... and delivers any insults with exquisite courtesy.

Like, for example, this letter, from Jourdan Anderson, an American citizen, freed from slavery by the defeat of the Confederacy, to his old master Colonel P.H. Anderson, in Tennessee, upon the latter's writing to invite Jourdan back to his plantation to work as a laborer. Jourdan's wonderful "Go @$!# yourself" letter was even picked up and reprinted in newspapers across the country. It's also available in The Freedmen's Book, which was written to help recently freed slaves learn to read.

Play This

Apr. 19th, 2010 10:30 pm
Digital: A Love Story is far better than it has any right to be. Go play it now.

If you want, you can read things other people have written, but there may be spoilers in those, especially ones with comments. Or mine, below

Here's the nickel summary. It's a game set "five minutes into the future of 1998" in the heady days of BBSes. You've just gotten your new computer, and it includes a modem, and the friendly local computer shop guy stuck a dialer and the number for the local BBS into it. As a bit of advice, I suggest using your online alias when it asks. Trust me. From there, you explore BBSes, learn to hack and phone phreak, fall in love, and save the world, or at least the Internet. The game is short, a couple hours at most, and well worth it. The puzzles are good at making you feel clever, even when they're objectively not too hard. And you can even get in nerd-arguments about which Star Trek captain is best.

By the time we got a computer with a modem, in all of its 14.4 glory, AOL discs were spamming mailboxes everywhere, and the net was just being "discovered". I've only ever visited BBSes a handful of times, over at a friend's house, where we played Legend of the Red Dragon and dinked around. But the feel of things is very right. Very early internet. I can't really pin down what about the game is so affecting, or why it's stuck with me so much. The soundtrack, the low-res welcome screens, everything about it made it feel right. Part of it is nostalgia, I'm sure, even if it's nostalgia for something that wasn't quite the internet I grew up on, but its ancestor. And the story will probably kick in more for anybody who's ever made those emotional contacts that can come from just letters on a screen.

So I don't know if it's the story itself that's stuck with me, or the recreation of a smaller, more secret, newer, less ad-filled days of the Internets. But whichever it was, at the end of the story, I was honestly sad, and it's kept kicking around in the back of my head in the days since I played it. And that's reason enough to recommend it.
Masters in Sustainable Urban Infrastructure Just a brief overview article, here as much for me as anything else, as that's exactly the sort of thing I want to do.

First Earth-like Planet Spotted Outside Solar System Likely a Volcanic Wasteland "When scientists confirmed in October that they had detected the first rocky planet outside our solar system, it advanced the longtime quest to find an Earth-like planet hospitable to life. The rocky planet CoRoT-7 b is, however, a forbidding place. If its orbit is not almost perfectly circular, then the planet might be undergoing continuous, fierce volcanic eruptions, according to information presented at the American Astronomical Society meeting."

What Happened to the Hominids Who May Have Been Smarter Than us? "Two neuroscientists say that a now-extinct race of humans had big eyes, child-like faces, and an average intelligence of around 150, making them geniuses among Homo sapiens."

Return of the Fungi "Paul Stamets is on a quest to find an endangered mushroom that could cure smallpox, TB, and even bird flu. Can he unlock its secrets before deforestation and climate change wipe it out?"
I've been looking for this chart for weeks, and finally found it. This is the key to why we're in the economic mess we are, and have been.

This chart shows the growth of the GDP (basically the "income" earned in the country) with the median household income, with 1979 set as 1 to have a standard for comparison. From the end of World War II to about 1980, the two tracked pretty well, when the GDP went up, median incomes went up by about the same percentage. There's a little bump where incomes went up faster than GDP, but the most notable point is 1980, where the two completely diverge. After 1980, median wages grow more slowly than GDP, and hardly at all from about 2000 to 2007, where the general way the two lines track seems to completely break down.

Now, correlation is not causation and all, so I leave figuring out what events could have caused this to the reader for now, and am just going to get into the implications of what the break means.

What does it mean for median wages to grow more slowly than the national "income" of the GDP? It means average people's wages haven't been keeping up with growth. It means that using the GDP as a predictor of the "health" of the general economy has been useless for at least 20 years, since the general economy, by definition, is driven by average people.

Our economy has lately been driven by "consumption", that is, selling plastic crap made in China to each other. So if GDP's been going up, it means people have been spending more (to vastly simplify). But if GDP's been going up, and the money people make hasn't been going up as fast, that extra money's got to come from somewhere. How can people spend more money than they have? Well, by going into their savings (our savings rate is less than 1%, or at least it WAS) and by taking out loans. Loans like, say, credit cards, or mortgages, or other kinds of debt.
The median household had $3000 in credit card debt they carried from month to month in 2007. Just look at the proliferation of "payday loan" places. Or, say, the mortgage bubble.

