Sunday, July 4, 2010

A Star Spangled Holiday

Why do we celebrate Independence Day?

Mostly because the one-third of colonists who fought to shrug off the shackles of tyranny that bound the colonies to Britain managed to get France to come into the war against the British. Thus the colonies became free to spread out across the continent and steal land from its rightful owners.

If they had lost, July 4th would be the North American equivalent of Guy Fawkes Day, which celebrates the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot to blow up parliament. Which only goes to show that a successful revolutionary is a patriot and a successful guerilla is a freedom fighter and not a terrorist.

Of course, by the convoluted course of history, this new nation actually did become a beacon of freedom—originally for white men of property, later for the huddled masses yearning to breathe free and more recently for educated persons of color.

The bloodiest war in American history was the Civil War, which was fought to prevent Northern industrial values from undermining Southern slave culture and was eventually won by those who wished to preserve the Union at any cost. Further blood was shed to conquer Mexican territory, ethnically cleanse any land of value of pesky Native Americans, free Cuba and the Philippines from corrupt Catholic Spanish rule and replace it by Protestant American rule, indirect or direct. And to save Asian nations from governments inimical to U.S. Foreign policy.

Fittingly, we celebrate the Declaration of American Independence with fireworks, concerts, parades and outdoor barbeques, clam bakes and picnics. As well as by shopping for discounts. What could better express the intentions of our Founding Fathers who opposed paying taxes and tariffs to support the preservation and expansion of the British Empire in North America?

The irony is that most of us alive in America today have good reason to cheer the Declaration of Independence and the county which grew by stumbling steps from that beginning. We live in a prosperous nation which allowed immigrants and their descendants to flourish with a minimum of tyranny and an unprecedented abundance of individual liberty and economic opportunity.

Chances are that few of my family would be alive today if the United States hadn't provided our ancestors with shelter from Europe's virulent antisemitism. Likewise it provided hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants with shelter from famine, oppression and poverty, to say nothing of those fleeing persecution, revolution, violence and poverty from every corner of the earth.

So our hearts do swell with pride and gratitude toward those bewigged, Anglophone gentlemen who proclaimed our independence 234 long, bloody years ago.

That this country became the greatest military and financial power on the globe may or may not be a good thing. That it granted so many displaced and despised and simply ambitious people a home where they could enjoy the blessings of freedom, education and prosperity is a nearly miraculous achievement in which we can glory.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Levy's Second Law and the BP oil spill

Levy's second law: "Intelligence is no guarantee against stupidity," ought to be as well known as the second law of thermodynamics. Indeed, it should be required reading at any institution of higher learning.

The importance of this principle is easy to see. Just look at the roster of luminaries and high wage earners among Bernie Madoff's suckers. Or look at President Obama's endorsement of offshore oil drilling.

Experts are  more gullible outside their field than the average Joe. The higher the victim's education and IQ, the easier for con men, grifters and oil company officials to fool them.

It's not just teenagers who are subject to peer pressure. The opinions of insiders are as seductive to technocrats as Silly Bandz are to middle school pupils. And just as  parents foot the bill for their kids' fads, tax payers and community members  ultimately pay the price for technocrats' desire to be part of in-crowd.

The well-educated wrap their educations around their egos as proof of self-worth. "I'm smart, I went to Columbia and to Harvard Law School. I can trust me," goes their internal monologue.

"Here is a pigeon ripe for the plucking," say lobbyists and industry experts to themselves. Guess who gets plucked?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Markets are always right

The PBS series NOVA has an interesting show this week. Called "Mind over Money," it summarizes the debate between rationalist and behavioral economists over the role emotion plays in financial markets.

The idea that markets always act rationally and that the market price is always the correct price is at best a tautology. At worst, a fraud.

Unregulated markets are prone to mistakes. Most market trends overshoot the optimum price in both directions. Stocks go up, then come down then go up. The 9 am price is not the noon price is not the closing bell price. When the price of a stock drops 40% in a day, as occasionally happens, it is hard to argue that both the opening and closing prices were right, and  the fundamental value changed by 40% in the course of a trading day.

More likely either the opening price was too high, or the closing price was too low, or, most likely, both were wrong.

Markets are not omniscient. Social costs may well not be included in determining the price, buyers and sellers may be mistaken in their understanding of the stock's or commodity's future. Someone may be manipulating the market.

Will Rogers said the key to making money in the market was "Buy a stock and sell if when it goes up. If it goes down, don't buy it."

My rule is that if someone tells you the price of stocks, housing, pork bellies, t-bills or tulips can't ever go down, he is either a fool or thinks you're a sucker.

When people believe a price can only go up and never come down, then the market is valuing optimism over common sense. Not a good sign.

In the meantime, I know a guy named Ponzi who will make you a millionaire selling you international postal orders.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

What is decorative painting?

Decorative painting was news to me until I saw this web site

The photos in the Portfolio section are semi-amazing and show how Pat McMahon uses her skills to restore objects, match designs from an earlier day and bestow a feeling of beauty and luxury to interior designs.

Well worth taking a look.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Music and Comedy - Timing is everything

Comedy and Music are closely related in many ways, none more important than the issue of timing.

As Mark Twain said, the difference between the right work and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. As I say, the difference between the right timing and almost the right timing in comedy is the difference between a thunder clap and a belch. (Okay, a belch is funnier than thunder, but you get my point.)

Think of the Marx Brothers, the Ritz Brothers, Mae West and Harry Lauder. Now think of how intimately their comedy was entangled in music. Think of Charlie Chaplin's dance with the globe in "The Great Dictator." (As W.C. Fields is reported to have complained, "He's not comic, he's a damn ballet dancer.)

Better yet, think of Laurel and Hardy, whose comedy at times borders on ballet.

This UTube video highlights the way Laurel's and especially Hardy's, talents bridge music and comedy. Enjoy.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Stations of Middle Aging

1. You're almost middle aged when you decide you need to find a doctor.

2. You're middle aged when decide you should schedule an annual check up.

3. You're really, really middle aged when you put your doctor on speed dial.

4. You know you're almost at the end of middle age when you have to write down a list of your medications before you see a new doctor.

5. You know you've left middle age behind when you have to write down a list of your doctors before you see a new new one.