Thursday, June 25, 2009

The price of one ICBM: 386,250 dinners at Chez Panisse!

(Photos are of Chez Panisse, Specchio's kitchen and baby Mena at the zoo -- just thought I'd throw that in as an example of Enlightened cuteness)

What is the most prestigious status symbol there is? A 20-karat diamond necklace? A Rolls Royce? A mansion in Beverly Hills? Nope. An Intercontinental Ballistic Missile is the absolutely most prestigious thing. Just ask anyone who owns one. ICBMs are hot!

I wanna own an ICBM. THEN people will like me. Where can I buy one? How much do they cost?

According to John Clay, a missile expert at Northrup-Grumman, "The last ICBM [system] cost $100 billion, in current dollars." And according to an official U.S. Navy website, the unit cost for one Lockheed Trident is 30.9 million dollars. Guess I'm going to have to save up.

And speaking of prestigious things, me and my daughter Ashley and my son Joe splurged bigtime last night and went out to dinner at that famous gourmet French restaurant in north Berkeley -- Chez Panisse. We had three things to celebrate: My birthday, Father's Day (Joe's a dad), and the recent settlement of my lawsuit against the Department of Defense.

Our dinner was excellent. We had "Canard aux abricots" (roast duck in apricot sauce) and "Halibut carpaccio with shaved porcini mushrooms" (halibut-mushroom Jello), with "Almond panna cotta with plum coulis" (cottage cheese pudding and fruit) for dessert. "Our featured wine of the evening is called Lacryma Christi -- the Tears of Christ," said our waiter. Joe had a glass in honor of Neda Soltan and the other recent victims of out-of-control militia thugs in Iran.

How come when out-of-control militia thugs kill a girl in Iran, it's considered an outrage and every newspaper in America shrieks about it in their headlines -- but when hundreds of girls get killed in Palestine by out-of-control Israeli militia thugs, it doesn't even make the back pages. And when hundreds of peaceful American protesters are attacked and jailed at Republican conventions in New York and Minneapolis, you only hear about that on the blogs. That's not good journalism. That's propaganda. But I digress.

For our big night out at Chez Panisse, we really tried hard to find a babysitter for 18-month-old Mena but we couldn't, so while the three of us were eating our roasted duck, we each took turns walking around the block with baby Mena in our arms until she finally fell asleep. And the staff of Chez Panisse was most gracious about our having to bring Mena at the last minute and kept bringing her fruit and bread. Mena loves Chez Panisse bread!

After two glorious hours of eating totally delicious stuff, the final bill for our wonderful evening came to $60 apiece plus wine, tax and tip. That's a lot of money, but so what -- the Department of Defense was paying for it.

The DoD also pays for ICBMs (actually, we taxpayers are the ones who get to pay through the nose for these prestige items). However. What if we stopped spending our hard-earned money on ICBMs and started spending it on sending people to Chez Panisse instead? I figure that for the price of one (1) ICBM, we could seat approximately 386,250 people for a nice duck dinner at Chez Panisse.

Which is the better value?

Chez Panisse of course!

I figure that if we calculated the cost of a whole missile system as suggested by Northrup-Grumman (you gotta have the whole system for the freaking missile to work -- otherwise it would just be sitting uselessly around forever out in your garage), that cost would equal approximately 10,000,000,000 dinners at Chez Panisse (or approximately 33.3 dinners for every man, woman and child in the U.S.) -- so lets be practical here and just go with the $30.9 million unit cost.

"But if we got rid of all the ICBMs, how could we survive without them?" you might ask. "What will keep America safe?" Hmmm. Did the Minuteman III missile system keep us safe on 9-11? No. Maybe all those dinners might have kept us safer. For instance, if Cheney and Mohammed Atta had simply met for dinner at Chez Panisse and gotten all mellowed out, there might not even have BEEN a 9-11. And now that the Taliban is giving us all this trouble in AfPak, I bet that if Hillary Clinton had dinner at Chez Panisse with a few of those misguided Taliban mullahs (minus, of course, the Tears of Christ), she could straighten them right out. Or Obama could take Kim Jong Il there and end the nuclear crisis in North Korea. And Bush could have taken Saddam Hussein to Chez Panisse (instead of just serving him up some over-cooked Shock and Awe) and saved us taxpayers three trillion dollars right off the bat.

PS: An ICBM really does appear to be the world's ultimate status symbol and super-prestigious thing. Parking one of those babies in your driveway will surely make the neighbors all drool. But a dinner at Chez Panisse is a very nice status symbol too. Or you could have brunch at that new gourmet Italian restaurant over in San Francisco's Mission District -- Specchio. We went there for Fathers Day and Mena loved the bread there too. Plus they served the world's best beet salad and pumpkin-amaretto raviolis....

Never mind.

What I am trying to say here is that the ultimate prestigious thing one can possess in this world isn't an ICBM missile or 386,250 dinners at Chez Panisse or even brunch at Specchio. The most ultimate prestigious thing one can possess in this world is ENLIGHTENMENT. Nothing you can have or own is more valuable than Peace of Mind and Non-Attachment to Stuff. However, be that as it may, the most valuable thing in all existence -- Enlightenment -- cannot be bought. No Wall Street billionaires or Pentagon generals or Saudi princes can buy it. But every man, woman and child in the world is capable of owning it for themselves, no matter how rich they are -- or how poor.

