some history

March 10th, 2013

Here are three histories that may be worth tracking down if you have an interest in this sort of thing.

"Roosevelt's Secret War" - Some interesting tidbits from an engaging history/biography dealing with FDR and WW2 espionage, by Joseph E Persico (Amazon has it here).    This was all before the systematization of espionage in this country, although the British had been at it for many years previously.  Prior presidents took little interest in the subject;  FDR wanted to be at the top of the intelligence landscape and established agents and organizations reporting directly to him, overlapping in their scope of responsibility.  The established military intelligence groups, Army and Navy, had little in the way of spies and were more technologically oriented.  J Edgar Hoover was making a name for himself even then, trying to track down spies.

"The Tycoons" (Amazon's links), the tale of transition of the US from predominantly agrarian into a world class productive economy (in all senses).  The tale focuses on the stories of Andrew Carnegie (steel), Jay Gould (railroads), John D. Rockefeller (oil), and J. P. Morgan (finance), but puts their actions in the context of the people and ideas surrounding mechanization, interchangeable parts, the rise of department stores, and the vast improvement in standard of living even as incomes were falling (prices were falling more rapidly).    Were these perfect men?  Of course not, but by and large their works were fair - they just saw more clearly what might be possible and made it happen.

"Shattered Sword" (Amazon) a somewhat revisionist history of the battle of Midway (yes, Japan still loses).  The interesting parts of this story arise from the authors' research into original Japanese sources to better understand why they went in to battle at this time and place, tracing the defeat back to fundamental strategic errors and doctrinal limitations that set them on a path with insufficient forces and no back-up to a complex plan that was breaking down even before they left port.  Add this to interesting analysis of the ship operations based on detailed plans and interviews, and one appreciates much better why they weren't able to put out fires as well as the Americans, or provide effective air cover for the series of attacks coming (somewhat randomly, many of which were completely ineffectual individually) from all points of the compass throughout the day of June 4, 1942.  Of course tactical decisions played a role, but strategy and mindset drove their doom.

a lentil soup

March 9th, 2013

While I consider necessary expansion and clarifications on other matters, I recount below the complementary factors of production that contribute to making a lentil soup of certain note...

Interestingly, I recently learned that neither copyright nor patent protect recipes, and yet cookbooks continue to occupy large shelves at bookstores.  I created this recipe mostly based on an entry from "365 Ways to Cook Vegetarian", published in 1994, compiled by Kitty Morse, who credits all the friends who made contributions to the collection.  I prepared it with no prior experimentation (for the record, I did not observe any "sidelong glances" from my guests that day).

The source cookbook keeps very close track of the time required for each recipe.  For this one it says prep time of 30 minutes, cook time from 1 hour 39 minutes up to 2 hours 10 minutes.  Such precision struck me as amusing.


  • 2 T olive oil
  • 2 medium onions, sliced
  • 2 small cans (~28 oz) diced tomatoes
  • 1/4 t ground ginger (I used a grater and dried ginger root, and probably put 2 or three times that much in the mix)
  • 1/4 t turmeric (it was a rounded teaspoon)
  • 1/8 t saffron threads, crushed (it's hard to measured "threads";  I plucked a small portion from the little jar and crushed them with the mortar and pestle)
  • 1/2 cup chopped cilantro (I used a full one of those little flat box containers of fresh seasonings that you can find in grocery stores these days)
  • 1 cup lentils, rinsed and picked over
  • 1/2 cup wheat berries
  • 6 cups vegetable broth (I made it with a mixture of chicken, tomato, and vegetable bullion/consomme, heated up separately on the stove to dissolve)
  • 1 can (15 oz) garbanzo beans
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 2 lemons
  • salt
  • pepper


Combine tomatoes, ginger, turmeric, saffron, and cilantro, and puree until "fairly smooth".  I used a bowl and immersion hand blender;  counter top blender might have been less messy;  food processor was recommended.

