The Roots of the Great Recession? Dead Peasants!

Cover of "Capitalism: A Love Story"Cover of Capitalism: A Love Story
What is the cause of the Great Recession? Yes, we all know, it's the sub-prime mortage collapse, it's derivatives, credit default swaps and other fancy financial instruments - those that Warren Buffett famously described as "financial weapons of  mass destruction".  In one word: it's Wall Street.

But, bottom line, what's behind all this financial hubris? Dead peasants!

No, I'm not joking, I'm dead serious. Dead peasants, I tell you!

Let me explain. I just saw Michael Moore's latest effort, Capitalism: A Love Story, a brilliant documentary that seeks to explain how we ever got into the Great Recession in the first place. Of course, as he points out, it all started much before  the collapse of Lehman Brothers on 15 September 2008. Moore takes us all the way back to the 1970s when President Jimmy Carter tried to tell America that it was fast becoming a society that had lost its values. The middle-class was in trouble, its values were being perverted, but who ever wanted to listen to that message? "What a bummer!" is Moore's comically terse comment about Carter's bungled attemtp to set the country back on a (more moral) course.

Whereupon, with the backing of Wall Street, a minor politician (a second-rate actor who looked like a cowboy, a politically desirable physique), I mean  Ronald Reagan, was elected president and saved the day. As I've said in an earlier post, and here I agree with Moore (even if everything he does is not always in the best taste or even effective), the  destructive game of deregulation started with Reagan (and with Thatcher in the UK). The dismantling of the Glass-Steagall Act was probably the turning point: it opened the door to unbridled high finances. From that moment, capitalism in its worst form - unregulated, iniquitous - had won the day. And it was a bi-partisan effort:  Clinton's Democrats were as much at fault as the Republicans.

True, Obama was elected on a platform of change - "Yes We Can" - which tried to empower the American middle class. Did it mark a change in direction in America? For a while, with the reform of national health, it looked like it might. But it didn't last long. Barely  two years, judging on the results of the last mid-term elections in America, where the Tea Party won on the improbable platform of "let's have a tax holiday for the rich and let's balance the budget! Out with Social Security!". Contradictory messages have never killed anybody, on the contrary. That's democracy in action.  To close the door now on all this nonsense is probably next to impossible.

If you have any doubts, consider the "dead peasants" scandal. It is symptomatic of the disease affecting America. And exemplary. Do you know what "dead peasants" are? I didn't know until I watched Michael Moore's film. I was horrified. "Dead peasants" is the disparaging term used to refer to life insurance on a corporation's employees. The problem is that this life insurance is not owned by the employee but by the employer corporation, with benefits payable to the corporation. Moore interviewed a woman whose husband had died from cancer and whose employer benefited from a $1.5 million payment from the life insurer, while she, the widow with two children, got nothing. Yes, she got nothing, not even a small percentage of this sum!  It's like taking life insurance on your neighbour's house: you would benefit if it burned down, therefore you'd be sorely tempted to become an arsonist, wouldn't you?

You could argue that at first, such insurance policies did make some kind of sense: a corporation would take it out on "key employees" to protect itself in case of death, since such key employees are relatively difficult and costly to replace. The trouble is that the usage of such policies was expanded over the years and came to cover minor employees, particularly women, for whom such protection was hardly needed. Why women more than men? Because they live longer, so if they die young, the life insurance premium is much juicier...And the beauty of all this (I mean from a capitalist's point of view) is that the practice is entirely legal.

That's what happens if you don't regulate capitalism...Dead peasants galore! 
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A piece of Street Art expressing opinion of U....Image via Wikipedia

Bush has just come out with the much-awaited memoir of his presidency, Decision Points, and is now doing the grand tour of media interviews starting with the NBC Today Show and going onto Oprah Winfrey and others. It was an occasion for him to settle some personal scores (like his relation with Cheney or his handling of Hurricane Katrina). As might be expected, he has provoked on the way, all sorts of reactions, most of them positives, which should come as no surprise given the results of the mid-term elections. I bet his book is going to be a run-away best-seller!

Indeed, a rumour has been started that this is the moment to reassess (positively) Bush's presidency and I'd like to add my (small) voice to the chorus: thank you, Mr. Bush!

