Wednesday, December 17, 2014

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Thursday, October 2, 2014

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Monday, July 14, 2014

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Invitation to connect on LinkedIn

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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Second Thoughts on "Free Enterprise"

After thinking about Nick Hanauer's TED presentation the last few days I went back to some of my older blog posts. The following was first posted in October of 2009 and looks at the realities (good and bad) of globalization. 

Here are the main points; you can read the whole thing to get more nuance:

  1. What we call globalization is just the labor market on a larger scale -- and if we don't share the jobs, somebody's going to take them by force.
  2. Successful entrepreneurs leverage a system that rewards them for driving prices down by subsidizing the cost of the goods and services they sell to us -- McDonalds is able to sell cheap burgers because of farm and tax and transportation (etc.) subsidies. 
  3. Perhaps inevitably, businesses that have achieved success will do whatever is necessary to guarantee future success -- including taking advantage of subsidies and cheap labor and regulations that protect the stays quo. Capitalism is fundamentally hegemonic/monopolistic, but now on a global rather than market scale.
  4. Labor -- the human beings who do the work -- are a fungible commodity. Workers are on the books as a liability, not an asset. Productivity gains go to shareholders, not stakeholders.
  5. This is not up for argument. It's already the received wisdom by the global financial/political elites. But there is still a "What's next?" question to be answered.

Entering the Summer of 2012, our eyes are on Greece and Spain in Europe, but the of capitalism may also be found in places like Bangladesh or Singapore or, god forbid, Somalia.

The piece was meant to be provocative, somewhere outside the dialog at the time. I'm pleased (or saddened) to find it still current. Let me know if you think we've learned something.


Among the inescapable lessons drawn (by me) from the current economic tsunami are:
  •  Globalization is absolutely necessary: if we want to keep every ambitious or desperate third-worlder from coming to where the jobs are (here), we have to send at least some of the jobs to where they are. 
  • Globalization means that the American working middle class is history: it was their jobs that got sent wherever.

This is not happenstance. There is a key human, behavioral imperative in operation. It is a trait, an instinct perhaps, which has allowed us to compete so successfully with the other species in our environment. We (you and me) would not be here without it. And it could easily be  the imperative that cause the collapse of our global society.

In virtually every human culture we know about, humans demonstrate competitive behaviors, played out in the acquisition of money and/or power. Not every individual is driven by this, certainly, but most cultures reward that minority of individuals who are the most competitive personalities large amounts of control over everyone else. You can argue that ethnic and political cultures gained strength to the degree that they formalized the ascent to power (to prevent endless battles) and balanced the interests of the power elite (who may be less competitive than their founders) with the interests of the plebes (some of whom may be more).

If that balance is lost, the natural urge to dominate is by definition more unbridled, even manic.  The American economy has gone through several cycles of this excited, almost pathological activity in its history. We have been shrugging it off as a necessary aspect of an efficient free market. Sounds good. But the definition of "free" is what is at the center of this.

It was a blog posted by Robert Singer on that got me thinking about what free market really means (at least in this version of capitalist democracy) with the statement:
"You don’t eat the hamburger at McDonalds because it’s a dollar: It’s a dollar to get you to eat it."
 Singer's point is that Ray Croc could sell a hamburger cheap because the grain (which made the bun and fed the cattle ground into the patty) was subsidized -- farmers could sell it for less than it cost to grow. That was because somebody -- taxpayers -- paid them a subsidy that made up the difference.

Now, Ray Kroc could have sold the burger for a higher price and have gotten rich that way. But the genius of Ray Kroc is that the burger he sold bought him both your dollar and a powerful piece of the market. This was about Ray versus everybody else slingin' burgers. Which was mostly diners and cafes run by moms and pops and small entrepreneurs -- gone. The dollars he got from us let him buy a lot of real estate  -- the asset value of McDonalds is primarily in the land the stores sit on, not the number of burgers served. The burgers pay the mortgage. Or perhaps we all do.

Singer sees this an example of the "downward manipulation of prices," a deliberate strategy supported by the Federal Reserve and big finance from its inception:
"Butler’s investigation has identified JP Morgan Chase, one of the founding members of the Federal Reserve, as the prime suspect, in the “ongoing intentional, not accidental” great crime of keeping the price of commodities low so the middle class can afford the American dream, a nightmare for the planet."
It's the same strategy employed by Standard Oil (and all its offspring) and the agribus monoliths, in terms of domestic policy and building reliance on chemical fertilizers and engineered seed. And it's the same strategy, but now leveraging global IMF inequities, that WalMart employs to use low-paid, off-shore labor to supply the goods that will purchase our domestic dollars.  A subsidy here, a controlled wage there, every little wrinkle lets me buy more customers.

But for now, we should know that every piece of food, virtually every consumer item, is paid for in unseen ways -- by manipulated commodity pricing, and by the use of virtual slave labor to work our farms and factories.

