Friday, March 15, 2013


I greet you on this The Ides of March – the political holiday commemorating that day, 2,056 years ago when the aristocrats in the Roman Senate imposed terminal term limits on Julius Caesar. On this ominous day each year some deserving political hack has earned the “Knife-in-the-Back” plaque for his or her outstanding professional ineptitude and moral arrogance over the preceding 12 months. The dishonor descends upon the chosen not because of mere stupidity, nor even for horribly misjudging the public will. Those are common failings for those who dare to strut their egos upon the public stage. The level of political putz required to earn this mantel of disgrace, must show a consistent inconsistency, and venal dependability to repeat the same mistake so often as to indicate a total lack of self awareness, a disregard for their fellow human beings and a bent toward political suicide And this as an added treat, year's winner is a legacy from a previous winner
The winner in 2008 was New York Democratic Governor Elliot (Ho-No!) Spritzer, who lost his moral war against corruption on Wall Street when he left his morals at the Emperor's Club Escort Service web site. In 2009 Illinois Democratic Governor Rod (The Sleaze) Blagoevich secured the dishonor by being convicted of plotting crimes on telephone lines he himself had alleged were wire tapped. They actually were, and last Ides of March he reported to the Federal Correctional Institution in Englewood, Colorado to begin serving his 14 year sentence. In 2010 Kentucky Republican Senator Jim (Bean-Ball) Bunning was a stand out winner for his petty, mean-spirited filibuster holding up unemployment benefits for tens of thousands of his own constituents, just so he could thumb his nose at his own party. In 2011 Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott (Union Killer) Walker earned the “Laurel and Dagger” award after his artificial budget crises drove his state into civil war and himself into a recall election battle, without creating any of the promised benefits. And last year, 2012, the winner was the morally mailable munchkin mutineer, the militant nihilist, the Big Giant Head from Dunwoody, Georgia, Newton Leroy “Newt” Gingrich.
This year the tortured Republican nominating process thrust forward in their turn several undistinguished demagogues who appalled the voters, from the predictably bizarre Michelle Bachmann to the numbingly idiotic Governor Rick Perry and the adolescent racist Donald Trump, to the blatantly hypocritical pseudo-Christian Rick Santorum. The “winner” of this funeral procession was, of course , the candidate who could not seem to pick a personality, Mitt “47%” Romney. All things considered Mitt was the early leader in this year's Ides sweepstakes.
I also gave serious consideration to Karl “Turd Blossom” Rove, whose reality melt down on election night was a joy to watch, whatever your party affiliation. Never have the American people been treated to such a display of honesty from a Bush era official. It wasn't much of a pay back for the Iraq War debacle, but it was the closest to just deserts the American people are ever going to get from the entitled class of neoconservative idiots. But even George Bush's “Boy Genius” was superseded in his lunacy by the post election antics of our winner, that egregious ego maniac of the end game, the architect of Republican anarchy, the only conservative politician who could make you forget for a few days about “Legitimate” and “God inspired” rape, the rich man's sycophantic parasite, the bumbling buffoon of ineptitude, our winner for this year Ides of March for 2013, John Andrew Boehner.
According to his congressional web site, this “regular guy with a regular job” has represented the 8th district of Ohio since 1991 - a mixed rural and suburban district tucked up against the Indiana border so safe that since its creation in 1823, it has been represented only 14 times by men who were not Republicans, a party which did not even exists for the first 30 years the district did. 
Boehner built his reputation on other people's scandals. In his first election, he defeated the incumbent Republican Buz Lukens, who admitted having sex with a sixteen year old. During his first term, Boehner was a member of the “Gang of Seven” who “uncovered” the House Banking Scandal. During his second term he helped Newt Gingrich write the famous “Contract With America” which propelled the party to control of the House in 1994. His reward in January of '95 was to be named Chairman of the Republican Conference, low man in the gang of four, behind Speaker Gingrich, Majority Leader Dick Armey and Whip Tom DeLay. In 1995 Boehner was assigned to hand out campaign contributions for the Tobacco Lobby. He later admitted to PBS, “They asked me to give out a half dozen checks quickly....and I complied. And I did it on the House floor, which I regret..”
