On Egypt

I have seen on the Internets: “The Iraq War cost $3 trillion. We could have saved $2.99 trillion and given the rest to Al Jazeera to get the same net result.” I am not positive it’s a misplaced sentiment. Free and unfettered political speech combined with political corruption is a terribly powerful force for change.

What Happened in Egypt?
Food insecurity is at the root. Food prices have risen as much as 30% in much of the Middle East. When people live on $5 a day are faced with food insecurity, people riot. The root is right here in CNN.

In Egypt alone, food prices soared 17% — in part because of the worldwide surge in commodities prices but also because of local supply imbalances.

Egypt also has a recorded unemployment of ~9.5% but the real numbers are likely much harder.

Then there was the story of Khalid Said. Young businessman Khalid Said saw a drug deal go down between two corrupt policemen in Alexandria, caught the video on his cellphone, and uploaded it up to YouTube. The police came around and beat him to death. It was a year ago — but long enough for him to become a symbol.

And then there was January 25th, a date Hosni Mubarak put on the map for the very first time as “We Love the Secret Police Day.” No really.

Mix in Tunisia, Wikileaks, Facebook organization, a little bit of twitter, SMS, Al Jazeera, and *kerpow*

What Next?
Mubarak is playing the Iranian waiting game. He believes he can wait out the people in the streets by shutting down the banks, unleashing prisoners, destroying property, pulling the police out to allow mayhem, and terrorizing people with the military. But people with no jobs and no food have no where else better to be. And thus there is an impasse. It’s not even clear a Tienanmen Square-style massacre would disperse people at this point.

Perhaps Mubarak is simply waiting for the protesters to starve.

Either way, he is critically weakened as a strongman. He no longer has the backing of his people and his leverage is rapidly vaporizing.

On the other hand, Egypt has never had anything resembling a democracy. It’s unclear it can get there itself without some help. But, unlike lots of people who are wringing their hands, I’m sort of certain where there is a will there is a way and once people have a taste of lovely free speech and freedom to assemble and free press they have a hard time giving it back up. We’ll see.

Everyone is talking about the Muslim Brotherhood. If there were parliamentary elections in Egypt, they would take a number of seats. That is certain. Mubarak carefully terrorized and destroyed all of the secular political parties that might have threatened his reign but left the Brothers in a stunted state. They are the only ones with a political apparatus in place. The Wikipedia page isn’t bad. If they will be become crazies or if they will participate in the political process is to be seen.

The clear winner in all this is Al Jazeera. They have had a 2500% (yes, the number is right) growth in traffic to their site, most of it from the US. The servers came down for a while on Friday but donations and half the IT in Qatar is busy trying to keep them online. They’ve always been goofy but no goofier than our cable news — they just have a different point of view.

Review: The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday MachineThe Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am of two minds about this book. Either:

* Everyone in the world should read this book

… or …

* No one should /ever/ read this book.

When The Big Short first came out, I heard about it on NPR, listened to a review on Planet Money, listened to an interview with Michael Lewis on Planet Money, heard several more people talk about this book, and then decided not to read it for ‘rage management’ reasons. Planet Money recently released their recommended books about the crash and the economy and, this time around, I felt enough time passed between the crash and now that the rage would be a lesser rage, that I would not throw my Kindle into the wall, and the teeth grinding would be lessened.

The Big Short is a concise history of Wall Street from 2003-2008. By following the lives, and trades, of several sets of investors who saw the crash coming from miles away, the book delves deeply into the world of mortgage backed securities. As well as anyone can, it explains bond trading, tranches, credit default swaps (CDS), collatoralized debt obligations (CDOs), and synthesized CDOs which are CDOs made, bewilderingly, of other CDOs. Then the book goes on to talk about the crazy trader at Deutsche Bank who ran around selling CDSes on everything, the bond trader group — who used to be equity traders — who went short on everything they could find, the doctor come hedge fund manager who fought endlessly to tell his investors that these no-doc, negative amortizing adjustable rate mortgages with 2 year teaser rates were going to blow up and they did not listen, the kids from Berkeley who tried to make a killing and the people who actually went long on these things.