The lesson: if you want to win, you've got to own the market, and one way to do that is to decouple everything from value, make it only about price. It's anything but a "free market," unless you mean that by becoming the dominant player you are now free of pesky rivals, other than those that play by your rules. And the players are now global, concentrating huge capital wealth among a tiny fraction of the world's population. Local communities, national societies and cultural ties mean virtually nothing to them. If you buy the competitive thing, at that level it may only be about dueling with the other big players, mano a mano.

Along the way, in our particular culture, we have undervalued skill and knowledge, and have created a glutted workforce that will take slave wages rather than no work at all. And Wall Street continues to reward those companies that add to the unemployment role, because workers are simply costs, and costs must always be cut.

There was a time when slash-and-burn agriculture was probably key to human survival. It provided sunlight for earth that was rich with the ash of the burned plants. But after a year or two the fertilizer was consumed. It took decades for the biomass on that patch to build to the same level of nutrients. Not a big problem in a big forest with few people.

As the forest fills up with hungry people, slash and burn is probably not a good strategy, except it's always worked before. We know how to do it. It's someone else's problem.

At some point, we may change our short-term tactics to match long-term imperatives. Or the winners will just keep fighting over the remaining forest. For that kind of social disconnect, think London in 1870: toffs in the clubs, corpses in the East End.  I've seen articles/ads on promising to give you the secret to being a "Robber Baron" in this financial crisis. Something to think about.

Friday, May 18, 2012

TED and the Conventional Wisdom

Over the last few years TED has established itself as a forum for new thinking, a platform for ideas that question (in many cases) the current conventional wisdom. A couple of months ago Nick Hanauer, who has been an enthusiastic entrepreneur for a few decades, and canny enough to make a pile of money, made a brief presentation to a TED audience.

Nick spoke as a capitalist, a person who uses his resources to build new businesses. His point was that capitalists do not create jobs. In fact, as a capitalist he knows that hiring people is one way to scare investors off. He made the point that it is delusional to think of capitalists as job creators -- the transfer of wealth to the 1% (and rising un- and under-employment) over the last few decades of lower marginal tax rates should prove that assertion.

TED, for reasons of its own, decided that it would not post the talk on its website. Nick, who has also been writing about our political culture for several years, pushed for posting. Yesterday, after the issue got picked up by some media outlets TED posted the presentation -- on YouTube -- and got about a quarter million view in the last 17 hours.

Despite TED's characterization of Nick's speech as "partisan" it comes across as low-key and fact-based -- a rich man who recognizes wealth is its own blessing and deserves no other favors. So why TED's insecurity about his talk? Is it a little too at odds with their conventional wisdom? Is TED just another arm of the MSM? Or is this a clever plan to get Nick's message beyond the TED auditorium?

Beyond that, can you think of a reason why this viewpoint, and perhaps Nick himself, is not given greater coverage and discussion in the media?

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Waves, Markets and the Confidence Game

There is a school of thought that sees clear patterns in economic activity, especially as measured by markets in stocks and commodities. One group coalesces around the Elliott Wave Principle. 

In the 1930s, Ralph Nelson Elliot, an American accountant, observed that markets move in clear cycles, commonly called Elliott waves. His analysis identified the key attributes of these cycles -- dominant-trend 5-wave patterns and corrective-trend 3-wave patterns. Moreover, this pattern self-replicates fractally as you move to larger or smaller time scales, from minutes to centuries. The patterns themselves, as it turns out, also reflect some interesting mathematical affinities: fibonacci progressions and golden ratios. 

To his credit, Elliott did not try to identify a cause, other than a collective human personality, or "mood", that reflects the cycles and mood swings of countless individuals. He accepted the fact that the entire system was massively complex, chaotic even, and the cycle was way bigger than any individual actors. His goal was to build in a certain patience, as observers use an understanding of the cycles to pursue their own ends.

In the ‘70s his work was rediscovered by Robert Prechter, a trader at Merrill Lynch, who published Elliott’s findings and became an important theorist for the stock market for the last three decades.

What really interests me about the Wave Principle is that it assumes the dominant role of the collective (un-)consciousness, and that the market indices, like the Dow, are accurate indicators of the general mood.

In the online journal The Scionomist ( , an article I found by Euan Wilson, "A Parting of Peaceful Ways: A Socioeconomic View of Civil Wars," correlates market performance and/or GDP per capita to major social events, like civil wars, back as early as 1695 (pretty much the beginning of capitalist markets). The point was that major disruptive events, like wars, follow market declines, and declines follow gains. And that these declines are then manifested in popular fashion and entertainment (“news”), and then, eventually in indicators like peace and war. 

The cycles work in both directions, in terms of mood, in a dynamic pattern: every movement is a correction, positive to negative to positive, down to the smallest scale. If you get the scale right, you might have a picture of the next week, or decade, or century, and place you bets accordingly. Wilson also recreates Robert Prechter’s timeline for these peaks and valleys stretching  back to 0 AD.

I can not judge the accuracy of Elliott’s theory or Wilson’s vision, either as a look backwards or as it comments on our current situation and outlook. In the numbers-driven world of financial markets it seems to have been well tested and is still highly regarded. That said, I’m still not sure that it doesn’t work better after the fact than as a predictor. Or wouldn’t there be a sizable group of people who made a lot of money on this last finance kerfuffle? Oh, wait, there were some people who made a LOT of money on the “meltdown,” weren’t there. Lol.