Thank you for the War in Iraq and the War in Afghanistan!Without the war in Iraq, we could never have outdone Saddam Hussein in the number of Iraqi killed: Saddam with the help of his trusted Chemical Ali managed to massacre some 8,000 Kurds, not to mention the several thousands civilian lives lost in his war with Iran. But since the Americans and Coalition partners have invaded Iraq, over 100,000 civilians have been killed and some sources speak of five or six times that number (but I'll stick on the conservative side: in any case, that's more than Saddam managed to do...) And of course, who's ever going to say that Saddam Hussein could outdo Americans on the subject of torture? We didn't need Wikileaks to know that he hasn't!     As to the war in Afghanistan we've just discovered the wonders that corruption can achieve: thanks to generous flows of ready cash from Iran to Karzai's government, Iran has helped maintain America's ally in power. Who'd ever believe that Iran would support American foreign policy? And in both places, we've seen how profitable the privatization of security has been for private companies. The army has given up one its essential functions - maintaining security in war zones - to the private sector. What an achievement!
But wars are not the only blessings you have brought us, Mr. Bush. Thank you for the Great Recession too! One of my readers rightly reminded me (see his comment in my previous post on America folding up) that the single event that started the hubris on Wall Street was the repeal of an obscure piece of legislation which had kept separate the bank's investment and lending functions (this had been one of the great lessons of the Depression: that banks who lend to businesses shouldn't be allowed to play with money on Wall Street).  That fateful event took place not under Bush but under Clinton's stewardship. True enough, but the philosophy of deregulation started much earlier - in fact, back in the 1980s with Thatcher and Nixon, and it was gleefully continued under Bush and the then head of the Fed, Greenspan. And it got its final boost when the Soviet Union collapsed, bringing confirmation that there was only one way to organize the economy: let the market have a full and free reign. So down with regulation!
Some people however are having second thought about deregulation: the President of the World Bank for one. He's recently suggested we go back to some form of the gold standard. Economists howled, particularly those on the right. How will the G-20 react now in Seoul? Will re-regulation be on the agenda? Not likely. Obama already has a problem: a currency war with China is looming, and the Fed's "quantitative easing" (read: $600 billion added via the printing press) hasn't helped matters. It has (and will) send the value of the dollar down and there's no telling where all this will land us. Not to mention all those deficit control policies raging in Europe (and about to enter the American scene) that will dampen recovery and heighten social tensions. Why this sudden emphasis on deficit control? Because it is needed to keep those big sovereign debt investors happy. Wait a minute! What the Fed has just done with its $600 billion shows that those investors should beware of governments: the printing press is always a way out of deficit. And has been for centuries (with catastrophic results, but that's another story...)
Actually, surveying the situation, I'm beginning to think that everybody's got it wrong: the politicians, the central bankers, the people protesting in the street. Do politicians (Bush and others) really understand anything or are they just reacting to winds of change and fashions they scent out in their electorate? Is this mess just the result of democracy in action? Churchill used to say that democracy was the "least bad" of all possible systems of government. Least bad ? Perhaps, but, let me tell you, it's pretty bad indeed...
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What's in a Pizza? A Calorie Bomb!

Picture of an authentic Neapolitan Pizza Margh...
How many calories in a pizza? The New York Times recently reported that in a quarter of a pizza, there could be as much as 430 calories...that's about one quarter of the number of calories allowed per day, assuming your are not aiming to become obese in the shortest possible time!

Of course, we're talking here about American pizza, which is vastly different from the stuff we eat in Italy. American pizza is chockful of cheese, even up to six different kinds of cheese and yet more cheese worked into the crust (!). I'm not sure who makes them, whether Dominos Pizza or Pizza Hut, but they're definitely not Italian. Pizza in Italy - the birthplace of pizza - can even be entirely devoid of any cheese and generally has only small quantities of mozzarella and never, NEVER, does one add cheese to the bread dough. A cheesy crust? Pouah! What you want is a nice contrast between the filling and the crust, not something that is entirely cheesy from top to bottom!

This said, Neapolitans are also the authors of an unbelievably caloric pizza: they make fried pizza. Imagine, a pizza filled with cheese and sausage (!), then neatly folded on itself, and deep-fried! Deeelicious! But no one's ever bothered to count the calories, nor eat the stuff on a regular basis. In fact, my advice is: don't!
American cheese consumption has reportedly tripled since the 1970s, and today, American nutritionists consider that cheese is the major culprit in the wave of obesity engulfing the country. And, of course, the obesity wave is fast coming to Europe too, and no doubt for the same reasons (is there anybody around who doesn't like French and Italian cheese? Not to mention the Swiss, the Dutch etc).  The problem is that an ounce of cheese (not all but most varieties) contains as much saturated fat as a glass of whole milk. And cheese is a major source of sodium, another no-no. All of this is bad for your figure and bad for your heart.
As you can observe from the many articles and blogs I've listed below, this is fast becoming a subject of national debate in the US: pizza as the main source of obesity - or rather, cheese.

