Thursday, April 02, 2009
I've moved to a new location, http://blog.kirkpetersen.net. A post explaining the move is here.
4/10/09 UPDATE: For the past week I've had a redirect in place that is supposed to send people from here to my new address. It worked in Firefox but not in Internet Explorer -- IE users got an error message and thought my site was down. I gave the new URL to my mother and brother-in-law, but I fear there are literally tens of IE users who haven't been able to find me.
I've taken down the redirect after spending many hours trying to figure out how to make it work for IE. Please change any links or bookmarks to http://blog.kirkpetersen.net, and thanks!
Saturday, March 28, 2009
Is the cartoon truly anti-Semitic, or is it "merely" anti-Israel? I say both, but whatever. The point is that the cartoon is a dangerous lie. It's dangerous not just to Israel, but to America, to the West, and to any society that faces asymmetric attacks from Islamic fascists.
Like McCarthy, I think this excerpt from Rubin's commentary spells out the danger (emphasis added):
Oliphant like many or most Western intellectuals, academics, and policymakers, still doesn’t understand the concept of asymmetric warfare. In this, a weaker side wages war on a stronger side using techniques it thinks can make it win. What are these techniques? Terrorism, indifference to the sacrifice of its people, indifference to material losses, refusal to compromise, extending the war for ever. This is precisely the technique of Hamas: let’s continue attacking Israel in order to provoke it to hit us, let’s target Israeli civilians, let’s seek a total victory based on genocide, let’s use our own civilians as human shields, and with such methods we will win. One way we will win is to demonize those who defend themselves, to put them in positions where they have a choice between surrender and looking bad. This cartoon is a victory for Hamas. But it is also a victory for all those who would fight the West and other democracies (India, for example) using these methods. Remember September 11?In World War II -- the "good war" -- we faced enemies that commanded military infrastructure comparable to our own. The enemy was both willing and able to meet us on the battlefield, and was capable of inflicting severe damage. To my mind, that parity helps justify actions we took that otherwise would be morally ambiguous at best: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden.
Today's enemies are financed by immense oil wealth, but have virtually no industrial base of their own. Hamas buys missiles that it could not possibly produce and shoots them from Gaza into Israel. For the September 11 attacks, al-Qaeda took flying lessons at American flight schools, hijacked American jetliners and crashed them into buildings born of America's industrial and architectural prowess.
Because today's good guys are immensely more powerful than today's bad guys, the bad guys have to change the context. They have to use our strength and our values against us. They count on the fact that we -- America, Israel -- will strive, at great risk to our own troops, to limit civilian casualties on their side. Israel could have killed every human being in the Gaza Strip with zero or close to zero Israeli casualties. Instead, Israel makes a practice of warning the human shields who live in houses that are targeted because they hold arms caches.
Meanwhile, Islamic fascists are more than willing to cause the deaths not just of our civilians, but of their own as well, because the PR exploitation of their own civilian casualties is a key weapon in their arsenal. The only thing Hamas values more than dead Israelis is dead Palestinians. Preferably Palestinian children. We face enemies who are willing to breed their own children for martyrdom.
Enemies practicing asymmetric warfare will always be able to inflict casualties, but the only way they can win is if they can persuade enough of us that it is somehow immoral to fight back. That's why Rubin concludes that Oliphant -- who in a different context would qualify as a classic example of a useful idiot -- has scored a victory for Hamas.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Comes now an AIG executive named Jake DeSantis, who resigned today in a letter published in The New York Times. His message should give pause to the angry mobs. (Hat tip: J.G. Thayer.)
DeSantis didn't create the credit default swaps crisis -- he took a $1 salary to transfer in from another area of AIG to help fix the mess. In exchange for accepting that token salary, he was guaranteed a payout at a certain level if the company survived long enough to pay it.
This wasn't a "bonus" in any meaningful sense of the word. It was a deferred payment -- deferred at great risk by an executive who had other lucrative options.
The letter is worth reading in full, but here's the part that jumps out at me. Addressing himself to AIG CEO Edward M. Liddy (another $1-a-year man), DeSantis writes:
DeSantis is a titan of finance. He writes that the deferred contractual payment he received on March 16 was "$742,006.40, after taxes." Before taxes, that means he got one of those "million-dollar bonuses." It's a lot of money, but it's certainly not bizarrely high for a senior financial services executive.
You’ve now asked the current employees of A.I.G.-F.P. to repay these earnings. As you can imagine, there has been a tremendous amount of serious thought and heated discussion about how we should respond to this breach of trust.
As most of us have done nothing wrong, guilt is not a motivation to surrender our earnings. We have worked 12 long months under these contracts and now deserve to be paid as promised. None of us should be cheated of our payments any more than a plumber should be cheated after he has fixed the pipes but a careless electrician causes a fire that burns down the house.
Many of the employees have, in the past six months, turned down job offers from more stable employers, based on A.I.G.’s assurances that the contracts would be honored. They are now angry about having been misled by A.I.G.’s promises and are not inclined to return the money as a favor to you. ...
So what am I to do? There’s no easy answer. I know that because of hard work I have benefited more than most during the economic boom and have saved enough that my family is unlikely to suffer devastating losses during the current bust. Some might argue that members of my profession have been overpaid, and I wouldn’t disagree.
That is why I have decided to donate 100 percent of the effective after-tax proceeds of my retention payment directly to organizations that are helping people who are suffering from the global downturn. This is not a tax-deduction gimmick; I simply believe that I at least deserve to dictate how my earnings are spent, and do not want to see them disappear back into the obscurity of A.I.G.’s or the federal government’s budget.
I think AIG or any troubled company could use more thoughtful and talented executives like DeSantis. The company and the economy need experienced leadership, and yes, financial services leaders make a lot of money. I'd much rather trust DeSantis than any of the politicians calling for his scalp.
But the mob has had its say. Best wishes for your future endeavors, Mr. DeSantis.
