Thoughts on Martin Luther King Jr.

Doctor King mastered the art of using non-violence as a weapon to get what he wanted (and, more critically, what our country needed). A more conventional weapon killed him in Memphis 40 years ago today. It wasn’t the rifle, or the slug, or even the presumably racist motivation of the man who shot him dead on that motel walkway, that cost King’s life.

I think it was the truth — a truth self-evident and yet fundamentally counterintuitive to human nature. Which was: violence is unnecessary and even counterproductive. We’re so captive of our violent nature that the idea of being willfully non-violent — particularly for political means — doesn’t compute.

King wasn’t the first to come up with this idea: Gandhi used it to kick the British out of India; today Indian companies are buying up British carmakers. Gandhi was murdered, too, which might’ve been on King’s mind when he said he’d seen the promised land but didn’t think he’d make it there with his people.

The genius of King and Gandhi was to use non-violent civil disobedience to provoke the inner violence of so-called civilized people. It worked because it created a “shooting an unarmed man” image that exposed how unjust these supposedly just people could be.

I’ve often wondered if the Palestinians would’ve had better luck following King’s model. Can’t say because it’s never been tried (at least not explicitly), but it sure seems to me that every act of Palestinian violence against Israel convinces the Israelis they’re justified in continuing to make life miserable for the Palestinians. Strikes me that if the Palestinians tweaked the conscience of the Israeli nation without killing and maiming its children, they might have a shot at ending the oppression (though that would render the fire-eating fanatics who run things irrelevant, and who wants to be irrelevant?)

Imagine what would’ve happened to King’s followers in Alabama and Mississippi if they’d have fought back at the bigots with baseball bats and firebombs. The lynchings would probably still be going on to this day.

King’s truth exposed the lie that America was a free country in the middle of the 20th century, when skin tone determined which schools people could send their kids to, which fountains they could get a drink from.

The truth got King killed, but he breathed life into an ideal that made America a more truthful country. We all owe him a thank-you for that.

Planetary musings

Morning on the Carrizo Plain

Life is what happened when the planet was busy making other plans. I’m not sure anybody knows exactly how or why non-living bits of matter became self-replicating bits of living organisms that eventually evolved into us. Whatever it was, we’re grateful.

One thing I’ve figured out since I started spending more time outdoors: we’re just one more species on a planet teeming with them. Earth has no regard for our minor hopes and petty ambitions. It’ll live on long after we’re gone.

A lot of humans fret over the damage we’re inflicting on the planet. I have a hard time getting totally worked up over our trivial contributions — it’s not like we can move continents, create mountain ranges, sprout volcanoes. The planet’s always tearing one part down and building another part up. Most of California was ocean bed a few million years ago. There were no activist organizations to protect aquatic species royally screwed by the collision of tectonic plates that created our lovely coastline and left dry land where the ocean used to be.

There’s only one problem with the “stop worrying, the planet’ll be fine” approach: Greedy short-sighted buck chasers use it as an excuse to do nothing about disappearing forests, rivers, lakes and living things that, frankly, the Earth can adapt to losing. Some kind of life will pretty much always live this planet.

The species that really needs clean water, abundant forests and thriving wild ecosystems is us. Wild places store our best hope for survival. Ruining them ruins us.

Blasting the tops off mountains to protect mining jobs or chopping down ancient redwoods to provide a few logging jobs might be good for one generation, but it’s stealing resources our grandkids and great-great grandkids and they’re great-great grandkids are going to need.

There’s no such thing as saving the environment. There’s only saving ourselves.

One for the “trust but verify” file

From this morning’s AP:

BAKERSFIELD – While authorities in two states searched for a young boy they thought had been abducted, 9-year-old Zane Newton was buried under an accidental collapse of dirt near his home. His body was found “completely covered” in dirt in a lot hours after the reported kidnapping, police said.

Newton’s playmate told police that the 9-year-old was abducted midmorning Wednesday as the two were playing outside. A masked man pulled up in a black car and opened fire on them, the boy said, adding Newton might have been wounded before the man took him.

In reality, police said, the boys were playing in a lot when Newton fell into a hole and was buried when it collapsed around him.

I guess it just made a better story.

Credit crisis not explained

The New York Times tries to explain the credit crisis, but can’t really, but can at least give an idea of what went wrong. This alludes to the post about leverage and hedge funds I mentioned the other day:

Investors then goosed their returns through leverage, the oldest strategy around. They made $100 million bets with only $1 million of their own money and $99 million in debt. If the value of the investment rose to just $101 million, the investors would double their money. Home buyers did the same thing, by putting little money down on new houses, notes Mark Zandi of Moody’s The Fed under Alan Greenspan helped make it all possible, sharply reducing interest rates, to prevent a double-dip recession after the technology bust of 2000, and then keeping them low for several years.