The real scandal uncovered by the American press is that the US Department of Agriculture - or rather a branch of it called Dairy Management -  is actually the one behind several campaigns to promote milk and especially cheese consumption, as a way to help dairy farmers that produce far more milk than they can sell on the market. Because too much milk is produced as a result of technological advances that have made American dairy farms among the most productive and efficient in the world. Until some years ago, the excess milk was shipped abroad in the form of aid to developing countries but now, the law has changed and the excess milk has to somehow be absorbed in the American market. As everybody knows, the best way to consume vast quantities of milk is through cheese consumption (after all, cheese is nothing but a condensed form of milk). Hence the US Government's efforts at promoting cheese consumption in response to the economic needs of one section of its electorate (the farmers) at the expense of  the health of consumers (everybody else - actually farmers included...)

Here we have the private market at its best and in full action: unbridled competition leading to increased productivity (in milk) leading straight into an obesity epidemic on a national scale, and all thanks to savvy marketing! Of course, the savvy marketing is the doing of the Government...Go tell the Republicans! I would love to know whether they want to defend milk farmers and the government intervention on their behalf, or whether they believe in letting the market work it out freely, letting the demand for milk drop and the dairy farmers be damned...

Another way to look at this is to consider American milk production in the face one one billion people going hungry worldwide. Why not reverse the law and allow for milk to be processed in food aid - not powdered milk that requires the addition of water, which is a problem in many developing countries where the water is polluted or insufficient...but cheese, perhaps of the mozarella type that can withstand tropical temperatures and is more acceptable to local consumers. Or one could consider it as a food additive to complement children nutrition. I was at a World Food Programme meeting this morning, and they were talking about the importance of correct nutrition in the first thousand days in a child's life. It is absolutely essential to ensure a healthy life as an adult yet in developing countries, children under the age of two are the first victims of malnutrition.

So, instead of eating a lot of cheesy pizza, what if we started to work on preventing stunted childhood in developing countries and at the same time fought obesity in the developed world? 
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Image:Republican candidates by state maps.png
It used to be that American elections were looked at as the perfect example of democracy in action. This time around the midterm election exercise has most people in Europe baffled. And I don't mean Europeans were surprised by the results: the Republican handwriting was on the wall, and, on both sides of the Atlantic, we saw it coming.



Metal Hammer Golden Gods June 2010 15 Christop...

Cats are said to live seven lives. What about a man, or a woman for that matter?

On a recent evening, I was watching a fascinating biopic on ARTE TV. It was about Christopher Lee's life and that question popped in my mind. Christopher Lee is a man who has known amazing ups and downs in his long life. Born in Belgravia, London, he started off well with a silver spoon in his mouth, attending  one of the best public schools in England, the kind that leads you to Oxford and Cambridge, and a career in banking or diplomacy. Then things collapsed: his parents divorced, and as a young man,  he found himself struggling to earn a living before finishing his education. He suffered as an office boy until World War II. After honourably serving in Africa, he came back to London, still desperate for a job. The turning point was a meeting in 1946 (or 47) with his uncle Carandini, the Italian Ambassador to Britain, who suggested he might become an actor. An extraordinary suggestion if you consider that it was made by a conservative diplomat. And Christopher Lee's mother (a Carandini herself) disapproved, of course. However that is what he did, meeting with increasing success in colourful Dracula roles and other horror movies, including bizarre ones made in Italy, mixing Hercules with vampires.

Then things started to take a turn for the worse. He found himself stuck with his horror movie image and adversely affected by a slowdown in the horror movie market. Horror movies in the 50s and '60s were always considered a B series kind of market, while Christopher Lee had ambition. He knew he was a better actor than that. But the dreadful lull in his career  was a long, long one. Anyone else might have lost hope, but not him. Remarkable.

Help came from the most unexpected quarter: from Muhammad Ali the boxer whom he befriended. After winning a major fight, Muhammad Ali mentioned Lee's name as one of his friends who had followed him on TV and Hollywood started to make offers. He hosted the Saturday Night Show in New York and that was followed by some 35 million Americans at the time: a record audience! He came off, not as a horror movie actor, but as a man who could tell jokes and brilliantly entertain with his dry wit. He got to play in a James Bond movie as Scaramanga,  the suave, sexy villain in "the Man with the Golden Gun". After that high point, we find him  fifteen years later climbing yet other high points starring in several Star Wars episodes and as the fabulous wizard, Saruman the White, in two of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

So he has moved from horror to fantasy and science fiction to hosting a major TV show. Without ever giving up on his original genre, the horror film. He has always felt that the "Wicker Man" in which he played a major role (a film with a difficult distribution history) was outstanding and so it is - and now he is vindicated: see the Guardian article listed below which claims the film has not only renewed the hackneyed horror genre but thrillers in general.

