Sunday, August 31, 2008

The new terrorist?

Martin Amis is one whose writing (op-ed at least) I have some admiration for. He is clear. He is concise. He sets out his position with logic and precision. And so it is with his most recent Economist article.

That does not mean that I necessarily agree with him.

History is accelerating; and so the future becomes more and more unknowable. Among our foremost thinkers, we find only one presentiment that is universally shared. This turns out to be a sinister variation on the idea of "convergence." Not the convergence of nations and polities, whereby the world's autocratic regimes would gradually align themselves with the democratic and contentedly globalized mainstream. This particular expectation, even neoconservatives now concede, was a triumphalist fantasy of the 1990s -- that curious holiday from what Philip Roth has called "the remorseless unforeseen."

The convergence we have now come to anticipate is the convergence of international terrorism and weapons of mass destruction -- of IT and WMD. ... Their convergence is guaranteed by the simplest of market forces. Marginal costs will fall; and demand will climb.

Now I confess that on first reading, I missed IT as “international terrorism” and automatically substituted the more everyday meaning. Even then, the link between IT and WMD and international terrorism is even more substantive than Amis portrays it.

Amis gives as his example of the first WMD attack on the US as Ivins’ small anthrax “bomb” and follows with the potential of 1000 kg of anthrax spores distributed from an aircraft (better ban the importation of NZ FU-24s and derivatives – perfect for the job!!).

The idea ranks with that of the container-load of polonium with a small bomb inside. Not as a fission weapon but as a means of rendering a comparatively small but highly populated area (such as Manhatten or San Francisco or San Diego) totally lifeless.

Now follow the Amis argument through – I am not going to repeat it here. That is not because I think his logic is wrong. Far from it. The only dispute that I have is the nature of the “convergence” to which he applies the logic.

Al Qaedaism, for them [John Gray and Philip Bobbitt], is an epiphenomenon -- a secondary effect. It is the dark child of globalization. It is the mimic of modernity: devolved, decentralized, privatized, outsourced and networked. According to Mr. Bobbitt, rather more doubtfully, Al Qaeda not only reflects the market state: it is a market state ("a virtual market state"). Globalization created great wealth and also great vulnerability; it created a space, or a dimension. Thus the epiphenomenon is not about religion; it is about human opportunism and the will to power.

At this point, ask the question –

“What is the greatest vulnerability of the US and the western world in general?”

This is where Amis missed – IT. No, not international terrorism; Intelligent Technology.

If you wish to get truly paranoid about terrorism and its potential impact on the western world, just think for a few moments on the increasing dependence on IT as part of our daily activities. What impact would a DDOS (and if you do not know what DDOS is then you should find out) attack have on Wall St? What impact would the failure of American banking IT systems have on the nation and the wider world? Sorry, can’t use your credit card because...

Not that that idea is new...

Dan Ronco was a long-term IT executive as a General Manager with Microsoft, Senior Principal with Laventhol & Horwath and President, Software Quality Management. With degrees in Chemical Engineering, Nuclear Engineering and Computer Science, his understanding of technology and its implications is exceptional. Dan is the author of two thought-provoking science fiction thrillers, PeaceMaker and the newly released Unholy Domain.

PEACEMAKER, a start-at-a-dead-run SciFi thriller, is set in the near future, where software revolutionaries are pushing artificial intelligence to the brink of terrorism. The prologue plunges software architect Ray Brown into a life-or-death contest with PeaceMaker, a deadly artificial intelligence that has infected most of the world's computing devices. Ray's determination to eliminate PeaceMaker leads him into a dangerous conflict with the Domain - a clandestine organization dedicated to a new world order.

Let’s roam a bit further.

Recent IT (not international terrorism) articles have warned of the dangers inherent with the most recent telephone systems, especially those built around WAN/WAP principles – like the iPhone. It has been found possible to “infect” these with the equivalent of your everyday “computer virus”. The warnings thus far have centred on privacy, banking and credit card fraud. But if a cellphone can be infected in this manner, what is the potential for a bug capable of performing widespread disruption of communication systems?

