A Whole New World of Social Parasitism

Published at 09:14 on 17 February 2012

That’s what nanosecond trading amounts to.

There’s this whole world below 650 milliseconds. It’s like landing on another planet

Looks more like a whole new world of social parasitism on the part of the capitalist class to me.

What value to society does this produce? None, so far as I can see. For the sake of this discussion, let’s be generous to capitalists and take their claim of financial markets being the most efficient way to raise capital at face value. Market forces which are said to work just fine at time scales that humans can perceive (in fact, that’s the scale that all the economic analyses capitalism fans cite as evidence in favor of the utility of such markets work on). There is absolutely no need to go beyond that, and going beyond that consumes labor and resources that could be devoted to producing genuine value.

In fact, by making it more difficult for humans to understand financial markets, such trading actually destroys value, so it is indeed nothing but wasteful social parasitism. There’s actually an effective reformist measure that would put a swift end to it: having a tax on the value of every financial transaction, as France is proposing to do. That would be harmless to long-term investing but take an onerous bite out of short-term trading frenzies.

The question is if and whether it will happen. Those who run markets are sufficiently in the laissez faire mindset that it is ideologically inconvenient for them to be able to see how market forces have naturally evolved in such a way as to destroy value, and to admit the need for intervention to correct this. On the other hand, capitalists have, when presented with the choice between ideological purity and either profit maximization or self-preservation, tended to consistently choose the latter over the former.

Part of a Well-Established Pattern

Published at 18:54 on 16 February 2012

After the strikers in Longview made it clear that they were willing to ignore the Establishment’s laws if management also was (it’s a little thing called contract breach), and after they were planning to escalate the confrontation further by inviting the Occupy movement to take place, suddenly the Establishment started to get interested in honoring that existing union contract.

Not because it was the honorable thing to do, mind you, but because they were starting to see how failing to do so was going to end up costing them more than agreeing to do so.

So it has always been: if you look at the times when the Establishment has passed reforms that blunt the fangs of capitalism, it has always been during times when there has been growing radical sentiment: the Progressive Era happened when the IWW and the early Socialist Party were going strong (and it’s main exponent, Teddy Roosevelt, got into the White House because his predecessor was assassinated by an anarchist), the New Deal happened at the height of the Communist Party, USA (why do you think it was so easy for Senator McCarthy to find so many people who had attended Communist Party meetings?), and the Civil Rights era in the Sixties also happened against a groundswell of radical movements.

And indeed, it’s also why the Establishment media tries as hard as possible to smear the Occupy movement by continually focusing on its problems. They know what forces them to kick down concessions, and they don’t want to have to do that.

Haidt’s Blindness

Published at 12:19 on 14 February 2012

Just under a week ago I heard an interesting interview with a fellow called Jonathan Haidt  (sounds like “height”, not “hate”) on Bill Moyers’ new NPR program. Haidt’s stated premise is that liberals and conservatives fundamentally think differently, probably because their minds are wired differently.

I think there is some validity in that premise, but in general Haidt’s statements are also an example of Derrick Jensen’s statement about hidden premises:

One of the first rules of propaganda is: if you can slide your premises by people you’ve got them.

In this case,  the hidden premises that Heidt has (and which his interviewer, Moyers, apparently shares) seem to be the following two:

  1. The presumption that the liberal-conservative spectrum as reflected in Establishment politics in the US represents all legitimate political thought.
  2. The presumption that the current order is legitimate and is worth preserving.

I suppose the title of the program (How Do Conservatives and Liberals See the World?) should have been a dead giveaway to premise one. And indeed, nothing but Establishment liberalism and Establishment conservatism are discussed in Haidt’s interview. Premise two becomes evident when Haidt says:

Nothing gets us together like a foreign attack. And we’ve seen that, 9/11, and Pearl Harbor. And, conversely, when there are moral divisions within the group, and no external attack, the tribalism can ramp up, and reach really pathological proportions. And that’s where we are now.

By this metric, the problem to be concerned about is not the groupthink that led the Establishment media to not question Bush’s lies about Iraq. That’s apparently merely “our moral sense binding us together into [a team] that can cooperate in order to compete with other teams.” No, the problem is the mean old nasty “pathological tribalism” which merely raised the prospect that (yes, merely raised the prospect: the anti-war movement actually failed, because the Iraq war happened nonetheless) domestic opposition might manage to (horrors!) stop that same war machine from killing.

