Friday, August 31, 2007

Dumber than a box of hammers

If you ever had any doubt that "they" (the people in charge, as in "I'm sure they wouldn't let people do it if it were a bad idea") can be dumber than a box of hammers, take a look at this story out of Texas: the city of Galveston has approved almost four thousand new homes and two mid-rise hotels on a barrier island shielding the city from hurricanes.

Galveston was the scene of the deadliest natural disaster in the USA in record history, a hurricane which flattened the city and killed 8,000 people. Hurricanes hit the US several times a decade, and meteorologists are warning that this figure is likely to increase in the future. In spite of this, the Galveston city officials have ignored their own geologists' advice and approved plans for a series of housing developments on the barrier island which will include decorative lakes and boat channels which will virtually split the barrier in two, giving surging waters a clear path through the island.

With the rebuilding of New Orleans still not complete two years after Katrina, one can only imagine that the Galveston officials are betting that the next big hurricane to hit the area will happen long after they retire.

Friday, August 24, 2007

A word to the wise

If you're a busker relying on people's good will for money, abusing them at the top of your voice and swearing at them as they walk past is probably not a good way to encourage others to give you money.

This goes double if you aren't exactly a virtuoso musician, like the guy at Flinders Street train station this morning. I'm just sayin'.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Tiger and piglets

This mother tiger is raising piglets:

Tiger and piglets
The photo is genuine, and despite gags about it ending in tears when momma gets a little peckish, the tiger herself was raised by a pig and is very unlikely to turn on "her" babies. It's a good example of animal psychology: the tiger isn't likely to be fooled by the tiger skins on the piglets, especially once they skins have been washed a few times and lose any residual tiger scent, but it shows that some animals learn what to consider prey and what not to.

Although the above situation was artificial in the sense that human beings manipulated the tiger to raise the piglets, such situations sometime occur in the wild. True stories (and some not-so-true) of human children being raised by wolves are common. Less common but still well-documented include cases of predators raising babies of their usual prey species, for example the well-documented case of a lioness in Kenya that tried to raise no fewer than three baby antelopes.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Three Wise Men

Writing about recent politics can sometimes, by which I mean almost always, be quite depressing. There is a distinct sense that they're all a gang of thieves, liars, hypocrites and fools -- and some of them are all four.

So it is refreshing to come across three examples that give me hope that not all is wrong with the world.

The late President Dwight Eisenhower wrote in 1954:

Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.

Alas, Ike underestimated the power of rich, stupid, greedy men to get what they want, no matter the cost to the rest of the country or the world. Half a century later, the tiny splinter group of stupids has become the backbone of the GOP and even a goodly portion of the Democrat party.

President Eisenhower, a former general in the US Army, later warned America about the dangers of the military-industrial complex. Unfortunately, the MIC has become the elephant in the room which nobody dares speak about, but that's a discussion for another day. Ike wasn't perfect, but he was the sort of conservative politician I could respect.

The author Kurt Vonnegut penned an insightful piece about America's addiction to oil. At 81 years old, it his Vonnegut's prerogative to see no hope for the future -- but so long as there are still people like Vonnegut, there is still hope.

Many years ago, I was so innocent I still considered it possible that we could become the humane and reasonable America so many members of my generation used to dream of. We dreamed of such an America during the Great Depression, when there were no jobs. And then we fought and often died for that dream during the Second World War, when there was no peace.

But I know now that there is not a chance in hell of America’s becoming humane and reasonable. Because power corrupts us, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Human beings are chimpanzees who get crazy drunk on power. By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East? Their morale, like so many bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas.


For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.

“Blessed are the merciful” in a courtroom? “Blessed are the peacemakers” in the Pentagon? Give me a break!

Lastly, and most recent, 82-year-old businessman Lee Iacocca let fly with a scathing condemnation of the Bush administration and the pitiful lack of leadership in US:

Congress responds to record deficits by passing a huge tax cut for the wealthy (thanks, but I don't need it). The most famous business leaders are not the innovators but the guys in handcuffs. While we're fiddling in Iraq, the Middle East is burning and nobody seems to know what to do. And the press is waving pom-poms instead of asking hard questions. That's not the promise of America my parents and yours traveled across the ocean for. I've had enough. How about you?

I'll go a step further. You can't call yourself a patriot if you're not outraged. This is a fight I'm ready and willing to have.

My friends tell me to calm down. They say, "Lee, you're eighty-two years old. Leave the rage to the young people." I'd love to — as soon as I can pry them away from their iPods for five seconds and get them to pay attention. I'm going to speak up because it's my patriotic duty. I think people will listen to me. They say I have a reputation as a straight shooter. So I'll tell you how I see it, and it's not pretty, but at least it's real.


How did we end up with this crowd in Washington? Well, we voted for them — or at least some of us did. But I'll tell you what we didn't do. We didn't agree to suspend the Constitution. We didn't agree to stop asking questions or demanding answers. Some of us are sick and tired of people who call free speech treason. Where I come from that's a dictatorship, not a democracy.

Iacocca's "Nine Cs of Leadership" are worth reading. It's shameful how few of our so-called leaders display any of them, in any field other than the ability to lie and manipulate their way to winning popularity contests.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Tribulation Force

Alternet reports on Operation Straight Up (OSU), an evangelical entertainment troupe that, as an official part of the Defence Department's America Supports You programme, has the blessing of the administration. OSU actively proselytizes among active-duty US military personnel, and is about to mail out copies of the apocalyptic video game Left Behind: Eternal Forces to soldiers serving in Iraq.

OSU is also scheduled to embark on a "Military Crusade in Iraq" in the near future.

"We feel the forces of heaven have encouraged us to perform multiple crusades that will sweep through this war torn region," OSU declares on its website about its planned trip to Iraq. "We'll hold the only religious crusade of its size in the dangerous land of Iraq."

The Defense Department's Chaplain's Office, which oversees OSU's activities, has not responded to calls seeking comment.

"The constitution has been assaulted and brutalized," Mikey Weinstein, former Reagan Administration White House counsel, ex-Air Force judge advocate (JAG), and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, told me. "Thanks to the influence of extreme Christian fundamentalism, the wall separating church and state is nothing but smoke and debris. And OSU is the IED that exploded the wall separating church and state in the Pentagon and throughout our military." Weinstein continued: "The fact that they would even consider taking their crusade to a Muslim country shows the threat to our national security and to the constitution and everyone that loves it."