The pinnacle of the book is the "Wing Chau" scene, where the equity trader met someone on the other side of his trades who, in 2006, when bonds were already going bad, was convinced of the status quo forever and ever. Then the equity trader went home going "oh my god…"

The game was rigged. In theory Americans would refinance every two years from one terrible mortgage to the next to generate endless fees to dump into endless bonds that pretended to be "riskless." In the end, the mortgage deals blew up and the huge bundles of bonds were not riskless. Housing did not increase in value forever.

And yes, the few people who saw it coming made hundreds of millions off the crash, but at what cost to society as a whole? Most of them left, never to return to the game. They made their money but the cost to themselves was so high it wasn’t worth it anymore.

It’s a story of massive collective delusion, of outright greed, of fraud, of lies, of gamed rating agencies, of banks shifting massive untold risk on to their shareholders, of normal banking becoming too ‘boring’, of an industry who sucked up trillions of dollars and produced nothing, and of people who were playing with things they had no hope of understanding. A story of a giant game played with people’s homes and people’s ignorance on a mass scale and turning the American homeowner into just one dot in a giant Ponzi Scheme that was bailed out, no questions asked, by the US Government with even more of the American homeowner’s money.

The book has an incredibly hooky style. It’s clear. It’s concise. It’s sarcastic. It’s entertaining. It’s compulsive. It reads quickly. It’s also a drive by on a twenty car accident on a freeway. I want desperately to recommend it but I feel everyone who reads this book will promptly sell their house, pull their money out of the banks, and go live on a compound somewhere in Western Michigan.

Seriously two thumbs up but now, when I read the economics blogs — all which recommend the Big Short — I am always going to think about one bond trader screaming at another one: "I’M SHORTING YOUR HOUSE!"

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Follow the Arab World Protests

Egypt is melting down and it is an exceedingly big deal. The causes are complex, the people are angry, and as the Arab world’s most populous nation, it is a major strategic US and Israel ally. Not only that but somehow the entire country fell off the Online Map this morning — a fairly breathtaking technological feat.

Meanwhile protests continue also in Yemen and Jordan.

Instead of going on and on about it, here’s some useful links:

Al Jazeera’s Anger in Egypt — English Language, lots and lots and lots of clips, interviews, and analysis. Rumor has it that the Egyptian police raided the Al Jazeera offices in Cairo today…’

The Guardian has live updates.

Wired has a follow the Arab World Protests Online page.

Egypt’s Internet Shutdown Can’t Shut Down Massive Protests.

The Daily Show on the sources of unrest is spot on. Team W! Team O! Team Twitter!

Andrew Sullivan (over at the Atlantic) is doing a great job following everything going on with posts, links and clips.

My Response to the Response to the Response to the SOTU

Anyone these days can have their official response to the SOTU speech. This isn’t so much a response as what I wish Obama would have said.

SCENE: Obama comes out and shakes hands with the Notorious Aisle Whores. He waves to the C-SPAN camera because it is the only love C-SPAN will get until the call-in show. He goes up to the podium and scans the crowd and tries to look Presidential.

“My fellow Americans, I will make this brief because we’re all busy and, besides, House is on at 10.” Obama turns around and looks right at John Boehner who, in a strange way, matches his chair. “John, can I borrow your iPhone?”

Boehner, confused, hands it over. Obama holds it up to the crowd.

“We all know what this is. You, there, Congressman Fiddlepot, I can see you tweeting your constituents from here. If you don’t have one yet you will. You will have one in a month when Verizon rolls them out. I want to talk about this little device for a moment.

“This device was conceived, designed, built, and tested by a publicly traded American company staffed with American engineers and scientists. Many of these smart engineers and scientists were educated here, in America, in our land grant public universities. Many attended our public school systems. The core research for the microprocessors, the materials, the batteries, and the screen were made possible by federal research grants to our schools. Every day, they work together on the Internet, invented by the Department of Defense. It uses GPS, also invented by our Department of Defense, bounced off satellites — satellites whose launch mechanisms were invented by Government programs, put in place by Government programs, and then opened to commercial enterprise. Verizon’s new network is subsidized by the Government so they have the money to build infrastructure. Apple is now even opening new markets with their apps and app stores, which is generating new business — built, running and developed by Americans who learned how to build it with the help of Pell Grants to pay for school. When you go to buy your new device from the store, you drive on taxpayer-invested roads. All this to bring Angry Birds and Twitter to you on the floor of Congress.

