Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Daily "Near You?"

Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, USA. Thanks for stopping by.

M. Scott Peck

"Most do not fully see this truth that life is difficult. Instead they moan more or less incessantly, noisily or subtly, about the enormity of their problems, their burdens, and their difficulties as if life were generally easy, as if life should be easy. They voice their belief, noisily or subtly, that their difficulties represent a unique kind of affliction that should not be and that has somehow been especially visited upon them, or else upon their families, their tribe, their class, their nation, their race or even their species, and not upon others." "Problems do not go away. They must be worked through or else they remain, forever a barrier to the growth and development of the spirit."

- M. Scott Peck

Study: "Women NOT More Talkative Than Men"

"Refuting the popular stereotype that females talk more than men, researchers at The University of Texas at Austin have found women and men both use an average of 16,000 words each day. The psychology researchers have published their findings in “Are Women Really More Talkative Than Men?” in the July issue of Science.
For more than a decade, researchers have claimed that women use far more words each day than men. One set of numbers that is commonly tossed around is that women use 20,000 words per day compared to only 7,000 for men. “These findings have been reported widely by national media and have entered the cultural mainstream,” James W. Pennebaker, chair of the Psychology Department and co-author of the study, said. “Although many people believe the stereotypes of females as talkative and males as reticent, there is no large-scale study that systematically has recorded the natural conversations of large groups of people for extended period of time.”

For eight years, the psychology researchers have developed a method for recording natural language using the electronically activated recorder (EAR). The unobtrusive digital voice recorder tracks people’s interactions, including their conversations. The researchers analyzed the transcripts of almost 400 university students in the United States and Mexico whose daily interactions were recorded between 1998 and 2004. The research participants could not control the EAR, which automatically records for 30 seconds every 12.5 minutes, and did not know when the device was on."
Source: University of Texas at Austin,

Soren Kierkegaard

"Face the facts of being what you are,
for that is what changes what you are."

- Soren Kierkegaard

Economist Paul Krugman: "Not Like Argentina"

"Mexico. Brazil. Argentina. Mexico, again. Thailand. Indonesia. Argentina, again.And now, the United States. The story has played itself out time and time again over the past 30 years. Global investors, disappointed with the returns they’re getting, search for alternatives. They think they’ve found what they’re looking for in some country or other, and money rushes in.

But eventually it becomes clear that the investment opportunity wasn’t all it seemed to be, and the money rushes out again, with nasty consequences for the former financial favorite. That’s the story of multiple financial crises in Latin America and Asia. And it’s also the story of the U.S. combined housing and credit bubble. These days, we’re playing the role usually assigned to third-world economies.The origins of our problem are pretty much the same. And understanding those origins also helps us understand where U.S. economic policy went wrong.

The global origins of our current mess were actually laid out by none other than Ben Bernanke, in an influential speech he gave early in 2005, before he was named chairman of the Federal Reserve. Mr. Bernanke asked a good question: “Why is the United States, with the world’s largest economy, borrowing heavily on international capital markets — rather than lending, as would seem more natural?” His answer was that the main explanation lay not here in America, but abroad. In particular, third world economies, which had been investor favorites for much of the 1990s, were shaken by a series of financial crises beginning in 1997. As a result, they abruptly switched from being destinations for capital to sources of capital, as their governments began accumulating huge precautionary hoards of overseas assets.

The result, said Mr. Bernanke, was a “global saving glut”: lots of money, all dressed up with nowhere to go. In the end, most of that money went to the United States. Why? Because, said Mr. Bernanke, of the “depth and sophistication of the country’s financial markets.” All of this was right, except for one thing: U.S. financial markets, it turns out, were characterized less by sophistication than by sophistry, which my dictionary defines as “a deliberately invalid argument displaying ingenuity in reasoning in the hope of deceiving someone.” E.g., “Repackaging dubious loans into collateralized debt obligations creates a lot of perfectly safe, AAA assets that will never go bad.”

In other words, the United States was not, in fact, uniquely well-suited to make use of the world’s surplus funds. It was, instead, a place where large sums could be and were invested very badly. Directly or indirectly, capital flowing into America from global investors ended up financing a housing-and-credit bubble that has now burst, with painful consequences. The saving grace of America’s situation is that our foreign debts are in our own currency. This means that we won’t have the kind of financial death spiral Argentina experienced, in which a falling peso caused the country’s debts, which were in dollars, to balloon in value relative to domestic assets. But even without those currency effects, the next year or two could be quite unpleasant.

What should have been done differently? Some critics say that the Fed helped inflate the housing bubble with low interest rates. But those rates were low for a good reason: although the last recession officially ended in November 2001, it was another two years before the U.S. economy began delivering convincing job growth, and the Fed was rightly concerned about the possibility of Japanese-style prolonged economic stagnation. The real sin, both of the Fed and of the Bush administration, was the failure to exercise adult supervision over markets running wild.

It wasn’t just Alan Greenspan’s unwillingness to admit that there was anything more than a bit of “froth” in housing markets, or his refusal to do anything about subprime abuses. The fact is that as America’s financial system has grown ever more complex, it has also outgrown the framework of banking regulations that used to protect us — yet instead of an attempt to update that framework, all we got were paeans to the wonders of free markets."

What is the "Avebury Stone Circle?"

"When in Wiltshire, one should most certainly visit Stonehenge, which is undoubtedly the world's most famous stone circle. But one should also make time to visit Wiltshire's "other" stone circle, Avebury - which holds the distinction of being the largest in the world.
Avebury is believed to have been constructed between approximately 2600 and 2500 BC, though some estimates date the Cove stones of the inner northern circle to as early as 3000 BC. The site actually consists of several circles within circles. The outermost ring is a massive earthwork: A grassy, 20-foot bank of chalk a mile in circumference and 427 meters in diameter. Within this bank lies a ditch, with four entrances (north, south, east, and west). Within this ditch stands the first, and largest, ring of stones, which encloses an area of nearly 28 acres. Once, this ring consisted of 98 sarsen stones; today, only 27 remain standing. It, in turn, encloses two smaller circles. The northern inner ring measures 320 feet in diameter, with only four of its original 27 stones still standing; the southern ring measures 340 feet in diameter, and retains five of its original 29 stones.

By most accounts, these two inner rings are the oldest part of the monument, and the oldest portion of all may be the huge Cove stones, which once stood in the center of the northern circle. Originally there were three; today only two remain, flanking the modern path that winds to the top of the embankment. The sarsen stones, like those of Stonehenge, were brought from Marlborough Downs, some two miles away -- no small achievement, given that some weighed as much as 40 tons! The stones were then raised into position and often set as deeply as two feet into the chalk soil. Excavations of the surrounding ditch show that its creation involved digging away nearly 200,000 tons of rock, using stone tools and antler picks. There are indications that this ditch may have originally been filled with water, so that the stones would have appeared to have been standing upon an island or within a moat."
"New Agers believe the Avebury stone circle is the cosmic energy center of England, a focus of ley lines that channel the powers of the universe to a hot little fusion. Well, maybe, but I think not. Still, there can be no doubt that Avebury was a power center in that long ago time when the megaliths were raised.