Update: Holman Jenkins also weighed in on "The Real AIG Disgrace," in today's WSJ:
It may be that the full picture was kicked up to [Geithner] only when a political decision was needed, but by then his one decent choice was to insist on the bonuses' legality. However politically inopportune the bonuses may be, the president only dirtied himself by authorizing a feel-good, bipartisan hate storm aimed at innocent AIG employees. And it's hard to believe Mr. Obama would have done so, or the subsequent spectacle would have unfolded as it did, without Mr. Geithner's seminal prevarications (and we say this fully acknowledging that he's had a rough ride in an inhumanly difficult job).
Barney Frank, who doesn't have the excuse of being stupid, was last seen bullying Mr. Liddy to do what on any other day Mr. Frank would flay Mr. Liddy for doing -- violating the privacy rights of his employees. Charles Grassley? His early bloviating about the duty of AIG executives to kill themselves almost begins to look like a grace note, since it alerted the public to the hyperbolic playacting about to come. ...
But the biggest lesson here is the old one that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance -- beginning with insistence on the rule of law. Americans clearly cannot trust their elected officials to defend their rights and interests, or care whether justice is served, when the slightest political risk might attach to doing so.
Which brings us back to Mr. Cuomo, whose office has been implicitly threatening to publish names of AIG employees who don't relinquish pay they were contractually entitled to.
Mr. Cuomo is a thug, but at least he reminds us: It can happen here.
John Bolton, who gets my vote for America's best-ever ambassador to the United Nations (plus I love the mustache), describes how Rahm Emanuel's never-let-a-crisis-go-to-waste mentality will weaken the security of the United States, by devaluing the dollar and making us more dependent on financing from China and other countries that do not share our values. Key quote:
"If the administration continues these proposals for massive increases in federal expenditures, massive deficits, they've got to find a way to fund it, and it's either through more government debt or printing money, both of which have the impact of reducing the value of the dollar."Yes, we're in a crisis, and yes, that means we need to act on an emergency basis and take chances that we would not take in ordinary circumstances. For example, I'm persuaded that to keep the financial system from seizing up entirely, the government has to funnel a lot of money to a lot of people and organizations that "don't deserve it."
It helps make it easier to swallow if I remind myself that in most cases, the emergency funding is not a handout, but rather an investment (albeit a highly risky one). The American people own 80% of AIG, which not long ago was a stodgy, important, profitable business. If it can become one again, the American people will participate in its recovery.
But because of the unfortunate need to shovel money into risky ventures to keep the gears of commerce turning, this is exactly the wrong time to be shoveling even more money into risky attempts to remake the healthcare system and renovate planetary climate.
Certainly there are important and useful ways that the government can and should affect healthcare and climate/energy policy. But Ambassador Bolton is right -- the more we spend, the more we will devalue the currency that for decades has been one of the most powerful symbols of "American exceptionalism," which Bolton also riffs on in the video.
The 10-minute video is worth watching despite the conspiracy-theory posturing of host Glenn Beck. At least twice during the video, Beck asks rhetorical questions along the lines of, "am I crazy to think this?" Bolton then restates Beck's thesis in less incendiary language, and withholds whatever opinion he may have about Beck's craziness.
Friday, March 20, 2009
I missed it when it first came out, but the New York Review of Books last month published one of the best comprehensive explanations I've seen of the causes of the current economic unpleasantness. Weighing in at just over 5,000 words, it's not a quick read -- but it covers a lot of territory, as indicated by its word cloud, above, from wordle.net.
The essay, which doubles as a review of three recent books about the crisis, does a skillful job of explaining the interaction of a wide variety of factors, including securitization of mortgages, the housing bubble, the growth of unregulated hedge funds, rating agency conflicts of interest, subprime mortgages and more.
But enough praise, it's time to find fault. Author Jeff Madrick starts and ends his essay by contending that the primary force behind the crisis is corporate greed, not government policy. It's a defensible position, and certainly the titans of Wall Street have a lot to answer for. But governmental enabling and social engineering played a big role too, and Madrick seems to be working way too hard to let the politicians off the hook:
It was principally the investor appetite for the mortgage-based securities and the easy profits made by the banks and mortgage brokers that led to the mortgage-writing frenzy in the 2000s, not encouragement by the federal government to lend to low-income home buyers.He neglects to mention what form this "encouragement" took -- fines and other penalties against banks that did not issue "enough" mortgages to borrowers from disadvantaged groups. With the government telling them to write mortgages or else, and with a securitization system that distributed risk so widely that no institution had a meaningful stake in the performance of any individual loan, and with the widespread belief that refinancing would be possible because housing prices only go up... it's no wonder that the ranks of home "owners" swelled well beyond the pool of people who could actually afford to own a home.
Predictably, Madrick believes the answer is more government regulation.
If solutions are to be found, the nation requires robust and pragmatic use of government, free of laissez-faire cant and undue influence from the vested interests that have irresponsibly controlled the economy for too long.At least he acknowledges that clumsy market intervention can sometimes make the problem worse:
Another necessary component for reviving the credit system involves the self-destructive accounting rules and loan covenants that are making the crisis worse than it need be. The losses required to be taken under mark-to-market accounting, and the consequent reduction in capital, reinforce the fall in asset values. Similarly, current ratings requirements force the financial institution to sell investments to raise capital.Summing up, Madrick says "This is, as many economists now concur, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression." Well, no. It's possible that things will get worse from here, but for now all you can really say is that it's the worst recession since 1982.
Monday, March 16, 2009
After repeatedly invoking the specter of the Great Depression to frighten the public into supporting the "stimulus" bill, the Obama administration has moderated its rhetoric. Professor Mark J. Perry of the University of Michigan offers statistics to show just how inappropriate it is to even talk about comparisons with the Depression:
The chart above shows the "initial jobless claims as a percent of the labor force" back to January 1980. To reach the same level as the peak in 1982 of 0.6067%, today's jobless claims would have to be almost 936,000, or almost 50% higher than the current 628,000.You might think, as I did, that initial unemployment claims is the wrong measure to use. Initial claims measures the velocity of the downturn, but surely total unemployment is a better measure of the full extent of the downturn. So I went looking for that data, and found that the most recent total unemployment rate of 8.1% is still well below the 9.7% rate of 1982. (Unemployment reached 25% at the peak of the Great Depression.)
