Friday, December 31, 2010

The Angels and the Unicorn

            Most twenty –first century English speakers imagine themselves to be rational, logical beings.  Yet we employ a language strewn with references to things which no one presumes to exist.  We read and hear words like “angel” and “demon,” “unicorn,” and “fairy.” Yet even when seriously drunk, few people believe to have ever seen such phenomena.  And almost no one over nine years old believes in their existence. 
            One could argue that these words entered the language in an earlier, more innocent age, when people actually believed in such things, and the words live on as fossil remains of long extinct concepts or perhaps as metaphors still useful in the modern world.           
            Yet our modern world itself continues to add to this inventory of words which precisely describe the non-existent.  How many science fiction plots could hold together without the glue of “faster than light-speed travel,” often euphemized as “warp drive” or “hyperspace drive,” or “space folding; ”  (not to mention “transporter beams.”)   We need these concepts as plot devices because we have learned two very inconvenient facts:  One; there is no habitable planet other than Earth in our own star system.  Two, all other star systems are a very inconvenient distance away.   Any plot in which the time required to travel to anywhere worth going would take the greater part of a human lifetime would not be very fast-paced, and would probably not hold our interest.
            But what would be the result if, just for one year, we resolved to abstain from reading, writing, or speaking any word describing that which is non-existent.  Mind you, I do not rule out things which do not now exist, simply because they are beyond our current technology. The Sci-fi films like  Gattaca and Jurassic Park invoke technologies that do not presently exist—and perhaps will never exist.  But, unlike “warp drive,” they are not mathematically impossible technologies.  Supposing we just swore off, for one year only, the impossible. Is there some basic human need to imagine beyond the possible?  When ancient poets spun tales of gods and heroes, was this just “bubble gum for the mind?”  Or is there a fundamental human need understand what is possible—and then pretend to live in a world beyond it? 

Monday, December 27, 2010

Ancient Mines of Kitchi-Gummi, a review.

As promised, this is the cat's last book review of 2010.  I believe it is the strangest, and perhaps the most interesting non-fiction work I've ever read.

            Ancient Mines of Kitchi-Gummi  by Roger L. Jewel

            A Review and synopsis by The Cat.