Getting back to that first premise, Haidt’s analysis of US politics is bereft of any mention of the role played by radicalism, and of how no capitalist state has ever voluntarily agreed to blunt the fangs of capitalism. Reforms to that end only get motivated by the rulers’ fear of what will happen to public sentiment if they don’t get enacted.

Therefore, Haidt’s theory is basically incapable of explaining the Progressive Era, the New Deal, or the Sixties. If there have always been conservatives who don’t agree with the liberal notion of fairness, and that notion is simply incapable of resonating with the majority of Americans, how have programs that profess inspired by that notion ever been put into law? Moreover, if it’s all a matter of the way our tribalistic brains are hardwired, how have most other industrialized nations managed to put far more such reforms into place than the USA?

That said, Haidt is not all wrong. He’s right that neither liberals nor conservatives (nor any other political ideology) has it all correct, and that ideologies in general tend to make it difficult or impossible for their adherents to acknowledge certain key, irrefutable facts, and that humans are in some sense probably born hypocrites and born pandering politicians. He’s not the first to stumble across this, either: it’s essentially what prompted Orwell to write his Notes on Nationalism in 1945.

In fact, Haidt goes beyond Orwell in certain ways that furnish useful insights. For example, he’s definitely correct about liberals’ strongest political motive being care about others:

Sure. So, if you imagine each of our righteous minds as being, like an audio equalizer with six slider switches, and the first one is care, compassion, those sorts of issues, liberals have it turned up to 11. And we have this on a lot of different surveys. Liberals really feel. When they see an animal being mistreated, they’re more likely to feel something than conservatives, and especially than libertarians, who are very, very low on this one.

The next two, liberty and fairness, when liberty and fairness conflict with care, are you going to punish someone, or are you going to be compassionate? Liberals are more likely to go with care.

It’s one of the reasons I consider myself an anarchist and not a liberal. Liberals care about others so much that they tend to reduce adults to the status of quasi-children, all for their own good, of course. It’s the liberal do-gooders who are the worst shoe fascists and who tend to eject me for being barefoot “because we care about you and don’t want you to hurt yourself”; I’ve had far more problems of this sort (or, in fact, of any sort) going barefoot in big, liberal cities than I have in small, conservative towns.

Then we get to:

In other words, care trumps liberty and fairness, even though everybody cares about all three of those. The next three, loyalty, authority and sanctity, what we find, across many questionnaires, many surveys and analyses of texts and sermons, all sorts of things, is that liberals don’t talk a lot about loyalty, you know, group loyalty. They don’t talk a lot about authority and the importance of order and authority, maintaining order. They don’t talk a lot about sanctity. Conservatives on the other hand, what we find is that, they value all of these more or less equally.

We’ve segued back to the hidden premise which says that every belief worth considering is reflected in Establishment politics. In this case, the only forms of organization Haidt is willing to discuss are the hierarchical, authoritarian ones which both sides of the Establishment coin consider as self-evident.

Finally (and ironically enough), Haidt is also correct when he says:

Wherever people sacralize something, there you will find ignorance, blindness to the truth, and resistance to evidence.

Ironically, that is, because with his unstated premises Haidt himself is sacralizing Establishment politics.

Back to the Old Ponzi Scheme

Published at 17:46 on 7 February 2012

So, Americans are borrowing more and this “could be a sign that Americans are more confident in the economy”. Of course, the very next sentence contains the catch: “consumers are also borrowing more and saving less at a time when their wages haven’t kept pace with inflation.”

In other words, it’s the same old capitalist Ponzi scheme that’s been playing out since the 1970s: declining unionization, stagnant or declining wages, and increased debt taking the place of increased wages when it comes to consumer spending.

Maybe the capitalists will again figure out how to make it last a few years before it collapses yet again, just like real estate and tech stocks did. Big deal. Anytime money is borrowed, it has to be paid back. This Ponzi scheme will collapse just like the previous ones did.

And each time the newest scheme collapses, it does so harder than the last collapse. So it will continue until either the capitalist class realizes that income inequality threatens the capitalist system itself, or the reemergence of class consciousness prompts the ruled to successfully rebel against their rulers.

Since we’re nowhere near either point at the present time, expect the boom/bust cycle to go through at least one more iteration.

HD Radio is the Quadraphonic Stereo of the 2010’s

Published at 13:40 on 4 February 2012

After having listened to HD broadcasts regularly for about a month, that’s the inevitable conclusion. It’s there, stations have spent a lot of money on enabling themselves to broadcast it, but consumers have almost universally not adopted it and even broadcasters don’t take it very seriously anymore. Ergo, it’s going to die in the not-too-distant future.