Left Behind is especially interesting. In the game, players get to make believe they are commanders of an evangelical army in a post-apocalyptic American city, where they wage violent war against United Nations peacekeepers. When the game was first published, it garnered a storm of controversy, with Christian and other groups condemning it and demanding that Walmart pull it from the shelves.

Even Marvin Olasky, the evangelical publisher, intellectual author of "compassionate conservatism," and a force behind the George W. Bush Administration's White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives," denounced the Left Behind videogame.

The game is inspired by the best-selling pulp fiction series about the Tribulation following the Rapture. During the seven years of the Tribulation, surviving Christians battle everyone else in the Battle of Armageddon.

For more about Left Behind the series, see Wikipedia's article and Conservapedia's take on it. For a long, detailed, chapter-by-chapter critique from a Christian, see Fred Clark's review.

Open Source software in education

A fascinating article about the increasing use of Open Source software in education, including a nice list of useful Open Source applications that can be useful for schools.

The article also includes this quote, from Mark Driver, research vice president at IT industry analyst firm Gartner:

The community of a large open source project is better than the knowledge base of any commercial vendor, including the world's largest vendors like Microsoft and IBM. Because of the number of people who work on these projects, the sheer power of the knowledge base is unrivaled.

The dilemna of spelling dilemma

My brain just broke. Apparently, there are millions of people across the English-speaking world who have been taught by school teachers and text books to spell dilemma with a silent N.

See the comments such as:

I grew up in Los Angeles, started kindergarten in 1962. I, too, was taught to spell it dilemna. My understanding was that the spelling was later changed. It’s hard to believe that we all were merely being taught to spell a word incorrectly. It had to have been in textbooks all over the country.


I know that I learned the MN spelling at some point in school, because I have always used the mnemonic (please don’t tell me I’ve been spelling THAT incorrectly, too) trick of pronouncing it silently as “dil-em-na” whenever I write it, so that I am (was) sure to remember the important silent-N.

And this was before the coming of the amazing misinformation delivery system known as Teh Interwebs.

Googlefight shows there is a small but significant minority who have been taught to insert a silent-N into dilemma: 346,000 hits compared to 32,300,000 hits.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Five years old forever

Sara Robinson writing on Orcinus has an interesting take on why fundamentalist conservatives have such a warped relationship with masculinity.

Over the years, my online ex-fundie community has spent a lot of time puzzling over the ways in which fundamentalism arrests the moral, social, emotional, intellectual, and sexual development of anyone who embraces it. (And I could argue that, inasmuch as fundamentalism is authoritarian religion, this observation may well hold true for political and social authoritarians as well.) Specifically, we've come to a consensus that the belief system traps people somewhere around the age of five or six -- and keeps them there for as long as they continue to believe.

[...] Authoritarian followers crave someone who will keep things ordered and safe, someone who will provide and protect and set firm rules and boundaries; someone all-powerful and all-knowing who can teach you right from wrong and keep the harsh parts of the world at bay. Someone, in short, who looks like Daddy looked when you were about five years old.

[Right-Wing Authoritarians] RWAs would far rather curl up in Daddy's lap -- even if it means abandoning reason and taking the occasional spanking -- than try to deal with the world by themselves, on adult terms. This is also why RWA family and community relationships (as Lakoff has explained) are necessarily hierarchical. These people still need parents around, because they don't feel emotionally safe without the presence of a strong authority figure. Egalitarian relationships terrify them, because there's nobody in charge to make the rules and set the boundaries that keep people from hurting each other.

For all their loud talk about responsibility and freedom, these RWAs are terrified of taking responsibility, of being free. That's why they're always looking for somebody else -- the government, Daddy, "Community Values", God -- to tell them how to behave: because they know that, left to their own devices, they'll get it wrong wrong wrong.

Hey, we're all human. We all make mistakes and get things wrong. Adults -- regardless of mere age in years -- learn from their mistakes. Some mistakes are so serious that you can't learn from them, you can only atone for them. And some mistakes are too serious to even atone for them. But adults try, they take responsibility. RWAs avoid responsibility, blame others, deny that they did anything wrong. It's hard enough to get a 61-year-old boy-president to admit that "mistakes were made", let alone to admit who make them.

Being terrified of freedom, the freedom to make mistakes, RWAs are constantly looking for a Real Man to protect them -- except they can't tell the sizzle from the sausage. Talking the talk is more important than walking the walk. Republicans will tell anyone who listens how much they "support the troops", and admire the brave men and women of the armed forces who commit war crimes sacrifice themselves for their country -- and then these same chickenhawks dump on actual warriors like John Kerry and triple-amputee Max Cleland, preferring instead to give their support to a faux-warrior who used his Daddy's connections to get a cushy job in the National Guard, and when even that was too much bother, he simply went AWOL during wartime.

( [...] Remember the fuss over Jet Pilot Action Figure Bush's "package"? Damn fool didn't loosen his straps before getting out of the jet. Nobody else on the deck had his crotch trussed up like a Christmas goose; and to them, he looked like a rookie idiot. But Chris Matthews practically had an orgasm on-air while watching him prance and strut.) The fact that so many mainstream and conservative media guys are suckered by this posturing shows that they don't really have a clue about what a Real Man looks like -- though, somewhere deep down inside, they're pretty sure they don't qualify. That's why they're so easily wowed by men who can put on the costume and make it look good.

President Bush in flight suit

Dumb senator goes down

Schadenfreude is such an unworthy emotion... but so fun!

Republican senator Bob Allen was arrested for soliciting for sex in a Florida public toilet. Whoops! For a senator from the "Family Values Party" (ha! there's a joke) that's embarrassing. But what came next takes the story to surreal levels of stupidity: he tried to blame the black men in the park for it.

But having been caught doing something stupid, Allen, who is a pudgy white fellow, has decided to double down on his stupidity by offering what is a truly, spectacularly -- indeed, magnificently -- dumb reason for soliciting another man for sex: Fear of a Black Planet!

"This was a pretty stocky black guy, and there was nothing but other black guys around in the park," said Allen, according to this article in the Orlando Sentinel. Allen went on to say he was afraid of becoming a "statistic."


