Being A Team Player vs. Getting Played

July 31, 2012

I’m enjoying watching the Olympic Games in London. Go team! But, I can’t help noticing the commercials in which giant corporations claim to support our Olympians (and, by extension, us): BP, who spilled untold amounts of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, then lied about it; McDonalds, contributing to the obesity problem, not athletics (although their Olympics commercials are really funny).

Then there’s the giant among giant companies, GE (General Electric), with a GDP larger than most nations. Their contribution to Team USA? Not paying taxes.

Citizens for Tax Justice studied 280 Fortune 500 companies and filed a report  last year which found: “while the federal corporate tax code ostensibly requires big corporations to pay a 35 percent corporate income tax rate, on average, the 280 corporations in our study paid only about half that amount.”

Some paid no US taxes at all, while earning billions in profits. GE was one of those companies. (some handy graphs)

That’s not being a team player! That’s being a cheater, a poor sport, not deserving to medal, or even to qualify. Boo!

A true corporate citizen plays by the rules. This ref cries foul.

(Speaking of refs – actually, to go on a “ref” tangent — what was with that ref for the Spain/Honduras soccer match? Horrible! Viva España! They was robbed!)

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Appreciating the Spark of Humanity

July 26, 2012

Because the news seems to be more distressing lately, I thought I’d put here the brief speech of Saul Perlmutter, who, last fall with some colleagues, won the Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering that the universe is expanding, not contracting as previously thought. Perlmutter gave this speech at the Nobel Prize Banquet last October:

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses,

Honored Guests and Colleagues,

Friends and Families,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great honor and pleasure for Brian Schmidt, Adam Riess, and me – together with our teams – to be here tonight. We represent a community of scientists with whom we tackled one of the most enticing ancient questions: What is the Fate and Extent of the Universe?

According to Einstein, the answer should be determined by how much stuff – mass – is in the universe, gravitationally self-attracting and slowing the universe’s expansion. We all set out to measure this slowing, using the brightness and colors of distant supernovae, exploding stars.

To many of us this is a scientist’s dream: a philosophical problem that can be answered with simple (if difficult) measurement. Even better was the scientist’s fairy-tale ending: a surprise. We live in a universe that apparently isn’t slowing down at all. It’s speeding up, and we have no idea why.

Perhaps the only thing better for a scientist than finding the crucial piece of a puzzle that completes a picture is finding a piece that doesn’t fit at all and tells us there is a whole new part of the puzzle that we haven’t even imagined yet and that the scene in the puzzle is bigger, richer that we ever thought.

A poem by our laureate colleague Tomas Transtromer begins with the following sentence (if you’ll excuse my attempt at Swedish).

En man kanner pa varlden

Med yrket som en handske.

or, in translation:

With his work, as with a glove,

a man feels the universe.

Or course, for our particular work this is perhaps too literally true. But it is also true the other way around:

With our work exploring the universe,

we feel what it is to be human.

In other words: We mortal, limited humans joining together in teams from around the world and in time across civilizations, become capable – in our case, capable of just glimpsing on additional bit of how the universe works. It is exhilarating.

But it is in the doing, in the process of working together to explore the universe that we learn to truly appreciate each other and to enjoy each other’s company and spark, as all humans should be appreciated. And that, too, is exhilarating.

We together thank our hosts for an extraordinary and beautiful evening celebrating these prizes that can remind us of this wonderful aspect of our humanity – and that challenge us to find and explore what’s best in each other as we find and explore more of the universe’s mysteries.

Thank you.

© The Nobel Foundation 2011


Some F*cking Guy At Warner Bros. Wondering What Shooting of 12 Means For Ticket Sales

July 23, 2012

This is a spoof from The Onion, “The World’s Finest News Source”

LOS ANGELES—According to sources, some soulless fucking piece of shit at Warner Bros. is wondering how last night’s tragic shooting of 12 people at a screening of Dark Knight Rises will affect ticket sales for the blockbuster film. “God, I hope this doesn’t ruin our shot at the opening weekend box office record,” said the unimaginable asshole, noting that the cold-blooded murder of a dozen innocent people could deter moviegoers from seeing the film with friends throughout the weekend. “At least the international numbers will still be very strong. We can take comfort in that.” At press time, the oily, subhuman son of a bitch was reassuring coworkers the movie would definitely still finish number one in North American box office receipts for 2012.

***

Sadly, there’s a “real” story about Batman, that the LA Times has been building up and hammering for days on end:

Batman & Spiderman Rumored to Go Head To Head In China

Hollywood Studio Execs are freaking out that China may schedule the two superhero movies to open on the same day (Aug 30). Gasp!

Right now, Warner Bros. (Batman) is only complaining to the LA Times anonymously; and Sony (Spiderman) has no comment. Pow!

People at China Film, the government-run movie distributor, have no official comment on the release date either. In fact, as of yet, they say there is no release date. Oof!

Unnamed people at Warner Bros. told the LA Times that they may refuse to release Batman at all in China – the world’s second largest movie market.

Stop the madness, Warner Bros., with your petty non-news stories. Unfortunately, what’s happening in your marketing meetings probably looks a lot like The Onion story.


Feds Want Inventory Of Free Military Equipment Given To Police

July 18, 2012

photo: Dennis Wagner/The Arizona Republic 

But the police may not have any records! That’s so scary, it’s funny!