In the summer of 1997 John Boehner played a supporting role in a coup to oust his mentor Gingrich. But when Dick Armey switched sides, Gingrich stayed. Then, after Republicans lost five seats in the 1998 election, Boehner lost his chairmanship, and Gingrich resigned as speaker. After a bruising game of musical chairs, Dennis Hassert was elected speaker, as front man for the uncompromising “too nuclear” Majority Leader Tom Delay. Evidently, after the coup attempt, Delay did not trust Boehner, who is famous for crying in public, in that public role.
However, scandal once again came to Boehner's rescue. Late in 2005 Speaker Delay was indicted for money laundering. Hassert' stepped down the following January, and propelled by his close ties with lobbyists, Boehner was the surprise upset victor as the now minority leadership, winning by just 13 votes. His pledge was, predictably, scandal oriented, in this case the elimination of “earmarks”, funding for specific projects, usually slipped into unrelated bills. In attempting to explain Boehner's unexpected election, the San Francisco Chronicle noted, “Boehner is famous for the lavish parties he throws, including an annual ‘Boehner Beach Party’ fundraiser. At the GOP’s 2004 convention in New York, Boehner hosted a party that raged all four nights of the convention at Tunnel, a West Side nightclub.” He was another genial “hail fellow, well met” like Hassert.
The problem is, earmarks were the way committee chairs maintained party discipline. And once Republicans gained power without it, under Speaker Boehner, the 112th Congress achieved a stunning level of non-achievement. Even the ultra-conservative Washington Times noticed, pointing out that under Boehner's watch the House “enacted the fewest laws, considered the fewest bills”, passing just 162 - 20 % of which were meaningless, such as renaming Federal buildings. “But” the Times added, “it held the third most floor votes, at 1,602”, such as the 33 votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act. None of these repeals ever stood a chance of passing the Senate and were worse than meaningless because, as Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank pointed out, “they have voted to replace the Affordable Care Act exactly … never.”
It was Boehner's House which in 2011 refused to approve an appropriations bill to pay the Federal debt. As Marie Burns wrote on RealityChex.com, “Boehner walked away from a “Grand Bargain” he had been negotiating with President Obama.” This debacle caused Standard and Poor to downgraded the nation's credit rating for the first time in our history, because “the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policy making and political institutions have weakened..Wrote Ms Burns, “..the cost to taxpayers...was about $1.3 billion” in higher interest rates.
Two of the most respected and independent scholars of the process were forced to concede, “We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional.” Former conservative Republican Congressman, Joe Scarborough, noted on his morning cable show that “...so many Republicans tell me this is a guy that is not the hardest worker in the world. After 5 o’clock, 6 o’clock at night, he is disengaged at best. You can see him around town…you can see him at bars.” And Politico reported, “One of (Boehner's) GOP colleagues noted that Boehner cries more often later in the day.”
It was this dysfunctional leader John Boehner, who faced the dawn on Wednesday, November 7, 2012, after Barack Obama had been re-elected to a second term by 51% of the vote, running on the core issue of increasing taxes on the wealthiest Americans. That night Boehner insisted the “higher taxes are not the answer”, to a skeptical ABC anchor, Diane Sawyer. Later that month in a “op-ed” in the “Cincinnati Enquirer”, Boehner now insisted the Affordable Care Act must remain “on the table” for cuts. Jim Kessler, senior VP for what Reuters described as a centrist think-tank said the statement was “...a complete non-starter and a clumsy starting point for negotiations.”
What followed should have been predictable. The Washington Post's David Fahrenthold and Feliciz Sonmez encapsulated the dreary details. “In April 2011, Boehner struck a deal to avert a government shutdown. He lost 59 Republican votes. In August 2011, he cut a deal to avert the debt-ceiling crisis. That time he lost 66 Republicans. In February, he agreed to a compromise that kept payroll taxes from rising. That time there were 91 defections. This month, (December 2012) Boehner sought to engineer a show of force....a vote on ‘Plan B,’...But conservatives revolted...‘Plan B; became an unintended show of weakness instead.”