The crux of Amis’ logic is the meeting of “marginal cost” with fanatical desire for power. I have no argument with that. He is right.

By far cheaper than enriched uranium, by far more widespread and hence effective in disrupting western society than fission weapon or anthrax, is the IT bomb. Yes, the former might kill far more people but in the overall scheme of things the damage would be “limited” in both extent and cost. But imagine what 20 million infected telephones might do to New York if they all decided to “call in” or TXT at the same time. Continuously. For three days. Easy to fix, I know – turn the cellphones off. All of them.

Putting Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme out of commission is difficult? How do you prevent the same level of research and effort into the development of IT weapons? Bomb Iran?

Banking systems would not fail at the mainframe level. They don’t need to. They rely entirely upon the transmission of data - communication – of everything from the multi-billion dollar international corporate deal and settlement, to the petrol purchase at the local gas station. Not being able to get that data assembled and processed would in very short order create chaos in technicolour.

Having to re-equip anything from banking to telephone or traffic control systems because of the “damage” caused by invasive and destructive programmes would have far greater impact on the foundations of our societies. That kind of disruption need not be continuous. It need only be there for an afternoon or even an hour; not one afternoon or hour but once a week or at random. It is the disruption that creates the mayhem not the duration.

So, all in all, quite a disappointing article from Amis. He has gotten so close to the mark yet (if I may be permitted the metaphor mixture) missed by a mile.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

And another for The Old Whig...

Also thanks to ALD comes this item which Al should enjoy.

I snuck a peek, Al, and found only one reference to Rawls on your blog; that a mention of a book that critiques Rawls.

Ever get to read that Al?

Does science have the answer for Teflonman?

I don't know.

It is an interesting read - even if (like me) you only understand a third to a half of it.

Those of religious bent may, if they wish, argue the "why" and the "who by" of humans being wired in this fashion. I shall enjoy the debate hugely. I might even join in...

Oh, and thanks to ALD for the link.

Friday, August 29, 2008

On the (late) expiry of a political "career"...

Y'know, if ever you needed to feel sorry for a politician - if ever you could feel sorry for a politician - it would have to be Winnie the Pooh in his increasingly vain (and that is a good word to use) attempts to stay on top of the water. There was a time when people believed (I am NOT one of this group; my true opinion of Winnie the Pooh would be at best libellous) that the man could walk on the water and notr even get his feet wet!!

His appointment as Minister of Foreign Affairs raised a few eyebrows, but, apparently in Winnie's universe that appointment is not "a bauble of state".

Let's try some tryptichs of what is going on at the moment...

"vile, malevolent and wrong" - Winnie's thoughts on the SFO's investigation of donations to NZ First.

"bluster, bombast and bullshit" - the Pooh defence.

"fear, loathing and panic" - Auntie Helen's "behind the doors" view.

"due, care and deliberation" - the public face of Auntie Helen.

"bubble, toil and trouble" - the three blue witches (for those who do not follow think "The Scottish play", a blasted heath, the downfall of Macbeth, the jonkey, the rhino hide, and the english master).

"I know nothing!" Winnie the Pooh's second line of defence.

Any other contributions welcome... :D

Friday, August 22, 2008

Who remembers Diebold - 2

It sure does not take long for the gravy to thicken.

From WaPo, along with USA Today and a lot of others...
A voting system used in 34 states contains a critical programming error that can cause votes to be dropped while being electronically transferred from memory cards to a central tallying point, the manufacturer acknowledges.

The problem was identified after complaints from Ohio elections officials following the March primary there, but the logic error that is the root of the problem has been part of the software for 10 years, said Chris Riggall, a spokesman for Premier Election Solutions, formerly known as Diebold.

Now 10 years is a long time in anybodies' life, quite apart from the life of a politician.

It gets worse -
The flawed software is on both touch screen and optical scan voting machines made by Premier and the problem with vote counts is most likely to affect larger jurisdictions that feed many memory cards to a central counting database rapidly.