So how about we first get hysterical for awhile about the "worst economy since 1982" before we go totally hyperbolic about the "worst economy since the Great Depression." Once we reach the 936,000 jobless claims it would take to equal the economic conditions of 1982, then let's start talking about Great Depression II, but not before.
Although we're nowhere near a depression, the current recession probably has not hit bottom. In an interview televised yesterday, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said unemployment is likely to get worse before it gets better, but that he expects the recession to end "probably this year."
Thursday, March 12, 2009
The newest Patches are slated to open in May in Summit, Westfield and Scotch Plains (including Fanwood), all in Union County. Summit is contiguous with Millburn in Essex County, but Westfield and Scotch Plains/Fanwood are further south, separated from the other Patches by Route 22 and by the towns of Springfield and Mountainside.
In a world-exclusive interview (OK, he replied to my email), Patch Editor-in-Chief Brian Farnham told A.T.I.N. that Googliath has "no specific rollout plans beyond these next three, or hard target figure to hit by end of year. I can say we remain bullish about expanding Patch as quickly as is prudent and in as many communities as can use us (which we think is a lot)."
Each of the new Patch towns are served by local newspapers, and Summit even has SummitNJ.net, a sister site of the venerable Maplewood Online. Even after the new sites open, however, none of the towns will have an online presence to rival the Maplewood BlogolopolisTM, which is served by five separate, general-interest websites.
The tactics of the Israel Lobby plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency and include character assassination, selective misquotation, the willful distortion of the record, the fabrication of falsehoods, and an utter disregard for the truth. The aim of this Lobby is control of the policy process through the exercise of a veto over the appointment of people who dispute the wisdom of its views, the substitution of political correctness for analysis, and the exclusion of any and all options for decision by Americans and our government other than those that it favors.Just the sort of dispassionate, nuanced assessment President Obama needs as he attempts to craft foreign policy in an uncertain world.
At least the firestorm finally made its way onto the front pages of the Times and the Post. Both papers accepted Freeman's premise that the "Israel Lobby" had scuttled the nomination. Neither of them saw fit even to mention the opposition of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a member of the president's party and second in line of succession to the presidency. According to Newsweek, in an article published way back on Tuesday, her concerns had nothing to do with Israel:
Pelosi's objections reportedly focused on Freeman's ties to China. A well-placed Democratic source said Pelosi, a strong supporter of the Chinese human-rights movement, was incensed about public remarks that Freeman once made that seemed to justify the violent 1989 Chinese government crackdown on democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square. The source, who asked not to be identified, said Pelosi thought Freeman's views were "indefensible" and complained directly to President Obama about his selection.Perhaps Freeman, who believes America's relationship with Israel was behind the 9/11 attacks, thinks the Israel Lobby also instigated the Tiananmen protests.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
WASHINGTON — Charles W. Freeman Jr., the Obama administration’s choice for a major intelligence post, withdrew his name on Tuesday and blamed pro-Israel lobbying groups, saying they had distorted his record and campaigned against him.The Washington Post acquitted itself only slightly better, running its first story yesterday, before a Congressional hearing on intelligence matters, reporting that all seven Republican members of the Senate Intelligence Commitee opposed the nomination because they were "concerned about his views on Israel and his past relationships with Saudi and Chinese interests." Today's report of the withdrawal ran on Page A4.
Still no coverage whatsoever on CNN.com, and MSNBC.com relegates it to a brief item on its political blog. After Richardson, Gregg, Daschle, Killifer, as well as the grilling Geithner survived, wouldn't you think that the forced withdrawal of yet another nominee for what the Times concedes is a "major" position would rate a bit more coverage? Maybe Obama's honeymoon isn't over yet.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
This time, the Obama Treasury Department — sounding a lot like the Bush Treasury Department — promised another $30 billion to the American International Group, the giant insurer....Also last week, comparisons of Obama and Bush spread to the late-night comedy shows (hat tip: Pajamas Media). Jon Stewart is a very funny man, and is backed by a team of writers and researchers who expertly suss out whiffs of hypocrisy by comparing current news footage with embarrassing older footage. Stewart is a stalwart leftie, but I admire his craft even though I frequently disagree with his views.
What no one is saying — the Bush folks wouldn’t, and the Obama team seems to have taken the same vow of Wall Street omertà — is which firms would be most threatened by an A.I.G. collapse.
When Obama announced his plans for withdrawal from Iraq recently, I wrote that it was exactly the same as the plan President Bush announced last year. Last week, Stewart made the same point, only much funnier (4:16):
Perhaps the true test of the "overness" of the honeymoon will be found in the reporting of the Congressional testimony today of Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence, who will be asked (by Republicans) about his appointment of Chas Freeman to chair the National Intelligence Council. So far only conservative media outlets -- including the Wall Street Journal editorial page and the Washington Times -- seem to have made note of the impending testimony. From the National Review's editorial:
Charles Freeman is a career diplomat, a Saudi apologist, and a savage critic of Israel. He also argues that Beijing did not strike down the Tiananmen Square protesters with sufficient swiftness. Barack Obama proposes to make him head of the National Intelligence Council. It’s an abominable appointment. ...As Jake Tapper notes on his ABC News blog, Freeman appears to blame "the Israel Lobby" for the 9/11 attacks.
He has distinguished himself as a rabid Israel-hater who regards the Jewish state’s defensive measures as the primary cause of jihadist terror. He is a shameless apologist for Saudi Arabia (where he once served as U.S. ambassador) despite its well-documented record of exporting terrorists and jihadist ideology. And he is a long-time sycophant of Beijing, where he served as Richard Nixon’s interpreter during the 1971 summit and later ran the U.S. diplomatic mission.
Freeman in 2006 wrote of the U.S.-Israel relationship, "We have paid heavily and often in treasure for our unflinching support and unstinting subsidies of Israel's approach to managing its relations with the Arabs. Five years ago, we began to pay with the blood of our citizens here at home."At Commentary's blog, Contentions, Jennifer Rubin notes describes the scanty coverage of the appointment, then asks:
[H]ow long can the rest of the mainstream media hold out without reporting on an embarrassing debacle for the Obama administration? This is the John Edwards story on steroids — a virtual conspiracy of silence with little if any journalistic justification. And here the issue is really important — the appointment of a key intelligence official who is alleged to harbor serious conflicts of interest and extreme views.How long? We should know later today. Blair's testimony is already under way.
