A Premature Sigh of Illusory Relief

You wish you were as brave as this kid…

 

 Bradley Manning won’t rot in prison for aiding al-Qaeda,  just for standing up for the interests of the American public.

 

Last Tuesday, Pfc. Bradley Manning was found guilty of *only* 20 of the 22 charges brought against him in THE Show Trial of the 21st Century (thus far, at any rate).  The Judge, Col. Denise Lind, handed down a “Not Guilty” on the most severe charge of “aiding the enemy,” but found Manning guilty on most of the other charges, including 6 under the ridiculous 1917 Espionage Act.

Seeing that Manning had plead guilty to most of the lesser charges, those findings are relatively unremarkable, and most of the media chatter has come in the form of relief over his “aiding the enemy” acquittal (Yes, your precious, hand-picked confidential sources are safe, for now).   All the same, I’m having a hard time considering this anything but a serious blow to government transparency and the rule of law.  There are probably a dozen reasons to think this, but three in particular stand out from the crowd.

#1. The 1917 Espionage Act:

The fact that charges were brought at all under this ancient bit of legal code is disturbing, and seeing them upheld in judgment is a very bad sign for anyone trying to expose government incompetence, let alone corruption.  The law has an ugly history of being used for purposes of political persecution, and the Obama administration has held fast to that conceit.

Additionally, many legal scholars consider the Espionage Act a relic, designed to deal with threats that disappeared decades ago, and there’s been more than a little argument over its constitutionality, even at the time it was passed.  It’s tough to imagine a law more ripe for a repeal, or at least a serious reworking.  And yet, this law has been one of the main weapons in the Obama DOJ’s arsenal of persecution against whistle-blowers.  Under their watch, more than twice as many people have faced charges under this act than during it’s entire previous history.  After this ruling, that strategy is unlikely to change.

#2.  The Obscene Double-Standard in Criminal Prosecution:

Significantly more telling than even the sheer mass of the book that was thrown at Bradley Manning is the relative non-existence of legal consequences for other types of blatantly criminal behavior, both in military and civilian circles:

“Did the bank you run launder billions of dollars for drug cartels and known terrorist affiliates over several years?  That’s OK, we won’t bring criminal charges, or even make you admit any wrongdoing.  Just pay us a month’s worth of revenue or so, and we’ll call it even.”

“You say your infantry unit systematically massacred scores of civilians in an occupied country?  Between you and me, that’s pretty messed up, but let me tell you what:  We’ll protect you from local courts and police, but we will have to do an ‘internal investigation,’ just so everyone knows that Justice has been served…”

“What’s that, now?  You’ve been accused of rape and harassment by a fellow soldier?  Well, now, we’ll definitely have to do…  something…  about that…  eventually…  In the mean time, how good are you at keeping your mouth shut?”

Had Manning engaged in this sort of despicable behavior, he would likely be looking at a small fraction of the legal penalties he currently faces.  Powerful  institutions in America tend to protect their own from even the most heinous of accusations.  Of course, that all changes the second you question their own adherence to the high ideals they preach.  Barack Obama seems to wear a particularly smug look when he boasts of his status as a “Constitutional Scholar,” or when he lauds the U.S. as “…a Nation of Laws.”  I can’t tell if that is because he actually believes these things he says, or if he merely finds a sardonic thrill in serving millions of Americans helping after steaming helping of pure, unsullied horseshit.

#3.  Intimidation of Future Whistle-Blowers:

One of the more remarkable things about the Snowden leaks, at least in my estimation, is the fact that they still happened in spite of the type of horrendous treatment that had been heaped on Pfc. Manning during his pre-trial incarceration.  A year and change of 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement under constant supervision, forced to sleep naked in full light, and refused any sort of physical or mental diversion, including reading and exercise.  All, you know, “for his own protection.”  PR aside, these were obviously punitive measures, taken just publicly enough to scare off other military personnel with similar ideas.

(**LATE NOTE** ~ Prosecution claims during sentencing hearings of a “chilling effect” on State Dept. activity and reporting of human rights abuses are a master class in unintentional irony.)

