Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Today's newspaper carried an Associated Press story about the town of Tekapo, New Zealand, which since 1965 has required all nighttime lighting to be "sky-friendly" in an area measuring 19 miles from town in all directions. Tekapo's original intent was to preserve the darkness, as it were, for the nearby Mount John Observatory. Ah, but the Law of Unintended Results has yielded sweet fruit again. This town of 830 people has become a "heritage park in the sky," a travel destination for "astro tourists" and anybody else seeking a clear and unimpeded view of the stars at night.

Most people don't realize how much their view of the stars at night is obstructed by haze, stray light or "light pollution," and even the light of the moon. To go camping high in the mountains during a new moon, and to wake up in the middle of the night and see a sky you've never seen before, is magical.

Beyond "magical" is "mystical," and that is to see the world around you illuminated by nothing but starlight. This has only happened to me once in my life.

About three summers ago (maybe four), I went on an overnight backpacking trip with my Boy Scouts. We camped overnight on the bare granite top of an unnamed hill in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Sometime between midnight and three in the morning, something woke me. I lay in my sleeping bag, silent and still, listening to the stillness of the world. There was no wind, not even a breeze, no airplanes flying overhead, no insects or nocturnal creatures prowling about. All the boys were silent and still in their sleeping bags.

I eased myself out of my bag and, in my bare feet, climbed up a boulder behind our camp. With no moon, and with the nearest electric light a porch light on a cabin several thousand feet below us and several miles away, the only illumination was from the stars. They shone on my sleeping boys and the surrounding terrain with a soft, even glow that sharpened every detail and cast no shadows.

I had never known starlight to be the brightest light at night. Every place I have lived or traveled, the darkness of night has been broken by fireflies, electric lights, flames, or moonlight. Even in the absence of other lights, my eyes have never adjusted to the point that I could see the world illuminated by starlight. It happened on this night.

I sat on the rock and looked at the horizon all around. Normally, the atmosphere glows where the horizon meets the sky, but on this night even the horizon was dark. The new moon was way around on the other side of the earth, competing with the afternoon sun for the attention of my friends in Singapore. It was just me and the stars.

I looked up at the sky. I saw the Milky Way as I have never seen it before, with the clouds and streaks of light crisscrossed and patterned by dark ropes and braids of spacedust. I saw the brightest stars in the sky clearly enough to make out their colors, which I've never been able to do before. I was able to see the red of Arcturus and the blue of Sirius.

As the night air gradually chilled me, I slid silently down the boulder and back into my sleeping bag, where I lay on my back looking at the stars until I drifted back into sleep.

The inhabitants of Tekapo, New Zealand, are very lucky, and the city fathers in 1965 were very wise. To see nothing but stars in the nighttime sky is truly magical, and to see the earth illuminated by only the glow of the stars is mystical.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Olympics 2008: Made in China. A cheap, low-quality imitation of the real thing.

(Yeah, yeah, I know this is old news. It just so happens that this blog entry is a rerun. I originally posted on Facebook on Monday, August 25, 2008. It's worth keeping around, and giving wider distribution. Blogspot seems to have a longer memory than other places on the Internet, so this seemed like a good place to repost it for posterity. How long does "posterity" last on the Internet?)

Okay, so let's see what the Chinese Olympics organizers (and the Chinese government) did to the Olympics. Please do not extend this criticism to cover all Chinese people. You may, however, wish to draw analogies to Chinese industries and Chinese businesses as they attempt to engage the rest of the world.

1 - They controlled the images you saw on TV. If they didn't want you to see something, you didn't see it. They gave the video feed to NBC, and NBC distributed it without questioning what they were seeing. It was like a really crummy magic show, where it's obvious what the magician doesn't want you to see. During the road races, ugly parts of the city were hidden behind giant screens. In other aerial shots, the helicopter-borne cameras were carefully aimed, never pointing at the ugly stuff. And between the Chinese meddling and NBC's editing, we missed out on an awful lot of the competitions, those that didn't feature either Chinese or American athletes excelling.

2 - They faked it. The televised version of the opening ceremonies included an unbelievable amount and complexity of fireworks, and it turned out that most of those unbelievable fireworks weren't to be believed after all. A lot of them were CGI (computer-generated imagery, also known as animation) and a lot of them were prerecorded ahead of time and spliced into the video feed. (See also item 1, about who controlled the video feed.)

3 - They faked it even more. They pulled a "Singing in the Rain" trick at the opening ceremonies, splicing the beautiful voice of one little girl onto the beautiful face of another little girl, who became known as "the face of China." It was lip-syncing, pure and simple. The Chinese Olympics organizers (and the government?) acted like it was no big deal and didn't really matter. Ask Milli Vanilli if lip-syncing "doesn't really matter." Or go watch "Singing in the Rain" again and decide if it "doesn't really matter." It's dishonest. And it's symbolic of China's modus operandi.

