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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Gnome-o-gram: Goldman Sachs Meets a Muppet

In Greg Smith's op-ed in the New York Times, “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs“ he says that in the last twelve months of his employment at that firm, he had heard five managing directors call their clients “muppets”. Well, one thing Goldman people should be aware of is that muppets are near-immortal, and never forget.

I was a customer of the vampire squid from 1985 through 2011, when I abandoned Goldman Sachs, moving my account outside their tentacles.

Since it's been a year, and Goldman is still held by some people in less than the utter contempt they deserve, I thought I'd share with you my “exit interview” on 2011-03-18 with the latest team who had parachuted in from London to manage my account after the previous people had been fired. Now note, the folks you're hearing from here are not Joe stockbroker, but the Managing Director/General Manager of Goldman Sachs Bank Switzerland, Marco Pagliara, and the person he designated to be my account representative, Roberto Plaja, Executive Director, Private Wealth Management. This is almost an hour long, but there is some hilarity to reward your persistence if you come to this with the right kind of disposition and a topped-off tank of cynicism, which I trust will be refilled as you listen.

I have bleeped the names of blameless people chucked into the tree chipper by Goldman for daring to value their customers' interests over those of the London derivatives pedlars, and personal details which are none of your business. As is noted at the beginning, this recording was made with the explicit permission and knowledge of all parties involved, with a digital audio recorder which sat in the middle of the table during this conversation. I hereby place it in the public domain.

Download/play MP3 audio file.

I closed my account within a week after this meeting.

Other gnome-o-grams

Posted at 23:57 Permalink

Friday, March 23, 2012

Reading List: Domestic Enemies

Bracken, Matthew. Domestic Enemies. Orange Park, FL: Steelcutter Publishing, 2006. ISBN 978-0-9728310-2-4.
This is the second novel in the author's “Enemies” trilogy, which began with Enemies Foreign and Domestic (EFAD) (December 2009). In After America (August 2011) Mark Steyn argues that if present trends continue (and that's the way to bet), within the lives of those now entering the workforce in the United States (or, at least attempting to do so, given the parlous state of the economy) what their parents called the “American dream” will have been extinguished and turned into a nightmare along the lines of Latin American authoritarian states: bifurcation of the society into a small, wealthy élite within their walled and gated communities and impoverished masses living in squalor and gang-ruled “no go” zones where civil society has collapsed.

This book picks up the story six years after the conclusion of EFAD. Ranya Bardiwell has foolishly attempted to return to the United States and been apprehended and sent to a detention and labour camp, her son taken from her at birth. When she manages to escape from the camp, she tracks down her son as having been given for adoption to the family of an FBI agent in New Mexico, and following the trail she becomes embroiled in the seething political storm of Nuevo Mexico, where separatist forces have taken power and seized upon the weakness of the Washington regime to advance their agenda of rolling back the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and creating a nation of “Aztlan” from the territories ceded by Mexico in that treaty.

As the story progresses, we see the endpoint of the reconquista in New Mexico, Los Angeles, and San Diego, and how opportunistic players on all sides seek to exploit the chaos and plunder the dwindling wealth of the dying empire for themselves. I'm not going to get into the plot or characters because almost anything I say would be a spoiler and this story does not deserve to be spoilt—it should be savoured. I consider it to be completely plausible—in the aftermath of a financial collapse and breakdown of central authority, the consequences of mass illegal immigration, “diversity”, and “multiculturalism” could, and indeed will likely lead to the kind of outcome sketched here. I found only one technical quibble in the entire novel (a turbine-powered plane “coughing and belching before catching”), but that's just worth a chuckle and doesn't detract in any way from the story. This the first thriller I recall reading in which a precocious five year old plays a central part in the story in a perfectly believable way, and told from his own perspective.

This book is perfectly accessible if read stand-alone, but I strongly recommend reading EFAD first—it not only sets the stage for the mid-collapse America in which this story plays out, but also provides the back story for Ranya Bardiwell and Bob Bullard who figure so prominently here.

Extended excerpts of this and the author's other novels are available online at the author's Web site.

Posted at 22:15 Permalink

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Reading List: We Meant Well

Van Buren, Peter. We Meant Well. New York: Henry Holt, 2011. ISBN 978-0-8050-9436-7.
The author is a career Foreign Service Officer in the U.S. State Department. In 2009–2010 he spent a year in Iraq as leader of two embedded Provincial Reconstruction Teams (ePRT) operating out of Forward Operating Bases (FOB) which were basically crusader forts in a hostile Iraqi wilderness: America inside, trouble outside. Unlike “fobbits” who rarely ventured off base, the author and his team were charged with engaging the local population to carry out “Lines of Effort” dreamed up by pointy-heads back at the palatial embassy in Baghdad or in Washington to the end of winning the “hearts and minds” of the population and “nation building”. The Iraqis were so appreciative of these efforts that they regularly attacked the FOB with mortar fire and mounted improvised explosive device (IED) and sniper attacks on those who ventured out beyond the wire.

