Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Old Man and the Sea

A book club pick. Hemingway won the Pulitzer in 1953 for this. I've read it a couple times before. I like it better every time I read it; I suppose that has something to do with getting older and being better able to imagine the burdens of physical decline and to appreciate the dignity in fighting against it.

I understand that Hemingway despised Moby Dick, so one of my amusements as I read it this time was to wonder to what degree The Old Man and the Sea (at about 100 pages) was a response to Moby Dick, sort of a "See -- You can write a man-goes-fishing story rich with allegorical meaning and religious symbolism and details about the fishing process without boring people to tears for hundreds of pages on end." Apparently, oodles of others have done the same exercise; maybe everyone who reads it in a lit class is tasked to do the same thing.

I also wondered whether the story is any sort of comment about Social Security which came into existence about 20 years prior to publication of the Old Man. I don't think it is, but I could not stop thinking how Santiago would not have to be risking life and limb to catch a fish if he had social security, but also how Santiago's need to fish to make a living gives him purpose, gives him the opportunity to prove his vitality and usefulness to himself and his community, and how the lack of the safety net of SS yields the rich friendship and care of Manolin (the boy).

Friday, February 27, 2009

Bear: age 16.7 months


Mission Accomplished?

From the President's transcript at

And so I want to be very clear: We sent our troops to Iraq to do away with Saddam Hussein’s regime – and you got the job done. We kept our troops in Iraq to help establish a sovereign government – and you got the job done. And we will leave the Iraqi people with a hard-earned opportunity to live a better life – that is your achievement; that is the prospect that you have made possible.

Is this a win or "declare a win and go home"?

Share of the NYT costs less than the Sunday paper

Not posted with relish. This is the flagship of the industry.

From businessinsider:

Shares of NYT dropped 29 cents [on the 18th] to close at $3.77. The Sunday paper goes for $4 at the newsstand.

The Sopranos - Season 6

My quest has finally ended, as I've finished watching the final episode of the final season this afternoon. While much has been written and said about the ending, I might as well add my $0.02 worth. I, of course, knew the ending, so I had the chance to reflect on it while watching the 2 or 3 episodes leading up to it. Based upon those, I was convinced that the ending meant that Tony was killed. The one thing nagging at me, however, was the code that families were never touched. And if that were the case, why wait until all of them were there? I can't see the point of killing him in front of his whole family, nor can I explain how the killers would have known they all would be there if that was the goal. So I came away not as convinced that he was killed. I then watched the next-to-last episode again with the commentary (which was done by some guy who had a minor role and Steven Van Zandt). They talked about how there was never more than one ending and that the ending was never changed. At the whole cast table read through, when they finished, James Gandolfini, after a long pause, asked David Chase what the ending meant. Chase replied that he didn't want the series to end with the thought that crime pays, nor did he want it to end with the thought that Tony was killed. With that, discussion over and they moved on. So I tend to think that the whole purpose was to let the audience decide the ending for themselves, which given all the alternatives, was probably the best choice. The conspiracy theorist in me, however, believes that it was purposely left open-ended so that if the rumor about a Soprano's movie ever became a reality, they could pick up as if nothing happened. If they wanted to go in another direction with the movie (a prequel), then that would still leave the ending a mystery. All-in-all, a genius move to end it the way they did.

Now, to the question of The Soprano's being the greatest thing ever on TV. My simple answer is, no. The best ever on cable TV - perhaps, but since I don't have HBO or Showtime, I can't compare it to anything else on these channels. Being on cable gave The Soprano's an advantage of no restrictions in language, sex, or violence. They had a realism and a freedom for the writers that network TV doesn't have. I still believe that Seinfeld was the best TV program ever. And when I try to come up with a reason why, I recall the episode called "The Contest". They had to write a script about masturbation without using any term or phrase remotely associated with that act, yet make it obvious what they were talking about and make it funny. Had that been on cable, they could have (and would have) been able to say and show whatever they wanted. What The Soprano's was genius with, however, was taking a story about the mob and showing it in a mundane, day-to-day life way that has never done before. A glimpse that normal people could relate to (problems with kids, with marriage, with depression, etc) but in a setting that made both the issues and the subjects interesting. And they did it with subtle humor, which had it been more obvious, would have not made it as funny as it was.