Update: In today's hearing, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., pursued the Chas Freeman issue in a lukewarm challenge to Dennis Blair. Here are transcript and video (begins at about the 87-minute mark). Blair said:
We’ve found over time that the best way to inform policy is to have strong views held within the intelligence community and then out of those we come out with the best ideas.As Lieberman closed by saying, "to be continued."
Updated Update: Late this afternoon, apparently shortly after I left my global headquarters in Maplewood to go into Manhattan for an event, Chas Freeman withdrew his nomination. The earliest timestamp I can find is on a Wall Street Journal blog at 5:29 p.m. Eastern. More than four hours later, there is no mention of the withdrawal on the homepages of the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN or MSNBC. The Times and the Post are probably keeping their powder dry while they prepare articles for their print editions, but I have no idea what the excuse is for CNN and MSNBC. Yet another high-profile Obama appointee has to withdraw? That isn't news?
Next-Day Update: Unbelievable.
Sunday, March 08, 2009
About 6:05 a.m., Eastern DAYLIGHT Time -- The Web Goddess reports no water pressure at any upstairs faucet. "I hope we don't have a burst pipe in the basement." Yoicks!! This would have to happen on the very morning that clocks "spring forward," depriving emergency responders of a potentially crucial hour of sleep.
6:07 a.m. -- No water pressure at the downstairs faucets either. Visual reconnaissance confirms dry basement -- an indication that the crisis may be systemic to the entire Tuscan Road microregion (the water could be out all up and down the street). Important tactical note: Each toilet can be flushed one time with water stored in the individual toilet tank.
6:15 a.m. -- Time to see which news outlet in the Maplewood BlogolopolisTM is doing the best job of reporting the looming crisis. As long-time A.T.I.N. readers (i.e., since six days ago) are aware:
Maplewood NJ, Pop. 23,000, Now HasAs a reminder, the websites, in approximate order of online presence:
FourFIVE Competing Local Websites
6:19 a.m. -- Frenzied surfing reveals disappointing fact: the Maplewood BlogolopolisTM appears to be ignoring the mounting hydration catastrophe. I need to take a shower, people!!
6:25 a.m. -- [Lightbulb] -- I should sound the alarm!! The technology is in my hands!! But where to turn first? Here's where more than a decade of brand development comes into play -- I happen to know that Maplewood Online, Est. 1998, has a thriving complex of local message boards, and I have not seen anything comparable at the other sites. At 6:25 a.m., while others in the Maplewood BlogolopolisTM sleep soundly in their beds, I (me, Kirk Petersen!!) post the first emergency bulletin in a still-innocent world. At a mere 55 words, including the subject line, and if you count "a.m." as a separate word, the message is a model of understated intensity and resolve:
Water Main Break in Tuscan Road Area6:30-6:40 a.m. -- Finish sending emails to the other four players in the Maplewood BlogolopolisTM. That's right, emails. This is the 21st Century, people!
New Jersey American Water confirms a water main break in the Tuscan Road area. Service is out at our house on Tuscan near Springfield. The company expects to restore service in 4 to 6 hours from the time of the initial report at 4:25 a.m. today, Sunday, 3/8/09.
6:59 a.m. -- At last! After more than a quarter-hour of clicking the refresh button (no wonder Jamie gets so many page views at MOL!!), the first confirmatory report arrives. Well, sort of. A person styling herself as "Joan Crystal" posts the following:
Thanks for the alert. We have water at 6:59 AM this morning and we are one block from Tuscan Road.Is she doubting me?? Or is the crisis more contained than originally feared? (Ugly thought: if there is a break between the water main and my house, am I liable for the repairs?)
7:02 a.m. -- Visual reconnaissance out the front window reveals no sign of water bubbling out of the front yard. (But would I even be able to see it?)
7:06 a.m. -- "elsie" provides the following report:
Thanks - ours is out too. Had seen a truck and water gushing into the road around 6 last night, so suspected it was related.Neither of my next-door neighbors are named "elsie," so this provides the first welcome indication that the problem may be wide-spread. (In typical suburban busy-street microculture, I do not know the names of the folks across the street.) I ponder the bittersweet irony of my satisfaction at the knowledge that others are suffering, too.
7:32 a.m. -- Two additional breathless outage reports have been filed, indicating at least four households are without water. With a humbling yet majestic sense of history, I note that all of the respondents have started their comments by thanking me. This touching response from a grateful public provides a rare opportunity for a vertical screen grab. I'm starting to think about a bagel run.
7:40 a.m. -- Maybe later on the bagel. ZZZZzzzzzzzz.
9:56 a.m. -- Nearly three hours after the initial emergency report, citizen-journalist Joe Strupp reports the outage on his newsblog, The Maplewoodian, and links to this site. (Thanks, Joe!) I'm not sure the powder-blue text works, but I love the graphic.
I met Joe the other night at the NY Times "The Local" launch party, and I remember thinking, this guy is toast -- he's up against the mighty New York Times, a Google zillionaire at Patch.com, and the online version of the venerable News-Record, which has been reporting from Maplewood for however many years it has been.
But just as Andrew Jackson said "one man with courage makes a majority," Joe has proven that one man who checks his email on Sunday morning makes a news cycle.
10:15 a.m. -- First photos from the disaster scene at Tuscan Road and Oberlin Street, where the tension was palpable. (I had to walk several blocks from my home, I might add.)
Photo below reveals a shiny red new plumbing thingy in a hole -- first responders at the scene confirmed that the hole had been dug by the big yellow hole-making device pictured above. The hole undoubtedly will need to be filled before normal traffic can resume on Oberlin. Traffic on the much-busier Tuscan Road was thankfully not disrupted.
Service has been restored, according to one of Maplewood's finest, who did not give his name. (Note to self: next time ask for name.) And here I thought New Jersey American Water was blowing smoke when they said 4 to 6 hours.
Wait... you mean I could be taking a shower right now?!?