The primary circle, a quarter-mile in diameter, originally consisted of 98 rough megaliths, each weighing 40 tons or more, dragged from the nearby Marborough Downs. Another 56 stones stood in two inner circles. The whole thing is surrounded by a massive earth bank and deep moat. Archeologists estimate it took more than a million man-hours to build the complex. Nearby, the earth mound known as Silbury Hill looms like a miniature mountain. It has been estimated that heaping up this colossal dirt pile - of uncertain purpose - would have required 18 million man-hours, or 700 men working for 10 years. All this when the population of the region was no more than 10,000 souls. Clearly, this was not the work of a carefree band of peaceable hobbit farmers living in sweet harmony with the land, gathering in their magic circle on seasonal holidays to celebrate the cycles of the sun. Planning and executing such megaprojects surely required massive changes in the way society was organized.

Which sent me back to a book I read many years ago, cultural historian Lewis Mumford's 'The Myth of the Machine.' Mumford begins by emphasizing those human characteristics that do not leave a tangible archeological record -- Homo ludens rather than Homo faber. The burial of a body tells us more about human nature than the tool that dug the grave, says Mumford. With man's persistent exploration of his own organic capabilities, nose, eyes, ears, tongue, lips, and sexual organs were given new roles to play. Even the hand was no mere horny specialized work-tool: it stroked a lover's body, held a baby close to the breast, made significant gestures, or expressed in shared ritual and ordered dance some otherwise inexpressible sentiment abut life or death, a remembered past, or an anxious future. Tool-technics, in fact, is but a fragment of biotechnics: man's total equipment for life.

We catch here a glimpse of hobbit life in the peaceful shire far away from the smoky techno-engine of Mordor. Mumford's book is a warning against letting technique overwhelm those things that are more fundamentally human. At Avebury I think we see on a more modest scale the reorganization of society around technique that Mumford examines in ancient Egypt and the river valleys of the Mideast: The centralization of political power in a kingship or oligarchy, stratification of social classes, a lifetime division of labor, the mechanization of production, the magnification of military power, the economic exploitation of the weak, and the introduction of slavery or forced labor for the purpose of aggrandizing royal stature. Perhaps the peoples of the Marborough Downs in 2500 B.C. turned their hands and minds willingly to the construction of their versions of the pyramids and ziggurats, but I rather suspect it was more like what Mumford describes - more ant colony than hobbit shire.

And, of course, religion would have been part of the mix. The wielders of power - those lords who prepared for themselves those fabulous tombs - held the keys to the afterlife. Religion was the glue that held the machine together, that greased the wheels of megalomania. The subsistence farmer - our happy hobbit - who was corralled from his fields to carry dirt to make the massive Silbury Hill presumably expected his reward beyond the grave. Feminine earth gods were supplemented by a masculine sky-god whose transcendent will was expressed through the divine rights of priests and kings. "Those earth gods and sky gods remained side by side in most cultures," writes Mumford, "but if the vegetation gods continued to be more sympathetic, lovable, and popular, there is no doubt which were the more powerful."

"Native Americans Have Single Ancestral Population"

"For two decades, researchers have been using a growing volume of genetic data to debate whether ancestors of Native Americans emigrated to the New World in one wave or successive waves, or from one ancestral Asian population or a number of different populations. Now, after painstakingly comparing DNA samples from people in dozens of modern day Native American and Eurasian groups, an international team of scientists thinks it can put the matter to rest: Virtually without exception the new evidence supports the single ancestral population theory.
DNA evidence shows that Native Americans and Greenlanders are more closely related to each other than to any other existing Asian populations, except those that live at the very edge of the Bering Strait. "Our work provides strong evidence that, in general, Native Americans are more closely related to each other than to any other existing Asian populations, except those that live at the very edge of the Bering Strait," said Kari Britt Schroeder, a lecturer at the University of California, Davis, and the first author on the paper describing the study. "While earlier studies have already supported this conclusion, what's different about our work is that it provides the first solid data that simply cannot be reconciled with multiple ancestral populations," said Schroeder, who was a Ph.D. student in anthropology at the university when she did the research. The study is published in the May issue of the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.

The team's work follows up on earlier studies by several of its members who found a unique variant (an allele) of a genetic marker in the DNA of modern-day Native American people. Dubbed the "9-repeat allele," the variant (which does not have a biological function), occurred in all of the 41 populations that they sampled from Alaska to the southern tip of Chile, as well as in Inuit from Greenland and the Chukchi and Koryak people native to the Asian (western) side of the Bering Strait. Yet this allele was absent in all 54 of the Eurasian, African and Oceanian groups the team sampled. Overall, among the 908 people who were in the 44 groups in which the allele was found, more than one out of three had the variant.

In these earlier studies, the researchers concluded that the most straightforward explanation for the distribution of the 9-repeat allele was that all modern Native Americans, Greenlanders and western Beringians descend from a common founding population. Furthermore, the fact that the allele was absent in other Asian populations most likely meant that America's ancestral founders had been isolated from the rest of Asia for thousands of years before they moved into the New World: that is, for a period of time that was long enough to allow the allele to originate in, and spread throughout, the isolated population.

As strong as this evidence was, however, it was not foolproof. There were two other plausible explanations for the widespread distribution of the allele in the Americas. If the 9-repeat allele had arisen as a mutation multiple times, its presence throughout the Americas would not indicate shared ancestry. Alternatively, if there had been two or more different ancestral founding groups and only one of them had carried the 9-repeat allele, certain circumstances could have prompted it to cross into the other groups and become widespread. Say that there was a second allele — one situated very close to the 9-repeat allele on the DNA strand — that conferred a strong advantage to humans who carried it. Natural selection would carry this allele into new populations and because of the mechanics of inheritance, long stretches of DNA surrounding it, including the functionless 9-repeat allele, would be carried along with the beneficial allele.

To rule out these possibilities, the research team, which was headed by Noah Rosenberg at the University of Michigan, scrutinized DNA samples of people from 31 modern-day Asian populations, 19 Native American, one Greenlandic and two western Beringian populations. They found that in each sample that contained the 9-repeat allele, short stretches of DNA on either side of it were characterized by a distinct pattern of base pairs, a pattern they seldom observed in people without the allele. "If natural selection had promoted the spread of a neighboring advantageous allele, we would expect to see longer stretches of DNA than this with a similarly distinct pattern," Schroeder said. "And we would also have expected to see the pattern in a high frequency even among people who do not carry the 9-repeat allele. So we can now consider the positive selection possibility unlikely."

The results also ruled out the multiple mutations hypothesis. If that had been the case, there would have been myriad DNA patterns surrounding the allele rather than the identical characteristic signature the team discovered. "There are a number of really strong papers based on mitochondrial DNA — which is passed from mother to daughter — and Y-chromosome DNA — which is passed from father to son — that have also supported a single ancestral population," Schroeder said. "But this is the first definitive evidence we have that comes from DNA that is carried by both sexes."

Contact: Liese Greensfelder,, University of California - Davis

H.L. Mencken

"I believe it is better to tell the truth than to lie.
I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave.
And I believe that it is better to know than to be ignorant."
- H.L. Mencken

Health: "Want to Live Longer, See Better? Drink Wine!"

"Drinking up to half a glass of wine a day may boost life expectancy by five years—at least in men—suggests research published ahead of print in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. The Dutch authors base their findings on a total of 1,373 randomly selected men whose cardiovascular health and life expectancy at age 50 were repeatedly monitored between 1960 and 2000.