Riggall said he was "confident" that elections officials through the years would have realized votes had been dropped when they crosschecked their tallies to certify final elections results and would have reloaded cards so as not to lose votes. Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner has said no Ohio votes were lost because the nine Ohio counties that found the problem caught it before primary results were finalized.

Now "through the years", and [this year's] "primary results" are in my mind at least two quite different things.
"We are indeed distressed that our previous analysis of this issue was in error," Premier President Dave Byrd wrote Tuesday in a letter that was hand-delivered to Brunner. Premier and Brunner are in an ongoing court battle over the voting machines and whether Premier violated its contract with the state and warranties. Half of the Ohio's 88 counties use the GEMS system. Brunner has been a vocal critic of electronic voting machines,

I'll bet to that!!

Go back and check, guys. How many of the states using GEMS in 2000 and 2004 had disputed results?

And too, wait for the sting in the tail of this admission. Yeah, we got this bit wrong. But it is your fault for not checking proper. We hope (while y'all wrangle over the importance of it all and the damages awards) that the online tampering and re-sets problems will get forgotten.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Who remembers Diebold?

It must be the election season again.

Now from AP -
The demise of touch-screen voting has produced a graveyard of expensive corpses: Warehouses stacked with thousands of carefully wrapped voting machines that have been shelved because of doubts about vanishing votes and vulnerability to hackers.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. After the disputed 2000 presidential recount, Congress provided more than $3 billion to replace punch card and lever-operated machines. State officials across the country said the new systems would eliminate human error and political tampering.

But problems with the machines soon followed: vanishing votes, breakdowns, malfunctions and increasing evidence that the devices were vulnerable to hackers.

Beginning last year, states including California, Ohio and Florida abruptly ordered election officials to mothball their electronic machines. Over the last two years, the percentage of registered voters relying on touch-screen technology dropped from 44 percent to 36 percent.

In November, when the presidential race between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain ends, an estimated 57 percent of voters will rely on paper ballots.
As of December, 30 states had spent more than $253 million on new voting systems, according to a report by the Election Assistance Commission, the federal agency that oversees spending of the $3 billion federal allotment.

But the agency does not know how many election districts have since abandoned those newly purchased systems.
Leading makers of voting machines have made similar statements [denying malfunction and interference] and blame poorly trained poll workers and human error for most glitches.

What price democracy?

Well perhaps the US could ask India. They poll for their parliament over a period of a week. The paper ballots are hand counted. And while there are the occasional accusations of "missing" votes, it does seem to work reasonably well.

Is it perhaps a reflection of the need for instant gratification?

Taste and propriety and the law

This has been bubbling through the local media for some months now. It centres on one man - an self-promoted "pornographer", his annual trade fair and the proting "street parade" otherwise known as "Boobs on Bikes".

The City Fathers (or perhaps that should now be "Mothers") have gotten themselves painted into the corner marked "Moralism and Propriety". Nothing wrong with that, I hear you say and I might agree.

Granny Herald reports this morning that the City Mothers do not have the right to stop the "BoB" parade.
Judge Nicola Mathers yesterday dismissed Auckland City Council's case for a court injunction to stop pornographer Steve Crow holding the event.
Judge Mathers said it was not a court of morals and it was her job to stick to the law.

The case boiled down to a new council bylaw and a council decision to turn down a permit for the parade on the grounds it was "offensive".

Judge Mathers said she took into account the attitude of the police in not opposing the parade, the lack of any public disorder and the fact 80,000 to 100,000 had voted with their feet and watched the parade.

"[That] leads me to the view that the bylaw is uncertain and or unreasonable in the way it refers to offensive," she said.

That's right, the ruling against the City Mothers was made by a woman.

It is not the ruling that is the problem here, nor is it the parade itself (I will NOT be going BTW - it is not one bit a probligo thing; tasteless in my opinion).

There is a forked tongue in here. There are two standards being applied.

The leading light against the parade is one Cathy Casey.

I wonder if she would support women breastfeeding their babies in a cafe or restaurant as fervently as she opposes the BoB parade?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

My World Is Mine: What I still don't know...

