Thursday, May 28, 2009

Chag Somayach

By Daniel Jackson

The Festival of Weeks, Shavu'ot (Pentacost), is about to begin in Israel. Israelis normally celebrate the Festivals for one day (two days in the Diaspora), but with Shabbot coming the next day, Israelis will have a two-day holiday.

Shavu'ot comes on the evening of the 50th day from Passover, the date of which was traditionally established by the siting of the New Moon in the month of Nisan. Although Judaism uses a fixed calendar, there are some "lunatics" such as myself who go out to "witness" the first appearance of the New Moon after the conjunction--some people refight the Battle of Gettysburg, I go out to find the New Moon.


Last night, I was up north visiting a friend worried about the "dark" times ahead. So, we took a midnight walk across the fields of the Galilee to look at the stars just down the road from where Jonah build his booth. It's good to get some perspective.




Chag Somayach.








Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Memorial Day, Veterans Day - don't confuse them

By Donald Sensing

As a retired Army officer, I tend to get pretty exercised at the widespread notion in the media and public commemorations of Memorial Day that this day is set aside to honor living veterans. It's not. That's done on Nov. 11, Veterans Day.

Memorial Day is to honor and give thanks for the service, dedication and sacrifice of members of the American armed forces who gave their lives in the service of their country. We also honor those who survived their service but have died since.

Which is to say that Memorial Day is set aside to honor the memory of dead, not thank the living.

Memorial Day as we know it grew from diverse strands of decorating the graves of Civil War dead, begun in various towns just after the war ended. One tradition says that Southern women, mainly widows and bereaved mothers, began laying flowers on graves of Confederate dead before the war ended. Many people today think that this tradition continued as a separate Southern practice called Decoration Day, while it was the North that practiced Memorial Day.

While not exactly wrong, it's not altogether true. Beginning with a proclamation by Gen. John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, Memorial Day was first widespread observed in 1868 to honor the dead of the Civil War. Graves of both Union and Confederate dead at Arlington Cemetery were decorated with flowers.

By 1890, all the states of the former northern Union recognized the day, but it still honored only Civil War dead. Southern states did not join in observing this day, continuing to honor Confederate dead on other dates (not uniform across the South). People generally think that this day was called Decoration Day, but I cannot find any citation to confirm it. (The old CSA memorializing of Confederate dead is still on the books of many Old South states; it is June 3 here in Tennessee.)

After World War I, the dead of that war were added to the honor roll of Memorial Day, then almost immediately the dead of all American wars. At that, the Southern states joined in and there has been a unified observance since.

Memorial Day was generally an observance by the several states until President Lyndon B. Johnson issued a proclamation in 1966 designating May 30 as national Memorial Day. There the day remained until Congress passed legislation in 1971 called the National Holiday Act. The Act made Memorial Day and most other federal holidays always occur on a Monday. Whether this served to strip the day of its solemn meaning I'll leave it to you to evaluate.

Unlike Veterans Day, Nov. 11, Memorial Day is a unique American holiday. The other English-speaking nations observe Nov. 11, the date World War I ended, just as we do. However, the observance is called Remembrance Day in Canada, Australia, Bermuda and other lands of the former British Empire. New Zealand observes Nov. 11 in a low key way, the main observance being ANZAC Day, April 25. In the United Kingdom Nov. 11 is also commemorated in a low-key manner, the main observance being the second Sunday of November, called Remembrance Sunday.

In these nations, commemorations accomplish in one day what Memorial Day and Veterans Day do in America.

Monday, May 25, 2009

My dad and other WW2 vets remember

By Donald Sensing

The Nashville ABC News affiliate, WKRN, interviewed a number of World War II veterans at a retirement home last week, my dad among them. Here is the video report my dad is in. The story and more video are here (link may be perishable).

My father was a Seabee in the Navy. His trained specialty (MOS in modern terms) was damage control onboard ships. He served on the battleship USS Texas and the escort carrier USS Bougainville.

video

For the fallen

By Donald Sensing

I addressed Gold Star Mothers and their families, along with many Blue Star families, at a luncheon honoring fallen U. S. Marines on Sept. 17, 2005. The luncheon was sponsored by Tennessee Marine Families, a chartered not-for-profit organization.

The text of the address is here. Many readers will recognize that I modeled five paragraphs of this address on Pericles' oration at the first funeral of Athens' fallen of the Peloponnesian War in 431 bc. You will also see an echo of Shakespeare's "Henry V" in a closing paragraph.