Allen, during the middle of the work day, was at the park, just minding his own business, enjoying the Florida sunshine or whatever, like you do, when he suddenly noticed that the park was full of black men. Fearing for his own personal safety, he decided that the best course of action was to go into the public restroom, peer over a stall -- twice -- to locate a black man, and offer that black man $20 and a blow job if he'd just leave him alone.

It speaks volumes that Allen would rather his constituents see him as a terrified, cowardly racist willing to degrade himself and grovel at the feet of a random black man, than take responsibility for his own actions, admit he gets off on giving anonymous black men blow jobs, and take his licks like a man. Pun intended.

I believe this is why a certain breed of conservative is so keen to talk loudly about responsibility and are constantly accusing progressives of not taking responsibility for their own actions: they're projecting. Because they would rather make excuses than face up to the consequences of their actions, they imagine that everybody else is also making excuses.

But regardless of that, I personally don't have any problem what so ever with gay men giving each other happy endings in public toilets, so long as they're quiet and discreet and clean up after themselves and don't frighten the kiddies. Consenting adults, dontcha know. I'm also aware that homophobic cops have been known to entrap gay guys so they can make an arrest.

But in this case, I've got no sympathy, not one iota. Because the irony just piles up: Senator Allen was one of the co-sponsors of a Florida law against public lewdness.

What is it with these hypocritical GOP politicians? A year and a half ago, it was Congressman Mark Foley, now it's Senator Allen. Do these Bozos honestly believe that the laws they pass don't apply to them?

Rent seeking

The Volokh Conspiracy has a good article by guest writer Ward Farnsworth on one of the reasons that economists consider "rent-seeking" to be harmful -- or rather, had a good article. It seems to have disappeared from the website, although it's still visible in Yahoo's cache.

(Rent-seeking in this technical sense is related to, but not precisely the same as, the common-English sense of renting equipment or housing.)

Suppose the wreck of a ship is found on the ocean floor. Four teams race to lay hands on a treasure chest the ship is known to have on board; it contains artifacts worth ten million dollars. Each team spends about three million dollars trying to get there first. Eventually one of them succeeds, and the others are out of luck. Question one: do you see why this outcome is perverse?

Answer: A total of twelve million dollars was spent to recover something worth less than that. The result is perverse from a social standpoint -- i.e., considering all the costs and benefits involved in the aggregate, not from the point of view of any one party. Looking at the salvors as a group, they would have been wealthier if the treasure hadn't ever been found in the first place. Indeed, spending anything more than the bare cost of raising the treasure is a waste; all the other money just goes into efforts by the teams to beat each other out, and there is nothing to show for it once the treasure is raised.

The essential difference between this example and (for example) four companies engaged in searching for minerals at the bottom of the sea is that in this case, there can be only one winner. When companies compete to search for oil or minerals, each company runs a risk of finding nothing, true, but it is not a winner-takes-all situation except by accident. The first company that finds oil or minerals is merely the first, and does not prevent the others from succeeding as well.

Rent-seeking can be, naturally, very lucrative for the winner who takes all, and that's why people do it, regardless of the greater economic inefficiencies.

The idea, to oversimplify only a little, is that there are two general ways to increase your wealth: by creating things people want, or by fighting over prizes that already exist — things other people have created or found. Either strategy might be more successful than the other, and perfectly rational to pursue; it depends on the circumstances. [...]

The difference between these methods of gaining wealth -- between, say, competing to build a better restaurant and competing to get to the treasure first (rent seeking) -- is that the first one creates wealth, or better-offness, for the world. Customers are made happy, and restaurants gradually get better. Fighting over who gets the treasure isn't like that. The treasure doesn't get bigger as a result. In a sense it gets smaller because wealth is eaten up in the effort to lay hold of it.

Think of this on a larger scale and you can see that the more a society spends on rent seeking -- on quarrels over who gets what -- the poorer it becomes. If that's all that anyone did, everyone would starve in due course.

While rent-seeking is usually an economic bad, there are arguably situations where the good it does outweighs the harm. For example, most nations artificially restrict the supply of doctors by insisting that only those who have passed an approved training programme can practice, rather than allowing anyone to call themselves a doctor. Even the most laissez faire supporters of the free market generally accept that this is better than leaving it up to the free market to drive the bad doctors out of business -- although there are exceptions.

The situation is less clear for other trades such as teacher, plumber, electrician and others. These trades, like doctors, are restricted to those who pass a government-approved course, which therefore artificially reduces competition in the field. Whether the harm to society from that reduced competition is more or less than the reduction in harm from allowing unqualified teachers and plumbers to practice is unclear.

Another classic example of rent-seeking is the patent system, where the first person to file a patent can gain a monopoly over an entire range of ideas, regardless of who invented them. While it is an article of faith that patents do more good than harm, there is remarkably little actual evidence to support that idea.

Big fish in small ponds

Jonathan Schwarz discusses the tendency of imperial elites to prefer being enormous fish in small ponds over being big fish in a large lake:

That's the interesting thing about the standard historical trajectory of imperial a certain point they either (1) forget the power they can wield outside their country ultimately derives from a healthy society beneath them, or (2) understand that but decide they'd rather be comparatively more powerful within a poorer society and less powerful outside.
To understand choice #2 it's useful to look at an extreme example, like Saudi Arabia. Certainly it has the natural wealth to be able to oppose Israel effectively. And you'd assume their elites want to do that, given that they're always screeching about it. But effective opposition would require Saudi society to be internally far more democratic, educated and egalitarian. So the Saudi princes have decided they'd prefer their country to be a weak, poor backwater if that's what's required for them to each own nine palaces.

The signs point to the elites of the USA being the same. Look at the way the White House talks up the need to fight the War On Terror, while simultaneously reducing their actual ability to do so: alienating allies, penny-pinching on basic equipment for the troops, making decisions so mind-explodingly stupid that even incompetence can't be the explanation, like the early decision to sack 400,000 Iraqi soldiers without pay, but allow them to keep their weapons.