Explained Marie Burns, “When the going got rough in December 2012 – arguably, before the going got rough – John Boehner walked away again. After throwing his hands up and leaving Mitch McConnell to work out a compromise with Democrats, Boehner decided to make compromise harder by sending the House home and threatening not to call them back...unless (a Senate compromise) was one that a majority of Republicans would support...It was not until the last hours of January 1 – the last full day the 112th Congress was in session – that Boehner finally relented and allowed (Democratic minority leader Nancy) Pelosi to push through the tax-and-spending bill. Although Democrats did not like the bill, either, Pelosi got a 172-16 vote from her caucus. On the Republican side, the vote was 151-85 against the bill. Boehner’s own lieutenants, Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy – the guys who were supposed to whip the bill – voted against it..”
Somehow, Boehner found a way to make it worse. Continued Burns, “Although both Boehner and Cantor had repeatedly promised a long-delayed vote on relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy, Boehner decided at the last minute on January 1 to cancel the vote on the storm relief bill and adjourn the 112th Congress forever, according to Republican Peter King of New York, who was furious.” Boehner's House would not approve hurricane relief for another two weeks, and then 180 Republicans still voted against helping their fellow American in a crisis.

Speaker John Boehner is living proof that the ability to see the fault in leaders, is not always accompanied by the ability to do better. Speaker Boehner's leadership played a major role in driving Congress's approval ratings to a record low, and reducing America's credit rating, which increased the national debt. As Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper from Tennessee has observed, “America’s problems have rarely looked so large, and Congress has rarely looked so small.”  And since that debacle, Boehner continues to be invisible in searching for a way to deal with America's economic problems. And yet, he continues to collect a Federal salary.
As Mark Twin observed, “All congresses and parliaments have a kindly feeling for idiots, and a compassion for them, on account of personal experience and heredity,” Twain could have been writing about this year's winner of the un-coveted “Ides of March Knife in the Back”, plaque, The Boner, Old Blue Eyes, the Crier of the House, the Tan Man, the putter putz in chief, The babble Speaker of the House John Andrew Boehner. And here's good news - he probably has at least two more years in job.
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Wednesday, March 13, 2013


I suspect the problem begins with the oft quoted but not well understood phrase, “pie are squared.” In the first place, it’s not. In fact, you cannot square a circle, and yet it is done everyday, out of sight for those of use who are math-impaired. This is so because  pi is the relationship between the length of the line forming a circle, divided by the distance across that same circle. And this somehow always works out to be 3.141592653589793238…etcetera, etcetera, ad infinitas, iadd nfelicitous, and never repeating. This makes Pi an irrational number, which is confusing again because I find all numbers irrational, even on Pi day (3/15).
To find the area of a living room you simply ask a realtor, and then subtract 10%. But to find the area of a circle you must  measure the radius of a circle squared -  or to put it another way, the radius of the circle times the radius of the circle. In the shorthand of math-speak that becomes, A(rea)= piR squared. This is true math-media.
What this mystery formula really means is that you can never turn a circle into a square of the exact same size: close, but never exact. And it doesn’t matter if it is a great big circle or an itty-bitty one. Pi is always 3.141 etcetera, etcetera.
If you are a math freak this is obvious, while the rest of us have to be satisfied with accepting that Pi is an irrational number and live with it. But I ask you, what is the value of knowing pi? 
I had a fourth grade teacher who was so obsessed with having her students memorize the value of Pi to twenty decimal places that she had us memorize the following poem: “Sir, I send a rhyme excelling, In sacred truth and rigid spelling, Numerical sprites elucidate, For me the lexicon’s full weight”. Each of the 20 words of that poem has the number of letters required to read out the first twenty digits of pi. I had to memorized that poem again in my thirties because as a ten year old I couldn’t spell the word Nantucket, and as a sixty year old I rely upon a spell checker to detail any word long enough to rhyme with  “elucidate”. So this poem was as much a mystery to me then as the number Pi remains today.
