Sunday, February 27, 2011

Discovery from the Air

Last week's launch of Space Shuttle Discovery, 
as viewed from a commercial airliner.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

USA Inc.

If America were
a company,
what would our
logo be?

On Mountain Climbing

Mountains should be climbed with as little 
effort as possible and without desire. 
The reality of your own nature 
should determine the 

you become 
restless, speed up. 
If you become winded, slow down. 

You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. 
Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a 
means to an end but a unique event in itself. This leaf has 
jagged edges. This rock looks loose. From this place 
the snow is less visible, even though 
closer. These are things you 
should notice 

live only 
for some future goal 
is shallow. It’s the sides 
of the mountain which sustain life, 
not the top. Here’s where things grow. But 
of course, without the top you can’t have any sides. 
It’s the top that defines the sides.

From "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"
by Robert Pirsig


Mobile shoppers....

It's predicted that purchases made by consumers on mobile devices will double to $4 billion in 2011.

One of the top beneficiaries is UK-based fashion retailer Asos.

Whose name is an acronym standing for As Seen On Screen.


The best place to go for longreads on the Net, with articles from The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Business Week, and other chewy places.

Spot On

From an interview in the Feb. 28, 2011 Barrons with Stephanie Pomboy, president of MacroMavens, a firm that analyzes macroeconomic trends.

"If you look at the combination of higher rates and energy prices, we are really now running at levels that we haven't seen since just going into the financial meltdown....

Starting in April, there will be another wave of ARM resets. We had this last year, but it was muted because rates weren't an issue; lower home prices were a drag. Today, both factors are relevant, as home prices have re-accelerated to the downside. At the same time, mortgage rates are starting to notch up. So the reset wave this year could be much more punitive to the economy generally and consumers specifically than it was last year....

Clearly, growth will slow....I don't see the ingredients for a durable recovery. To say that the economy looks fine, excluding the fact that we are not creating any jobs, strikes me as a pretty major "except." We need to create real income....

I expect that, at the end of June, unless you have had one of the two things I mentioned -- a spontaneous increase in consumer borrowing or an increase in job creation -- the Fed will be forced to extend QE [quantitative easing], because it needs to arrest this back-up in mortgage rates before it starts to get into those ARM resets. And it also needs to mitigate the blow from higher commodity prices....

So if I'm correct that the Fed is going to have to continue this program to protect the U.S. recovery from these threats of higher rates, and food and energy prices, it is kind of ironic that they are going to be pursuing more aggressive quantitative easing, even though that is really what is driving higher rates and commodities....

The Fed continues with QE, it begets more of the same result, which is just to continue to inflate commodities. Then what happens is that we see commodity prices rise until they reach the point that something breaks. And my thesis is that, during my lifetime, interest rates have always been the catalyst for a crisis....This time, however, higher commodity prices will be the catalyst....

The problem is that we serially try to reflate our way out of these problems, rather than taking the pain and letting the economy actually cleanse itself....

The best-case scenario -- and what Ben Bernanke is working really hard on and what hopefully will happen -- is that by inflating assets, even nominally, and getting the equity market to recover a lot of the ground that it has lost, high-end consumers will feel emboldened to go back out and spend. And since they really drive marginal consumption in the economy, eventually their spending will motivate companies to go out and hire and really feel better about expanding or believe in the durability of the recovery."

Milk, Cookies, and Robots

Robosem is just one of many different machines 
that could help South Korea achieve its goal of 

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Zurich Axioms

Distrust anyone who claims to know the future, however dimly.

A hunch can be trusted if it can be explained.

Never confuse a hunch with a hope.

Disregard the majority opinion. It is probably wrong.

Beware the gambler's fallacy: There's no such thing as "Today's my lucky day" or "I'm hot tonight."

And more at The Big Picture.

Thoughts on Thucydides

For some, the good of the commonwealth is the highest good.  

These people are willing to sacrifice themselves 
and everything else for the good of the state.  

While they sometimes take harsh actions to 
protect the state, Thucydides looks on people 
like this with a certain amount of moral admiration.  

He does not see them as coldblooded, cynical calculators: 
he sees them as honest patriots and even idealists in a 
world of lesser, more selfish actors.  