            A few years ago, a friend of mine, a geologist, handed me a book and said, “Here—read this.   I think you’ll find it interesting.”       He neither endorsed nor contested the views of the author.  He just said, “Read it and tell me what you think.”   He went on to explain that the book did not belong to him—it was borrowed and would have to be returned in one week.  He also mentioned that it was out of print and could not be easily replaced.    I asked, “What is it about?”
            He explained that the shores of Lake Superior are dotted with abandoned copper mines, and some of these mines were worked thousands of years ago.  Though the mining methods were primitive, using stone hammers and fire, the mines were so numerous that the total amount of copper removed was still massive—some estimates run as high as one billion pounds.  Recent, more careful estimates put the figure at closer to 50 million pounds.
            Still, that’s many times the amount that the Indians could have ever used. In most parts of North and South America, the Indians used no copper at all. Where it was used, it was used in tiny amounts for personal ornaments. Tribes living near the Great Lakes, where copper was easily obtained, made a few wood-working tools and a few arrow points. But that still accounts for less than 2 percent of those 50 million pounds of copper. So where did it go?  This is a question that has puzzled archaeologists for a hundred years.
            This is the question that Roger Jewel addresses in his book. He assumes that it was the Indians who were mining it, or possibly Indians in collaboration with someone else.  But if the Indians weren’t using it themselves, then who were they trading it to, and for what were they trading it?
            Carbon 14 tests on fragments of the wooden ladders left behind consistently yield dates showing that mining activity began about 2,500 BCE, and continued uninterrupted till about 1,200 BCE, and then abruptly stopped.  As soon as I read this, I said, “Aha!  They were supplying copper to the sea traders from the Eastern Mediterranean!”   The sea trade in the Aegean began after 3,000 BCE,  first with Sumerians, then Minoan/Cypriots, Mycenaeans, Canaanites,  and others.  But it all ended about 1,200 BCE, when a Dorian invasion wiped out every civilization in the Eastern Mediterranean except Egypt.
            The mining activity resumed about 1,000 BCE, and then petered out about two hundred years later.  Jewel doesn’t mention it, but this is exactly what we should expect, since by 1,000 BCE, the Phoenicians had built a trade empire similar to the one which had collapsed earlier. (The name “Phoenician” suggests that it may have been the same empire, since the name phoenix refers to a mythical bird which perishes in fire, and then rises from its own ashes.) But about 800 BCE iron smelting technology improved, and the price of iron dropped sharply, and its use became widespread. After that, the Iron Age had begun, and there was less demand for brass or the copper and tin needed to make it.
            When you consider the dates when these mines were used, it seems likely that the sea traders from the Eastern Mediterranean were the culprits.  Jewel draws the same conclusion, for the same reasons.  No other part of the world had the technology to build ocean-going ships as early as 2,500 BCE.     And if the copper had been supplied directly to the Egyptians, then the trade would not have abruptly stopped about 1,200 BCE.
            When the Bronze Age began, rich surface deposits in the Near East were quickly exhausted.  As copper became precious, traders went searching for new supplies, first to the British Isles, and then, according to Jewel, to North America.  This, he believes, was the copper that fueled the Bronze Age.
            The copper in question occurs as native copper—not just copper ore.  Chunks of pure copper weighing several ton were left behind by the miners because they had no means of easily moving them, or of cutting smaller pieces off.
            The mining process used was simple.  The area has old lava flows that contain copper, which was deposited by water in the cracks in the lava.  The miners would find a copper vein on the surface of an old lava flow and then build a huge fire on top of it. After a few days of continuous fire, they would clear away the ashes and dump cold water on it. This fractures the rock so that when cool, you can simply pick up large chunks of rock and smash them with stone hammers to remove the copper.  The mines were usually cylindrical holes sunk vertically into the rock, 5 to 30 feet deep and 3 to 30 feet in diameter. Many of the abandoned mines have been re-worked and expanded in historic times, which obliterates all traces of the original mine.  Therefore, the amount of copper removed by ancient miners may be much larger than estimates based on the number of mines still there.  As for evidence that the copper was shipped to the Mediterranean, Mr. Jewel supplies a few facts and a lot of conjecture.  But his conjectures fit the facts perfectly, and it’s difficult to conceive of any alternative explanation that would fit them at all.
            If Mr. Jewel’s conjecture is correct, then we should expect to find Minoan artifacts in Michigan, because if boatloads of copper were being shipped to the Near East, then boatloads of whatever  they traded for would have been shipped from the Near East to Michigan—and some of it should still be there. Have we found such things there?  There have been a few finds, but not the vast amounts we should expect.  That’s part of the puzzle.