The other thing it means that the growth going on isn't being shared equally. It's going somewhere other than regular people's wages. And while gaps of a couple percent don't seem like much, over 40 years, that adds up, quickly. Everybody remembers compound interest, right?

So where's that extra money been going? Well, since the chart uses median income, rather than mean, that extra money could be going to a very few people, not enough to affect the position of the median very much, since the median's where 50% of the sample is on either side. Like if Bill Gates walks into a bar, the mean income goes up a lot, but not the median income. So that's one possibility, which seems to be part of it if you look at numbers for income growth among top earners.

It could also be that some of that GDP growth didn't exist. Or at least didn't represent anything productive. Things like say, financial "innovations" like betting on mortgages, that seem to generate a lot of money, but don't actually DO anything.

I think it's some of both. Some of the economic "growth" over the past 20 years has been illusionary, some's been fraud, and some has concentrated into a lot fewer hands. The housing bubble was caused in large part because people were treating houses as investments and ATMs, since their wages weren't covering things. That lack of growth has been hurting many facets of the economy, but that's been covered up for years by the explosive growth of the finance sector, which was a combination of fraud, smoke and mirrors, and a gigantic transfer of wealth from everybody else to a very few. But that couldn't go on forever, there's only so long you can cook the books and make popcorn from your seed corn before you run out. And that's what hit, and the ginormous bets so many companies made almost brought down their whole house of cards, only government guarantees and bailouts are holding it up right now.

So what to do about all this? Well, I have a number of suggestions, but I'll save them for another post some time. People who know me can probably guess at some of them though.
Okay, so last time I explained why (part) big banks are going under. Now to the housing market. That's what started things, after all.

First, houses had cost more than they were worth, in a lot of places. Especially in some parts of the country. But everybody assumed house prices would keep going up. That's why we built too many of them, way too far out from where people actually worked. Because "everybody wanted" McMansions, on tiny plots of land, because a house was an "investment", and houses always gained value, that's what "everybody knew". This couldn't keep on forever. And many people pointed this out. But while you're in that game, even if you know it won't go on forever, you don't know it's going to end NOW, so to keep up, you have to play the game.

Now yes, I hear people say "Well they should have known better, they should have done their own research." And yes, people should think things out for themselves, but when the banker, the real estate guy, and your investment guy, plus all the peoples on the teevee are telling you something, are you sure you want to argue with them, and bet they're all wrong? Are you going to risk your family's house and income and future prospects on your suspicion that these guys might be full of crap? When for the past decade or so they've been right?

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is bubble thinking. Play the game, make your bucks, and pass it on to some other sucker before the music stops. Except this time it wasn't a ball, it was houses, that people live in. Which even people who don't want to play the game have to buy. And when the bubble burst, suddenly many people were stuck with houses with shoddy construction, an hour from anything, with mortgages higher than the house was now worth. And with all the foreclosed and for sale houses out there, the market for new homes dried up. And with that, the market for people to build those homes dried up too, and many many lots of construction workers lost their jobs. Which means they didn't have as much money to spend, so sales and other kinds of work went down, so then the stores laid people off, so then those people have less money to spend, wash, rinse, repeat.

But even here, we're not at the bottom of the rabbit hole. Because the housing bubble burst caused things, but it also had spent years helping cover one of the fundamentals. Which I'll get to in the next one of these.


May. 1st, 2008 12:52 am
Humans are odd.

I've never gone hunting, and not in favor of humans wiping out species. I mean, obviously. My entire career I'm working toward involves trying to rejigger science and technology to work in partnership, or at least not against, nature.

And yet, when I was involved in a discussion about the Pleistocene megafauna extinctions today, I wasn't really upset by the discussion.

For the uninitiated, by about 17,000 years ago, the large mammals on most continents had been wiped out. But only the largest, things over a hundred pounds. Cool things, like woolly mammoths, giant ground sloths, giant "birds from hell", etcetera. They were around, and then they weren't, and nothing else moved in to take over their ecological niches. Climactic change doesn't seem likely, because the extinctions were spread out over time and continents, and some survived in isolated areas after the rest were gone. And nothing else took their place.

The most likely reason the megafauna went extinct everywhere but Africa? Clever monkeys learned how to sharpen spears, and the megafauna were tasty. That's the likeliest reason. The times of the extinctions match the times when humans arrived on the continents, remains of the critters have been found with marks from weapons on the bones, and so on. So why are there elephants in Africa still? Because elephants evolved alongside us monkeys while we were learning to hunt, and so learned how to cope, while animals elsewhere just were surprised and eaten.

And for some reason, this thought makes me feel rather smug and self-satisfied. Humans probably killed off hundreds of species, because they were tasty.