The modern realist is something of an idealist 
in the Thucydidean universe, and his innocent 
even naive goodwill is frequently exploited by 
the cynical schemers who would happily sell their 
whole city to the enemy in exchange 
for a big bag of gold....

Even if everyone agreed to seek the ‘best interest’ 
of the state as a whole, it is not always easy to 
figure out what that is.  

People may intend 
to follow the smartest foreign policy for 
their country, but international life is so complicated and the 
true national interest is so hard to determine 
(and so hedged about by unknowable future possibilities) 
that very few people ever figure out what it actually is.  

More, once somebody has figured it out, their 
chances of persuading the key decision makers 
in their country to follow this course 
of action — and do it in the right way — are extremely small.

from the blog of political scientist 


Thucydides is regarded as the father of historians.

He lived during the Peloponnesian Wars between
Athens and Sparta, a period similar to
the bipolar world that existed during
the Cold War between the America and the Soviet 
Union. He perceived that in international relations 
might often equals right, but he was
equally willing to make 
moral judgments.


Our nation (has) a duty to defend the security of free 
peoples if it wanted to preserve its own; that 
to resist challenges to the equilibrium in the 
early stages is an inherently ambiguous task. 

For if one waits till the challenge is clear, 
the cost of resisting grows exponentially; 
in the nuclear age it may become prohibitive.

            A nation and its leaders must choose between 
moral certainty, and the willingness to act on 
unprovable assumptions to deal with challenges 
when they are manageable. I favor the latter course.

            The statesman's duty is to bridge 
the gap between his nation's experience 
and his vision. If he gets too far ahead of his people 
he loses his mandate; if he confines 
himself to the conventional he will lose control over events. 

The qualities that distinguish a great statesman are 
prescience and courage, not analytical intelligence. 
He must have a conception of the future and the 
courage to move toward it while it is still 
shrouded to most of his compatriots.

 Henry Kissinger

Best Movie Music?

With the Oscars coming this weekend, what's your favorite movie soundtrack (or song from a movie)?

Here are two of my favorites:

Stanley Kubrick's stately late-1970s 
picaresque Barry Lyndon...

The clip above shows off Handel's Sarabande, 
as well as works by Bach, Schubert, Vivaldi, 
Mozart, and wonderful Irish folk music.

And—The chaotic sprawling 1967 James Bond spoof 
featuring music by Burt Bacharach, the 
Tijuana Brass, and Dusty Springfield.

Cole Porter's "Kiss Me Kate" 
isn't so bad, either, 
though its score was 
written for the stage...

How Could I Dance With Another

Paul McCartney has written a major orchestral 
work, the love story "Ocean's Kingdom," that 
will be danced by the New York City Ballet this fall.

Not possible for McCartney to write 
anything but a love story.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


Erg is a word.

It might be a good word to describe what is going on in Libya, as it sounds so close to "ugh."

An 'erg' is, perhaps not surprisingly, the Arabic word for dune field—what we stereotypically think of as a desert—a barren wasteland extending as far as the eye can see covered by undulating, sinuous lines of sand mountains. This is what much of southern Libya looks like. It's the Sahara.

Above we see Erg Chebbi in Morocco where the highest dunes reach 500 feet.

So alien are ergs that there are ergs on alien worlds—Venus, Mars, and Titan. Here is the 130-mile wide Kaiser Crater erg on Mars:

It looks like the ear of a purple frog.

Irish Eyes Aren't Smiling

From a City Journal article on the busting of Ireland's real estate bubble....

300,000 new dwellings now stand empty in the Irish Republic, a number whose equivalent in the United States would be approximately 21 million....

During the boom, taxi drivers and shop assistants would tell you about the third or fourth house they had bought—on borrowed money, of course—and of their apartments in Europe, from Malaga to Budapest to the Black Sea Coast of Bulgaria. It was not so much a boom as a gold rush, or a modern reenactment of the Tulipomania....

All this would not have been possible were it not for the insouciance of foreign banks....