So. Screw the material world. I've decided to spend the next 20 years of my life seeking Enlightenment. Ha! That'll show 'em. Then I will be better than anyone else and will get invited to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom, have tea with the Queen and even be asked to meet with the Dalai Lama, Vladimir Putin and Osama bin Ladin in his cave. Perez Hilton will write about me. I will be HOT!

PPS: Does anyone have any suggestions on exactly how to go about obtaining Enlightenment, the most valuable thing that there is in the entire world? Our colleges and universities all offer degrees in searching for gold, selling and buying on the stock market and even designing ICBMs -- but what university offers us a PhD in Enlightenment? And which department in the Pentagon specializes in procurement of that top-secret weapon? And how many of our Congressional representatives are allowed to eat in the special "Enlightened Members Only" section of the Senate cafeteria? And will NATO get any Enlightened Beings to surround Russia with?

And if I perchance DO become Enlightened, does that mean that I will have to give up my blog?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

It's the body count, stupid: Why Israel is losing the war in Palestine

I just finished reading an article about Afghanistan in the Huffington Post. Although its author, Stewart Nusbaumer, was mostly referring to Afghanistan in the article, what he said also appears to apply to all modern warfare, including various wars fought by Israel -- thus giving me some insights into why Israel lost its war in Lebanon two years ago, why it is losing its war in Palestine right now and why it most likely will lose any future war it might declare on Iran.

According to Nusbaumer, "Not everyone, of course, but many, including many in our government and the military, are finally realizing guns and bombs are of limited utility in winning modern wars. ...Slowly, incrementally, reluctantly, haltingly, a different thinking on how to fight modern wars has gained acceptance. These new ideas existed in Vietnam, but General Westmoreland ran the show, and he adhered to the old thinking rooted in World War II." Nusbaumer then goes on to surmise that the old World War II strategies don't work any more. Running up a body count just doesn't work. Nowadays, winning wars is all about winning hearts and minds.

Hearts and minds.

If Israel had spent just a fraction of its multi-mega-billion dollar warfare budget on things like education, medical care and infrastructure improvements in Gaza and the West Bank instead of spending it on white phosphorus bombs, prison gulags and tanks, they wouldn't be having all the multi-mega billion problems that they've been having in the Middle East for the last 60-odd years.

The days of happily rolling up body counts are OVER, guys. That old-style form of warfare went out with the Crusades. Get a clue.

"In terms of traditional military power," continued Nusbaumer, "the U.S. military is in a category by itself. Those who challenge it, then, avoid frontal attacks. They use concealment to evade and to surprise, and are quick to negate the lethal power of the U.S. leviathan. From Southeast Asia to the Middle East to Central Asia this strategy has been used effectively. But first, and most effectively, it was used in Vietnam." And we LOST in Vietnam.

Look what happened to the British when they tried out that D-Day-on-Normandy-Beach body-count thingie on Northern Ireland. It was a disaster. But did the Brits learn anything from that experience? Apparently not. If they had, they wouldn't have gone haring off to Iraq with their guns blazing, playing sidekick to Cowboy George.

You might argue that racking up a body-count in Chechnya worked for Putin -- but at what cost? And observe the classical clinical experiments in the use of violence as the best way to solve problems as conducted by the governments of Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Somalia, the DRC and Sudan. Those experiments all failed.

If you wanna run a successful war today, you gotta win
hearts and minds.

So. One would think that after 61 years of failed conventional warfare in Palestine, Israelis might be starting to realize this by now -- that when people's homes get invaded and their children get slaughtered like road-kill, some people tend to fight back no matter how subservient said people appear to be on the outside (like kindly old Uncle Remus during US slavery times and the Massa's arch-nemesis Brear Rabbit) or how poorly armed they might be (like David versing Goliath) or how successful an occupation seems to be going at the time (like the Romans lording it over the barbarians).

Let's look at another example. Suppose that some religious fanatics had invaded and conquered the United States, using military and terrorist tactics to seize power? Americans would have been very, very pissed off -- just like the Palestinians got pissed when Zionists seized control of their lands. But if the invaders and occupiers had turned out to be fair, just, beneficial and helpful, perhaps the resistance in Minneapolis and Colorado would have been less and perhaps even eventually everyone would have gotten along when everyone -- conquerors and conquered alike -- saw that it was to their advantage to make nice.

Hopefully I've made my point.

But has America and its sidekick Israel learned anything from past military mistakes the US has made -- first in Korea and later in Vietnam? Nope. They didn't learn anything from
the almost total destruction of North Korea (we're still reaping the whirlwind there). They didn't learn anything from Vietnam -- even though 53,000 American GIs died in its jungles. And they didn't learn from the Russian failures in Afghanistan -- or from their own (eight years and we're still there?)

America and Israel didn't learn anything from the invasion of Iraq and they sure as hell haven't learned anything from their attacks on Lebanon and Gaza. Running up a body count no longer wins wars.

What a waste of human life. What a waste of money. What a waste of time.

"But what about if they attack us first?" you might argue. "Don't we have the right to defend ourselves?" Sure. Just like the Palestinians do. But frankly, defense is just not America's --or Israel's -- problem right now. We're talking about unnecessarily offensive behavior here.