Quite an interesting "career arc": hardly an arc, more like a zig zag! And to crown it all, he has recently agreed to sing with the Heavy Metals. He has a formidable voice and presence, he looks like a Medieval King, Christopher-The Lion-Hearted! He's just released an album, check it out here! 

How old is our Heavy Metal singer? Born in May 1922, he is getting on...88 years old. Incredible!

So how many lives can a man have? It would seem that in our times, given the general zeitgeist, the incredible opportunities of our market economy and the lengthening of average life with advances in medicine, a man can have more than one...perhaps as many as three or four.

If you can handle it!

Take a look at Christopher Lee. I think the lesson is clear: what you need is willpower, grit, what the Italians call "grinta". I love the word, the way it sounds: grrrrinta! Don't ever give up on your dreams!
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ABOUT ART: The Best...My Own!

Magritte The Treachery of Images provides a cl...
Yes, sorry about that...I usually don't talk here about what I do, but this time I'm going to make an exception. Because I NEED YOU! Yes, I NEED YOUR VOTE for a portfolio of paintings I have submitted to a competition organized by a couple of (very active) painters, calling on artists to submit their work for the SCOPE space in the Miami Art Fair.

Please click this link and VOTE. And if you like it, please share with friends and get them to vote as well! With my heartfelt thanks!


Are you surprised? Well...You may have noticed my horse paintings that gracefully (hummm!) adorn both my blogs (this one and the one with my "It's cooking!" blog with recipes for the foodies among you - to see it, click on the link in the up right corner...) If you have noticed them, you'll know that I also paint...I've been painting since childhood and I learned the techniques of drawing and oil painting from my mother who was herself taught by Delvaux (among others). You know who Delvaux is, I'm sure: he's got a whole wing of the Beaux Arts National Museum in Brussels dedicated to him and he is, of course, Magritte's eternal rival. I'm not sure Magritte is better than Delvaux - I like Delvaux' s palette, although his sad-eyed women - always the same woman with the same expression - do annoy me somewhat. On a personal level, the most important thing I've learned from all of them (my mother included) is the art of drawing...as to the colours, they are my own and so are the themes!

Speaking of themes, you'll be surprised that what I present in this portfolio has nothing to do with horses. The theme here is based on the many years I spent  painting  the Third World where I have travelled for over 20 years in over 50 countries, inspecting and evaluating aid projects executed by FAO, a United Nations specialized agency (it's mandate is "food and agriculture",  i.e. giving people the agricultural tools to fight hunger).

My portfolio starts off with the Haiti disaster - a refugee family waiting for aid, forlornly hanging on to barbed wire (and it's real wire I've tacked on the painting, cutting myself in the process!).

The portfolio goes on next to one of the more emblematic pictures of the 2004 Tsunami disaster. You may remember it ...but not like this! I've added several bits to it (for example, the corpse of a Western tourist brought back from the beach in the left corner; a flooded house in the right corner) and of course,  I have deliberately modified the central piece: the wailing woman kneeling on the beach is cancelled  with a big cross - the sort of mark photographers put on their pictures when they want something deleted - . Why? Because there are definite aspects of that particular disaster that we in the West would rather put out of our mind. In this case,  the Indian widow who's crying on the beach where she's found the corpse of her husband.

Ok, we were all moved by her pain but she is in fact less important than the Western tourists that got caught by the Big Wave and died. So I crossed her out to reflect visually the lower level of priority attached to "natives" affected by disasters when compared to ourselves...Speaking of the "arbitrariness of the sign" which, as you all know, is precisely what Magritte's famous "ceci n'est pas une pipe" painting is supposed to be all about (illustration above)
Think about it. Have you ever wondered why the 2004 Tsunami disaster brought more aid money THAN ANY OTHER DISASTER IN HISTORY? Because Western tourists were caught in it not by the dozen (as usually happens) but by the HUNDREDS!
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The Great Hacker Heist, another short story inspired by recent news...