During the boom, the government—under the direction of Ireland’s largest political party, Fianna Fáil, in power for most of the last 80 years and famous for its patronage network—increased public-sector employment by 25 percent and also the rate of remuneration. The average public-service wage rose from $39,000 a year in 1998 to $64,000 in 2008, with pensions following suit, in return for a pledge not to go on strike....

When the music stopped and the Madoff-style pyramid collapsed, the government was left with obligations impossible to meet. Public service salaries have already been cut by as much as a quarter, with more to come....

Default is not impossible, however, and some even advocate it.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Nothing is more revealing than movement.
—Martha Graham

Consider the Nut Room

Consider the Nut Room

Suppose you love pistachio nuts, and are given a room 
filed with them to a level of five feet. But you must 
eat them in the room, and must leave the shells. 
When will you have eaten all the nuts? 

As it becomes increasingly difficult 
to find nuts amid the shells, the nuts will 
not be free anymore. When the cost—in time
 and effort—of the nuts becomes too high, 
a substitute will be preferred—nuts 
from a store, or another snack.

—George Will 4/1/01


Going Saturday to a 40th anniversary tribute 
to George Harrison's "All Things Must Pass" 
triple album. A Chapel Hill benefit for the 
Caring Community Foundation
that helps cancer patients.

You have to work pretty
hard to get a beard
like George's.

Dig the


Random scenes from Egypt.
Note the man below (at right) riding on the bumper of the bus,
because it was too crowded to ride inside.
A common occurrence.

Sadat's triumphal return from Camp David (above, at left). 
About six months later, President Carter flew to Egypt 
for shuttle diplomacy between Egypt and Israel.
Thus, Air Force One (above, at right).

At the time I worked for an NBC reporter.
Serving as Assistant Producer of the
networks' radio base station, I attended all
events. I was at the airport when peace 
was announced. The American press
corps went bananas.

 Midan ah-Tahrir (Liberation Square) is above, at left.
We see Riyadh's central square above, at right.
It's also known as "Chop Square" because
beheadings and other punishments
are carried out there.

Tootsie, Keats, Iwo

On this day in history, February 23...

Romantic poet John Keats died...

Here he contemplates the ribald action
 painted on the surface of a Greek urn:

"What men or gods are these?  What maidens loth? 
What mad pursuit?  What struggle to escape? 
        What pipes and timbrels?  What wild ecstasy?
Are sweeter: therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;" 

Let us now contemplate the lowly Tootsie-Roll,
also concocted on this day.

Invented in 1896 and named after 
the confectioner's daughter "Tootsie," 
this hardy sweet became a staple in soldiers' meal 
kits because it would not easily melt.

The humble candy may have been on 
the island of Iwo Jima. On this day the American 
flag was raised on Mt. Suribachi. This savage battle took 
the lives of 21,569 Japanese and 6,821 Americans. 
Only 216 Japanese were captured alive. Allied casualties 
were greater here than during the D-Day landing.

Contrary to popular belief, photographer 
Joe Rosenthal's historic Pulitzer Prize winning image of the 
raising of the Stars and Strips was indeed 
posed and marked the second time 
the flag was raised on the mountaintop. The first raising 
(below) was captured by Marine Sergeant Louis Lowery, 
a photographer with Leatherneck magazine.

Fly Ash Woes for China's High Speed Rail

Construction of the mainland's massive high-speed rail network is in danger of becoming a victim of its own success.
The breakneck speed at which track is being laid means engineers are likely to have to sacrifice quality for quantity on the lines' foundations which could ultimately halve their lifespan.
The problem lies in the use of high-quality fly ash, a fine powder chemically identical to volcanic ash, collected from the chimneys of coal-fired power plants. When mixed with cement and gravel, it can give the tracks' concrete base a lifespan of 100 years....
The use of low-quality fly ash would threaten the safety of rail passengers and "judgment day" might come sooner than expected, [researcher] Zhu said.
"Quality problems with Chinese high-speed railways will arise in five years," he said. "I'm not talking about small problems, but big problems. Small problems such as occasional cracks and slips that delay trains for hours have already occurred. Big problems that will postpone an entire line for days, if not weeks, will come soon.
"When that happens, the miracle of Chinese high-speed rail will be reduced to dust."

From South China News.

This might help explain why the China's rail chief was fired last week on corruption charges.