Exhibit A: Knowing that the chips which decode HD into audio are proprietary, I wondered just how pricy they might be. After a bunch of Google searching (the magic keywords have slipped my memory and I can’t furnish a link at the moment, sorry), I found out that the fee is around $50 per chip. The receiver I purchased from an Amazon storefront was made several years ago, came to me new in its packaging, and cost me $40. In other words, HD receivers are not selling and are being liquidated at below cost.

Exhibit B: KING-FM‘s HD signal went off the air for a few days in the wake of last month’s ice storm. There was never any announcement to this fact on the air, or for that matter on KING-FM’s web site. By contrast, if they lost their analog stereo subcarrier, I find it inconceivable that there would not be both regular on-the-air announcements and a mention on their web site about it.

Moreover, I listen somewhat regularly to “the Evergreen Channel,” the program that airs on KING-FM’s HD2 digital subcarrier. Whenever they solicit listener contributions, they instruct you to “click the donate button on your player.” Never is any mention made of what listeners on HD radio should do; there is a presumption here that those of us who listen on HD are such a small minority that we’re not worth worrying about.

Exhibit C: For the past month or more, the HD subcarrier has been absent from the KUOW2 transmitter on 91.7 kHz, as evidenced by the following message on their web site:


We apologize for the break in our KUOW2 HD services. Our engineers are working to fix the problem.

Hey, at least they rated HD worth a mention on their web site; that’s more than one can say for KING-FM. But, to reiterate, it’s been this way for at least a month (i.e. ever since I’ve been trying to receive an HD signal from that transmitter). Obviously, it’s not a very high priority item for their engineers. Again, I find it inconceivable that they would take such a long time to restore the analog stereo subcarrier to their transmitter.

I would not be surprised, in fact, if KUOW decides to simply forget about HD on their second transmitter and if in a few months all mention of HD one day simply vanishes without explanation from the web page for that transmitter. That’s probably what’s going to happen to the vast majority of HD broadcasts in the coming five years or so: they will continue until something breaks in the station’s HD hardware, at which point it will be pronounced by management as not worth spending the money to fix and the service will be silently discontinued.

To reiterate, this will not be a surprise when it happens.

First, consider the cost: I would not have paid several hundred dollars for such a receiver. The only reason I purchased one is that I have a crappy slow Internet connection and cannot reliably stream audio. It was worth a one-time expense of $40 to have unlimited access to the BBC. At several hundred dollars per receiver, I would have just paid for better Internet service. That would cost a more, sure, but I’d then be able to stream audio from more than just the BBC, as well as watch videos on demand.

Second, consider the reliability: HD is still considerably more temperamental than analog FM, which is temperamental enough on an inside antenna: one is continually having issues with multipath interference and loss of signal strength causing loss of the stereo subcarrier. But at least with analog FM, one still gets an audible signal when that happens. With HD Radio, the signal suddenly and with no warning whatsoever vanishes completely. At least at home it’s possible to erect a good external antenna on the roof. In a car, you’re simply stuck with a small whip, and you will hit weak-signal areas as you drive around. It’s no wonder automakers have avoided adding HD Radio to the receivers they install in vehicles.

Finally, consider the improvement in sound quality: It’s very modest. Frequency modulation was designed to offer better sound quality than amplitude modulation, and it succeeds admirably in this regard; the difference in audio quality between an AM signal and an FM one is profound. In contrast, it’s difficult for me to discern any such difference between analog FM and HD Radio.

So I fully expect my $40 investment to become an interesting conversation piece about a mostly forgotten era in radio broadcasting in the decades to come.

Bad Web Design Example of the Day

Published at 12:08 on 3 February 2012

Just what is that fourth character, anyhow? A lower-case letter O that’s been stretched and distorted to the size of an upper-case one? An upper-case letter O? The numeral zero?

There’s no way to tell, of course, save to take a wild guess. A guess where you have 67% odds of guessing wrong (yes, it’s case-sensitive, so “O” is not recognized as “o”). And if you guess wrong, guess what? That’s right: you get presented with brand new CAPTCHA! Which, given the number of characters in it, odds say will probably contain at least one “C”, “c”, “O”, “o”, “P”, “p”, “V”, “v”, “W”, “w”, “X”, “x”, “Z”, “z”, or “0” character.

Charming. Simply charming.