I'm glad I took the time to do this. Now I need to find another project.....

Only 8 Munchkins remain

From today's Statesman:

Clarence Swensen of Pflugerville [‘burb of Austin], who played a Munchkin in the 1939 motion picture "The Wizard of Oz," died Wednesday. He was 91 and had been in poor health since suffering a stroke in 2005.

Swensen was one of nine surviving members of the 125 Munchkins in the classic movie who were honored in November 2007 when a star in their honor was installed on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Border Problems

I’m sure you saw the article on the front page (at least it was front page for the Austin delivery version) of the NYT yesterday about the idiot gun dealer in AZ who was arming the Mexican drug cartels.

These border issues are bad juju and are only going to get worse.

My libertarian bent has always distanced me from many on the right when it comes to illegal immigration. Sure, much better if they came legally but I find it very hard to condemn someone who comes here, works hard and sends money home. Don’t really want them on the public dole but if they want to work, fine. The immigration issue, illegal or otherwise, is not the point of this post.

This cartel business is something else entirely. It was the subject of yesterday’s Stratfor report which I didn’t get around to posting. It reminded me of that Denzel Washington/Dakota Fanning remake of Man on Fire. Here it is:

By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart

Last week we discussed the impact that crime, and specifically kidnapping, has been having on Mexican citizens and foreigners visiting or living in Mexico. We pointed out that there is almost no area of Mexico immune from the crime and violence. As if on cue, on the night of Feb. 21 a group of heavily armed men threw two grenades at a police building in Zihuatanejo, Guerrero state, wounding at least five people. Zihuatanejo is a normally quiet beach resort just north of Acapulco; the attack has caused the town’s entire police force to go on strike. (Police strikes, or threats of strikes, are not uncommon in Mexico.)

Mexican police have regularly been targeted by drug cartels, with police officials even having been forced to seek safety in the United States, but such incidents have occurred most frequently in areas of high cartel activity like Veracruz state or Palomas. The Zihuatanejo incident is proof of the pervasiveness of violence in Mexico, and demonstrates the impact that such violence quickly can have on an area generally considered safe.

Significantly, the impact of violent Mexican criminals stretches far beyond Mexico itself. In recent weeks, Mexican criminals have been involved in killings in Argentina, Peru and Guatemala, and Mexican criminals have been arrested as far away as Italy and Spain. Their impact — and the extreme violence they embrace — is therefore not limited to Mexico or even just to Latin America. For some years now, STRATFOR has discussed the threat that Mexican cartel violence could spread to the United States, and we have chronicled the spread of such violence to the U.S.-Mexican border and beyond.

Traditionally, Mexican drug-trafficking organizations had focused largely on the transfer of narcotics through Mexico. Once the South American cartels encountered serious problems bringing narcotics directly into the United States, they began to focus more on transporting the narcotics to Mexico. From that point, the Mexican cartels transported them north and then handed them off to U.S. street gangs and other organizations, which handled much of the narcotics distribution inside the United States. In recent years, however, these Mexican groups have grown in power and have begun to take greater control of the entire narcotics-trafficking supply chain.

With greater control comes greater profitability as the percentages demanded by middlemen are cut out. The Mexican cartels have worked to have a greater presence in Central and South America, and now import from South America into Mexico an increasing percentage of the products they sell. They are also diversifying their routes and have gone global; they now even traffic their wares to Europe. At the same time, Mexican drug-trafficking organizations also have increased their distribution operations inside the United States to expand their profits even further. As these Mexican organizations continue to spread beyond the border areas, their profits and power will extend even further — and they will bring their culture of violence to new areas.