Although this address was specifically honor U.S. Marines who died, I offer it here to honor the men and women of all services who have died for our country. Click here.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Global warming myths

By Donald Sensing

None of what most people think they know about "global warming" is actually true. Here are 10 top global warming untruths:

1. Global temperatures are rising. No, they are not, and haven't since 1998.

2. The polar ice caps are melting. Not so.

3. Droughts have never been so bad. Wrong again.

4. Cities have never been hotter. Yes, they have.

5. The oceans are getting hotter. Nope, the seas are actually cooling.

6. The seas are rising. In fact, ocean levels have been rising for 10,000 years. But they're not rising now. Global-warming alarmists claim that the Maldives will be submerged because of global warming, but in fact the sea level there has not risen for at least 1,250 years.

7. Hurricanes are getting worse. Nope, they're weaker now than they've been in decades.

8. Australi's Great Barrier Reef is dying. No, it's thriving quite well.

9. Snow seasons are shorter. Not hardly.

10. Tsunamis are other natural disasters are getting worse because of global warming. Oh, please, get serious. Tsunamis?

Full explanation of these 10 points is here.

Oh, did you know that acne has been blamed on global warming? As have dozens and dozens of other things, listed here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Gives Good Friday a special meaning

By Donald Sensing

A British sport parachutist jumps from 6,000 feet and hits the ground just as his chute was deploying. Injured yes, dead no. And it was caught on tape. Amazing.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Torture? Depends on your perspective.

By Donald Sensing

Cobb:

And so finally I want to say this, just to wreck your mind for the afternoon. Isn't abortion worse than torture? OK put it this way - if you torture 3 adults for the comfort and piece of mind of 1 million, is it OK? What if you abort half a million fetuses for the comfort and piece of mind of 1 million?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Cool pic of the day

By Donald Sensing

An amateur astronomer has taken the photo of a lifetime - the space shuttle transiting between the sun and the earth.



That is definitely the cool pic of the day. More here. Don't miss Gerard Van der Leun's essay, too!

Star Trek Stuff

By Donald Sensing

I posted my review of ST09 ("Star Trek 2009 not a bullseye but it's still pretty good"). Thanks to Gizmodo and links therefrom, here's some more for the Trekkie people out there.

I remember reading somewhere that director J.J. Abrams intentionally included some subtle elements of the Star Wars series, apparently wanting to salute sci-fi as a genre, not just the ST legacy alone. For example, in the first minutes of the movie the young James T. Kirk, having stolen his stepdad's car, is pursued by a future motorcycle cop, riding a flying motorcycle that immediately brings to mind the speeder bikes of Star Wars 6, Return of the Jedi. Soon after, there's a bar scene full of alien beings calling to mind the bar in SW4, where Han Solo is introduced.

A couple of points, though. One, those Star Wars movies are 30 years old or almost, and so a lot of people seeing ST09 probably aren't much familiar with them. But one does have to wonder, doesn't one, how would USS Enterprise fare against an Imperial Star Destroyer? Well, wonder no more!



Yeah, probably, even though ST09's Enterprise is a lot bigger than the ones that went before, taping out at a hefty 725 meters, almost a half-mile, compared to the old Enterprise's length of a mere 288 meters. But a Star Destroyer is a mile long.

GPS Accuracy to Fall Next Year

By Donald Sensing

It takes 24 GPS satellites orbiting the earth to maintain the accuracy of the system at its present level. But the chances of the Air Force being able to maintain 24 operational satellites starts to drop next year, and lessens with each passing year.

According to a report released by the Government Accountability Office in April, the Air Force ran into problems with being able to build GPS satellites under budget and on schedule. For example, three years late from its original launch date, the next GPS satellite will be launched into orbit in November 2009.

With the hardware currently being used in space, the replacing and maintaining of satellites is crucial, especially since the current hardware we're using has been in orbit for almost two decades. If maintenance is not kept up, then GPS accuracy will begin to drop more and more each year.
As things are going now, the chance that there will be 24 operational satellites in orbit in 2017 is about 10 percent.

Which means we'll be back to this:

Thursday, May 14, 2009

"Money can't buy you happiness"

By Donald Sensing

Four wealthy Yorkshiremen vacationing on the French Riviera reminisce about how happy they were when they were dirt poor:




Now, Conor Clarke, writing from England, asks, "What Makes Us Happy? Not Jobs.."

Joshua Shenk's Atlantic essay on happiness has gotten plenty of response (see David Brooks in yesterday morning's New York Times), but one thing that I find striking about the piece is how little focus there is on material gains as the right route to happiness. When the doctor in charge of the Grant Study lists the factors that predict happy aging -- education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise, maintaining a healthy weight and employing "mature adaptations" -- there is no mention of career success or even career stability. Relationships matter; incomes don't. This comports pretty well with my general understanding of self-reported happiness studies and gives me a chance to print my second favorite graph in the history of economics:

Clarke points out that though this graph portrays Britain, the same results are found around the world. Even though Britons' (and Americans') material circumstances have been improving, often quite substantially and rapidly for the last 50 years or so, we do not claim to be happier now than we did back then.