4 - They cheated. Not only that, but the national government was complicit in the cheating. When questions were raised about the ages of some of the gymnasts (and the number of gymnasts of questionable age keeps rising), it was the Chinese government that attempted to settle the question by issuing the girls passports with altered birthdates.

5 - They plagiarized. Or they stole. However you want to put it, the Chinese copied the arrangements of more than 200 national anthems, which had been written for the Athens Olympics in 2004, and rerecorded them with a Chinese orchestra. They did this "without attribution, permission or compensation." And then they lied about it, insisting that the anthems had been arranged by a Chinese composer. The Washington Post and the Salt Lake Tribune have both written articles about this. Somebody did a very technical side-by-side analysis of the arrangements and concluded that the Athens and Beijing arrangements are nearly identical - except that the Beijing ones are missing some of the original arranger's dynamics. In other words, they were not-very-good copies of the original. Once again, this is symbolic of the way China seems to do everything.

6 - They scalped, and they stole. Some Chinese websites were selling nonexistent tickets for hundreds of dollars, and the victims didn't find out until they got to China that they'd been scammed. The official Chinese Olympics officials say that the websites were bogus and there's nothing they can do about it, but based on everything else I've seen about these Olympics, I have my suspicions. I don't think it was just lowlifes and hackers running the scams.

7 - They padded the house. This may be even worse than item 6. At some of the venues, they hadn't sold enough tickets - REAL tickets, that is - to fill the stands, so they conscripted people off the streets and filled the stands with all these people who either didn't want to be there, or who got in for free, in order to give the impression that they had a full house at all events and that the average Chinese person really wanted to be there.

8 - They bullied. That is, the government bullied. They took all the undesirable people off the streets and even out of the city, and hid them away where the athletes, the spectators, the visitors and the journalists couldn't see them and wouldn't find them. They shut down Internet sites that tried to send out information that wasn't favorable to the country, the government or the Games. They effectively shut down free speech, even by the athletes, for the duration of the Games. To build the venues, they displaced hundreds, thousands, of residents, and demolished their homes, without even arranging for them a new place to live.

9 - I'm not worried about the medal count. The Olympics have always been heavily nationalistic, even in the days of ancient Greece. It seems that the hosting nation has always enjoyed a home-court advantage, and the ideal of amateurs competing was only ever an ideal. But the athleticism was real. I really can't fault the Chinese athletic machine any more than I can fault the Russian, American or (do you remember?) East German athletic machines. I saw some true athleticism from the Chinese athletes, and from all the athletes, really. And it seemed like I saw unsportsmanlike conduct from everyone except the Chinese athletes. The Chinese athletes, like the Japanese and the Russians, were a class act. I put this point here just so nobody thinks I'm only griping because China got more gold medals than anybody else.

In conclusion: I will admit that the 2008 Olympics, as portrayed on NBC, were visually stunning. But it was all a facade - no more than skin deep. Worse, it was fake. Not all of it, but enough of it to matter. The Chinese were dishonest in their execution of the Olympics - repeatedly, blatantly, arrogantly, and disingenuously. What's really incredible is that, for as long as the Olympics lasted, the world bought it. They let it happen.

One American blogger told a story that is symbolic of the entire Beijing Olympics and, by extension, everything about China. According to this reporter, one entire city block was hidden behind and beneath a vinyl cover, which was draped over a metal framework. The cover was painted to look like a high-class block of office buildings, complete with painted people looking out of the windows. It looked very realistic from a moving vehicle, from a distance, or in photographs. It was a perfect symbolism for the Games: a thin trompe l'oeil screen fashioned to look beautiful on the surface, while all the ugliness still existed underneath, where you weren't allowed to look.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Obama Needs to be "Wise as Serpents, and Harmless as Doves"

Yesterday we saw Tom Daschle, President Obama's nominee for Health and Human Services, step aside because he hadn't paid his taxes (something like $120,000 in taxes), and we saw Nancy Killefer, his nominee for Chief Performance Officer (a bureaucrat's bureaucrat of a position, if ever I heard of one), pull out for a similar reason.

Unbelievably, Timothy Geithner, his nominee for Treasury, who had earlier been excused for his failure to pay taxes and had been confirmed and sworn in, still retains his seat.

Today, we were simultaneously amused and relieved, actually, to see the president reach across the aisle and nominate a Republican, Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, for Secretary of Commerce. Maybe he ran out of law-abiding Democrats.