But I suppose it's not so weird. Roving bands of hunter humans were in a completely different life than we're in now. And honestly? Dudes who could go up against mammoths and hellbirds with stone spears? That's hardcore. Hunting deer with a rifle's got nothing on that. What's the quote from Snow Crash? "Descended from a long line of the biggest badasses to walk the planet."

Still, intellectually, it feels weird to cheer this. But honestly? Great-great-great-great....great-grandparents, who went faced down the biggest things on the Earth with stone spears and fire, and won? They're why I'm here. And one of these days, I'll toast them for it, then get back to making sure we don't have to live like that again.
March, 1969. With the Vietnam War going nowhere fast, and an approval rating of 25%, Richard Nixon begins the secret bombing of Cambodia. He's impeached in 1974, for blatant violations of the law and high crimes and misdemeanors, none related to causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

August 2007. With the war in Iraq going nowhere fast, and an approval rating in the low 30s, George W. Bush continues to try and maneuver the US into the public bombing of Iran. Talk of impeachment is considered "fringe" and "extremist" and unserious.
The Hippies Were Right!

Why do you think reactionaries hate hippies so much and have spent the past 40 years trying to discredit hippies? Because they know the hippies were right. :)

Also, here's an excerpt from another economist on why the hippies were right about happiness over growth.
I just finished reading Where the Money Was: The Memoirs of a Bank Robber. It's about Willie Sutton, one of the most famous and successful bank robbers in American history, who robbed almost a hundred banks and broke out of jail three times.

The irony of the title is it comes from a famous quote in an interview, where a reporter asked him "Why do you keep robbing banks?" "Because that's where the money is." But according to him in the book, he never actually said that.

And it is a fascinating book. It doesn't go into much detail about the bank robberies, because why should it? Most of the plans actually were fairly simple, he'd disguise himself as a cop or Fedex guy or something and get into the bank when there was just one person there, before it opened, then corral the other employees as they came in and convince the manager to open the safe, then walk out. He comes off as a real gentleman bank robber. Sure, it's his autobiography, so he'd have every reason to make himself look good, but it's still fascinating.

The other thing, though? Most of the book is about being in jail. He spent like thirty years in jail all told, the chapter about one of the escape plans skips over several years. He spent all of World War II in jail. He finally got out of jail thanks to a lot of legal wrangling on Christmas Eve, 1969. But the parts about jail are fascinating in themselves. Especially the kinds of hellholes some of them were, and reading him talking about the changes that came to the prisons in the times he was there. The whole book was completely interesting, and gave me all sorts of ideas.
Remember in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, how Judge Doom wanted to buy the trolleys and shut them down to build freeways and make people buy cars?

That's actually somewhat true, except with GM doing the buying, not a toon judge. Well, here, let me quote about National City Lines: "Between 1936 and 1950, National City Lines (NCL), a holding company sponsored and funded by General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California and Phillips Petroleum, bought out more than 100 electric surface-traction (streetcar) systems in 45 cities (including New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Salt Lake City, Tulsa, and Los Angeles). Those systems were ultimately dismantled and replaced with GM buses."

Hardly the only force that brought about the end of the streetcar system, but definitely one of the major ones, I'd suspect.

The Disappearance of Trams
GM Streetcar conspiracy
The Straight Dope

Oh, and did you know that "General Smedley Butler testified before a Congressional committee that a group of men had attempted to recruit him to serve as the leader of a plot and to assume and wield power once the coup was successful." The "group of men" was a bunch of wealthy industrialists. But somehow, the story never became a big deal (wealthy interests, most newspapers were owned by a small group then, etc) and many of the references were deleted from the report, a full version has yet to come out. The Sentate report confirmed that "In the last few weeks of the committee's official life it received evidence showing that certain persons had made an attempt to establish a fascist government in this country." But nothing ever came of that, either. The Straight Dope has some more.
Because most of that whole liberal principles thing I'm doing is totally just ripping off FDR.

And his 11th State of the Union, at the height of WWII. And man, compare what he's talking about to Bush's "Go back to shopping!" rallying cry in the "War on Terror".

More anon.
From Encyclopaedia Britainnica Films, 1946.

(snagged from [livejournal.com profile] jokermage)

(Minor historical note, you might notice the Pledge of Allegiance they say at one point doesn't include the phrase "under God." That was added in 1954, thanks to the Knights of Columbus and a Presbyterian Minister named George MacPherson Docherty.)
The Sahara Desert used to be a lush forest, thousands of years ago, where lots of people lived. Then it dried up through temperature changes of just a couple degrees. It took about 150 years or so, a geological blink of the eye. But long enough for some of the people to move, probably to Egypt.

Of course, then people started grazing goats in the grasslands and scrublands around the desert, and goats ever bloody everything, which only made the desert bigger.
What would you do differently if you knew future archaeologists were going to be digging through your garbage?
Seriously. He singlehandedly prevented World War 3.




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