The Old World Order is dying -- slowly, for sure -- but dying all the same. In the new post-modern world, conquered peoples who are treated badly will fight to the death, with arrows and brickbats if necessary. People all over the world these days watch television, have cell phones and use the internet. People all over the world KNOW what freedom looks like. And they know that it doesn't look like a massive accumulation of body bags after a rain of bombs.

Sorry, Ari Lieberman and Binyamin Netanyahu, but there's no stuffing the genie back into the bottle. It's too late. There's no going back. If you are gonna conquer someone, you had better make sure that you don't do it Old School -- if you want the conquest to last.

Palestine is a mess right now. The way that things in Gaza and the West Bank are going right now, that particular "war" has been all but lost. However, there is still some ray of hope. Get rid of all those WWII-type people-killing machines and invest in infrastructure, education, jobs and medical care there instead. And freedom too. Freedom is good.

"But Jane," you might ask. "How can you tell that Israel is losing the war in Palestine?" That's easy. Because the Israeli Defense Force, after over 60 years of military-oriented attempts at pacification, is still patrolling the streets of Palestine like it was a foreign occupied country. That's how.

PS: How can Americans continue to fund Israel as it apparently goes around trying to incite a war with Iran -- when the Israelis can't even manage to win their own War at Home despite all the multi-mega-billions of dollars its been funded already. America needs to stop backing an incompetent loser.

PPS: In the last few years, the US military, especially the Marines, have been having some successes in Iraq -- and lately in Afghanistan too. Why? Because it's been funding schools, medical clinics, jobs, etc. and letting the body-bag thingie mostly slide. I rest my case.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

You can't tell the players without a program: Color revolution in Iran -- or not?

Usually the Left's POV is pretty cut and dried. We are for healthcare, against Republican hypocrite perverts, for Chavez in Venezuela, against waterboarding, etc. But I STILL don't know who the good guys and the bad guys are in Iran.

Chavez says that the Iranian protest is just another "Color Revolution". James Petras claims that Ahmadinejad truly does have the support of the salt-of-the-earth people in the countryside. Paul Craig Roberts appears to think that it might all be a CIA plot. And the Guardian claims that Mosauvi is practically the next George Washington. So. Who exactly is right, er, I mean, Left here? And will this be the issue (aside, of course, from Obama) that will finally tear the Left apart?

Here's a quote from the Guardian: "If Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, had wished to show that the state could be responsive, he would have avoided the harsh language he used yesterday at the Friday prayer meeting at Tehran university. He would have said, or at least hinted, that the election results could be reconsidered. He would not have threatened demonstrators. He would not have attacked foreign powers. He would, in short, have faced up to the fact that his problem is that huge numbers of Iranians will not accept his mere assertion that the results were genuine. If he ever had that kind of authority, he does not have it now. They deem him to be a liar."

And here's a quote from Craig Paul Roberts: "The claim is made that Ahmadinejad stole the election, because the outcome was declared too soon after the polls closed for all the votes to have been counted. However, Mousavi declared his victory several hours before the polls closed. This is classic CIA destabilization designed to discredit a contrary outcome. It forces an early declaration of the vote. The longer the time interval between the preemptive declaration of victory and the release of the vote tally, the longer Mousavi has to create the impression that the authorities are using the time to fix the vote. It is amazing that people don’t see through this trick."

But no matter who is right, er, Left, in this matter, it still breaks my heart to see so many people injured and killed in Tehran.

All of Iran seems to be falling apart right now -- and this is a true tragedy, no matter what the cause or who is right or wrong. And at this point in time, I don't freaking CARE which side is right and which side is wrong in Iran. I only care that a country I have traveled in and have become deeply attached to is currently being torn apart.

PS: After reading an e-mail from an Iranian posted on Novekeo, I think I understand the situation over there a little bit better. Iranians appear to be pissed off because they are tired of the old religious dictatorship that is hoarding the oil money and making the ladies wear unstylish clothes. Plus the government is cutting off cell phones and dismantling satilite dishes too and that pisses Iranians off even more.

However. According to the Novekeo source, Iranians are also quite angry because Voice of America and the western press are feeding the flames of dissent, and Iranians also feel that America is taking advantage of this internal debate to verbally (at this point) attack Iran. But make no mistake. If Iran is under threat from outside, ALL Iranians will rally to the cause. They all remember what America did to Iran in the 1950s and what America did to Iraq. And Obama had better keep his mouth shut too.

Withdraw now or later: Either way, your IRA is screwed

(Photos are of six generations of the Stillwater, Janssen, Gandy, Purpus, MacNamara and Hooker families -- before the era of IRAs. That's me with the pearl necklace and Mamie bangs, and white bow and wannabe Shirley Temple curls)

"What should I do about my IRA?" wailed my friend Jim. "If I leave it in a CD in the bank, it's only going to earn seven-elevenths of a percent in interest. But if I try to make it earn more by buying stocks and bonds with it, I could stand to lose it all -- not to mention having to pay stock brokers' fees. However, if I just let it sit in the bank and do nothing, inflation might eat it all up. But if I take it out and buy gold and silver instead -- or even just store it under my mattress -- then I lose up to 33% of it to income taxes, the second it stops being an IRA."

Jim, your IRA is screwed.

Remember back in the day when IRAs seemed like a good thing, wherein Jim didn't have to pay taxes on his income then -- because he could pay taxes on it later, perhaps after Clinton's peace dividend kicked in and taxes went down? Who would have thought that "later" was going to cause all these problems? The financial good times were rolling. "'Later" seemed like a good thing. "Later" seemed really safe.

