Friday, March 25, 2011

Inside Job (movie review)

I went into this movie already biased in advance to sound critical if it didn't focus enough on what I thought was the problem: any number of obese and/or sleek Americans crowded into hotel ballrooms listening to the self appointed real estate mavens yak up the lifestyle of buying and flipping for no money down.

All kinds of cable TV about it, just buy the tapes. It was a craze, sweeping the culture. I was there, and remember.

Yes, a Ponzi scheme of vast proportions, but one in which Mr. and Mrs. SUV-owning American were happily complicit, while goofball presidents went on their golfing and bombing sprees, a little bowling, always the LAWCAP dupe and/or puppet (sorry, insider jargon). So New York figured out a way to feed the greed. What else do you do with your uncontrolled brats? Reason with them? Good luck with that.

The film devotes all of about 8 seconds total to a quick shot of such a hotel ballroom (or was that a megachurch?). The people jump up and down like maniacs, enthused by their prospects in real estate. Yes, it was crazy time. But it was also "grass roots", like the dot com boom.

Then it interviews a tearful bottom-of-the-Ponzi evictee on the wrong end of a predatory loan.

Nowhere in the middle are the armies of mortgage brokers caught up in the frenzy of get rich quick, with these mythical lifestyles on Wall Street trucked out like so much celebrity pizzazz, with large-to-middle-sized gym-going Americans not-so-secretly resentful and jealous, trying to clamber and claw their way to the top of the heap.

Is this anything more than Hollywood getting back at a rival here? Is that why the Academy Award?

OK, now that I've gotten that out of my system, I found this an educational video, like one from Khan Academy about liquidation and refinancing of moribund zombie corporations. I'd recommend it to anyone.

Like Waiting for Superman, it paints this idyllic never-never-land of some recent past of financial security, just after nuclear and other holocausts and just before the lights went on around the world and other people decided to make cars as well.

Was that back when most people couldn't get loans of any kind, or go to college? Did women yet have the right to vote?

Yes, there was a period of sustained growth in North America, after much of Europe, as well as Japan, had been bombed and burned to smithereens. Is that all because people were more honest back then, or just more hard working?

That old canard about "shipping jobs overseas" is a little bit shop worn by now. Workers of the world unite already. This campus is yours. Don't forget to study hard and know thy enemy and/or thyself (if there's a difference).

But instead of more responsible analysis, it's a blame game again, with this broad brush Puritanical streak, this zealous going after of the medical records and addictions of these bully boyz 'n girlz on Vice Street, pursuing happiness in ways other mags market as "glamorous".

Hey, here's an idea, lets all fight a moral crusade against hormones. Doesn't work.

When the camera zooms in on the high heals of some supposed hooker wearing Prada or whatever it is, I fail to choke up with righteous outrage, like some swaggering Jimmy Swaggart on steroids. The sex industry may be ruthless and cruel, but neither was it born yesterday.

I'm against Prohibition, remember, think a lot of organized crime is nothing more than "good people" being hypocritical and moralistically unrealistic about human nature. The high incarceration rate is an index of cultural immaturity (imagine China without the martial arts).

Some maybe think it's "not Quakerly" to make room for Portlandia's TV-MA "party on" attitude. On the contrary, I'd call it "plain speech" (though it's also Asian in flavor).

To take another example, the narrator's voice goes a pitch higher in outrage because Credit Suisse doesn't grovel and obey some Uncle Sam edict that Iran's money must not to be laundered, and that its real and true energy needs must not be met by a domestic uranium enrichment program.

OK, tough call, as certainly the Americans betrayed our trust on that score (sorry Einstein), but it's at least an item of controversy. Why should we buy the narrator's "mind already made up" point of view? What does this know-it-all know about Iran that we don't?

And that's what a lot of the interviewees are quietly asking, in their evasive answers: what did you expect? What planet are you on? France? Tell me about it.

OK, I'm raving again. Hey, I admit it, I got angry. This very rude old lady behind me thought nothing of yakking on her cell phone when the feature had already begun. The story line was complicated and I wanted to concentrate, didn't see why I had to put up with her rudeness -- but I kept my mouth shut.

More than that, I agreed with the movie's analysis that Economics, as a discipline, lacks professional ethics, but so what? People have been saying that for years and hey, it's not the only discipline that goes un-policed (unregulated), given ethics has gone out the window in an anemic philosophy department. I'm the GST guy remember, offering a competing invisible hand.

And yet, despite the bankruptcy of the curriculum, people keep lining up around the block to give their life savings to colleges and universities, so junior might become a fancy pants on Wall Street or whatever the hell, with the Smedley Butler's of this world (a decorated Marine) expected to give their lives for free markets. Go figure. Hypocrisy strikes again.

The way everything got framed within the parable of Iceland was actually pretty brilliant, as was the analysis of conflicts of interest among academics. These sell-your-soul professors trade on their academic reputations by writing puff pieces for money. Their wallets get fat as their thinking becomes thin. Yet the filmmaker inconsistently berates these people for resigning when they're needed by their country. Make up your mind: did you want them running things (at least keeping up appearances), or not running things?

The parallel with corruption in the sciences gets made (by the interviewer) but seemingly without the same realization: that professional ethics aren't especially better there either. Scientists need funding and puff science is more the rule than the exception, where twisting arms in Congress is concerned. Junk science, like junk bonds, is big business.

The thing about ancient Rome was the hoi polloi wanted bread and circuses, had a somewhat insatiable appetite for same. You could have an emperor like Marcus Aurelius (played by Obama, say), introspective and contemplative, and yet it wouldn't make a damn bit of difference in the hinterlands, where the imperial legions were manifesting their "manifest destiny" (to rule the world), and still do to this day as Americans Gone Wild (in a theater near you).