Joe Sixpack got into the act by borrowing more than he could afford against his house, figuring the price would go up forever. Bad idea:

The American home seemed like such a sure bet that a huge portion of the global financial system ended up owning a piece of it. Last summer, many policy makers were hoping that the crisis wouldn’t spread to traditional banks, like Citibank, because they had sold off the underlying mortgages to investors. But it turned out that many banks had also sold complex insurance policies on the mortgage debt. That left them on the hook when homeowners who had taken out a wishful-thinking mortgage could no longer get out of it by flipping their house for a profit.

Many of these bets were not huge, but were so highly leveraged that any losses became magnified. If that $100 million investment I described above were to lose just $1 million of its value, the investor who put up only $1 million would lose everything.

Hello, Bear Stearns. Well, goodbye. Read the whole thing to fill in more of the blanks.

This is new: pre-emptive admission of adultery

Remember how Barack Obama said essentially from the get-go that he smoked pot as a teen-ager? Well, the new governor of New York is saying up front that he and his wife both had extra-marital affairs a few years back, but they sorted things out.

In a stunning revelation, both Paterson, 53, and his wife, Michelle, 46, acknowledged in a joint interview they each had intimate relationships with others during a rocky period in their marriage several years ago.

In the course of several interviews in the past few days, Paterson said he maintained a relationship for two or three years with “a woman other than my wife,” beginning in 1999.

The New York Daily News, recipient of this priceless scoop, thoughtfully placed the story above the one about the meltdown of one of Wall Street’s most important investment banks.  Priorities in order, I like that in a newspaper.

Fired sportswriter advises how to keep your print job

Paul Oberjuerge, formerly a sports columnist for a California newspaper, offers 10 suggestions for people who still have their jobs, assuming they want to keep them:

  1. Embrace the web.  
  2. Get a meat-and-potatoes job.  
  3. Suck up.
  4. Stop whining.
  5. Produce.
  6. Stop spending money.
  7. Make sure your editor hired or promoted you.
  8. Keep your head down.
  9. Lose weight, tone up, get a haircut, consider cosmetic surgery.
  10. Achieve excellence.

Click the link to check out his comments on each one. Pretty much spot-on.

Bear Stearns, hedge funds and the latest Wall Street follies

The big investment bank folded over the weekend and got sold for pennies on the dollar. Basically, Bear was heavily involved in securities tied to the mortgage meltdown, and last week there was essentially a run on the bank. By Friday all of Wall Street was avoiding it like Superman avoids kryptonite.

To understand what killed the Bear, you have to understand — to the extent that this is possible for non-financial types — how hedge funds and derivatives speculators make money. The book about the failure of the hedge fund Long Term Capital Management explains that hedge funds make money by borrowing against securities with a leverage ratio far, far beyond anything the rest of us would ever dare to try.

To wit: if your house is worth 100,000 and you owe 100,000, that’s a 1-to-1 leverage ratio. But the assurance that you’ll pay it off — because you have a strong motivation not to default — means you could, in theory, borrow against the assurance of payback on the note, because that assurance is in essence a kind of collateral. You know, something with market value. Say you talked your bank into loaning you another $100,000, then you’d have a 2-to-1 leverage ratio.

Hedge fund managers, who have billions to play with and the best brains and computers in the business, can find ways to make money off that assurance of payback in ways that would make your head spin. A single security could have a 15-to-1 or even 30-to-1 leverage ratio. These seem like stupendously risky bets when a measly million dollars, say, has 15 million dollars borrowed against it. Thing is, in ordinary circumstances, there’s no realistic risk of having to pay back all these loans at the same time.

To visualize this, imagine the Flying Wallendas with their Human Pyramid: it had four guys on the base, two people in the middle and one on top. Now, imagine the pyramid upside down, with one very strong beefy guy on the bottom and everybody else balanced on his shoulders. Theoretically, such a balance is possible, but it’d probably take a computer and the world’s greatest acrobats to pull it off. A long as everybody keeps their balance, everything’s fine. But if anything highly unusual happens — like, perhaps, one of the biggest investment banks in the world collapsing — the pyramid falls and there’s blood under the Big Top.

Bear Stearns wasn’t a hedge fund, but it was in the hedge fund business, and it had billions in borrowings out there that it couldn’t pay off with cash on hand. Late last week, Wall Street turned on Bear with a vengeance, and everybody wanted what Bear owed them, and they wanted it now.

A bank or hedge fund can survive if it can get its hands on enough cash to survive till the panic subsides. That’s where the Fed came in, offering to stand behind $30 billion worth of Bear securities till Wall Street stops acting like cattle in full stampede mode.

Long-Term Capital Management was rescued by a deal in which the biggest investment Wall Street Banks chipped in a few billion apiece to provide a cash life line to the fund until the run on its securities ended. Bear Stearns refused to participate. Cosmic payback arrived over the weekend.

I can’t help wondering how many leveraged-to-the-hilt securities out there presume the continued existence of Bear Stearns, and what happens to them when it disappears. Then again, I’m not too sure I want to think about that.