Burned in Phoenix

The spillover of violence from Mexico began some time ago in border towns like Laredo and El Paso in Texas, where merchants and wealthy families face extortion and kidnapping threats from Mexican gangs, and where drug dealers who refuse to pay “taxes” to Mexican cartel bosses are gunned down. But now, the threat posed by Mexican criminals is beginning to spread north from the U.S.-Mexican border. One location that has felt this expanding threat most acutely is Phoenix, some 185 miles north of the border. Some sensational cases have highlighted the increased threat in Phoenix, such as a June 2008 armed assault in which a group of heavily armed cartel gunmen dressed like a Phoenix Police Department tactical team fired more than 100 rounds into a residence during the targeted killing of a Jamaican drug dealer who had double-crossed a Mexican cartel. We have also observed cartel-related violence in places like Dallas and Austin, Texas. But Phoenix has been the hardest hit.

Narcotics smuggling and drug-related assassinations are not the only thing the Mexican criminals have brought to Phoenix. Other criminal gangs have been heavily involved in human smuggling, arms smuggling, money laundering and other crimes. Due to the confluence of these Mexican criminal gangs, Phoenix has now become the kidnapping-for-ransom capital of the United States. According to a Phoenix Police Department source, the department received 368 kidnapping reports last year. As we discussed last week, kidnapping is a highly underreported crime in places such as Mexico, making it very difficult to measure accurately. Based upon experience with kidnapping statistics in other parts of the world — specifically Latin America — it would not be unreasonable to assume that there were at least as many unreported kidnappings in Phoenix as there are reported kidnappings.

At present, the kidnapping environment in the United States is very different from that of Mexico, Guatemala or Colombia. In those countries, kidnapping runs rampant and has become a well-developed industry with a substantial established infrastructure. Police corruption and incompetence ensures that kidnappers are rarely caught or successfully prosecuted.

A variety of motives can lie behind kidnappings. In the United States, crime statistics demonstrate that motives such as sexual exploitation, custody disputes and short-term kidnapping for robbery have far surpassed the number of reported kidnappings conducted for ransom. In places like Mexico, kidnapping for ransom is much more common.

The FBI handles kidnapping investigations in the United States. It has developed highly sophisticated teams of agents and resources to devote to investigating this type of crime. Local police departments are also far more proficient and professional in the United States than in Mexico. Because of the advanced capabilities of law enforcement in the United States, the overwhelming majority of criminals involved in kidnapping-for-ransom cases reported to police — between 95 percent and 98 percent — are caught and convicted. There are also stiff federal penalties for kidnapping. Because of this, kidnapping for ransom has become a relatively rare crime in the United States.

Most kidnapping for ransom that does happen in the United States occurs within immigrant communities. In these cases, the perpetrators and victims belong to the same immigrant group (e.g., Chinese Triad gangs kidnapping the families of Chinese businesspeople, or Haitian criminals kidnapping Haitian immigrants) — which is what is happening in Phoenix. The vast majority of the 368 known kidnapping victims in Phoenix are Mexican and Central American immigrants who are being victimized by Mexican or Mexican-American criminals.

The problem in Phoenix involves two main types of kidnapping. One is the abduction of drug dealers or their children, the other is the abduction of illegal aliens.

Drug-related kidnappings often are not strict kidnappings for ransom per se. Instead, they are intended to force the drug dealer to repay a debt to the drug trafficking organization that ordered the kidnapping.

Nondrug-related kidnappings are very different from traditional kidnappings in Mexico or the United States, in which a high-value target is abducted and held for a large ransom. Instead, some of the gangs operating in Phoenix are basing their business model on volume, and are willing to hold a large number of victims for a much smaller individual pay out. Reports have emerged of kidnapping gangs in Phoenix carjacking entire vans full of illegal immigrants away from the coyote smuggling them into the United States. The kidnappers then transport the illegal immigrants to a safe house, where they are held captive in squalid conditions — and often tortured or sexually assaulted with a family member listening in on the phone — to coerce the victims’ family members in the United States or Mexico to pay the ransom for their release. There are also reports of the gangs picking up vehicles full of victims at day labor sites and then transporting them to the kidnapping safe house rather than to the purported work site.

