Category Archives: Uncategorized

A Fate Worse Than Death

Greetings Friends,                                                        August 4, 2013

The front page of last Friday’s New York Times bears an article under the heading. “U. S. Is Infuriated by Decision on Leaker.” This regards Russia’s decision to let Edward Snowden stay there for one year.

A moment’s consideration about where Snowden has found “refuge” might show that this fury on the part of our officials is misplaced.

Snowden is in Moscow, a city that Scottish writer Daniel Kalder, who lived in Russia ten years, described as, “The most soul-crushing city on earth.” Moscow is such a miserable place that the primary reason the Czars and the Soviets sent their enemies to Siberia is that its the only place in their country more dismal than Moscow itself.

Russia is basically a third-world country, without the amenities those countries usually have, such as balmy climate, spicy food, and spicy women. It is a petro-state, which renders its economy a one-trick pony, and though it has a huge land mass and is awash in resources, its GDP is little more than a tenth of ours.

Russians yearn for the glory days, when they were considered a super-power, but that glory was an illusion. While here in America, for decades, we dug air-raid shelters, fearing Armageddon, our fear was produced by our own CIA’s gross exaggeration of the Soviet nuclear threat, and it was later revealed that the USSR was the geo-political equivalent of The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.

These days, to assert itself on the world stage, Russia must resort to stunts such as harboring Snowden, an act whose single purpose was to tweak Uncle Sam’s nose.

Since its origins in the fifteenth century under Ivan the Great, to the present rule of Vlad the Putin, Russia’s primary legacy to humankind has been six hundred years of misery.  

Oh sure, it has produced great music and literature. Leo Tolstoy, in his novel The Death of Ivan Ilych, takes less that 100 pages to lay bare the principle vanities of the human soul, and at the end, shows clearly the single remedy available to us as balm for our weaknesses.

And Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s novel Cancer Ward is a profoundly moving, though deeply depressing book, but when old Al was kicked out of the Soviet Union and welcomed to live here in America, he never hesitated to denounce us as rank materialists, proving that Russians are not only morbid, but ingrates as well.

This is the world in which Edward Snowden finds himself.

If you support what Snowden did, you must sympathize with his fate. But if you are a civilian who considers him a traitor, a staffer at the NSA whose naughty behavior he has revealed, or a CIA ghoul lusting to clamp your electrodes onto Snowden’s private parts, you should be dancing with glee.

Frankly, if the writer of this blog were forced to choose between a bullet in the head, or living out his days in Russia… he’d have to think it over.

Das Vidanya, Comrades,

Bruce

Sources;

On the USSR’s nuclear threat,The Public Record, Sept 14, 2009.

Daniel Kalder, Lost Cosmonaut

New York Times, Aug 2, 2013

Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich

On Russia’s GDP and economy; NYTIMES.com

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

On the Fragility of Caca del Toro

     “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were

striking thirteen

      How’s that for an opening line? So begins one of the most prescient novels of the 20th century, George Orwell’s 1984. Published in 1949, this book recently rose to #12 on the Amazon best seller list, in direct response to the recent disclosure that our Dear Uncle Sam is a voracious voyeur.

       Orwell didn’t intend this book to be dystopian. He simply wanted to predict what the world could be like if the trends that existed at the time were carried to their possible conclusions.

     The main character in the book, Winston Smith, rebels against the constant propaganda dealt out by Big Brother. This daily infusion of News-speak keeps the population docile and obedient, because they believe Big Brother is their only source of security in an atmosphere of constant external threat.

     Two contemporary and controversial non-fiction writers have written books with warnings no less dire, but their tone is much more optimstic.

     The first is Jaron Lanier. a Silicon Valley pioneer and originator of the term “Virtual Reality.” His two books, You Are Not A Gadget, and Who Owns the Future read a bit like what you’d expect Dr, Frankenstein to write after he discovered that his monster had escaped the castle and was wreaking havoc in the village.

     Though Lanier firmly believes that the Web is a great thing, he decries the direction its evolution is taking. His main concern is the developent of the “Hive Mind”, a vast anonymous organism that generates a powerful pack mentality. Eventually the individual contributors become subservient to the hive, mere drones whose sole reasons for existence is its survival. This leads to the loss of the individual dignity and humanity of the participants.