Looking at these graphs, it’s hard not to think that the “market” is not just analogous to the general mood, it is inseparable from it. The larger the market, the more widespread the cycle. As soon as Rome started to depend on grain from Egypt and other colonies, it was pretty much downhill for the Empire. A bad harvest on the Nile affected the price of grapes in Germany, as well as confidence in the future. "Maybe those barbarians at the gate wouldn’t be such a bad change." Enter, stage right, Dark Ages.

I also get from these graphs that the trend is remarkably up. There is something that drives human beings to consume more, to have more. We have not got past the lesson of the cave: life is fragile and we are in a constant battle for an advantage just in case the harvest does fail. And the cycles tell us the harvests will fail, sooner of later. The models also suggest that this particular crisis has a long way to fall to actually reset to Zero.

By the way, other research I’ve done into these cyclical patterns suggests that perhaps an even better indicator than the Dow or S&P indices might be the ratio of employment to population. Not many of us actually buy or sell equities, but we are all aware if we are employed or not. And it might give us a more meaningful metric in this oxymoronic “jobless recovery.”

In the meantime, this constantly competitive market means there always losers as well as winners. And concentrations of capital mean many more losers, though in capitalist democracies there is also turbulence, so even a loser might think he’s going to be a winner in the future. 

And, that I think, is the driver behind public “mood” -- Confidence. As in, this is in fact a confidence game. The declines we see in financial markets are closely related (if not identical) to confidence in the future -- "this time the lottery will give me what I deserve." So what disruption are we heading for? What sack of Rome awaits us?

I didn’t find much idea in that article of what we should actually do if we do recognize the current trend as a decline. But another Socionomist article, “Sports Scandals and Signs of Shifting Mood” by Gary Grimes, might give us some guidance. Especially if we are celebrities.

Grimes starts by tracking the Tiger Woods story, and especially the point that a number of people knew something about Tiger’s extra-curricular sex life five or six years ago, but the stories never gained any traction with the press or the public until recently. He also makes the point that Tiger began to lose endorsements after the stock market started its decline in 2007. People in a more negative mood were more willing to believe the worst and so his current crisis is another reflection of the deepening bear-market mood.

In fact, Grimes sees a general trend of disillusionment with sports and its stars tracking the emergence of the down market. And he points to one star -- Andre Agassi -- who played the cycles in significant ways. In the bear-market ‘80s he was the wild-child rebel. As the market turned positive he wore white at Wimbeldon and founded a charity. And now he’s back with a tell-all autobiography just right for declining market -- sex, drugs and attitude. Grimes’ advice to Tiger is to consider toughening up the ol’ image, Tiger as predator, perhaps (like the recent Vanity Fair cover shot?).

My advice would be aimed more at the political arena. If we see this as a period of decline, then we understand the appeal of any mad-as-hell rabble rouser. That’s how Obama ran, even if he was an unusually academic sounding rabble rouser. So all that anger may be swirling around out there, and while it hasn’t yet coalesced around anything, it doesn't need to coalesce to disrupt. The wave theory tells us increased bad news will give more credence to somebody who can focus that disaffection. So, we're looking at either chaos or a despot.

Looking at the data, the only thing that really matters is the public mood, and the one way to swing public confidence is to increase employment (and not necessarily GDP, for instance). That would be good for incumbents, and for the country. But for the current opposition party what’s good for the country would be bad for their ambitions, and would be playing against the cycle. And I think we can see how that’s working.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Toyota FAIL: What Toyota Should Know, and Still Doesn't Get

I have spent a fair amount of my professional life talking about the meaning of “brand.” In my experience, everybody knows what a brand is. And nobody knows.

On the one hand, a brand is what we think of a product, how we react to it, emotionally and rationally. And the evidence is that it is mostly emotional reactions that define a company’s brand, just as what makes your friend unique is not their appearance but how that person makes you feel.

The key is, if people trust a brand, they keep buying it. And people trust brands that have a unique identity, providing some reason to buy it rather than a competitor. If customers at some point decide you aren’t true to your brand identity (as they see it), they will go elsewhere. And all the evidence is that once that trust is gone, it’s almost impossible (it takes more than money and time) to regain it.

So, everybody knows what brand is, because a brand is the sum total of what people think about the product. It can be strong or weak, positive or negative, but it’s only “everyone” who defines brand. Companies build strong brands by combining product, advertising, service, etc. into a set of experiences that all reinforce a “personality.” A brand makes a promise. Strong brands keep that promise all the time, every time. A weak brand is almost always an inconsistent brand. One failure can destroy the trust built by many successes. And it’s all up to the customer.

And so when I see companies react the way Toyota is reacting to its current challenges (and Toyota’s reactions are not unique) I’m convinced virtually no one knows what brand really is.

