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If I won the lottery: OPEN THREAD

Every once in a while a story comes along that makes you smile.  For me, it was the recent story of Christopher Shaw’s epic lottery win.  Chris is the kind of guy you want to win the lottery.  Down on his luck, with less than $30 bucks in the bank, this 27 year-old will now be able to replace his missing two-front teeth…and of course of few other things, with his $258 million dollar lottery winnings.  In the video above, Chris returns to the convenience store where he worked to check his numbers and claim his prize.

His story made me wonder just what I would do if I won the lottery.  How about you?  What would you do with all that money?

We could all use a bit of fanciful daydreaming at this point.

This is an open thread.

Wednesday Morning News

Good Morning Conflucians!!

What an interesting week we’re having so far. Mmm, love me some greed on wall street. And between the New Wall Street (don’t look at the man behind the curtain) Dem party and the Batshit Crazy (socialist, or now mexican, under every rock) Repub party, no one is noticing that our ship is headed straight for the iceberg. But never mind, we’ll fix that by bailing out the iceberg consortium. So let this be a bit of a distraction with some other news.

Laughter acts like exercise:

Dr. Lee S. Berk, a preventive care specialist and psychoneuroimmunology researcher at Loma Linda University’s Schools of Allied Health (SAHP) and Medicine, and director of the molecular research lab at SAHP, Loma Linda, CA, and Dr. Stanley Tan have picked up where Cousins left off. Since the 1980s, they have been studying the human body’s response to mirthful laughter and have found that laughter helps optimize many of the functions of various body systems. Berk and his colleagues were the first to establish that laughter helps optimize the hormones in the endocrine system, including decreasing the levels of cortisol and epinephrine, which lead to stress reduction. They have also shown that laughter has a positive effect on modulating components of the immune system, including increased production of antibodies and activation of the body’s protective cells, including T-cells and especially Natural Killer cells’ killing activity of tumor cells.

Their studies have shown that repetitious “mirthful laughter,” which they call Laughercise©, causes the body to respond in a way similar to moderate physical exercise. Laughercise© enhances your mood, decreases stress hormones, enhances immune activity, lowers bad cholesterol and systolic blood pressure, and raises good cholesterol (HDL).

As Berk explains, “We are finally starting to realize that our everyday behaviors and emotions are modulating our bodies in many ways.” His latest research expands the role of laughter even further.

A clown a day will keep the doctor away.

The fun part of social networks is when you’re engaged in the social hunt:

Kevin Wise, an assistant professor of strategic communication at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, studied people’s habits when they navigate Facebook. Wise says previous studies on social networking sites involved merely surveying study participants. Wise conducted his study differently.

“Rather than asking people to report their uses of Facebook, we wanted to see them in action,” Wise said. “We wanted to see if there is a way to categorize Facebook use, not based on what people say about it, but what they actually do when they are using it.”

Wise categorized participants’ actions into two different groups: social browsing and social searching. He defines social browsing as navigating the site without a targeted goal in mind. Wise says people use social browsing when they survey the general landscape, such as their newsfeed or wall, without looking for specific information. Wise defines social searching as searching the social networking site with the goal of finding certain information about a specific person, group, or event.

Wise found that participants tended to spend much more time on social searching than social browsing. Not only did participants spend more time on social searching, but they seemed to enjoy it more as well.

“We found a more positive response from participants during social searching, or when they had homed in on a particular target,” Wise said. “Ultimately, it appears that Facebook use is largely a series of transitions between browsing the environment, then focusing in on something interesting or relevant.”

So hunting your friends and acquaintances is what we like to do. Nothing like a good hunt to start off the morning.

Some progress in fuel cell research:

A new form of platinum that could be used to make cheaper, more efficient fuel cells has been created by researchers at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and the University of Houston. The process, described in the April 25th issue of Nature Chemistry, could help enable broader use of the devices, which produce emissions-free energy using hydrogen.

“This is a significant advance,” said scientist Anders Nilsson, who conducts research at the Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Sciences, a joint institute between SLAC and Stanford University. “Fuel cells were invented more than 100 years ago. They haven’t made a leap over to being a big technology yet, in part because of this difficulty with platinum.”