Who would have guessed that, financially speaking, the building would catch fire and Jim's IRA would be stuck in the flames, crying to get out of a lock-down with no exit!

So. What should Jim do? What would you do if you were Jim?

One solution to this dilemma would be if our Congressional representatives finally told the Federal Reserve Bank to go shove it. "You've screwed up our economy long enough and your services are no longer needed," our reps would say as they finally begin to stand up for the rights of the people who elect them. Like that's ever going to happen.

Another solution might be for Congress to pass emergency legislation to protect our IRAs -- so we could put them into special interest-bearing CDs designed solely to protect the savings of old people? Nope. That's never going to happen either.

"You'll never get the government to do that," commented my friend Doug, "because the government really wants those IRAs put into stocks. Why? Because the stock market is like a giant legal casino and the house, er, I mean the government, not only gets a 28% rake but also looks the other way while stock traders who also get a share of the take fill up our Congressional representatives' campaign coffers." Oh. That's why.

Another solution is to stop lobbyists from owning Congress (and dreaming up ways to get their grubby little hands on our IRAs too). Congress hasn't been listening to us the voters at all in the past few decades because Congress has been too busy listening to lobbyists. Congress has become tone-deaf to the people who have elected them. "But what about passing some election campaign finance reform bills?" you might ask. Yeah, right. Campaign finance reform bills have gone nowhere in the past 20-odd years, languishing in committees, unheard.

If America is ever going to be a great and free nation again, we've gotta stop piddling away our time and resources while tilting at windmills in the Middle East, put on our warrior suits here at home and defeat America's real enemies -- corporate lobbyists.

Every voter in America owes it to his or her country -- and to his or her IRA! -- to sign a petition to pass a new Constitutional Amendment limiting the amount of money each political candidate can take from one source. Congress has refused to take action in this matter, and now the ball is in our court.

"How about limiting everyone to donating only $500 each?" Fine. That ought to screw the lobbyists on K Street -- instead of just us getting screwed.

So I popped off to the Petition Site and wrote out my own freaking petition. Here it is. If everyone in America who has an IRA at stake in this race signs it, we really could amend the Constitution, get rid of lobbyists, elect OURSELVES to Congress and save the day! If you are feeling heroic, please click and sign here:

PS: The real difference between the Right Wing and the Left Wing these days seems to be that when Left-Wingers get upset by political developments, they all run out and initiate Congressional bills and Constitutional Amendments -- while when the Right Wing gets upset, they all run out and stir up hate-mongering until one of their fringe wingnuts finally shoots someone or else a foreign country gets bombed.

According to Geoffrey Canada's excellent book, "Fist Stick Knife Gun," violence is NOT inherent in the human psyche. It is learned. Whenever you spank a child, you are teaching it to be violent. And when you are an arms dealer trying to figure out the best way to up your profit margin by marketing handguns to children [and to the Pentagon and people who watch Fox News], you are also teaching violence.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Crafty: Israel's macaroni-and-cheese approach to Palestine

After looking at a map of Palestine's West Bank, you might start to wonder what the Palestinians are all complaining about. They still have lots of land over there. There's plenty of room for them. What's the big deal?

The big deal is that these maps only offer us the appearance that Palestinians have lots of land. These maps are only for show. The reality of land distribution in the Occupied Territories is pretty much different from what you see on a map. Should you actually pack up your bags, fly off to the Tel Aviv airport, cross through all the IDF military checkpoints and finally arrive in Palestine, you will immediately see that hundreds of illegal Israeli settlements are taking up more and more prime property all over the West Bank.

Looking at a map of Palestine is like looking at a bowl of macaroni and cheese. If you weren't actually poking around in the stuff with your fork, you might get the false idea that the whole thing is just made up of cheese. But when you actually bite into your food, you immediately discover that it's mostly macaroni.

And when you actually get to Palestine's West Bank, it surely doesn't look the same as on a map. When you actually see all those hundreds of massive illegal settlements that compose most of the area, you immediately see a whole new reality. And those settlements ARE truly massive. We are not just talking about some tents and some trailers sprinkled here and there west of the Jordan. We're talking about modern condos six stories high with self-defrosting refrigerators, flat-screen TVs and guest bedrooms. This is not just cheese we are talking about here. The West Bank of Palestine these days consists mostly of macaroni.

If we were little kids, we could just use our fingers to pick all the, er, macaroni out of the West Bank, er, cheese. End of problem. And if we were the American government or the United Nations, we could easily remove all that macaroni by using our budgets to stop the current massive funding for Israel's army -- until it agrees to withdraw behind the Green Line where it belongs. If we did this, there would be no dramatic re-play of settlers' tearfully-staged-for-TV resistance like there was during the evacuation of Gaza. This removal would probably take about five minutes.

The old Bush-style neo-cons who now run Israel probably thought they were being really crafty to move all those illegal settlements into the West Bank of Palestine. So let's be crafty too and get all that "macaroni" out now -- so that Palestinians' lives will no longer have to be so cheezy.

PS: I just received an e-mail newsletter from Jeff Halper, a Jewish-Israeli professor of anthropology who has been trying everything he can since 1997 to keep greedy Israeli neo-con hands off prime real estate owned by Muslim and Christian Palestinians, both in Israel proper and in the Occupied Territories. According to Halper, however, Palestinians' lives are getting cheezier by the moment.