Drug-related kidnappings are less frequent than the nondrug-related abduction of illegal immigrants, but in both types of abductions, the victims are not likely to seek police assistance due to their immigration status or their involvement in illegal activity. This strongly suggests the kidnapping problem greatly exceeds the number of cases reported to police.

Implications for the United States

The kidnapping gangs in Phoenix that target illegal immigrants have found their chosen crime to be lucrative and relatively risk-free. If the flow of illegal immigrants had continued at high levels, there is very little doubt the kidnappers’ operations would have continued as they have for the past few years. The current economic downturn, however, means the flow of illegal immigrants has begun to slow — and by some accounts has even begun to reverse. (Reports suggest many Mexicans are returning home after being unable to find jobs in the United States.)

This reduction in the pool of targets means that we might be fast approaching a point where these groups, which have become accustomed to kidnapping as a source of easy money — and their primary source of income — might be forced to change their method of operating to make a living. While some might pursue other types of criminal activity, some might well decide to diversify their pool of victims. Watching for this shift in targeting is of critical importance. Were some of these gangs to begin targeting U.S. citizens rather than just criminals or illegal immigrants, a tremendous panic would ensue, along with demands to catch the perpetrators.

Such a shift would bring a huge amount of law enforcement pressure onto the kidnapping gangs, to include the FBI. While the FBI is fairly hard-pressed for resources given its heavy counterterrorism, foreign counterintelligence and white-collar crime caseload, it almost certainly would be able to reassign the resources needed to respond to such kidnappings in the face of publicity and a public outcry. Such a law enforcement effort could neutralize these gangs fairly quickly, but probably not quickly enough to prevent any victims from being abducted or harmed.

Since criminal groups are not comprised of fools alone, at least some of these groups will realize that targeting soccer moms will bring an avalanche of law enforcement attention upon them. Therefore, it is very likely that if kidnapping targets become harder to find in Phoenix — or if the law enforcement environment becomes too hostile due to the growing realization of this problem — then the groups may shift geography rather than targeting criteria. In such a scenario, professional kidnapping gangs from Phoenix might migrate to other locations with large communities of Latin American illegal immigrants to victimize. Some of these locations could be relatively close to the Mexican border like Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, San Diego or Los Angeles, though they could also include locations farther inland like Chicago, Atlanta, New York, or even the communities around meat and poultry packing plants in the Midwest and mid-Atlantic states. Such a migration of ethnic criminals would not be unprecedented: Chinese Triad groups from New York for some time have traveled elsewhere on the East Coast, like Atlanta, to engage in extortion and kidnapping against Chinese businessmen there.

The issue of Mexican drug-traffic organizations kidnapping in the United States merits careful attention, especially since criminal gangs in other areas of the country could start imitating the tactics of the Phoenix gangs.

This report may be forwarded or republished on your website with attribution to

Thursday, February 26, 2009

I used to throw the Dallas Times Herald...

...which was Dallas's second paper back in the day...a long time ago. It was my second job after my stint at the chemical factory (that explains a lot). Every major city deserves two papers. What is better than burning up time at the coffee shop with ink on one's hands? To the extent this medium (the net) is causing the collapse of papers, I regret the medium.

R.I.P. the Rocky Mountain News. Even though it was published in the NY Post format, it was my paper of choice during my five years in Denver.

Seinfeld reality show

I read this on Drudge today and cringed. Please, someone tell me I'm dreaming and this is not going to happen. Why ruin your image? Why tarnish your legacy with something that can NEVER top the greatest television show ever? I can't believe people convinced him this is a good idea.

Make it go away.....

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

We’re Doomed

“It’s the end of the world as we know it.”