Signing off from the Tuscan Road microregion of the Maplewood BlogolopolisTM, where it seems likely that some late-sleeping citizens will never know how narrowly they averted hygenic inconvenience.
11:30 a.m. -- Quick update while my hair dries -- Jamie Ross likes me! He included me in today's edition of the Maplewood Dispatch!
Saturday, March 07, 2009
Harry recently bailed out of college. He was in the third year of a five-year construction management program at Drexel University in Philadelphia, and he hated the place. He had been working at the Philadelphia Housing Authority through Drexel's co-op program, and he hated that. His grades were good and he fulfilled his modest duties at PHA, but he was bored and sick of it.
Classes had started up again, and he was working part-time while going to school full-time. And he pulled the plug.
Plan A was to enlist in the Marines. This idea was not well received by many in his family and social circle. Consternation ensued. Harry went to live with an uncle and his family in Maryland for several weeks.
Much as he enjoyed getting to know his toddling cousin girls, there wasn't much for him in Maryland besides a temporary refuge. The weekend before Christmas he came to stay with the Web Goddess and me in Maplewood while he figured out what would be next.
Job prospects were not bright -- turns out there's a recession. He looked for work after the holidays, but found nothing. All the while he kept talking about the service -- now he was looking at the Navy Construction Batallions. The Seabees. Plan B.
I live in a deep blue town in a deep blue state. There's not a great deal of enthusiasm for military service in this corner of New Jersey. When the Web Goddess or I would say Harry is thinking of joining the Navy, well-meaning friends would say things like, "I hope you're trying to change his mind."
Over the past several months, in part through this blog, my conservative leanings have been coming out of the closet. In the run-up to the election, I grew used to being the only McCain supporter in virtually every conversation. Nobody has shunned me, at least not that I've noticed, but they don't seem to know how to respond when I say things like, "I continue to support the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein."
The Web Goddess and I canceled each other out on Election Day, but she's more financially conservative than I am. She's pulled the levers for more Republicans than I have, although not recently. As is so often is the case, she knew exactly the right thing to say in talking with our friends.
I'm talking here about good Christian people whom I cherish and respect, and I have no interest in the kind of Internet flamewar that includes "words" like dhimmicrat and rethuglican. Here's the conversation I'm prepared to have with liberal friends: "Do you think the United States needs to HAVE a military? Yes? OK... who should serve?"
I run a consulting business from home, and my business is every bit as robust as the rest of the economy. Harry and I have had plenty of time to bond while seeking work. When he wanted to borrow the car in January for the first of many trips to the recruiting office, he went with my blessing.
Turns out some of that book larnin' sunk in -- he aced the Ass-Vab (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) test, and was eligible for any enlisted field in the Navy. He said that when he told the recruiter he was still interested in the Seabees, the recruiter said no -- "you're going nuclear." Plan C.
Harry signed up for a six-year stint -- basically two years of Nuclear Field training on top of a normal four-year enlistment. He'll get a $21,000 "signing" bonus if he successfully completes nuclear school, and will end up serving either on a nuclear submarine or an aircraft carrier.
He's a disciplined athlete and body builder -- where the hell that comes from I'll never know -- and he's not deterred by tales of my own long-ago Coast Guard basic training. He's been working out more to get in better shape -- his only frustration has been that because of the timing of his training class, he was not scheduled to report until October.
That changed earlier this week -- he got the message that a slot had opened up -- could he report on March 10? He told me this with great excitement when I got home from running an errand. He said the downside is that his 21st birthday is March 15, and he'd have to postpone his first legal purchase of a drink.
I sensed a parenting opportunity. "Suck it up, son."
"Oh yeah, I already said yes." He took a shower, and I heard him singing Anchors Aweigh.
We went to a restaurant and talked while we ate. He kept getting calls on his cell phone -- it turns out that despite what he'd earlier been told, he needs a copy of his transcript when he reports on Tuesday, so he drove to Philadelphia today to get it. He spent the night at his mother's house the night before and picked up his birth certificate there. In between still-kind-of-a-teenager enthusiasm -- "If I get to kill a pirate, my grandchildren will never hear the end of it" -- I watched as a mantle of determination and gravitas settled over him.
I don't want my son in harm's way any more than any other parent, and I'm glad he's not going to be in the infantry. As near as I can tell, the Afghan Navy is not terribly formidable, but America's enemies are resourceful, and have proven they can strike at sea.
Harry knows that, but feels good about his decision to join the Navy. He'll end up with a college degree and money to pay off his Drexel student loans, and officer candidate school will be an option. If he decides to put in 20 years in the Navy, he can have a pension at the age of 41. In the meantime, he's got guaranteed stable employment for the next six years, at a modest salary on top of room, board and free medical care.
He also has one other powerful motivation. It's not the motivation he talks about the most, but it's the one that came first.
My son is a patriot. He wants to serve his country.
(Photo by the Web Goddess. This post was written earlier this week, and published March 7 with minor changes. In the time-honored military tradition of "hurry up and wait," Harry's reporting date has been postponed. The current expectation is that he will report for duty on March 23.)
Tuesday, March 03, 2009
I got interested in the hyperlocal Maplewood BlogolopolisTM because the mighty New York Times was wading into the fray (and I happen to know the local Times reporter). But it turns out the Times is only the SECOND-best capitalized hyperlocal effort in Maplewood. The newcomer to watch is something called Patch.com.
I barely noticed Maplewood Patch when it launched in ... well, whenever it was. Recently. Their logo clearly says "Beta", and besides I'm not nearly as well tuned in to the local scene as a lot of my Maplewood neighbors are, so I just wasn't that interested. I visit the (extremely active) Maplewood Online (MOL) bulletin boards sometimes if I'm looking for a referral for a handyman or whatever, but I never got into the social gestalt of those boards, and I don't follow local politics. Every time I peeked in, however, I was impressed by how vibrant the community was. And MOL honcho Jamie Ross has always been good about publicizing our events at St. George's Episcopal Church, where the Web Goddess and I are both very active.
Well, I'm interested now.