(Aside: the above link, by Eliot Weinberger writing for the London Review of Books, contains the most understated yet eloquent description of the mess that is the invasion and occupation of Iraq I've yet seen.)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Bookstore extortion

One of Australia's biggest retail book sellers, Angus & Robertson, tries to extort money at punitive interest rates from small Australian book publishers -- and then the publisher of the 2007 Miles Franklin Award winning book decides to fight back, with a very public "up yours" letter.

And when I say punitive, I mean it: 1825% per year. Yes, almost two thousand percent per year, five percent per day.

A&R's Commercial Manager, Charlie Rimmer, is apparently a hatchet-man from A&R's former owners, British bookseller chain the W H Smith Group. According to comments, the British retail book market has been gutted by similar tactics employed by (among others) W H Smiths. Rimmer has worked at A&R for a little over a year now.

A&R's demands were not just arrogant, they were actually quite extraordinary, as this analysis by Teresa at Making Light reveals:

Later we will read how A&R has been determinedly paring down, de-rationalizing, and generally muddling their own purchasing operation so badly that their bookbuyers no longer see any of the books they’re ordering.

    We have concluded that we have far too many suppliers,

Malarkey again. Rimmer is inappropriately borrowing language from other industries, as though A&R were a construction firm and he’d noticed they were buying their bricks from too many different brickyards. Bricks are interchangeable. Books aren't. A house built with bricks from one or two brickyards will be just fine. A bookstore that only carries stock from a few publishers will have a thin, poor selection to offer its customers.

Multiple suppliers--that is, a broad range of publishers and books to choose from--is a good thing, if a bookstore chain knows what it's doing.


Wouldn't life be interesting if we could just tell our trading partners that we've decided to raise our "minimum threshold of profitability" on past transactions, and they owe us?


    All rebates are paid quarterly for the previous quarter's performance, you must ensure that your remittance, with calculations, is received by us by the 7th of the month following the preceding quarter. Any remittances not received by this date will attract a daily 5% interest charge.

There's no way the publishers can calculate that in time. The only way to avoid that piratical interest charge is to overpay, then try to get a refund on the overpayment. And you can bet your booties that A&R doesn't pay publishers anywhere near that quickly.


Alternately, it's possible that A&R's management stands to personally profit if the company goes public and the initial stock offering does well, so they're running a quick slash-and-burn raid on their more vulnerable suppliers in order to temporarily make their company look more profitable. Or maybe it's something else. It's tacky and stupid and self-defeating, whatever it is.

Self-defeating is absolutely right. A&R's arrogant, ham-fisted money-grab against smaller Australian publishers hit the Internet and grew legs. Just a few years ago, it might have passed without comment -- but now, it's everywhere. After just a few days, the story reached number two on Google's search page for "Angus and Robertson", behind only A&R's website itself. (Oh my, wouldn't a Google bomb go down well now?)

Readers, that is to say, people who buy books, quickly inundated the original Sydney Morning Herald blog post with their promises to boycott A&R. Many readers explained that with lousy book selections and unhelpful, untrained staff, A&R was a poor shadow of its former self, and this was the final straw. And then a independent buying group stepped into the fray with a deliciously over-the-top parody of A&R's demands.

One thing that puzzles me... every time I go into a Borders bookstore, it's full of customers, the shelves are jammed full with a great variety of books, the lines in front of the cash registers are long. At A&R stores, the customers are thin on the ground, the shelves are lightly stocked and mostly cheap remainders on sale for half price or less, and there's never a line at the cash register. So how come the rumour mill has it that A&R is likely to buy out Borders Australian operation? Is the Australian retail book market from Bizarro World, where you make money by not selling lots of books, and lose money by having a thriving business?

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Sex education

Jonathan Adler from The Volokh Conspiracy mentions briefly another study showing that abstinence-only sex education ("Just Say No To Sex, or you'll go blind") has no effect on teen sex rates.

A new study in the British Medical Journal confirms prior research indicating that abstinence-only education has no effect, positive or negative, on sexual behavior. As critics have long maintained, this review of available empirical research indicates that abstinence-only education does not prevent teenagers from having sex or reduce the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases. At the same time, and contrary to the claims of some critics, abstinence-only education does not appear to increase the rate of unprotected sexual activity.

Some of the comments are worth reading too.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

If we're so rich, why can't we afford anything?

Alternet has a good look at the two apparently contradictory mainstream stories about the American economy (and to a lesser extent, Australia's as well). The first is that the US is rich and successful, with a booming economy, a healthy stock market (at least up until a few days ago!), productivity and economic growth are up, unemployment and inflation under control.

But the second story is the opposite: the US can't afford to pay for a such luxuries as universal medical coverage, social security programs for the poor and unemployed, education, a safety net for the unemployed. While some circles of laissez faire conservatives and libertarians oppose such programmes on moral grounds, more commonly conservatives will claim that the country can't afford them, almost as if "Paris Hilton has to dig between the cushions of her sofa to buy a can of tuna". [link]

But, at the same time, we're also told that we don't have the money to pay for a robust social safety net. When it comes to paying for universal health coverage, affording retirement security for our elderly, investing in programs for the poor or educating our children, we need to pinch pennies. According to this story line, we face a looming "entitlement crisis" -- we won't be able to afford to keep the Baby Boomers in good health and out of poverty, we're told, unless we slash their benefits and privatize the programs that their elderly parents enjoy today.

This is the line we hear from the administration when it talks about entitlement "reform": Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson says that "the biggest economic issue facing our country is the growth in spending on the major entitlement programs: Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security." The solution, according to the Heritage Foundation, is to cut entitlement spending. "Reforming Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is the only way to get the budget under control," it says.

At first glance, it seems to be a paradox: how can a country so rich afford so little?

The solution to the apparent contradiction is to realise that the "we" who is doing well is a very small minority, and they don't get any benefit (or at least, they don't think they get any benefit) out of the programs that they say "we" can't afford.

There's no doubt that the US economy has grown by leaps and bounds. Between 1973 and 2005, the economy has grown by 160%, just a little short of the post-World War Two economic miracle between 1947 and 1973. Despite (or perhaps because of) the GI Bill, reconstructing Europe and Japan, cheap or free education for many, Social Security, the Cold War, the Moon landing, and the Korean War, the US economy not only grew by 176% but income inequality plummeted as American families' incomes shot up. At least the white families' incomes.