Chalet Whirpool
The Great Hacker Heist  
A short story by Claude Nougat
“When I woke up, everything in the house was stolen!” The woman sobbed. “Everything!” she wailed. The lines around her mouth and on her forehead were so deep that her face looked like a Greek mask of grief. The husband didn’t seem to share in her pain. He just kept patting her hand, like a father might do to calm an excitable daughter, and murmuring “my poor darling…”
The policeman squared his shoulders and settled his beer belly in the armchair, reflecting that he was facing a bizarre trio: a hysterical middle-aged wife, a much older, apparently unruffled husband, and a third rather enigmatic person, a young lawyer with close cropped hair and a know-it-all smile. So far the lawyer hadn’t said a word, beyond introducing himself and his clients.
 “Ma’am, I need to understand what happened…” said the policeman, his hand raised towards the computer’s touch screen. The morning sunshine hit his eyes, and he got up to pull the curtains.
The woman complied, without waiting for the policeman to return to his computer. “They took everything!” she said, her tinny voice rising to a crescendo. “My paintings, my carpets, my new white leather sofa. A beautiful sofa, top of the line, it cost me a bomb! And the newly installed aquarium. I hadn’t even had time to buy fish for it. And the billiards table that doubles as a dining table when covered up. All gone in one night.  I tell you, they took everything!”
“You mean the whole house was empty?” said the policeman, sitting down. He tapped the screen of  the computer and with a graceful wave of the hand, he called up the standard form for depositions.
The woman nodded, wiping her tears. “Empty. All seven rooms of the house: totally empty. They didn’t leave one piece of furniture behind. Just the dog. My poor Muffy. He was there, all alone, walking around in the empty rooms. He was moaning, his eyes drooped, his ears too, he looked so sad…” And she started crying again.
            The policeman sighed. He hated it when women cried like this. It made it so difficult to take their deposition down. “Was the dog hurt?” he asked.
“No…no, I don’t think so.”
“And he didn’t bark in the night?”
“No. He never barks at strangers.”
“Why not?”
“I’ve trained him not to!” said the woman with pride.
“Maybe you shouldn’t have,” grumbled the policeman. People were really stupid. If it didn’t bark, why did they keep a dog for? “Look, Lady, let’s start from the beginning,” he said. “Let’s go at it, one step at a time. Let me ask you. When, to the best of you knowledge, did this theft happen?”
“Last night.”
“Ok, last night, that means Thursday October 12, 2020." He tapped the date on the screen. "But let’s try to pinpoint the time. When did you go to bed?”
“I didn’t look but I usually go late, after my husband. At what time did you go to bed, darling?” she asked, turning to her husband.
“Oh, I was tired and I went around ten, as usual,” he said. The policeman wondered why he looked so grim.  “But darling, you never come up with me,” he added, looking yet more sombre, almost accusing. “You always stay all evening in front of your computer!”
“No, I don’t!”
“Yes, you do. You must have come up around midnight,” he replied. “That’s what you usually do. But I didn’t hear you. Who knows. You might have come in even later than that.”
“Yes, Officer,  he’s right, my husband’s right. I have to admit it: I’m a computer addict!” she said, with a winning smile, perhaps designed to assuage her husband’s bad mood. “I…I don’t know at what time I went to bed.”
“Right. Okay. Let’s put in 12 pm,” said the policeman, entering the time with a tap on the screen. “Did you notice anything strange, out of the ordinary?”
“Nothing.” Her bright blue eyes looked straight at the policeman and he was certain she was telling the truth. Then he noticed yet another tear pearling in the corner of her eye and he hurried on with his questions. “Did you hear anything, any strange noises? Anything woke you up?” he asked.
She shook her head and brought out some paper tissue to dab at her eyes.
“You mean they carried out all that damn furniture out and you heard nothing?” he said, perplexed. Amazing how soundly people manage to sleep. His own sleep was very light – at his age, he was near retirement, he had this problem with peeing. Nobody could ever have emptied his house during the night without him noticing it.
She shook her head again and dabbed at her eyes some more. With all that dabbing, her eyes were becoming very red.
“I can’t believe it! A billiards table and a sofa, these are big, heavy things!”
“ I know,” she sighed. “And they even took my new Jacuzzi whirlpool! And the bathroom mirrors! I spent more on that bathroom than on anything else in the house!”
“They walked off with a Jacuzzi? You don’t say!” The policeman stared at her, and at the husband and their accompanying lawyer. This really was most unusual. Fun even. He’d heard of a lot of house robberies in his time, but never one which involved  unscrewing and unplugging a Jacuzzi. What with all the pipes and the electricity to cut off and the tub to carry through the door. And a whirlpool Jacuzzi had to be a damn big tub. Phenomenal. “I’ve never heard of such a heist. These were true professionals!” he exclaimed, and a hint of admiration could be detected in his voice. “How could you have heard nothing at all?”
            She shook her head once more but all of a sudden she looked guilty. Ah, thought the policeman, here we come. Here’s the explanation.
 “I did make a mistake”, she said. “I left my computer on.”
“Your computer was on?” The policeman looked at her aghast. What did that have to do with anything? Yet both her husband and the lawyer were shaking their heads knowingly. As if the computer was the thing that explained it all. That was weird.
“Yes,” she said. “It was on. I forgot to turn it off. I never forget, but last night I forgot. My fault.”
“Ma’am, I wouldn’t worry so much about it. I sometimes forget to turn off this office computer at night, and it’s still running in the morning when I come back. And nothing’s happened.”
“Lucky you!” she said, and started to cry some more.
“But Ma’am, there’s something I don’t understand. If they took everything away, how come they didn’t take your computer?”
