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Every year when I write obituaries, I look at the Wikipedia list of notable people who died during the year.  Since everyone dies, the list includes all sorts of people: clerics, horse breeders, spree killers, chefs, war heroes, astrologers, conductors, campaigners for suicide rights, and ever so many industrialists and financiers (whom nobody cares about anymore \other than greedy development departments and squabbling heirs).  It always strikes me that the people we all know about—the loud and shiny actors, the celebrity criminals, and the faded sportsmen–are not actually very important in the grand scheme of things.  Here is a very incomplete list of the people whom I thought were important who died this year.

 

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Shirley Temple Black (April 23rd, 1928 – February 10th, 2014) was one of Hollywood’s first child stars.  Later she worked as a public servant and diplomat serving as U.S. ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia.  Although she had an extraordinary life by every measure, I am including her here because when I was growing up I watched her Depression-era movies on a West Virginia movie channel that played weird old cinema.  Even though I was a little child (the presumed audience for these films?), the bizarre schmaltzy stories of singing princesses and dancing disinherited heiresses struck me as bizarre and otherworldly—like a relic from ancient Mesopotamia.

Book Cover "One Hundred Years of Solitude"

Book Cover “One Hundred Years of Solitude”

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (March 6th, 1927 – April 17th, 2014) was a novelist who popularized magical realism—a literary style in which symbolic supernatural elements represent the deterministic nature of family, politics, and religious indoctrination in human life.  His greatest work, “One Hundred Years of Solitude” follows the rise and fall of a family of Colombian landed gentry.  Yet the book transcended the specifics of its subject to craft a haunting dream about the nature of existence.

Dr. Jacinto Convit (September 11th, 1913 – May 12th, 2014) was a dermatologist and vaccine researcher.  Although he spent most of his life developing vaccines for leprosy and tropical diseases, his work also raised intriguing possibilities for cancer vaccines—ongoing work which may be incredibly important (or may be a complete dead end).  Convit developed a therapy against the fearsome tropical disease leishmaniasis, which once yearly killed some 20,000 to 30,000 people across the world, however his greatest contributions to medicine may not yet be realized.

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Maya Angelou (April 4th, 1928 – May 28th, 2014) was a poet and writer.  She worked as a journalist during the decolonization era in Africa (writing from Egypt and Ghana) and was politically active in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, however she is best known for her moving autobiographical or semi-autobiographical accounts of coming of age in the African-American community during the civil rights era.

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Felix Dennis (May 27th, 1947 – June 22nd, 2014) was a colorful British publishing mogul who monetized counter-culture in the sixties.  He organized this early success (and infamy) into an international media and “lifestyle” empire. Although businessmen might describe him otherwise, he is principally remembered as the patron for many promising sculptors and writers…and as a friend to trees who orchestrated a mass reforestation campaign throughout Great Britain.

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Noel Hinners (December 25th, 1935 – September 5th, 2014) was a geologist and the former chief scientist for NASA.  Hinners was instrumental in planning the scientific exploration of the moon.  After the Apollo era he oversaw other offworld projects such as the Mars Surveyor Program.

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Scott Carpenter (May 1st, 1925 – October 10th, 2013) was an astronaut in the Mercury Program.  He was the second American to orbit the earth in 1962.  During re-entry, the instruments of his single-person space capsule malfunctioned and he had to take manual control of the primitive space ship (which splashed down hundreds of miles off target).  He was the last surviving astronaut from the Mercury program except for John Glenn.

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Donald Stookey (May 23rd, 1915 – November 4th, 2014) invented “Corningware,” the super-strong, heat-resistant ceramic glass used in kitchens everywhere since the 1950s. As a cook and a lasagna-lover I salute his incredible contribution to the human race! His other ceramic and glass innovations have also revolutionized glasses, defense systems, and electronics.

RIP and thanks again for the lasagna dish, the vaccinations, the offworld exploration, and (sigh) “The Good Ship Lollypop.”

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Tomorrow we have a few final thoughts for the year and some ideas about where we’re headed next year!

Shanghai, China

Shanghai, China


I don’t usually post about business because I understand it very little and like it even less, but events on the other side of the world merit a brief mention (also I can’t think of anything truly worthwhile to write about today). The SSE Composite Index is a stock market index of all the shares traded on the Shanghai Stock Exchange (well actually all A and B shares).  Since June of 2014 this index has shot up by 40% pushing it to heights not seen for 3 years.  The news is all the more baffling considering that a consortium of experts agree that nothing in the actual Chinese economy supports this rampant bull market. Sophie Yan from CNN Money describes the Chinese economy in somewhat bleak terms: “factory activity is at an eight-month low, the real estate sector is shaky and the economy just saw its worst quarter since the financial crisis.”