Yesterday I wrote mainly about the launch of the NY Times "The Local" site for Maplewood and environs. I noted that Patch.com and the NYT both chose the same three towns for their respective pilots -- Maplewood, Millburn and South Orange -- and I said something snarky about it being hard to reach somebody who could speak on behalf of Patch.
Today I got a call from Brian Farnham, Editor-in-Chief of ... well, I guess of Patch.com, although their About Us page is fuzzy on the name of the entity, referring to "the people behind Patch." Brian confirmed what I was starting to realize yesterday -- that although it looks on the surface as if the New York Times and Patch.com have exactly the same business model for Maplewood, they are in fact closer to being exact opposites.
Brian, who had read my snarky comment, was very gracious and started by apologizing for not getting back to me more promptly. I parried that with an apology for not reaching out sooner.
Brian acknowledged what is obvious once you see the list of more than 20 employees at Patch's NYC headquarters -- Patch has national ambitions. He confirmed that all or virtually all of those 20-plus people are devoted full-time to the Patch.com effort. And yet, the only Patch.com sites currently in existence are the ones for Maplewood, South Orange and Millburn. (Each of the three towns also has a local Patch editor, supported by college students and freelancers.)
Brian wouldn't let himself be pinned down about a timeframe for expansion, and he wouldn't give me an estimate for the company's monthly "burn rate" (a dot-com-bubble term that seems so last-century now). But the company is backed by a Google zillionaire, and they're making a serious upfront investment.
About half those 20 people are fairly junior, but at the VP and Director level, everybody has serious online and/or media credentials. Brian, for example, is a former Editor-in-Chief of Time Out New York, and his fellow poobahs include seasoned Harvard MBAs and executives from non-trivial media ventures (Gannett, CBS, etc.) None of the senior people are working for just stock options and food.
The New York Times, OTOH, is taking its first tentative steps into the hyperlocal "space." They've assigned one full-time reporter each in New Jersey and Brooklyn -- and the paper says even that level of commitment is economically unsustainable in the long run. Maplewood resident Tina Kelley and her Brooklyn colleague at the Times were interviewed today on WNYC Radio, and they both freely acknowledged that the business model may look very different down the road. Here's an audio clip if you're interested (13 minutes):
Brian considers his company to be in competition with the awkwardly named NY Times "The Local" in this market, but he doesn't think he's really in competition with MOL, although obviously there's some overlap. "I have enormous respect for Jamie Ross and what he's built" at MOL, Brian said. "I hope people will get to feel less threatened by us -- we're not trying to put anybody out of business. We're trying to be a news and information hub."
This rings true to me. Think about Patch's business model -- if they don't start expanding soon and build a broad base for advertising, even the most patient angel investor will get antsy. Salaries alone have to be costing them six figures every month, and their current revenue from the three initial Patches is either zero or something that rounds to zero. While the current faceoff looks like Googliath vs. Jamie Ross, by the end of 2009 I expect Maplewood Patch will be just one of dozens or even hundreds of local Patches.
MOL has an extremely loyal user base, as I (re)discovered when I posted what one loyalist described (accurately enough) as "your own self-serving advertisement to your blog" on MOL's "Mostly Maplewood" board, which is only one of more than 20 active MOL boards. 80-plus comments ensued on the thread I had started, and to his credit Jamie not only left the thread posted, he personally took part in the discussion: "BTW, we got over 6,000 visits yesterday!" (Roughly 200 of those visitors clicked the link to my post, a nice boost for my humble blog.)
Patch.com's business model will either work or it won't -- and if it works, Maplewood will be a tiny part of its traffic. The financially cratering New York Times will either find a business model that works or it will sell the extremely valuable brand to someone else -- and either way, the Times's Maplewood blog will be a footnote (sorry, Tina, but I suspect you agree).
In any event, I don't think MOL needs to worry. In fact, once the economy improves, I could envision a very nice payday for Jamie Ross, if he has any interest in having a partner with deep pockets.
One suggestion for how the newspaper industry can save itself has been for it to go hyperlocal, focusing on individual communities with the sort of local news usually provided by weekly Pennysaver type publications.To coin a phrase, read the whole thing. (Disclaimer: I didn't actually coin that.) Tina Kelley has responded in Alan's comments.
Patch Media, a heavily VC (and Google) funded company, has jumped squarely into this space and, as of today, so has the New York Times. Both efforts are happening right in my hometown. The only problem is, The Times is not doing a very good job of it.
Monday, March 02, 2009
(Don't miss my followup post about the true 800-pound gorilla of the story. Also, I tweaked this post's headline and added a substantive Update at the end.)
Suddenly the Maplewood hyperlocal web neighborhood is crowded. The mighty NY Times today launched two local websites, each staffed with a full-time, veteran Times reporter. One site is in Brooklyn, the other covers Maplewood, South Orange and Millburn.
Venture capital-backed Patch.com also focuses on its recently launched Maplewood, South Orange and Millburn sites for now, but clearly has bigger ambitions. The company's About page lists 20 staffers and says "Patch is run by professional editors, writers, photographers and videographers who live in or near the communities we serve, and is supported by a great team in our New York City headquarters." The site is largely focused on the snowstorm today, and recently covered an appearance at a local bookstore by former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.
The well-capitalized newcomers are contending with the original local Maplewood site, Maplewood Online, started by Jamie Ross way back in 1997. Over the years Jamie has branched out and created sister sites for South Orange, Millburn, West Orange, Montclair, Summit and Morristown.
Maplewood Online for years was a one-person show. Jamie told me today that his brother moderates the message boards shared by all of his sites, and he has a friend working for him as well. He did much of the coding for the sites himself, and graphically, the sites have a distinctly 1990s web aesthetic. Jamie also is a standup comedian and local concert organizer, but says MOL and its sister sites are his primary source of income. He's a 1992 Rutgers graduate, with a technical background, rather than journalism.
The Times's local site is part of the newspaper giant's effort to find new revenue streams to bolster its cratering primary business. In the past five years the company's stock price has plunged from the upper $40s to about $4 per share today, and throughout the country long-time daily newspapers are going out of business or declaring bankruptcy.
Times digital editor Jim Schachter explained the local strategy to Editor and Publisher:
Schachter said the sites will be accessible through an address linked to the Times' home page, such as www.nytimes.com/fortgreene. They may expand to other communities if successful.