The researchers looked into how much alcohol the men drank, what type it was, and over what period, in a bid to assess whether this had any impact on the risks of their dying from cardiovascular disease, cerebrovascular disease, and from all causes. They also tracked weight and diet, whether the men smoked, and for how long, and checked for the presence of serious illness. During the 40 years of monitoring, 1,130 of the men died. Over half the deaths were caused by cardiovascular disease. The proportion of men who drank alcohol almost doubled from 45% in 1960 to 86% in 2000, with the proportion of those drinking wine soaring from 2% to 44% during that period.

The researchers found that light long term alcohol consumption of all types—up to 20 g a day— extended life by around two extra years compared with no alcohol at all. Extended life expectancy was slightly less for those who drank more than 20 g. And men who drank only wine, and less than half a glass of it a day, lived around 2.5 years longer than those who drank beer and spirits, and almost five years longer than those who drank no alcohol at all. Drinking wine was strongly associated with a lower risk of dying from coronary heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, and death from all causes. These results held true, irrespective of socioeconomic status, dietary and other lifestyle habits, factors long thought to influence the association between wine drinking and better health."

"Red Wine Consumption Decreases Risk of Cataract: That is the conclusion of researchers in the Reykjavik Eye Study who have followed the health and diet of a group of over 55 year olds for a period of five years. The study examined the progression of age-related eye disease in Iceland and was mainly concerned with cataract, glaucoma, and age-related macular degeneration. The alcohol consumption research was designed to look at whether there was an association between cataract development and alcohol use. Results showed that non-drinkers and heavy drinkers of any sort of alcohol had a substantially increased risk for cataract development, while moderate red wine drinkers had only half the risk.

For red wine drinkers, moderate consumption was anything between two glasses per month to two or three glasses per day. Moderate red wine drinking had the largest protective effect, but drinking moderate amounts of spirits, such as whiskey or brandy, also had a protective effect - just not as strong. Beer drinkers, on the other hand, had an increased risk of developing cataracts.

The New Zealand Association of Optometrists welcomes these new findings. The Association has been urging people to eat for eye health in a bid to reduce the burden of eye disease for our senior citizens. "Healthy eating just got more attractive", says Dr. Lesley Frederikson, National Director of the NZ Association of Optometrists, "people understand the benefits of the Mediterranean diet for reduced heart risk and now we find that it is good for your eyes as well." Dr. Frederikson recommends eating foods rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants; keeping fat intake low; and eating fish at least twice a week. "These have all been suggested as protective factors in relation to age-related eye disease such as macular degeneration" she says. "Now we can add in a glass or two of red wine and still be eating healthy." As part of the annual Save our Sight Campaign, optometrists are encouraging people to take good care of their eyes throughout life to ensure good vision and maintenance of independent living into old age. Poor vision is associated with lower quality of life, depression, falls and fractures, and earlier need for institutionalised care."

"AH1N1 Swine Flu Update, Information," 4/30/09

"The Geneva-based World Trade Organization on Wednesday raised its alert level for the fast-spreading swine flu to its next-to-highest notch, signaling a global pandemic could be imminent. The move came after the virus spread to at least 10 U.S. states from coast to coast and swept deeper into Europe. "It really is all of humanity that is under threat during a pandemic," said WHO Director General Margaret Chan. "We do not have all the answers right now but we will get them."

In the United States, President Barack Obama mourned the first U.S. death, a Mexican toddler who had traveled with his family to Texas. Total American cases surged to nearly 100, and Obama said wider school closings might be necessary. In Mexico, where the flu is believed to have originated, officials said Wednesday the disease is now confirmed or suspected in 159 deaths, and nearly 2,500 illnesses. There were no other deaths confirmed from the flu. But health officials in the United States and around the world braced for them."
"In Phase 1: In nature, influenza viruses circulate continuously among animals, especially birds. Even though such viruses might theoretically develop into pandemic viruses, in Phase 1 no viruses circulating among animals have been reported to cause infections in humans.
In Phase 2 an animal influenza virus circulating among domesticated or wild animals is known to have caused infection in humans, and is therefore considered a potential pandemic threat.
In Phase 3, an animal or human-animal influenza reassortant virus has caused sporadic cases or small clusters of disease in people, but has not resulted in human-to-human transmission sufficient to sustain community-level outbreaks. Limited human-to-human transmission may occur under some circumstances, for example, when there is close contact between an infected person and an unprotected caregiver. However, limited transmission under such restricted circumstances does not indicate that the virus has gained the level of transmissibility among humans necessary to cause a pandemic.
Phase 4 is characterized by verified human-to-human transmission of an animal or human-animal influenza reassortant virus able to cause “community-level outbreaks.” The ability to cause sustained disease outbreaks in a community marks a significant upwards shift in the risk for a pandemic. Any country that suspects or has verified such an event should urgently consult with WHO so that the situation can be jointly assessed and a decision made by the affected country if implementation of a rapid pandemic containment operation is warranted. Phase 4 indicates a significant increase in risk of a pandemic but does not necessarily mean that a pandemic is a forgone conclusion.
Phase 5 is characterized by human-to-human spread of the virus into at least two countries in one WHO region. While most countries will not be affected at this stage, the declaration of Phase 5 is a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent and that the time to finalize the organization, communication, and implementation of the planned mitigation measures is short.
Phase 6, the pandemic phase, is characterized by community level outbreaks in at least one other country in a different WHO region in addition to the criteria defined in Phase 5. Designation of this phase will indicate that a global pandemic is under way.

During the post-peak period, pandemic disease levels in most countries with adequate surveillance will have dropped below peak observed levels. The post-peak period signifies that pandemic activity appears to be decreasing; however, it is uncertain if additional waves will occur and countries will need to be prepared for a second wave. Previous pandemics have been characterized by waves of activity spread over months. Once the level of disease activity drops, a critical communications task will be to balance this information with the possibility of another wave. Pandemic waves can be separated by months and an immediate “at-ease” signal may be premature.

In the post-pandemic period, influenza disease activity will have returned to levels normally seen for seasonal influenza. It is expected that the pandemic virus will behave as a seasonal influenza A virus. At this stage, it is important to maintain surveillance and update pandemic preparedness and response plans accordingly. An intensive phase of recovery and evaluation may be required."

Henry David Thoreau

"CitiBank Wants NEW Bonuses To Retain Employees?!"

A personal comment: What planet do these sociopaths live on? The true unemployment rate is around 20%, millions of people have lost thier homes through foreclosure, people everywhere are really suffering, and these idiots are threatening to quit their jobs if they don't get more BONUSES? The only reason they still have jobs at all is because of TARP rescue "loans", otherwise they'd be bankrupt, as they should have been, and ALL of them would be looking for jobs, which is what should have happened. If I were one of these clowns, noting the mood of the country right now, I'd shut my stupid mouth, be very grateful to have a job at all, and do absolutely nothing to draw attention to myself. You never know who might be looking...

"Citigroup is worried about losing employees, and trying to figure out how to retain them.CEO Vikram Pandit has talked with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner about the possibility of paying special bonuses to keep demoralized workers from getting poached by competitors, a person familiar with the matter said. The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was not authorized to disclose details about the private talks. In particular, the New York-based bank is hoping to free its highly profitable energy-trading unit, Phibro, from federal compensation limits, the Wall Street Journal reported late Tuesday. The Treasury has not made a decision on the request, the paper said, and the amount of bonuses requested wasn't disclosed.

A Treasury Department spokesman would not comment on the matter, and Citigroup said in a statement that it has not presented the Treasury Department "with a specific plan for retaining our people. We have also not discussed any specific plan or program designed to give people additional cash bonus payouts." Citigroup has received $45 billion in federal bailout funds over the past several months, and the government has agreed to insure a pool of more than $300 billion in Citigroup assets. Soon, the government will own a 36 percent stake in the bank.