How do you tell them the war is over? Maybe that's where this Youtube comes in?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Reviewing Pi Day

Followup writing:
Pi Day Ideas (Math Forum)

Friday, March 18, 2011

Useful Speech

Dark Ages

Related writing:
Posting to math-teach @ Math Forum, 11 April 2011

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Pycon 2011

Using Python in Education? Contribute to our brochure!

Tomorrow is Pi Day!

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Adventures in Philadelphia

Twas my good fortune to join with the Ben Franklin Thinking Society the other morning, just two blocks from my hotel (Club Quarters). The topic was education reform, and we came from many walks of life.

One of our number was a psychiatrist who'd worked with some of the roughest kids, like that boy who'd witnessed a murder, heard gun shots at night, and slept with a knife under his pillow while shivering with fear. He forgot to take it out of his day pack, and when school authorities found it, expulsion was the only bureaucratically mandated solution. Yet this kid was a victim, not some perpetrator / bully. This scenario gets repeated endlessly.

To me, that analysis seemed highly nationalistic at first, with pronouns to suit. I heard a lot of "we" and "them", though when I pointed this out, many were quick to signal their allegiance to homo sapiens in general.

Chris Fearnley and I then meandered on through the Drexel University campus (from where the Math Forum is hosted) to a coffee shop, to continue our somewhat random discussion. Neither one of us had proper rain gear, and so made our way back by jumping from one overhang or doorway to another. Back at my hotel, we talked about global data and Hans Rosling. Coincidentally, the guy was on CNN just a few hours later, on Fareed Zakaria's show.

Drexel Dragon

My airplane trip back was the next day. I took SEPTA from Suburban Station (in the heart of downtown), direct to the airport. I enjoy flying Southwest. No seating by class, just first come first serve (in terms of when your boarding pass was printed). At lunch today, Stockton seemed to know a lot about their management philosophy.

Both directions, I read the O'Reilly book Statistics in a Nutshell. What's interesting to me is the examples that get chosen. Nothing too controversial. The usual stuff about "IQ". Yes, cigs cause lung cancer, and legal drugs lead to problems or maybe it's the other way around, or was it illegal drugs?

How many people think we should put the coke back in Coke (in small amounts)? It'd probably have to be a bar brand. Speaking of which, I sipped alcohol (Dewer's) on the first leg for $5 (Philly to Denver), then stuck to ginger ale and water on the final hop to Rose City. I was so immersed in a book on Git, the version control system, that I missed my Hollywood stop, had to back track from Lloyd Center.

Tara managed well in my absence. Our house guest, LW, a free schooler and beneficiary of our Quaker family scholarship, is continuing to work hard on her music, has really mastered R2 (her drum machine). Why are USB to MIDI cables so expensive and hard to find in this neighborhood?

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Note to Wanderers

[ originally posted to the Wanderers list ]

Greetings Wanderers --

I'm in the "Quaker Vatican" as some wryly refer to this place, Friends Center in Philadelphia.

Over lunch we (those at our table) talked some about how this myth, that slavery is a thing of the past, needs to be exploded. Human trafficking and forced labor without rights are commonplace, including in North America.

Slavery is alive and well.

That's important to acknowledge in Quakerdom, which has specialized in fighting slavery over the centuries. Our work is not done -- far from it.

Here's a blog post, FYI:

You'll notice I refer to the "criminal syndicates" behind nuclear weapons stockpiling, testing and proliferation. This is a logical extrapolation of the Linus Pauling philosophy (to identify such WMD production as criminal activity -- a tautology really).

Yes, much engineering is of a criminal nature (obviously), but then much engineering is vitally life-supportive.

I think of medical science as another kind of engineering, shifting the meanings as usual. I see no reason to talk the way everyone else does, somewhat unthinkingly.

Per my remarks on "climate change", I don't buy the idea of "climate" either, as long as there's any question whatsoever about whether humans have drastically altered it. Of course they have. Just look out any airplane window.

We have an ecosystem, a biosphere. Distilling everything to a debate about global temperature is mind-numbing (and deliberately so, I'd argue, a trend encouraged by those who gain by narrowing the discourse).

Likewise our definition of "torture" is corrupt, if it neglects to include slow death by starvation as one of its forms. Malign neglect of the starving is effectively a pro-torture position.

[ funny story: the neighbors started referring to the building on Stark Street as "the torture church" thanks to this sign, subsequently removed ].

On Sunday I get to attend a meeting of the Ben Franklin Thinking Society.


Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Chatter Box

Gotta head over to Fred's soon for bread, a lunch standard (PB&J). Koski: to call. File: FZ. Here at Glennspad (wifi) having checked out newest version of Global Matrix Studio in DS on Asylum Ave.

Worked through a queue, basic inbox. I used to do GST in terms of PWSs (personal workspaces) with two credit wheels, like the ends of a cylinder. Inputs and outputs. In between: value added.

I've uploaded some pix from Sonoma, now turning my gaze to the Far East (Philly). The Middle East is like Reno.

FNB tonight: talked to some cycling genius who'd biked his way across North America. Road quality varies a lot between states and counties.

Sonoma, with an abundance of pavement, is seriously planning on letting a lot of its road bed go back to like gravel. All that asphalt was unsustainable. No, not a bluff, a change in land use.

Hard to find a way over the Mississippi in a bicycle. Go north to Kentucky, just over the border. Otherwise it's all freeways, pandering to the dominant paradigm.

One of Barry's friends is buying a Tesla.

Good catching up with LT this afternoon, thanks to T (Cleveland) having left her calculator somewhere on the ski trip. One of hers goes to Grant. T got to sit with Khafourys at the dinner for Brian Greene (who was tightly scheduled, reports Glenn).

SB in AK yet? Talked with RS. Heading out for that bread now.