It's a wise move for Obama, who has been chagrined and embarrassed by the fiscal irresponsibility of Geithner, Killefer and Daschle. Had he persisted in fighting for their nominations, he would have been rightfully accused of a promoting a double standard in this country, a double standard by which "only the little people pay taxes," to quote queen witch Leona Helmsley. The blatant hypocrisy in the executive branch would have seriously undermined his presidency, as the people would have revolted, a mere 15 days into his presidential term.

So, you may ask, why is Obama having so much trouble seating a scrupulous Cabinet? Are there not that many honorable Democrats to be found? (I can hear a chorus of people shouting, "NO!" and a bunch more murmuring, "Well, maybe not.")

Obama is getting a rude awakening here.

Let's start from the assumption that President Obama is an honorable guy, that his ethics and morals are beyond question. (I know some of you will disagree. Stick with me here. Don't let "guilt by association" get in the way.)

The last Democratic president we had with impeccable ethics and morals was Jimmy Carter. Carter's presidency was embarrassing and ineffective, but not because he was a "bad" man. In fact, Carter really was a "good" man. Carter's presidency failed because he believed that the rest of the executive branch, and Congress, and in fact the leaders of nations, were as "good" as he was. His cabinet members abused his trust in them, Congress laughed at his trust in them, and the leaders of nations took advantage of his trust in them, all to further their own goals and gain the advantage over everyone else -- including President Carter.

The next Democratic president after Carter was Bill Clinton. Let's throw Hillary in there as well, since she alternates between banking on her association with Bill and distancing herself from him, and I'm not about to let her have it both ways. The Clinton presidency was cynical and self-serving, at times vindictive and underhanded, but overridingly self-serving. The Clintons got a lot of things done in their term because they only cared about themselves and their success. Nobody and nothing else mattered, not even ethics, morals, or the law.

Well, that's not entirely true. Ethics, morals and the law mattered only insofar as they served the Clintons' interests and advanced their goals. The president's idea of ethics was that anything was okay, so long as it got him what he wanted and didn't impede his progress. (He really messed up on that one, but that's a story for another time.) The First Lady's idea of ethics, in her own words, was to do "whatever it takes" to accomplish her goals.

In sharp contrast to Carter, the Clintons were "bad" people -- ethically, morally, and legally -- and they believed that everyone else in the world was as "bad" as they were. They were always looking out for Number One, and never trusted anybody. The First Lady, in particular, wielded power far beyond her legal authority, and kept everyone in her power on a very short leash. That included the president, but he kept slipping his leash, and ended up bringing dishonor upon the Office of the President and upon his own name.

So, on the one hand, we have "good" President Carter, who failed because he naively believed everyone else to be "good" like him, and we have "bad" President Clinton, who succeeded at first, but ultimately failed, because he cynically believed everyone else to be "bad" like him. Assuming that Obama is a "good" and honorable man, he will need to avoid the mistakes of Jimmy Carter, and instead, like the Clintons, suspect that nobody else in his administration, in Congress or in the leadership of nations is "good" and can be trusted -- until they prove otherwise. Trust that is earned is less likely to be thrown away.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

We Can't Trust Them With Our Money

This time I'm speaking, not of our elected officials, but of the presidents of the banks and other struggling institutions that are quickly consuming the $700 billion from the first bailout.

Every single bank that made bad loans in the past 3 years knew exactly what they were doing. They threw away all of the rules or guidelines or due diligence or what have you, about making loans to people when you know there's not a snowball's chance in Phoenix of the borrowers ever making good on the loans. But they did it anyway. Call it greed, or hubris, if you want.

Basically, all of those banks were irresponsible with your money.

Then, all of those loans and mortgages were repackaged into financial instruments (like stocks or bonds), called "mortgage backed securities," which the banks then sold to each other at face value. The buyers and sellers knew all along that a lot of the mortgages backing those securities were bad mortgages. They should never have been sold at face value. They should been discounted, sold for face value multiplied by the probability that the mortgages backing them would ever be paid off. The buyers and sellers knew the score. They knew that many (most?) of those loans were risky and would probably end in default. For a bank or lender to say "Well, I didn't know" or "Well, the borrower qualified for the loan" is just stupid. I wouldn't fall for it. My next-door neighbor wouldn't fall for it. What made those MBAs and Wall Street tycoons fall for it?

Basically, all of those banks and investors threw away their common sense in the name of greed -- although they would never call it "greed."

Then, when borrowers started defaulting en masse and these mortgage backed securities started dissolving and slipping through the bankers' and investors' fingers, they ran crying to the government, begging to be saved from their own greed and stupidity. President Bush's Secretary of the Treasury, as one of his last acts, gave them over $700 billion with no strings attached and no provision for accountability.