If the whole thing were not so tawdry and tragic, the recounting of the author's experiences would be hilariously funny. If you imagine it to be a Waugh novel and read it with a dark sense of humour, it is wickedly amusing, but then one remembers that real people are dying and suffering grievous injuries, the Iraqi population are being treated as props in public relation stunts by the occupiers and deprived of any hope of bettering themselves, and all of this vast fraudulent squandering of resources is being paid for by long-suffering U.S. taxpayers or money borrowed from China and Japan, further steering the imperial power toward a debt end.

The story is told in brief chapters, each recounting a specific incident or aspect of life in Iraq. The common thread, which stretches back over millennia, is that imperial powers attempting to do good by those they subjugate will always find themselves outwitted by wily oriental gentlemen whose ancestors have spent millennia learning how to game the systems imposed by the despotisms under which they have lived. As a result, the millions poured down the rathole of “Provincial Reconstruction” predictably flows into the pockets of the bosses in the communities who set up front organisations for whatever harebrained schemes the occupiers dream up. As long as the “project” results in a ribbon-cutting ceremony covered by the press (who may, of course, be given an incentive to show up by being paid) and an impressive PowerPoint presentation for the FOB commander to help him toward his next promotion, it's deemed a success and, hey, there's a new Line of Effort from the embassy that demands another project: let's teach widows beekeeping (p. 137)—it'll only cost US$1600 per person, and each widow can expect to make US$200 a year from the honey—what a deal!

The author is clearly a creature of the Foreign Service and scarcely conceals his scorn for the military who are tasked with keeping him alive in a war zone and the politicians who define the tasks he is charged with carrying out. Still, the raw folly of “nation building” and the obdurate somnambulant stupidity of those who believe that building milk processing plants or putting on art exhibitions in a war zone will quickly convert people none of whom have a single ancestor who has ever lived in a consensually-governed society with the rule of law to model citizens in a year or two is stunningly evident.

Why are empires always so dumb? When they attain a certain stage of overreach, they seem to always assume they can instill their own unique culture in those they conquer. And yet, as Kipling wrote in 1899:

Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch Sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hope to nought.

When will policy makers become as wise as the mindless mechanisms of biology? When an irritant invades an organism and it can't be eliminated, the usual reaction is to surround it with an inert barrier which keeps it from causing further harm. “Nation building” is folly; far better to bomb them if they misbehave, then build a wall around the whole godforsaken place and bomb them again if any of them get out and cause any further mischief. Call it “biomimetic foreign policy”—encyst upon it!

Posted at 23:00 Permalink

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Reading List: Great Men Are Free Men

Pennington, Maura. Great Men Are Free Men. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4664-4196-5.
This is so bad it is scarcely worth remarking upon. Hey, the Kindle edition is (at this writing) only a buck eighteen, but you also have to consider the value of the time it'll take you to read it, which is less than you might think because it's only 116 pages in the print edition, and much of that is white space around vapid dialogue. This is really a novella: there are no chapters (although two “parts” which differ little from one another, and hardly any character development. In fact, the absence of character development is only one aspect of the more general observation that nothing much happens at all.

A bunch of twenty-something members of the write-off generation are living in decadent imperial D.C., all cogs or aspiring cogs in the mindless and aimless machine of administrative soft despotism. All, that is, except for Charlie Winslow, who's working as a barista at a second-tier coffee joint until he can get into graduate school, immerse himself in philosophy, and bury himself for the rest of his life in the library, reading great works and writing “esoteric essays no one would read”. Charlie fashions himself a Great Man, and with his unique intellectual perspective towering above the molecular monolayer of his contemporaries, makes acerbic observations upon the D.C. scene which marginally irritates them. Finally, he snaps, and lets loose a tepid drizzle of speaking truth to poopheads, to which they respond “whatever”. And that's about it.

The author, who studied Russian at Dartmouth College, is a twenty-something living in D.C. who styles herself a libertarian. She writes a blog at Forbes.

Posted at 21:37 Permalink

Monday, March 5, 2012

Reading List: Russia and the Big Red Lie

Mallan, Lloyd. Russia and the Big Red Lie. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett, 1959. LCCN 59004006.
It is difficult for those who did not live through the era to appreciate the extent to which Sputnik shook the self-confidence of the West and defenders of the open society and free markets around the world. If the West's social and economic systems were genuinely superior to totalitarian rule and central planning, then how had the latter, starting from a base only a half century before where illiterate peasants were bound to the land as serfs, and in little more than a decade after their country was devastated in World War II, managed to pull off a technological achievement which had so far eluded the West and was evidence of a mastery of rocketry which could put the United States heartland at risk? Suddenly the fellow travellers and useful idiots in the West were energised: “Now witness the power of this fully armed and operational socialist economy!”