In the midst of his reflections on the loss of a very senior family member, the Teflon Man posted this-
"The last Buddha Gautama Siddharta gained Enlightment and then Supreme Nirvana after he realised that life is suffering and everything is caused by desire or clinging.So, when one can give up all desires or clinging, then one is supposed to be freed from the cycle of life and death.

My point is this: The secret about desires and clinging and life is suffering is out.What does the next Buddha have to realise before he too can gain Enlightenment and then Supreme Nirvana?I mean, if Siddharta were taught the lesson early enough, he wouldn't have to spend so much time searching for the answer, right?

We now speak of the Buddhist precepts to no end. Surely, there must be something else that is of the essence next.

I wonder what that would be."

I am not Buddhist. Let me very clear about that. I have read some of the teachings, particularly from Zen, in the same way as I have read the Bible and Gita. So I am speaking from a very unknowledgeable and simplistic soapbox on this.

I posted a reply to Tef ending with my recollection of a Koan which runs along the lines of "If you depart with a destination in mind then you will never arrive".

Since then, both Tef’s post and his response to my comment (to which I have further replied) have been bothering me; like that itch that you get between your toes in the middle of a long lecture and you just know that the whole theatre will know when you remove your boot to scratch it...

I haven’t quoted the comments here. That is a dialogue I hope will continue. Nor do I wish to critique Tef’s thoughts – he likely knows more about Buddhism than I have learned in 60 years. Perhaps I can glean some of that...

Out of the original post, I think that the itch is caused by the question –
Surely, there must be something else that is of the essence next.

I wonder what that would be."

I admire anyone who questions. I can’t provide the answer, Tef. I would be another Gautama if I could.

I can not help but feel that the answer, no make that the beginning of the road to the answer, lies somewhere behind you. You have missed it, passed it by. Perhaps the clue to where it may start is in two words –

"I wonder..."

Have you ever read "Monkey"? I thought it a marvellous parable of the conflict with "self", with emotions, and with outside world.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Georgia vs Russia.

I was very much in two minds whether to post on the Georgia conflict. I posted a comment on Dave Justus's page in response to this -

I think that the historical analogies are pretty appropriate here. This is an act of aggression from a major power that will probably have a huge effect on the world in years to come.

That, truly, would have been a powerfully predictive statement had it been made say seven years back in relation to a totally different situation. And, Dave, it was not Iraq but Kosova that I was thinking of...

Anyhoos, it seems that Dave's spam filter is far more accurate at trapping comments from the probligo than it is at removing the occasional little pseudo-porn things that get attached to some of his earlier posts. But this is not about Dave, it is about Georgia.

Now for some reason (probably directly linked to Presidential stateents), the American press has gone into full-blooded "Commies under the bed again!!!" mode. There is much noise, smoke and mirrors in the news from there - most are more interested in the Presidential candidates than the actual events themselves.

So, let's take a look a little further afield.

One of the best sources I have found is Der Spiegel. Over the past month they have run a series of stories, starting with a visit by the German Foreign Minister to Georgia in July.

Spiegel proves the following thumbnails -

A brief history...

Since peeling away from Georgia in a 1990-1992 war, South Ossetia has been de facto independent. Russians participated in a mixed peacekeeping force following a ceasefire agreement in 1992. Although under international law the breakaway region of Abkhazia is part of Georgia, it is financially backed by Russia. Most Abkhazians hold Russian passports.

Both in 1992 and 2006 South Ossetians voted for independence from Georgia, but the referenda were not recognized by the international community. President Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia has repeatedly announced his intention to bring the renegade region under the control of the central government in Tiflis.

The Russians -

Friction between Russia and Georgia over control of the Caucasus regions has redoubled during past months. Georgia accuses Russia of wanting to annex South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Russia is in a difficult position. Moscow warned the West against recognizing Kosovo's declaration of independence earlier this year, saying that similar declarations among former Soviet satellites would result. The Russian argument that South Ossetia has a right to autonomy, however, was never extended to Chechnya. The West recognized Kosovo over Russian protest. Now the Kremlin's revenge may well be to officially acknowledge South Ossetia's independence from Georgia.