Fuel cells hold significant promise for clean energy because the cell’s only byproduct is water. But current fuel cell designs can require as much as 100 grams of platinum, pushing their price tags into the thousands of dollars. By tweaking platinum’s reactivity, the researchers were able to curtail the amount of platinum required by 80 percent, and hope to soon reduce it by another 10 percent, greatly trimming away at the overall cost.

“I think with a factor of ten, we’ll have a home run,” Nilsson added.

We launched a secret min shuttle the other day:

The X-37 has had a long and chequered development history. It was built by Boeing’s “Phantom Works” advanced-concepts shop, originally for NASA – though it had Air Force heritage from the beginning, drawing heavily on the USAF’s X-40 experiments.

NASA saw the craft as a potential “lifeboat” for the International Space Station, but that requirement wouldn’t really call for a winged re-entry vehicle: the ISS lifeboat is in fact a common-or-garden Soyuz capsule – perhaps now to be replaced at some point by an American Orion salvaged from the ruins of the Constellation moonbase programme. Neither has wings, or any real need for them.

So we no longer want much of a civilian manned space program, but a military one is just fine and good. Alrighty then.

So our lovely senators have noticed the recent changes from Facebook:

Last week, Facebook launched some major new products, including social plugins, its Like button for the web, and its Open Graph API. It also launched a product that has some serious privacy issues: ”Instant Personalization”, which automatically hands over some of your data to certain third-party sites as soon as you visit them, without any action required on your part. I’ve previously discussed at length why I think this could lead to a major backlash. And now four Democratic US Senators — Charles Schumer, Michael Bennet, Mark Begich and Al Franken — are calling on Facebook to change its policies.

This morning the senators sent a letter addressed to Mark Zuckerberg that details these issues (they’ve also separately reached out to the FTC, urging it to establish more rules around social networks). Here are the senators’ three main concerns, along with my own commentary:

1. Publicly available data. Facebook’s expansion of publicly available data to include a user’s current city, hometown, education, work, likes, interests, and friends has raised concerns for users who would like to have an opt-in option to share this profile information. Through the expanded use of “connections,” Facebook now obligates users to make publicly available certain parts of their profile that were previously private. If the user does not want to connect to a page with other users from their current town or university, the user will have that information deleted altogether from their profile. We appreciate that Facebook allows users to type this information into the “Bio” section of their profiles, and privatize it, but we believe that users should have more control over these very personal and very common data points. These personal details should remain private unless a user decides that he/she would like to make a connection and share this information with a community.

We all know how they’re all about protecting us from large powerful corporations. I believe Facebook and related organizations will recognize this for what it is, the Senators have noticed new players making big money, and they want their cut. Wonder how I’ve become so cynical.

The Arizona’s new “papers please” law may hurt H-1B workers:

H-1B workers in Arizona that can’t immediately prove they’re working in the U.S. legally may find themselves detained by police or even jailed under the state’s new immigration law.

Legal experts said that an H-1B worker questioned by a police officer that has “reasonable suspicion” about his or her immigration status could be arrested while doing nothing more than going to a restaurant, grocery shopping or even taking a walk around the block if they don’t have their H-1B papers at the ready.

Federal immigration law requires that all non-U.S. citizens, including H-1B workers, have documentation showing that they are in this country legally, but visa workers are rarely asked to produce their papers at any time or place, said legal experts.

Many visa holders aren’t likely to carry valuable and hard-to-replace paperwork on them at all times for practical reasons — they could be lost or stolen. Under the new Arizona law, though, every police officer becomes, in effect, an immigration enforcement agent that can demand the paperwork at any time.

The main documents that foreign workers would need to show if asked include their I-94 card, which shows their lawful status, and most likely their passport.

Immigration experts noted that there are a number of ways that an H-1B worker can be in this country legally, but not have the paperwork to prove it.

For example, a worker could be carrying an expired I-94 card while waiting for new paperwork from U.S. immigration authorities, a process that could take months. Under current laws that worker could be in the U.S. legally even though the paperwork doesn’t reflect it, said Gregory A. Wald, an attorney at Squire, Sanders & Dempsey LLP. “Is a police officer in Arizona going to understand that?”