Following WW2, the US saw a quarter century of rapid economic growth and significant increases in income across most of the population. In the quarter century since 1973, the US has also seen rapid economic growth. Where has the money gone? Alternet gives some sobering statistics:

  • After adjusting for inflation, nine out of ten American families have seen their income fall by 11% between 1973 and 2005.

  • The bottom half of the richest ten percent -- those between the top 90% and the top 95%, with an average income of $85,000 per year -- have seen virtually no gains.

  • The lion's share of income gains have gone to the richest one percent of Americans.

  • But even that fails to give an accurate picture. While the richest one percent have done quite well, it is the richest 0.01 percent whose income has exploded by 250%.

(Note: Be careful interpreting these figures. It would be a mistake to multiply 0.01 percent by the population of the USA and conclude that it refers to just thirty thousand people who have shared almost all the economic growth between them. The income groups refer to percentiles of the population, not individuals. The richest 0.01% were not necessarily the same people in 1973 and 2005.)

  • Although they are richer than ever before, the mega-rich at the top of the pyramid are paying less and less in taxes. Although the American tax system remains, in principle, progressive, in practice the working poor and middle classes pay proportionally more of their income on taxation than the rich -- essentially a regressive tax system in practice.

  • Despite record company profits, corporations pay a smaller proportion of their profits, contributing only one third as much as they did in 1962 to the Federal government. Their avoidance of state taxes is even worse. Seventy-one companies on the Fortune 500 list managed to pay no state taxes during the period 2001 and 2003, despite making $86 billion in profit.

  • While worker productivity has increased significantly, worker wages have remained flat. The difference has gone to greater corporate profits and higher CEO salary packages.

  • The Gini Coefficient, a measure of the inequality of income distribution within a country, has increased to almost 0.5, making it on a par with, or higher than, such countries as Russia, Iran, Peru and Venezuela.

The majority of Americans have failed to see any economic gains from the last quarter century, despite working longer hours and taking fewer holidays. The average family works thirteen weeks more on average than families did a generation ago, just to avoid falling backwards.

A picture is worth a thousand words, never more so than when it comes to income distribution:
Income distribution
(Click for a larger view.)

Each block represents a percentile of the population, where the width represents the percentage of the population and the height their average income. From left to right: the 20% of the population with the lowest income, then the next three groups (20-40%, 40-60% and 60-80%); then the 80-90% , 90-95%, 95-99%, 99-99.5%, 99.5-99.9%; and finally the tall spike at the end is the 99.9-100 percentile: the richest 0.1 percent.

Figures in the graph are adapted from data here [PDF]. See also here for additional data.

Even the ultra-conservative former Chairman of the Federal Bank, Alan Greenspan, told Congress that the every increasing concentration of wealth and rising inequality is a "really serious problem". The last time the US had this much inequality, it lurched from depression to depression, an average of three years out of every decade. Nations ignore history at their peril.

* * *

Update, 2pm: corrected a miscalculation re the top 0.01% (not 0.1% as initially quoted).

Coat of Arms

Mrs Impala and I ate the Australian Coat of Arms for dinner tonight:

Commonwealth Coat of Arms
Both kangaroo and emu are very lean, low fat meats. To my surprise, emu meat isn't anything like chicken at all -- despite being from a bird, it is definitely a red meat. I expected something like an even bigger turkey, only gamey, but it was more like beef except with a finer texture and much lower in fat. Mrs Impala says it's like the best of British eye fillet steak (especially the way she likes beef: "tell it stories about fire, then bring it to the table"). It has a comparatively mild flavour.

Kangaroo meat has a stronger, more gamey flavour, but less so than wild venison. I've previously eaten minced roo, and would cheerfully do so again, but it comes from older, lower quality animals and so has a much stronger flavour that might not appeal to everybody. I wouldn't bother again with the pre-made "kangaroo roast" made from offcuts and spices.

The secret to both kangaroo and emu is to serve them rare. Being low in fat, they will dry out terribly if overcooked, so cook them quick on a very hot flame to seal in the juices, and let them rest for a few minutes before serving. We marinated the roo, but probably didn't need to.

Prices aren't exactly cheap, but quite competitive once you consider the quality: low fat and cholesterol, no bone, and much more flavoursome than the beef commonly available in Australian retail stores. I paid roughly $7 for about 500g for the kangaroo, at Safeway. The emu was more expensive, and much harder to track down: I ended up finding it by accident at the Victoria Market, where I paid $18 for around 800g. $25 for a feast for three people, and some left overs -- considering the taste and quality, I call that good value.

Sure, at $5 a kilo for rump, beef is cheaper, but the quality is much lower. The best Aussie beef is exported, so the premium cuts available here at retail are more like the cheap cuts available overseas. That came as nasty shock to Mrs Impala, who had expected Aussie beef to be good, what with us being famous as meat eaters and for the size of our cattle industry. Alas, she hadn't taken into account the general poverty of Australian soils and the chronic lack of water.

At $24 per kilo for emu, or even $14 per kilo for roo, I won't be eating them every day, but then I don't eat a lot of red meat regardless of how cheap it is. I'll wouldn't hesitate to eat either again, especially the emu, and can heartedly recommend both.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Etiquette lesson

Mark Kleiman at the Reality Based Community again:

If an armed society is a polite society, as the gun nuts like to say, then think of all the good manners we've brought to Iraq by losing 110,000 AK-47s and 80,000 pistols

Baptists for Brownback

It took me a while to decide that this site is actually a parody: "Baptists for Brownback", proporting to be a website for Baptists who wish to support former Methodist and now Catholic convert Sam Brownback in his run for the US presidency. (The Legal Statement was the first clue.)

On men wearing kilts:

I will agree to believe that some of you are not sodomites. That said, there arises an equally as disturbing of an issues, if you are not in fact a homosexual then why would you want to wear a skirt, or kilt if you will. The only rational conclusion I can come up with is that the freedom of not having slacks with sippers and belts, grants you easy access for spontaneous fornication.

On Unplanned Sexual Events:

We have concluded that the acronym U.S.E. (Unplanned Sexual Event), when used regularly to replace the word “rape”, will remove the stigma associated with this sometimes unpleasant situation. It is our mission to protect the innocent lives of the babies that are part of His plan and eliminate the excuses given by many women when a precious baby just isn’t convienient.