The US -

The US takes Georgia's side in the conflict. Americans consider President Mikhail Saakashvili a faithful ally, and US military advisors support him given Georgian participation in the Iraq war. US President Bush has accused Russia of a "disproportionate" response and US Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad said Russia was following a "campaign of terror." Russia has rejected the accusations.

The UN -

The UN Security Council could not agree on a position regarding the situation proposed by Russia Friday. The Russian document urged Georgia and South Ossetia to cease fighting immediately. Russia requested the council's Friday emergency meeting. Since then, debate in the Security Council has degenerated into a tit-for-tat between Russia and the United States.

Members did not reach an agreement on the text proposed by Russia. The Security Council nevertheless expressed its alarm over the escalation of the conflict. The Russian proposal requested "immediate cessation of violence" and a return to the negotiating table. Georgia, backed up by the US, viewed the proposal as hemming its opportunity to defend itself. So no agreement was reached.

There is a very interesting interview with Abkhazian Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba including -.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why did the situation suddenly escalate now to the degree it has?

Shamba: After the recognition of Kosovo, the situation intensified and Georgia understands that it is losing South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Further talks will only serve to distance the two republics even further from Georgia. That's why the Georgians themselves have started to aggravate the situation, violating previous agreements and applying constant pressure. That has led to a counter response and the situation has gotten out of control. We actually expected this in Abkhazia, but now it is happening in South Ossetia.


SPIEGEL ONLINE: You're not concerned that Russia is just using Abkhazia as an instrument for its own geopolitical interests?

Shamba: Everyone exploits somebody. Is Georgia not used by the USA? The true battle is between the large international powers. On the one hand, Abkhazia and Georgia are levers in this fight, and on the other, Abkhazia and Georgia also use these powers for their own gain. The exploitation is mutual.

What is apparent out of all of this is that after giving assurances of non-aggression, Georgia (well its politicians anyway) decided that everyone would be watching China and the Olympics so a little side-show of their own should go unnoticed.


And they have gotten spanked.

To round this off, Spiegel also publish an op-ed from New York Times, written by one William Kristol. He closes on this note...

When the “civilized world” expostulated with Russia about Georgia in 1924, the Soviet regime was still weak. In Germany, Hitler was in jail. Only 16 years later, Britain stood virtually alone against a Nazi-Soviet axis. Is it not true today, as it was in the 1920s and ’30s, that delay and irresolution on the part of the democracies simply invite future threats and graver dangers?

Say what? A Nazi-Soviet Axis? While Hitler was in jail, he was talking with Stalin? At the same time he was preaching the dangers of Socialism he was plotting with Lenin? I think Mr Kristol's view of history has gotten a bit cock-eyed. Perhaps he needs glasses...


Monday, August 11, 2008

Britain's (England's) "greatest moment" -

While fishing around on the Obit to Common Sense, I turned up on timesonline (link in the heading there) the following -
I am surprised that pragmatic philosophy consistently scorns moral considerations - and nowadays in the Western press we read a candid declaration of the principle that moral considerations have nothing to do with politics. They do not apply, and should not, so to speak, be applied. I would remind you that in 1939 England thought differently. If moral considerations were not applicable to politics, then it would have been quite incomprehensible why on earth England went to war with Hitler's Germany.

Pragmatically, you could have got out of the situation. But England chose the moral course and experienced and demonstrated to the world perhaps the most brilliant and heroic period in its history.

Was he right? Was this the most brilliant and heroic period in British history?

Or do you have another candidate?

The opening quote (in italics) is from a Beeb interview with Solzhenitzen.

The obvious "winner" was Battle of Britain and all that entailed. I am not going to argue against that - great moment it was.

There are two points that need to be made here.

The first is that (very many) of those who left comments placed more emphasis on Churchill and the effort of war than on the point that Solzhenitzen made regarding the moral considerations of politics.

