February 5th, 2008

snow and ashes - small

Good Morning!!

What a day!!  I rise early and go out for a walk in that wonderful place where it is still dark and yet you can see, just enough.


I come home and work with Jane.  We are refining Breast Stroke and it is quite a delight, to return to words of the past and see if perhaps there is a little more clarity to be found, in the book, and in ourselves, which was always the purpose.  What more can we uncover and hold in our hands like a stone?

Jon Carroll has fireflies in his column today.  We, who grew up, where they came out on summer nights,  can relate to the joy of that.


The news is that this Super Tuesday is perceived by many as bigger than the Super Bowl.

I am excited, and remember how my parents loved to gather around the TV and watch the election returns.  Enthusiasm is back.  Apathy is out.  I am thrilled with the sparkle of this day.  I see  fireflies in daylight, hold the moon in my hands,  and use it like a spoon.
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Young at heart -

I continue to read that it is the young who are supporting Barack Obama and I am thrilled that the young are coming out and getting involved to vote,  but I think there are many who are a little older who are also supporting him.  We, too, have vision and dreams.   We, too, have fire in our hearts.

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The NY Times on Bush -

I debate putting this here, as you probably have read it, and yet, I think it is important that we keep in the forefront of our mind just how bad Bush really is, and maybe you are saying it has absorbed your whole mind and turned it into a tumbleweed that is roaring west, but nevertheless, let's look at what he continues to propose.  More money for defense.  What are we defending against?   Suicide bombers. 

Remember how the American terrorists shot at the British in their dashing red coats from behind trees.  We didn't play fair, and now, we are free, or as free as this administration allows us to be.


Lame-Duck Budget

Published: February 5, 2008

President Bush’s 2009 budget is a grim guided tour through his misplaced priorities, failed fiscal policies and the disastrous legacy that he will leave for the next president. And even that requires you to accept the White House’s optimistic accounting, which seven years of experience tells us would be foolish in the extreme.

With Mr. Bush on his way out the door and the Democrats in charge of Congress, it is not clear how many of the president’s priorities, unveiled on Monday, will survive. Among its many wrongheaded ideas, the budget includes some $2 billion to ratchet up enforcement-heavy immigration policies and billions more for a defense against ballistic missiles that show no signs of working.

What will definitely outlast Mr. Bush for years to come are big deficits, a military so battered by the Iraq war that it will take hundreds of billions of dollars to repair it and stunted social programs that have been squeezed to pay for Mr. Bush’s misguided military adventure and his misguided tax cuts for the wealthy.

The president claimed on Monday that his plan would put the country on the path to balancing the budget by 2012. That is nonsense. His own proposal projects a $410 billion deficit for 2008 and a $407 billion deficit next year. Even more disingenuous, Mr. Bush’s projection for a balanced budget in 2012 assumes only partial funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for 2009, and no such spending — zero — starting in 2010.

It also assumes that there will be no long-running relief from the alternative minimum tax — which would be ruinous for the middle class — and that there will be deep cuts in Medicare and other health care spending that have proved to be politically impossible to enact.

Mr. Bush, of course, inherited a surplus from the Clinton administration, which he quickly used up on his tax cuts. He then continued cutting taxes after the surpluses were gone and even after launching the war in Iraq — $600 billion and counting. Mr. Bush remains unrepentant. Even now, with the economy — and revenues — slowing, he is pushing to make those tax cuts permanent. That would be fiscally catastrophic.

The big winner, predictably, is the Pentagon. After adjusting for inflation, the proposed defense budget of $515.4 billion — which does not include either war spending or the cost of nuclear weapons — would be up by more than 30 percent since Mr. Bush took office and would be the highest level of military spending since World War II.

Mr. Bush’s war of choice in Iraq, on top of the war of necessity in Afghanistan, has seriously strained the American military — its people and its equipment. Even a new president committed to a swift withdrawal of American troops from Iraq will have to keep asking for large Pentagon budgets, both to repair that damage and to prepare the country to face what will continue to be a very dangerous world.

What is so infuriating about this budget is there is not even a hint of the need for real trade-offs. As far as anyone can tell, not a single weapons system would be canceled. That means it will be up to Congress — also far too captive to military-industry lobbyists — to start scaling back or canceling expensive programs that don’t meet today’s threats, or tomorrow’s.

There is one place we’re delighted to see Mr. Bush invest more money: a proposal to hire 1,100 new diplomats. The next president will need all of the diplomatic help he or she can get to contain the many international disasters Mr. Bush will leave behind.

Predictably, the big losers in Mr. Bush’s budget are domestic-spending programs — including medical research, environmental protection and education — which will either be held flat or cut.