Now that Manning has had his day(s) in court and will likely spend a significant proportion of his life behind bars, anyone else with possibly damaging information on government malfeasance is less likely than ever to come forward, regardless of how said information was obtained.  Anything potentially implicating or humiliating is immediately and systematically classified by an administration obsessed with secrecy.  And the cost of challenging this gross abuse of authority?  Nothing short of your life as a free citizen.

Any and all private information is now fair game for collection and catalogue, but the actions and communications of the security state, funded by our taxes and nominally in our interest, must be shielded from any public knowledge or accountability by any means and at any cost.  The logic behind this situation is perverse beyond any account, and makes endemic corruption a foregone conclusion.

This verdict didn’t throw our pathetically under-utilized system of investigative journalism into chaos. It was simply a crippling blow against any effort to even inform Americans of the ethical depths to which  their country has been dragged, let alone reverse that sickening descent.

Man, we really dodged a bullet there, huh?

Meet the Screed…

aubrey-plaza-scott-pilgrim

Aubrey Plaza in “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” (Universal)

 

It’s come to my attention that I probably don’t post anywhere near often enough.  I think this mostly stems from a hyper-perfectionist tendency that borders on obsessive (also a common AD/HD feature, though probably tied more to co-morbid depression and anxiety), and the fact that I just suck at setting aside writing time probably doesn’t help.

My old friend Aaron (Thanks for lunch, BTW) made the point that frequency and brevity are both essential parts of blogging, and most of the literature I’ve found on the subject agrees whole-heartedly.  In that interest, I’m setting out here to post without my usual prep and polish time.  It’s not like there’s any shortage of topics I can cover;  I guess I’m just trying to get used to the idea of throwing up posts that are more opinion- and reaction-based, even if they end up being less than my usual standard of unrealistic quality.  (That is, of course, assuming you see any quality there in the first place.)

I’ve still got a big NSA-related piece in the works, but it’s grown in scope considerably along the way.  Hopefully the matter will still be in people’s minds by the time I finish.  At any rate, I suppose the Agency itself will be reading, so I’ve got that going for me…

#DTA!   ; )

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Here’s a quick update on the housing story from a couple of months back.  The incredible Yves Smith from (also incredible) Naked Capitalism has some data on the Phoenix area that took me a few tries to swallow:

Reader Scott sends us further confirmation by e-mail from his buddy George N, which he took from the website of Silver Bay Management Company:

 

Take a look at the number of houses for rent in Phoenix…The snap shot above was taken today [July 22nd] off of their website.

PHX1

The following is a snap shot I took on March 18, almost exactly 4 months ago.

PHX2

How the hell can they be making any money when there are so many empty houses cooking in the desert sun?

 

Just in case you had any doubts about the scale of stupidity at work here, several other markets (Vegas, Atlanta, parts of Texas and Florida) are displaying similar dynamics.  I mean, God for-fucking-fend some of that cash find its way to the parts of the economy that might actually need it!  Unfortunately, this is both a cause and consequence of the highly uneven wealth distribution in modern America, and that isn’t getting any better.

The big thing a lot of people forget about market mechanics is that they derive their accuracy (in terms of capital allocation) from aggregate intelligence.  Or, if you prefer English, that basically means that markets are “smarter” when they have more individual investors making decisions.  A hypothetical market made of 100 investors with $100 each is significantly more useful than a market of 10 investors with $1000, even though it’s the same size.  Squeezing out small and mid-sized investors may make the remaining companies wealthier and the investment process more “efficient,” but it also makes the market dumber in aggregate, and more likely to produce shitty overall outcomes.

Now, can anybody guess which way we’ve been headed for 30+ years?  All that Reaganomics and Objectivist philosophy is catching up with us, and the nation’s economic brain is rotting in its skull as a result.  How much uglier are we willing to see this get before we start demanding a better strategy?

The Clutch

"Redline" by Brendon Bradley

“Redline” by Brendon Bradley

 

The engine is about to explode, but the car hasn’t moved an inch…

J here.  Sorry this sucker took so long, I was about 3/4 done with it when the whole Edward Snowden/NSA Leak thing dropped, and I’ve been dedicating way too much time to following that for the last few weeks.  I’ve been a fan of Glenn Greenwald for years, and seeing him vindicated like this is equal parts phenomenally exciting and existentially terrifying.  That goes for Dan Carlin and double for the late Michael Hastings as well.  Basically, this flips the whole national debate about everything on it’s head.