“And not only that. Surely you have seen the news about Iran and Tunisia. This device is bringing more freedom, faster, with less bloodshed then all the bombs we dropped in our two ongoing wars. This is a tool for global communication, for spreading ideas, and for bringing together peaceful protest. And it comes from here, America. This is how we should approach allocating taxpayer money — not as a burden of taxation but as an investment in our future. /This/ is the future.  Our grand technological future.

“I agree the tax code is an absolute mess. I agree we can make budget cuts — and not just in discretionary spending. The Federal Government is a sprawling nightmare. We can work together to get worked out. But every time you pass around another tweet, I want you, the lawmaker, to think about where the money goes. Only American innovation makes us great and we only get there from paying for the infrastructure, research, technology, student loans, research grants and schools to make that happen.

“We can beat the Chinese.  We can beat India.  We just need to say, we want to be great scientists and engineers again and make it happen.

“It’s not an iPhone. It’s a FreedomPhone. Make your calls and your tweets, but remember that it took us to get there.

“Barry, out, yo.”

Obama gives the iPhone back to Boehner and saunters on out of the gallery. He stops and gives C-SPAN a thumb’s up.

Okay, it’s full of hyperbole, but I don’t have a staff of professional speechwriters!

RSA Conference

Hey all —

This is a Public Service Announcement that I am attending the RSA Conference out in San Francisco, CA from February 14th-18th and coming home the 19th. If you want to meet up because you a) haven’t seen me in 10+ years or b) you are curious what I actually look like, let me know and I can make arrangements!

Review: Cleopatra: A Life

Cleopatra: A LifeCleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"When Egypt Ruled the East" by George Steindorff this book is not.

I have read many books on Egyptian history all the way up through the Ptolemies who, somehow, through some sort of rhetorical magic, were made to be as dry and dull as dead leaves in winter in "Cleopatra: A Life." I have read many history books. I consider myself a bit of a connoisseur of the genre. I even inhale historical fiction. Some of these books have been utter and complete crap. I have manned up and finished books that would defeat a lesser soul simply because it might have a tidbit, a _fact_, a grain of something cool lurking inside.

But wow does this book need an editor. I cannot tell if Stacy Schiff was covering for being far more interested in the Romans than the Egyptians, or simply having more knowledge of the Romans, or just seriously not liking the Latin language or what, but this book is so padded with passive tense that I cannot be certain that she is speaking authoritatively on anything. It comes off like: "Cicero who MAY HAVE somehow sort of rubbed against Cleopatra who MAY HAVE spent some time in Rome with Julius Caesar MAY HAVE said something bad about her but WITHOUT SPEAKING HER NAME so WHO KNOWS." Now read 384 pages like that. You get the general idea. Toss in paragraphs that are overwritten and that’s the whole book.

I will openly admit that the sheer terribleness of this book defeated me in mortal combat. I didn’t make it to the end. After a while, I didn’t care any more. I wanted to throw the book against the wall — except that would have broken my Kindle and I would have been sad. And this is me with a book on Egypt. Anything Egypt. Me. Egypt. I will drag people across oceans to stare at dead people from the sands in dusty museums and I couldn’t finish this book! That’s how bad it is.

Some little bits of this book actually had a little sparkle. When it stumbled aimlessly on a topic where Schiff knew enough to speak authoritatively, it was kind of interesting. Contrasts between Alexandria and Rome. Contrasts in Greek Alexandra vs. Egyptian Memphis. Some comments on trade. This bought the book an extra star and kept it from the one star trash can. Every once in a while there is a ray of hope among the rhetorical trash. But then it fades away and I was sad in snow.

But for the most part? Blech. Avoid. This book is a massive disappointment.

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An Ugly Intersection

One of the questions I have seen bantered back and forth through the vitriol on the Internet is: “If Jared Lee Loughner was obviously schizophrenic and full of disorganized and confused thought, as many people who interacted with him reported, why did he not get help?”

Some thoughts on why:

1. Schizophrenia appears in young men around the end of puberty, between 18-25.

2. By time it starting showing obvious, overt signs of disorganized thought, he was unlikely to still be on his parent’s health insurance. It was only this year that a child could be on the parent’s health insurance until age 26.