Even more predictably, most of Mr. Bush’s touted savings would come from programs intended to protect the country’s most vulnerable citizens: the elderly, the poor and the disabled. The budget would sharply restrain the growth of spending on the huge Medicare health insurance program, in an effort to save some $178 billion over the next five years. The administration would achieve that primarily by cutting the annual increases in payments to hospitals, nursing homes and other health care providers that are designed to keep up with the rising costs of caring for Medicare beneficiaries.

There is clearly room to restrain the rate of growth in some of these payments. But the size and duration of the cuts are irresponsible. Meanwhile, Mr. Bush — who insists that every answer to the country’s health care woes can be found in the private sector — has left largely untouched the big subsidies that prop up the private Medicare Advantage insurance plans. Eliminating these unjustified subsidies could save Medicare more than $50 billion over five years and $150 billion over 10 years.

Just as the nation seems on the edge of a recession, the budget would also shave federal contributions to state Medicaid programs by some $17 billion over five years. That is exactly the wrong direction to go in tough economic times, when low-income workers who lose their jobs need Medicaid coverage and states have fewer funds to supply it.

All of this means that Mr. Bush will leave his successor a daunting list of problems: the ever-rising cost of health care, the tens of millions of uninsured, a military that is desperately in need of rebuilding. Thanks to Mr. Bush’s profligate ways, it also means that the next president will have even less money for solving them.

Who would want to leave such a legacy?  I kept thinking that one day Bush would wake up and "see the light."  It seems he prefers to stay in the darkness of his own head and heart, and that is clearly a very hard-headed and hard-hearted place to be. 

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Stewart Brand -

Last night Steve and I were planning to attend  this event sponsored by the Longnow Foundation, but Steve was sick.  Thanks to Stewart Brand, here is a synopsis of the evening with Nassim Nicholas Taleb. 

A "black swan," Taleb explained, is an event which is 1) Hard to predict; 2) Highly consequential; 3) Wrongly retro-predicted.  We pretend we know why the big event happened, and so entrench our inability to deal with the next world-changing improbable event.

Examples: Viagra, 9/11, Harry Potter, First World War, Beatles, the PC, Google, and the rise of any successful religion.  History is dominated by sudden, lasting changes wrought by deeply unexpected events.

Part of the problem is that we ignore the "silent evidence" of the nonobserved and nonobservable.  We compute probability from the success of survivors.  No one writes or reads a book titled "How I Lost a Million Dollars."  Another problem is that we revise our own predictions and intentions unconsciously to match what actually happens.  We disguise having been wrong by pretending we were right.  This is "confirmation bias."

There are TWO kinds of randomness, two realms in which events happen...

Mediocristan is dominated by the average--- one new observation won't change much.  If you are measuring the weight of a large sample of humans, adding the heaviest person in the world won't change the result, whereas measuring the average wealth of a large sample of humans would be transformed by adding the wealthiest person.  Mediocristan is the realm of the Law of Large Numbers and of the Gaussian Bell Curve.

Extremistan is dominated by extremes.  Every year 16,000 books are published in English.  A handful of best-sellers absolutely dominate.  This is the realm of the power-law curve and the Long Tail.  Extremistant defies prediction.  You can say there will be a few monsters and lots of midgets and the world will be changed by the monsters, and that's all you can say.

Benoit Mandelbrot convinced Taleb that the main dynamic of Mediocristan is energy, and the main dynamic of Extremistan is information.  Anything social is Extremistan.

Thus there are two kinds of experts.  A soufflé chef really is an expert and can be trusted.  An economist is a pseudo-expert.  "Never take advice from someone wearing a tie."  All you get from a Council of Economic Advisors is an illusion of control.  Stock market analysts have proved to be worse than nothing.

Don't focus on probability.  Focus on consequences.  Black Swans will come.  Prepare against the negative ones; be ready to soar with the positive ones.

Pay attentive heed to tradition and old people--- they have experienced more Black Swans.

                                        --Stewart Brand

PS...  All of the SALT speakers perform for free.  Taleb added the further generosity of insisting on paying for his travel and lodging.  Extra thanks to him for that.

Stewart Brand -- sb@gbn.org
The Long Now Foundation - http://www.longnow.org
Seminars & downloads: http://www.longnow.org/projects/seminars/

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When I was in Book Passage on Saturday night, a friend got all excited because there was a book on Knut, a polar bear saved in a German zoo.   She insisted I buy the book for my niece, so I am perusing it, and offer a video so you, too,  can enjoy Knut.

I didn't know that their "sense of smell is so good that some people call polar bears "noses with legs."  "They can smell a seal from ten football fields away and under three feet of ice."  Of course, maybe seals are really smelly. 

"Studies show that permanent ice in the Arctic has dropped by 9.8% every ten years since 1978."   We now have to worry that polar bears could become extinct in our lifetime.

Meanwhile, enjoy this video as you wait for the election results.