Companies that have accepted federal bailout funds are under tighter limits on how much they pay top executives. The restrictions are intended to prevent the type of taxpayer outrage that ensued after the bailed-out American International Group paid $165 million in retention bonuses to employees despite having received more than $180 billion in federal funds. Banks, though, are chafing at the restrictions. Some smaller banks have quickly repaid bailout funds to end the heightened oversight. Several of the biggest bailout recipients—including JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs— have said they want to repay the government as soon as possible. "I do think compensation is a real issue, and I don't think it's going to be business as usual," Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack told shareholders at the bank's annual meeting Wednesday. He said someone at a hedge fund recently told him he could lure any Morgan Stanley employee away, and that he couldn't argue with that assertion.

Executive compensation consultant Steven Hall said many employees are leaving big banks, especially to start their own firms or to join private firms without compensation restrictions. Normally, paying retention bonuses to prevent such an exodus would make good business sense."

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Dalai Lama

"The mind is like a parachute. It works best when it is open."

"One great question underlies our experience, whether we think about it or not: what is the purpose of life? From the moment of birth every human being wants happiness and does not want suffering. Neither social conditioning nor education nor ideology affects this. From the very core of our being, we simply desire contentment. Therefore, it is important to discover what will bring about the greatest degree of happiness."

"If there is love, there is hope to have real families, real brotherhood, real equanimity, real peace. If the love within your mind is lost, if you continue to see other beings as enemies, then no matter how much knowledge or education you have, no matter how much material progress is made, only suffering and confusion will ensue."

"I think that every human being has an innate sense of "I". We cannot explain why that feeling is there, but it is. Along with it comes a desire for happiness and a wish to overcome suffering. This is quite justified: we have a natural right to achieve as much happiness as possible, and we also have the right to overcome suffering."

"This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness."

~Dalai Lama

"China Bans Reincarnation Without Permission"

"In an attempt to erode the power of Tibet's Dalai Lama, China has banned Buddhist monks from reincarnating without government permission. The search for a reincarnation is a mystical process involving clues left by the deceased and visions among leading monks on where to look. The current Dalai Lama, the fourteenth of the line, was identified in 1937 when monks came to his village. It is the latest in a series of measures by the Communist authorities to tighten their grip over Tibet more than 50 years after China invaded the small Himalayan country.
Reincarnate lamas, known as tulkus, lead religious communities and oversee the training of monks, giving them enormous influence over religious life in the Himalayan region. Anyone outside China is banned from taking part in the process of seeking and recognizing a living Buddha, effectively excluding the Dalai Lama, Tibet's 72-year old exiled spiritual and political leader who has lived in India since 1959. The Dalai Lama traditionally plays an important role in giving recognition to candidate reincarnates.

By barring any Buddhist monk living outside China from seeking reincarnation, the law effectively gives Chinese authorities the power to choose the next Dalai Lama, whose soul, by tradition, is reborn as a new human to continue the work of relieving suffering. "It will be a very hot issue," says Paul Harrison, a Buddhism scholar at Stanford. "The Dalai Lama has been the prime symbol of unity and national identity in Tibet, and so it's quite likely the battle for his incarnation will be a lot more important than the others." Harrison and other Buddhism scholars agree that next Dalai Lama be born will likely be from within the 130,000 Tibetan exiles spread throughout India, Europe and North America.

China insists that only the Government can approve the appointments of Tibet’s two most important monks, the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. The Dalai Lama’s announcement in May 1995 that a search inside Tibet — and with the co- operation of a prominent abbot — had identified the 11th reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, who died in 1989, enraged Beijing, which resulted in top Communist officials presiding over a ceremony at the main Jokhang temple in Lhasa in which names of three boys inscribed on ivory sticks were placed inside a golden urn and a lot was then drawn to find the true reincarnation. The boy chosen by the Dalai Lama has disappeared. The abbot who worked with the Dalai Lama was jailed and has since vanished."

Joseph Campbell

"Life is like arriving late for a movie,
having to figure out what was going on without
bothering everybody with a lot of questions,
and then being unexpectedly called away before you find out how it ends."

- Joseph Campbell

The Daily "Near You?"

Darien, Connecticut, USA. Thanks for stopping by.

"The Hubble Deep Field- The 78 Billion Light Year Universe"

"In 2003, the Hubble Space Telescope took the image of a millenium, an image that shows our place in the universe. Anyone who understands what this image represents, is forever changed by it."- YouTube/NASA

"It helps to put things in perspective here on our frenetic little planet with a look at this extraordinarily powerful and moving video of the Hubble Space Telescope mapping of the Universe, whose known size is 78 billion light years across. The video of the images is the equivalent of using a "time machine" to look into the past to witness the early formation of galaxies, perhaps less than one billion years after the universe's birth in the Big Bang.

The video includes mankind's deepest, most detailed optical view of the universe called the Hubble Deep Field (HDF). One of the stunning images was assembled from 342 separate exposures taken with the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) for ten consecutive days. Representing a narrow "keyhole" view stretching to the visible horizon of the universe, the HDF image covers a speck of the sky only about the width of a dime located 75 feet away. Though the field is a very small sample of the heavens, it is considered representative of the typical distribution of galaxies in space because the universe, statistically, looks largely the same in all directions. Gazing into this small field, Hubble uncovered a bewildering assortment of at least 1,500 galaxies at various stages of evolution.

Most of the galaxies are so faint (nearly 30th magnitude or about four-billion times fainter than can be seen by the human eye) they have never before been seen by even the largest telescopes. Some fraction of the galaxies in this menagerie probably date back to nearly the beginning of the universe. "The variety of galaxies we see is amazing. In time these Hubble data could turn out to be the double helix of galaxy formation. We are clearly seeing some of the galaxies as they were more than ten billion years ago, in the process of formation," said Robert Williams, Director of the Space Telescope Science Institute Baltimore, Maryland. "As the images have come up on our screens, we have not been able to keep from wondering if we might somehow be seeing our own origins in all of this."

Jonathan Haidt

“A good place to look for wisdom is...
where you least expect to find it: in the minds of your opponents.
You already know the ideas common on your own side.
If you can take off the blinders of the myth of pure evil,
you might see some good ideas for the first time.”

- Jonathan Haidt

Ayn Rand, "The Ethics of Emergencies"

"In the normal conditions of existence, man has to choose his goals, project them in time, pursue them and achieve them by his own effort. He cannot do it if his goals are at the mercy of and must be sacrificed to any misfortune happening to others. He cannot live his life by the guidance of rules applicable only to conditions under which human survival is impossible.

The principle that one should help men in an emergency cannot be extended to regard all human suffering as an emergency and to turn the misfortune of some into a first mortgage on the lives of others.

Poverty, ignorance, illness and other problems of that kind are not metaphysical emergencies. By the metaphysical nature of man and of existence, man has to maintain his life by his own effort; the values he needs—such as wealth or knowledge—are not given to him automatically, as a gift of nature, but have to be discovered and achieved by his own thinking and work. One's sole obligation toward others, in this respect, is to maintain a social system that leaves men free to achieve, to gain and to keep their values.