Do you know what they did with that money? Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac sent a lot of their managers to a golf resort in Texas, for a week of relaxing and unwinding. A banker in New York had his office remodeled, spending $1.2 million on the job. One bank completed the purchase of a customized, luxury jet that they had ordered two years earlier. And executives at many of these failed institutions rewarded themselves for their greed and their irresponsibility by taking huge bonuses from the bailout money, in a period when thousands of people per day were losing their jobs. Maybe they thought we wouldn't notice.

Basically, the banks and their executives were stupid.

Do you know who should have lost their jobs? The entire executive suites at these banks! Some bankers and politicians tried to justify those bonuses, but their words rang hollow in the ears of ordinary Americans. A bonus is a reward for doing something right, and it's clear to everybody in America except the aforementioned stupid executives that they didn't do anything right last year.

Now the Obama administration and Congress want to give Wall Street and Company another $820 billion bailout. NO! The people who run Wall Street and Company (along with the people who run Washington) have shown that we cannot trust them with our money.

I have a better idea. If the federal government is serious about bailing out those in financial distress, if they really want to stimulate the economy, and if they're willing to spend $820 billion to do it, then give that money directly to the people.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of the United States right now is 305,729,371. If the government were to distribute that money evenly to every man, woman and child in the United States, we would each get a check for $2,6822.11. And I can promise you that the majority of Americans would be a lot more wise and responsible in how they used that money than the great minds of Wall Street and our elected officials in Washington have proven themselves to be.

I Was Right - But I Wish I Wasn't

In a previous blog entry, concluding my observations on President Obama's inauguration, I warned:

"The way politics in Washington works, the ruling party always becomes the irresponsible party. The gridlock that occurs when the president is of a different political party than the Congressional majority is always unfortunate, but at least it allows the checks and balances system to work the way it's supposed to. Besides, the problems associated with gridlock are nothing compared to the rampant irresponsibility that takes over the legislative branch when the president and the Congressional majority are of the same political party. I fear that the Democratic majority in Congress will now try to get away with as much as they can, as Congress has done in the past."

Well, I was right. I just didn't expect that it would happen so soon. Our elected representatives and senators in Congress have hijacked Obama's economic stimulus legislation and loaded it down with pork. Yes, folks, we're back to business as usual in Congress. And this time it's not the Republicans piling on the pork, but the majority party, the Democrats, just like I said it would be.

In fact, every single Republican in the House voted against the stimulus package, but the Democratic majority was enough to carry it. "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

Americans are outraged. (Google for "stimulus package pork" and read some of the editorials.) I'm outraged. You should be outraged. Write to your senators and representatives, and tell them just how you feel about it.

Facebook and the Law of Unintended Consequences

Facebook wasn't the first popular social networking site. And it's certainly not the only one, as other sites jump on the social networking bandwagon. But FB has risen to the top of them all. To explain why would take another blog entry, or maybe even a book. For now, it's enough to say that the creators of FB did it right.

Each blog has a charter, a purpose, a raison d'ĂȘtre. MySpace trumpets itself (rightfully so) as a publicity vehicle for indie bands and indie musicians. Here's what FB has to say about itself: "Facebook gives people the power to share and makes the world more open and connected. Millions of people use Facebook everyday to keep up with friends, upload an unlimited number of photos, share links and videos, and learn more about the people they meet."

That really is FB's goal and purpose. But there's something else happening in FB, something that fits into their charter, but was probably neither predicted nor intended by FB's creators.

People who moved clear across the continent after high school or college are reconnecting with their friends and their classmates from years ago. Friends who used to be nothing more than fond (and fading) memories are now a part of people's daily life again. Geographically dispersed families are finding FB to be a handy way to keep in instant touch with their relatives, instead of relying on letters, email and the telephone chain. FB allows you to find out instantly what your crazy uncle or your beloved niece is doing, and to congratulate them about it immediately, rather than waiting for the annual Christmas letter.

There's no need to wait for reunions anymore, because FB is the reunion. It's a giant class reunion, a giant family reunion, and a tender reunion for old friends who think about each other every day. even if they haven't gotten together for years.

The FB goal statement quoted above makes it clear that FB's creators intended it to be a way to keep the present from becoming the past. However, I don't think they expected that FB would allow users to reach way back into the past and pull it forward, into the present. That's an unintended consequence of FB.

Along with my childhood friends, my former students, my extended family and all of the other friends I have joyfully reunited with, I offer my thanks to the creators of Facebook. They will never know the extent of the good that they have done in the world.