The second point, and this is the greatest disappointment for me, is that not one person mentioned the signing of the Magna Carta. Disappointment because without that document, Britain would very likely not exist in its present form, or as it did in 1939. Disappointment because the influence of that event in 1215 has been felt throughout the western world. Disappointment because that one event was seminal to the formation of modern Democracy.

Without that one event, it is most unlikely that I would be writing this; equally as unlikely that you would be able to read it...

Common Sense - Obituary

Tef has this up on his page - creditting the Times. Hat tip to him.
Today we mourn the passing of an old friend, by the name of Common Sense.

Common Sense lived a long life but died in the United States from heart failure on the brink of the new millennium. No One really knows how old he was, since his birth records were long ago Lost in bureaucratic red tape.

He selflessly devoted his life to service in schools, hospitals, homes, and factories, helping folks get jobs done without fanfare and foolishness. For decades, petty rules, silly laws, and frivolous lawsuits held no power over Common Sense. He was credited with cultivating such valued lessons as to know when to come in out of the rain, why the early bird gets the worm, and that life isn't always fair.

Common Sense lived by simple, sound financial policies (don't spend more than you earn), reliable parenting strategies (the adults are in charge, not the kids), and it's okay to come in second. A veteran of the Industrial Revolution, the Great Depression, and the
Technological Revolution, Common Sense survived cultural and educational trends including body piercing, whole language, and "new math."

But his health declined when he became infected with the "If-it-only-helps-one-person-it's-worth-it" virus. In recent decades his waning strength proved no match for the ravages of well intentioned but overbearing regulations. He watched in pain as good people became ruled by self-seeking lawyers. His health rapidly deteriorated when schools endlessly implemented zero-tolerance policies. Reports of a six-year-old boy charged with sexual harassment for kissing a classmate, a teen suspended for taking a swig of mouthwash after lunch, and a teacher fired for reprimanding an unruly student only worsened his condition.

It declined even further when schools had to get parental consent to administer aspirin to a student but could not inform the parent when a female student was pregnant or wanted an abortion.

Finally, Common Sense lost his will to live as the Ten Commandments became contraband, churches became businesses, criminals received better treatment than victims, and federal judges stuck their noses in everything from the Boy Scouts to professional sports. Finally, when a woman, too stupid to realize that a steaming cup of coffee was hot, was awarded a huge settlement, Common Sense threw in the towel.

As the end neared, Common Sense drifted in and out of logic but was Kept informed of developments regarding questionable regulations such as those for low flow toilets, rocking chairs, and stepladders.

Common Sense was preceded in death by his parents, Truth and Trust; his wife, Discretion; his daughter, Responsibility; and his son, Reason. He is survived by two stepbrothers: My Rights, and Ima Whiner. Not many attended his funeral because so few realized he was gone.

Tef, you might note some slight differences between your version and that. Correct, it is different.

Here is where it came from..., reputedly the earliest reference on the 'Net.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

The pre-election warm-up...

Sometime in October or Early November, Auntie Helen will (unless in the interim she can by some miracle change our "Constitution") be taking a limo trip to Government House (official residence of the GG) to tender her resignation as PM and to announce the intention for the General Elections to be held on a date not later than two months hence.

As in 1939, the troops are already gathering and lines being drawn in the sand. As in 1939, the propaganda machines are cranking up. As in 1939, the deep covert structures are being put in place.

But that is as far as I can take that parallel to WW2. Doesn't really work for me either... but to pass onward.

Already shots have been fired between most parties and NZ First. Of course, as Winnie is a coalition partner to both sides, both are being very careful to pull their shots. Auntie Helen aiming very short of the mark, and the Jonkey aiming far to the left in the hope that Auntie Helen might cop a stray one. The only one aiming for Winnie is in fact the YellowJacket and he can afford to as ACT's only claim to fame at the moment is Rodney the YellowJacket himself. As is his wont, Winnie is fighting fire with fire.

On the left side of the street, the government seems to be keeping its head well below the horizon. Now that is not a position that Auntie Helen would enjoy; it tends to limit the view of the outside world (that is now less important, has been for at least the past two years...), and it tends to leave the jacksie open for well-aimed boots. Thus far, she and the party have been lucky in that the boots have been flailing in the other side of the ruck with the inexperience of the Nats tight five clearly being put on show.