            From one site that dates to nearly 2,700 BCE (the earliest site so far discovered), they found a cast copper double bladed axe which precisely matches the design of Minoan axes used as a religious symbol at that period. One site, dated to 1,500 BCE, yielded a beautifully made copper serpent.  But Native Americans did not begin using the serpent as a symbol till the Mound Culture, which was somewhat later. Yet this symbol was widely used in the Near East, and was the symbol of the goddess Astarte.
            One piece of evidence that can’t be dismissed are the signatures on an old Indian land deed.   An official New Hampshire land deed, dated 1681, conveys a parcel of Indian land to colonists who purchased it. Some of the Indians could write their names in English, and did so.  Others claimed they would prefer to sign their names in their own written language. The marks they placed on the deed were dismissed by the colonists as random scribbles made by savages pretending they could write. But these marks have now been discovered to be a form of an ancient Cypriot language.
            Jewell quotes the late Dr. Barry Fell, a Harvard epigrapher, for several pages on this subject:
            Fell says that about a dozen different systems of writing were in use by North American Indians when the colonists arrived. In the early nineteenth century, a missionary, James Evans, adopted an Algonquian written language for teaching the Christian religion to Indians. Evans was later wrongly credited with “inventing” the Cree script. But by translating the entire Bible into Cree, he simply preserved this script, and it survives today in Cree tribal lands.
            Dr. Fell says that in 1978, some Basque scholars at the museum in San Sebastian contacted him about the inscriptions on some old Basque tablets.   Noticing that the symbols were identical to the Cree Syllabary,  he tried substituting  Cree sound values, and the resulting language sounded like Basque. He sent these translations to leading Basque linguist, Imanol Agire, who confirmed that it was indeed Basque. Thus, by using the Cree Syllabary, we can now translate ancient Iberian inscriptions.  The Grand Basque Encyclopedia now describes this connection.
            Dr. Fell says that the Indian treaties were signed in a script called Mamalohikan, which was in use till at least 1727 in Northern Main, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.  Fell says that Mamalohikan symbols are from an ancient Cypriot system of writing, first deciphered in 1871. This system died out in Europe after the reign of Alexander the Great, when the Greek alphabet replaced many other forms of writing.  Therefore this script would have to have been brought to the new world before Alexander.
            Dr. Fell says that though this information is rejected by most archaeologists, it is now firmly enough established among European Linguists as to be incorporated into their most learned publications.
            Jewell then cites other cultural evidence.  He points out that the megalith builders, active in Europe during this time frame, built structures all over Europe. But the main concentration seems to be near sea coasts. Similar structures are found in the new world.  He provides a map with a black dot placed at each megalith site. The pattern shows dots along the coastline of the Mediterranean, from the Aegean and Greece, to Italy, Sicily, and Iberia, up the Atlantic coast and all over the British Isles, and then they are found again along the coast of Nova Scotia and Labrador, down the St Laurence River, and around the Great Lakes.  They are also found in the Hudson River valley, and along the coast of New England.
            Jewell observes that after the melting of the last glacier, the removal of weight from the earth’s crust has caused the land to be uplifted from time to time, and that these uplifts have changed the drainage of the Great Lakes many times. One of these uplifts occurred about 1,600 BCE.  Prior to that time, the main drainage of Lake Superior was through the Ottawa and St Laurence rivers. One could sail from the Atlantic to Lake Superior using this route. But the uplift cut off this route and blocked the outflow till the lake level rose to where it began draining through the Hudson River system.  So both the St Laurence and the Hudson, at some point in time, provided a sea route to Lake Superior.
            Jewell says that religion in both the Mediterranean and the British Isles involved the worship of two deities: the male sun god, Baal, whose symbol is the bull, and the female earth goddess, Astarte (Ishtar,) who is usually depicted as a bare-breasted woman holding a serpent. (He says that the pagan feast of Beltane is really “Baaltane.”)  These symbols are often abstracted to a minimalist depiction of just bull horns or serpents.
            Stone dolmans, usually a large boulder set on three smaller stones, have been found in the Great Lakes region.  Jewell says they are inscribed with a sign identical to the markings on similar dolmans in Europe.  He says the inscriptions are the sign of Baal.  And on both sides of the Atlantic, we find sun calendar chambers.   These are nearly horizontal shafts cut into hillsides so that on a single day each year, usually the spring equinox, the sun’s rays strike the end of the shaft.  According to Jewell, this was not just for time-keeping, but was a religious observance. When the phallic shaft of light from the male sun god penetrated and impregnated mother earth, new life would spring forth.
