Saturday, June 25, 2011


I had mixed feelings about the U.S. going into Afghanistan initially, and I grew increasingly against our involvement there as time wore on. At this point, I have absolutely no idea why U.S. troops are still there, and I firmly believe we should pull out. "Nation building" is a joke, not a reason. We don't have a partner for nation building within Afghanistan, and anyway, since when did nation building become a goal of the U.S. government?

Every time my wife and I discuss Afghanistan we agree that the U.S. should leave; however, my wife always brings up the fate of women there when the Taliban regain control, which they probably will. It's not a pretty thought. So I have a new strategy to propose to the U.S. government: help all Afghani women leave Afghanistan. Let's look at the numbers.

The population of Afghanistan in 2011 is estimated to be 29,835,392 people. Of these, 6,149,468 are girls age 0 to 14 years, 8,031,968 are women age 15 to 64, and 380,051 are women 65 and older (that's correct, women don't live as long in Afghanistan as in the U.S. and many other developed nations). The total number of female Afghanis is 14,561,487.

The U.S. budget for operation in Afghanistan for 2012 is $107,000,000,000. That's 107 billion dollars if you got tired of reading zeros. This sum divided by the number of female Afghanis equals $7,348.15 per person. My new strategy is to take this budget and use it to transport and resettle all female Afghanis somewhere other than Afghanistan, in places where they will be safe and will have opportunities to rebuild their lives and have a positive future for their children.

As for the men left behind, well, let's let them figure it out themselves. And good luck to them!


- posted from the fisheyepad

Thursday, June 23, 2011


I like to read the Business Day section of the NY Times. The top story today has the headline "Derivatives Cloud the Possible Fallout From a Greek Default." OK, sounds like I could get some insights into the economic woes of Greece, so I read the article. I have no idea what it all means! 

The situation in Greece is "clouded" by derivatives and credit-default swaps, whatever they are. It sounds like institutions buy insurance against loan defaults of others, and somehow make money from those. 

Let's start where I often start: definitions. 

Derivatives: according to Wikipedia, a derivative is "financial instrument whose value depends on underlying variables." Um, not very helpful, but let's read on...a derivative "is essentially a contract whose payoff depends on the behavior of a benchmark." O...K....maybe we can find another definition.

Let's try Investopedia - that sounds pretty wonkish. 
A security whose price is dependent upon or derived from one or more underlying assets. The derivative itself is merely a contract between two or more parties. Its value is determined by fluctuations in the underlying asset. The most common underlying assets include stocks, bonds, commodities, currencies, interest rates and market indexes. Most derivatives are characterized by high leverage. (I remember studying leverage in high school physics.)

Hmmm, let's read on: 
Futures contracts, forward contracts, options and swaps are the most common types of derivatives. Derivatives are contracts and can be used as an underlying asset. There are even derivatives based on weather data, such as the amount of rain or the number of sunny days in a particular region.

Oh great, now were into forecasting the weather! 

Maybe "credit default swap" will be easier to understand, and I'm liking Investopedia, so let's stay with them. 
Credit default swaps (CDS) are the most widely used type of credit derivative and a powerful force in the world markets. The first CDS contract was introduced by JP Morgan in 1997 and by mid-2007, the value of the market had ballooned to an estimated $45 trillion, according to the International Swaps and Derivatives Association - over twice the size of the U.S. stock market.

Now we're getting somewhere....let's keep going:
A CDS contract involves the transfer of the credit risk of municipal bonds, emerging market bonds, mortgage-backed securities, or corporate debt between two parties. It is similar to insurance because it provides the buyer of the contract, who often owns the underlying credit, with protection against default, a credit rating downgrade, or another negative "credit event." The seller of the contract assumes the credit risk that the buyer does not wish to shoulder in exchange for a periodic protection fee similar to an insurance premium, and is obligated to pay only if a negative credit event occurs.

So what does this have to do with Greece? Well, what the NY Times article discusses is that there might be large financial institutions that are holding CDS contracts on Greek debt, and if Greece defaults on the debt, these institutions will have to pay out. The trouble is, no-one knows who is holding CDSs on Greek debt and how large these are. If some institutions are holding huge amounts of CDSs on Greek debt, they might be unable to pay out, with very serious impacts to the world economy - again. 

I say again because this is exactly what happened in the good old US of A; remember AIG? That's right, AIG (American International Group) had insured the performance of mortgage bonds through derivatives (there's that term again) and could not pay out on them. As a result, the US government had to bail out AIG to the tune of 182 billion dollars. 

So maybe I do understand this stuff a little bit now. For me, the bottom line is this - the financial institutions on Wall Street and elsewhere have set up this very large and complex system (dare I call it a form of gambling?) that imperils the world economy. Recent history has shown us very clearly that if these big guys get in trouble, us little folk will have to bail them out with our tax dollars. And keep in mind, this derivative and credit-default swap stuff is mostly unregulated. 

Maybe I'll pull my money out of the market and take it to the nearest casino.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


Tonight we were among a few hundred people gathered in the 1913 Historic Ashland Armory for a "concert performance" of the play "To Kill a Mockingbird" by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The regular staged performance had to be cancelled because of structural damage to the Bowmer Theater building discovered earlier in the day. Numerous people and institutions of Ashland rallied around OSF to make the Armory available and ready for the performance.