And that takes us across the street to the Jonkey's lot. They had a party last weekend, with much back-slapping and pre-match ra-ra-ing in the hutch. Trouble was that a weasel got into the hen-house and several of the roosters got bitten. Great series of stories for TV3 - whoever their informant might be.

On this last point, this is the one thing about NZ politics of which I have a serious dislike. I have been pointing the bone in recent times at the US Presidential race, and in particular some of the more dishonest (as I see it) tactics being used by both sides. It is shaping up little different here as well. Last time it was the Exclusive Brethren and their relationship with Brash Donnie that lost the election for the Nats, and resulted in the ignominious disappearance from the scene of Donnie himself.

This time around, the Nats are being very careful to NOT release any policy. That way, they can not be accused of having been given a mandate to do "A" when they end up in government and do "B" (the exact opposite to "A"). Oh, the lollies are already under the Christmas Tree. We can see the packet, but at the moment it is still in the plain brown wrapper so we can't tell at the moment whether we are being offered toffees, acid drops, or condoms.

Some of the other presents have been half unwrapped:

Like the half billion dollar broadband implementation. Will I see that in Opo? Not likely. Most up there use cell-phones rather than landlines so the minimum 500 line exchange probably does not exist.

Like the multi-billion dollar investment in "infrastructure". Well I mean to say... what the F*** is "infrastructure" when a politician uses the word. I suspect it likely means the same as "restructuring" in Iraq - a snack-line for the buddies, servings in direct proportion to their party contributions.

But the most entertaining, the most enterprising of the lot, is some young wally who bought his way into the Party and proceeded to "interview" some of the hats who were floating around. What he asked was quite "innocent", relating to the three major points of difference between Nats and Labs; nuclear issues, family support, and the sale of public corporations. Three of the senior hats (so far) have ended up on TV3 as a result. Quite embarrassingly so in the case of the Englishman. Flustered rustlings of secret papers in the wings behind the Jonkey as he heehawed his way through an on-the-spot interview.

Amazing what can be done these days through the medium of the humble cellphone.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Congratulations Los Angeles!!

From the Herald this afternoon, comes this little piece of good news...
LOS ANGELES - City officials say the monthly homicide rate in Los Angeles has dropped to its lowest levels since 1970.

According to Police Chief William Bratton and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who released the numbers Tuesday, 19 homicides took place in the second-largest US city in July this year. The last time a monthly figure was that low was March 1970, when there were 18 homicides.

Bratton says there is also a year-to-date drop in crime over last year in all categories.

Now. let's see - 19 homicides in a month... 9.95 million people... hmmm, annualised... that is .0229 per 1000 population.

Good doing indeed!

NZ for last year was (total homicides) 45, roughly (because the population is estimated at 4.5m) .01 per 1000 population.

Let's see more police on the streets!! (Note to self; I still need those police / population ratios. )

Sunday, August 03, 2008

The prospect of a future collapse...

I have opined, in several places over the past few months, that the non-prime mortgage "crisis" in the US would lead to a total collapse of the US economy.

Now comes a second factor - of which I was not aware until this morning when I was listening to the radio news in bed...

But when I google through the thought, the first rumbles were there as long ago as March...
There were more homes on the auction block in California in January than actually sold through traditional channels. And with more notices of loan default going out in January, there is little doubt that the state's real estate crisis is far from over.

Since only 2 percent of the homes auctioned off through the state-mandated foreclosure process actually received a bid according to auction tracker ForclosureRadar, the vast majority of those homes reverted back to the lender, only to show up again in a cycle that may not end until the bulging supply of homes dwindles.

Nearly 20,000 foreclosed homes in California were auctioned off in January, up from about 13,000 in December.
Sharp said that while he is getting a lot of calls, selling a home through an online auction is not a good solution for a homeowner who finds he owes more than his house is worth.