"The mission is to educate the community about how to be citizen journalists and contributors," he added. "There are 'place' blogs everywhere. We have to create a real quality community that figures out the answers to questions on the minds of people in each place."
But he admits the money-making options are unknown. "There is no conceivable way that a site staffed with a full-time New York Times journalist can pencil out as profitable," he said. "We are trying to figure out using our people as experimenters if there is a model that combines journalism, technology and advertising that would work."
The Times's local New Jersey sites are staffed by Tina Kelley, an acquaintance who lives a few blocks from me in Maplewood. Tina, who can sometimes be spotted around town knitting at local events (how's that for a hyperlocal bloggish touch?), has been on the Times staff for nearly a decade -- the nearby picture is from the Charlie Rose show last year, when she was interviewed about a story she wrote on mysterious bat deaths. (I grabbed that photo before her site launched, where I could get her "official" headshot. But then I'd lose my chance to show up in Google searches for "mysterious bat deaths.")
The site launched after 5 p.m. today, and Tina's inaugural lead post explains the concept:
For those wondering why we chose Maplewood, Millburn and South Orange, when there are so many new Web sites and publications on paper here already, it’s very simple, actually: The Times wanted me to launch this experiment in New Jersey, and I live in Maplewood. And I knew the conversation here would be rich, fun and meaningful, because intriguing people live here, and for good reasons.Jamie Ross's theory was that the Times and Patch.com both started in the Maplewood region because there already is a booming online community in the area -- Jamie has 8,000 registered participants on his message boards, and the flagship site has a frontpage script that currently reads, "There have been 6,927,419 visits to this page since August 20th, 2001." But Tina said no, it really was just as simple as the fact that this is where she lives.
Tina's NYT site already has taught me something -- there is yet a fourth Maplewood site, called the Maplewoodian. If I were still a real journalist I would work them into the story and try to reach the editor, but I've spent far too much time on this already, and I don't have a night-desk editor to snarl at me for not making a phone call. So all you get is a screenshot:
For a website focusing on the hyperlocal market, it seems remarkably hard to connect with anyone from Patch.com. There is no phone number or email address on the website itself, and I've sent out a dozen feelers to local editors and New York staff via Twitter and LinkedIn, as well as using the site's feedback page. The only NYC phone number listed for Patch Media Corporation turns out to be a lawyer's voicemail. One of the local staffers eventually contacted me on Twitter and said she would try to find someone to talk with me, but that was the last I heard. Maybe they can weigh in in the comments.
Jamie was in town first, so I'll let him have the last word. I asked him what he thinks about all the competition, and he said: "I think MOL will survive, but it's tricky to go up against a company that has billions of dollars."
Clearly there's a market for local information on the web -- it's just not clear how to make any money generating it. It's also not clear to me whether it's worth my while delving into the local market myself from time to time, as I have today, or if I should just stick to my primary interest in national politics. So this is an experiment -- I'd love to get feedback in the comments.
Update: Hey, since when did the venerable News-Record of Maplewood and South Orange start being available online? And why wasn't I notified?
More seriously, why doesn't Worrall Community Newspapers Inc. (parent company of the N-R and its sister publications) promote the website on the front page of the print News-Record? All there is now is a nondescript URL -- www.localsource.com -- sandwiched between the date and the price. Last time I looked at localsource.com it was a mess, and you couldn't find Maplewood stuff on it. Now, Maplewood.LocalSource.Com seems to have most of the N-R content, and a fair amount of advertising.
So I've corrected my headline -- there are FIVE hyperlocal sites in the Maplewood BlogolopolisTM.
Sunday, March 01, 2009
I love the Internet. For starters, I met the Web Goddess on an online divorce support group. Thanks to the Internet, I have been able to pontificate on this blog to an audience of literally dozens of people who otherwise would be bereft of my wisdom.
But it's still the Wild West on the World Wide Web (WWWWW). Web-enabled social media platforms such as Facebook lend themselves to scams that depend on social engineering as much as they do on TCP/IP. I think of myself as a reasonably sophisticated Internaut, but I got pwned this morning -- before church, no less.
The Facebook message claimed that four of my friends had challenged me to an IQ test, with the smartest of them scoring 127. I was encouraged to click Continue to find out who they were and see if I could beat them. OK, Facebook friends -- it's on!
The welcoming page at the IQ site included a screen (see top image) with the words "Answer the questions quickly and accurately to find out your IQ." OK, speed counts, good to know -- bring it!
After racing through 10 multiple-choice questions (sample: of these four presidents, which was America's 16th president?), I get to the screen below. My heart's pumping -- I just know I aced all those questions! But now they want me to tell them my cell phone number... am I going to get junk calls?
Oh well, I can always hang up, and at least they're not asking for a credit card number. After I enter my cell number and click Next, I get a screen that tells me I have been sent a text message with a code number, and I have 30 seconds to enter the code number in a field on the web page. Crikey, my cell's in the other room, the webpage is counting down the seconds, and I'm not sure how to retrieve a text message, I rarely use that service.
I get the code number entered with about four seconds to spare... which leads to a screen telling me I have to accept the Terms and Conditions. Damn! I'm out of time! But maybe it will still work a few seconds late. I select the Terms and Conditions approval box and click Next.
The next screen tells me to select the special ringtones I have ordered... and I start to have a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I hit the back button to get to the page where I entered my cell phone number, and I see the virtually camouflaged reference (in the calculator screen in the picture above) to a $9.99 per month subscription. In small type at the very bottom (click the image to see a full-size version), there are five nondescript links, the fourth of which is the Terms and Conditions I didn't read because I was running out of time.
The Terms and Conditions are a true work of art. (They were in a pop-up and I don't know a way to link directly, but I've captured the complete text just in case.) In addition to telling me that my high IQ will now cost me 10 bucks a month until I cancel, the term sheet contains this cheeky statement: "YOU AGREE TO REVIEW THIS AGREEMENT FROM TIME TO TIME AND AGREE THAT ANY SUBSEQUENT ACCESS TO OR USE BY YOU OF THE SERVICES FOLLOWING CHANGES TO THE AGREEMENT SHALL CONSTITUTE YOUR ACCEPTANCE OF ALL SUCH CHANGES." In other words, if they change the price to $10 a minute, it's on me to opt out -- and if I use the ringtone in the meantime, I'm hosed.
