Just Change the Caption!

The new, fully archived blog is now: www.cambridgeblog.org

Few newspaper pieces are so (ready for this one?) metatextual as this one about photograph manipulation.

Remember Iran’s swarms of test missiles? Remember how there were really only two? Does it matter anymore how many there were, since you saw an intimidating picture with a bunch of missiles?

Photoshop analysis by Charles Johnson, Little Green Footballs

Photoshop analysis by Charles Johnson, Little Green Footballs

As it happens, seeing something is usually enough to ingrain it in your mind, even if you know that it is false.

Better yet, don’t bother with the task of digital alteration:

The rest of the article includes a fascinating interview with digital expert Hany Farid. And yes, they bring Godzilla into it. Definitely worth a read.

The US has been at it too, especially during the Cold War. And that kid thinks that JFK is hilarious, apparently.


E.P.A. Will Require Ethanol in Gas

The Environmental Protection Agency will continue to require that ethanol be used in gas, as the NY Times reports:

…the goal of reducing the nation’s reliance on oil trumps any effect on food prices from making fuel from corn.

Look, I’m not a fan of higher food and grain prices. I love beer, and boy oh boy, it’s getting pricier every month from this squeeze, as are my home brewing supplies.

Food prices aside, this seems to be a purely economic, and not terribly environmental decision. Are weproducing ethanol efficiently enough yet? Corn farming is devastating to the environment, and

Click to Embiggen
Click to Embiggen

processing it is very energy-intensive. I’m not certain that we are creating enough fuel to justify the energy input. On top of that, it’s cost-effective because we subsidize it!

This is frustrating.

Here’s a graph from Mother Jones detailing the price relationships. According to this source, it’s a 1:1.3 relationship of energy input:output. Not too great.On the other hand, the folks wishing to lift the ban run cattle feedlots that fatten beef on corn (something they’re not supposed to eat). Which side am I supposed to take? Am I making any faulty assumptions?

Anyone with more expertise in this matter, sound off!

Credit Card Complaints

I have a few. I have had credit card companies fail at the most basic services. And I’m one of the lucky ones.

From a very heavily-commented editorial in today’s New York Times:

When the Federal Reserve asked for comments on its proposed rules on abusive credit card practices, an astonishing 56,000 poured in. Most were from outraged consumers. They told of interest rates skyrocketing when they paid an unrelated bill late. They complained of unwarranted late fees and pushed-up due dates. One Pennsylvania customer fumed: “I’m fed up with credit card company tricks that drive us deeper in debt.”

The author cites Ronald Mann of Columbia Law School. Mann likens the fees, interest rates, and other schemes by credit card issuers to a “sweat box.” He’s author of Cambridge’s Charging Ahead: The Growth and Regulation of Payment Card Markets. He knows a thing or two about consumer spending and the habits of credit issuers.

I’ve asked him for some comments — I’ll be back with an update if he has a chance to respond!

Update #1: Here is a link to the comments lodged with the Federal Reserve Board by consumers. Thousands and thousands of them.

Update #2: Dr. Mann’s further comments are below. He doesn’t feel that Congress’ legislation will be too effective. Here’s why:

My general perspective here is that much of the legislation Congress is considering will do little or no good. For the most part, Congress is considering bills that outlaw specific contracting practices issuers use to make it difficult for cardholders to anticipate the charges. The problem with that approach is that issuers constantly “cycle” the contractual practices they use, and outlawing the practices that were current last year has little effect on “cutting-edge” issuers who are already designing new practices that would not be covered by the statute. My strong impression continues to be that the bills would have little or no chance of passing if they had any serious prospect of actually changing the way the industry does business.

Executive Compensation

Where to begin?

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal ran an expose on the hoops companies jump through to fund executive pensions. They do it quietly, tweak the pensions of lower-level employees (sometimes in dollars per month) and end up with a big tax shelter for thousands of dollars.

The CEO Always Goes Down with the Benjamins

The CEO Always Goes Down with the Benjamins

Little-Known Move Uses Tax Break Meant For Rank and File

At a time when scores of companies are freezing pensions for their workers, some are quietly converting their pension plans into resources to finance their executives’ retirement benefits and pay.

In recent years, companies from Intel Corp. to CenturyTel Inc. collectively have moved hundreds of millions of dollars of obligations for executive benefits into rank-and-file pension plans. This lets companies capture tax breaks intended for pensions of regular workers and use them to pay for executives’ supplemental benefits and compensation.

The practice has drawn scant notice. A close examination by The Wall Street Journal shows how it works and reveals that the maneuver, besides being a dubious use of tax law, risks harming regular workers. It can drain assets from pension plans and make them more likely to fail. Now, with the current bear market in stocks weakening many pension plans, this practice could put more in jeopardy. Onward to WSJ >>

There’s more.

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Bishop Gene Robinson a Presence at Lambeth

The new, fully archived blog is now: www.cambridgeblog.org

Once every ten years, bishops from across the Anglican communion (that’s the Episcopalians here in the US) meet at Lambeth palace with the Archbishop of Canterbury. This time around things have radically shifted, since the 2003 elevation of Gene Robinson to bishop of New Hampshire.

Robinson is openly gay, and in a decades-long relationship. This has sparked the ire of conservatives from around the world, including here in the US, and especially in the growing Anglican churches of Africa. In many of these countries, homosexuality is punishable by death or imprisonment. My vote for the creepiest clergy member in the world would have to go to Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria (read a summary of an Atlantic Monthly report here). The guy is pretty much conflating Islamophobia with homophobia, and shipping it around the world, and is likely complicit in the massacre of Muslims by Christians in Nigeria.

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University Endowments

What can’t they buy?

Did your university have a climbing wall, hot tubs, or en-suite bathrooms?

Mine sure didn’t. And I didn’t miss ’em. Then again, it didn’t have a massive endowment either. Maybe because they built a giant sports complex that I didn’t use. I’m sure that exercise equipment is the surest way to attract top-notch students… or not. So do we have a bunch of picky, bratty kids, or parents with massive expectations as they prepare to shell out years of savings? From the NY Times:

BEREA, Ky. — Berea College, founded 150 years ago to educate freed slaves and “poor white mountaineers,” accepts only applicants from low-income families, and it charges no tuition.

“You can literally come to Berea with nothing but what you can carry, and graduate debt free,” said Joseph P. Bagnoli Jr., the associate provost for enrollment management. “We call it the best education money can’t buy.”

Actually, what buys that education is Berea’s $1.1 billion endowment, which puts the college among the nation’s wealthiest. But unlike most well-endowed colleges, Berea has no football team, coed dorms, hot tubs or climbing walls. Instead, it has a no-frills budget, with food from the college farm, handmade furniture from the college crafts workshops, and 10-hour-a-week campus jobs for every student.

More >>


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Amusing but sad.

Is anyone else floored by this?

At Ford, End of a Big-Vehicle Era Takes a Toll (NY Times)

Ford and GM are losing lots of money and generally making a mess of things, because they focused so much on pickup trucks and SUVs, which are both fairly worthless right now.

And all along, their foreign competitors, (even Ford in Europe!) produced small cars and flourished. How could they not know that the day was coming?

“These write-downs are another result of the tremendous movement in the marketplace away from trucks and S.U.V.’s,” Ford’s chief executive, Alan R. Mulally, said in an interview.

This isn’t new. It looks like they’ll have to take a pretty big beating before they’ll get up and innovate something.