On teaching your children that all atheists are actually Devil-worshippers:

Peggy’s mommy was just about to chastise the girls for making her leave her chores because of their alarmist reactions to nothing, when she saw something that would nearly take the curl out of her home perm: it was the next-door neighbor man and his beer-drinking friends & they were wearing black robes and each holding a dead kitten. One of the men was even a Negro!

[...] Peggy shouted, “Mommy! Why is that man skinning our cat?” It was right then that her mother grabbed the two girls by their little arms and ran with them as fast as she could back into the safety of their Christian home.“Honey come here”, her mother said as soon as they were back inside the cheaply appointed but clean kitchen, “Those men are Atheists, and, as you know, Honey, all Atheists will try and tell you that they are not Satanists but they are. Every single one of them kill small animals, and sometimes even little children too, as part of their glorification of the Devil”

Credit crunch and interest rates

Mark Kleiman at the Reality Based Community gives a small sign that the inevitable credit crunch in the US has lurched another step closer: even with new anti-consumer laws putting bankruptcy out of reach for those who actually need it, credit card companies are getting nervous about the ability of even well-off people to pay off debts.

Meanwhile, here in Australia, the media has finally re-discovered the majority of Australians. Oh, they're still singing the same old tune of our booming economy, which I for one am skeptical about, but they're starting to notice those who have missed out on the boom.

It isn't that I doubt that on average we're better off now than ten years ago, but the word "average" can hide a lot of sins. E.g. if Uncle Rupert's income climbs from ten million dollars to twelve million, while Marge and Homer's incomes both fall from one thousand dollars to nine hundred, Uncle Rupert can honestly say that on average the three of them have increased their income by almost 20%.

But I digress... over the last couple of months, the Australian media have finally discovered something I've been complaining about for years. (Not in writing, more's the pity.) The government's rhetoric about Australia's booming economy is mostly illusionary:

A recent survey by in June revealed 42 per cent said their financial situation was worse than it was a year ago due to higher living costs.

So, despite all the joy being reaped on the stock market, mainly by higher income earners and retirees with super, the bulk of Australians are battling just to keep their heads above water.

Cheap DVD players and big screen TVs, but food, rent and medical costs are all up:

  • The consumer price index (CPI) was 1.2%, but that was modest compared to some increases:

  • Fuel costs up by 9.1% over the June quarter.

  • Fruit costs increased by 8.4% in the June quarter, and vegetables by 6.1%.

  • Medical costs increased by 3.4%.

  • Over the quarter, house costs increased 1.0%, and rents 1.6%.

  • Over the full financial year, house prices increased by 2.7%, rents by 5.2% and property rates and charges by 5.6%

Taken altogether, my back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that the average person might be spending $70 a week more just a necessities now than they were a year ago.

Most interesting, the media have also opened their eyes about interest rates, after years of blindly parroting the government's party line. And right at the time when it will hurt the Prime Minister the most, before an election, tsk tsk tsk. (One wonders if John Howard forgot Rupert Murdoch's birthday?) The Liberal Party has been beating the ALP over the head about interest rates and home loan repayments for years, based on the high rates during the 1980s Recession. It is true that interest rates are lower now than then, but housing prices have blown through the roof, and the average (that word again) monthly repayment is a far greater proportion of income now than it was during the worst of the Recession. In other words, home buyers are doing it much tougher now than they were during the Bad Old Days when Australia was climbing out of an economic crisis -- and record bankruptcy rates are reflecting this.

Despite the ALP's apparent lack of interest in taking the fight to Howard on this matter, the media seems to have realised that Howard's promise-that-wasn't-actually-a-promise that interest rates wouldn't go up under his watch was an untruth. And it only took them five interest rate hikes since the previous election in 2004 to notice.

I note that three years ago the former head of the Reserve Bank scoffed at claims that the Liberals would keep interest rates down, pointing out that they must think people are gullible to make such a claim. Right on three counts: yes, the Liberals were unable to keep rates down; yes, they thought the voting public was gullible; and yes, they were right.

And, still back in 2004, it was pointed out that Howard's governments have been running what business leaders call "a lazy balance sheet" -- ignoring opportunities for growth and investment in favour of a timid, short-sighted and miserly approach:

Any fool can sell assets to reduce debt, but it is a way of becoming uncompetitive and eventually going out of business. Since 1996, the Howard Government has sold infrastructure and cut spending on higher education. Its stock of assets has depreciated at a faster rate than gross investment, and programs designed to upgrade industry, such as the 140 per cent R&D allowance, were slashed - all in the name of reducing the deficit.

For the want of a few hundred million dollars a year to maintain these programs, business R&D, which was growing about 18 per cent a year in the decade up to 1996, has now slowed to a virtual standstill and the deficit on Australia's trade in elaborately transformed manufactures has blown out.

As a consequence, Australia's external current account deficit now stands at 5.4 per cent of GDP, and foreign debt is far larger than any other major industrial country apart from the US.

Three years later, things are if anything worse. Howard's bribing the electorate with tax cuts (and at long last, even the bottom half are getting something). While a tax refund is always welcome, I'd rather a booming economy and a well-paying job with high taxes than a slowing, fragile economy with low taxes. Better to keep 70% of a lot than 80% of a little.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

How did I miss this anniversary?

Six years and three days ago exactly, the President of the United States of America spent the day at his Texas ranch, and spoke to then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice about Macedonia.

Oh yes, he also received a Presidential Daily Brief warning that Osama bin Laden was determined to strike in the USA itself, was preparing to hijack aircraft, and that the FBI had detected "suspicious activity". Bush, who was in the middle of a 32-day holiday (at the time the longest presidential vacation since 1969), was too busy building a new trail to do anything about it, but fortunately the then Attorney-General John Ashcroft had earlier been given a warning about al Qaeda's plans to hijack airplanes. He did the only thing a man in his position (head of all law enforcement in the USA) could do.

He stopped travelling on commercial airlines and started travelling exclusively on chartered planes. Hang the expense, nothing's too good to save the Attorney-General and his staff.

The Goddess of the Yangtze

The Baiji, or Yangtze River Dolphin (poetically known to the ancient Chinese as the Goddess of the Yangtze), is essentially no more. Although a few scientists still hold out hope that there may be a few survivors, they would be too few in number for the species to recover.