But I am older now and I have grown so used to making mistakes in public that I hardly notice the embarrassment anymore. So I openly admit that I still find pi a puzzle. Besides, every time I make a mistake, I learn something new. Things my mistakes have taught me so far include, never turn down a chance to use the bathroom, never loan money to attractive women, never invest in a Nigerian lottery ticket, never give out my social security number over the net, and never question the value of pi. 
Legend has it that the great Greek mathematician Archimedes of Syracuse was struggling over the solution to pi when a Roman soldier blundered into his garden. The old man supposedly snapped, “Don’t touch my circles!”, whereupon the chastised legionary pulled his Gladius and separated Archimedes’ head from his face. I suppose that if Archimedes had been sitting in his bathtub, as he allegedly was when he discovered that displaced water could be used to measure density (Eureka!), something else might have been separated. But, suffice it to say that before computers, finding pi was a great big pain in the Archimedes. He managed to figure out that pi was somewhere between 3 10/71 and 3 1/7. He might have done better if he had invented the decimal point, first.
About the year 480 CE the Chinese mathematician Zu Chongzhi figured out that pi was a little more than 3.1415926 and a little less than 3.1415927. After that the decimal point zealots took over. The German mathematician and fencing instructor Ludolf van Ceulen worked out pi to 35 decimal places. And in 1873 the amateur geek, William Shanks, worked it out to 707 decimal places. But William made one tiny little mistake in the 528th number and that threw everything else off. But it was such a good try that nobody noticed his screw up until 1944. Today computers have figured pi out to one trillion digits to the right of the decimal point and still no repeatable pattern has been detected. It is still a little bit less than 3.15 and a little bit more than 3.14. All that has changed is the definition of “a little bit”. It keeps getting smaller and smaller -  but it will never be zero.
Still, pi remains the “admirable number” according to the devilish little Polish poetess Wislawa Szmborska. While being infinitely long it includes “…my phone number your shirt size, the year nineteen hundred and seventy-three sixth floor, number of inhabitants sixty-five cents, hip measurement two fingers a charade and a code, in which we find how blithe the trostle sings!” (…and no, I have no idea what or who the hell a trostle is. The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t either. Do you?)
Daniel Rockmore, in the pages of "The Chronicle of High Education" for March 12, 1999, wrote that Pi was "Foreign, unpredictable, otherworldly, yet as common as a circle...it's easy to find, but hard to know. Why, among mathematicians there still rages a fierce, unsettled debate about whether pi is a "normal" number--that is, whether the digits 0 through 9 each occur on average one-tenth of the time in the never-ending decimal expansion of pi. The questions that surround pi's normalcy make it a veritable poster number for the fashion world's ambiguous and androgynous advertising campaigns."  And you thought mathematics was not sexy.
A physician and crackpot amateur mathematician from Solitude, Indiana named Dr. Edwin J. Goodwin thought that he had “solved” pi to the last digit - and none of this irrational numerical horse feathers for him! He decided to make Pi his own personal private property by copyrighting it. But in order to profit from his discovery (you know how wealthy the Pythagoras estate is) Dr. Goodwin needed a legal endorsement. And rather than subject his brainchild to the vagaries of the copyright peer review, the good doctor instead offered his theory as an accomplished fact to the local politicians. The proposal, Indiana House Bill 246, “…an act introducing a new mathematical truth and offered…to be used only by the State of Indiana free of cost…provided it is accepted and adopted by the official action of the Legislature…”. this insanity actually made it through the Committee on Canals and Swamps (Perfect place for it!) in record time, and was passed by the full house on February 5, 1897, by a vote of 67 to 0.  Who says politicians don't spend time on important issues?
Unfortunately, in the Indiana Senate some wiseacre showed the bill to a visiting Purdue party- pooper, Professor of Mathematics C.A. Waldo. And now we at least know where Waldo was in 1897. The lawmaker asked if the professor would like the honor of meeting the amazing Dr. Goodwin, and Professor Waldo replied that he already knew all the lunatics he cared to know, thank you very much. And with that comment Dr. Goodwin’s brief bubble of fame was burst. On February 12, 1897 any further vote on the bill was postponed indefinitely. Hoosier lunatics have since moved on to more productive fields.