That is to say, it should, I guess.  You can bet your entire ass I’ve got something coming on this, hopefully sooner rather than later.  Just keeping up with the scope of the story is practically a full time job, but damn it, I’m going find a way…

In the meantime, meet “The Clutch” (sorry, the name similarity was too screwball to resist):

****

One of the biggest things to learn in dealing with AD/HD is the ridiculous number of pitfalls that one can fall victim to, often for days or weeks at a time, and often without even noticing.  These conditions tend to be self-reinforcing, and the fact that you’re not terribly good at being cognizant of your own behavior or state of mind in the moment can make recognition and escape that much harder.  Each affected person has different mental traps that they struggle with, depending on how the condition has manifested in the individual case.  I want this to be the first in an ongoing series exploring the worst (at least for me) of these black holes of time and effort and positive self-regard, and (hopefully) some strategies to avoid or escape the problems when they come up.

And yes, I’ve taken to giving them bizarre pet names, in a pathetic and transparent attempt to render them small and non-threatening in my head.  Can’t quite decide if it’s working or not;  maybe this will make it more clear.  So, without further delay and in no particular order, allow me to present:

Pitfall #1:  The Clutch

This guy is, for lack of a better term, a motherfucker.  This cycle doesn’t spring up too often, but when it does, I have a hell of a time getting out.  Let me (try to) explain…

Usually, I start with some moderately complicated task to undertake.  Not a chemistry experiment by any means, but some sort of semi-complex plan with several points or steps I need to hit to be successful.  Now, for an average person, it would be fairly easy to keep track of where you are and move quickly from step to step.  I, however, am not a normal person…  When I come to, several hours have passed.  Maybe I’m halfway through my project, or maybe I never got started at all, but either way, I’m out of time now and unlikely ever to find my way back to it to finish.

So, what the fuck happened?

Well, this is where things start to get weird…

The most helpful thing I’ve learned about AD/HD in the last couple of years is that the term “AD/HD” is a horrible and counterproductive misnomer.  This is especially true in my case (little to no hyperactive component), but even if you leave that bit out, calling it “Attention Deficit Disorder” is still incredibly misleading.  The central problem in AD/HD isn’t an inability to focus or pay attention, it’s a reduced ability to consciously control and direct that focus.  Your brain can focus just fine, you just don’t get to pick when or on what it does so.

Modern research has pinpointed both chemical and structural deficiencies in the parts of the brain responsible for something called “Executive Function.”  I won’t go into the neuroscience of it here, but your executive function is pretty much exactly what it sounds like:  It coordinates and controls what various parts of your brain are working on.  If you have AD/HD, your brain and its myriad parts may work fantastically well, they’re just rarely all on the same page, and the barrage of conflicting signals demolishes concentration interferes with any productive or desirable thoughts.

So, is that inability to sync up what ate my 3-4 hours?  Not even close, but we are getting there, I promise.

While an uncoordinated cognitive clusterfuck may be the usual state of mind for people with AD/HD, it isn’t the only state that is possible.  Every once in a while, for any variety of reasons, things line up perfectly, and every part of your brain is working together on the same task.  This state is generally referred to as “hyperfocus,” and it feels, to be as clinical and professional as possible, fucking amazing.  Tasks that are difficult (or downright impossible) under normal circumstances suddenly become easy, even natural, as though they’re happening on their own and you’re just along for the ride.  I tend to hyperfocus when I do woodworking or play the guitar, and occasionally when reading or writing.  I’ll use reading as a prime example, because the difference between results is particularly dramatic.

I usually read at a fairly slow pace.  I’ve never really tried to measure it or compare it to other people, but I’d guess I read at roughly half the speed of an average person.  There are a variety of causes for this, but the most prevalent one seems to be the weird mental tangents the subject matter can send my brain on, eating a minute here and a minute there, usually without my realization.  While a boring text will merely be difficult to focus on, even an interesting one can be a problem because of the sheer number of those mental rabbit holes certain concepts or ideas will inevitably trigger for me.