Every code of ethics is based on and derived from a metaphysics, that is: from a theory about the fundamental nature of the universe in which man lives and acts. The altruist ethics is based on a "malevolent universe" metaphysics, on the theory that man, by his very nature, is helpless and doomed—that success, happiness, achievement are impossible to him—that emergencies, disasters, catastrophes are the norm of his life and that his primary goal is to combat them. As the simplest empirical refutation of that metaphysics—as evidence of the fact that the material universe is not inimical to man and that catastrophes are the exception, not the rule of his existence—observe the fortunes made by insurance companies.

Observe also that the advocates of altruism are unable to base their ethics on any facts of men's normal existence and that they always offer "lifeboat" situations as examples from which to derive the rules of moral conduct. ("What should you do if you and another man are in a lifeboat that can carry only one?" etc.) The fact is that men do not live in lifeboats—and that a lifeboat is not the place on which to base one's metaphysics.

The moral purpose of a man's life is the achievement of his own happiness. This does not mean that he is indifferent to all men, that human life is of no value to him and that he has no reason to help others in an emergency. But it does mean that he does not subordinate his life to the welfare of others, that he does not sacrifice himself to their needs, that the relief of their suffering is not his primary concern, that any help he gives is an exception, not a rule, an act of generosity, not of moral duty, that it is marginal and incidental—as disasters are marginal and incidental in the course of human existence—and that values, not disasters, are the goal, the first concern and the motive power of his life."

- Ayn Rand, "The Ethics of Emergencies"

"How It Really Is"

Psychology: "What Keeps Love Alive, Couples Together?"

"No one can truly know what goes on inside a marriage except the two people involved, but researchers are getting increasingly good glimpses at what makes couples tick, how relationships are stressed and what factors can keep the spark alive. The goal: To find out what keeps love alive and couples together.

Putting marriage under a microscope has resulted in new long-term studies that are showing better than ever how a birth or simple boredom can drain a union. More surprisingly, old photographs might help predict your chances of getting a divorce, new research suggests. All of the findings can help couples learn lessons about their relationships and their spouses, said Nadine Kaslow, a professor at Emory University School of Medicine who specializes in couples and families and also serves as chief psychologist at Grady Health System in Atlanta, Georgia.

To have children or not? Movies often portray the birth of a child as a joyous event that solidifies a couple's union, but the arrival of the first baby puts a sudden, important strain on a marriage, according to a study published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Researchers followed more than 200 couples for eight years after their wedding - the longest study yet looking at the impact of a child on marriage. About 90 percent of mothers and fathers saw at least some decreases in relationship satisfaction after they became parents, said Brian Doss, assistant psychology professor at Texas A&M University and one of the authors of the study. Spouses who were the most romantic before the birth of their child found the transition to parenthood the most difficult. "Couples who were really enjoying a lot of the quality time they were spending before birth had a lot more to lose," Doss said. "Whereas couples who just naturally over time had adopted more of a friendship relationship, kind of a co-partner relationship, perhaps didn't miss or didn't notice the loss of that connection as much."

Staying childless wasn't the secret to marital bliss, however. Couples in the study who didn't have children still became less happy with their marriage, just much more gradually than those who had children. Couples considering starting a family may find the results alarming, but psychologists say they serve as a reminder that a relationship needs to be nurtured."People tend to be less dedicated to their relationship and not prioritize being with each other," Kaslow said. "This deterioration seems to be pretty sudden right after the birth, so that's a particularly crucial time to be mindful of it." Simple steps can go a long way to keeping a relationship strong. Couples can start by setting aside some private time every day, even if it's just 15 minutes, and scheduling a weekly date, Kaslow advised.

How to fight boredom: Most people think that problems and tension spell trouble in a marriage, but a new study has found boredom is also a powerful force in eroding marital bliss. Couples who reported being in a rut seven years into their marriage were significantly less satisfied with their relationship when researchers checked back with them nine years later, according to a study to be published next month in Psychological Science. "For boredom to have such long-term implications I think is very significant," said co-author Terri Orbuch, a research professor at the University of Michigan and a professor of sociology at Oakland University. But closeness over time can eliminate that effect, the study also found. How can couples get close if they're feeling bored? Sharing novel activities with each other - like taking a cooking class or learning to ski - is the key, said Orbuch, who has been following a group of married couples for 22 years and is writing a book about their marriage strategies.

Some boredom is inevitable in a marriage, but it is absolutely possible for a couple to reignite a relationship, Kaslow agreed. Her parents have just started taking classes about opera together and have assembled a "bucket list" of all the places in the world they still haven't been to that they would like to visit. "They want to do more exciting things even at their age to nurture the relationship. I think that's what healthy long-term relationships do," Kaslow said.

What do photos reveal? Surprisingly, a possible clue about whether you stay married or get divorced may be contained in your photo album. Researchers analyzed photos taken in childhood or young adulthood from hundreds of people and rated their expressions on a "smile intensity score." The less intensely the subjects smiled, the more likely they would be divorced later in life, while the biggest smilers had lower divorce rates, according to a study published online this month by the journal Motivation and Emotion. Scientists don't know what accounts for the link, but say a smile may indicate higher levels of positive emotions and signal other traits, said co-author Matt Hertenstein, associate professor of psychology at DePauw University and head of the school's Touch and Emotion Lab. "People who smile a lot may attract happier people and maybe happier marriage partners," Hertenstein said. "It may be that people who smile in response to a photographer are more obedient people and obedience may help in a marriage. I really don't know the explanation." Before you run to check your spouse's yearbook photo, keep in mind one picture can't tell the whole story, Kaslow said. "I think the issue really is both getting a sense of a whole set of pictures and also the level of positivity that [people] bring into life and relationships," she said."

"Grey's Anatomy"

"Maybe we're not supposed to be happy. Maybe gratitude has nothing to do with joy. Maybe being grateful means recognizing what you have for what it is. Appreciating small victories. Admiring the struggle it takes to simply be a human. Maybe, we're thankful for the familiar things we know. And maybe, we're thankful for the things we'll never know. At the end of the day, the fact that we have the courage to still be standing is reason enough to celebrate."
- "Grey's Anatomy"

Astronomy: "Our Galaxy's Sweet Spot- Sugar, Complex Molecules"

"The newly detected presence of two complex organic molecules in the Milky Way suggests the building blocks for life may exist in space even before the formation of planets. Located close the center of the galaxy, the molecular cloud Sagittarius B2* is something akin to a galactic watering hole. A popular hangout for biologists and chemists looking for the building blocks of life in space, it contains a rich stew of materials in the process of being recycled into stars and planets.

Within the cloud are a wide variety of organics, now known to include two of the most complex molecules ever found in interstellar space - ethyl formate and n-propyl cyanide. The molecules are similar in size and complexity to amino acids, the building blocks of life. "It shows that you can go to this high level of complexity in space. These are comparable to the simplest amino acids," said Cornell astrochemist Robin Garrod, who presented the findings along with colleagues from Germany's Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy and the University of Cologne at this week's European Astronomy and Space Science conference in the United Kingdom. "What's interesting is how they formed and that we even found them," Garrod told Discovery News.

Scientists made the discovery by disentangling the molecules' chemical fingerprints within radio waves also carrying the signatures of hundreds of smaller molecules. Within 3,700 such signatures from a region of Sagittarius B2 known as the Large Molecule Heimat, the researchers identified 36 that belonged to the two newly identified molecules. "In the lab, we only look at one type of molecule at a time. But when we look in space, all the molecules are there at the same time. That's the difficulty," said Eric Herbst, a theoretical and chemical physicist at Ohio State University.