Actually, according to reports done by California Watch, Associated Press (AP), and The Arizona Republic, the police didn’t keep most of the “… millions of dollars worth of Humvees, barber chairs, fire trucks, guns, thermal-imaging scopes and more.” They sold them at auction to make up for budget shortfalls.

The Federal program to give police departments surplus military weapons was started in the 1990s to help police with the war on drugs. But now that those weapons were possibly sold off (to drug dealers, perhaps?), the Federal government is suspending giving “surplus Defense Department weapons” until police departments can prove they’ve adequately kept track of it all. San Joaquin county got a tank! Sacramento county got 34 M16s!

According to this report, 800 police departments nationwide got military weapons and other equipment.

Read about it here

You can see what the military gave California police departments with a simple search, here.


Mother Jones Parodies Super PACs With “Game of Thrones” Attack Ads

July 15, 2012

The Mother Jones news team asks, “What would it look like if super-PACs and dark-money groups existed in the world of the HBO hit series?”

The result is funny, absurd, and profoundly accurate (I can only speak for theUSA). Here’s a sample:

Government bailouts! Hanging with terrorists! Where’s the BIRTH CERTIFICATE???!!!!

For more, go to the Mother Jones website.  

Created, written, and directed by David Corn, Dan Schulman, Nick Baumann, Adam Serwer, Tim Murphy, and Asawin Suebsaeng. Videos edited by Ethan Elliott-Williams and David Mullins. Narrated by Jason Williams. Actors: Jennifer Cutting, Patrick Plunkett, and Stephen Winick.


AP, Atlantic Wire, And Others Miss The Point On Role Of Media

July 13, 2012

Russian warship near Syrian coast, photo: Reuters

When WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, posted the Syria Files on July 5th – 2.4 million emails that reveal the dicey motivation and actions of the Syrian government AND the opposition – the big story became how the AP objected to being called one of WikiLeaks’s collaborators.

Atlantic Wire, fond of piling on Assange, has run a story a day this week. Most posts focus on painting the WikiLeaks founder as an arrogant, demanding, egomaniac baby.

Way to go, guys. Take a story about getting valuable, firsthand documents about a little understood violent conflict and twist it into a gossip column! Why focus on the facts when you can turn WikiLeaks into a cult of personality?

Granted, sifting through millions of emails about Syria requires effort and brain power.

But an interesting thing is happening now that the Syrian emails are public (you can read some yourself from the WikiLeaks website):

Russia, who was amassing war ships nearby to show their support for the Assad government, told the BBC on Wednesday that they want to talk to the opposition and help end this conflict immediately.

So the release of these emails may have had a direct, beneficial effect.

Assange told Rolling Stone back in January, “I believe that if we look at what makes a civilization civilized, it is people understanding what is really going on.”


In The Garden Of Beasts

July 11, 2012

I’m currently reading this book by Erik Larson. It’s a chronicle of one year in the life of William E. Dodd and family during Dodd’s first year in Berlin as US Ambassador to Germany (1933).

Dodd’s instinct was to tone down all the stories of bloody beatings and death perpetrated by the Nazis.

One reason was that many US banks had bought German government bonds. The entire Western world was reeling from economic depression, and the bankers felt that if the Germans were insulted, they would default on their loans. As it was, Germany was proposing to pay back thirty cents on the dollar.

But the biggest reason was that Dodd felt that speaking out against the violence would seem biased against Germany. A memorable quote:

“Dodd reiterated his commitment to objectivity and understanding in an August 12 letter to Roosevelt, in which he wrote that while he did not approve of Germany’s treatment of Jews or Hitler’s drive to restore the country’s military power, ‘fundamentally, I believe a people has a right to govern itself and that other peoples must exercise patience even when cruelties and injustices are done. Give men a chance to try their schemes.’”

Knowing that these “schemes” progressed to world war and concentration camps makes the attitude of the Ambassador all the more dumbfounding. I’m looking forward to reading about how his views must surely change the longer he lives in Berlin.

It should be noted that no one wanted to be the US Ambassador to Germany in 1933. Dodd was FDR’s third choice (he informally considered about ten other people first).

What most appeals to me about this book is that it relies heavily on the diaries of Dodd and his 24-year-old daughter Martha, and on the confidential dispatches from Berlin to the State Department from Consul General George S. Messersmith. Firsthand accounts, along with the book’s time restraint of one year in Germany, gives way to a very informative view of what it was like to live in this period of time and to understand it more fully.

That’s why I love reading the diaries themselves of historical figures living in interesting times. One of my favorites is Scum of the Earth, by Arthur Koestler. This is Keostler’s diary during the German invasion of France in 1939. His day-to-day account tells of his flight from Paris, going into hiding, his capture, his escape from a concentration camp, and his successful flight to England.

The supremacy of primary sources is also the reason why I love WikiLeaks (“Courage is Contagious”).

To me, it is not a coincidence that the most accurate, detailed information coming out of Germany in the first 6 months of Hitler’s rule was confidential dispatches to the State Department.

It is no surprise that the WikiLeaks release of State Department emails was very revealing, and embarrassed the US. For instance, the President of Ecuador sent everyone from the US Embassy packing when he learned they were secretly paying entire units of the Ecuadorian police force on their own. Illegal activity by our government in other countries is, of course, embarrassing. And it should come to light.

To go off on a tangent for just a moment, it is an affront to Democracy itself that the press in the United States (with the exception of Rolling Stone) is determined not to accept primary sources of important information just because the founder of WikiLeaks is currently unpopular — they feel threatened that he’s doing a better job than they are.