In large non-reactive soup pot, heat olive oil, then add the onions and cook over medium heat, stirring regularly until golden.  Add the tomato mixture, bring to a boil, cover and cook for 5 minutes

Add lentils, wheat berries, and broth.  Cover tightly and simmer about 2 hours

About 15 minutes before serving, add the garbanzo beans with their liquid

About 10 minutes before serving, in a separate bowl beat the egg with juice from one lemon.  Lightly stir into the soup (the books says that strands are to form, but I never noticed)

Season with salt and pepper

To serve, squeeze juice from remaining lemon into bottom of bowls, and ladle the soup on top.



employment compensation - health insurance

March 7th, 2013

I have previously written briefly on how one size does not fit all in the domain of non-wage benefits, and on the downsides to insistence on pension schemes.  I will focus a little here on health insurance benefits.  While the professional unit of the union agreed on the recent contract proposal, questions remain about how the technical unit will end up resolving terms, so these benefits remain in debate at some level, and because of the large and growing costs associated with health care, the related  contract terms will continue to be so in future contract intervals.

The interests of the company are to retain, sustain and improve their competitiveness with respect to the value demands of their customers.  Labor costs are a large enough fraction of this to make it matter how the terms of labor contracts turn out.  Medical costs are increasing faster than other labor costs, so medical insurance provisions are greater drivers to that competitiveness. The company is trying to protect themselves from uncontrolled growth in these expenses, so they are trying to push that cost growth risk on to the employees.  If the union believed that these risks were negligible, then they should be leaping at the opportunity to allow employees to take control of those expenses, and get from the company as large a compensating wage increase as possible.  It would essentially be a gain based on what they thought was a mis-appraisal of risk by the company. 

The economy surrounding health care is complex and worth extensive discussion, which this entry will only touch upon.  There are other factors affecting the economy surrounding health care, but the main thing is the same as in every other part of the economy - people make their economic decisions on the basis of cost and benefit, and obscuring the cost side of that balance distorts the result.  For health care it is a particularly tragic result, since we don't get to reap the benefits of cheap access to health care, which seems to be what everyone wants. 

Historically, distortions in the health care market picked up during World War 2, when wage and price controls were imposed across the economy.  One effect of that policy was that employers found they could attract good employees by offering non-wage benefits such as health insurance (and pensions, for that matter).  Those recipients were among the first people to stop considering health care costs, but the problem was expanded across the economy during the 1950's, when congress legislated that such benefits would not be included in income tax calculations.  This made labor (union and non-union) lean towards the non-taxed benefits in their compensation negotiations.  It's the same cost to employers either way, so of course they went along, creating the tax treatment situation mentioned above.  While the preferential tax treatment has changed slightly in very recent years, in the mean time we have had 60 years of people thinking it is normal for a third party to make decisions about a critical area of our lives. 

When people don't see the costs of something they start to act as if it is free (whether or not they understand it isn't free); I think this is part of what leads to agitation for public health insurance such as the (so-called) affordable care act, a.k.a. Obamney-care.   The current dominance of third party payer schemes has effectively separated most health care consumers from directly facing the costs of their health care decisions.   It is no wonder that health care costs rise faster than inflation. 

The irony is that if we restored employee control of health care decisions, so that we directly see the cost and benefits, then economic forces would actually begin driving those costs down and increase health care accessibility to everyone.   When we buy food in the grocery store or in restaurants, part of the decision process is considering the costs, and we adjust our buying habits when that costs is in excess of how much we like the food.  The same thing would happen in health care services if the market were not so distorted, and does now work that way for health care services that are not typically paid through insurance schemes - look at the history of laser eye surgery, which has not had routine insurance coverage and which services have radically improved in quality while coming in at progressively lower costs.  Cost conscious consumers would drive the service providers to find more efficient means of providing their procedures and consultations. 

I have encountered objections to this that people don't plan for the future, but I don't think this gives people enough credit to think about the long term.  Besides being condescending, it presumes that political motivations can do a better job of satisfying our individual objectives.  Additionally, that objection must face the fact that even now there are people who make all these plans on their own - self employed, for example - and there's no reason to think we others would not figure it out if the third party payer schemes were not so dominant.  Insurance would look different, likely not including provisions for breast pumps and eye-glasses, but instead focusing on the truly catastrophic conditions, in a manner similar to how our auto insurance does not cover oil changes and our home insurance does not cover painting expenses.