Computer simulations indicate that the molecules did not assemble themselves atom-by-atom, but came together in sections using already formed blocks that were available on grains of dust. "It's the only formation method that is remotely able to reproduce the abundances and ratios that we see between the different sizes of molecules," Garrod said. "It certainly raises the possibility that you have many of the building blocks for life in space before even a planet is formed, which increases the chances for life to form, at least in my view," he added. The observations were made with Spain's IRAM radio telescope. The research is being published in an upcoming issue of Astronomy & Astrophysics."

* Found: Milky Way's Sweet Spot. "The search for life beyond Earth doesn't always require rovers on Mars, radio scans of nearby stars or telescopes powerful enough to image Earth-like planets. For some astronomers, learning about whether life exists elsewhere in the universe is a matter of molecules. Maria Beltran, with the University of Barcelona's Department of Astronomy, and several European colleagues found a fairly simple molecule known as glycolaldehyde, an eight-atomed entity - two carbon, two oxygen, four hydrogen - more commonly known as sugar."

Helen Keller

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is a daring adventure or nothing at all.”
– Helen Keller

Dan W, "Hard Truth About the Economy"

"U.S. GDP is poised for an epic collapse. (With a national GDP of somewhere around $14.6 TRILLION, the USA must experience GDP GROWTH of about $425 BILLION in 2009 to maintain a minimally acceptable level of economic growth. But remember, this need for 3-4% growth exists within a regime in which consumer spending in 2008 comprised 72% of GDP. And, 17% of this consumer spending represented consumer debt of over $2.5 TRILLION. Also U6 unemployment stands at roughly 16.5% and is getting worse by the week. Consumer spending is collapsing. Everyone, every business, is broke.)

In light of these realities, it is becoming increasing clear that the Obama Administration plans to artificially grow GDP via increases in government expenditure. And since consumer spending and business investment are in utter free fall, the only way to stimulate 3-4% per annum GDP growth is to do so by increasing GE to 60+% of GDP. (Such levels of government spending would correlate well with those witnessed during the early and mid-1940s.) And it doesn't take a genius to recognize that only through the development of a war economy- while not necessarily the preferred route productive of such debt-based (and thus eventually inflationary) spending- can such expenditure possibly be "justified". (From Blanchard's online:"'We tried to finance the Vietnam War and the Great Society programs without a tax increase,' admits Charles L. Schultze, Johnson's budget director at the time, 'and clearly that started our course of inflation.'"Political leaders always have tended to take the view that in time of war the nation must do whatever is necessary to succeed, and the financial repercussions can be dealt with later. Johnson was only following the pattern that had been adhered to by his predecessors: Lincoln during the Civil War, when inflation in the Union from 1861 to 1865 was 117%; Wilson during World War I, when prices rose from 1917 to 1918 by 126%; and Roosevelt during World War II, when prices rose from 1941 to 1945 by 108%."...from Money Meltdown, Judy Shelton )

Between 1941 and 1944, government spending as a measure of GDP did in fact quadruple: from $26.5 billion dollars in 1941 to over $105 billion in 1944. This growth in GE kept overall GDP in positive territory, thus presenting the appearance of a growing economy and precipitating an apparent terminus for a decade of economic depression. And sticking with the same data set above, one also notices that during the same 3-year period (circa 1941-1944), net exports reflected deficits in overall trade. HOWEVER, please note that these years of export stagnation were rapidly remedied with the end of war in 1945. And the reason for such a dramatic turn around in trade (from a trade deficit in 1945 to a 7+% trade surplus in 1946) is that American military economy was able to quickly and successfully make the shift from war machine to production machine:

"...Many Americans feared that the end of World War II and the subsequent drop in military spending might bring back the hard times of the Great Depression. But instead, pent-up consumer demand fueled exceptionally strong economic growth in the postwar period. The automobile industry successfully converted back to producing cars, and new industries such as aviation and electronics grew by leaps and bounds. A housing boom, stimulated in part by easily affordable mortgages for returning members of the military, added to the expansion. The nation's gross national product rose from about $200,000 million in 1940 to $300,000 million in 1950 and to more than $500,000 million in 1960. At the same time, the jump in postwar births, known as the "baby boom," increased the number of consumers. More and more Americans joined the middle class..." (

Based upon the aforementioned analysis, it seems logical to assume that our political leaders believe that a similar dynamic to that which took place during the 1940s could be manufactured in the coming years as a means by which depression could be halted and economic growth reestablished. In other words, it seems to make sense that government spending on a large-scale and protracted military campaign would in fact fuel growth in the U.S. economic engine in the short term- keeping GDP artificially elevated and thus allowing the government to claim an end to economic hardship and an arrest of our incipient deflationary depression- and allow our leadership to employ, over the longer term, strategies similar to those employed in the immediate post WWII period viz the evolution of the economy from a war-making engine to a new, productive proto-industrial economy.

But what of inflation you ask? Certainly such massive infusions of government spending into a war economy would leave our nation with staggering inflation in the years to come. As Blanchard online puts it: "...The type of inflation that is associated with wars usually arises from increases in aggregate demand. In time of war, government spending for military purposes stimulates demand throughout an economy, at the same time that a shift of workers from productive labor into war production causes a decline in aggregate supply..." So, based upon the previous statement from the Blanchard's piece, it would seem apparent that our leaders could believe that the creation of a war-economy would in fact provide jobs for (for example) unemployed GM workers and unemployed Boeing workers as the nation built bombs and planes and new-fangled tanks and whatever else the nation could produce that would help us successfully prosecute the new war. And that accordingly, as productive supply contracted, demand for goods and services would increase, thus arresting the entrenchment of deflation and eventually establishing a growing regime of short-term "healthy" inflation.

But how do we fund this war? Well as I stated earlier, through government spending. And since our government is already deeply in debt, this spending would translate into massive never-before-seen levels of debt: "...Senator Judd Gregg, a Republican senator from New Hampshire, has been making the rounds on political news programs this week, criticizing President Barack Obama's budget as too costly. Gregg has repeated one statistic over and over to make his point: that Obama's budget plan would increase the national debt to 80 percent of gross domestic product." Seventeen trillion dollars worth of debt at the end of 10 years, $11 trillion at the end of five years," Gregg said. "This translates into a debt-to-GDP ratio which we have not seen in this country since the end of World War II when we were trying to pay off the war debt. Basically, you take national debt up to about 80 percent of gross national product. That's the public debt. Historically, it's been about 40 percent..." (

So, what does all of this mean:
• Based upon the information provided above, the conclusion of war would indeed precipitate a not insignificant bout of inflation that, at least on the surface, would appear catastrophically crippling to an economy in recovery.
• Our political leaders are counting on the fact that, just as happened in the post-WWII era, the resilient USA will quickly and effectively be able to convert our war-making economy into a new, highly productive post-war export economy. That just as our fathers and mothers and grandparents did some 70 years ago, we will be able to once again become the leaders in a new cutting-edge of production and export-driven economic growth.
• Our political leaders are betting that we, as a nation, will be able to successfully repeat (with some subtle differences) the dramatic economic about-face that took place in the decade between 1936 and 1946. They believe that war IS in fact the answer, and that our rise-from-the-ashes of economic disaster will come from our creation of a massive war-economy (To ultimately save the world from Islamic Extremism) and to subsequently turn that war economy into the epitome of the post-modern, post-war, green, sustainable productive economy.
OK, but will it work? The answer is a deafening no. Why?
• Production in 1946 was industrial production within a regime of US economic hegemony. In 2009 industrial production is all but dead. What are we going to do, start exporting cars again? The USA is no longer a production-level economy. Our GDP is over 70% driven by consumer spending. AND, we spend most of those monies on services and goods imported from abroad.
• Green and sustainable production cannot rise out of the ashes of military production. What are we going to do: Turn war planes into giant solar planters and bombs into wind turbines. There is no correlation---as there was 70 years ago---between the type of industrial economy that could evolve out of a war economy.
• Economic growth in the 1940s was predicated on the abundant availability of affordable fossil fuel-based energies. This is decidedly NOT our reality in 2009. The era of fossil fuels, and thus the eras of fossil-fuel-enhanced production, is in decline.