It would be a mistake to infer, however, that material sufficiency has no relation to happiness. In 1943, Abraham Maslow promulgated his theory of human "hierarchy of needs," a tier of life conditions that Maslow said are necessary for life itself, at the bottom of the tier, and for human flourishing and happiness, moving up to higher-level needs.

At the bottom, of course, are the needs essential to live at all - food, air, water, sleep and other life-essential things. These are physiological needs shared with any other creature. Above them are human-specific (mostly) needs - safety employment, family, and so on. As the tier rises, the needs become steadily less bodily and more psychological - respect, achievement, creativity, and so forth.

Happiness, to Maslow, resulted from being able to meet the higher-level needs, which was in turn dependent upon meeting the basic type of needs. Persons chronically hungry or fearful of their safety are quite unlikely to describe themselves as happy.

Unless ...

As influential as Maslow's work was and deservedly remains, about the same time he published it a man named Viktor Frankl was developing his own theory. Frankl, though, worked as a captive of Nazi Germany, held in concentration camps, where his whole family died. Building on work he had begun before the war, he used his experiences in the camps to refine a psychotherapy built on the hypothesis that the very fundamental human needs are neither bodily ones nor material ones at all. The basic need is to have meaning and purpose in one's life. That is, Frankl turned Maslow's pyramid upside down and claimed that Maslow's higher needs are actually the most elemental.

Frankl's postwar book, Man's Search for Meaning, was named one of the 100 most influential books of the 20th century by the Library of Congress. So it is. And therein lies the key to why people on all points on the economic spectrum can say they are happy, or not.

It is simply this: Material prosperity is not a bad thing (as some of Left would have us believe), but neither is it good, in itself. Things, even an abundance of them, cannot make us happy (though severe, ongoing lack of Maslow's basic needs can prevent happiness). Frankl is right: it what we make of life that makes us happy, which is why, even in the direst of physical circumstances in the Nazi camps, he was able to cling to the conviction there was meaning in his suffering. He relates another inmate insistence that if the camps' survivor could not find meaning in life after the war, there could be no meaning to the camps. To the contrary, Frankl insisted, if there was no meaning in the camps, there could be no meaning to surviving them.

A common theme among the writers of the classics is the unhappy, if not suicidal, wealthy man. One need consider only Charles Foster Kane, subject of Orson Welles' 1941 classic, still ranked by the American Film Institute as the best American movie ever. Stupendously wealthy, surrounded by every material blessing money can buy, Kane nonetheless becomes an embittered old man who finally dies alone, as unhappy as a man can be.



What went wrong in Kane's life? As this clip shows, he suffered from self-inflicted deterioration of the relationships that should have been most important to him, the only ones that could have sustained him and provided meaning for his passion.

That is the key: relationships. And I'll take a look at that in the next installment.

Update: The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development says that the more taxes you pay, the happier you are! Law Professor Paul Caron reports. Read the comments, please.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Star Trek 2009 not a bullseye . . .

By Donald Sensing

... but it's still pretty good.

I may as well jump on the Star Trek review bandwagon and post mine. I went with the fam last evening to see the new ST movie. Is it really a prequel to the other movies and the 1960s TV series? No, it's not, any more than Casino Royale, in which James Bond receives his double-oh designation, was a prequel to the other Bond flicks.

In fact, like Casino, ST 2009 hits the reset button on the franchise. Let me discuss that before I talk about the merits of the movie itself. There are some spoilers here, but get real - how can there really be spoilers when you know in advance that the movie's main intent is to show how Kirk and Co. wind up on USS Enterprise? Yes, they win (as the always do) in the fight with the bad guy and live to tell the tale. So here goes.

James T. Kirk is born in space at the beginning of the show, aboard an escape rocket fleeing the doomed USS Kelvin, captained, for 12 minutes, by Kirk's father, who sacrifices himself to save the crew. We next see Kirk at age 10, having swiped his stepfather's antique Corvette for a joy ride while the Beastie Boy's "Sabotage" plays over all. Kirk, pursued by a cop on a flying motorcycle, drives the 'Vette off a cliff, jumping clear at the last moment.

Herein lie the first clues:

  • The Vette is a 1966 model, the same year that the ST TV series debuted. The Vette is destroyed. Does this mean that the legacy is also being thrown (mostly) off a cliff? Why, yes, yes it does.
  • The song symbolizes that director J.J. Abrams and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are indeed sabotaging the Star trek legacy in order to sart over.