For employees who are now covered by health care benefits, if the value of those benefits were converted into cash for them to dedicate to their own priorities, in the current policy regime there could be second order effects of this that are due to the different tax treatment of wage and non-wage compensation.  But the problem is the differential tax treatment, which has significant deleterious effects on the overall economy and should be abolished; it has separated us from direct control of costs and benefits with the introduction of third party payers, which contributes to the problems of spiraling health care costs. These issues are bigger than SPEEA and must be addressed by change to Federal government policy, but as individuals living in this system we have to open our eyes to see what is effects of these policies, and not support thier propagation.

Obviously there are other factors and complexities that adversely affect the quality and cost of health care, including long term patent restrictions that preclude competition, treatment approval restrictions by the FDA that ignore the Type 2 errors (i.e. they are so focused on making things "safe", that effectiveness is given relatively short shrift and people die for lack of potential treatment), practitioner liability, and limitations on access to transplantable organs.  For other reference, this episode of econtalk discusses some of the other regulatory burdens on the system, one part of which keeps hospitals from competing on the basis of costs, or even publishing their costs for people to review.  A little less directly relevant, this link discusses fallacies in those widely quoted statistics about how poor US health care compares to that of other nations

If we want health care to be accessible then we have to think about why it is that health care costs are so high, such as lack of visibility of those costs for health care consumers.  While much of this problem we can lay at the feet of government tax policy, the union promotion of health care services in worker contracts is a contributing factor and should be discontinued.

metrics run amok

March 4th, 2013

"The Measure of All Things" - by Ken Alder (The Free Press, 2002)

Who among us has not wondered at one point or another why we don't have a decimal metric time, with days divided into 10 hours of 100 minutes, each containing 100 of a new sized metric second?  Of course, these new seconds would need to be about 86% as long as the old style second, or we would have days running into one another.  But that is a small matter.

And why not begone with the duodecimal clocks we face today?  Noon could be at 5, and there would be none of the confusing 24 hour clock or AM/PM distinctions, and we could easily tell how many hours until next week at this time.  There would be 100 hours, because our new decimal metric time would allow us to have 10 day weeks (with an extra day off midweek so you don't feel overworked).  Kids staying up till 10 would be getting a treat (but those out past 2 would be asked where they've been all night).

If we managed to pull all this off, we would not be the first to do so.  The French would have beat us to it by 200 years, because in the fervor surrounding the French revolution they introduced such changes at the same time as arriving at the length for the original meter and mass of the original gram, and the grad measure of angles (100 units per quarter).  They even came up with new names for all the days and months, and counted years beginning at the autumnal equinox (and of course year one marked the revolution itself).

But decimal time didn't stick, even with Napoleon spreading french-ness around Europe and beyond.  Too many clock towers to change, I suppose.  And while my first calculator could treat angles in grads, it has been the meter and gram that have stuck around and thrived. 

The story of how all this arose is what occupies "The Measure of All Things", an entertaining read by Ken Alder, which story follows the adventures of two world class geodeser/astronomers in their attempt to precisely measure a segment of longitude passing from Dunkirk through Paris to Barcelona.   The plan:  create a unit of length that would become a universal standard, "for all people for all time", because it would be based on the physical world upon which all people resided - 1 ten millionth of the distance from the pole to the equator.  The problem:  the earth isn't exactly round, and doesn't come close from the standpoint of the level of precision this pair were able to measure.  Add the Terror, international intrigue and war, the foibles and heroics of men, and the nature of scientific advance, and the result kept me entertained through many nights of a mild winter.

You might like it too.

[Thanks, Rex Morgan]

when worlds collide, who pays for it?

February 24th, 2013

The recent astronomy news included two events illustrating an amazing synchronicity - just when we were paying attention to the close pass predicted of 2012 DA14 - a large asteroid (NASA radar images, trajectory, animations), a smaller one comes out of nowhere and blasts through the Russian skies over Chelyabinsk Oblast.  Coincidence it was - the two objects were in very different orbits and had different material compositions - but it contributed to increasing attention on the non-zero probability of a seriously disruptive intersection of the orbit path we travel with that of other sub-planetary bodies - nearly the very definition of disaster.