Here are a few stories related to the evils of Powerpoint. I can attest to this myself. First up, how the main enemy from the militaries point of view isn’t the terrorists, but in fact Powerpoint:

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was shown a PowerPoint slide in Kabul last summer that was meant to portray the complexity of American military strategy, but looked more like a bowl of spaghetti.

“When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” General McChrystal dryly remarked, one of his advisers recalled, as the room erupted in laughter.

The slide has since bounced around the Internet as an example of a military tool that has spun out of control. Like an insurgency, PowerPoint has crept into the daily lives of military commanders and reached the level of near obsession. The amount of time expended on PowerPoint, the Microsoft presentation program of computer-generated charts, graphs and bullet points, has made it a running joke in the Pentagon and in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said this month at a military conference in North Carolina. (He spoke without PowerPoint.) Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, followed up at the same conference by likening PowerPoint to an internal threat.

“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

Famous information designer Edward Tufte agrees:

In corporate and government bureaucracies, the standard method for making a presentation is to talk about a list of points organized onto slides projected up on the wall. For many years, overhead projectors lit up transparencies, and slide projectors showed high-resolution 35mm slides. Now “slideware” computer programs for presentations are nearly everywhere. Early in the 21st century, several hundred million copies of Microsoft PowerPoint were turning out trillions of slides each year.

Alas, slideware often reduces the analytical quality of presentations. In particular, the popular PowerPoint templates (ready-made designs) usually weaken verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt statistical analysis. What is the problem with PowerPoint? And how can we improve our presentations?

And finally here’s another article on how Powerpoint makes you dumb:

In August, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board at NASA released Volume 1 of its report on why the space shuttle crashed. As expected, the ship’s foam insulation was the main cause of the disaster. But the board also fingered another unusual culprit: PowerPoint, Microsoft’s well-known ”slideware” program.

NASA, the board argued, had become too reliant on presenting complex information via PowerPoint, instead of by means of traditional ink-and-paper technical reports. When NASA engineers assessed possible wing damage during the mission, they presented the findings in a confusing PowerPoint slide — so crammed with nested bullet points and irregular short forms that it was nearly impossible to untangle. ”It is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation,” the board sternly noted.

PowerPoint is the world’s most popular tool for presenting information. There are 400 million copies in circulation, and almost no corporate decision takes place without it. But what if PowerPoint is actually making us stupider?

This year, Edward Tufte — the famous theorist of information presentation — made precisely that argument in a blistering screed called The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. In his slim 28-page pamphlet, Tufte claimed that Microsoft’s ubiquitous software forces people to mutilate data beyond comprehension. For example, the low resolution of a PowerPoint slide means that it usually contains only about 40 words, or barely eight seconds of reading. PowerPoint also encourages users to rely on bulleted lists, a ”faux analytical” technique, Tufte wrote, that dodges the speaker’s responsibility to tie his information together. And perhaps worst of all is how PowerPoint renders charts. Charts in newspapers like The Wall Street Journal contain up to 120 elements on average, allowing readers to compare large groupings of data. But, as Tufte found, PowerPoint users typically produce charts with only 12 elements. Ultimately, Tufte concluded, PowerPoint is infused with ”an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch.”

The Supremes will tackle an interesting case about disclosure and transparency in a case about ballot measures:

In a high-profile legal challenge, the U.S. Supreme Court will today tackle questions about freedom of speech, the nature of signing petitions for ballot measures, the public’s right to know and the government’s interests in preserving the integrity of the election process.

Depending on the scope of the court’s ruling, ripples could be felt not only among the other 23 states that utilize ballot initiative and referenda (only one of which does not have public disclosure of information about petition signers), but potentially also in the arenas of campaign finance disclosure, public availability of voter registration lists and the open caucus systems used in some states to select party nominees.

“This case holds the potential to unravel decades of court precedent upholding the importance of meaningful disclosure in educating voters about how money is being spent to influence their votes on Election Day,” Paul Ryan, an attorney at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, told OpenSecrets Blog.