Inflation's Role in the Mid-East Crisis

In accounts of the political unrest sweeping through the Middle East, one factor, inflation, deserves more attention. Nothing can be more demoralizing to people at the low end of the income scale—where great masses in that region reside—than increases in the cost of basic necessities like food and fuel. It brings them out into the streets to protest government policies, especially in places where mass protests are the only means available to shake the existing power structure.

The Fed is financing a vast and rising federal deficit, following a practice that has been a surefire prescription for domestic inflation from time immemorial. Meanwhile, its policies are stoking a rise in prices that is contributing to political unrest that in some cases might be beneficial but in others might turn out as badly as the overthrow of the shah in 1979. Does any of this suggest that there might be some urgency to bringing the Fed under closer scrutiny?

From the Wall Street Journal

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Monday, February 21, 2011

Trouble Not the Dog

You can’t get butter out of a dog’s mouth.

An old saying

Threaten Not the Stars

Pythagorean acusmata

         On starting a journey, do not turn back.

         Avoid the weasel.

         Threaten not the stars.

         Dig not fire with a sword.

"Acusmata" is a completely obscure
word for maxims that were 
transmitted orally. 

Pythagoras, a 6th century B.C. Greek philosopher, 
today is best known for sometimes 
stumping sixth-grade geometry students.

Lives, gives...

The meanwhile, let us live as islanders
Who pluck what fruit the lowered branch proffers.
Each passing moment masks a tender face;
Nothing has had to be, but is by Grace.
Attend to every sunset; greet the dawn
That combs with spears of shade the glistening lawn.
Enjoy the risen morning, upright noon,
Declining day, and swollen leprous moon.

Observe the trees, those clouds of breathing leaf;
Their mass transcends the insect’s strident grief.
The forest holds a thousand deaths, yet lives;
The lawn accepts its coat of bone and gives
Next spring a sweeter, graver tone of green.
Gladly, the maple seed spins down, between
Two roots extends a tendril, grips beneath
The soil, and suffers the mower’s spinning teeth.
Nothing is poorly made, nothing is dull:
The crabgrass thinks itself adorable.
  -From the poem 'Midpoint' by John Updike

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Earn Your Face?

As we grow old,
the beauty steals inward.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

(Photo: My Father at 90, 1936:
Imogen Cunningham)

Hooray for George

On Tuesday, February 22, we honor 
the Father of Our Country....

With that in mind, here are

Five Things You Didn’t Know 
About George Washington

 He surrendered to the French.

In 1754, during the French-and-Indian War, when he was a young colonel in the British army, he and his troops tried to drive the French out of a crucial part of Ohio.
He tried and failed to defend his fort at the Battle of Fort Necessity. 

When the French and Indians attacked, he ordered a frontal assault in response. It failed. Young George, then a mere 22, ordered his men retreated back to the fort. They were greatly outnumbered. 

Justly concerned about being massacred and scalped, Washington surrendered. He feared his reputation would be ruined, but back in Virginia his loss was blamed on lack of supplies and support from other troops.

He wrote love poems.

At least two. Here is a dandy that he wrote to as a teenager to a young girlfriend---

From your bright sparkling Eyes, I was undone;
Rays, you have, more transparent than the sun,
Amidst its glory in the rising Day,
None can you equal in your bright array;
Constant in your calm and unspotted Mind;
Equal to all, but will to none Prove kind,
So knowing, seldom one so Young, you'l Find
Ah! woe's me that I should Love and conceal,
Long have I wish'd, but never dare reveal,
Even though severely Loves Pains I feel;
Xerxes that great, was't free from Cupids Dart,
And all the greatest Heroes, felt the smart.

Her name is hidden in the verse. The technical term for this sort of effort is an acrostic poem. (Note the first letter of each line.)

One cringes to imagine young George as a teenager in love…

His first Secretary of State may have been a traitor.

He was Edmund Randolph, and Washington fired him after the Secretary of War showed him a secret French dispatch. In a letter by the French ambassador that had been captured, he said he had received “precious confessions” from Randolph. 