Science Friday was among the outlets covering the story in some depth, including a segment broadcast 2/15 simultaneously with the closest approach of 2012 DA14.  I credit them for discussing the situation with knowledgable experts in the science and technology; Ira Flatow is a science booster, and I appreciate his bringing these stories to the public.

However, in their 2/22 segment on asteroid threats, Mr. Flatow is hard to shake from the idea that there might be approaches to protect us from this threat that do not involve huge government spending programs.  Even after including the B612 Foundation among guests in the prior week, as in other segments of the program (water, bridges), he asks multiple times the question of "who pays for it", clearly worried that the US government has not taken on a new highest priority.

A perspective I would like him to consider is the economic model - one that starts with the idea that the beneficiaries of a project might be the first ones we expect to foot the bill, and look at other areas of our culture as representative of how that might work in practice.    We're discussing threats of damage due to natural causes, so insurance programs offer a relevant paradigm. 

People individually and through their institutions already take tremendous steps to protect themselves from the consequences of flood, fire, hurricanes and earthquakes.  If we want economic forces freed to also begin protecting us from the hazards of collisions with asteroids, we could start be allowing such hazards to be included in insurance policies as covered events, and to particularly not preclude such coverage as an "act of god" and therefore uninsurable.  Suppose this were possible in Russia in advance of the recent window shattering fireball.  Some people would have purchased that protection, particularly those people with more material goods to lose, and their insurance companies would now be paying out for those damages.  In addition, similar insurance companies around the world would be starting to re-appraise their actuarial estimates of the risks of such events, in light of their coverage liabilities.  Backstopping those companies are the large re-insurance companies that essentially provide the service of insuring the insurance companies, for large scale events that might concentrate damages in certain regions or industries.

In spite of expectations arising from hurricane Sandy damage around NYC that the US federal government should pay for damage claims, there were already such insurance and re-insurance provisions that were triggered by that event, going to work immediately on repairing the damages.  This is an area where government insurance policies are already crowding out the commercial market for hazard insurance, as evidenced by the successful political effort to socialize those losses.  It is akin to building in flood plains, which anyone who has watched a river rise could tell has a definite risk, yet the government makes it cheap to get that flood insurance, a behavior that preferences river valley property owners against the interests of the larger community.

Continuing the analogy, in flood insurance you get cheaper rates when you take steps to avoid potential damages, such as by building on posts, or leaving the flood plain for pasture.  Another approach to insurance is illustrated by earlier days of fire insurance the insurance company provided the services of the fire department.  Self insurance is also common, if your assets are great enough to sustain the potential loss, or you take other steps to reduce the likelihood of occurrence or consequences of the risk.

That combination of likelihood and consequences is a measure that individuals make all the time, and insurance companies make as part of their business.  It applies to asteroids as well as every other potential danger.  As the risks are perceived to increase, the steps we take to avoid or mitigate them become greater.  For the threat of when worlds collide, the risk of loss is potentially very great.  As people recognize that risk and appraise it against the value of what they have to lose, relevant insurance programs would develop (provided that government policies don't precluded their being offered).  As the value of potential loss increases, people would think more about ways to mitigate the risks.  Some of those ways would include asteroid detection and deflection.

How would it work exactly?  That's impossible to say, but the effect would be that those who have the most to lose would end up paying, and the rest of us would share in the benefit.  Instead of socializing the loss, this would concentrate the costs to those that benefit most, and spread the gain across the entire population of the planet.

Artificial Intelligence (2001)

February 19th, 2013

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001, Steven Speilberg, Director)

In brief, don't bother with it.  While it opens some interesting questions, the second half leaves so many loose ends it looks like the producers failed to consider some of the most basic ramifications of the premise.

The boy is created, he's "mecha", a prototype that is intended to be self directed.  The first problem is the presumption that only a parent's love can motivate that determination.  Now, I love my parents tons, but I fail to see why that is a necessary condition to motive or self-directed action.  If I were creating an android like that, Data would be a much better model.

Next, the creator apparently gave no thought to whether his creation would mature.  Instead, the boy goes on and on in exactly the same emotional and intellectual state as the day he woke up.  If I wanted to be a parent and chose an android to satisfy that need, I sure would not want one that was a perpetual 10 year old, even if it did never have to be fed and could stay under water indefinitely.

