking.

My answer is simply WTF. You want a rifle for hunting and a pistol for the house? Fine. Armor-piercing bullets and .50 caliber machine guns? Kiss my heiny.

Another argument is that if we outlaw guns only outlaws will have guns. By definition I suppose that would be true as any hunter who kept a rifle in the garage or homeowner with a .22 in the back closet would be an outlaw. But that isn’t what’s on the table, its just a strawman argument to generate emotional appeal where logic fails.

Finally some will argue that an armed populace keeps the government on its toes, from overreaching its place. When the government has Stealth bombers, divisions of M1A tanks and nuclear subs I do not believe any group of civilians will be able to achive that result.

The only answer for this is to hope some substantial portion of the military will side with, well, whichever side is actually right. Even without the military, the lack of change brought about by various anti-government groups over the last 20 years is reasonable proof that armed civilians cannot succeed.

No, the truth now is that gun owners have become religious. They speak and react with the same zealous vigor as religious fanatics–and not surprisingly there’s a serious overlap of the two groups.

In a way this strange. You shall not kill is one of the 10 commandments, stated as an absolute. Not you shall not kill except in self-defense or in order to eat (the commandment isn’t specific to humans. No killing period.

Meanwhile our families, friends and neighbors are dying in front of our eyes. Are these two men murderers? Yes. Are their guns to blame? No. But when gun-owning fanatics will not allow the least restrictions on gun sales so that clearly mentally unbalanced people can buy them, then they share blame for the result.

Last: Our literal-minded compatriots will make exceptions on the one hand, since it suits them, but not on the other even when doing so might be closer in agreement with their self-proclaimed religious beliefs.

Next time you happen to be in a conversation with a religious gun owner, have some fun and ask them how they reconcile the contradictions.