Thursday, November 29, 2007

Scary, weapons grade uranium for sale

Fox news is reporting the seizure of three pounds of enriched uranium, in powder form, from a sting operation in Eastern Europe. The TV claims it is enriched to weapons grade, better than 90% U-235. Critical mass for a U-235 fission bomb is supposed to be a kilogram (2.2 pounds) so three pounds is enough to make a real Hiroshima size fission bomb, rather than just a dirty bomb, at least if you know what you are doing. The Hiroshima bomb was "only" 20 Kilotons of yield, a mere firecracker compared to the yield of up-to-date nukes.
Even scarier thought. The Russians still have a lot of nukes. These are sitting in ammunition magazines scattered about Russia. Each magazine has a crew of technicians, bomb loaders, guards, and whoever. These guys are under the command of some Russian officer, a colonel at a guess. How many of those colonels are worried about layoffs, retirement savings, college educations for their children? Would one or two of them accept a million Euro's to let a couple a nukes out? A real Red Army nuke that has been tested and is highly likely to go bang? As opposed to a terrorist home made job that might well fizzle? The North Koreans demonstrated a fizzle not too long ago.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Why is Windows so Paneful?

Windows, the nearly universal operating system, has earned itself a host of bitter enemies. Nobody likes it. Windows is buggy, expensive, slow to boot, slow to launch programs, slow to run programs, wide open to malware, and infuriating to program for. Users need to buy, install, and futz with anti virus , anti spyware, and firewalls. Despite the add-on defensive software, viruses (virii?) have taken control of millions of PC's and use them to sent spam, launch distributed denial of service attacks across the web, or perform identity theft on behalf of criminal gangs. Writing Windows drivers for plug-into-the-PC products consumes more engineering effort than creating the product in the first place. Each new release of Windows is slower and consumes more RAM, disk space, and run time than the last. And requires a time consuming rewrite of all those painfully written drivers.
And yet, Windows is the only game in town for those of us in the software business. Nearly every PC runs Windows, so your product has to run under Windows if you expect to sell it. For every Linux or Apple machine, there are a hundred Windows machines. No one will buy a product that doesn't run under Windows. Windows is a fact of life and we are stuck with it until some company offers something better. I'm not holding my breath. IBM tried with OS2 years ago and ancient Windows 3.1 totally destroyed them. The Linux folk have yet to convince ordinary customers to give up Word and Excel for Star Office.
What makes Windows so bad?
It's too damn big. Windows is humungous. It's so big no one understands it any more. The number of bugs is proportional to the number of lines of code, and the number of lines of code in Windows is millions, billions, who knows really. But it's the biggest program in captivity. Which makes it the buggiest. The only way to reduce the bugs and speed it up is to make it smaller.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

CAFE or no CAFE?

Congress is getting ready to jack up the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards. Currently new cars are supposed to get 27 mpg, and "light trucks" (SUV, minivan, pickup truck) are supposed to get 20 mpg. A Senate bill would wipe out the distinction between cars and light trucks and require all of them to meet the same standard.
Question: Since $3 gas happened, does not Detroit have all the incentive anyone needs to produce good gas mileage cars? Certainly sales of the big SUVs and pickups has nosedived, causing GM, Ford, and Chrysler to loose staggering amounts of money, while Toyota and Honda sales and profits are up?
Nother question: How real are CAFE standards actually? The Chrysler PT cruiser, which looks a lot like a car to me, is actually classed as a light truck. Chrysler did this to raise the average gas mileage on their light trucks. Each PT cruiser sold allowed the sale of a couple of Hemi powered Dodge Ram pickup trucks.
Last Question: If US citizens are willing to buy big vehicles for hauling flocks of kids, plywood from the lumber yard, furniture back from the yard sale, and trash to the dump, why not let them. It's a free country. Should we not be able to spend our hard earned dollars the way we like, as opposed to the way someone else thinks we ought to?

Light Duty Trucks or Light Trucks

Just watched a GM ad on Fox. Camera pans across a car showroom full of shiny pickups and SUV's. The voice over describes them as "Light Duty trucks". Not good. "Heavy duty" is good, "Light Duty" says the truck is gonna fall apart upon hitting its first deep chuckhole. The voice over should have called 'em "light trucks" which is good. Heavy trucks have 18 wheels and won't back into your garage which doesn't help sales appeal.
I can understand the ad writers making this goof, but how do it get by all the suits at GM?
Or are the GM suits as clueless as the admen?