The author, a prolific writer on aerospace and technology, was as impressed as anybody else by the stunning Soviet accomplishment, and undertook the daunting task of arranging a visit to the Soviet Union to see for himself the prowess of Soviet science and technology. After a halting start, he secured a visa and introductions from prominent U.S. scientists to their Soviet counterparts, and journeyed to the Soviet Union in April of 1958, travelled extensively in the country, visiting, among other destinations, Moscow, Leningrad, Odessa, Yalta, Krasnodar, Rostov-on-Don, Yerevan, Kharkov, and Alma-Ata, leaving Soviet soil in June 1958. He had extensive, on the record, meetings with a long list of eminent Soviet scientists and engineers, many members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. And he came back with a conclusion utterly opposed to that of the consensus in the West: Soviet technological prowess was about 1% military-style brute force and 99% bluff and hoax.

As one intimately acquainted with Western technology, what he saw in the Soviet Union was mostly comparable to the state of the art in the West a decade earlier, and in many cases obviously copied from Western equipment. The scientists he interviewed, who had been quoted in the Soviet press as forecasting stunning achievements in the near future, often, when interviewed in person, said “that's all just theory—nobody is actually working on that”. The much-vaunted Soviet jet and turboprop airliners he'd heard of were nowhere in evidence anywhere he travelled, and evidence suggested that Soviet commercial aviation lacked navigation and instrument landing systems which were commonplace in the West.

Faced with evidence that Soviet technological accomplishments were simply another front in a propaganda offensive aimed at persuading the world of the superiority of communism, the author dug deeper into the specifics of Soviet claims, and here (from the perspective of half a century on) he got some things right and goofed on others. He goes to great length to argue that the Luna 1 Moon probe was a total hoax, based both on Soviet technological capability and the evidence of repeated failure by Western listening posts to detect its radio signals. Current thinking is that Luna 1 was a genuine mission intended to impact on the Moon, but the Soviet claim it was deliberately launched into solar orbit as an “artificial planet” propaganda aimed at covering up its missing the Moon due to a guidance failure. (This became obvious to all when the near-identical Luna 2 impacted the moon eight months later.) The fact that the Soviets possessed the technology to conduct lunar missions was demonstrated when Luna 3 flew around the Moon in October 1959 and returned the first crude images of its far side (other Luna 3 images). Although Mallan later claimed these images were faked and contained brush strokes, we now know they were genuine, since they are strikingly similar to subsequent imagery, including the albedo map from the Clementine lunar orbiter. “Vas you dere, Ivan?” Well, actually, yes. Luna 3 was the “boomerang” mission around the Moon which Mallan had heard of before visiting the Soviet Union but was told was just a theory when he was there. And yet, had the Soviets had the ability to communicate with Luna 1 at the distance of the Moon, there would have been no reason to make Luna 3 loop around the Moon in order to transmit its pictures from closer to the Earth—enigmas, enigmas, enigmas.

In other matters, the author is dead on, where distinguished Western “experts” and “analysts” were completely taken in by the propaganda. He correctly identifies the Soviet “ICBM” from the 1957 Red Square parade as an intermediate range missile closer to the German V-2 than an intercontinental weapon. (The Soviet ICBM, the R-7, was indeed tested in 1957, but it was an entirely different design and could never have been paraded on a mobile launcher; it did not enter operational service until 1959.) He is also almost precisely on the money when he estimates the Soviet “ICBM arsenal” as on the order of half a dozen missiles, while the CIA was talking about hundreds of Soviet missiles aimed at the West and demagogues were ratcheting up rhetoric about a “missile gap”.

You don't read this for factual revelations: everything discussed here is now known much better, and there are many conclusions drawn in this text from murky contemporary evidence which have proven incorrect. But if you wish to immerse yourself in the Cold War and imagine yourself trying to figure it all out from the sketchy and distorted information coming from the adversary, it is very enlightening. One wishes more people had listened to Mallan—how much folly we might have avoided.

There is also wisdom in what he got wrong. Space spectaculars can be accomplished in a military manner by expending vast resources coercively taken from the productive sector on centrally-planned projects with narrow goals. Consequently, it isn't surprising a command economy such as that of the Soviet Union managed to achieve milestones in space (while failing to deliver adequate supplies of soap and toilet paper to workers toiling in their “paradise”). Indeed, in many ways, the U.S. Apollo program was even more centrally planned than its Soviet counterpart, and the pernicious example it set has damaged efforts to sustainably develop and exploit space ever since.

This “Fawcett Book” is basically an issue of Mechanix Illustrated containing a single long article. It even includes the usual delightful advertisements. This work is, of course, hopelessly out of print. Used copies are available, but often at absurdly elevated prices for what amounts to a pulp magazine. Is this work in the public domain and hence eligible to be posted on the Web? I don't know. It may well be: it was published before 1978, and unless its copyright was renewed in 1987 when its original 28 year term expired, it is public domain. Otherwise, as a publication by a “corporate author”, it will remain in copyright until 2079, which makes a mockery of the “limited Times to Authors” provision of the U.S. Constitution. If somebody can confirm this work is in the public domain, I'll scan it and make it available on the Web.

Posted at 23:08 Permalink