"Since 1967," Halper wrote, "the Israeli authorities have demolished more than 24,000 Palestinian homes in the Occupied Territories, some as 'collateral damage' in military operations (4000 homes were demolished in the recent invasion of Gaza), some as collective punishment (the obliteration of the Jenin refugee camp in 2002 being just one example), many others for lack of a building permit, though Israel intentionally withholds building permits from Palestinians. In a particularly cruel twist used by the courts, thousands of Palestinian families have been forced to demolish their own homes under pressure of fines and imprisonment. Tens of thousands of demolition orders remain outstanding in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and can be implemented at any time."

PPS: What ever happened to the Iranian oil bourse that was going to accept euros instead of dollars for oil and leave the dollar without a strong backing from oil and thus defenseless? I googled "Iranian Oil Bourse 2009" and got nothing. Has all that just slipped under the radar? Or is it still going forward? And if so, wouldn't causing unrest and instability in Iran, like what is happening with all these current election riots in Tehran, benefit the US dollar? Who knows? Perhaps this instability might save us from going to all the trouble of having Israel nuke Iran.

China just bought five billion dollars worth of natural gas from Iran. Did they pay dollars? Or euros? Bloomberg didn't say.

I've already typed up 18 pages of my notes from my trip to Iran last fall. I gots 40 more pages left to type. By the time I'm finished with it, however, will Iran have changed so much that my report will no longer be relevant? Will Iran still be selling oil for euros? Or will the CIA have managed to put the Shah's ghost back in power....

Monday, June 15, 2009

California: Famous for its rotting teeth & lack of insight
(Photos are of baby Mena dutifully brushing her teeth after eating guacomole at La Fiesta and Picoso in Berkeley)

Can you believe it? Legislators here in California have just canceled our state's dental insurance program. And you know what that means. If you can't afford to pay over a thousand dollars per tooth for fillings, root canals and crowns, you are not going to have any more teeth.

Five or ten years from now, everyone in California who can't afford the high cost of dental work is going to have rotting, rotten and/or missing teeth. Eeuuww!

By approximately 2015, you are going to be able to walk down any street in California (except perhaps Rodeo Drive) and almost nobody will be smiling. Why not? Because all of us who can no longer afford to have our teeth cleaned and our cavities filled are going to be afraid to open our mouths -- for fear of exposing our bare gums and hitting you with dragon breath!

"I don't want to move to California," people will say. "People there all have bad teeth. I wanna stay in Quebec (or even Guadalajara), where people still smile a lot." And they have a lot more to be smiling about too. Canada has single-payer healthcare. And even Mexico offers universal health insurance.

According to Jeri Jenkins, co-president of the California Nurses' Association, "Right now we are the only nation on earth that barters human life for money." Or barters it for discounts from the Tooth Fairy.

And California legislators, in their infinite wisdom, have also just passed a law that we can no longer get eye exams and even GLASSES on the state's medical insurance program. Do I even have to tell you what that means? Five or ten years from now, not only will California be famous world-wide as being the home of rotting teeth, but now we'll be also known as the home of the blind leading the blind. Now I ask you. What industry is going to want to relocate here? Not only will they have to pay bigtime for their employees' healthcare insurance plans, but said employees are also gonna be toothless and half-blind. And dumb as posts too -- because our legislators have also stopped adequately financing our schools. But don't get me started on that one.

Remember all those jokes that we Californians used to make about uneducated, near-sighted and toothless hillbillies living in less sophisticated states? Forget about that. Now WE are becoming America's new hillbillies. If our legislature has its way, the term "Beverly Hillbillies" is going to be taking on a whole new meaning. And while national healthcare insurance company CEOs will still be hanging out on Rodeo Drive, our famously well-paying Silicon Valley companies will have all moved to West Virginia -- where perspective employees might still have decent teeth.

That's just sad.

Ironically, I just got an e-mail from my friend Doug -- and he's actually thinking of moving to Tennessee so that he can afford dental care. "I’m going to be looking at Polk County real estate on the internet this afternoon," wrote Doug. "Maybe I could sell my place here for enough to buy one there AND pay for the thousands of dollars worth of dental work that I need if I want to save my teeth. Supposedly because of my bone structure, I've been told that I won’t even be able to wear dentures if I lose these teeth. So its save these or eat soup the rest of my life – which actually wouldn't be so bad except for my appearance."

Friday, June 12, 2009

Sovereigns, eagles & bars: My adventures in buying gold

A friend of mine who is really worried about the coming Great Depression just decided that he was gonna go out and buy gold. "Wanna come along?" he asked me. You bet!

First we googled around to get information. is best site on the web to look for information on gold -- or at least it's my favorite. I love checking gold prices on Kitco and reading rants by the Mogambo Guru and gold tips from the Daily Pfennig. Kitco also has gold for sale and their prices are reasonable -- but here's the deal-breaker. They also charge a $30.00 shipping fee plus a few more dollars for insurance. The result is that although they listed their gold price today at $960 an ounce, because of their shipping and handling costs, you end up paying $1,014 an ounce.