Monday, November 26, 2007

Eliminate the sub prime middle man

Make it illegal to sell loans, mortgage or any other sort. The sub prime meltdown happened when the banks (or loan companies) who issue loans started selling the loans for cash. This freed the mortgage issuers from all risk and restocked their supplies of cash, so they could run out and do more mortgages. Which they did. The issuers make their money on the closing costs, so the more closings they do the more money they make.
Mortgages are creations of the law. We could pass a law saying that no one can sell a mortgage. The mortgage is a deal between a specific borrower and a specific lender and the deal is not an article of commerce that can be traded, sold, or given away. The legal rights to enforce the deal (foreclosure on the house) are only enjoyed by the original issuer, second hand mortgages loose their right of foreclosure.
The idea is to kill off the juggling of mortgages from one hand to another. You issue it, you own it forever. Issuer's will be much more careful who they loan to, and on what terms, if they have to live with the deal for 30 years. When the issuers can sell the loan, they don't care how sound it is, it just has to be sound enough to last long enough to sell it off. This accounts for the teaser mortgages, low payments for a couple of years, much higher ones later. The borrower probably won't default until his payments go up, by which time the issuer is home safe and some gullible investors get hurt. And the borrowers, and the entire economy too.
The issuers will cry and wail at this proposal. They will say they need to sell the mortgages to get the money to do more mortgages. Let me say this to them. Raise money the old fashioned way, pay decent interest on deposits. Sell certificates of deposit that pay 1% less than the going mortgage rate. With mortgages around 7% the CD's could pay 6%, and have FDIC protection too.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

How slick is this? (From Commentary)

A junket to China by some US reporters.

Chinese Olympic spokesman: "Thanks to a range of measures, two thirds of the days in Beijing now have good air quality"

Outside the glass walled conference room smog was so thick that nearby buildings were visible only in outline.

US reporter, waving toward the windows: "Is this a good air day?"

Chinese spokesman: "It takes an expert to determine that."

Crime, Drugs,Welfare, things ARE getting better

The December issue of Commentary magazine cover article proclaims that crime, drugs and welfare are getting better in the United States. They give real numbers (unusual among modern newsies who are largely innumerate).
Teenage drug use: Down 23% since the 1990's
Ecstasy, speed& LSD: Down 50%
Welfare cases: Down 60% since 1994
Abortion: Down 19% since 1990
SAT scores: Up 8 points since 1989
Teenage births: Down 35% since 1991

There is a good deal more, but the writer is convinced that things are rebounding after a dreadful low in the 80's and 90's. Still not as good as things might have been back in the good old days, but measurably better than ten years ago. This is good news for a change.
Just in time for Christmas too.
Too bad this webby thing doesn't understand tabs or columns...

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Patents on Tax Shelters

I knew the good old Patent Office was granting a lot of outrageous patents lately, but I never knew it was this bad. They are issuing patents for tax shelters, bits of legal fakery used to avoid paying income tax. Finally a few congressmen got up the backbone to attempt to outlaw this scam on the part of the patent office. They issued this press release just before Thanksgiving.
About time. While they are at it how about outlawing "business methods" patents, and patents on software? And requiring a working model before granting a patent. And outlawing patents on genes. And outlawing patents on obvious ideas and prior art?

Selling Jaguar and Land Rover to the Indians?

A meeting of 60 shop stewards at Jaguar and Land Rover moved to support a buy out (buy up?) by India's Tata Motors Ltd. Jag and Land Rover still employ 16000 workers in Merrie Old England. The union continues to oppose a sale at all (they want to continue as part of Ford) but if they have to be sold, they like Tata better than the other possibilities. They see Tata as "the only company among the final bidders with enough money, clout, and experience in our industry" to successfully manage the brands, according to a labor official who attended the meeting.
Ford acquired Jaguar for $2.5 billion in 1989 and Land Rover for $2.75 billion in 2000. I wonder what Ford was thinking when they bought the British brands in the first place. I understand that after paying $2.5 billion for Jag, the proceeded to pour in a lot more money to improve the product. Jag has always had a sexy product, but a product with a well earned reputation for unreliability. I owned one once. For the last 40 years the unreliability rep has been so strong as to overwhelm the good styling, handling, and interior trim level. Eighteen years of Ford improvements hasn't been able to turn that around. You have to wonder if the time and money put into Jaguar would have been better spent on Lincoln, Thunderbird, Cougar and Mustang.

Friday, November 23, 2007

New Hampshire primary is wide open

At Thanksgiving dinner, now that the date is fixed, we played the "who ya gonna vote for?" game. Surprise. No one at the table had made up their mind yet. All the serious Republican candidates would be OK with everyone. All of them have some flaws that would have to be overlooked. The young folk like Obama better than Hillary.
If my family is representative of the whole state, then anyone could win the Republican primary. We only have 46 more days to make up our minds.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The right to bear arms