However, when that perfect mix of luck, interest, and circumstance creates a hyperfocused state, and lines up all my mental functions on the same activity, I’ve been known to tear through a 400 page novel in just a few hours.  Both the inner and outer distractions that would normally derail me go unnoticed and ignored.  I’ll miss phone calls, space off meals, and often even a direct question from my wife or a friend will require a couple of tries and several extra seconds to elicit a response.  The ability to hyperfocus is one of the few advantages that can (sometimes) come with AD/HD affliction, but it can also bring a whole new set of challenges to overcome.

And that, finally, gets us back to our central question…

What the hell is this so-called “Clutch,” and what can be done to avoid it?

As I’ve mentioned, AD/HD is effectively a problem of regulating and directing brain activity.  While hyperfocused states can be incredibly advantageous when they coincide with particularly interesting or demanding activity, those aren’t the only times they happen.  Sometimes, your hyperfocus will kick in for some mundane task, or sometimes for no task at all.  You’ll end up over-thinking every angle of how and why you tie your shoes, or if you could do it better some other way.  I have a particular problem losing myself into completely unproductive thought loops on the nature of destructive trading cycles that seem to spring up for almost no reason in modern equity markets.  It’s usually very interesting, and I occasionally come to mind-blowing epiphanies while engaged in this sort of thinking, but the fact that the time had been set aside or needed for something else more than counteracts any good that might come of them.  (Also, unless you’re immediately able to somehow record said brilliant new insights, the chances of you remembering them later are basically zero.)

So, there it is (at least in my experience and estimation):  The dreaded “Clutch” is basically just a misdirected period of hyperfocused thought or activity.  You’re brain is running at full throttle, but much like in a car with a stuck clutch, it’s totally disengaged from any practical purpose.  It’s a massive waste of time and energy, and the wear on your morale is tough to quantify and even harder to repair.  The Clutch can kick in at almost any time, and can last for hours when uninterrupted.  Also, unlike a lot of other AD/HD symptoms, the usual pharmaceutical subjects have an annoying tendency to make this problem worse rather than better.  Luckily, there are a couple of steps you can take to avoid losing your entire day to these errant periods of pointless mental activity.

First, always have at least a rough outline of what you want to be doing.  You can break it down according to time in a calendar program or a day planner if you want, but just a basic sequence of activities should do the trick.  “I want/intend to do this, then this, then this…”  Having a rough sequence of tasks allows you to both check off accomplished ones (Hello, reward center stimuli!) and to be able to easily remind yourself of what’s up next.  In my experience, that space between finishing one activity and starting the next is a serious danger zone for unhelpful distraction.  Building a habit of checking your list anytime you finish an activity allows you to avoid getting sucked up into a “Clutch”-type situation.

(Also, don’t be afraid to get granular when writing your activity sequence.  In addition to making big jobs seem easier to start, breaking larger tasks down into individual steps can make this strategy easier to adopt.  Repetition is how actions become automatic, and giving yourself more opportunities per task to practice your process means you’ll pick up the habit much more quickly.)

The other big one that I’ve identified is setting a timer to go off at regular intervals throughout the day.  You can use an alarm clock, an oven timer, or set an alert on your phone or other portable device.  It seems to work best if you don’t have to actively think about setting and resetting it throughout the day, so a more automated solution is probably best.  This method actually gives you two advantages:  It makes tracking the passage of time easier, and the alarm works to interrupt pointless thought loops and allow you to periodically refocus your efforts and attention.

Finally, there are supposedly methods to sort of “fool” your focus centers into turning on and off when you need them.  I’ve never been able to make any of these work for me, but AD/HD is a notoriously unpredictable condition, and things that don’t work for one person may be a revelation to another.  Unfortunately, it’s basically just trial and error to find a good combination of medication, therapy, and planning techniques that will work best for you.

Effectively treating AD/HD symptoms is an ongoing process, and there are many places to look to for ideas.  Books like “You Mean I’m Not Lazy, Stupid, or Crazy” and “Your Life Can Be Better” are excellent sources of broad-based info and ideas from authors with personal experience battling AD/HD in their own lives.  I’m always looking for good new sources of AD/HD info, so please feel free to put any personal favorites in the comments below.