Over decades, Toyota built a strong brand by focusing on product quality. The growth of the Toyota brand was jump started when Toyota made the commitment to entering the US market. By making workers active partners in identifying problems and improving processes, Toyota built quality cars, while cutting the cost of production enough that they had a clear competitive advantage over their competitors. And customers, especially in the tough US market, came to trust the Toyota brand.

Customers flocked to Toyota dealerships, and if they didn't great memorable service, who cared? They got an exceptional product -- reliable, durable -- at a great price.

But now there are other brands that have high quality, like Hyundai, who can push Toyota with lower prices, longer warranties, etc. The brand line up is changing, becoming more "commidified." In this environment, the thinking is that brand differentiation will hinge more and more on the service provided. And the service has to more closely align with the promise made by the brand.

To see your clear advantage in product quality already challenged, and then have the current recall campaigns unravel like they have, Toyota be a feeling shared by a lot of people these days, looking into an economic abyss.

This could be bad. Okay, this is bad, but I think there some things they can do, in fact must do, one way or another, to stop the slide.

The obvious problem, beyond product issues, is Toyota’s perceived coverup. Whether it’s because of Japanese liability laws or attempts to control costs, consumers are clear that they cannot trust Toyota’s assurances, even if they don’t blame the company for the problems. If they can't believe the problems are fixed now, why would they buy a product anytime before they have proof?

Now here’s the point: Toyota has actually been in this situation before. And they pulled off a stunning feat of recovery. In fact they raised their brand perception by an order of magnitude. Only it wasn’t the Toyota brand, exactly. And it was not exactly the Toyota structure, either.

In the mid-80s Toyota, prodded by US dealers and management, decided to compete with Mercedes and Cadillac in the luxury car segment. Most observers thought the move was nuts, but Toyota committed a big chunk of money to design and build entirely new vehicles that could compete with the best vehicles (and brands) in the world. In 1989, after years of work, they launched Lexus. While critics and customers were impressed by initial impressions, they were looking for flaws.

After a couple of months on the market, while the pipeline was full of Lexus vehicles to be delivered to dealerships, Lexus learned there were a few reports of cruise controls that impeded braking and high-mounted stoplights that overheated. Every Lexus sold had these components. To fix the problem every one would have to be recalled – a PR nightmare. Or they could just keep quiet, fix problems as they occurred, and hope it would all blow over.

Lexus management made the decision, counter-intuitive to many, that they would move aggressively to recall every single Lexus. Every customer got a letter, hand-signed by Lexus GM Dave Illingworth. Lexus offered to pick the recalled cars up and provide the customer a loaner (another Lexus). Every fixed car came back washed and with a full tank.

These decisions established Lexus as totally unique, a brand that went far past the expected promise. Instead of a disaster, Lexus had a brand success. The fact that they were forthcoming with information only built the trust with their customers, and the millions who didn’t own one but read about it in Time or the The Wall Street Journal.

So if it worked 20 years ago, why isn’t Toyota doing something similar now? At least in spirit?

Obviously, I don’t know why, though I suspect one issue is that Lexus was, in most respects, an American brand. Outside of a few execs, the parent company never fully accepted Lexus as a part of Toyota. If they were even aware (on a cultural level) of the lessons of the Recall Campaign, they never saw how it might apply to a much larger organization. Even though every brand, at every level, has learned the values represented by the Lexus approach.

Using that experience, and a general knowledge of how successful companies operate, I can suggest some effective ways to protect, if not improve, the Toyota brand. I’m going to ignore Toyota’s concerns for limiting financial and legal liability — but I don’t think they should really affect what I'm proposing anyway. And I’m aiming this at the US market (which is where Toyota’s brand problem seems to be greatest).

First, come clean with customers. I don’t mean releasing sensitive internal memos or memos (at least, not yet). I just went back to the Toyota web page on the recall, and it’s still strictly corporate, “this is what we’re doing,” with no context about the scope (large or small) of the problem or the larger conversation. If I were in charge I would have links to key articles and blogs from across the spectrum. I would make it clear Toyota has nothing to hide, or rather, that Toyota values facts and honesty more than plausible deniability. In other words, I would demonstrate trustworthiness.

Second, consumers need a way to connect to Toyota, to engage when necessary in a conversation with somebody who can answer questions. From Toyota’s point of view, following the principles of the TPS, I would think it critical to get more information about problems directly from drivers, even if it means uncovering more problems. Actually, in the spirit of TPS, especially if it uncovers problems.

Third, I would make dealers an integral part of the process. Make sure that they know exactly what customers know, and make it easy for them to funnel me information about their clients’ needs and concerns.

So far, I grade Toyota’s reaction as a FAIL. Their current TV ad seems to be an apology from the production line workers, which is exactly not where the problem is. Akio Toyoda, the family member who just took over the company, has made some brief apologies, and asked for forgiveness. For what? This may be tuned more to a Japanese audience, but he will probably need a different approach when he gets to Washington in the next couple of days.

As of February 10, based on Toyota’s actions and the chatter out there (you can follow #Toyota on Twitter), they have a real problem. And unless there is some fundamental change in the way Toyota connects to its customer base, Toyota will have a tough row to how. And they should know better than to let this happen.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Who's Happy?