There is other proof within the storyline of the movie, but that would be giving too much away here. Suffice to say that at movie's end it is literally impossible for this movie's story future trajectory to merge with that of the TV series or the previous ST movies. We'll see how that works out. If this film's sequel is as sorry as Quantum of Solace was to Casino Royale, then the reset won't work too well.

So I suggest enjoying the movie as escapist entertainment rather than viewing it as a true prequel or another in the ST series. There are enough trekkie things in the show to establish a good connection with the series' legacy, such as a tribble sitting on Scotty's desk when he first appears, but in the end they do not matter. The movie should have been subtitled, "Starting All Over."

Leonard Nimoy's appearance as "Spock Prime" (so credited at the end) is a nice touch, as is his uttering a few lines from the older movies. It works just right. I thought it quite satisfying when he identified himself to the young Kirk by saying, "I am Spock." After the TV series was canceled, Nimoy tried to run away from it and establish a career as a serious dramatic actor. He even published a book in the mid-1970s called, I Am Not Spock. But, in the winter years of his life he has come to admit that Star Trek has defined his career (actually, he realized this long before now - the sequel to I Am Not Spock is I Am Spock, appearing 20 years later).

The Villain: Eric Bana as the destruction-bent Romulan, Nero, is excellent. He doesn't top Ricardo Montalban in Wrath of Khan, but nonetheless Nero is a worthy nemesis. And his threat is properly galactic: he wants to destroy every planet of the Federation and thanks to Spock Prime, he can (a zipped lip on that one, too).

The Enterprise crew:

Zachary Quinto as young Spock is excellent. Karl Urban as Bones is "excellent-minus," very good, but not quite as good in his part as Quinto is in his. Uhura and Spock have a thing for each other? Who knew? In the TV series it was Nurse Chapel who was enamored with Spock, IIRC, but her role long ago got beamed away. Zoe Saldana plays Uhura very well. Chekov and Sulu are presented competently, if not exactly inspiringly. Young Scotty, we learn, was a chowhound with an overdone Scottish brogue.

Ah, but what of Chris Pine, paying the major role of James T. Kirk? Sorry, bad idea. IMO, he just doesn't cut it. It's not that he acts the part of space cadet, then Enterprise officer, badly, he just doesn't act them as Kirk. You can pretty easily imagine young Spock maturing into Nimoy's Spock, and young Uhura and McCoy and the rest becoming the personalities we already know. But Pine's Kirk is unimaginable to become Shatner's Kirk.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

But how is the movie as a movie? My wife, who is no sci-fi fan, enjoyed it. My eldest son, who is very familiar with the ST legacy, and my young daughter, who is not, also liked it a lot. As for me, I'll put it this way - I'll probably spring for the DVD when it comes out, but I won't pay hard-earned coin to see it in the theater again. There are times to movie seems too frantic and plot developments too forced. But it's enjoyable and pays enough tribute to the legacy to justify seeing it in theater once. So I recommend it. Overall, I give Star Trek 2009 seven out 10 NCC-1701s.

Dracula proven not ever to have existed

By Donald Sensing

Scientists with time weighing heavily on their hands have proven that vampires cannot exist. These are, btw, serious scholarly articles.

The reason is very simple: if even one vampire ever existed, the global population of earth would become vampires within short order. Vampires subsist only on human blood, biting victims on the neck to get it. But the bite turns that person into a vampire, too. S/he then must bite others, who in turn become vampires and must bite others, etc.

One scientist established that just one Nesferatu, biting his first victim in 1600, would have resulted in in all 536,870,911 people of the earth becoming vampires within only two years. But then how would the vampires eat? They're predators, not cannibals.

The vampire empire (heh!) would be so quickly established, wrote one scientist, because defense measures by uninfected humans - stakes through vampires' heart, garlic, etc. - could not defeat the vampire triumph, only delay it somewhat.

Also, says the scientist, vampires have no natural enemies. However, that is patently untrue because I know, thanks to this vampire, that vampires and werewolves are mortal enemies and are killing each other off in carload lots all the time. Well, the ugly ones do, anyway.

So there you are - vampires do exist and if it wasn't for Vampire Kate and her like-minded friends, we'd probably all be werewolves by now. But if I ever get a choice of becoming either a werewolf or a vampire, I'd sure rather spend my years in the undead hanging around with a creature that looks like Vampire Kate than vampires' enemy, who looks like this:

And admit it, so would you.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

US Navy channels Monty Python

By Donald Sensing

Of course you remember the command given by King Arthur at the end of the k'niggets' attack against the French castle:



"Run away!"