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So why are stocks surging upward with no relation to the real news?  Well, America’s economy is doing better than it has for a long while and China sells a lot of goods across the Pacific Ocean.  Also ordinary Chinese small holders seem to finally be digging up jars of coins and investing them in the stock market (the average Chinese householder has been wary of investing savings in institutions or businesses for obvious historical reasons).  But, it seems obvious that the real answer is that this is a speculative bubble.

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Like I said at the top, I do not understand business: perhaps secret unknown market forces are privy to information which nobody else knows about…or maybe the rules of human economics have been eternally suspended.  However barring those potentialities, the SSE is full of froth and is about to pop (in fact, on Tuesday, AKA yesterday, the index shed 5% in a day…and then bounced back).  I wonder how high it will go before it falls and I wonder how far the fallout from a correction will go.  Our own market seems a tad frothy too…but Americans have a proud ability to willfully ignore what everyone else in the world is up to.  Whatever happens, it should be an interesting few months for volatile speculative craziness in Shanghai.

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I wanted a clear break from the previous week’s posts about dreams and nightmares…but here in the United States of America today is the 2014 midterm election—so we haven’t escaped nightmares yet. With the adroitness of a deer frozen in the headlights, Ferrebeekeeper has refrained from endorsing any candidates until the last minute. Since Americans are now headed to the polls (or have already voted) it may now be too late to make a meaningful difference–which sounds like the essence of American democracy right now anyway.

Before I suggest how citizens should vote, let’s quickly examine the two national parties.

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With their abject obeisance to big business and (pretend?) love for the most inane and inhuman strictures of religious fundamentalism, Republicans are deeply troubling. It does not help that they are unapologetically hostile to minorities, women, immigrants, atheists, polytheists, Muslims, young people, spotted owls, South Americans, sick people, children, scientists, non-scientists, science fiction enthusiasts, artists, Asians, unemployed people, employed people, homosexuals, van owners, poor people, people with unruly hair, city dwellers, intellectuals, small business people, circus clowns, florists, manatees, et cetera. Despite these problems, I have usually swallowed my gorge and voted for the inhumane Republicans in general elections. I do so because they stand for robust national defense and for funding science & technology R&D. These two issues constitute 90% of what matters to me in politics—and, if you studied history at all, you would feel the same way. However contemporary Republicans have abandoned these values. In their rush to defund government and hand power to big business cartels, they are slashing research funding—a huge and inexcusable error. Republicans assert that the market will take care of science research. Anyone who has any experience of today’s market knows that it will only provide costly service contracts, addictive medicines, plastic rubbish, and consumer debt. Government is necessary for the truly important things.

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Although they pretend otherwise, the Democrats are similarly in the pocket of special interest groups. They enjoy passing endless hard-to-follow laws which curtail productivity and destroy small businesses (and therefore favor big business). In their haste to pander to individual rights and interests the Democrats abandon the all-important larger good. Although the Democrats claim the mantle of environmentalism, a close examination of their policies reveal little that would really help the environment—or anybody other than their cronies. Democrats do not currently stand for scientific innovation at any cost, nor for muscular intervention in the wider world, but rather favor an attitude of “let’s solve our problems at home first.” This attitude is dangerous, since our problems at home are never going to be solved (particularly by nanny-like moralizing laws). Without continuous scientific innovation, the vast problems which humankind is creating will destroy us. Without a large scary military, the Pax Americana will founder and today’s globalized world will fall to chaos (or become thrall to Chinese exploitation schemes). The minutiae of identity politics will matter little in such a scenario.

The obvious alternative to these two unappealing choices would be to vote in some third party candidates, but, because America’s political duopoly holds such vast power, this is more-or-less impossible. Additionally, although it seems unlikely, the third party candidates are even less impressive than the lickspittles, hypocrites, and malingerers fronted by the GOP and the Democrats. Argh!

If all choices are problematic (or outright awful) what is a good-hearted voter supposed to do?

My proposal is completely impossible (which is why I have not bandied it about until 2:00 PM on Election Day)—but it has the benefit of being extremely appealing to everyone other than incumbents and professional politicians.