The economic realignment of the last year has been an opportunity for many of us to re-examine some key aspects of how we live. Specifically, the question of living with less — less money and fewer things, or at least, less acquiring of things. I'm old enough to remember a time a few decades ago when most people got by with many fewer things. Was I less happy then? Was I happier in the last few years when I did indeed have more things? I've done enough travelling, seen enough of other cultures, to know that people find happiness in all kinds of situations.

This discussion has had even more relevance the past week as we've seen the pictures and heard the descriptions of the scenes in Port au Prince. There is no doubt that happiness is rare in that city right now, but what are the prospects for the future? After all, much of the conversation has been about how poor and miserable life in Haiti has been for most of its history. So what should Haiti's future look like in the future? If we're doing a reboot of the society, how do we write the new program?

Just for argument's sake, let's say we set "happiness" as one of our KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), using France as an example of a country that has done just that. The first issue is how to define happiness. The French, working with Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, define it as "people’s well-being and the sustainability of a country’s economy and natural resources." For France, it's about making measurements of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) reflect not just money changing hands, but the value of the outcomes to the commonwealth. It's also about closing their GDP gap vs. the US (where every oil spill or auto accident boosts GPD).

But there are other ways to measure happiness. In fact, an organization called the World Values Society (WVS) has been looking at this issue and compiling data going back to the 1947 (the data referred to below can be found at the WVS website) . They have developed a continuum of Survival-WellBeing (SWB) as one way to measure basic contentment: "Is my life about staying alive or about getting the most out of what's available to me?" Where you fall on that continuum is where you say it is, your perception. The wealth metric is an entirely different issue, the other axis in a graph. 

When GDP-per-capita is graphed against SWB it turns out GDP has little correlation to a sense of well-being. For example, Colombia and Albania have very similar GDP-per-capita, but are virtually on opposite ends of the SWB scale. Colombia and Mexico also rank higher in WellBeing than the USA, at the opposite end of the GDP scale. At the same time, almost all the low scoring SWB nations are also low in GDP. And the high GDP correlates with higher SWB scores. So, greater wealth does bring greater security, but happiness exists across the spectrum of income.

WSV has validated nine key variables that it tracks: subjective well-being, happiness, life satisfaction, GPD per capita, level of democracy, strength of religiosity, level of national pride, tolerance of outgroups, and sense of free choice. From these they compile profiles describing Subjective Well-being, Happiness, or Life satisfaction. For my purposes, I'll lump these profiles together as "satisfaction."

Of those indicators, the one most strongly identified with Satisfaction turns out to be the sense of free choice, specifically in terms of the general sense of freedom in the society. That sense of freedom is also connected to a general sense of tolerance. All in all, as the sense of personal control rises, so does satisfaction.

There is one other factor that seems to matter — the sense of community, or connection. That seems to me to be one key explanation why poorer countries like Mexico or Columbia rate so highly in the WellBeing. Sense of community, when it reinforces ethnic or religious stereotypes may also link to the kind of pride that is less tolerant of “others.” Nonetheless, a culture that combines inclusiveness with connection would be on the road to a new level of satisfaction, and perhaps even “happiness.”

A model for this might be cultures like Sweden or Denmark, which rate higher in WellBeing than the US, or France or Germany for that matter, even though GDP-per-capita is somewhat lower. Those Scandinavian cultures also seem to me to have embraced one other key factor that I think is key to civil happiness: fairness, especially in social areas like income disparities, access to health care and education, and so on.

The current economic reshuffling may give us an opportunity, individually or as a society, to reconsider how we proceed from here. The primary obstacle I see to a more sane, let alone happy, commonwealth is the rising oligarchy in the US, and the growing gulf between the few winners at the corporate/financial casino and the rest of us. Fairness has been overwhelmed by enlightened self-interest and the fiction of efficient markets, at least at this time, in this place.

The larger American culture is deeply entwined in its own stunted mythology: rugged individualism battling with social entanglement, protestant certainty at war with cosmopolitan questioning, I opposed to Thou. If we are to forge our own conditions of wellbeing-as-happiness we will have to do it on some smaller, more personal scale, in the nooks and crannies of the larger society. We will tend our oranges and make our own worlds the best they can possibly be, in this world of infinite personal possibilities.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Green Shoots

While I'm pretty convinced that the general arc of our political/social/economic history is bending toward decline, if not outright disaster, I have not stopped looking for things that provide reasons for hope, on at least the individual scale. From time to time I hope to refer to those things in these blogs, and this posting will look at two examples: a look at how farmers in Africa's drought-stricken Sahel are using traditional techniques to re-green their land, and a way to use a plentiful, non-uranium, vastly cleaner fuel source for nuclear power-generation.

