Friday, August 29, 2014

The river, the bike path, the nation, and the dead piano on the beach – an essay about a bad omen

Found on the bank of the East River, in lower Manhattan, at low tide.
The East River isn’t really a river. It’s a natural salt water canal between Long Island and the Island of Manhattan, fed by tidal movements from both its north and south ends. The river sometimes flows north to south, sometimes south to north, and, oddly, sometimes in both directions at once, with the direction of shore currents contradicting currents in the center of the river.

There’s a bicycle path along some of that River in New York. It starts a few blocks away from my home and ends near Battery Park on the southern tip of Manhattan. It’s not much of a ride for serious cyclists – a bit short of ten miles to the end and back  – but that’s enough during the summer, when days are long and warm, for an old fogey like me to burn off some tension at the end of the work day and get my heart re-started before dinner.

When the tide recedes, the river reveals a few feet of sandy beach in lower Manhattan, along with whatever jetsam the tide has dragged in, or passers-by have thrown in. About six weeks ago I noticed something that was out of the ordinary. Sometimes it’s plainly there. Other times, when the tide is very high, it vanishes for a while under the water.

Yeah, that’s it in the picture. A dead piano. Its legs are gone. Some of its keys are gone. Much of its sounding board is gone. Its strings are gone. I’m sure barnacles and sea worms are gnawing at its wooden belly. But part of the sounding board, and just about all of its pins, and its case minus the lid are still there. The only sound coming from the piano these days is the shushing of waves picking their way among the remaining pieces.

I don’t know how the dead piano got there, unless somebody dropped it off the Brooklyn Bridge, which is nearly overhead. Or unless someone threw it off a boat at high tide. Nor do I know what music the piano once played. Did it accompany a symphony orchestra? Did little girls in linen dresses sit in a parlor a century ago, practicing scales on it? Did a dilettante pick out popular tunes of the day on it? Was it a talented jazz musician’s piano? Did it accompany a violinist or a vocalist? Was it used, once upon a time, to play ragtime tunes in a whorehouse?

What’s with the unusual color of the paint on its case? Why were its legs amputated, like a diabetic’s near the end of his life?  And most of all, why would some vandal  want to take a valuable instrument, a thing beautiful to the eye and capable of delighting the ear, and toss it in a river, as if it were a Styrofoam cup or a worn out tire?

Forgive me now while I leap aboard a metaphor. I admit, it’s a complex and perhaps gravely shaky metaphor. It could crash and kill the essay. All the same, I’ll try to ride it. 

We – you, and I, and also greedy business owners, and judges, and lobbyists, and politicians, and public affairs strategists, and inert or brain dead voters, and lazy administrators and terrified employees and civil servants – we are allowing the United States to become a dead piano. 

We had a functioning, prosperous democracy here for a couple of centuries. It had its ups and downs,. It had grave faults. It often played discordant notes. But was also capable of great societal harmony, and  over time its performances were slowly but increasingly in tune with human decency and the pursuit of happiness. 

At home, each generation would do better economically than its predecessors. Each was a generation of pioneers – not only in terms of exploring territory, but in terms of exploring knowledge. Life expectancies were extended. “Impossible” marvels were achieved, from building bridges with foundations in the deep and swiftly-moving rivers of New York, to putting people on the moon. The nation’s educational level rose. Colleges and universities sprouted across the nation. College, for a while, became not an impossible dream but a commonplace achievement for the many. A simple working family, possibly for the first time in history, could live comfortably, eat well, own its own home, and possess a few of the luxuries of life. The nation invented new art forms, from the Broadway musical to the cinema. And I’m only scratching at the surface of American achievement.

True, in  some matters of social justice, most notably racial justice, we lagged seriously. Nevertheless, we eliminated, slavery. We eliminated, at least for a while, Jim Crow laws like those that imposed a poll tax on voters and that segregated accommodations and schools. 

For a while.