I’ll be back at some point in time with another one of these “personal pitfall” accounts.  Until then, good luck, and stay resilient!  If you’re anything like me, you’ll need a lot of both.

Rumors of a Housing Recovery Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

foreclosure NV

The tail appears to be wagging the cart, and there’s probably a horse in there somewhere…

 

I’m working on a proper long-form article, but I thought I’d throw out a couple of brief observations to keep the ball in the air, as it were.  A little bit econ, a little bit politics, and a whole lot of existential pessimism.  Enjoy!  (ps: you probably won’t enjoy it, but you might at least find it informative.  I’ll keep my fingers crossed.)

****

So, I hear the housing market is back.  Which is to say, it’s coming back.  It didn’t tank quite as hard in my backyard as some places (My Mom lives near Las Vegas, and Yikes!), but even here it’s tough not to notice all the “For Sale” signs, or how quickly many of them are switching over to “Sold.”  There still aren’t many openings in the construction business, but that’s a whole other ball of trash.  At any rate, things appear to be improving for the class of investment that makes up the bulk of Middle-Class American wealth.

Of course, if you’re thinking this is good news for Middle-Class Americans, you might want to reconsider.

Upticks in Omaha may be a function of the usual market forces (lowered prices, return of cheap/available credit), but there’s a good reason to be skeptical of recoveries in harder-hit areas.  As it happens, there’s been a trend among Hedge Funds and Private Equity firms to move directly into various housing markets (the more depressed/demolished, the better).  It had a lot of people scratching their heads, and rightly so.  This from Reuters lays out all the cards:

“The once-beleaguered Las Vegas housing market has been on fire since investment firms led by Blackstone Group LP, Colony Capital and American Homes 4 Rent began buying homes here some eight months ago, backed by $8 billion in investor cash to spend nationally.

“These big investors and a handful of others have bought at least 55,000 single-family homes across the United States in the past year.  In the Vegas area alone, they have accounted for at least 10 percent of the homes sold since January 2012…”

The idea, I guess, was to buy up cheap homes through newly-formed subsidiaries and start renting them out to credit-impaired locals.  In classic Wall Street fashion, things got weird once everyone and their hamster got wind of the idea and copied it.

Anyone who’s ever been a landlord, or had one, understands that the job is nowhere near as simple in practice as it is on paper.  Condos and apartment buildings are one thing, but with stand-alone homes, there’s a lot more for owners to worry about.  Yard maintenance, plumbing/sewer issues, and upkeep of mechanical requirements like HVAC or kitchen appliances can come up unexpectedly and add up quickly.  Without a crew in place ahead of time, renovation and turnaround on vacant properties can take weeks, or even months, depending on the individual house.

On top of that, market distortions from that sudden injection of loose cash began to narrow the potential profit margins precipitously.  Home prices have shot up, more than 30% in some places, and as more and more properties come up for rent, the monthly rates our new “landlords” can charge are going to eat shit hard.  It didn’t take long for the great and powerful “financial innovators” to start rethinking the wisdom of their billion-dollar bets.  Again from Reuters:

“The combination of rising acquisition costs, prolonged rental lead times and declining rental income is disrupting the spread-sheet analysis behind Wall Street’s bet.  That could pose problems for what once seemed like a slam dunk. It could also give pause to stock-market investors as some players list their shares.  American Homes 4 Rent, based in Malibu, California, has said it expects to file soon for an initial public offering.”

Ah, the IPO, the closest thing a braindead investor has to a “Get Out of Jail Free” card.  An “Initial Public Offering” of stock can make it possible for Private Equity and Venture Capital investors to show a return on a business that hasn’t yet managed to make anything or sell it to anyone.  All they have to do is build up a little buzz and push through the paperwork before the market wises up and the whole façade crumbles.  These things were at the root of the Tech Bubble in the late 90’s, and since little in the way of effective new regulation materialized in response to that disaster (hat tip Bob Rubin), they’re looking like a popular option for today’s moneyed half-wit who wants to force someone else to eat the costs of his mistakes as well.