So after all my rushing, I ended up spending 28 minutes in voice-response hell with Verizon, before I got a human to tell me that I can cancel the ringtone "service" and I can dispute any charges that may get applied. I spent the 28 minutes rethinking my arrogant attitude toward the clients of Ponzi artist Bernie Madoff -- clients who, I recently opined, should have known better.
Look, I freely acknowledge that I screwed up here. But shame on Facebook for enabling this. There apparently have been a variety of IQ test scams, none of which look any more dangerous than the standard Facebook fare offering superpokes, virtual hugs, good kharma and the like. If you Google "Facebook IQ test scam" you'll get 86,000 results, some of them going back at least to 2007. (Let's make it 86,001.)
I'm tempted to say "shame on Verizon" as well, but the ability to charge goods and services to your cell phone is at least potentially useful, and the nice Verizon lady assured me I would lose no money over this. Even though I "agreed" to the Terms and Conditions.
But here are other candidates for the IQ Test Hall of Shame: The aptly named Shadylizard.com, a ringtones peddler; Media Breakaway LLC, which according to the Terms and Conditions runs Shadylizard.com; quizyou.net, the site that hosts the phony quiz; and the "service" providers used by Media Breakaway to deliver ringtones: Flycell, Ringaza, Jamster and SendMe Mobile.
Media Breakaway LLC, according to its Flashy website, is based in Westminster, Colorado, and offers "performance-based marketing solutions for our business partners." If you have any comments or suggestions about their "solutions," their phone number is 303-464-8164. The CEO, Scott Richter, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Images above may be subject to copyright; publication here is believed to be permissible under the fair use doctrine of U.S. law.)
Friday, February 27, 2009
and Admiral William Fallon, September 2007, in Iraq
President Obama today announced an Iraq withdrawal plan that George Bush would be proud to call his own. Actually, it IS Bush's own.
Don't be fooled by the lawyerly language in his pledge to complete "the responsible removal of our combat brigades from Iraq" by August 2010. He's leaving up to 50,000 troops in place until the end of 2011, and I guarantee that they'll have weapons and the capability of responding with more than battalion strength. I'm not sure how he's defining "combat brigades," but he must be dancing close to an outright lie -- a brigade is only 3,000 to 5,000 soldiers, it looks to me like he's leaving three divisions in place.
Fully seven months ago, in July, I wrote the following:
If it's going to become Mr. Obama's war, I can take some comfort in the fact that at least he's showing signs of an ability to think independently of the extreme pacifist wing of his party.Candidate Obama already was tacking to the right on the war -- his clarion call for surrender lost its usefulness as a wedge issue once Hillary Clinton withdrew from the race. The previously hapless George Bush had finally found the right general and the right strategy. Well before the election, even Obama had to acknowledge that the surge had "succeeded beyond our wildest dreams."
After winning in November, Obama co-opted Hillary and her one-time support for the war by naming her Secretary of State. But the clearest indication that the grown-ups would be in charge of the war came when Obama announced that he was retaining Bush's Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, who oversaw the turnaround in Iraq. I feel much better about the Obama Presidency now than I did on Election Day.
The Bush Administration won the war in Iraq just in time, making it too late for the Democrats to surrender. The real test will come with the war Obama says he wants to fight, in Afghanistan. I wish him every success.
(Photo: Associated Press)
Thursday, February 26, 2009
Half an hour ago I had not heard of Dr. Fadl, but apparently he is an al-Qaeda co-founder. Remember that when al-Qaeda was founded, its primary mission was not to terrorize America, but rather to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. Dr. Fadl doesn't approve of the course Osama bin Laden has charted since 1988.
Dr. Fadl has a new book out, written from what apparently is his cushy cell in an Egyptian prison. Cliff May's column today is worth reading in its entirety, but here's my favorite passage, quoting Fadl:
“Every drop of blood that was shed or is being shed in Afghanistan and Iraq is the responsibility of bin Laden and Zawahiri and their followers,” he writes. “Was it not al-Qaeda that lit the fuse of sectarian civil war in Iraq, throughIf America and the West are going to defeat Islamic fascism, one component of the struggle has to involve nurturing an alternate vision of Islam. That's why al-Qaeda threw everything it had into the war in Iraq -- a successful secular Islamic state is a much bigger threat to Islamic fascism than America itself could ever be.
[the actions of al-Qaeda in Iraq commander] Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, who killed the Shi’ites en masse? . . . Can the mentality that caused the loss of an Islamic state that existed in reality, in the Taliban’s Afghanistan — can this mentality be expected to establish an Islamic state in Iraq — in reality, and not on the internet? And have the Islamic peoples become guinea pigs upon whom bin Laden and al-Zawahiri try out their pastime and sport of killing en masse?”
Similarly, Dr. Fadl is arguably a more dangerous enemy for al-Qaeda than George Bush was. Fadl, a former leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, may not be a Boy Scout himself, but man, I'm liking him today.
I'm becoming a fan of Politico, which has intelligent writing on politics without any overwhelming left or right tilt. Today the site notes that all of the big numbers start to blur together:
Human beings have a hard time differentiating between millions and billions and trillions, let alone the numerical subsets thereof. To most of us, it just registers as “a whole lot.” ...As a public service, All That Is Necessary is pleased to present this statistical glossary, for use in explaining federal spending to your grandchildren: billion, trillion, quadrillion, quintillion, sextillion (which will lend itself to financial abstinence messages), septillion, octillion, nonillion, decillion.
It is hard, then, to get people excited about the difference between $787 billion and $478 billion, both of which are equally abstract if not equally large sums — which is perhaps one reason why House Republicans’ alternate stimulus proposal, which carried the latter price tag, failed to gain much traction with the public.
(Custom word cloud graphic from wordle.net)
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
I've been involved in a lively debate over this at Conservative Black Woman's site, btw, if anyone is interested... check the comments.