And then the vandals began to mass against us. For some reason, they didn’t like the music of a high-achieving Democratic republic. They began changing the tune. 

Prosperity? The vandals decided that the wrong people had it. The most prosperous people could never get enough of wealth – so our nation, in defiance of logic and justice and simple decency, began to give it all to them.

Science? Medicine? The arts? Even critical infrastructure? They cost money. We put a lid on them.

The vandals are on the march. They control the Supreme Court. They control one house of Congress and have rendered the second house inharmonious and nearly dysfunctional. The vandals infest our state capitals. Their mission is not to create but to destroy. Destroy health care. Destroy public education. Destroy justice. Destroy social equity. Destroy the environment. Destroy even the smooth functioning of government. 

The vandals, the barbarians, the thugs are sawing off the legs of the piano. And once the legs are off off, they want to throw the legless body off  the boat or the bridge. And far too many of us either accept this passively, or cheer them on.

How much longer before America itself becomes another dead piano on the beach?                       

Perhaps, if I’m lucky, I won’t live to see it. Things like the condition of America make me glad to be an old man.

Cross-posted at No More Mister Nice Blog

Monday, August 25, 2014

Attention "You can't make this S#*T Up" Department: here's yet another justification for a global excess wealth tax

She's amazingly lifelike. I'm referring to the zombie-ish white-gloved blonde who lovingly and sensuously strokes a sleek coffin while she models what may well be the latest way for a one-percenter to bury wealth where it can do no one any good.

It's a coffin-installed sound system that plays music to moldering corpses six feet underground. It claims to do so "forever." Family and friends can program and re-program the music from the present life, if they choose.

One hopes a mischievous nephew won't program in whatever kind of music the deceased hated. Think of the late Richard Nixon being forced to listen to 24 hours a day of Snoop Dog.

The cost of keeping the dead entertained during their long, long sleep underground? 23,000 Euros, or in excess of $36 thousand American. Per corpse.

Listen, you can buy into life after death, or your can declare it's all a primitively superstitious myth (I know, I know, I'm getting redundant here) but in either case, six feet under is not where your loved one's soul, if there is one, resides.

However, some people will have 36 grand to throw away without so much as noticing it's missing. Other less fortunate marks will really not be able to afford the price, but will buy the contraption anyway, while still in a state of shock or vulnerability over their loss.

The United States was a rich country when we had marginal tax rates in the very, very high double digits for the very, very rich. Today, we tax, starve, oppress and milk the poor to bring the top tax rates down for the wealthy. All so they can have options like this.

If there actually turns out to be a hell, more than a few people will burn in it for this. With or without music.

P.S. Listen, Smartypants, at first, I thought this was a sendup, too. But it's not. Next time you're in Stockholm, you can drop in for a demonstration of this coffin sound system, just to the right of the Hollywood "aperitif" store,  here.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Greed, news networks, getting stiffed, getting screwed, whose ox got, uh, gored – and al that jazeera

Is Al Gore the screw-er or the screw-we?
Don't answer until you read this  post
Infuriating as the events currently occurring in Ferguson, Missouri are, I simply can’t bear to write anything more about them just now. If you’re keeping your eye on the unfolding horror story and you need to sate yourself on commonsense outrage, go here.

Meanwhile, I want to turn my attention to money, greed, Gore, and a news network. 

Despite the likelihood that the contretemps between Al Gore and Al Jazeera may be the most pun-worthy story of the year, I’ll lay off further punning, now that I’ve had my fun with headline of this piece. The story and facts of the dispute between Al G and Al J are fun enough

Seems that Al Gore is suing Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based news network, owned by Arab high oil mucky-mucks. Gore is fighting for money he says Al Jazeera stiffed him and his stockholders for .

See, according to a law suit filed by someone named John Terenzio, a suit since dismissed, Terenzio went to Gore and proposed that he sell Current TV, a news and commentary cable outlet that was owned by a group of investors including Gore.