Well, that's the advice being given by a senior US Navy officer to ships transiting the piracy-imperiled waters off Somalia: "Navy ship outruns pirates, officials say."

The attempted attack happened Wednesday against the USNS Lewis and Clark, a dry cargo and ammunition ship that supports the U.S. Navy 5th Fleet and coalition ships in the area, the Navy said.

Two pirate skiffs pursued the Lewis and Clark for more than an hour as it headed north, the Navy said. They got as close as one nautical mile from the ship.

The Lewis and Clark sped up and tried to escape the pirates, and the ship's security team issued verbal warnings to the approaching skiffs, the Navy said.

The suspected pirates, who were then two nautical miles behind the Lewis and Clark, fired small arms at the ship. They fell a mile short of the ship's stern, the Navy said.

The Lewis and Clark sped up and the skiffs stopped their chase.

"The actions taken by Lewis and Clark were exactly what the U.S. Navy has been recommending to prevent piracy attacks -- for both commercial and military vessels," said Capt. Steve Kelley, commander of Task Force 53, assigned to the Lewis and Clark.

"Merchant mariners can and should use Lewis and Clark's actions as an unequivocal example of how to prevent a successful attack from occurring," he said.
To which Galrahn at Information Dissemination blog, devoted to matters maritime, responds,
On one hand, the US Navy is telling shipping companies they need to protect themselves, and Congress is suggesting they arm their ships to do it.

On the other hand, the US Navy is telling everyone to run from pirates. Maybe the Congress should go after the US Navy first, because apparently the US Navy hasn't even armed the gray hulled MSC operated US Navy ships to deal with piracy, because according to the US Navy, fleeing from pirates is an "unequivocal example of how to prevent a successful attack from occurring."

I'm not looking for blood, I'm looking for a strategy.
This response seems to confuse a strategic approach to dealing with piracy with the tactical solution to deal with individual pirate attacks. But the pirate threat is actually so low that the best strategy for now may well be simply to deal with individual threats on a case-by-case basis.

The fact is that Somali piracy is not a pressing national-security issue for the United States, so avoiding, rather than escalating encounters is indeed the preferable thing to do. Running away from pirates is the best course of action if the ship has that kind of speed. After all, "don't start nuthin', won't be nuthin'." Speedy sailing is the best tool in the toolbox for mariners in those waters, but it cannot be the only one. CNN's story points out that,
[L]ate Wednesday morning in the Gulf of Aden... a Greek vessel fended off a pirate attack. The Greeks hit the approaching skiff, causing the pirates' boat to capsize, the European Union's Maritime Security Center said in a written statement.

A Spanish crew recovered seven pirates from the water and detained them, the statement said. No casualties or damage was reported.
Which is bully good stuff. On the other hand, there may be large gaps in the tactical, too. Galrahn links to the blog of a merchant vessel captain who reports,
During my transits of the Gulf of Aden I receive no information at all regarding military assets available for protection. In fact the response I get to my numerous reports is ....NOTHING, not even so much as an automatically generated email, something along the lines of "your call is important to us", I mean nothing, not a single message or email even acknowledging that I exist, let alone that I am transiting the GoA. ...

I find myself transiting the Gulf of Aden wondering if any one is even receiving my reports, let alone reading them.
Not exactly a confidence builder, that.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Lodger Has Returned Home

By Daniel Jackson


It's a simple enough headline: IDF Soldier Killed in Action Near Ramallah. The story goes on to describe the action, the manuever, and the unit. Straight and to the point.

(IsraelNN.com) A soldier from the IDF Duchifat Battalion was killed when terrorists opened fire on an army force at Bir Zeit, near Ramallah, in the Binyamin region on Wednesday night. His name was released for publication on Thursday morning: Noam Adin Rechter Levi, 20, from Mitzpeh Netofa in the Galilee.

The IDF force was carrying out arrests of wanted terrorists, part of various operations. In all, soldiers arrested 16 wanted terrorists overnight: Three were arrested in Shechem; one was arrested at Haja, east of Kalkilya; four were nabbed at Shubaka, north and west of Ramallah; three at Deir Salah, east of Bethlehem; one suspect was arrested at Tzurif, southwest of Bethlehem; and four at nearby El Arub.

The Duchifat Battalion is part of the Kfir Regiment (Regiment 900), an infantry regiment under Central Command. It deals mostly with counter-terror operations in Judea and Samaria. Kfir means 'lion.'

It does not tell us about the young man killed in action. Noam was my neighbor. He was my son's role model and friend. The one who looked after the other "Amerikai" in his Shevet in Bnei Akiva. He was their leader and they looked up to him. He was their big brother--the one who told them how to get in shape and prepare when their time to serve arrived. He was bright eyed, full of laughter, and dreams. He believed strongly in "doing the right thing" and that it was not enough to do the mandatory thing. He believed that his duty to his country was also a duty to freedom of the highest order. He believed that these things were worth more than ones life let alone personal comfort.