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Red America and Blue America are too deeply entrenched. It is an artificial distinction built by professional politicians. Let’s upend that. Everywhere with a Bible-thumping Republican basking like a lizard in a gerrymandered safe district should elect the place-holder Democrat. Likewise, here in the blue heart of Brooklyn we could throw out the crooked machine Democrat and vote in the unknown Republican. My congresswoman is an anti-defense Democrat who has no knowledge of history or science. Her only position is that the government should lavish more money on entitlements for lazy unemployed people like me. The Republicans haven’t even bothered to contest this district: her only opposition is some unknown mouth-breather from the “conservative” party. Let’s elect that guy! My parents in rural Ohio have a lunatic tea-party congressman who told my mother “women’s opinions don’t matter.” They should elect the anti-establishment Democrat. Working together, we could reverse the red and blue polarity of the country!

What!?

What!?

I know this sounds crazy, but hear me out. Most of the sacrificial Democrats in red districts or Republicans in blue districts (who have no electoral chance whatsoever) are not actually that far from the core values of their district. We would have legislative houses filled with socially liberal Republicans and fiscally conservative Democrats. Many would be political outsiders and all would owe their seats to a mass joke by the voting populace. If Idaho was represented by traditionally minded Democrats and New York City was represented by minority Republicans (cough, I mean “conservatives) perhaps these new legislators could work together and pass some much-needed political reforms before K street bought them up too.

Or we could just keep muddling through with divided government strongly influenced by special interests...like always

Or we could just keep muddling through with divided government strongly influenced by special interests…like always

Sochi, Russia

Sochi, Russia

The 2014 Winter Olympics will be held in Sochi, Russia which is a city on the Black Sea near the Georgia border.   The games will be the first winter games to feature medals competitions in “Slopestyle” snowboard and skiing as well as snowboard parallel slalom.

Parallel Snowboard Slalom

Parallel Snowboard Slalom

Of course the real competitions have already been held: namely the insane International competition to host the Olympics (which came down to a choice between Sochi, Salzburg, and Pyeongchang) and, more importantly, the competition to choose the official Olympic mascots.   You will no doubt recall that the 2012 summer Olympics mascots were “Wenlock and Mandeville”, two cyclopean alien robot monsters.

Wenlock and Mandeville

Wenlock and Mandeville (sigh)

In an attempt to end up with less appalling mascots, Russia turned to the time honored Russian solution of…democracy (?).  Wow! The world really is changing.  A list of vetted candidates was drawn up and submitted to the public for consideration.  Some of the shortlisted design ideas included Matryoshka dolls, Dolphins, Bullfinches, snow leopards, hares, bears, a tiny anthropomorphized sun, and Ded Moroz (the Russian “Father Frost” who acts as Santa).

The shortlist of 2014 Olympic mascot candidates

The shortlist of 2014 Olympic mascot candidates

Zoich, the counter culture mascot of the 2014 Olympics

Zoich, the counter culture mascot of the 2014 Olympics

Zoich, the anti-establishment furry crowned toad (who was modeled after Futurama’s hypnotoad) was quietly omitted from the final list of candidates as was Ded Moroz, when it was discovered that, if he won, he would become the intellectual property of the International Olympic Committee.

Sorry Ded, you must belong to the children of Russia

Sorry Ded, you already belong to the children of Russia

A telephone voting competition was held between the final mascot candidates and the three winners (the snow leopard, hare, and bear) became the official Olympic mascots.  Unfortunately the election was tainted with scandal when Russia’s elected leader and perennial strongman, Vladimir Putin announced that his favorite candidate was the snow leopard.  Subsequent to this proclamation, an immense number of phonecalls were immediately tallied for the snow leopard, which has led to charges of vote-rigging (so maybe the world hasn’t changed so much after all).

The winners

The winners

The designer of the 1980 Moscow Games mascot Misha (a bear which nobody saw because of the U.S. boycott) has accused the designer of the Sochi bear mascot of plagiarizing his bear expression.  Certain political groups have also darkly hinted that the bear was chosen because it resembles the mascot of the United Russia political party (which is the dominant force in Russian politics).

The Sochi 2014 mascot bear, Misha, the 1980 mascot bear, and the United Russia bear

The Sochi 2014 mascot bear, Misha, the 1980 mascot bear, and the United Russia bear

So it seems only the snow hare and the Paralympic mascots (a snowflake girl and fireboy) are untainted by controversy.  I dislike admitting it, but to my eye, Putin was right and the snow leopard, although not native to Sochi, is the most compelling figure.  They are all pretty cute, so maybe this whole democracy thing actually works (despite the ghastly results we have been getting lately in America).

Better than Congress!

Better than Congress by a lot!

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