The Sahel, stretching the width of Africa, has been a poster child for desertification, especially in the west. It has been for most of human history a transition zone between the tropics and the Sahara, with a mix of pastoral herders and farmers finding a way to coexist on marginal rainfall. Historically prone to variations in rainfall, the long-term drought that began in the early 1980s can be seen as an early manifestation of global climate change. Couple that with the political upheavals that have unsettled whole populations and cultures, and over the last few decades the images of the Sahel burned into our minds were of starving cattle and camels, and dust blowing through bedraggled villages. Many countries of the region put in place laws and programs designed to criminalize tree cutting and to reforest the area with plantings. Nothing seemed able to slow the growth of the desert and the retreat of the trees.

An article in the December 7 issue of The Nation paints a somewhat different picture. It looks at the experience of local farmers who have applied an old approach, and learned some unexpected lessons. Farmers in that area used to dig pits, called zais, to collect and concentrate rainwater. A few modern farmers did the same, and some did something that made sense to them -- adding manure to the pit. The fertilizer and water definitely added fertility to the millet and sorghum, but the farmers also found that tiny trees also sprouted in the pits. And, as the trees grew, the crop yields also increased, and the practice spread.

In fact, enough farmers have learned from this experience that large parts of the Sahel are showing up on satellite images as newly green, while neighboring land, often in areas that get even more rain, is showing more and more brown. And this is where it gets really interesting. By and large, those countries that tried to halt deforestation by making trees public property and outlawing tree-cutting are also the countries that are still losing trees. Large-scale tree-planting programs have also proven ineffective.

One of the key changes in farming practice was giving ownership of trees back to the landowners -- "They stopped seeing trees as weeds and started seeing them as assets." At the same time, the success of "farmer managed natural regeneration" made the case that changing their environment was really possible and more and more farmers adopted the practices.

The article quotes Chris Reij, a Dutch geogrpaher who has worked in the region for 30 years, as saying,
"This is probably the largest positive environmental transformation in the Sahel and perhaps in all Africa."
The article also makes the point that the farmers are not planting trees. They are protecting the trees that grow naturally when they use manure to fertilize their soils. To me, it's a perfect example of working inside a natural system -- all the parts (people, animals, plants and environment)  work together. Whereas about 80% of planted trees die, the ones that naturally sprout are from parents that have already adapted in that environment. And they're free.

Just to be clear, these new-old techniques would not have spread through the area without the support of large organizations, both governmental and NGOs. But it is not a top-down "program", driven by "experts" with money, like other well-meaning but ineffective (or worse) programs like the Millenium Villages Project. But maybe even the big boys will start to pay attention. Especially when it's becoming visible from space.

On the energy side, there's an article in the January Wired that identifies a proven way to generate power from a nuclear reaction that does not rquire uranium, and produces less waste, with a half life of decades rather than milennia.

The material is Thorium, a close relative of Uranium (232 protons to 238, in their naturally occurring forms), but about four times more abundant. With an added proton it becomes U233, which is fissile. Enriching it for fission is relatively simple. It can be handled differently than Uranium in a reactor, and is much less likely to cause any kind of melt down or run-away reaction. The textbook on Thorium reactors was written in 1958. Several Thorium reactors have been built and operated in the past, and currently Russia, Dubai, India (at least) are considering or planning Thorium reactors.

There are certainly technical challenges to building a Liquid Flouride Thorium (LFT) reactor (considered the most efficient approach). It will take a large investment and the time to test the design, which needs to stand up to the corrosive salts that control the reaction. But there are clear benefits, as well. Compared to a Uranium-Fueled Light Water reactor, an LFT reactor requires 0.4% of the fuel, at 0.2% of the cost, on 1% of the footprint, to produce the same amount of energy. And it produces a small fraction of the waste, which itself has a much shorter half-life -- decades rather than millennia. It may seem like a no-brainer, but ....

It's worth remembering that one reason we (and the Russians, et al.) went down the Uranium path was because we wanted that dangerous stuff. Nuclear power meant nuclear weapons. And we had a lot of Uranium lying around, and a lock on the technology. Today Uranium is getting scarcer and there are a lot of other players who like the idea of nuclear power, and not just for light bulbs. And we still don't have a way to dispose of the waste. At the same time, we are polluting the planet with the by-products of fossil-fuel-fired generating plants. So maybe it's time to rethink this.

In fact, in 2008, the unlikely bedfellows of Senator Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) introduced the Thorium Energy Independence and Security Act of 2008, which would mandate a US Department of Energy initiative to examine the commercial use of thorium in US reactors. Although the bill did not go to a full Senate vote (in fact, it was deep-sixed by the Bush administration), it was reintroduced in 2009, and is one of three bills now circulating.

All this said, not a lot of people are optimistic about anything happening soon on the Thorium front -- politics and entrenched economic interests have a way of avoiding any kind of change, even (especially?) when it could clearly be beneficial. Which is why we need to be aware of this issue, and make sure we are openly debating and planning for the kind of world we want to be living in.  Thorium may not be the answer, but at least we should be asking the right questions.

Both these stories represent ideas or approaches that are not exactly new, but have been ignored by those who are caught up in the conventional wisdom. I'm going to keep looking for more similar stories, and hope you will, too, and that we can find a way to share with others. Just like the trees in the Sahel growing out of the shit.

Friday, December 18, 2009

God Jul! And a Hell of a New Year!