From TV Guide (news you can trust):

In a public overture to Nadya Suleman — the 33-year-old single mom who achieved notoriety when she expanded her brood to 14 with the birthing of octuplets — [porn company name deleted] cochairman [name deleted] notes that the headline-maker "obviously needs income to assure that her children are secure." To that end, he is offering Suleman "up to $1 million to act in one movie."

h/t: HH and Lileks


The Consumer Products Safety Improvement Act has the right all up in arms. A Business Week blog talks a bit about it here from the handmade toy angle. (It was just the first thing I googled.) I'm hearing about all kinds of unintended consquences...the weirdest of which is essentially making the sale of any book published before 1985 subject to fines because of some health issue.

I have no idea if any of the gripes are true or just alarmist but, if true, Congress needs to fix. Oh, I need to acknowledge that Pres. Bush signed it into law.

Apparently the first lawsuits were filed today, the law having gone into effect on 2/10.

Re: Truth in Budgeting

I never got too excited about it (accounting for the war in the budget) one way or the other since war expenditures are necessarily a series of one-time expenses except for items like payroll and fixed costs (and continuing expense that occur during peacetime). But, I can certainly agree that things are simplified if all eggs are counted in one basket.

It will be interesting to see how the following things get accounted for:


MOAB (mother of all bailouts),

Regular budget,

This recent save the homeowners’ mess, and

What’s the other thing? I’m missing one—oh, Detroit.

If I understand correctly, TARPS I and II can probably be off budget as extraordinary, one-time expenses, ok, two-time expenses. Likewise Detroit…once we all come to terms that GM and Chrysler need to be put out of our misery and stop kicking the bankruptcy can down the road. Also, if we’re now done with the foreclosures and underwater homes (I missed that memo by the way, I thought the term was upside-down), that, too, can be off budget.

The budget is the budget, not much we can do about that and I guess the war costs will show up there now since we’ll be cutting all those things cold war things we don’t need.

I think that MOAB will be more problematic. It appears—and no, I haven’t read it—that a lot of this stuff may be ongoing budget issues…like what the caterwauling on the right is calling “the end of welfare reform.” Whether that is what it is or not, it does seem to obligate federal tax dollars to the states on an ongoing basis.

My head hurts.

[Update: I guess I have to revisit TARP I and the first half of the budget for this fiscal year since they were passed under Pres. Bush. I'll go ahead and ascribe TARP II to President Obama since Bush punted.]

Re: Re: Jindahl is Brilliant

Here's how brilliant Jindahl is: It's estimated that Louisiana stands to get about $3.8 billion from the stimulus bill. Jindahl is crowing that he'll reject something under $100 million of that. So he's taking $3.7 billion instead (97% of the full amount), and getting Rethug bragging rights for being principled about taking/spending federal money.

I think there are principled reasons for governors to opt out of parts of the stimulus money. But it's a little silly to lionize them for given up pennies while they're taking dollars.

Bredesen Brilliant?

From cnsnnews:

Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, said he might turn down a portion of the $787 billion economic stimulus package that applies to unemployment benefits, because of the conditions attached to the money, The Tennessean reported.

Re: Jindahl is Brilliant

Good Heavens. He looked positively pathetic in comparison to the President. He’s got some serious stump delivery issues if that is the best he could muster.

Governance, politics and image. That should be the order of importance but it's not; it is precisely the reverse.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Another Niebuhr Reference

From David Brooks in the NYT:

These experiences drove me toward the crooked timber school of public philosophy: Michael Oakeshott, Isaiah Berlin, Edward Banfield, Reinhold Niebuhr, Friedrich Hayek, Clinton Rossiter and George Orwell. These writers — some left, some right — had a sense of epistemological modesty. They knew how little we can know. They understood that we are strangers to ourselves and society is an immeasurably complex organism. They tended to be skeptical of technocratic, rationalist planning and suspicious of schemes to reorganize society from the top down.

I'm about as epistemologically modest as one can get; I just didn't know it.