“Of course they didn’t. That would have been impossible.”
“Impossible? What do you mean?” roared the policeman. These guys were pulling his leg and he had enough of it.
“Officer, please, let me explain,” said the lawyer. He had a soothing manner and it took all his diplomacy and tact to calm the policeman. “Mrs. Johnson is a member of DHC, the Dream House Community, a game on Facebook…”
“Dream House? Never heard of it,” grumbled the policeman.
“Naturally you’ve heard of Facebook, haven’t you?” said the lawyer, and seeing him nod, he continued. “There is a group on Facebook that plays at building their dream house. A big group actually, some fifty million people across the world. They put their dream house up with the help of virtual architects and interior designers. They plan it so that their dream house is perfect, with everything they love and dream of having, including pets. Some have cats, others have dogs, or even cheetahs, pumas and baby tigers. Nice, since they’re virtual, they don’t eat you up or mess your house.”
“Naturally,” said the policeman, who hated to look stupid or uninformed.
 “And all the furniture people need for their dream house is acquired in virtual shops,” said the lawyer, not noticing the interruption. “All the knick knacks, paintings, sculptures, curtains, rugs, everything. And some of that antique or contemporary art can be quite expensive. Because Dream House Community members have to pay for it.”
“Not quite” said Mrs. Johnson. “One does make money when friends come and visit the house. They have to pay an entrance fee. Quite a few people visited mine,” she added proudly. “But I never earned enough. In the end, I had to put in my own money. I spent two hundred dollars to furnish my dream house! I want that money back!”
            The policeman looked confused. “So you have come for a two hundred dollar theft?”
“Either the money or you find my furniture!” said Mrs. Johnson.
“Find virtual furniture?” said the policeman, hesitant. His hand tapped nervously on the computer’s screen. Noticing that it caused the screen to waver and blur, he took it quickly away. He couldn’t think of any deposition form that would fit that kind of robbery. Good thing he was retiring next year – this was fast becoming an impossible job.
“Officer, it’s quite simple,” said the lawyer. “A hacker got into my client’s computer – somehow broke down the access code and password – and took away all the furnishings from her dream house.”
“Not a password,” said Mrs. Johnson. “It’s just an access code from my computer.”
“Yes, but the point is this: the hacker got into your computer and damaged your dream house,” said the lawyer. Then, turning to the policeman, he added: “I wanted you to observe how upset my client is. That is why I let her talk to you and explain what happened from her point of view. Because this is more than a simple robbery. You can appreciate, I’m sure, how profoundly hurt she is. This is emotional damage and we are going to sue the electronics game company that is responsible for the Dream House Community.”
“I don’t want to know anything about that or hear what you plan to do!” said the policeman. “I shall limit myself to taking down Mrs. Johnson’s deposition.”
“Thank you, Officer, that is all we ask for!” said the lawyer. “A simple deposition. Then we will ask for the ITA, the International Telecommunications Authority, to launch a full investigation into the matter!”
            Mrs. Johnson nodded, smiling on this bright young man, a friend of her daughter’s. Without him, she would never have known how to navigate her way through the legal maze of Internet.
*                *                 *
            Three months later, the clever young lawyer called on Mrs Johnson to give her the results of the investigation. She invited him in for a cup of tea. She was alone as her husband was out on a Google consultancy in China, and not due home before another week.
“Have they found my furniture? And the Jacuzzi?” she said, an eager look on her face. It occurred to the lawyer that she had the round face of  a baby, a grown-up one, with few wrinkles unless she smiled too broadly or cried. Everything was round about her: arms, tummy, legs, ankles. Her curly, blond hair and china blue eyes added to the childish look. Now she smiled at him, and the lines were deep around her mouth.
“I’m sorry. I’ve got bad news for you,” he said.
“Bad news? Oh, my God!” The lines around her mouth pointed downwards.
“Yes, all the furnishings were deleted.”
“Oh my God!” She put her hand in front of her mouth and the lawyer was grateful for that: at least, it hid some of those deep-set lines. “You mean nothing was found? Nothing at all? Not one small mirror?”
“And the electronics game company…Will they pay me back?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Why not? That’s unfair. They should pay! They should make a more secure game, one that cannot be broken into! That’s their responsibility!”
“Your dream house was not broken into. They were able to verify that!”
“Not broken into!What do you mean?”
“The house furnishings were deleted from your own computer. No one broke into your access code.”
“You mean they think I did it myself? That’s nonsense. That’s impossible!”
On cue, and just as the lawyer feared, she started to cry. She spilled half her tea cup on the floor but didn’t notice it. “But the hacker…Do they know who the hacker was?” she said. “The vile person who did that to me?”
            The lawyer shook his head.
“You mean they don’t know who did it?”
“I’m afraid not,” mumbled the lawyer.
“They can’t find him? How is that possible? What kind of rotten investigation was this? What’s this world coming to!” And she wailed, dropping the rest of the tea onto the floor.
            The lawyer remained silent, drinking his tea without spilling a single drop. How could he tell her that the investigators had become convinced that only one person could have done it : her own husband. He had the opportunity – the computer had been left running –  and the motive.  He could sympathize with the old man. Poor guy, seeing his wife, night after night, stuck in front of the computer, wandering around and around in her dream house, instead of coming to bed with him…