It was not a victory for logic so much as an avoidance of a victory for ignorance, which is pretty much the same thing that happened in Tennessee about 30 years later when they tried a man for teaching evolution.
Still pi remains one of the most popular mathematical equations, if mostly poorly appreciated by those of us who aren’t trying to generate a random number or navigate a jet plane across the North Pole, or predict the next stock market bubble, or launch a satellite, run a radio station, process an X-ray or a Cat-scan, drive a submarine, drill for oil, purify gold or etcetera, etcetera, ad infinitas, add infelicity.
Just trust me, and always trust pi. It lifts your spirit, gives you a sense of security and keeps your circles on the square. To share it just try singing..."Pi, Pi, Me oh my, Nothing tastes sweet, wet, salty and dry, all at once, ...oh my, I love pi!
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Sunday, March 10, 2013


I call it the $390 million lunch. It was held alfresco on the banks of the Nile, late morning, Monday, January 20, 1913. The host of this cannibal's soiree was the "tactless and brusque” archeologist Ludwig Borchardt (above), 50 year old special attache of the German Embassy in Cairo and director of the German Oriental Society, which had just finished its sixth season of excavations of Akanaten. Borchardt had spent two years cataloging the Egyptian Museum, and was the first to realize the Great Pyramids of Giza were not merely tombs, but a necropolis complex. He had even studied the best forgers in the Cairo market. No one knew ancient Egypt better than Ludwig Borchardt, and he was hungry for more. His main course this day was Gustave Lefebvre, a 33 year old Frenchman fluent in classical Greek, who had studied in Athens, was an expert in Ancient Greek and Egyptian literature and had been working in Egypt since 1902. Lefebvre was no slouch. Nevertheless, Borchardt was about to him eat him for lunch.
The meal began with a feast, the best that could be supplied to distinguished Europeans in the age of imperialism, complete with copious quantities of good French wine. And after the calf had been fatted, Bourchardt led his victim first into the hot office tent to read the carefully inventoried list of finds, and then into the larger darker tent where the finds were laid out in open boxes, as dictated under the Egyptian “Partage” law. For 30 years every foreign expedition had been required to divide its finds "√† moiti√© exacte" – into two financially equal shares - from which the Egyptian Museum would take their choice. In 1912 the law was strengthened to also allow the Museum to retain any particular item from the expedition's share. It was all an attempt to stem the wholesale European theft of Egyptian heritage.
Except the new law said the division was supposed to be held at the museum on Wasim Hasan street in downtown Cairo, not in the field. And there were no Egyptians in authority at the Egyptian Museum, there had never been. No Egyptians were qualified. Since the French invaded in 1798, and the British replaced them in the 1882, Egyptian history had been yet another resource to be exploited by the patriarchal European colonialist. Their excuse was they meant well. But even with the best of intentions, the most valuable bits and pieces of Egyptian history ended up being owned by Germans, the English, French and Italians. If they could have boxed up the pyramids and shipped them home, they would have. What was about to happen here at Arkanaten would be a good example.
Just after lunch on December 6, 1912 Ludwig Borchardt received a note from Ahmed al-Sabussi, one of his Egyptian foremen, informing him that a “flesh-colored neck with red bands painted into it” had been uncovered at a building then identified as P47.2, room 19. Later it would be determined to have been the studio of Thutmose, when an ivory horse blinker was found in a courtyard rubbish pit inscribed with his name and his occupation - “sculptor”. Ludwig, sensing something, important, raced to the site and was presented with the now completely uncovered bust. The instant he looked at it, Borchardt knew it was Nefertiti because of her flat topped crown, and he knew it was extraordinary. He wrote in his diary, “You cannot describe it with words. You must see it....Colors as if just applied. Work is outstanding.” They even took the time to take photographs.
Borchardt noted that the bust was missing its left eye, and offered a reward of £5 if it could be found. (It would not be) Then, because it was getting dark, he ordered Professor Herman Ranke (above, left) to guard it overnight.  Ranke later boasted, that night he slept next to the beautiful Nefertiti. In the morning Borchardt had the queen moved to his own tent, and he kept her there, out of sight, until Gustave Lefebvre arrived in January to oversee the division of spoils – er, artifacts.