The middle of the film is where it starts to really go down hill.  The kid is a little spooky (unintentionally), and fear ultimately causes the mother to send him away.  At this point it becomes fixated on the notion that his mother's love will return if he becomes a "real" boy, a la Pinocchio, so he searches for the mythic "blue fairy" to cause the transformation.  The "Flesh Fair" mob scene is just gratuitous pap, but he manages to escape by pleading for mercy.  Eventually he discovers his creator, who is so pleased with himself for leading the boy his way that it really calls into question his confidence that the android's actions were truly self-motivated.

The setting is some future in which the oceans have risen due to global warming, flooding coastal cities.   The boy goes underwater and finds a statue in some ruined amusement park depicting something like a blue fairy, which he proceeds to beseech to grant his wish to be "real".  At this point one is sincerely hoping the movie will end, but there's still at least 30 minutes to go.  And while movie time now jumps 2000 years ahead, it seems much longer. 

Those millennia find the oceans having frozen once more (which don't cause the coasts to recede, so I suppose it was a flash freezing), and the boy is still there in front of the statue, in exactly the same state and continuing to operate, when he is discovered by the space aliens from Close Encounters.  Of course they are telepathic and so can inform him he is the last remnant of human civilization, which has somehow managed all to die in the freezing.  But it turns out the aliens can clone people from hair samples, so they can bring a reasonable facsimile of the mother back to life, which turns out to even have the same hair style.  And so the boy and mother are reunited, and the mother has no recollection of having sent the boy away in the first place, so all is bucolic from sun-up to sun-down.  But the cloning treatment only works for one day (who knows why), and the mother dies once more, but that's OK, because now the android boy has somehow attained closure with his desire to be loved by his mother, even if he continues to be "mecha".

Perhaps this is all an indictment of religion.  The opening scenes show the boy's creator espousing on child-parent love as a motive, when a student asks about the converse parent-child relation.  The response:  when god made adam, he did so to have someone love him.

Message to Love

February 16th, 2013

Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival (1997 - Murray Lerner, Director)

It's 1970, the Isle of Wight festival, and everyone is there:  Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Joni Mitchell, Jethro Tull, The Who, Tiny Tim, and 600,000 fans.  The performances are well documented;  good sound, and not too much movement with the camera work.  Interspersed with the music are interviews with the promoters, organizers, master of ceremonies, and fans.

Hendrix, especially, was interesting to see and hear;  he had more attention than most with four compositions.  They say he died twelve days after this gig, which, by the way, sounded great.

This festival was also announced as the debut performance for Emerson, Lake, and Palmer;  too little of thier music ended up in the film (in my considered opinion) - just the finale of Pictures at an Exhibition which ended with cannons fired off, followed by a jam off of some Nice riff, with KE rocking and pounding on the organ.  If the rumored H.E.L.P. band was ever more than that, 12 days doesn't sound like a lot of time between the formation of one and the ending of the other.

Of the 600,000 said to have been there, only 50,000 paid to get in; aerial shots showed the masses everywhere.  At several points in the film we see the people outside the walls, camping out, trying to get in, and finally breaking the walls down, moving past the guard dogs, and getting in.  The promoter interviews showed thier increasing frustration, and the MC announcements to the crowd did not hide it either.  The promoters lost everything, and scenes of the site after everyone left showed trash everywhere - not a pretty sight.

Kris Kristofferson walked offstage in mid-song - I thought he felt threatened, but he may have only been bored;  it reminded me some of the concert at Altamont documented in Gimme Shelter.   Moody Blues, Joan Baez, and lots of other musicians less well known to me also played.

Das Boot, Directors Cut

February 13th, 2013

I've never before seen a three+ hour movie go by so quickly, all the more significant by the film being in German and subtitled.  Suspense, action, and drama -- a war film that looked as harrowing and awful as I can imagine submarine operations in the Atlantic to have been.  Great sound and picture quality;  the thundering crashes and rumbles as depth charges threaten to collapse the boat, the image of the captain so clear I could see the pores in the skin on his face.