Gore wouldn’t go for it. He was, said Terenzio, “adamant” that he wouldn’t peddle his pet news station to a bunch of Qataris. 

But then the Qataris (or maybe Terenzio) waved $500 million worth of oil moola  under Gore’s nose and guess what? Yeah, you guessed it.

The transaction closed. Current TV is no more. You can find Al Jazeera, and with it some of current TV’s former inmates, among many of the cable news offerings available in our great nation. But now Gore claims, on behalf of his stockholders of course, that Al Jazeera stiffed his people, including himself, for the escrow money.

That would be after Gore successfully fought off Terenzio, who claimed Gore stiffed him for a kind of finder’s fee for suggesting the deal.

What happens next? What am I, a seer? All I can tell you is that you are entitled to draw morals to this story where you can find them. For example:

  • Beware of big oil sheiks bearing $500 million gifts
  • In America, the stiff-er and the stiff-ee are often the same person. 
  • Middle men who see themselves as Lucky Pierre may get less luckily screwed.
  • People who go to Washington idealistically hoping to make laws will instead sooner or later turn their attention to making money.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The great Missouri police homicide whitewash

I generally loathe the Nancy Graces and Jeanine Pirros of this world – former prosecutors who begin their own one-sided prosecutions on TV, often before any jury has had an opportunity to begin weighing evidence against accused individuals. The Graces and Pirros stir up public sentiments that may not be justified. They poison the atmosphere, thwarting the likelihood of a fair trial – all for the sake of television ratings and their own enrichment and self aggrandizement.
That said, the investigating of the shooting of young Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, is beginning to stink of coverup. 
I’m not yet critical of the refusal of the local police to release the name and picture of the cop who evidently fired more than once at the unarmed young man, killing him while, according to witnesses, his empty hands were raised in the air and he begged the cop not to shoot.
(On the other hand, while the police concern for the well-being of the cop and his family may be justifiable, why doesn’t the same concern apply to all other persons who are arrested or simply declared “persons of interest” with their photographs and names published – before any jury has established their guilt or innocence, and in some cases before police have even enough evidence for an arrest?)
No details released – unless they favor accused cop
What bugs me in the Ferguson case is the growing appearance of a coverup that only begins with the hiding of the accused police officer’s name and likeness. Although the county police have admitted the autopsy shows Brown died “of gunshot wounds” (what a surprise!) they’re not releasing “any further details.”
Well, actually both Ferguson and St. Louis County police have released details. Those would be details prejudicial against the dead shooting victim. 
The cops claim the victim reached into the police car and tried to grab the officer’s gun. Nice trick of you can do that. He’d have to reach deep and low into the car, across the torso of the police officer, find the gun in a holster  by feeling around for it, and yank the pistol out of a holster fastened to the officer’s right hip. 
That unlikely series of events, had they actually happened, could have been thwarted simply by the police officer raising the window on Michael Brown’s arm, or bending back Brown’s fingers – had Brown’s arm actually been in the car.
And even if Brown had reached into the cop car, why did that justify shooting Brown multiple times? Clearly, the gun was in the possession and under the control of the cop. Otherwise he couldn’t have shot Brown.
How many bullets? And why is that a secret?
Among  the further details that would interest me is the question of how many bullets struck Brown. If it was more than one or two, or if the cop emptied his gun into Brown’s body, that would call for some seriously detailed explaining, don’tcha think?
I’d also like to know whether the nature of the wounds indicated that the unnamed cop was close enough to be struggling with Brown, as the cops are claiming (evidently based on the unnamed officer’s say-so) or whether the young man was some distance away where presumably he would have posed little or no threat.
This matters because at least two witnesses, (see here, here, and here) watching the event from at at least two different vantage points, reported that the shooting victim raised his hands and called out, “I don’t have a gun,” a declaration that the civilian witnesses say was  answered with a hail of bullets.
As of nine a.m. this morning, the cops hadn’t even spoken to one of the witnesses, Dorian Johnson, who was with Brown when he was gunned down.  The Huffington Post reports that Johnson’s attorney, a former St. Louis mayor is declaring, “They didn’t even want to talk to him [Johnson]. They don’t want the facts. What they want is to justify what happened.” The cops claim they can’t find Johnson, which is odd considering that he has appeared in television interviews on several media outlets.
A desperate attempt to blame the victim?
As for more details of the autopsy report, such as how many times Brown was shot, cops say the delay is because they are waiting for blood toxicology reports. Why the delay in details not related to toxicology? Well, it smells like – pardon me, stinks like – the cops, desperate to exonerate one of their own, are hoping and praying that somebody will find traces of alcohol or marijuana, or some pharmaceutical in Brown’s blood. And that meanwhile, news attention will turn to something else and the furor will quiet down.
But even if the toxicologist does find evidence that Brown had alcohol in his blood, that finding would not justify shooting Brown to death. All it could do is help besmirch the victim.
I do hope that Brown family will obtain an outside medical examiner to do an independent autopsy. The stench of police and prosecutorial collusion is so thick, and the “blue wall” of silence, appears to be built so high, I’m not sure even the local medical examiner and toxicology lab can be trusted.
I fear this may turn out to be yet another case where a rogue cop, aided and abetted by the entire police establishment, gets away with murder.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Tobacco, packaging, “property rights,” the Underwear Bomber, and the “right” to entice kids to smoke