Then we went to the local coin shop here in Berkeley. "I can sell you one ounce of gold for $1, 021," said the proprietor, a man who has been selling stamps and coins here for decades. But that's seven dollars more expensive than Kitco. "And I can also give you a word of advice. Buy quickly." That's two words. "The price of gold is really going up. And the dollar's value is deflating really fast. Time to buy as much gold as you can, as soon as you can." My friend bought a Grant Wood one-ounce gold coin, manufactured by the U.S Mint as part of its artists' series of gold coins. The Mint's gold American eagle coin was much prettier but it cost a lot more.

Next stop: A coin shop on Solano Avenue in Albany. "We have a very good price on gold," said the shopkeeper, "but you have to remember that there is also a 9.5% state sales tax as well." Kitco never mentioned that! "But if you buy over $1,500 in gold at one time, then you will no longer have to pay the tax because you then fall under the category of being an investor. So it pays to buy at least an ounce and a half of gold at a time." In other words, you can't just buy a gold coin here and a gold coin there. You gotta time your purchases so that they become "investments". My friend bought a one-ounce Swiss gold bar and a half-ounce gold bar. No tax!

"We also buy silver plate," said the shopkeeper. "If you bring us your old silver tea service, for instance, we will give you a good price for it. And then we will melt it down into bars."

Next we went off to a coin shop in El Cerrito. This shop, like most other gold shops, was heavily protected by Plexiglas and iron bars, and the owner had to buzz us in. But by that time, my friend only had $500 left to spend. "Tell you what," said the owner. "I'll sell you two one-fourth-ounce British sovereigns and one small Mexican gold peso for that amount. Plus tax of course."

The owner also told us that silver dollars were a good investment too. "You can get a new Canadian maple leaf one for only $17.00. They are better than gold in some ways because, should the dollar become worthless, you can use them for barter and don't have to cash them in, break them down or shave off gold dust if you want to pay for something." Good to know. And more in keeping with my budget. But my friend stuck to gold and bought the peso and the two sovereigns. They were cute.

On the way back from El Cerrito, I appealed to my higher power and resisted stopping at Fat Apple's for a slice of olloliberry pie with whipped cream -- but I couldn't resist stopping in at Caio Bella for some of their new peach martini sorbet or maybe their new papaya creme de cassis gelato. Maybe I can't afford to store up on gold right now but I surely can afford to store up on memories -- so at least if the Great Depression hits, I can always fondly remember that triple scoop cone: one scoop of West African milk chocolate, one scoop of limoncello mascaraone and one scoop of key lime pie gelato! But just to be on the safe side, I also bought a lottery ticket.

"Why do you want to buy so much gold anyways," I asked my friend. "Why not just put your money in a bank?"

"Because when the coming financial hard times ahead really hit," he replied, "I want to be able to keep my family safe."

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

How Wall Street says "Thank you, Suckers!": By hanging a HUGE American flag on the NYSE

After spending a few days at the 2009 Book Expo in New York City last week, I stuffed 70 pounds free books into my roll-away suitcase, dragged it off to the subway and started to trudge off to JFK airport. Okay, I know. 70 pounds is a lot of books. But I figured that instead of buying everyone back home souvenir T-shirts from Lexington Avenue, I would bring everyone books -- including several children's books for baby Mena, a hot pulp romance called "Mexico Heat" for a gay friend of mine and "The Whole-Food Guide to Strong Bones" for some of my aging female friends, including me.

Did you know that bone-density tests may not tell you whether or not you have osteoporosis? I didn't know that. Apparently EVERYONE fails bone-density tests. And apparently you can have low bone-density and still have strong bones. According to this book, the real test for osteoporosis is whether or not you've broken any bones recently. If it's been ten years or so since you've broken a bone, chances are really good that you don't have osteoporosis.

Anyway, I'm sitting in the subway and reading up on bone density when I see that the Lexington line stops at Wall Street before it connects with the A Train to Queens. Wow! Wall Street! I had been feeling all guilty that I hadn't done much sightseeing in NYC -- and here was my perfect chance! You can't get much more tourist-ish than Wall Street. Not only that but I'm a political junkie and you can't get much more political-ish than Wall Street either, that small chunk of land in Lower Manhattan that pretty much owns America. So I hopped out of the subway -- which is pretty hard to do when you're dragging 70 pounds of books in a suitcase, but New Yorkers are really nice and they carried my luggage up the stairs for me. "What in the world do you have in this thing? Rocks?"

Elevators are almost non-existent in the NYC subway system. It is definitely NOT disability-friendly. But I digress.

What I saw on Wall Street amazed me.

Sight # 1: Some guy was wearing a sandwich-board that proclaimed, "We buy your gold!" And why not? Unlike most of the poor schmucks and pension-fund planners who had -- after being high-pressured and urged on by their brokers -- purchased stocks and bonds in the past few years and then lost their shirts, the folks who had bought gold during this period made a huge profit.

Sight # 2: The New York Stock Exchange itself. What hypocrisy! The entire front of the building was covered by a gigantic American flag, two stories high and half-a-block long. But then, why not? The NYSE has made a true killing in the last decade -- killing the goose that has laid its golden eggs. That would be us, the taxpaying schmucks.