            One of the most striking items of evidence cited by Jewell to prove ancient trade contacts between Europe and America was the discovery in 1992 that Egyptian mummies contain traces of nicotine and cocaine, both of which are found only in New World plants.  In 1992, Dr. Svetla Balabanova was hired to run drug tests on hair samples taken from mummies.  Dr. Balabanova, of the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Ulm, is highly respected in her field, having pioneered groundbreaking methods for detecting drugs in hair.  When the first tests were positive for both nicotine and cocaine, she assumed there must be an error.  She repeated the tests, using the most reliable method known.  This involves first washing the hair in pure alcohol, and then testing the alcohol and the hair separately.  If the alcohol tests negative but the hair tests positive, then the drug in the hair could not have come from outside contamination.  This test is accepted in any court on the planet as positive proof.  But even this test yielded the same results.  Finally, she sent the sample to several other labs, but they all tested positive.  When she published the results, she was scoffed at.  But Rosalie David, Keeper of the Egyptology, Manchester Museum, heard of the results and decided to have samples from the mummies in her own museum tested. They all tested positive for nicotine.
            But even with all of this evidence, one part of the puzzle that would still remain unsolved is this:   What did the Indians receive in exchange for all that copper, and where is it? Why has it left no trace?  Fortunately, there is one more line of evidence:  DNA.   There are four main haplogroups found in mitochondrial DNA of Native Americans, called A, B, C, and D. These are of Asian origin.   But there is another type, called X, which is mostly a southern European type, and which is found either in very small amounts or not at all in most Indian populations. 
            But Algonquian speaking people, especially Chippewa and Ojibwa, have a higher percentage of this European type; in some tribal groups it’s as high as 20%.  Jewell doesn’t say so, but since this European genotype comes only from mitochondrial DNA, we can guess what was being traded—wives!  Mitochondrial DNA is inherited exclusively from the female line; only European women could have brought those genes to America.
            It’s unlikely that these women would have come here as wives of colonists, because if colonies had been established and maintained for 1,500 years, they would still be here.  Or at least some trace of them would still be here.  And colonists would have demanded some goods from the Mediterranean in exchange for their labor.  And even if they were slaves, a supply of goods would have been required to maintain them, and these goods would have left a record.  Instead of the paltry handful of Minoan artifacts found near the Great Lakes, we’d be finding tons of it.
            Jewell stops short of saying so, but the most economical explanation is that the European women who brought these genes to America were simply slave girls who were sold to the Indians as wives in exchange for the copper. Slavery was the accepted practice all over Europe at that time, and women were a tradable commodity.  (As late as the 10th century AD, Vikings were capturing Irish girls and selling them to the Moors in Spain.) Since the Mediterranean people at that time were people with olive skin, dark hair and dark eyes, their offspring would not have looked much different from Indians. We should not expect to see blond haired blue eyed Ojibwas. Before the Celtic and Gothic invasions, Europeans did not have those features.  
            For me, Jewell’s book only reinforces a conclusion I’ve had for some time:  The reasonable question is not, “Was there ever a period of trans-Atlantic trade in ancient times?”   The question should be, “Was there ever a period without such trade contacts?”  The answer is yes.  From the onset of the “dark ages” until the voyages of Columbus, there was a suspension of trade contacts for a thousand years.  A similar suspension of about 200 years followed the Dorian invasions of 1,200 BCE.  Except for that, Europe and America have had at least limited trade contacts for most of the last 5,000 years.
            One group that never completely stopped sailing to America was the Basque whaling community.  These people, who are probably descended from Eastern Mediterranean sea traders, continued to visit the shores of eastern Canada.  But they never ventured more than a few miles inland, and had minimal contacts with the natives.  Their settlements, winter fishing camps, left little trace except crude stone shelters.  They were not conquerors, merchants, or colonists. If they traded with the Indians at all, they supplied them nothing that changed their technology or changed their history.  And when they returned to Europe, they sold their whale oil and ivory without telling anyone where they got it. So their voyages had no effect on the history of either continent.
            Still, on Columbus’s first voyage, a large part of his crew was made up of Basque whaling captains.  Columbus went out of his way to recruit Basque whaling captains.  Why?
            Ancient Mines of Kicthi-Gummi is awkwardly organized, poorly written, and the printing is so bad that most of the drawings, maps, and photos are nearly unreadable. Yet it is still a fascinating read.        