Do you like it? Can you guess where I got the idea from?No, not from the article below but I attached it all the same: it's a great compilation of memorable heists!
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Haiti vs. Pakistan: 10 to 1, Haiti Wins in the First Round of Humanitarian Aid

The coat of arms of Pakistan displays the nati...Coat of arms of Haiti
Imagine humanitarian aid as a soccer game. Then, Haiti would beat Pakistan in a BIG way. Really. Pakistan comes out as the loser on every count, both in absolute and relative  terms.

In Haiti, there are a little over one million victims, and ten times as many in Pakistan. Yet the flow of aid going to the latter is NOT ten times as much. On the contrary. It is  ONE TENTH!
Yes, you read that right: the score is 10 to 1.

Why? Has the world a special love for Haiti and a special hatred for Pakistan? Not at all. It's all a matter of politics. Pakistan has suffered from an explosive mix of distrust, corruption, ignorance and indifference.

Let me count the ways.

First, Pakistan is just not as good a story as Haiti. It's in the wrong part of the world, far away in Asia rather than on the back door of the United States and Canada. The religion is different (Moslem, not Christian). The language is incomprehensible (Haiti's form of French is a little bizarre but it has charm). I hear you: you're going to say that the Tsunami also hit Asia, with lots of Moslems and people who spoke incomprehensible languages. True enough. But at the time, there was no similar and previous disasters elsewhere. The Tsunami catastrophy stood on its own.

Second: Pakistan was hit after Haiti. They were some six months apart and by the time floods devastated Pakistan, the international community was suffering from aid fatigue. That's an ugly disease, but understandable. Donors, both public and private, had just emptied their pockets and now they had to reach down for the dough again. Too much!

Third point: donating is particularly difficult in these times of Great Recession.  Back when the Tsunami hit in 2004, we were all feeling rich. At the time, no Government talked about budget deficits and austerity measures (with the exception of Japan that was already suffering from deflation). When the earthquake hit Haiti, the Great Recession was in full swing but Governments were still talking about stimulus packages and not worrying about deficits. Unfortunately, by the time Pakistan needed help this summer, all the talk was about deficits and looking for ways to cut back on expenses. Dark clouds had gathered on the economic horizon, and they were not about to blow away. Result? Aid for Pakistan is not at the top of anybody's agenda. The EU is an exception and has offered aid, but it hasn't been followed by European governments.

Four:  donors are hesitant about Pakistan because of local politics. Ok, neither Pakistan nor Haiti are paragons of democratic virtue. Indeed, in this respect, Haiti and Pakistan are in an odd race to outdo each other: it is hard to decide which is worse, which suffers more from corruption, illegality and blatant cases of injustice. But Pakistan's brand of corruption meshes with the Afghan/Taliban/War-on-Terror mess.

The conclusion?  Pakistan is left behind. And the latest news - the US will provide 2 billion dollars in military aid - is just adding insult to the injury suffered by the flood victims. Yes, because with all that money going to the military, it isn't very likely, is it, that something will be left for them...In the meantime, the absence of international donors opens the door to militants from Islam, who have rushed in with a lot of fanfare, to help their brothers. Lately we haven't heard much from them, and I wonder where they are and whether they are still helping out. Does anybody know?

Is Haiti better off? Hardly. With all the funds supposedly flowing to Haiti over the past 9 months, the involved "authorities" both in Haiti (the government) and abroad (the donors) have been discussing endlessly how to spend them. Precious little has been done on the ground. The rubble is still overflowing in the streets, and just one group of entrepreneurs with a few machines has started to work to remove them. Major cleanup and rebuilding is only expected to start...NEXT year!  Most of the victims are still living in refugee camps and makeshift tents. And now cholera has descended on them. Some 1500 persons are already sick and 135 dead. Of course, the same fate threatens refugees in Pakistan...but will we hear about them? 

This is a dreadful second round in the humanitarian aid going - or rather not going - to both countries...The way things are set now, my guess is that the score Haiti vs Pakistan, will be  0-0...     