The Center for Responsive Politics, which filed an amicus brief with the court that supported neither party but implored justices not add any new impediments to campaign finance disclosure, will attend and cover today’s oral argument at the Supreme Court.

And finally, a bit more about the terrible oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico:

Rear Adm Mary Landry, who is in charge of the government clean-up effort, said work on sealing the leaks using several robotic submersibles could take months.

About 1,000 barrels (42,000 gallons) of oil a day are gushing into the sea.

An investigation has been ordered into the cause of the leak, which began when an oil rig exploded and sank last week.

The joint investigation, by the interior and homeland security departments, will have the power to compel witnesses to testify, and will look into possible violations by the operators of the rig, Transocean.

Eleven of the rig’s workers are still missing and presumed dead in the disaster off the Louisiana coast.

Workers on a nearby oil platform were evacuated by the US authorities on Monday after the oil slick came dangerously close.

The leaks – about 5,000ft (1,525m) under the surface – were found on Saturday, four days after the Deepwater Horizon platform, to which the pipe was attached, exploded and sank.

The resulting oil slick now has a circumference of about 600 miles (970km) and covers about 28,600 sq miles (74,100 sq km).

British oil company BP, one of the firms operating the rig, has not been able to activate a device known as a blow-out preventer, designed to stop oil flow in an emergency.

That’s a bit of the news today. Chime in with what you’re hearing. Tell some jokes. Post something silly. We need to laugh. Even more than usual.

Was Obama Wall Street’s BIGGEST Short?

Blankfein (left) and Jamie Dimon (center) at the White House, March 2009

You gotta love Lloyd Blankfein for finally telling it like it is.  Wall Street thinks we’re all suckers.  If you don’t specifically ask whether a security or CDO is crap, shitty or junk, they have no obligation to tell you.  That’s not their job.  They just sell the stuff.  It’s the 2010 version of “I just take orders”.  There’s got to be another Milgram experiment just waiting for a post doc in yesterday’s hearings.

Here are some gems from Lloyd:

Levin asked Blankfein if Goldman has to disclose to investors in securities it sells that the firm plans to take and keep the short side of the transaction.

“I don’t think we have to tell them,” the chief executive replied. In addition, he said that when underwriting a securities offering, Goldman has an obligation to conduct thorough due diligence and provide full disclosure of the assets and risks involved in the deal.

Mortgage-related securities that Goldman underwrote and sold delivered the specific exposure that clients wanted, Blankfein explained. “There are a lot of opinions about how a security will perform against the market it’s in.

“Investors we’re dealing with on the long or the short side know what they want,” he continued. “If they ask the salesperson their opinion, they have a duty of honesty. But we’re selling securities all the time that are weak. The same securities that were the subject of those comments can probably be bought today for pennies on the dollar.”

and this from the NY Times:

Mr. Blankfein was asked repeatedly whether Goldman sold securities that it also bet against, and whether Goldman treated those clients properly.

“You say betting against,” Mr. Blankfein said in a lengthy exchange. But he said the people who were coming to Goldman for risk in the housing market got just that: exposure to the housing market. “The unfortunate thing,” he said, “is that the housing market went south very quickly.”

Senator Levin pressed Mr. Blankfein again on whether the his customers should know what Goldman workers think of deals they are selling, and Mr. Blankfein reiterated his position that sophisticated investors should be allowed to buy what they want.

Mr. Blankfein was also pressed on the deal at the center of the S.E.C. case. He said the investment was not meant to fail, as the S.E.C. claims, and in fact, that the deal was a success, in that it conveyed “risk that people wanted to have, and in a market that’s not a failure.”

Risk.  That’s what Goldman Sachs was selling.  It was all wrapped up in a pretty fiction of established Wall Street investment houses, where bankers arrive at their offices in chauffered limos and eat in luxurious dining facilities and work out in gold plated gyms.  It all looks very clubby.  But the reality was that these people were running a giant Monte Carlo casino using the hard earned retirement funds of carpenters and other working class people.