Friday, December 24, 2010

Swifties, Year End Recap

   "This is the part of the store where we keep the disk operating systems," he said docilely.
"I've baked another cake," she retorted.
"I did have myself chrome-plated," he reflected.
   "I don’t feel like a Scandinavian anymore,” he said disdainfully.
 "It's  another letter from the honey producer's association," he said beleagueredly.
"I've contributed to the church bake sale,” she said piously.
"I  always  keep my lingerie in the Rolodex," she said, still undefiled.
"We  MacDuffs  were  born  to  be  sneaky,"  he  whispered clandestinely.
"I'm  returning that no good 18 wheeler you loaned me," he said truculently.
   "I’ll never loan it to you again,"  he replied relentlessly.        
"If you’ll all be very quiet, I think we’ll discover which coffin contains the time bomb,” said the inspector cryptically.
"Our ship will be torpedoed,"  he worried subconsciously.
"I like to float around in the harbor with a light on my head,” he said boyishly.
    I've done it before and I can do it again," said Dr. Frankenstein remonstratively.
   “Is that the swindler coming down the stairs", he asked condescendingly.
   "The tire you loaned me is no good", he said flatulently.
   "I manufacture kitchen furniture," he said counter-productively.
“We Persian magicians should have a co-op,”  he said congenially.
    “We’ll settle this matter with the toss of a coin,” he said flippantly.
    “There aren’t many Scrabble pieces left,” he said futilely.
    “And then my bra broke,”  she extrapolated. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Electronic Pickpockets

  If you are carrying your credit card in your wallet in your hip pocket or in your purse, is it possible for a stranger who brushes past you to retrieve your name, credit card number, and expiration date? Yes, if they have the right equipment and you have the type of card that uses an embedded chip instead of a magnetic strip.    NBClosangeles has a brief report on electronic pickpockets.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Year End Re-cap of Limericks

            2010  RE-CAP
All  The Cat’s Limericks posted this year, on
If you wish, you may email this list to your friends, (or enemies, depending on how you feel about limericks,) by clicking the “envelope icon” at the bottom of this post, and filling in the email address(s).        First:  The Cat’s own limericks:
This winter, just north of Bordeaux,
A Frenchman got lost in the sneaux.
And as this is written,
His feet are frost-bitten.
They think he’ll be losing a teaux.

Appraisal of priceless antiques
Requires at least several wiques.
This sounds like bologna,
But some things are phogna,
And pedaled by swindlers and sniques.

The limerick is often risqué.
To write them like that doesn’t pue.
But when writing in haste,
Though I aim for the chaste,
I often get carried awue.

The farmer explained, with a laugh,
That his heifer gave birth to a caugh,
Yet gave him no cream,
As had been his dream,
Nor milk—but just haugh and haugh

Rabbit Limericks-- Arguing with myself over how to deal with the rabbits in my garden:
My garden is cursed by the rabbit
Who destroys as a matter of habbit.
Oh, for an owl
Or some other large fowl,
Or hawk that can swoop down and grabbit.

And then I thought:
Please spare me your rabbit invective.
An owl is not very effective.
Just use a four-ten;
He won’t bug you again.
A gun’s a much better corrective.

And then I thought, Hey!
A rabbit’s a source of good meat,
And reasonably yummy to eat.
Not as large as a heifer,
A good hasenpfeffer
Could still make my supper complete.


There once was an evil marquis
Who taxed all the peasants with gluis.
His cuisine was quite haute,
And wherever he’d gaute,
The crumbs would be given out fruis.

King Lewis, who was three apples high,
Was painted as blue as the sky.
Though his tint was superfluous,
They called him king Smurf-Lewis,
Until he could wash off the dye.

My favorite bike is the tamdem;
In fact, you can even expand ‘em.
They can be built for four,
Or for five or six more,
Or for integers chosen at random.

By pawning his father’s shillelagh
An Irish Hawaiian named Delagh
Obtained enough cash
To fix his old Nash,
And purchase a new Ukelelagh.

A professor who taught at Duquesne
Had reason to carp and compluesne.
His students were dense
As the posts of a fence,
And they drove the man nearly insuesne.

While reading the works of Voltaire
A banker was seized by a baire.
He argued that he
Had a right to be free,
But the creature had hold of his haire.

A fetishist lad from Helsinki
Whose motives for pastries were kinky
Molested some scones
Who had no chaperones
And had an affair with a Twinky.

“Grave robbing is just so macabre,”
Said the frightened young girl with a sabre.
“If we can’t rob the dead,”
The grave-robber sead,
“Then who in the heck can we rabre?”

Yes grave-robbing’s awfully macabre.
We’re never quite sure whom we rabre.
I may be a ghoul,
But I’m surely no fhoul.
This sucker’s a banker named Babre!

I suspect that Jean Baptist LaMarck
While wandering about in the darck,
Found his new theory
By asking the queory,
“Do these creatures all come from the arck?”

Burnt offerings given to Zeus
Might often involve a young  geus;
Or maybe a ewe
Or a nanny goat tewe,
But rarely an elk or a meus.

A dealer in kitsch and in tchotchkes
Could sell you some clock keys or wotchkes,
Or a chastity belt,
And so it was felt,
Did a vigorous business in krotchkes.

If smoke leaves your lungs feeling rough,
You might just make this your last pough.
If you think once or twice,
You’ll take this advice,
And not just go off in a hough.

A rapist who hails from Bombay
Has a fetish for girls’ lingerie.
The rustle of crinolines
Excites his adrenalines,
But of course, they still get in the way.

Sounding the great highland pipes
Made the dogs emit howls, yips, and yipes.
With their paws on their ears,
And their eyes full of tears,
They begged me, “Please stop!  Holy cripes!”

It seems that the very best pipers
All started while still wearing diapers,
And continued, I might mention,
Till drawing a pension,

Bernie Madoff with the money.
Some people suppose that it’s funny.
But I doubt if you’ll hoot,
If some of the loot,
Was taken from you and your honey.

An Arab whose lawn had been sowed
Some divine intervention was showed.
As though cut with a scythe
Was the character "Pi."
Surely this was the Pi Allah mowed.

Give her a red poinsettia
And I doubt that she'll ever forgettia.
But make sure she heaves 
If she eats all the leaves,
Or else she will surely regrettia.

It seems that our medical arts
can patch up our livers and hearts,
Yet fail in the goal
Of treating the whole,
While fixing the various parts. 

And finally, limericks by authors unknown:

There once was a fellow named Clarence
Who Simonized both of his parents.
The initial expense,
He said, was immense.
But he saved it on wearence and tearence.

There once was a girl from St. Paul
Who wore a newspaper dress to a ball.
The dress, it caught fire,
And burned her entire
Front page, sporting section and all.

The lady who’s wed to Montgomery
Says the wearing of clothes is mere mummery.
She has frequently tea’d in
The costume of Eden,
Appearing delightfully summery.

A woman who came from Antigua
Once said to her spouse,
“What a pigua!”
He answered, “My queen,
Is it manners you mean?
Or do you refer to my figua?”

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Extending Human Lifespan by Growing New Mitochondria

A recent issue of Life Extension Magazine has an interesting piece on mitochondrial regeneration.

            About forty years ago, a few biologists began taking a look at aging, and what causes it.  Many concluded that mostly, aging was caused by cell damage from free-radicals generated by oxidative reactions within the body.  Thus, the anti-oxidant industry was born.  We all began taking anti-oxidants in the hope of slowing down, if not stopping, the clock of cellular aging.  And of course, anti-oxidants do work, to some degree.  If they did not, we wouldn’t still be gobbling them down after forty years.  And some anti-oxidants, such as vitamin C, are necessary for life.  Without them, we die.
            But a central problem still remained:  When sometime in early middle-age, we begin to notice a drop of both physical and mental energy, the main problem, besides hormonal decline, is simply that individual cells can no longer generate the level of energy they once did.  And they lose this capacity to generate energy because the mitochondria, the organelles within the cell which account for nearly all cellular energy production, have, after fifty years of service, become worn out and damaged such that they are barely functional.  They become damaged by free-radicals.  Yet protecting the mitochondria from oxidative damage is extremely difficult, since these organelles are where oxidation has to take place—this is where we burn sugar to make energy.
            But now it appears that a new approach has become available: generating new mitochondria.  In the Special Winter Edition of Life Extension Magazine is an article about PQQ (pyrroloquinoline quinone), a compound that seems to induce bio-genesis of new mitochondria.  The article says that PQQ is a natural substance that is found in all plant species, and is present in human milk.  But humans cannot synthesize it. That would make PQQ an essential micronutrient.   Like all Life Extension Foundation publications, the article contains elaborate references, citing over sixty research works published in peer reviewed scientific journals.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

China Grain Imports to Rise Sharply.

    According to a report in Dec 10, Wall Street Journal,  Rabobank Group predicts that in the next few years, China's imports of corn (maize) will increase from the present 1.3 million metric tons (51 million bushels)  to over 25 million metric tons, making China the world's largest grain importer.  Corn prices over the past year have already increased 60%, to over $5.60, and reserves are now at a low level.  Some analysts predict that corn could reach $7.00 per bushel this spring if China increases imports. All this would be good news for corn farmers and for the economy of entire corn-farming regions--bad news for people who want to eat corn-fed beef or make cheap ethanol.  ( Rabobank Group is a global agribusiness lending concern, based in Utrecht, Netherlands. )

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Iowa Farmland Bubble?

The Dec 5 Des Moines Sunday Register banner headline read: Why Farmland is Skyrocketing.  The Register reports that due to rising corn (maize) prices,  Iowa farmland is now changing hands at prices  over $8,000 per acre,  and some parcels have sold for up to $14,000.   They suggest that a speculative bubble may be building.   This would not be the first time this has occurred in Iowa--it also happened in the early 1920s and in the late 1970s.  Both times, the inevitable crash resulted in a severe depression for rural counties.   The nationwide recession in the U.S. today is probably less severe than that endured by most rural Iowa counties in the 1980s, after the farmland price collapse at the beginning of that decade.  Are we doing this again?
    Between 1972 and 1979,  Iowa farmland climbed from  $2,495 per acre to a peak of $5,711.  Then by 1986 it had crashed to only $1, 519.   By 2000, It had taken took 14 years to climb back to $2,291 (still less than it had been 28 years earlier.)  But by 2009 it had nearly doubled to 4371, and in just one more year it has doubled again.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Is Wall Street Useful?

            In the Nov 29  The New Yorker, is an article by John Cassidy: “What good is Wall Street?”  Mr. Cassidy interviewed a number of highly placed financial industry insiders and experts, including  Vikram Pandit, CEO of Citibank, Fred Goldberg, former IRS commissioner,  Ben Friedman, professor of economics at Harvard, and Paul Wooley, founder of the Center For the Study of Market Dysfunctionality  at the London School of Economics. These and a dozen others were all asked about the same question:  Does the financial industry actually serve any socially useful function.  The respondents represented several different constituencies.  But these academics, government regulators, and CEOs all reached a broad consensus on three points:
  1. About a third of what Wall Street does, (its traditional banking function) is absolutely essential—the world economy would collapse instantly without it.
 2. The other two-thirds, (high-stakes proprietary trades in exotic derivatives, etc.) are of no social utility whatsoever.
 3.  It’s the useless part that poses most of the systemic risk to the world economy—and also makes most of the money.