If you follow the legal reasoning of 
Philip Morris to  its logical conclusion, 
property rights trump all other laws. 
Maybe including murder
Hey, guess what! I’ve just invented a machine for slowly skinning kids alive. Yes yes, of course they eventually get killed by the process. And yes, yes, they feel pain before they die. Even so, nobody can contest that the machine is my intellectual property. Right? 

But I have a problem.

Every time I try to use my intellectual property to skin somebody alive, the government steps in and tries to stop me. The nerve of them! So I’m gonna sue the government. What for? For depriving me of my intellectual property by not allowing me to torture and kill people with it.

Is that completely crazy? 
Not to cigarette companies.

My argument in favor of allowing me to kill kids with my skinning-alive machine appears to be precisely the argument that a tobacco company is are now making to head off laws in various countries that would force them to make packaging changes the company doesn't like.

Turns out, the government of the UK discovered that “plain packaging” – no brand name on the pack, but graphic health warnings instead – reduces the rate at which kids decide to try smoking. And of course, the fewer who try smoking, the fewer who will die of it. O, the horror of it all!

The Philip Morris company is outraged. I mean, I get the feeling they couldn't be in higher dudgeon if you dropped a decaying rat carcass in their soup.

According to a Reuters report,“‘Standardized packaging’ is a euphemism for government-mandated destruction of property,” the tobacco company grumbles. In fact, they’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take in any more. Instead, the company is “prepared to protect its rights in the court and to seek fair compensation for the value of its property.”

If it’s my intellectual property
I have the right to kill you with it

Hey, if Philip Morris wins, I think the same principle of law will allow me to skin people alive, as long as I own the design rights to the machine that does the deed. The new definition of property, as proffered by Philip Morris, would permit inventors and designers not only have the right to their conceptions, but also the right to use them free of government regulation. Any government action to the contrary would be unfair confiscation of property.

Why, if some terrorist were to design a new and unique way to build a bigger, better, and more powerful bomb, the Philip Morris Principle would give him the right to try it out in a crowded stadium.

And of course, the same “legal principle” that Philip Morris espouses can be used to free the Underwear Bomber. I mean, if he and his Al Queda buddies thought it up and patented it, it’s their intellectual property, right?

Thursday, August 07, 2014

A gun that it’s pointless for bad guys to steal from good guys to use on innocent people? Or that keeps toddlers from killing infants? This must be stopped!