So, using the Vegas market as an example, let’s do a quick recap:

Wall St. banks use unregulated derivatives and highly unethical rating and accounting schemes to blow up a massive bubble in real estate value, then position themselves to profit from the inevitable collapse.  When said collapse is bigger than expected, they cajole and terrify the government into rescuing them from their own engineered disaster.  Next, they spend millions of those bailout dollars fighting the few, pathetic attempts by Washington to reign in their idiotic behavior.  The moment housing finally bottoms out, several of the same banks create local subsidiary companies and use them to snatch up hundreds of foreclosed properties at reduced prices.  The plan is to rent said houses to the same low-income families they’ve just crowded out of the market.  Finally, when this dubious plan starts turning against them, the banks do what they do best:  Cash out before things get ugly, and leave someone else holding the bag.

Is anyone else starting to see a pattern here?

I could absolutely keep going on this, but I think I’ve made my point.  Perceived value recoveries in the nation’s hardest-hit housing markets are more than likely just a temporary illusion, brought on by the same unchecked greed and stupidity that tanked them in the first place.  I understand how easy it is for the desperate and downtrodden residents of these areas to want to take anything close to good news at face value, but the reality, unfortunately, is a little more complicated.

These sort of short-term speculative events almost always do more damage than good for a market.  The vast majority of these new subsidiary businesses will close their doors and dump their inventories back on the market sooner or later.  In the mean time, they’ve artificially driven up prices, forced legitimate long-term buyers out, and their market distortions have lead to misallocation of capital and labor to (if you can believe it) start building more new houses at a time when there are already thousands of vacant ones lying around.

The sad truth is this:  A legitimate housing recovery can’t happen until unemployment levels off and real demand starts coming back, and even when it does, it’s going to be significantly more slow and painful than anyone would like it to be.

And given the current direction of both Federal and State policy, it could be a while before we even get that far.

(false) Start

"Story of my life, man..."

“Story of my life, man…”

“Sister Mary Francis!  What the hell happened in here?!”

— Benny the Cab, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”

This was supposed to be a blog on living with adult-diagnosed ADHD.  I’d had some additional blogs planned for a couple of other topics (namely, politics and economics).  Maybe, at some future juncture, I’ll re-partition my writing so that those disparate topics find their own spaces to call home, but for now, I only think I can produce enough content to support one of these things.  If the slew of scattershot ideas starts to get to you, I apologize.  You see, I have ADHD, and my brain isn’t particularly good splitting and grouping thoughts in a conventional way.  Instead, my thought process winds up looking like an out-of-proportion splatter-painted nightmare, like Pollack meets Picasso meets PCP.  Somehow, I’d imagine a non-curated blog of my various thoughts and concerns is going to come with a similar disorienting quality.

That said, I’ll at least try to tag things so it’s easier to filter just the posts you want.  Might take some practice;  your patience and any feedback you may have is greatly appreciated…

Alright, what say we get into this thing?  I suppose an introduction is in order.

Hello, my name is John, and I’m a bit of a lunatic.  Maybe “lunatic” is a strong word.  I’m what a mutual friend would politely describe as “an odd duck” after a mildly-traumatizing blind date.  I’ve never quite been all there, and I’m finally starting to work out a bit of why.  A strong mix of Predominantly-Inattentive ADHD and chronic depression is apparently a recipe for a particularly strange and sorry existence.  Don’t worry, I’ll save the sad details for therapy sessions.  Suffice it to say, things needed to improve.

And in all honesty, I think they have in the last few months.  I’ve picked up several new strategies for dealing with day-to-day challenges, and started to dig down to the roots of some of my more peculiar and damaging neuroses.  While I think it is a stretch to imply that potential readers would care much about me personally, I do think the story is interesting, surprising, and maybe even a little informative.  With some luck and persistence, I might be able to spin it into something readable, maybe even enjoyable…

But, I don’t want to get ahead of myself.  If you happen to find yourself with a powerful urge to learn more about ADHD, its non-hyperactive variant, or its surprising relationship to depression and highly self-destructive patterns of behavior and thought, stop back from time to time.  Or, you know, if you want to know what a barely-college-educated carpenter-cum-grocery-clerk thinks about econ or politics…

Let me put it this way:  If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past months and years, it’s that you almost never find the difficult answers, the ones you really need, in the obvious places.  Give me a chance;  I might just surprise you.  I do it to myself all the time.