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What's the matter with France? A small tweak to the retirement age has sent them crazy...

Burning car in StrasbourgCar burning in France notfrancois via Flickr
President Sarkozy tried to add just two years to the retirement age limit - raising it from 60 to 62 - and the French have gone beserk!

Compared to the rest of the world, the limit in France is already quite low: in  most countries (Italy excepted, of course - but Italy in many respects is just like France, its latin sister), people work until they are 65, and in many places, for example the UK, people are happy working well into their seventies.  Retirement age varies from country to country, but the basic idea is to retire people if (a) their work is too dangerous (for example, the military),  (b) it requires unimpaired physical capicities (airline pilots), or (c) it is physically too demanding (miners).

All of this implies that work conditions and a person's health and capacity for it should be reviewed before deciding on retirement. That would be the only fair and logical approach. Instead of establishing measures to allow for an ad hoc retirement age, Governments tend to pass blanket legislations calling for an equal retirement age for everybody in every kind of work. Ridiculous!

Yet, that's not what people object to. No, they focus on the age limit and nothing else. And, generally speaking, they don't want any reform. Naturally, this is true of public opinion anywhere in the world: it is always very, very conservative: no changes! DO NOT TOUCH! That's the rallying slogan.

In the case of France, this attitude has been carried to an extreme. It's hard to believe that the country which has invented Cartesianism and rationalism can suddenly throw all reason to the wind. They look quite simply absurd. They've closed down a dozen refineries and threaten a massive stop to transportation, with no planes landing or leaving France, no trains, and French truckers blocking the highways. Lycée kids, some 500,000 of them, have been running in the streets and burning cars, all in the name of defending a retirement age that should be of no concern to them. Worse, if they stopped to think about it (but they don't), keeping the status quo would mean only one thing: by the time they retire forty years from now, the State coffers will be empty and no one will get a pension at age 60, 62 or perhaps even any age at all. I watched an interview on French television of one of those kids - a pretty 15 year-old - who declared in anxious tones that if the retirement limit was raised, there would be no job openings for them by the time they'd be looking to work. That kind of reasoning is appalling! As if the job market was a pie of a set, immovable size and you had to wait for people to retire in order to move in...

It is very clear that to save pension funds from financial collapse, some serious reforms will have to be carried out, including raising the age limit. Sarkozy's proposal of raising it by 2 years was just a first, small and necessary step in the right direction. Many more steps are sure to come, particularly as the general population is aging, and there will be fewer working people with respect to the numbers that have retired. After all, life expectancy has been rising, we all live longer on average and working two more years shouldn't be so hard.

Some people have argued that this issue has simply been latched on by the Left as a way to regain power. It is true that the Left in France has very few ideas and even fewer politicians worth their salt. The two leading women (Martine Aubry and Ségolène Royal) are at odds with each other, not to mention the fact that they have no ideological platform of any kind. Perhaps the only French politician of any stature on the left is Dominique Strauss Kahn, but he is busy at the helm of the IMF. However, to pick the retirement age as a banner issue takes the cake!  It proves that the Left has lost its rudder and has literally no new ideas to offer.
But is it a smart move? It probably is. Playing on the lower instincts of the population - the fact that it is uninformed, scared and deeply suspicious of change and novelty - will pay dividends and that's what the French Left (and the trade unions) are doing. The Senate vote this week (or next) - following on the lower chamber approval - will be the last step in approving the change. In all likelihood, since Sarkozy has a majority there, they will support the proposal.

Is that going to be a defeat for the Left? Probably not. Le Parisien has made a survey that is much talked about in France and has been reported by Alan Cowell in the New York Times. It would seem that strikers are gaining ground, and their position was approved by 71 percent of those interviewed. It was a small sample survey (some 2000 people interviewed) but everyone latched on to the magic numbers: "seven Frenchman out of 10 support us!", claimed Martine Aubry with undisguised glee on television. Indeed. But it's a fact that all political commentators expect Sarkozy to further lose popularity.

Maybe he will. Maybe not. But what worries me is what is left unsaid in this situation: how can public opinion - obviously manipulated by some ambitious politicians and die-hard trade unionists - pretend to determine the outcome of what is only the normal working of democracy. A duly elected parliament discusses the retirement issue and then it proceeds to vote on it. That's it. That's how democracy should work, and all the screaming and burning in the streets should have nothing to do with it.

What we are looking at in France is not a democracy at work, but a...MOB-CRACY, if I may be permitted the term.Or perhaps mobocracy? It sounds better. In a mobocracy, people who dissent don't wait for the next elections to roll around. They march in the street and blow up the place.

How would you like to live in a mobocracy? 

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