3. According to reports, his father didn’t work and his mother had an hourly job with the city. Who knows if they even had health insurance, or if the city health insurance plan covered mental illness, which it probably did not.

4. He couldn’t hold a job and didn’t have any health insurance himself. The few jobs he had were big box stores and sandwich shops.

Getting into a psychiatrist, getting evaluated, getting seen meant seeing a doctor. That meant having coverage because the family was unlikely to have the cash on hand for psychiatrist visits. Even being involuntarily committed to a hospital for emergency treatment meant the uninsured going to a hospital where there would be incurred in-patient costs, doctor costs, medication costs. The costs for medications alone to help curb the effects of schizophrenia would be incredibly prohibitive for parents making little money and, of course, he would be totally uninsurable going forward because had he seen a doctor he would then have a “pre-existing condition.” And he would have that for the rest of his life. Those medications meant constant ongoing, expensive costs.

If he had gotten diagnosed — which was a very expensive and probibitive hill to climb to begin with — maybe he could have eventually gone on Medicaid, but at what toll? To live in poverty so he could get medications to control the hallucinations?  That’s an option, but he would have had to get there, first.

The stark reality is that this country has terrible support for childhood and late adolescence mental illness but the seriously mentally ill can stroll casually into a Sportsman’s Warehouse and buy a gun with an extended clip. This says more about our priorities as a society than anything else that has been said the last five days about what happened in Tuscon. The system failed.

We stand at an ugly intersection of where health care for the mentally ill is prohibitive but gun access is trivial. We cannot have one and have the other and expect to live in in safety. We either put up with “nuts with guns” who kill little girls or this changes. If anything comes out of this tragedy, I hope we at least begin to talk about how difficult it is to get people like Jared Lee Loughner help long before it is too late.

Civility

Years ago, Terry Gilliam made an excellent and understated movie called “The Fisher King” starring Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams. Jeff Bridges starts the movie off as an incredibly popular “shock jock” who specializes in making shocking statements to rile up his audience — popular in the 90s, popular now. A disturbed young man calls in to ask Jeff Bridges about something during the call-in show and Jeff Bridges’s character, playing to his audience, makes some nasty comments to the disturbed kid. The disturbed kid then takes a semi-automatic into a high-end restaurant and massacres the diners, including Robin William’s character’s wife.

There’s a saying: “Politics is Hollywood for ugly people.” Politics has always had a certain entertainment aspect to it. Saying utterly ridiculous things and getting them repeated in the media is a time-honored tradition since Benjamin Franklin Bache published the politics gossip rag the Philadelphia Aurora. Politicial speech has a certain one-ups-manship to it where, in the heat of a campaign, the more outrageous a statement, the more the base is fired up to go out and vote. And in this call-and-response environment where one is surrounded by one’s followers, one is tempted to say some pretty ridiculous things.

However, someone running for political office indicates that person wishes to be, ultimately, a leader of men. And a leader of men has to be cognizant of how their words will resonate, not just with the base or with trying to “get” the enemy, but with other people, out there, who might be listening — who probably are listening. Those people may not hear your remarks to “reload” or “use Second Amendment Solutions” as rhetorical campaign speech. They may take it literally. Saturate the airwaves with enough of this rhetoric and it will reach out to someone, somewhere.

This rhetoric of guns and murder and “getting them” in our political speech isn’t just Internet mouthbreathers. It’s everywhere: in political commercials that play during campaign seasons 24/7, on YouTube, on Facebook, on the Sunday talk shows, on Twitter, in newspapers, and on talk radio. It even leaks onto NPR. It’s inescapable and it has clearly gotten out of control.

My entire point is this: If you wish to stand up and put yourself forward as a leader of men, you need to be mindful of what is coming out of your mouth, the tone you take, and how it might be received. You might think it’s fun to use gun and violence in your political speech to score points and add a little swagger but more than your followers are listening. You know it will be picked up by partisan press and repeated and amplified a million times. It may be a young man with easy access to semi-automatic firearms with schizophrenia and command hallucinations who listens to you as one of the many authorities floating around and it just… helps things along. You simply do not know and it is your job to lead. If you lead with vicious speech full of violence, you will reap what you sow.

Also, I absolutely agree with the Mighty God King.

There’s other things here — how does someone with schizophrenia walk into a sporting goods store and buy a semi-automatic, why was he never given help, why did our health care system fail yet again, etc. etc. but the root, the core, is a culture currently seeped on TV and the Internet and the radio with violence against elected officials and it’s got to stop.

Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium, #1)The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s bad, there’s cheesy, and then there is trashy. This book is full-on trashy.

I don’t mean that in a bad sense. It’s difficult to attain truly trashy. It goes beyond bad and beyond tawdry, through cheesy, and out the other side. It embraces its trashiness. This is a book that knows it is just outright stupid, grabs it with both hands, and hugs it until the bad pops out and leaves only the shining goodness behind. It’s the sort of trash that takes work to attain. It takes planning. It’s trashiness is awe-inspiring.

It goes something like this:

Mikael Blomkvist is this super hot financial reporter with a smoking hot but married girlfriend with whom he runs a super hot financial rag called the Millennium. He got a tip off from a friend about this crooked financier and somehow the story was turned back on him and he ended up being convicted of libel. With his career in ruins, he gets a call from yet another bigwig, Henrik Vanger, who hires him to find out the truth about what happened to his niece, Harriet, in 1966. Henrik Vanger is convinced she was horribly murdered but he has no proof, and it has eaten away at his soul for decades. He must know the truth! Along the way, Mikhael Bloomkvist is hooked up with Lisbeth Salander, a smoking hot (in a different way) Aspergery super-hacker covered in piercings and tattoos. Then they uncover a tale of — yes, you can take it from here — deceit and lies and _murder_ and, oh hell with it, yes, Nazis.

There’s sex. There’s lots of sex. Mikhael is smoking hot himself and he radiates "can sleep with any hot chick" in a 40 foot radius. And he does! God, that man sleeps with everyone. He’d sleep with the dog if there was one in the plot somewhere. There’s also rape, too, and although there’s Glorious Vengeance the rape scenes are, fair warning, pretty graphic. That alone makes it difficult to recommend to friends who may be uncomfortable with such things. On the one hand, utter ridiculousness. On the other hand, graphic rape scenes. Milage may vary.

The book has a solid three star plot but the writing kicks it up to an extra star. Stieg Larsson knew instinctively the Elmore Leonard maxim: "Do not write the boring parts." The book does plod in a few spots, especially toward the end where it is all Glorious Vengeance Upon Enemies Of All Stripes — of course, it has to be — but he very very rarely wrote the boring parts. The book is all about "Oh come ON…. /now/ what happens?" I completely understand why this book has sold a million billion copies. It is one of the most head-eatiest, brainwormiest books I have read in a long time. It is compulsively readable, even in the dumb parts.

Are the Swedish names a problem? No, not really.

Will I read the next two books? Most certainly.

Can I recommend it? It’s a fun, trashy thriller. But it has some scenes that may be upsetting. I lean toward yes with a caveat that it might not work for everyone.

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Review: White Teeth

White TeethWhite Teeth by Zadie Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a funny book. White Teeth is about a whole bunch of things — growing up an immigrant in 1980s London, the feelings of displacement at trying to make a living in another country, World War II, Muslim fundamentalism, atheism, science, and alienation. Archie Jones marries Clara, a Jamaican immigrant and daughter of Jehovah’s Witness Hortense while his best friend and Bengladeshi immigrant Samad Miah Iqbal marries (the much younger) Alsana via an arranged marriage. They have Irie and the twins Magid and Millat, respectively. As Samad watches the children grow up, he wrestles with feelings of alienation and makes a fateful decision to send one son back home to Bangladesh to be raised "properly" while keeping the other one in London. They all intertwine with the Chalfens, an Oxford-educationed Jewish-English family.

The plot is a bit thin as is in any post-modernist novel drawn as a "portrait of a life" but the characters are compelling and distinct. Where these novels fall down are thin characterizations that cannot carry the narrative but that is not the case here. The women, especially, are clear and real and each one different than the rest. They aren’t just thin caricatures designed to hang off the main character’s arms and spout platitudes. They feel like flesh and blood.

For a longish book, it is a surprisingly quick and easy read. Highly recommended.

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