Interesting that the suspense of simply waiting for the destroyers to find you could be shown on film and not bog down the flow of things.  Easy to see how some of the crew could nearly crack under such strain:  the engineer, the lieutenant sent from Berlin to document the crew for propaganda, probably everyone.

And the tight quarters;  "permission to pass" always requested as the crew went from one end of the boat to the other, having to interrupt the officers at meals.  The breads hanging in nets everywhere as they embark; the mold being cut away weeks later as they try to salvage the remains, still far from port.

Thier own disgust at the destruction they wreak, and the excitement at the prospect of that destruction.  Quite the dichotomy.

Das Boot(1981), Director's Cut; Wolfgang Petersen, Dir

from the archives ...

February 12th, 2013

Dug out from past writing, this to the SPEEA president (May 30, 1997)

I read the recent Spotlite (May, 1997), and your statement as SPEEA President.  One comment caught my attention:  "SPEEA's main goal is to ... afford leadership involvement in labor politics".

This is the reason why I am not interested in joining SPEEA.  "Labor politics" is a polite way of saying "this is how everyone must contract with an employer", irrespective of personal interests or goals.  "Labor politics" has the effect of forcing the desires of some people upon all people, whether they like it or not.  "Labor politics" does not even help those most often portrayed as needing it (for example, minimum wage laws price people out of jobs they would otherwise be able to keep).

The "main goal" sounds like you want to increase paid dues so you can hire more lobbyists to walk the halls in Washington DC and Olympia;  this is not where I want my money to go.

I wish for no special favors from the government;  such favors always come at the expense of someone else.  Is this really what you think the union is all about?

Unfortunately, the SPEEA web site does not include 1997 in their archives, or I would provide a link.

24 hour party people

February 9th, 2013

[A mostly the same version of this review was distributed separately 8/25/2002]

For members and fans of Set It Quiet, the film "24 Hour Party People" could be considered something of a history lesson concerning the creators of some of the music performed by that short-lived band.  Historical fiction, anyway.

Tony Wilson was a TV personality out of Manchester, UK, at the start of the 80's, promoting some of the british punk bands that were largely ignored by the mainstream BBC out of London.  In an early scene we witness him as part of the 42 people in audience of the first Sex Pistols performance;  others in attendance would go on to form Joy Division (then New Order), the Happy Mondays, and other bands more or less famous.  But the movie is really about Wilson:  his protestations of being a serious journalist while hang gliding, or interviewing the dwarf that washes elephants; his presenting _Anarchy in the UK_ to viewers of his television program; his creating Factory night at a local club; his meeting Joy Division and creating Factory Records to record their music; his involvement in the growth of the "Madchester" music scene; his starting one of the first rave clubs (The Hacienda); his accounting of the money earned by New Order going to pay the debts of the club (where patrons spent their money not on alcohol but on ecstasy, and the drug dealers for some reason did not feel inclined to provide a cut to the house); his presiding over the financial collapse of Factory.

The film is presented much in narrative, with Wilson (played in dead pan by comedian Steve Coogan) offering asides to the camera to presage the future or to explain prior events.  The agreement they reach with Joy Division is written (literally) in blood, promising no obligations on either side other than to split the proceeds of any sales.  When the company is about to collapse, Wilson explains he set it up this way so he could never sell out, since he had nothing to sell.

The character of Ian Curtis, fronting Joy Division in concert scenes, struck me as terrified, with his band mates wondering with glances whether he would hang on through the performances;  perhaps this explains his suicide on the eve of their first tour of the USA (then again, there was also the scene with him identifying a few famous dead young people, and separately I read that he had been recently diagnosed epileptic).  That the band was able to re-form (as New Order) and meet great commercial success is perhaps the only reason Factory Records lasted as long as it did, since their earnings and those of Happy Mondays apparently paid for operations.  Also implied was the major influence of strong production by Martin Hannet in getting the music to sound as good as it does on record.

So while the film is about the music surrounding Factory, it is more about how Wilson was involved with it.  One comment is something to the effect of if given the choice between portraying the real events or the legend of those events, pick the legend.  So no doubt much of this tale is legend, but an interesting view of it for ones who were fans.