Only a Drunk Can Sing It

February 9, 2014

The highlight of the opening ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics was the Sretensky Monastery Choir singing the Russian national anthem. Yes, it was pre-recorded but, still, it was a magnificent performance of a beautiful and majestic anthem.

Meanwhile, the United States is stuck with one of the worst national anthems in the world. The melody, taken from The Anacreonitic Song is god-awful and almost impossible to sing. The tune comes from an 18th-century ‘musical society’ that probably functioned as an excuse for a drinking club. Only a drunk could manage the one-and-a-half octave range of To Anacreon from Heaven. That’s why no one in the crowd sings The Star-Spangled Banner. They can’t.

Even for professional singers, The Star-Spangled Banner often has to be re-keyed to match the specific vocal range of the performer.

So, Americans are forced to stand and listen, wondering whether to put their hands over their hearts or their ears, while some auto-tuned pop diva tries to embellish a crappy tune with her own special ‘style.’


Hacking an Air Conditioner for Fun and Profit

February 7, 2014

A while back we commented on the fatuous notion of the Internet of Things. The idea of the Internet of Things is that all sorts of devices around your house could be connected via the internet so they can “talk to each other.” We questioned what meaningful conversation your stove might have with your washer.

As it happens, the Internet of Things can also be dangerous. Remember the Target fiasco, in which hackers broke into Target’s customer account system and stole data on 40 million credit cards?

It turns out they did it through Target’s heating system. That’s right. They found weak security in the HVAC monitoring equipment and hacked into that. The HVAC monitoring system was connected to Target’s main data processing units and, voila!, they were into the customer account database.

Qualys, a cloud security firm, reports that that they found 55,000 HVAC systems connected to the Internet. In most cases, the systems contained basic security flaws that would allow hackers a way into companies’ corporate networks. Frequently, according to Qualys, the companies installing and monitoring these systems reused the same remote access passwords across multiple clients.

Think about this when you use Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter and then connect your appliances, home security system and, oh maybe, your bank account to the Internet of Things. The fun is just beginning.

Quick! Hire Some More Finns!

February 6, 2014

Two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union the Russians, whose central planning was responsible for perpetual shortages, crappy housing, and some of the worst food in the world are hosting the Winter Olympics in Sochi, one of the warmest places in Russia.

Sochi is one of the few places in Russia that does not get buried in snow so, at least to the Russian way of thinking, it was a natural site for the Winter Olympics. Perhaps because there’s no worry that a snowstorm will snarl traffic. No one is sure how the Russians persuaded the Olympic organizers to hold the event in the Russian Banana Belt but, rumor has it, large quantities of vodka were involved.

The Russians had a plan for ensuring that there would be snow in Sochi: Hire a Finn. They engaged the services of a Finnish company, Snow Secure Ltd., owned and operated by Mikko Martikainen. Over the past few years, Mr. Martikainen has been creating literal snow banks to save up what little snow falls in Sochi. He’s got the stuff stashed everywhere in insulated piles, ready to scatter on the ski slopes and snowboard pipes. Martikainen has guaranteed the Russians there will be plenty of snow and he’s ready to make more if need be. And he’ll probably pull it off. The Finns are like that.

Your room is ready, comrade.

Your room is ready, comrade.

Back in the glory days of the USSR, the Soviets would hire Finnish companies to build apartments and hotels for high-ranking officials and visiting dignitaries. Soviet-built accommodations had the nasty habit of collapsing around their occupants, either slowly or all at once.

They should have hired Finns to build the hotels in Sochi. With just days remaining before the opening ceremonies, at least three hotels are not yet finished and most of the others are, well, not yet finished.

Quick, Mr. Putin. There are only a few days left until the Games open. Hire some Finns. There’s still time for them to save your ass.

The Corruption Perceptions Index

February 5, 2014

Transparency International has just released its 2013 Corruptions Perceptions Index for most of the countries of the world. A quick glance at the map below will give you an idea of where TI thinks the worst corruption exists. The darker the color, the worse the corruption.

CorruptionWe think TI is naive. Their corruption ratings are based on perception, not on hard data. A country can be perceived as corrupt because its citizens have to bribe a clerk to get a marriage license or because they are occasionally shaken down by cops for some minor traffic offense.

The real corruption is here in these United States where it is rampant in state, federal, and local executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Americans have taken corruption to a high art by simply ensuring that low-level functionaries would be crucified for taking a ten-dollar bribe. Meanwhile, congressmen, governors, mayors, corporate officials, and judges are making sweetheart deals that will enrich all of them, mostly at the expense of taxpayers.

The secret to managing a corrupt society is not to get caught. And most don’t. Evidence: when some congressman or governor gets caught (a la former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell) it is a BIG DEAL. Bob takes one for the team, diverting the eyes of the press while the rest of his cohort continue to quietly line their pockets.

Dieting for Life

February 4, 2014

fatThink of the people you know who have lost significant weight over 6 months or more—not some silly fad or crash diet, but an honest effort to reduce their weight. Five years later, most of them have gained it all back.

Most dieters, after they have reached their goal falsely believe they can return to their old eating habits. They are unaware of this simple rule: For any diet to work you have to be able to keep it up for the rest of your life. This is the unpleasant truth about diets.

If one of your resolutions for the new year is to lose some weight, don’t bother unless you’re willing to change your eating habits for the rest of your life.

Can’t do it? Then enjoy your barbequed ribs, Twinkies, Doritos, and Cokes. You may not live quite as long, but you just might enjoy life more.

2 Million New Jobs in 2013!

February 3, 2014

In a recent weekly address President Obama boasted that “we’ve created two million new jobs in the past year.”

Wow! Two million new jobs. Sounds pretty good until you realize that six million young adults entered the labor force last year. Perhaps the president should have noted that we’ve also added 4 million young Americans to the unemployment rolls. Well, not really. Since most of them didn’t have jobs before, they don’t qualify for unemployment. Presumably, they’re still living in their parents’ basements.

The Decline and Fall of ‘Hope and Change’

February 2, 2014

If you have time, read Conor Friedersdorf’s excellent essay in The Atlantic on Obama’s failure to deliver on his ‘hope and change’ promises.

Or, read on for his main points:

As another State of the Union address recedes into memory, it is clear that the Obama Administration won’t ever fulfill one of its core selling points: the chance to pass reforms that address the most worrisome flaws in our democratic system. To use the parlance of the 2008 campaign, it won’t achieve “change.”

Obama asserted a need to “fundamentally change the way Washington works.” an approach Americans embraced.

“Let me be clear,” Obama said, “this isn’t just about ending the failed policies of the Bush years; it’s about ending the failed system in Washington that produces those policies.” But he’s given up on “ending the failed system,” if he ever intended to end it. In fact, listening to him, it’s plausible to conclude that he’s no longer convinced that the system is corrupt. He regards his healthcare law as a success, though passing it required buying off special interests and being influenced by lobbyists—the very things that he once identified as making success an impossibility. He has done far more to persecute whistleblowers than to protect them.

His bygone promises to run “the most transparent administration in history” are a subject of mockery, given how often he has invoked the state-secrets privilege and permitted national-security officials in his administration to actively mislead the public.

And his meager efforts at financial reform don’t appear to preclude future shenanigans by Wall Street banks that remain “too big to fail” and retain significant influence in Washington.

The problem with this administration is not that it is too conservative. And certainly not that it is too liberal …. It is too conventional. It has left untouched the corruption that the president identified.

Americans will continue to live under a government with significant transparency problems, a culture of lobbying that is often tantamount to sanctioned corruption, and an executive branch that undermines the separation of powers.