"The winter of our discontent" (Shakespeare, Richard III) describes this holiday season pretty well, at least if you're tracking our progress in dealing with the the financial crisis, the health crisis, or the climate crisis. In my experience over the last five decades, I think this is the year that most people fervently hope next year will be better -- and have no confidence it will. I would say I am one of the least change-averse people around, but I'm finding it hard to look forward to anything I see for the next year or longer.

One way I'm seeing it is that we have been given a clear demonstration of the Golden Rule: those who have the gold make the rules. This is most obvious in the Finance game.

 A year after the scale of the financial debacle was becoming clear, after we teetered on the brink of a systemic meltdown worldwide, the players who got us to that precipice are still in charge of how the game is played. And richer than they were. And with no real changes in how they do business. 

The reality is that they've been consolidating their power for the past few decades. It took a while to get the pieces in place -- an "efficient market" meme that enthralled Republicans and Democrats, relaxed investment regs and oversight in the US, a consolidated market with little real competition, a bought-and-paid-for body of key decision makers worldwide, and WTO rules that opened up the entire world as a captive market (except for a few skeptics, like Brazil) -- but by about 2000 they were ready to roll. They had known that the US economy had reached its peak production in the late '80s and no new wealth was being created. They just needed a few bubbles to gain control of the remaining assets, and after they got housing in the early '90s and dot-com in the late '90s, housing II in the '00s was the perfect storm, from their point of view. It was a government-protected form of wealth transfer that had the beauty of really only benefitting a tiny number of people in the rarified world of finance. (Goldman Sachs average bonus, for each of 30,000+ employees, this year will be $700,000.)

As the previous bubble inflated in ways that clearly (to at least some financiers) were not going to last, the word around the trading floors was: IBGYBG -- "I'll Be Gone, You'll Be Gone. Make the trade. Sell the CDOs. And we'll meet again on St. Barts when the dust clears."

It may be that the people in the corporate and political elite were realistic enough to plan for the future by building their own fortresses of solitude: "If I can't save the planet, I can at least save my family, so why even try to save the planet?" Or maybe they were just lucky.

Looking around us now, it is clear today that Copenhagen will not lead to any fundamental change to the behaviors that are speeding climatic changes that will not just threaten people, but whole cultures, the supply and transport of food and products that don't just keep business humming, but keep people from starving.

On the home front, not only is financial regulation become a toothless joke, but healthcare reform is simply a gift to the insurance industry -- another transfer of wealth at the expense of those without the gold. And this in a country that pays more than twice as much per person for health care, and has a lower life expectancy and higher infant mortality than almost all developed countries. So why should we change it?

Today, Dennis Kucinich made it clear: "The class war is over. We lost. Working people lost. The middle class lost."

So, let's play it out in political terms. With the Democrats unable to create a political consensus that brings any real change, with Obama playing the (smart, but conventional) political game by not leading where there are no followers in-government, with Copenhagen a joke and no clear voice about the real threat of climate change, the Republicans will be be loud, and unified in their negativity, channeling Howard Beal, passion trumping facts. They pick up seats in Congress. And they've learned that, with a compliant news media, they don't even need a majority to say "no." And of course, the entire news media infrastructure is still reporting politics the same way they're reporting Tiger Woods or Sarah Palin: "he-said, she-said, and damn the substance -- it makes my brain hurt. Just tell me who's winning."

So, what we get is, at best, continued stagnation of the real economy, chronic unemployment that is much higher than the official figures, wave after wave of foreclosures, rising bankruptcies, falling industrial output, accelerated decline in quality of life (transportation, infrastructure, prices, education, health care).

Maybe we get to 2012, maybe Obama wins, and it's more of the same, a lot of people dying slow. But maybe Obama loses, and then maybe something will really happen. Maybe, after another two or four years of life under the leaders who got us here, and have no new ideas beyond "no," enough good citizens will see that it's not the Republicans, it's not the Democrats, it is what the system has become, and the system is not set up to have an honest discussion, let alone to protect their interests. Then, and only then, maybe somebody like an Al Franken or Dan Grayson will be in a place to stand up and say BAU stops here.

But then, maybe before that there'll be another bubble and everything will be back to normal. There's something to hope for.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Believing in Science

One of the comments that popped up more than once in the back and forth around the "climategate" discussion was the claim, by those who deny global warming,  that those who support the science of global climate change are like those people who, a few centuries ago, refused to believe that the earth is round or that the earth revolves around the sun.

As absurd as this claim is on its face -- that those who were guided by the science in one case would ignore it in the other -- there is an even more significant insight that comes from thinking about the relationship between that earlier debate and this one.

Most of us know that the polymath Galileo was forced to recant the results of his observations of the cosmos, which he had published in 1632 in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World SystemsGalileo built a powerful case for the Copernican view of the cosmos -- that the earth, like the other planets,  orbits around the sun, and the stars exist outside those orbits -- as opposed the Ptolemaic view -- that the earth is at the center and everything else rotates around that.