In conclusion, the assumption being made by our political leaders- that we could, as we did after WWII, once again become a productive, growth-oriented, society- is false. And as such, the bout of massive inflation that we would experience in the immediate aftermath of a "new" war would be more than simply debilitating. It would be ruinous. We would not simply be a nation in default; we would be an impoverished, humiliated nation of desperate souls. A once mighty nation, torn to shreds by our own hubris and fiscal insanity. And there is no way that we would EVER recover from such a disaster. None."

"Flu, the Mother of All Pandemics"

"The flu virus is a survivor. It must continually evolve in order to evade its biggest threat - the immune system. Mammals, including humans, make antibodies, which recognise and target the virus. "So it has to keep mutating to escape being destroyed," explains David Morens from the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Despite these tactics, most of the strains that make people ill during the eponymous "flu season" are sufficiently similar to infections most of us have been exposed to before. Our immune systems recognise common parts that these new strains share with their ancestors, and can launch an effective defence. Every so often, however, a different strain emerges and infects people - one that contains new genes from an animal virus. Its novelty is its most effective weapon against our immune defences. And if it is infectious enough to find its way easily into a new host - perhaps via an innocent sneeze - it can spread rapidly and cause a global epidemic - or pandemic.
"These events seem to be cyclical - they've occurred about every 20-40 years," says Mark Honigsbaum a researcher at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London. "And all of these pandemics have been associated with just a few strains," he says.

Viral strains take their name from the various different types of two important proteins on their surface. Their initials are H for haemaglutanin, and N for neuraminidase. The haemaglutanin molecule protrudes from the surface of the virus as spikes, and enables it to lock on to receptors on the surface of cells. Neuraminidase allows the virus to be released from infected cells and infect new ones. "There are 16 Hs and 9 Ns, but as far as we know, only H1,2,3 and only N1 and N2 have ever made it into a human virus," says Dr Morens. But beyond what is currently speculation that only a few strains may be transmissible among humans, the structure of flu gives us almost no clues about how it might behave and change. "History teaches us to take these pandemics very seriously," says Howard Markel, director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan. "But it also teaches us that they are predictably unpredictable."

The first of the four pandemics was Russian flu - each takes its name from the country where the first case was reported - which emerged in 1889. This was well before the science of virology had even been conceived. It rapidly spread through Europe, and reached North America and Latin America, lasting until 1892 and eventually killing an estimated one million people. "We have very little information about this strain," says Dr Morens. "But in the mid 1900s, scientists started collecting, and more importantly preserving, serum samples from people who had been alive during the flu pandemic. So there is now some evidence that it could have been an H3 virus. "If it turned out to be true that only limited types of influenza genes have the ability to work in a human virus, that would be important, because you could vaccinate the world's population against the known possibilities of a pandemic virus," he says.

Although at its early stages, work is already progressing on a universal vaccine - one that would stimulate human immune systems to recognise, and raise antibodies against parts of the influenza virus shared by all strains. But, during the last century, the virus has shown a deadly ability to change beyond recognition. In 1918, an influenza pandemic started that became a global disaster - eventually killing more people than the Great War. Estimates of the death toll from the 1918 outbreak of Spanish flu range from 20 million to 40 million. Some historians argue it could have been as high as 100 million. "There was a mild wave in the spring, but the very serious, lethal wave was in the autumn to the winter," says Professor Markel. "Then a third wave in January to April 1919, and a fourth wave in the winter of 1920." This tendency for "waves" of infection and re-infection makes the virus yet more unpredictable.

At the time the consensus was that the disease was caused not by a virus, but by a bacterium called Haemophilus influenzae. So some countries, including the US and UK, distributed vaccinations against the wrong disease-causing agent. "Another problem was that the authorities stuck their heads in the sand," says Mr Honigsbaum. "Their priority was the war and they didn't have the resources to deal with the health crisis. "There's an argument that if they'd been more proactive, and diverted doctors and nurses from the front to civilian needs, they could have saved more lives."

Dr Morens refers to the 1918 H1N1 strain as "the mother of all pandemics". "In the category of Influenza A, which is the category of virus that has caused all human epidemics and pandemics, every virus circulated since 1918 has been a descendent of this virus in one way or another," he says. "Descendants of the 1918 pandemic are still infecting human beings, but they have mutated again and again and again to be able to survive." The 1918 influenza pandemic gripped a vulnerable, unprepared human population, but its ability to "reassort" - or exchange its genes with other viruses - was what made it "dangerously novel".

"Every species has its own flu - when those species live together, and they can transmit their flu to different species, the virus itself changes its structure," says Professor Markel. Since our immune systems recognise and respond mainly to the H and N part of the molecule, scientists suspect that pandemics arise when a strain emerges with a big change in the structure of one of these proteins. But how exactly the virus adapts to enable it to attach to receptors on the cells of a different species, is an "unanswerable" question, says Dr Morens. "With only four pandemics in over 100 years, our sample size is too small to say, but it seems that a new H [on the surface of the virus] has been the major factor," says Dr Morens. We don't know where the 1918 virus came from, but the evidence is that it was a new virus. "At the same time that it infected humans, it also infected pigs. And at that point, we began to have two lineages of that disease - the human virus, and the pig virus, which persisted too," he adds.

The progeny of the 1918 influenza strain evolved and mutated as they were transmitted from one host to another. And on two further occasions, these strains incorporated completely new genes and spread globally once again. "That's what happened in 1957 and 1968 - a hybrid formed of the 1918 virus with genes that were never part of it before," says Dr Morens. In the case of the 1957 Asian flu outbreak, a human H2N2 virus combined with the genes of a strain found in wild ducks. The pandemic killed an estimated one million people worldwide.

An outbreak of H3N2 Hong Kong flu in 1968, when avian and human virus genes combined once again, claimed another million lives. In both cases, the impact was minimised by health authorities, who identified the virus, and made vaccines available. "Now, every year, around summer time, a group of flu experts get together and see what strains are circulating so they can design an appropriate vaccine," says Dr Markel. And in the last few years, principally because of the global concern about avian flu, anti-viral drugs that target influenza, such as Tamiflu, have been introduced.

But Professor Markel points out that, despite having reached new levels of medical preparation, "we live in a world of emerging infectious diseases". "We have learned to take avian flu very seriously, and we have learned to take the animal kingdom very seriously," he says. But in the rare event that a virus does develop that is able to cross the species barrier, he points out that the close proximity of domestic farm animals to humans provides an opportunity for human infection.
"Human beings travel farther and faster than ever before. All of this means that we are set up for a potential epidemic or pandemic," concludes Professor Markel. "We learn more every time, but the story of flu pandemics is still very much a story in progress."