At the core of Jewish life, especially in Israel across all streams, is the notion of akkim--we are all brothers and sisters--not just spiritually but actually. Long before the news released the story, the word was spreading among Noam's brothers and sisters. It was my son who called me. He and the other boys at his yeshiva from Mitzpe Netofa, the members of Noam's Bnei Akiva group, were going home to help the family prepare for the funeral and the seven days of mourning. Noam taught the lads well.

The Talmud tells of the death of the sons of Rabbi Yochanan. It happened on a Shabbat, when all mourning is set aside. Rabbi Yochanan was at his yeshiva at the time and did not know. When he returned home after Shabbat, and inquired of his sons, his wife spoke to him thusly to prepare him: "Our lodgers have returned to their home".

"For God will give God's angels charge concerning you, to guard you in all your ways." (Psalm 91)

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

"Gangster Government"

By Donald Sensing

That's the way Michael Barone characterizes the Obama administration. The issue is the demonization of Chrysler's bondholders who rejected the administration's "request" to accept 33 cents or less on the dollar to save Chrysler from bankruptcy. Enough bondholders refused to force the bankruptcy filing last week.

By now it's well known that bankruptcy lawyer Tom Lauria said on a WJR talk show last Friday morning that the Obama administration nakedly threatened him if he didn't go along. Barone relates it thus:

“One of my clients,” Lauria told host Frank Beckmann, “was directly threatened by the White House and in essence compelled to withdraw its opposition to the deal under threat that the full force of the White House press corps would destroy its reputation if it continued to fight.”

Lauria represented one of the bondholder firms, Perella Weinberg, which initially rejected the Obama deal that would give the bondholders about 33 cents on the dollar for their secured debts while giving the United Auto Workers retirees about 50 cents on the dollar for their unsecured debts.

This of course is a violation of one of the basic principles of bankruptcy law, which is that secured creditors — those who lended money only on the contractual promise that if the debt was unpaid they’d get specific property back — get paid off in full before unsecured creditors get anything. ...

The Chrysler negotiations will not be the last occasion for this administration to engage in bailout favoritism and crony capitalism. There’s a May 31 deadline to come up with a settlement for General Motors. And there will be others. In the meantime, who is going to buy bonds from unionized companies if the government is going to take their money away and give it to the union? We have just seen an episode of Gangster Government. It is likely to be part of a continuing series.
Comes now one Cliff Asness, who runs fund AQR Capital Management, LLC. Capital was not involved in the Chrysler debacle, but Asness has written an open letter responding to the administration's demonization of hedge fund managers. Here is the entire text.
Unafraid In Greenwich Connecticut
Clifford S. Asness
Managing and Founding Principal
AQR Capital Management, LLC

The President has just harshly castigated hedge fund managers for being unwilling to take his administration’s bid for their Chrysler bonds. He called them “speculators” who were “refusing to sacrifice like everyone else” and who wanted “to hold out for the prospect of an unjustified taxpayer-funded bailout.”

The responses of hedge fund managers have been, appropriately, outrage, but generally have been anonymous for fear of going on the record against a powerful President (an exception, though still in the form of a “group letter”, was the superb note from “The Committee of Chrysler Non-TARP Lenders” some of the points of which I echo here, and a relatively few firms, like Oppenheimer, that have publicly defended themselves). Furthermore, one by one the managers and banks are said to be caving to the President’s wishes out of justifiable fear.

I run an approximately twenty billion dollar money management firm that offers hedge funds as well as public mutual funds and unhedged traditional investments. My company is not involved in the Chrysler situation, but I am still aghast at the President's comments (of course these are my own views not those of my company). Furthermore, for some reason I was not born with the common sense to keep it to myself, though my title should more accurately be called "Not Afraid Enough" as I am indeed fearful writing this... It’s really a bad idea to speak out. Angering the President is a mistake and, my views will annoy half my clients. I hope my clients will understand that I’m entitled to my voice and to speak it loudly, just as they are in this great country. I hope they will also like that I do not think I have the right to intentionally “sacrifice” their money without their permission.

Here's a shock. When hedge funds, pension funds, mutual funds, and individuals, including very sweet grandmothers, lend their money they expect to get it back. However, they know, or should know, they take the risk of not being paid back. But if such a bad event happens it usually does not result in a complete loss. A firm in bankruptcy still has assets. It’s not always a pretty process. Bankruptcy court is about figuring out how to most fairly divvy up the remaining assets based on who is owed what and whose contracts come first. The process already has built-in partial protections for employees and pensions, and can set lenders' contracts aside in order to help the company survive, all of which are the rules of the game lenders know before they lend. But, without this recovery process nobody would lend to risky borrowers. Essentially, lenders accept less than shareholders (means bonds return less than stocks) in good times only because they get more than shareholders in bad times.