Where housecats come from

Washington Post has the scoop:

In one of the most comprehensive explorations of cats’ origins to date, Lyons and her colleagues spent about five years collecting feline DNA, poking behind the whiskers of more than 1,100 Persians, Siamese, street cats and household tabbies around the world to swab inside their mouths. The genetic samples came from 22 breeds of fancy cats, mostly in the United States, along with an assortment of feral and pet cats in Korea, China, Kenya, Israel, Turkey, Vietnam, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Egypt, Italy, Finland, Germany, the United States and Brazil.

By analyzing 39 genetic signposts in the samples, the researchers were able to investigate a variety of questions, including which breeds are most closely related and where they most likely originated.

The first thing the group did was confirm a report published last June in the journal Science that the domestication of cats about 10,000 years ago appeared to have occurred in an area known as the Fertile Crescent, which stretches from Turkey to northern Africa and to modern-day Iraq and Iran.

Speaking of Iran, Persians don’t seem to be from Persia, the researchers found. So how come people and cats seem to get along so well (mostly)?

Cats probably started living close to humans when people evolved from nomadic herding to raising livestock and crops and started storing food, which attracted mice and other rodents. Cats found good hunting there, and humans surely appreciated the sly little predators’ help protecting their stocks.

“There was a mutual benefit,” Lyons said. “There was a food source of mice and rats all around the grain. So it was beneficial for both cats and humans as the cats came closer to human populations and kind of domesticated themselves.”

That is to say, the cats domesticated the people.

I love it when a plan works out

Remember how some folks thought we could use Iraqi oil profits to fund the war? Must’ve been a swell proposition because that’s how it’s being funded — by crooks funneling profits to the insurgents. From this morning’s New York Times:

The sea of oil under Iraq is supposed to rebuild the nation, then make it prosper. But at least one-third, and possibly much more, of the fuel from Iraq’s largest refinery here is diverted to the black market, according to American military officials. Tankers are hijacked, drivers are bribed, papers are forged and meters are manipulated — and some of the earnings go to insurgents who are still killing more than 100 Iraqis a week.

“It’s the money pit of the insurgency,” said Capt. Joe Da Silva, who commands several platoons stationed at the refinery.

You know how the saying goes, there’s no power on earth stronger than a bad idea whose time has come.

What’s up at the Mercury News these days

Last week a bunch more people left. A few went of their own volition, most were fired. Here’s a complete list. I still have a job, though there were many times when I longed for the nerve (and the financial resources) to walk away and leave the business of putting out a paper to more intrepid types.

While we were in the midst of stewing in our angst last week, a former Merc guy wrote the newspaper’s obituary on his blog. I still detect a pulse, but there’s no denying it’s getting fainter.

I recall thinking back in about 1996 that newspapers had about five years to get their act together before the Internet swallowed them whole. Well, our tail is sticking out of the whale’s mouth but most of our business is working its way through the leviathan’s digestive system. It doesn’t look good.

One forward-looking blogger has created a site called … mind you this guy doesn’t work in print anymore so he can marvel at watching the Titanic sink beneath the icy waves from his online lifeboat. One page at his site explains something that I knew 10 years ago: newspapers were charging higher and higher ad and subscription rates for smaller and smaller audiences, a business that was clearly unsustainable. What did they do about this? Invest billions in R&D to keep themselves relevant in the new age? If only.

What happened was newspapers kept expecting somebody to show them the way in the Internet era but failed to notice that Google and Yahoo were inventing Internet advertising. Now the technology belongs to somebody else.

All this has been hashed out in excruciating detail all over the Web, with new predictions of the newspaper industry’s demise showing up daily — tempered with forced optimism that something better is on the horizon. It’s like that “you’re going to a better place” business people feel compelled to tell the doomed on their deathbeds. The dying know it’s a lie, but it’s such bad form to correct somebody when they’re trying to cheer you up.

Here’s what I think will happen: everybody who bought newspapers in the last three or four years will go bankrupt because they bought the top of a market held aloft by the phony housing boom, and some clever operative like Warren Buffett will come in and buy them up at pennies on the dollar.

Most of us will be forced to get real jobs, like school teachers or dogcatchers.

I have this half-baked notion that I can ride this out from the inside and see how it all shakes out. People still want local news, I figure, and people still want to buy ads to promote their local businesses. Newspapers didn’t have to adapt all those years when they had markets to themselves. Now they have no choice. With our industry’s survival on the line, we’re apt to get more creative, or die trying.

There are plenty of jobs out there for writers and editors. I keep meaning to apply for them. It’s possible these days to create a blog that draws enough traffic to earn a living. I keep fixing to get ready to create one.

Back when I had my first paper route in 1974 — a job I despised, mind you — one of the first things I noticed was how the ink rubs off and blackens your hands when you deliver a hundred of the damned things in an afternoon. The ink on the outside washes off, but the ink that gets under your skin when you build a paper from scratch every day for two decades never goes away.

One thing in my favor: I’ve been a Web junkie from day one, and news and the Web go together. Maybe the newspaper I build in the future won’t be on paper at all. That can’t be a bad thing, really. Think of all the trees it would save.