Nineteen chairs were lined up across the stage. The actors filed in, sat down, and after an explaination of how this had come together so quickly, each actor introduced her/himself, told what characters they play, and the play began. No set. No props. Each actor standing to play their role, with limited stage movement. And it was wonderful!

The audience sat enthralled on folding chairs borrowed from local schools, hanging on every word and phrase. I can't imagine a better performance, even with a full set, props and blocking. The cast, to a person, brought this compelling play to life using only their acting skills, the words of a great script, and the cohesion of a fine acting company.

Thank you, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, for a once in a lifetime experience.

- posted from the fisheyepad

Location:Ashland, Oregon. USA

Sunday, June 12, 2011


(Photo Source)

This is Dr. Assad, an ophthalmologist who trained in Damascus and London. He is 46 years old, his wife was born in London to Syrian parents and is an investment banker. They have three children. In addition to his native language, Dr. Assad speaks fluent English and French, and has traveled widely in the world. He is a very modern man. 

And did I mention that Dr. Assad is the brutal Syrian dictator whose security forces torture and murder civilians? He's the kind of guy who, in addition to giving you a thorough eye examination, would also probably enjoy pulling your eye out of it's socket with his fingers (probably not a technique he learned in medical school)! 

How do educated people like Assad become monsters? And why does the rest of the world put up with guys like him? The answers are, as usual, politics. Answer 1: Assad wants to stay in power; answer 2: world governments have made the usual choice of political expediency over human rights. 

I watched a portion of an Anderson Cooper (CNN) report about the situation In Syria, a report that held nothing back. The violence captured on cell phone videos was shocking and disturbing. Assad's forces are seemingly beating and killing everyone in their sight. Children are being "arrested" and their tortured, mutilated bodies returned to the parents weeks later. The Syrian forces are operating under a scorched earth policy - leave nothing standing, leave no one alive. 

And what is the response by the rest of the world? Elected leaders have harsh words and a few economic sanctions. But world leaders are being extremely cautious, because a Syria without Assad could be a bad geopolitical situation that could make matters in the Middle East worse than they have been under Assad's tight control. 

What we are witnessing, yet again, is the critical failure of humanity to live up to it's potential. Instead of progress and improvement for everyone, we see brutal repression for the benefit of the few, and world indifference for political reasons. The same old same old, endlessly repeated.

Dr. Assad, how do you live with your actions? How do you hug your children knowing that your storm troopers are torturing and murdering other people's children? How do you justify the extreme violence being committed in your name? Are you a human or a monster? 

I recently attended my niece's graduation from medical school. Part of the ceremony was the recitation of the Declaration of Geneva physician's oath. This declaration includes the following statements: 

"I solemnly pledge myself to consecrate my life to the service of humanity;" 

"I will maintain the utmost respect for human life from the time of conception, even under threat...."

Maybe Dr. Assad had his fingers crossed under his gown.

I truly wish I could do something to help the Syrian people. I'll contact my elected representatives and implore them to act, but the reality is that the Syrian people are on their own. The rest of us can only sit and watch the horror on CNN. 

Tuesday, June 07, 2011


Oregon was one of, or maybe the first state to enact a bottle deposit system, and we've been paying the nickel per certain types of glass and plastic bottles and aluminum cans ever since. We get back a nickel per bottle or can when we take them back to the retail store. Now the Oregon legislature is working on an update to the bill that will include many more bottle types than beer and soft drinks. The bill will also establish a system of bottle redemption centers so that the retail stores will no longer have to deal with bottle returns. And the deposit might increase to ten cents per bottle.

I don't get it.

I just returned from a walk to my local Fred Meyers store, where in addition to shopping, I returned some deposit bottles. This recently remodeled store has a separate small building, across the parking lot from the store, that has four bottle and can return machines. One of the three can and bottle machines was out of order, and the fourth machine is only for aluminum cans. A woman and her two kids were feeding bottles and cans into one machine; they had a half-dozen very large plastic trash bags full. A man was feeding bottles and cans into another machine; he had a shopping cart mounded high with bottles and cans. Another woman was standing and waiting; she had a shopping cart full plus a trash bag of cans and bottles. The can only machine was unused - I had bottles. The two working machines are the type that accept one bottle or can at a time, so I knew I had to be patient. Did I mention that I had three six-pack carriers of glass bottles and two liter-size plastic seltzer bottles? I waited, fed my few bottles into the machine, and got a receipt worth one dollar. Oh joy!

So the future is that I'll need to get in my car and drive to a redemption center, so I'll probably save bottles until I have a truck load (where the hell I'll keep them I have no idea), and then I'll spend a bunch-o-time standing around a smelly, sticky-floored crap hole to have my turn at a machine. Hmmm....get in car, use gas, spew emissions, stand around waiting for the professionals to be finished.....great plan.

We have curbside recycling in Portland. The blue rolling cart is for paper, cardboard, certain plastics, and metals. The green rolling cart is for yard debris. The yellow bin is for glass. The pickup is once a week. So why can't they also give me a bin for deposit bottles and cans, scan in some code that records the credit to my account, and dump it into a machine like the ones at the redemption center that counts them and breaks the glass bottles and shreds the plastic bottles and aluminum cans?

Is this too logical, or what? Someone please help me out here.