Wall Street: "Lies, Pump and Dumps, and Lazy Susans..."

"The first thing you learn on Wall Street: Earnings don't mean anything. Everyone assumes that earnings are financially engineered (sometimes downward!) to meet a variety of stakeholder expectations. The key expectation - the one that stakeholders want companies to meet - is steady growth. Earnings that spike and swoon set off alarm bells at places like Fidelity. Steady growth makes fund managers feel calm and content. That's exactly what big companies - such as General Electric, IBM, and Wal-Mart deliver. Go back and read the quarterly reports of those companies over the past few years, and you'll feel as if you've taken Valium, so steady and predictable is the metronome of their results.

The second thing you learn on Wall Street has to do with the length of the auditor's letter and the number of footnotes included. Simply put, shorter and fewer is better than longer and more. If the auditor's letter is a paragraph long, go directly to the footnotes. If the auditor's letter is two paragraphs long, read the footnotes carefully. If the auditor's letter is four paragraphs long, all hands on deck and hedge your position.

The third thing you learn on Wall Street is that cash flow and sales are really what matter (since earnings can be engineered). If a company is booking revenue and its cash flow is strong, then it has flexibility. And if the company is well managed - if the people in charge know what they're doing - then it's probably worth more tomorrow than it is today. That makes it a buy if it's a stock or a bond.

The fourth thing you learn on Wall Street - and this one is what they call a "job ender" or a "job keeper" - is that one hand washes the other. If the firm that you work for happens to do a lot of other business with a firm that you've been assigned to cover, you do not ever forget that there is no "I" in "team." You are on the team, and you will do what's right for the team. If you don't, well, don't kid yourself: No one is irreplaceable. There's no one on Wall Street who doesn't understand that one hand washes the other.

The case of Enron serves as a good example of how Wall Street plays their games. After the music stopped and the stock tanked and Enron collapsed into bankruptcy, everyone on Wall Street pretended to be absolutely shocked that such a thing could happen. Congress, reacting with appropriate and carefully staged indignation, immediately launched an investigation into the affair, which was met by stonewalling and less than enthusiastic cooperation by Enron.

Sensing that the Enron scandal was not playing out as they had hoped, Congress directed their attention toward Wall Street, and a shower of subpoenas rained. Wall Street's response (figuratively speaking) was, "Go ahead. Make my day." After all, Wall Street is the mother lode of political fund-raising, and 2002 was an election year. The congressional subpoenas were fishing lines with no bait and no hook. The exercise had everything to do with headlines and nothing to do with substance. And for good reason. Because at the core of Enron's collapse was the fact that virtually everything the company did was legal. Accounting and financial engineering obey rules - not laws, morals, or notions of right and wrong. If Andersen, Ernst & Young, and PricewaterhouseCoopers operate within the rules of accounting as outlined by the FASB and the SEC, then it doesn't matter if the company that they're auditing covers up debt, misstates earnings, or misleads investors. Tough luck. The rules were obeyed. If accounting regulations don't specifically say, "Do not create an offshore SPE collateralized by company stock to keep debt off the company's balance sheet," then all the $600-per-hour brainpower that money can buy will find a way to do it. And it will be legal.

So if Enron's actions weren't a crime, and they weren't a political scandal, then what were they? Here's what I come away with: Enron was nothing more than an old Wall Street scam called the "pump and dump." Experienced Wall Street watchers define the pump and dump as a private selling spree conducted in the middle of a public-relations blitz, which is designed to pump up the price of a stock. That was exactly what Enron's senior management did in the first quarter of 2001, hyping a target price of $120 per share while selling blocks of the company's stock by the boatload.

Concerned about a cascading stock price (and fearful that its employees would begin to bail out of its stock), Enron fired its then 401(k) administrator, and signed up UBS Warburg. Why any company would suddenly switch 401(k) administrators is a complete mystery- unless that company wanted to freeze employee stock selling. Significantly, a freeze is required when a 401(k) shifts from one administrator to another.

The most important thing that I learned is this: Enron was not the story. The larger, more important story is the whole culture of dishonesty on what we call Wall Street. It starts with a lie: Earnings don't mean anything; they can be engineered. It is seconded by another lie: Those financially engineered numbers are right. It is complicated by yet more lies: Sales revenue and cash flow can be manipulated as well. And then it is all locked down in a code of omertà: Enron is a strong buy!

Another Wall Street scam is called the "lazy Susan" or the "round-tripper." Lazy Susans are revenue deals that work as follows: Company A gives company B $400 million. Company B, after an insignificant amount of time, spins the $400 million back to company A. And both companies book $400 million as "revenue." It is alleged that lazy-Susan deals are endemic in the information-technology and telecom sectors and may well have spread to financial services and the media.

If lazy Susans turn out to be epidemic, then investors should know that on Wall Street, earnings don't mean anything, revenue doesn't mean anything, and cash flow doesn't mean anything. They might suspect that every analyst is out there to deceive - and, in some cases, to pump-and-dump on television. That's a gigantic crisis of confidence. That's what we have now, and it will continue unless Wall Street, the SEC, and the political community get their act together. Don't hold your breath."

George Friedman: "America is NOT in 'Terminal Decline'"

"With its slumping economy, mountains of debt, ungodly deficits and overseas entanglements, many observers believe the end of the American era is at hand. Not so, according to George Friedman, founder of STRATFOR, a global intelligence company. In his latest book, 'The Next 100 Years', Friedman argues America's power on the world stage will actually increase in the 21st Century for three major reason:
• The immense size of the U.S. economy: The current crisis is painful and America's deficits are shocking on an absolute basis but are "trivial" relative to the country's net worth, which Friedman estimates is about $340 trillion.
• The unrivaled dominance of the U.S. Navy: Even in the digital age, control of the high seas is paramount in geopolitics.
• The ability of the U.S. to absorb immigrants, both culturally and in terms of the nation's relatively low population density.

This last point is controversial, considering the nation's current anti-immigration mood and worries about ongoing job losses. But the global population is shrinking, especially in the developed world, and Friedman foresees labor shortages leading to competition for immigrants in the next 20-30 years. America's ability to attract and absorb those workers, especially relative to economic rivals like Germany and Japan, will thus be key to its continued status as the world's leading power, he argues."

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"The Arrival Fallacy"

"Volumes have been written on the pursuit of happiness- the Declaration of Independence even calls it one of our "unalienable Rights." Someone who knows a lot about the pursuit of happiness is Gretchen Rubin. She’s a former Supreme Court clerk who left the legal profession to write. Her latest project is 'The Happiness Project'.

Rubin has another happiness myth to add: The Arrival Fallacy. It's the belief that when you arrive at a certain destination, you’ll be happy.

She writes:“We often imagine that we’ll be happy as soon as we get a job/make partner/get tenure/get married/get that promotion/have a baby/move. (But) usually by the time you’ve arrived at your destination, you’re expecting to reach it, so it has already been incorporated into your happiness. You quickly become adjusted to the new state of affairs. And of course, arriving at one goal usually reveals a new goal. There’s another hill to climb. In fact, working toward a goal can be a more powerful source of happiness than hitting it – which can sometimes be a letdown. It’s important, therefore, to look for happiness in the present, in the atmosphere of growth afforded by making gradual progress toward a goal." So make sure you keep dreaming and moving forward. Most of all, remember to find happiness in the pursuit of happiness."