Yangtze River Dolphin
It has been declared officially extinct, the first official extinction of a large vertebrate for fifty years.

(Thanks to John Lynch at Stranger Fruit.)

Pell demands devotion

Cardinal George Pell has demanded that students going to Australia's Catholic schools, together with their parents, be more devout, and that the schools give preference to children of Catholics over other Christians, and those over believers of other religions.

As many as 20% of students attending Catholic schools in Australia are non-Catholic.

Pell said, "With as many one in five of the students non-Catholic, how can our schools live up to the grand old traditions of my alma mater without the instinctive, unconditional obedience of Catholic children to their priest, no matter what disgusting, perverted acts they ask the child to perform?"

Actually, I tell a fib -- he didn't say that at all. In fact, despite the grand old tradition of abuse committed by priests, there's no evidence what-so-ever that Pell considers that abuse a desirable consequence of the unquestioning devotion to the Church that he propounds. And in fact, as Catholic cardinals go, Pell has been relatively clean when it comes to covering up the child abuse (sexual and otherwise) of the Church, such as that of Father Gerald Ridsdale of St Patrick's College, where Pell himself studied. (Pell accompanied Ridsdale to trial, but did not give evidence on his behalf.)

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

God, punishment and raisin cakes

Go on, you know you want to, God says it's okay. Get yourself a harlot for a wife:

    When the LORD first spoke through Hosea, the LORD said to Hosea, "Go, take to yourself a wife of harlotry and have children of harlotry; for the land commits flagrant harlotry, forsaking the LORD."

See also this take on it (warning -- mildly Not Safe For Work).

Having a harlot for a wife isn't all fun and games though. God has a plan: Hosea's first born son will, by God's design, go on to commit some terrible bloodshed, giving the Lord an excuse to punish the entire nation of Israel, the guilty and innocent alike.

Imagine being the son of Hosea, being told day in and day out by your father that the only reason you were born was to be God's instrument, and that your role in life will be to commit some heinous crime so that God can rain punishment on the entire nation. Imagine how twisted that poor child would grow up to be.

I hate to belabour the obvious, but when it comes to the Bible, it's amazing how many otherwise intelligent people grow blinkers. God planned for Hosea's son to commit this horrible crime. Hosea would probably have been perfectly happy wearing a hair shirt and beating himself off with knotted ropes if God hadn't ordered him to get a wife and have children. The act of bloodshed which leads God to collectively punish the entire nation of Israel only occurs because God directly set it in motion. Had God not acted, it would not have occured.

Sounds like entrapment to me. Sounds like God was just itchin' to rain down some divine retribution, and if he didn't have a good excuse, he'd damn well make sure he'd get an excuse, no matter what it takes.

Barely is Hosea done having children for the sole purpose of giving God an excuse to curse Israel, than God orders him to go get himself a second fallen woman:

    Then the LORD said to me, "Go again, love a woman who is loved by her husband, yet an adulteress, even as the LORD loves the sons of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes."

Just when you think you understand the mindset of the people who wrote the Bible (mostly "disturbed"), out pops an idiom that just blows you away. Eating raisin cakes is a sign of moral depravity? Gosh, I'm glad God has his priorities right. Wouldn't want him obsessing on trivialities, like cotton-blend fabrics and tassles.

Hosea goes on to say he purchased a woman from her husband, for 15 shekels of silver and some barley. I must admit to a little confusion: if her husband loved her, why was he selling her?

Spell checkers

Why does Kmail's own spell checker not recognise its own name? Why doesn't it recognise offensive when it knows inoffensive?

Kmail spell checker

(Click image for full view.)

The second screen capture wasn't taken by me, it came from a Macintosh, so I can't entirely vouch that this is genuine. But it looks real:

Apple spellchecker
Suggesting "Windows" as a replacement for Linux surely has to be a joke by Apple's developers.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Won't somebody think of the children???

It's a truism that there is no surer sign of a politician who is out of ideas than when he or she starts talking about "protecting the children".

A few weeks ago, Australia's Prime Minister, "Honest John" Howard, launched a crusade to "save the children" of Australia's aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory.

At first glance, if there ever where any children who needed saving, it is them: Australia's treatment of our native people is disgraceful. Alcoholism and unemployment is rife. Families live in Third World levels of poverty, and child abuse is common. Like most hunter-gatherers in contact with technologically advanced conquerors, history has not been kind to the Aboriginal people of Australia. Their culture is breaking down, and with it, the people are trapped in a cycle of self-destruction and abuse. The situation needs serious improvement.

But the situation has been dire for decades, including years of neglect during Howard's entire time as PM. It's only now, with an election coming up and for the first time in years a serious challenger in the Opposition Party, that Howard has discovered the plight of the Aboriginal communities and declared it a national emergency. There's no time to think, we must act, and to hang with the expense! Or, for that matter, the consequences.

After initially saying that it could cost tens of millions of dollars, the PM is now suggesting it could be half a billion or more -- and we shouldn't complain, because in an emergency like this, no expense is too great to save the children.

So how has Howard saved the children?

By sending in the Australian Army to take over Aboriginal communities. Parents will have their welfare payments cut if they resist -- and with unemployment at terrifying levels, most Aboriginal families are on welfare. No jobs out in the desert.

If the PM is quoting half a billion dollars -- that's $7500 for each Aboriginal person in the Territory -- it will probably end up five times that. But the Government's sights aren't set very high: they want to introduce "dry areas", where the sale or possession of alcohol and pornography are criminal offenses, and compulsory health checks. No money for housing, or education, or actual health treatment. And the cost is the military occupation of part of Australia, the creation of virtual mini police states, robbing the Aboriginal people of what tiny sliver of self-determination they had left. Aboriginal leaders are saying that this "help" is something they don't need or want.

That's a lot of money for little expected result. What's going on? Is this, perhaps, like the apocryphal "$14,000 hammers" the US military used to buy when there was need to have money disappear off the books for black ops? Could it be merely old fashioned corruption? Or just incompetence?

These Aboriginals may be poor, but they're still citizens, and so it is surprising how little media attention has been given to the literal military occupation of their communities. Google News for army "northern territory" aborigines gives a mere 14 results, the second of which is about an Aussie Rules football coach.