"To make a good auction you've got to be willing to sell that day," Sharp said. But what's happening is that homeowners in default who want to sell their homes for less than they are worth need approval from their lender, and banks are taking weeks to approve a sale.

"With these types of auctions, we need to be able to give the buyer confidence he can buy this home today," Sharp said. "So far, banks aren't that aggressive (in approving a sale). I think they might get there."

Bringing that up to this morning with the Beeb piece...
With the American housing market in its worst crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, President Bush is authorising new legislation to pave the way for massive new government intervention designed to slow the slide.

The intervention would come as a little known quirk of US law threatens to drive down house prices even faster.

Faced with seemingly never-ending falls in the value of their properties, some American home-owners are taking radical action; they are choosing to walk away from homes and their mortgages.

The "little known quirk of US law"?
In California and much of the rest of America, there is a powerful incentive for homeowners such as Ms Trainer to walk away from their mortgage obligations.

Though banks can repossess and sell the homes of borrowers who stop paying their mortgages, under a legal quirk originating in the Great Depression of the 1930s, banks cannot easily pursue borrowers for any balance outstanding on the main mortgage on their homes.

Consequently, by walking away from her apartment, Ms Trainer has also walked away from the loss on her property.

That "protection" does not - directly - exist in NZ. There are quite legal protections that can be put in place that might have a similar effect. The "family trust" for example could be seen to limit losses in a situation such as falling property prices. However, in totality (for the owners of the trust) the loss still is taken at that level. Not, as is the case in a good part of the US, by the lender.

The Beeb article concludes...
Total disaster

It is impossible to know for sure how many of the people who are now walking away from their homes could have gone on paying their mortgages.

But Professor Nouriel Roubini of New York University, one of the first economists to warn of the dangers of the American house price boom, believes the number of people positively choosing to walk away is growing rapidly.

"This is becoming a tsunami of voluntary defaults," Professor Roubini says.

"The losses for the financial system from people walking away could be of the order of one trillion dollars when the entire capital of the US banking system is only $1.3 trillion.

"You could have most of the US banking system wiped out, so this is a total disaster."

Which is why it is not just US policymakers who are hoping America's new, multi-billion dollar initiative to stabilise the housing market will succeed in its aims and thus make walking away less attractive.

Because if it fails, the economic fallout could be felt far beyond America's shores.

And that is a mighty scary thought.

And here, with no support for its truth other than the plausibility of the "tale" is just one instance of how another aspect of the "system" works...
This property is only worth some $375K maximum (if the original loan was 80% LTV). The property was resold as $625K, with $125K down payment from a "mysterious” person/company. Since $125K is 20% of $625K, it would make the loan to be at "80% LTV”, while in reality, the buyer has no skin, and it's really 100% financing. The seller got a net of $500K minus the $30K that he shared with the straw buyer. So the seller walked away of $500K - $30K - $375K (estimated property value) - $20K (for remodeling) = $75K profits. The buyer will walk away with $30K, and if the loan later gets reset and become unaffordable. At the end, WellsFargo will probably end up with $500K - $400K = $100K loss on the primary loan again.

Actually, WellsFargo will probably resell this loan to Fannie Mae, which gets bailed out by taxpayers' money. Fannie Mae will sustain a $100K loss, but in the name of propping up the mortgage & housing markets, it "would be okay".

There were similar scams being perpetrated in NZ about ten years back. They came to light when specific mortgagors defaulted on what turned out to be 120% lending - due in that instance to inflated property valuations prepared by (supposedly) "independant" valuers. The difference in NZ is that the mortgagor (borrower) is not entirely isolated from the loss. The bankrupt does have some protections - the family home for example does not get included in the bankrupt's "estate". What has to be proved is that the "home" is appropriate to his family's requirements. So a 20 room mansion in Remmers or Hellers for a family of four would probably not be "protected". But more to the point, the existence of unethical - and quite illegal - practices led to criminal convictions and severe financial penalties for the perpetrators.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Thought for the week...

In a conversation with the Mrs probligo, the topic the attitudes of others to things like courtesy and respect for others...

For some people, the universe extends no further than their ears.