According to economist Mike Whitney, "For $10 trillion, Bernanke could have guaranteed every mortgage in the country, thereby stopping the decline in housing prices, the deluge of foreclosures, and the deep cutbacks in consumer spending. ....Consider the fact that the Fed has provided over $12.8 trillion in loans and other commitments to shore up wobbly financial institutions while the two-year fiscal stimulus for 320 million Americans is a paltry $787 billion. Its goose liver and Cabernet for the bank mandarins and breadcrumbs for the working stiff." And now the stock exchange people have the utter gall to shove a gigantic American flag in our faces, apparently to show their appreciation to us taxpayers for making their champagne-and-caviar lifestyle possible.

Sight # 3: Many brass plaques were inlaid in the sidewalk -- commemorating such American financial heroes as David Ben-Gurion, one of the chief architects of the six decades of turmoil in the Middle East that have allowed our home-grown weapons manufacturers to make record-breaking profits and keep Wall Street happily flooded with taxpayers' money.

And Mohammad Reza has a plaque. He's that Shah of Iran who gave Wall Street such a nudge by providing them with cheap oil and new ways to torture. Was he the one who originally perfected the waterboard? Could be.

Syngman Rhee, that notorious Korean dictator who makes Kim Jong Il look like a pussycat? He has a plaque too. Wall Street made a lot of money off the Korean War.

I'm surprised they didn't have a plaque commemorating Saddam Hussein too. Apparently as much as three trillion dollars was made off the war on Iraq -- not to mention that huge windfall provided by the Gulf War.

Sight # 4: The home offices of Citibank, Bank of America, etc, all clustered around their mothership, the flag-covered NYSE. And while in the area, I also got to see such glamor stores as Hermes -- located right across the street from the stock exchange. How convenient. How come they don't have any Hermes stores in your neighborhood? You pay for these bailouts. Need I say more?

Then I shuffled back down into the subway with the help of yet another nice New Yorker and popped off to JFK airport and home -- where I patriotically fly MY American flag which was given to my father after he fought in World War II; fought for America's sacred right to give up democracy and switch to corporatism.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Joe Scarborough's new book & other sad tales from the NYC Book Expo

(Photos are of Gail Collins and Peter Drexler at the Authors' Breakfast and the hot new Espresso Book Machine)

After touring New York City by subway Saturday night, I was ready to go back to the 2009 Book Expo and enjoy another one of their coolness Authors' Breakfasts. "Who will be giving me free books this time?" I wondered, getting so excited I could hardly wait for the doors to open Sunday morning.

"And today's speaker will be...Joe Scarborough!" Nooooo! This is the man that former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski called "stunningly superficial". And I was going to have to listen to him at eight o'clock in the morning? What did I ever do to deserve this!

"I am very excited to be here," said Scarborough. "I've heard that you were a very conservative group." All the booksellers and librarians in the room laughed loudly at that one. "I was first elected to the House of Representatives in an area called the Redneck Riviera. And when I was in Congress, I was fascinated by the fact that Democrats and Republicans never crossed the aisle. But when I first ran for office, the Republican party hadn't supported me so I felt free to vote any way I wanted. Newt Gingrich would say, 'Vote our way or else!' Or else what? They already tried to defeat me."

Why did Scarborough even want to speak at the Expo, given most librarians' and booksellers' liberal leanings? My guess is that he sees the handwriting on the wall, knows that only 22% of American voters will actually admit that they are registered Republicans and wants to jump off Limbaugh's sinking ship while he still has the chance.

"At MSNBC," Scarborough continued, "there is a Balkanization forming there like the one in Congress. But when people come on my show they aren't yelled at and accused of being a Marxist or a fascist. And now conservatives come up to me and say, 'Joe, you were right'. Conservatives need to re-evaluate their brand of conservatism." Yeah. They do need a new brand-imaging these days. "Greedy blood-thirsty loser" hasn't been selling too well.

"In the last quarter-century, conservatives have not been restrained by reality. 'End tyranny across the globe' is not a conservative concept. This is a radical ideal. We conservatives need to look in the mirror. We can't run around writing radical prescriptions for everything. We need to get back to Edmund Burke."

Then Scarborough dragged out Ronald Reagan, just in case anyone in the audience possibly cared. Hey, this is an auditorium full of people who can read! "Reagan never took his Democrat-bashing personally. At the end of the day, he and Tip O'Neill would sit around the Oval Office and chat. The screaming and yelling was just a sidebar. The core was to get his policies passed. Obama has also found the temperamental center of politics."

If there had been a question and answer period, I would have asked Scarborough to talk about his 28-year-old aide that was found dead in his congressional office back in July of 2001 or if the tabloids are right and he is having an affair with Zbigniew Brzezinski's daughter Mika. But there was no Q&A and we may never know -- so I went back to eating my breakfast, consisting of bagels, cream cheese and marmalade. I love marmalade.

Our next speaker was Richard Russo, author of the best-seller, "The Bridge of Sighs". He gave a nice talk on how his book evolved, which is always of interest to those of us who are aspiring writers.

"My latest book, entitled 'That Old Cape Magic,' was only meant to be a short story. The despair that I felt after 'The Bridge of Sighs" had pretty much drained me. By the time I had finished writing and touring for a book that was very depressive, my creative gas tank was pretty much on empty. I didn't think that I had another book in me." And so he decided to write a short story instead.