Behind the plush digs and $600 suits and cottages on The Pond are a bunch of guys with serious gambling addictions.

Sometime back in 2006 as housing prices peaked and started to decline some of them must have started to get a little concerned.  In fact, Michael Lewis, who wrote The Big Short, says that outsiders looking in had the bankers’ number in 2003-2004.  It was March 2007 when the money started to drain away in earnest.

So, when did Wall Street decide to short the presidential election?

Think about it:  Many of the people on Wall Street should be at Gambler’s Anonymous.  in 2007, they were about to lose everything if they couldn’t find suckers to play their games and cover their bets.  Politics could have had a big influence on how much of a hit they actually had to take.  Charlie Ledley, the garage-band head fund guy with a conscience who actually tried to explain the bets to the SEC, was concerned with his own short positions.  He naively thought that if the federal government came to the rescue of homeowners, his CDS’s would be worthless.  As it turned out, the government bailed out the banks instead so Charlie made out big.  The CDO’s are still crap.

But if you are a Wall Street banker, you have to account for all kinds of possibilities.  Picture the following three scenarios:

1.) A Republican wins.  His party saw what happened during the last financial meltdown 80 years ago.  That New Deal thing was a disaster for his party.  He’s not going to make that mistake.  Screw Keynes, enter The Great Depression 2.0.  Oddly, Wall Street is probably not too keen on this idea.  You can’t play the game if you don’t have easy marks on the other side of the bet.  Depressions severely depress the number of easy marks.

2.) Democrat #1 wins.  But she’s too much of a New Dealer type.  She’s got mortgage bailout written all over her.  That would mean regulation and mortgages will be adjusted and bankers will have to take a loss.  That’s too much reality.  She’s like frickin’ rehab.  And besides, there’s always that remote possibility that the people who took out “liar’s loans” will suddenly have stupendous wage increases just in the nick of time when their 2 year teaser rate is up.  It could happen.  So, no, Democrat #1 is out.

3.) Democrat #2 is narcissistic one-trick pony with a pregnant mistress.  Nominating him means the Republican wins.  Moving on.

4.) Democrat #3.  Ooooo, this one is intriguing.  Did Wall Street court him or did he court Wall Street?  Recklessly ambitious type.  Muy simpatico.  He certainly looks like he could fit into Wall Street.  He wants to “form multi-disciplinary task forces to re-engineer our core processes so that we’re a world class organization”.  He speaks their language.  It’s meaningless, of course, and they all know that way down deep inside.  It’s code.  He’ll scratch their backs if they scratch his, to the tune of $900K in campaign contributions from Goldman Sachs employees alone.  With Dem #3, it will be an exciting spin of the wheel.  They’ll get close to the edge, probably a little too close for comfort, but in the end, they’ll be able to walk away with big profits, big bonuses and they can keep on playing.  This guy is an enabler.  Double down.

Obama sure made a lot of campaign money from Wall Street.  His small donors accounted for something like 30% of his campaign stash.  You don’t get a cool billion to run for president without making a lot of banker friends.  It was their biggest short.

In light of that very real possibility, can we on the left finally dispense with the idea that Obama was the Change! agent?  Lots of money will get you a very good PR firm with all of the marketing, astroturfing and social engineering you can eat.  Maybe he’s not the civil rights hero, politically brilliant, 11 dimensional chess playing, post partisan Messiah everyone thought he was.  Maybe he was just the best hedge Wall Street ever made and nothing more than that.  You can stop pinning your hopes and dreams on him.

As Lloyd would say, “the investment was not meant to fail, as the S.E.C. claims, and in fact, that the deal was a success, in that it conveyed “risk that people wanted to have, and in a market that’s not a failure.””

The Obots bought it and made suckers of us all.

Extra: Michael Lewis has a lengthy piece in Slate where he plays his tiny violin for the bond market traders who are suddenly getting blamed for everything they do.

Simon Johnson at BaselineScenario.com has a piece about how some parts of Europe have slipped into “emerging market” status overnight and how the rest of the world is turning their eyes to Obama for comfort and guidance to stem the ensuing panic.  Good luck with that.