Photo stolen from the online pages of the
Worcester County Examiner in Massachusetts, 

which reports the pic is in the public domaine 

From The Washington Post comes news of a new “smart gun” that shoots killer bullets, same as ordinary pistols, but that is all but useless in the hands of anyone who might try to steal one for nefarious purposes. For that matter it’s also nearly harmless in the hands of toddlers who play with a parent’s gun and by accident off a young sibling.

The three year old who fiddles with Dad’s gun and accidentally shoots her little brother? Won’t likely happen with the Armatix iP1, as the new smart weapon is called.

Nor will a dead toddler case like this happen. Or like this one. Or like a whole bunch of cases that seem to occur with alarming regularity in our life-cherishing nation.

The reason? The new Armatix smart gun “can be personalized so it only fires if the gun’s rightful owner is wearing a special watch connected wirelessly to the weapon,” reports the Washington Post.

The gun lobby folks are fuming. Gunsmoke is coming out of their ears. They’re frothing at the mouth like rabid dogs. It’s a wonder their heads don’t explode! The nerve – the unmitigated, unpatriotic, un-American (well, the gun was invented in Germany), and maybe even un-Constitutional nerve of the  furriner who’s peddling that subversive piece of evil.

Little wonder the Gun Nuts of America, or whatever they’re called, organized an enraged boycott of a gun store that dared to offer the weapon for sale.

Little wonder, in fact, that they didn’t converge on the store with pitchforks raised and guns blazing, and blow the place to kingdom come. (Well, since the store backed off and decided to stop selling the gun after all, I guess the gun crazies won’t have to shoot the proprietor and clerks to death this time.)

Also little wonder, the news has resulted in thoughtful, logical, completely balanced expressions of alarm about the gun’s inventor, Eric Mauch and his evil weapon, which was no doubt ejaculated by Satan during perverted sex with a liberal.

“I love Ernst, and his contributions to firearms are incredible,” said Jim Schatz, a gun industry consultant who worked for Mauch at Heckler & Koch. “But he doesn’t understand that the anti-gunners will use this to infringe on a constitutional right. They don’t have a Second Amendment in Germany.”

I mean yeah, I know this thought is getting old already, but while right wing folks want to preserve fetuses in the womb, once they’re born – hell, they should enjoy the God-given right to get blasted into smithereens by their siblings, because The Sacred Right To Bear Arms, and of course, also because Freedom.

Cross-posted at No More Mister Nice Blog

Monday, August 04, 2014

HSBC, crooked doings, and the self-pity of psychopaths

Google “Sociopath + self-pity” and you’ll get in excess of 39,000 hits. It turns out that sociopaths – people who lack empathy for the pain and suffering they inflict on others – are pretty sensitive and self-serving when it comes to pain that others inflict on them.
Which brings us to HSBC, the big international bank.

Reuters this morning reports that HSBC’s chairman, Douglas Flint, is bleating pitifully about the pain he and his fellow bankers at HSBC are currently feeling.

The bank, uh, “warned” “that a growing body of international regulations was putting its staff under unprecedented pressure and discouraging them from taking risks,” according to Reuters. The report goes on to say Flint whines that the poor banking staff is “fearful of retribution.” 

O, the pitiful buggers! This is the same bank that according to another Reuters story, paid a $10 million settlement “ to settle U.S. government charges that it defrauded taxpayers by submitting inflated bills to process residential foreclosures.”

It’s the same bank that a Mexican drug lord – you know, Mexico, where the drug lords decapitate people they don’t approve of and leave headless bodies in the street? – a Mexican drug lord endorses HSBC as “the place to launder money.”

In fact, it’s the same bank that pisses off its own shareholders (Disclosure: I'm one of those shareholders) by paying fat bonuses for failure that costs the shareholders money. “More than a fifth of HSBC's shareholders opposed the bank's pay policy on Friday in the latest show of anger that banks have not reined in bonuses enough in the wake of the financial crisis,” Reuters reported back in May.

And the bankers are now outraged that government regulation is making them fearful? They ought to be grateful – grateful that they’re not doing time.

Cross-posted at No More Mister Nice Blog