(Note: due to the nature of Google News, these results will change with time.)

The authors of the report that prompted Howard to launch his Crusade labelled the government use of the Army to seize Aboriginal land as "devastating", and said they felt betrayed by the PM's government:

"There is not a single action that the Commonwealth has taken so far that has corresponded with a single recommendation," Ms Anderson said.


[Mr Wild] said he and Ms Anderson were able to get indigenous people to talk honestly about child sexual abuse because they arrived quietly in communities, displaying courtesy. "We didn't arrive in gunships, we didn't arrive in tanks and trucks." found [sic] evidence of child sexual abuse in every one of 45 communities visited in the Northern Territory, blaming poor health, alcohol and drug abuse, unemployment, poor education and housing, and disempowerment that has contributed to violence.

The government's plan, such that it is, goes for the easy targets, while ignoring or making worse the fundamental causes of the problem: unemployment and a dying culture. Yahoo reports:

But Ms Anderson conceded there was the need for urgent action and for commonwealth help.

"We needed the assistance of the federal government that had the bigger cheque book," she said.

"We did want to bring it to the government's attention but not in the way it has been responded to by the federal government."

Ms Anderson said the report was deliberately written in such a reasonable way that the commonwealth would be unreasonable to ignore the recommendations.

"They behaved as though we all have done nothing and we don't know anything and we have all been sitting on our hands," she said.

Ms Anderson said there needed to be an appropriate way of returning power to people in Aboriginal communities.

"Aboriginal people are worried about their kids but they want to be part of the solution not merely to be passive recipients," she said.

"There has to be a whole new terms of engagement renegotiated with Aboriginal people. The days of being passive recipients are over, absolutely over. That isn't going to work, that hasn't worked."

Despite early reports that Aboriginal leaders supported the plan, it seems that in fact they actually oppose it:

The Australian Government's intervention in the Northern Territory is sickening, rotten and worrying, says one of the most powerful Aboriginal leaders in the territory.

At the Garma Festival in Arnhem Land, former Northern Land Council president, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, called on people to fight the Howard Government's takeover of Northern Territory Aboriginal communities.

It's gratifying to see the pieces fall into place. When I first heard about this plan, back in June, I thought it was Children Overboard again. And what did I discover today? The Liberal Party's own polls are supporting what newspaper opinion polls are saying: Australia's voters now find Howard too old and dishonest. Even the right-wing Herald-Sun plastered the report on their front page.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Dead man walking

Injustice comes in many forms, but one of the most pernicious is the injustice of the death penalty on the basis of shoddy, questionable evidence and perjury.

Troy A. Davis has been on the Georgia death row for 17 years. His trial was a paragon of injustice: at one point, his state-appointed lawyer turned up drunk in court; when one prosecution witness tried to change her testimony and admit to perjuring herself, she was arrested and prevented from giving evidence at the trial. There was no physical evidence linking him to the crime, and of the nine eyewitnesses who testimony convicted him, seven have recanted or changed their testimony, and claimed that they were pressured by investigators to lie under oath.

As Digby of Hullabalo writes, the US Supreme Court has refused to hear his appeal, on the basis of a 1996 law which "streamlines" the death penalty, allowing the state to kill people faster, with fewer of those pesky appeals, and new evidence proving his innocence be damned.

This sad case is another demonstration of the moral bankruptcy of the Christian Fundamentalists who decide matters of life and death for decent people. I don't know which is worse: police and prosecutors willing to convict the innocent and allow the guilty to escape, or the hypocritical, Holy-Than-Thou Christians sitting in judgement over others. One of the old men of the American Supreme Court, Antonin Scalia, wrote in Herrera v. Collins regarding the possibility of an innocent man being executed:

With any luck, we shall avoid ever having to face this embarrassing question again, since it is improbable that evidence of innocence as convincing as today's opinion requires would fail to produce an executive pardon.

Never mind the rule of law. Don't bother finding innocent people innocent or reversing unjust and unsafe convictions. The President will simply give the guy a pardon.

With any luck.

(In)Justice Scalia, who apparently believes that bringing evidence to trial is the defendant's privilege and not a right, doesn't see the execution of the innocent as anything worth getting upset about: it just sends them to God sooner. In 2002, he gave a speech explaining:

For the believing Christian, death is no big deal. Intentionally killing an innocent person is a big deal, a grave sin which causes one to lose his soul, but losing this physical life in exchange for the next – the Christian attitude is reflected in the words Robert Bolt’s play has Thomas More saying to the headsman: "Friend, be not afraid of your office. You send me to God." And when Cramner asks whether he is sure of that, More replies, "He will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to him."

Save us from the Believers and their "morality".

Exorcism death

Ronald Marquez, 49, of Phoenix Arizona, died after being shot with a taser when police officers found him strangling his grand-daughter. Police had been called by relatives who said that Marquez was trying to rid the girl of demons.

A bed had been pushed up against the door; the officers pushed it open a few inches and saw Marquez choking his bloodied granddaughter, who was crying in pain and gasping, Tranter said.

A bloody, naked 19-year-old woman who police later determined to be Marquez's daughter and the girl's mother was in the room, chanting "something that was religious in nature," Tranter said.

Link thanks to Pharyngula.

* * *

Update: Immediately after writing this post, what song came up on my music player? PWEI's Me No Fear The Reaper, which starts with the following lyrics:

    First male voice: I'm a priest, you can tell me.
    Woman's voice: I told him I gave myself to the Devil, I gave myself to him body and soul.

    Second male voice: But if we do get to summon up the big daddy with the horns and tail, he gets to bring his own liquor, his own bird, and his own pot.

    First male singer: Join me Jesus freaks,
    Join me Jesus freaks,
    In Hell

Hmmm... I wonder if XMMS is trying to tell me something?

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Great London Beer Flood of 1814

This isn't quite as amusing horrific as the Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, which killed 21 people, flattened buildings and tore apart 1/2 inch steel plates, but it is close. 1.2 million litres of beer burst out of barrels in a London brewery in 1814, flooding the slum of St Giles and drowning seven people. People rushed to save as much of the free beer as possible, so much so that an eighth victim died of alcohol poisoning.