     Lanier says, “Online culture is filled to the brim about what the true path to a better world might be, and these days it is strongly biased toward an anti-human way of thinking.” He opposes the idealistic vision of the net as a benevolent organism. This makes  sense when you consider that we humans are highly susceptible to “groupthink” (A term evolved from Orwell’s “doublethink” in 1984) which we readily accept out of a desire for safety.

     In “Who Owns the Future”, Lanier says the the temptations of supposedly free stuff from the web have lured us into a bad trade. Every time we use the web, we surrender infomation about ourselves. “Dossiers on private lives collected over digital networks are packaged into a new form of elite money. Few people realize the degree to which they are being spied upon” (p108)

     He warns that we are now altering our lives to conform to the needs of technology. Our tools are slowly becoming our masters. But Jaron Lanier is nothing if not an optimist. He’s sure we’ll eventually realize the high price our tools are exacting, and regain control.

     Another controversial writer is Nassim Taleb, a guy who manages to piss off almost everybody, including the people who agree with him. He’s a Lebanese-American theorist and former options trader who loudly predicted the collapse of the financial system, was scorned for it, then hated for his accuracy. When the collapse came, he made a fortune shorting bank stocks, tossed his necktie in a Manhattan trash can, and retired to his study to theorize.

     Now that’s what I call a sweet revenge!

     His latest book, Antifragile, is as controversial as his previous best seller, The Black Swan. He invented the term “Antifragile” to describe organisms or systems that thrive on stress and chaos. He says humans are antifragile. We’re built for struggle, and if we don’t get it, we weaken.

     Problem is, struggle and strife are laborious and dangerous, and nobody dislikes them more than Taleb. But in our efforts to obtain our security, we are doing things that put us, ultimately, at greater risk.

     As explanation, he raises three major points.

     First, he says that we humans do not live our lives according to facts. We live according to “Narratives”, stories we inherit from our background and that are reinforced by our culture. This works okay, as long as there is some correlation between our narrative and the facts. But the world is a random place, and the facts are always changing. An example of a current narrative that caused many of us grief would be, “Housing prices never collapse.”

     His second point is, that in order to deal with the chaos of life, and ensure the relevance of our chosen narratives, we develop elaborate control systems and attach them to almost every aspect of life. These systems are supposed to insure our safety, but they are becoming so entertwined, complex, and massive in scale that nobody really understands them, and a small breakdown in any element of the system produces a major collapse. To relieve this, we create ever more complicated controls, making these systems even more fragile. To Taleb, small and uncomplicated is beautiful.

      His final point is that these systems are operated by people who have no “skin in the game”, meaning, no matter what the outcome, they don’t have to pay for their mistakes. Some examples are the financiers who orchestrated the economic collapse of ’08, most of whom ended up even richer, though their actions cost the rest of us a lot of money. Another example is the men in gray suits who instigated the Iraq war. They’re all ensconced in cozy retirements, while the rest of us will be paying for that war for generations.

     Taleb doesn’t use any Orwellian terms to describe the nonsense told to us by economists, politicians or academics. He lumps it all into one concise term, “BULLSHIT”, and he refers to all the above as bullshit slingers. This has made him a lot of enemies, forcing him to take up a rigorous program of weightlifting, to better fend off the  people he insults, since he has no compunction about delivering these insults face to face, in public.  

     But Taleb is also an optimist. He believes that of all the elements in the universe, the one thing that is most fragile, that is always doomed to colapse upon itself, is BULLSHIT.

     At the conclusion of Orwell’s book, poor Winston Smith gives in to the unrelenting pressure of Big Brother. He betrays his beloved, who also betrays him. He has insured his safety, but that safety has cost him his humanity. The final sentence reads, “He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”

     Orwell didn’t get to see the collapse of the Soviet Union. If he had, he might have been as optimistic as Lanier and Taleb. But even so, it’s not hard to imagine him wagging a finger at us, saying “Pay attention! Do not swallow uncritically the daily ration of bullshit fed to you by the powers that be, no matter what side they are on.”

      For those of us with our skins in the game, this vigilant skepticism may be the only way to avoid the coming of that day when, engrossed in our glowing computer screens, we fail to notice that the clocks are striking thirteen.