In the office tent Lefebvre noted that atop the left hand column of the inventory were listed ten stone artifacts, including a rare limestone colored “folding alter” a sort of  TV tray (above),  a duplicate of one currently the prize of a Berlin museum. Midway down the right hand column of 25 plaster busts, was listed “a colored gypsum bust of a princess of the royal family”. In fact it was Nefertiti. In addition, the Frenchman was shown a photograph of each artifact, although Bruno Guterbock, secretary of the Society, who was present, admitted the photo of Nefertiti was “not exactly the most advantageous.” Borchardt himself later confessed the picture was composed so as hide her beauty, but also“ to refute, if necessary, any later talk...about concealment.” And it worked. The affable Lefebvre accepted the Germans had divided the finds into “approximate equivalency”. In fact, it seemed more than fair. The Egyptians got all the stone artifact while the Germans were keeping only the cheaper plaster ones.
Then they went into the larger, darker storage tent, where all the boxes were sitting, open, available for inspection. Guterbock was now very nervous. He had warned Borchardt about his “"obfuscation of the material.” The box containing Nefertiti was in a back row, open as all the crates were, her blue crown hidden beneath a black wig. But if Lefebvre should bother to lift the two and a half foot tall statue he would know immediately it was far too heavy to be made of plaster. Borchardt assured his secretary that if caught he would simply say it was all a mistake. But, as the German had anticipated, after a “superficial examination” of the artifacts, Lefebvre approved of the German division of the spoils, thanked his host, and headed back to Cairo.
Within hours the lady began a 2,000 mile journey to Berlin, Germany. There she was presented to the man who had paid for her excavation, the cotton importer and clothing exporter, Henri James Simon (above). He was the sixth richest man in Germany, a self described Prussian Jew, known as the only collector who brought more objects out of Egypt than Napoleon. And he donated them all to German museums. The bust of Nefertiti was so beautiful however that Simon held onto her for a year, in part at the urging of Borchardt. Even after the rest of the expedition's hoard went on public display in the Berlin Museum in 1914, the lady was kept hidden. At the end of June that year the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife were gunned down in Sarajevo, Serbia. Within a month all of Europe was sucked into war, and for four years archeology became an unaffordable luxury.
The war ruined Simon.. The British blockade cut him off from his cotton and his customers. In 1917 he donated everything he still held to the Berlin Museum. And in 1924 “she who comes in beauty” went on public display, even though Borchardt strongly advised against it. The queen of the Nile was an instant hit, producing headlines around the world, and long lines to gaze upon her face. The Europeans running the Egyptian Museum were offended and demanded the lady back. When it was clear there was no legal option, they canceled all German Egyptian digs in 1925. They later relented on that, but they never stopped asking that the Nefertiti be returned.
For a long time there had been doubts about the authenticity of the limestone folding table top or altar which Borchardt had used to entice and distract Gustave Lefebvre. The hieroglyphic for truth (Maat) was misspelled in four separate places on the panel, and in the carvings Akhenaten is shown as left-handed, unlike every other depiction of him (above). And then in 2008 Italian scientists examined the the panel under ultraviolet light, and apparently what had looked like a patina of 3,000 years of weathering was merely a darker base color of paint. Even though the actual paper was never released for peer review, respected Egyptologist Rudolf Krauss, a curator at the Berlin Museum from 1982 to 2007, declared publicly that the altar was a fake perpetrated by Borchardt. Fellow Berlin curator, Dietrich Wildung, called the altar rubbish, and Christian Loeben, director of the Egyptian collection at the August Kestner Museum in Hanover Germany called it an absolute forgery. But without the full paper, detailing methodology and results, it is impossible to speak with certainty.
If Borchardt was enough of a scoundrel to have faked the altar, can we trust he did not also fake the bust of Queen Nefertiti? The insurance companies have decided to avoid difficult questions like that, and merely set a price on the head of a Queen of the Nile. That figure is now at $390 million.
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