The above is how it works in America, or how it’s supposed to work. The President and his team sought to avoid having Chrysler go through this process, proposing their own plan for re-organizing the company and partially paying off Chrysler’s creditors. Some bond holders thought this plan unfair. Specifically, they thought it unfairly favored the United Auto Workers, and unfairly paid bondholders less than they would get in bankruptcy court. So, they said no to the plan and decided, as is their right, to take their chances in the bankruptcy process. But, as his quotes above show, the President thought they were being unpatriotic or worse.

Let’s be clear, it is the job and obligation of all investment managers, including hedge fund managers, to get their clients the most return they can. They are allowed to be charitable with their own money, and many are spectacularly so, but if they give away their clients’ money to share in the “sacrifice”, they are stealing. Clients of hedge funds include, among others, pension funds of all kinds of workers, unionized and not. The managers have a fiduciary obligation to look after their clients’ money as best they can, not to support the President, nor to oppose him, nor otherwise advance their personal political views. That’s how the system works. If you hired an investment professional and he could preserve more of your money in a financial disaster, but instead he decided to spend it on the UAW so you could “share in the sacrifice”, you would not be happy.

Let’s quickly review a few side issues.

The President's attempted diktat takes money from bondholders and gives it to a labor union that delivers money and votes for him. Why is he not calling on his party to "sacrifice" some campaign contributions, and votes, for the greater good? Shaking down lenders for the benefit of political donors is recycled corruption and abuse of power.

Let’s also mention only in passing the irony of this same President begging hedge funds to borrow more to purchase other troubled securities. That he expects them to do so when he has already shown what happens if they ask for their money to be repaid fairly would be amusing if not so dangerous. That hedge funds might not participate in these programs because of fear of getting sucked into some toxic demagoguery that ends in arbitrary punishment for trying to work with the Treasury is distressing. Some useful programs, like those designed to help finance consumer loans, won't work because of this irresponsible hectoring.

Last but not least, the President screaming that the hedge funds are looking for an unjustified taxpayer-funded bailout is the big lie writ large. Find me a hedge fund that has been bailed out. Find me a hedge fund, even a failed one, that has asked for one. In fact, it was only because hedge funds have not taken government funds that they could stand up to this bullying. The TARP recipients had no choice but to go along. The hedge funds were singled out only because they are unpopular, not because they behaved any differently from any other ethical manager of other people's money. The President’s comments here are backwards and libelous. Yet, somehow I don’t think the hedge funds will be following ACORN’s lead and trucking in a bunch of paid professional protestors soon. Hedge funds really need a community organizer.

This is America. We have a free enterprise system that has worked spectacularly for us for two hundred plus years. When it fails it fixes itself. Most importantly, it is not an owned lackey of the oval office to be scolded for disobedience by the President.

I am ready for my “personalized” tax rate now.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Of Odorous Things To Come

By Daniel Jackson

Debka.com tonight is carrying the following post Shabbat cheer.

DEBKAfile's Washington sources report that their host is fired up to be the first US president in decades of close friendship and cooperation to clash openly with Israel and the bulk of US Jewry. Oblivious to Israel's claim of US support for its security in a hostile regional environment, Barack Obama is expected to squeeze the Netanyahu government hard for immediate engagement on the Middle East conflict without further delay.

According to our sources, the White House staff is working at top speed on options for imposing its will.

Peres and Netanyahu will be informed that Washington is setting up two trilateral peace commissions to hammer out peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel with the Syrians.

What will the BO plan look like?

It starts out with pressure on Israel to freeze settlement activity on the West Bank and construction in East Jerusalem. At a later stage, Israel would be pushed to abandon large sections of the West Bank, remove authorized communities as well as unauthorized outposts and hand over the historic nucleus of Jerusalem.

Finally, the Israeli government would be required to accept an independent Palestinian state, even if its government is dominated by the rejectionist terrorist group Hamas.

Peres and Netanyahu will find administration officials deaf not only on Israel's arguments on the Palestinian issue but on a nuclear-armed Iran too. They will see the US president no longer prioritizing the suspension of Iran's nuclear aspirations, but bent on establishing a new Persian Gulf order that formalizes Iran's rising power. Washington's objective now is negotiations for setting the boundaries of Iran's Middle East expansion and limits for its nuclear program.

Israel will have no say in this process. In fact, by elevating Iran to premier regional power, America is sidelining its longstanding friends, Israel and Egypt, and setting aside their security and strategic interests for the sake of deals with Iran.

Dennis Ross, US envoy for Iran, carried this message to the capitals of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, last week.

It is interesting to note that two of the "big three" in the current Israeli government, Netanyahu and Barak, are veterans of the former Clinton era failed peace accords. They are not likely to go willingly, especially since the mandate of the Israeli electorate in the last election clearly signaled the total lack of trust in the current Oslo-road-map derivatives.

The third key member of the big three is Lieberman--Mr. Surprise. Already forging new ground with Egypt, the other loser to the BO Iranian Surrender, the Foreign Minister's current success might be surprising to Americans but not to Israel's neighbors. Lieberman is neither American nor European. He is Russian with all that entails.

Over here, in this part of the world, that says volumes. For one thing, Russians, being more Asiatic than European, understand how the Shuk works. Russians are known to tell you where they stand on prices and their true initial bargaining position. Israel's neighbors find that very refreshing. Instead of vague nuanced talk, Russians are known for their negotiating bluntness. For years, liberals have dawdled and dallied around where they hold as the starting point in negotiations. Lieberman is quite plain.

All of this is quite interesting with respect to BO, person of the volk. It would appear that the man who wishes to be the FD Roosevelt on domestic policies, wants to be the T Roosevelt around the world's other canal of note.

Oh well. Maybe BO is learning from the Russians. It will be nice when the canard that the Jews are to blame for ALL the ills of the Middle East is finally in the open.

So much for Never Again.

Friday, May 1, 2009

"Totally ready for the Zombie Apocalypse"

By Donald Sensing

That's how some Marines thought of themselves at a remote outpost in Iraq in March 2008.

Watchtowers festooned with machine guns and grenade launchers overlooked the maze of obstacles littering Entry Control Points.

The Marines lived in conex boxes which were converted shipping crates covered in sandbags and Hesco barriers. The Company Commander, myself, the XO and our air officer all lived in one room together that used to be some kind of meat locker.

Indirect fire from insurgent mortar teams was pretty regular until we killed them all.
But this tour's conditions are totally sucky:
The Marines live in air conditioned trailers we call ‘cans’ and fit two to a room. They have electricity, mattresses, cable for AFN television, and even wireless connections are available for internet use! ...

On base, there is a Subway, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Burger King, KFC, and a stinkin’ Cinnabon! There is a Green Bean Coffee Shop, though I see no reason to bad mouth that fine company. ...

The base is totally inundated with Army, Air Force, Navy, KBR workers, and third country nationals.

It IS the Zombie Apocalypse.

Oh, it's budget time again . . .

By Donald Sensing

Remember that the operating meme of our government has been openly stated by its top officials, including the secretary of state herself: "Never waste a good crisis."

Now consider two reports about the swine flu. First, the AP reports, "Swine flu may be less potent than first feared."

The swine flu outbreak that has alarmed the world for a week now appears less ominous, with the virus showing little staying power in the hardest-hit cities and scientists suggesting it lacks the genetic fortitude of past killer bugs. President Barack Obama even voiced hope Friday that it may turn out to be no more harmful than the average seasonal flu.

In New York City, which has the most confirmed swine flu cases in the U.S. with 49, swine flu has not spread far beyond cases linked to one Catholic school. In Mexico, the epicenter of the outbreak, very few relatives of flu victims seem to have caught it.

A flu expert said he sees no reason to believe the virus is particularly lethal. And a federal scientist said the germ's genetic makeup lacks some traits seen in the deadly 1918 flu pandemic strain and the more recent killer bird flu.
But don't worry - the World Health Organization is on it: "WHO Raises Swine Flu Alert to Level 5."
The World Health Organization has raised the swine flu pandemic alert level to phase 5 - just one step below the highest level. The decision comes as the number of countries with confirmed cases rises to at least 10. ...

The increase to level 5 indicates that there is sustained human-to-human transmission in communities in different geographical locations.
That last item, of course, directly contradicts the empirical evidence reported by the AP.

Why do I get the impression that it's budget-pleading time at the WHO? Wait, with any government or UN agency, it's always budget-pleading time.

My prediction, noted epidemiologist that I am: within two weeks the swine flu will have fizzled like a wet firecracker, pandemic-wise. People will still be getting sick, but Level 5 emergency (much less Level 6)? Nope.

Remember, here in the US, between 30,000-35,000 people die every year from flu of the ordinary type. "Ordinary" flu means, of course, flu strains without a catchy, crisis- and cable-news-ready name.

Remind me this fall to write a post warning people of the threat of the hackengag flu.