See ya,

Bruce

Sources: Annalisa Quinn, Booklinks, NPR, 6/11/13

You Are Not A Gadget, Jaron Lanier, Alfred A Knopf, 2010

Who owns the Future?, Jaron Lanier, Alfred A. Knopf, 2013

Antifragile. Hassim Nicholas Taleb, Random House, 2012

1984, George Orwell, Harcourt Inc, 1949

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Love and Money

Greetings friends,

Most people remember George Orwell for his two famous books, Animal Farm and 1984. Long before he wrote these, he wrote a humorous novel, “Keep the Aspidistra Flying”, about an idealistic young poet who despises money, honors only love, and vows to live a life of poverty.

To set the tone of the story, Orwell opens with an altered version from 1 Corintians, x11. which reads as follows; (italics mine)

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not money,  I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not money, I am nothing.  And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not money, it profiteth me nothing. Money suffers long, and is kind; money envieth not; money vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave unseemly, seeketh not her own, and is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things … And now abideth faith, hope, money, these three: but the greatest of these is money.

Of course, by the end of the book, the young poet changes his mind about money because … he falls in love. And he learns that, though love may be grand, it truly sucks if you can’t even buy your beloved a beer.

A retired psychiatrist told me that his years of listening to his patients taught him that the two most important things in life were love and money. I asked him which of the two he thought was most important. He answered, without hesitation, money.

The topic of which is most important is a subject for endless debate. Even those fonts of modern wisdom, the Beatles, were ambivialent on the subject, singing both,

                                        “All you need is Love,”

                                                        and,

                                “Your lovin’ gives me a thrill,

                                  But your lovin’ don’t pay my bills,

                                  Give me money.”

So, if you were given the choice between being bathed in the bliss of love, or filthy rich, which would you pick?

If you have to take time to think it over, remember that even the Bible straddes the fence on this subject.  For even though the unaltered version of Corithians tell us that “the greatest of these is love,” if we go to Ecclesiastes, Chapter 10:19, we are told

“A feast is made for laughter, and wine maketh merry, but money answereth all things”

I’ll drink to that!

See ya,

Bruce

Sources; George Orwell “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” Victor Gollancz Pub. 1936

Dr. Ronald Hull M. D.

Holy Bible, King James version

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Famous Tax Protest

Greetings, friends.

Since tax time is here, I thought it might be interesting to review one of the most famous tax protests in the history of the southwest.

Ettore “Ted” DeGrazia (1909-1982) was a famous artist whose works have been reproduced as prints, greeting cards, figurines, and dinner plates. In 1960, his painting “Los Ninos” (the Children) was chosen as a UNICEF greeting card. The card sold millions nationwide. After this, the value of DeGrazia’s work soared.

As a result, the I R S assesed his works at what they assumed to be their market value. DeGrazia accused the tax people of making him a millionaire on paper.  This would leave his heirs with huge estate taxes that they would not be able to pay.

To protest, Ted is reported to have taken 100 of his works, valued at 18 million dollars, up into the Superstition Mountains and set fire to them.

That’s definately making a statement!

I have read that there are some who think he may have stashed these paintings,  and staged a mock burning.  Since many of his paintings are still for sale at the expansive gallery he built in the foothills of the Catalina mountains overlooking Tucson, I like to think this rumor is true.

On another note, The Arizona Daily Star reported on April 5th that the U of A law school is reducing tuition by 11% for in-state and 8% for non-resident students, in response to a 36% decrease in law school applicants since 2005.

This drops the cost to $27,288 for in-state and $42, 298 for out-of- state students. Such a deal!

The article states that one factor in decreasing enrollment is reduced job opportunities for lawyers in a slow economy. It also states that several law schools have been sued by their graduates, on the grounds that the schools did not disclose how hard it would be to find work after graduation.

How’s that for gratitude?

But there’s a bright side to this. After all, if you’re an unemployed doctor of of jurisprudence, with school debts of 75 to 130k to pay off, what better thing to do that put yourself to work suing your alma mater?

Now that’s entrepreneurship!

Happy April 15th,

Bruce

Sources; santafetradingpost.com, Arixona Daily Star 4/5/13

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Hello world!

Welcome to my new website and blog, beweber.com.

St. Patrick’s Day has passed, so, with sadness, I took down my Christmas lights.  I was going to wait a couple weeks till after Easter, but I don’t like to procrastinate.

I hope you’ll subscribe to my website. Each week, I’ll have info on interesting books or articles I’ve read, and news about some of the bizarre things that go on out here in the Southwest.

Bye for now,

Bruce

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment