Sunday, June 28, 2009

From oxymoron to hypermoron

I'm not sure what to do with a twitter account. Yesterday I tweeted: "Harvesting arugula seeds. Gonna make everyone I know an elitist when I hand them out."

That small joke came to mind this afternoon when I read Randy Kennedy's piece on Dan Graham in the NY Times because it offered this nugget:

The photographer and art historian Jeff Wall has written that while many other conceptual artists “abjured, apparently for good, any involvement with the world” outside of their methodologies, Mr. Graham’s aim has always been “to remain involved with the wider world as a subject and occasion for art, but to structure that involvement in the rigorously self-reflexive terms” opened up by conceptualism.

Stating it more simply, Philippe Vergne, the director of the Dia Art Foundation, calls Mr. Graham’s work “elitism for everyone.”
(Image: Two Adjacent Pavilions, 1978-1981 via Artland)

Corporate profits and truth telling

Boing Boing contributor Cory Doctorow posted yesterday that the ways US companies choose to express their earnings has hidden an alarming decline in real profitability over the past 43 years. The source is the Deloitte Center for the Edge (via Jon Taplin's blog). A telling chart from the Deloitte report is reproduced above.

The Deloitte report is long on technical details about trends in worker productivity, mergers and acquisitions, rates of corporate taxation, and other macro trends in the US economy, but Taplin's point is about the differences between profitability considered as a return on assets (ROA) and profitability expressed as a return on equity (ROE). Quoting Investopedia, Taplin describes ROE as the classic Wall Street measure of profitability. Basically, it's the ratio of net income to shareholders equity:
Let's calculate ROE for the automotive giant General Motors for 2003. To get the necessary data, go to the GM's Investor Information website and look for the 2003 Annual Report. You'll see on GM's 2003 Income Statement that its net income totaled $3.822 billion. On GM's 2003 Balance Sheet, you'll find total stockholder equity for 2003 was $25.268bn and in 2002 it was $6.814bn.

To calculate ROE, average shareholders' equity for 2003 and 2002 ($25.268bn + $6.814bn / 2 = $16.041 bn), and divide net income for 2003 ($3.822bn) by that average. You will arrive at a return on equity of 0.23, or 23%. This tells us that in 2003 GM generated a 23% profit on every dollar invested by shareholders.

Many professional investors look for a ROE of at least 15%. So, by that standard alone, GM managements' ability to squeeze profits from shareholders' money appears rather impressive.
ROA, on the other hand is the ratio of net profits to all the assets the company owns -- factories, machinery, office furniture, money in the bank, etc.

Now, let's turn to return on assets, which, offering a different take on management's effectiveness, reveals how much profit a company earns for every dollar of its assets. Assets include things like cash in the bank, accounts receivable, property, equipment, inventory and furniture. ROA is calculated like this:
Return on Assets = (Annual Net Income/Total Assets)
Let's look at GM again. You already know that it earned $3.822bn in 2003, and you can find total assets on the balance sheet. In 2003, GM's total assets amounted to $448.507bn. GM's net income divided by total assets gives a return on assets of 0.0085, or 0.85%. This tells us that in 2003 GM earned less than 1% profit on the resources it owned.

This is an extremely low number. In other words, GM's ROA tells a very different story about the company's performance than its ROE. Few professional money managers will consider stocks with an ROA of less than 5%.
(Block quotes from Investopedia.)

The difference is debt. In GM's case, large debt obligations reduced the equity value of the company and so made the profit numbers look quite good when expressed as a percentage of equity.

The chart above is an examination of all US companies' profitability expressed as a percentage of assets over the past 43 years, and it's a horrible picture indeed. Talk about a crisis in capitalism.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

We all know he's ridiculous

But just how ridiculous is he? Consider this a challenge. I know you all can do better than I did.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Swap meet

Swap meet today. I was selling cabbage and onions with two friends.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Tehran art, Tehran courage

At least one pro-democracy activist in Tehran is putting up some very witty pictures around the city during the current civil unrest (to put a polite face on thuggish government agents beating students in the streets). The one above with the curious face card beastie obscuring Ahmadinejad's face on a political poster is typical. More pictures here. (via Andrew Sullivan)

Some of the protesters are very brave, particularly the Twitter posters who worked the past few days under the collective name of persiankiwi. I've been following them off and on for two days as they tell of danger and violence. A few of their tweets from today:
Militia still attacking people in sidestreets but main roads are peaceful marchers.

reliable soure from Ahvaz. Situation there is bad - violent clashes in streets.

confirmed - there is shooting in Azadi sq. protesters wounded and shot, no numbers yet, still hearing gunfire.

people are running in streets outside. There is panic in streets.people going ino houses to hide.

Baseej shooting in Azadi sq - army standing by and watching for now.

streets very dangerous now. groups of militia on motorbikes searching for protesters.

3 ppl from our group still not returned from march. no mobile contact. last phone contact 2 hours ago.

confirmed - khamenaie website hacked - the dictator of iran.

we honour and thank the people of Iran and especially the hackers. Baseej have guns we have brains.

tonight Kamenei will fight hard - he knows he is close to finish.

cnfirmed - karbaschi and karoubi heading to Tajreesh sq tonight at 11pm - now after 10pm

Tajreesh is close to Jamaran where Khamenei live. maybe marching to his house. unconfirmed

we are going offline to get a phone free for calling out. we are also moving location - too long here - is dangerous.

were attacked in streets by mob on motorbikes with batons - firing guns into air - streetfires all over town - roads closed;

3 of our group missing from afternoon - we have no news from them;

confirmed - homeowners in Rasht are giving refuge to people running from Baseej attacks.

Gohardasht in Karaj - confirmed - people in street batles with militia -

most activity is in north - Gheytarieh, Pasdaran, Gholhak and Niavaran still busy and noisy -

more than 100 students missing from Tehran Uni dorms - reports of several dead from last night

thanks to all people following us and trusting us. we are trying to give you correct info -

it is very hard here - we are under big pressure and risk - we are being tracked on twitter -

we are all tired - no sleep for 3 days - one of us is injured from baton - waiting for doctor

we only want freedom - we are peaceful - we have no life no future in IRI without freedom -

one of us is injured and we have doctor - we cannot go to hospital now as plainclothes are at all hospitals

we are routed thru mirror proxies - but service is unreliable - keeps cuting out - have to switch off lights now

our street is quiet now - we cannot move tonight but must move asap when dawn starts

All normal proxys out - all normal ISP's out in Tehran

reliable source - many arrested taken to Evin in past 24hrs - evin under heavy protectionwe must log off - will update asap - sources pls keep info coming - we thank u and will not print your id's - u know who u are
The dumb picture I had up in my profile changed to a green rectangle tonight. That's the color of the opposition, the color of that swatch covering Ahmadinejad in the pictur at the top.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Greening Dallas?

Dallas used to look like the future. Parts of it did, anyway. Logan's Run (released in 1976) was filmed there (also in Fort Worth, Houston, a sewage treatment plant in El Segundo, CA, and other locations). The 1980 PBS TV movie based on Ursula K. Leguin's excellent novel The Lathe of Heaven was shot largely in Dallas, as well. Something about Dallas' sun-baked, concrete public spaces and impersonal, corporatist architecture appealed to filmmakers of the time when it came to imagining, say, the 23rd century. This likely says a lot more about the filmmakers and their audiences than it says about the 23rd century.

It certainly says a lot about Dallas, where the future used to go to get strange.

Another future Dallas was revealed near the end of last month when the winners of the Re:Vision Dallas architecture/urban design competition were announced. The contest invited architects and collaborators in the fields of urban farming, sustainable land use, etc. to create a city block that:
encourage[s] and value[s] relationships, while fostering respect for nature and our neighbors, privacy and resources, economy and consumption.
One of the three winning designs came from the San Francisco-based firm of David Baker and Partners. It looks like this:

The image is via the architect's Web site, where several others are available, as are some words which expand on the images:
Rather than simply placing a single building in the middle of a neglected space, the design team's conceptual reach extends beyond the property line into the larger city. The team proposes creating intersecting greenways pieced together from open space and disused lots to set up a framework for future development and to connect existing but disparate public amenities, such as the Farmer's Market and the Trinity River.
At the center of the greenways’ "X", Lone Star Square will function as the public heart of the new food/agriculture district, with orchards, garden plots, and historical elements from the city's past. Running through the system of greenways are a series of water features that filter harvested rainwater and convey it in a stream to the agricultural fields to be used for irrigation.
It's good that people in Dallas and elsewhere are looking into future green buildings and alternatives to the dystopic present in which a paucity of shops and amenities, multiple days of unsafe air quality, and oppressive summer heat make the urban experience just plain bad. Like the impossibly strange Dragonfly Building proposed for New York, the project arises from a good heart and good intentions, even if it is a latter day Hanging Gardens of Babylon. And I'm most hopeful for the idea of harvesting rainwater, even though we're now at the beginning of the dry season in this part of Texas, and some parts of the state to our south are well into a drought. But somehow the whole bigass shebang strikes me as just so very Dallas in its scale and structure and attitude. Consultants and experts and government workers decide solutions to problems that earlier consultants and experts and government workers inadvertently created via their solutions to earlier problems.

Meanwhile, up in Milwaukee, a guy named Will Allen -- who last winter was awarded a MacArthur "Genius" Grant -- has worked patiently and persistently to create an urban farm in a blighted neighborhood. He's featured in the trailer below.

(The trailer is from the film Fresh, the Movie, which I have not seen) What I find admirable and encouraging about his project is that it is not the work of designers, but of a man and his compadres who want to make a place to live and live well. There is a connectedness both to a community and to an idea of living with the means of feeding ourselves that really good designers sometimes miss and Dallas implementers of designs have consistently missed.

I mean he's the author of the sentence "And believe in what the worms will do for you."

Monday, June 8, 2009

A couple of thefts

The plants out at our community garden are starting to produce. Last night, I considered the three almost-ripe tomatoes in my patch and decided to let them ripen one more night before I picked them.

This morning they were gone. Somebody stole them from my garden, which is a crime in the State of Texas, punishable by a fine up to $250. Or so I'm told. You don't steal a man's tomatoes. It's just not right.

Tonight, I saw this piece in the New York Times about the new film Food, Inc. by Robert Kenner. I've not seen it, but reportedly it's an extended discussion of the factory-farm, processed-food institutions we Americans have come to accept as normal even though they represent a curious capital/government "partnership" that is anything but.

It's a hugely complex issue, to be sure, and a movie trailer can only deliver sound bites at best. But the folks behind Food, Inc. do seem to have touched a nerve with some of their targets. Monsanto, for example, has added this to its Web site. The page represents an extended counter-ad to address the issues the film raises from the Big Ag point of view. Included is a nifty Flash quiz about Monsanto's practices and policies. I aced it. (Hint: all you have to do is choose the answer that makes the company look the best.)

Not having seen the film, I can't judge the merits of either side of the case. And yet this settled me back some: item number four on the Monsanto rebuttal quiz reads:
Every year Monsanto sues or threatens to sue hundreds of farmers for saving their own seed.
The statement is false, according to Monsanto. Monsanto is loath to sue anybody! When you select an answer, the company's Flash quiz offers up a small bit of elaboration:
Monsanto pursues legal action against farmers who improperly save and resell or replant our patented seed only when other efforts to resolve the issue prove unsuccessful. The first time growers purchase Monsanto seed, they sign a stewardship agreement and contract not to save and resell or replant seeds produced from the crops they grow from Monsanto seed.
On the face of it, at issue is their right to protect their intellectual property. Developing cultivars, either through hybridization or genetic engineering, is expensive, and they want to assert their rights as owners of those products. I mean if the guys buying their seeds don't like the set up, they can buy somewhere else, somebody else's seeds. They're selling seeds like Microsoft sells software, in a sense. Replanting seeds from last year's crop is theft of intellectual property, according to this line of reasoning. And that's stealing something worth far more than the three tomatoes I lost last night.

It's the word "stewardship" in their argument that rattled me. Stewardship of the land is part of the mission statement of our community garden. Stewardship connotes caring, working to make things right so you don't undermine what makes food production possible. Alongside "stewardship," words like "sustainable" and "renewable" show up in our stated intentions. I know farmers around here who are devoted stewards of the land in this sense of the word.

Monsanto uses the word in another sense. "Stewardship" in what I quoted above is a hypertext link that leads to this page:

Monsanto is committed to enhancing grower productivity and profitability as well as supporting product stewardship by bringing new seed technologies to market - patented technologies that provide licensed growers the use of new seed for one single commercial crop. This commitment requires shared responsibility between Monsanto and our licensed growers.

Features & Benefits

To take advantage of the benefits of biotech seed and preserve the technology for long-term use, growers must adopt a sound stewardship plan. Such a plan includes:

  • signing a Monsanto Technology Agreement

  • complying with all agronomic and marketing guidelines

  • agreeing to plant traited seed for only a single commercial crop

If you have questions about seed stewardship or become aware of growers using biotech traits in an unauthorized manner, please call [phone number redacted]. Letters to report similar unauthorized action may be sent to:

Monsanto Trait Stewardship
[address redacted]
By introducing the capitalist concept of "product stewardship" and the corporatist concept of "trait stewardship" into the discourse of food policy, Monsanto has attempted another sort of theft, an egregious theft from our language. Our garden's humble admission that we must work within what is possible in our relation to the land, to make it fruitful while admitting that we must conform to the ways of plants and rainfall and soil and blight and bugs, is miles and miles from the protection of a product. Big Ag's request that farmers inform on one another only ices the cake.

Last night somebody stole some tomatoes from me. A bigger theft is underway.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Found at the market

As Laurie Anderson once sang: "All of nature talks to me. If I could just figure out what it was trying to tell me."