Galileo was well aware that just 32 years earlier the brilliant Giordano Bruno had been burned alive at the stake by the Inquisition for making the same argument. To the church, it didn't matter that the Copernican cosmology was the only way to account for observed phenomena; to deny the earth's central, fixed position in the universe was to deny what had become a foundational element of religious belief. Just before the fire was lit, Bruno was offered the chance to recant: "I should not say that, so I will not."

In its early history, the christian church was riven by the claims of two rival schools of thought. One, following the teachings of Arius, a priest in Alexandria, held that while God existed outside of time, the Son (Jesus) was created later, as was the Holy Ghost. Representing what he knew as traditional doctrine in his church, Arius argued against Athanasius, a fellow Alexandrine churchman, who taught that God was three in one: the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost were the same, begotten before time, equally divine and eternal.

At a time when the church had become intimately entwined with the political ambitions of Rome and Byzantium, these rival views, which probably dated to the earliest days of the church, demanded resolution if the church was to act as a unified power. The Council of Nicea, in 325 endorsed Athanasius' view. After a few more decades of struggle the eternal trinity was firmly established as doctrine, and Arianism as heresy. That's why, in my Lutheran church, we recited the Nicene Creed as a kind of pledge of allegiance every Sunday:
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds (æons), Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father ....
One of the positions implicit in the Athanasian view was that Earth, where Adam and Eve first sinned, was the one part of creation blemished by death and decay. God had placed Earth at the center of his creation as kind of petri dish of sin and redemption, but everything else was set in perfect motion at creation, and was beyond the reach of sinful mankind, and beyond change. As this view became dogma, any reports of imperfection in God's celestial creation would have to be debunked, and the reporters treated as heretics. In the official view, science had no meaning beyond what God revealed to us. If a star appeared in the East, it must be God sending some kind of message to us.

The danger of Arianism to the Church was that it suggested that the divine order was itself changeable, not eternal and unchangeable:
But those who say: 'There was a time when he was not;' and 'He was not before he was made;' and 'He was made out of nothing,' or 'He is of another substance' or 'essence,' or 'The Son of God is created,' or 'changeable,' or 'alterable'—they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.
By choosing the Athanasian path, the Church was committed to the dogma of an unchanging, unchangeable God, and the Church's role as protector of an absolute moral order and authority, which included an earth-centric universe and perfectly circular orbits for the planets and the celestial dome, now and always.

While the earliest observers of the heavens knew that things were not that tidy, they were forced to keep their views to themselves, or to find other ways to rationalize them, or risk being condemned as heretics. With the establishment of universities and the general sharing of knowledge that accompanied the Renaissance it became harder for the church to keep the lid on. Of course, by then the Church had the Reformation to worry about, as well.

As the growth of the middle class meant that learning in all areas was not solely the property of a small elite, the Church responded to this challenge to old rigid moral orders and authorities by trying to deny the emerging reality. Enter the Inquisition. It is illuminating that the Roman Inquisition dates to 1542, the year before Copernicus book on the cosmos, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, was published.

In a rational world, the revanchist forces protecting an irrelevant, inaccurate version of the moral order would have been replaced, suddenly or gradually, by the demonstrable realities being unveiled by scientists from every culture. So why hasn't it worked like that?

The obvious answer is that the ruthless application of power works. An organization like the Church, founded on belief and submission, and willing to use a tool like the Inquisition,  can keep enough of its flock in line to hold on at least some of its position. And the Church has altered some areas of doctrine to align itself with new realities, although the pragmatists have now been largely supplanted by the dogmatists.

However, I think there is something else operating here, something that goes beyond the Church to all social life. In its simplest form, I see it as a dialectic of human psychology, with human beings demonstrating either one of two competing ways to comprehend and interact with reality.

On the one hand, the individual sees him- or her-self locked in an adversarial relationship with a world that can, at any moment, overwhelm them. For most, it becomes clear that there are certain hierarchies and authorities that must be recognized and leveraged for survival. You make alliances with the powers that you think can protect the existing order and your precarious place in it. And the ultimate power is supernatural, including the Church. There is a certain paranoid quality to this -- assuming that others are out to get you is the smart move. In terms of communication, this viewpoint is most comfortable with appeals to authority and belief.

On the other hand, some individuals see existence as enhanced by collaboration and teamwork rather than combat: we're all in this together. These individuals are a little more comfortable with change and heuristic logic, knowing that the future can't be entirely known and is constantly being altered by the choices we make in the present. Individual skepticism and curiosity are good things. This viewpoint aligns with a humanist emphasis on the scientific method and rational processes.

In every culture, even at the height of the Inquisition, there were humanists. By the same token, during every period of enlightenment there have been those who rely on faith and authority, and reject human reason. It may very well be that there's some kind of hardwiring at play, synaptical networks and brain chemistry interactions that dispose one to faith or to reason.

The downside of all this may be that there is little to be gained by talking through our issues. If that is true, climate deniers will never be swayed by scientific evidence, and rationalists are not going to be persuaded by appeals to faith. Nonetheless, almost all of us now agree we live in a world that is not at the center of the universe. And that's a start.