This was in 1795. The U.S. government was negotiating a treaty (Jay’s Treaty) with England to resolve unsettled issues from the Revolutionary War. The U.S. was struggling to balance itself between England and France which were then at war. T

The letter also implied that Randolph was open to bribery. 

Randolph was the first cabinet secretary to resign. As he was also a Virginian, this event was a huge embarrassment, politically and personally, for Washington.

He lost New York City.

In August 1776, the British wasted no time in dealing with the rebels. They launched a naval invasion of Long Island and Manhattan (an 18th century style Normandy assault) that shattered the American army.

Washington was driven first from Long Island and then from Manhattan to the Jersey Palisades across the Hudson River. When he realized the full depth of his army’s defeat he wept “with the tenderness of a child.” Even his closest aides thought that all was lost.

There was a second—even more 
daring—Delaware Crossing.

The first crossing on Christmas 1776 was a miracle of teamwork, courage, and defiance. 

A blizzard had swept through on Christmas Eve. And was continuing. Though the British and Hessians had feared a rebel attack, they let their guard down due to the horrible weather.

And it is true that the rebels were in no condition to attack. In one regiment, 400 of 500 men had died of dysentery and malaria. When the march to the Delaware River began, most men had no idea where they were going. Washington ordered “no man to quit his Ranks on pain of Death.”

The Continentals surprised the Hessians (German mercenaries) in Trenton, routing them, causing great casualties to only “trifling” losses in combat, according to Washington. The real enemy was disease and exhaustion. 

Washington decided to regroup, crossing back to Pennsylvania across the Delaware.

That first assault was a mere raid. Now Washington met again with his senior officers. He had received word for a junior officer Cadwalader who was still in New Jersey that his men wanted to fight on. Cadwalader feared they would mutiny if the attack did not continue. He further told Washington that the enemy was panicked by the first attack and urged the commander to drive on.

In typical fashion, Washington presented the idea not as his own but as that of a junior officer. He kept his silence to encourage senior officers to debate the matter. Their men were in even more wretched shape, now from frostbite, as well as disease and exhaustion. 

The decision, however, was unanimous. Another attack was ordered for December 29. Snow continued, and it was even colder. When the rebels crossed they headed through Trenton and then to Princeton where the British suffered severe losses and had to flee to New York City, 60 miles to the north. They retreated in front of street in Princeton where I grew up as a boy, in front of the very spot where my childhood home would later be built.

(The bridge from Princeton to Kingston that retreating British troops crossed. The Kingston mill stands behind it.)

British resolve was shaken; Washington’s reputation was saved. And the colonists were on their way to victory, thanks to Washington’s daring, resolve, and leadership that brought northerner and southerner together in a common cause.

(Source: Washington's Crossing, David Fischer)

Friday, February 18, 2011

Paris in North Carolina

Work by Raleigh sculptor 
Paris Alexander from whom I took lessons.

A good way to build muscles.
A very good way.

On the Rocks in Raleigh

Stone carving class at the studio of 
master sculptor Paris Alexander.

Both easier and harder to do than it looks.....

Thursday, February 17, 2011

It's a bust.

I been meek and hard like an oak.
I seen pretty people disappear like smoke.

Life is sad.
Life is a bust.
All you can do is 
do what you must.
You do what you must do, 
and you do it well.

Buckets of Rain, Bob Dylan

Bringing Peace to Patients

Here is a short professionally-done documentary 
about the evening entertainment program at SECU Family House
 in Chapel Hill, N.C. I arrange for 
gifted artists to entertain our guests.

I am briefly interviewed.
I should smile more!

Here is a text story by director Courtney Potter, 
and here is her website.

Turn on the Fawcett...

One of the great illustrators of 
magazines and books, 
the late Robert Fawcett, is now honored 
with a new book showcasing his

Egyptian Political Jokes

"The greater the political expression tolerated by the Government, the fewer the jokes (about the government).
            -Professor Saad Eddin Ibrahim, 
            a long-time foe of the Egyptian government

Army commander to Hosni Mubarak: 
"Everything has come to an end, 
you should write a farewell speech for the people."

Mubarak: "Oh! Where are they going?"

Mubarak died and met the late presidents Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser in the afterlife. They asked him: Poisoned or assassinated? He replied: Neither, Facebook!