"Writers are always trying to find their rhythm -- or at least not to lose it. Writing is hard. However, NOT writing is even harder. I wanted to write something that would be like a slow bike ride down literature's pathway. I was tired. My mother had just died and my daughter was about to get married. I figured that I'd write 20 pages -- in and out. Batteries recharged. Easy. But then my protagonist, Jack Griffin, got [pooped] on by a seagull, literally, and the short story started becoming a novella. Another 50 pages should do it. But for some reason, I wasn't feeling so exhausted any more. Griffin's mother died, his wife is about to leave him and he's facing two weddings. The protagonist started feeling worse -- but I was feeling much better. Another 100 pages and I may just even have something that might be a novel."

And he did. And I have three copies of the publisher's draft to prove it. "By page 300, I started sprinting. I had lost control of a short story but instead of crashing and burning, I actually came out with a novel!"

Then Russo reflected some more on the craft of writing. "Novelists are like poker players, card-cutters, professional liars. They are good at lying -- so who better to lie to than oneself. Like women who forget the pain of childbirth and go on to have other babies, the novelist lies to himself and writes on. Also, writers have time, experience and talent -- but they always need luck too. And luck is famous for running out. Self-deception. It gives us the courage to begin an odious task. By kidding myself, it gave me the courage to begin another novel. This novel helped me deal with the death of my mother and the fact that my children were growing up."

Hey, at least Russo knew that he was lying.

This breakfast was lasting forever. I was already on my third cup of de-caf (yes, I'm a wimp). But you still want to hear more, right? Our next speaker was Gail Collins, NYT columnist and author of "When Everything Changed". You GOTTA hear about Gail Collins, right?

"In a historic campaign like the 2008 presidential election," said Collins, "a woman was running to make history against an African-American who was also running to make history. And despite all this, we were told that the election would all come down to what white males thought." Collins indicated that this wasn't true. White males don't decide national elections any more. Those days are gone.

"This book began in 1999, when the Times was beginning its extensive millennium coverage. I had written a book about the millennium but hadn't written about women specifically, so the Times asked me to write about women over the last millennium. Women's position in civilization has been the same at its core not just over the past millennium but for thousands and thousands of years before that. So I got interested in that and also about American women -- colonial women, suffragettes, Rosie the Riveter etc., but also about the day-to-day life of American women. In my first book on American women -- which was fun to do and I loved -- I only got up to World War II. But I wanted to write about how the role of women suddenly changed dramatically after thousands of years." The whole paradigm of the role of women changed, bucking a trend of almost 100,000 years. That's huge.

"One woman in the post-World War II era caused a judge to go crazy because she wore slacks to court. And one woman couldn't sign a lease for an apartment but was required to have her husband sign it even though they had to go to a mental hospital to do it. And then things changed. Women went to court. Ken and Barbie went under a wash cloth to have sex. There were many great moments in women's liberation that appeared to be just small things. Bicycles gave them freedom. Pantyhose. The story of Luke and Laura on General Hospital dealing with rape -- Luke raped Laura, bringing rape-consciousness to the surface." I remember Luke and Laura. I used to watch General Hospital when I was home with baby Ruby back in 1972.

"These are the stories of women in this period. I loved gathering these stories. I loved writing this book."

Next author: Peter Drexler. An old dude with a comb-over, he absolutely stole the show. He's hard as hell to quote, was very stream-of-consciousness. You had to have been there to appreciate it. But he was funny as hell and his comedic timing was perfect. I was all green with envy and, I bet, so was Joe Scarborough. "My favorite book that I've written so far? 'Straightman'. The best thing that a novel can do is to entertain -- and that one entertained me. Did I tell you the story about Maureen Dowd? I wrote that she was the best columnist there is. So the Seattle Post-Intelligencer fired me and hired her."

Then Drexler told a story about someone collecting dried earthworms in a scrapbook and calling them nature's string beans. "Nature ALREADY has string beans!" Then he talked about cattle prods and burials as sea that didn't go so well. "My book is the study of innocence and evil. I've got dogs in my book. Editors are strange. Of course they are evil but the higher up you go, the nicer they seem to be -- the opposite of most corporations. There's a fence in my novel. A polar bear eats some guy's finger at a zoo. Yodeling. My wife gives the best shampoos."

Then Drexler said something about a kindergarten teacher and glue. And Margaret Truman. "A father makes his outcast son go out for football. And the kid would go over and hide behind the blocking dummies." Dexter is definitely an outcast too. "It's a little hard to explain my protagonist. He'd break into people's houses just to piss in their shoes. The newspapers wrote about it. Of course the kid can't read because he's only nine. But he gets really good at it -- breaking into houses. I'm telling too much of the story, no reason to buy the book." The book's name is "Spooner," BTW. I have three copies.

"There's septic tanks in this story. Septic tanks are like children. You bring them up the same and one turns out good and one turns out lousy. There's a Ukrainian body-builder. X-rays -- which are always bad news. Zoos. The father-in-law is finally arrested because the protagonist has driven him clean out of his head."

After the breakfast, I wandered around the Expo some more, got some more free books autographed and stood in awe in front of OnDemand Books' new Espresso Book Machine -- wherein you can choose from thousands of titles and the machine will just print out your book right before your very eyes. It was amazing, the hit of the show. Then I went back to my youth hostel, watched a ukulele band playing John Lennon songs in the lobby, ate left-over Hawaiian food, got invited to go to a tango nightclub down by the docks and discussed physics with one of my bunkmates. "I just love particle theory...." Fine.