The Supreme Court is going to take the Washington DC gun control case. A DC citizen took DC to court claiming that he had a right to keep a loaded piece at home and the DC anti gun ordinance outright bans ownership of handguns and requires long guns to be stored unloaded and disassembled. Case lost the first time, but won on appeal. Now the Supreme Court has stepped up to decide if "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed" means you can keep a loaded gun in your house in case of burglars.
The newsies have hyped this as the case of the century. I wonder. In actual fact American citizens believe they have a right to keep a gun in the house, and in the car and in the cash drawer and other handy places. I doubt they will give up this quaint colonial custom anytime soon, no matter what the court rules.
So the Supreme Court can rule two ways on this one. They can rule that the 2nd Amendment means what it says. This will please the vast majority of ordinary citizens and outrage the chattering classes. Or they can invent a penumbra or something, rule that the 2nd amendment is "inoperative" , turn the vast majority of citizens into lawbreakers, and make the chattering classes happy.
If the court has two brain cells firing, they will rule that the 2nd amendment means what it says. But they are nine lawyers, and lawyers are dumb as rocks, so it's anyone's guess what the ruling will be.

There oughta be a law, (Pt 2)

Defacing a good old movie on TV with those channel icons oughta be illegal. Even worse are those full motion mini advertisements. Having your videotape of some favorite movie covered with advertising graffiti takes much of the simple pleasure out of watching the flick.

There oughta be a law (Pt 1)

Actually there oughta be a law making telemarketing a death penalty offense. That's fantasy, but we could make a law forbidding ringing my telephone and failing to answer when I do pick the phone up. Often as not, after going to the trouble of answering the phone, the line is dead and stays dead. Lets demand the telemarketer not disturb us unless they can furnish a sales pitch rather than a dead phone line.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Tomorrow Never Dies

How have the Bond movies fallen? 40 years ago Bond gets an Aston Martin DB5, a real car. Q spends some time checking 007 out on the machine guns, the ejector seat and so forth. Fast forward 40 years and we have the same scene, the Q briefing 007 for the new car. But, instead of something hot, Bond gets a 4 door luxury sedan, painted gray no less. Jeez, what a come down from the Aston Martin.
Then for the big chase scene, we have James driving the thing by remote control from the back seat using a trackball on his cell phone. Yuck, Gross. You gonna drive a car, lets do it right, from the drivers seat, using the wheel. For extra points use a decent 5 speed manual transmission and a clutch. Skip the slush box.

You gotta strike back

Fox news was discussing Kerry and the swiftboaters again. Lot of happy talk, but the newsie failed to mention Kerry's major mistake. Kerry failed to reply to the Swiftboater's charges. Speaking as a typical voter, I never heard Kerry denounce the charges made against him. Silence gives assent. I was prepared to believe that all the noise was a bunch of soreheads, backed with Republican money, trying to derail Kerry's campaign. But when time went by and Kerry didn't come out on TV and deny all the charges (smears) against him, then I began to think maybe there was some truth in the swiftboaters position. When the election was over, it was clear the swiftboaters had done Kerry a lot of damage.
Plus, us veterans usually stick together. It was surprising to hear old shipmates (boatmates?) trashing a member of the outfit 35 years later. Seemed to me, and many others, that young Lt Kerry must have been a real pain-in-the-tail officer to attract so much venom after such a long time. I served as officer in Viet Nam, and 40 years later I have good warm feelings about all the guys in my old outfit. I cannot imagine any one who served with me, dissing me, either behind my back, or in public. Just won't happen. The fact that it happened to Kerry makes you wonder what sort of leadership qualities he really had.
Same thing happened to Mike Dukakis back in '88. The Bush campaign ran the "Willie Horton" ad against him. Showed an ugly and vicious looking convict walking round and round a revolving door while the voice over explained that this ugly bastard committed some awful crime while out of slam on furlough. Dukakis never replied. There were a lot of things he could have said, many of them convincing. But he didn't strike back, and us voters were left with the impression t he the Duke was soft on crime.
When they diss you, you gotta speak up. Silence gives assent.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Why doesn't any one write science fiction anymore?

Back in the 1950's and '60s a wonderful group of writers, Heinlein, ,Clarke, Asimov, Smith, Anderson, Piper, Norton, Schmitz, Van Vogt, De Camp, Leinster, Reynolds, and others poured forth an endless stream of really good science fiction, both short stories and novels. The old masters are mostly/entirely dead now, and their living replacements are few, only Pournelle, Niven, Stross and Brin come to mind.
Demand for science fiction is still there, strong enough to keep the old masters in print, but little new writing is making it to the bookstore shelves (or to Amazon). The big box book stores have only four categories for fiction; Science fiction/Fantasy, mysteries, romances, and "everything else". Judging from the shelve space allocations, the Science Fiction/Fantasy category is selling as well as any of the others, but the new books are all fantasy, no science fiction. The fantasy writers work hard, but few-to-none of them compete well with Tolkien.
One difficulty for a science fiction writer is the advance of science and technology. After 1968 no one could write another "first trip to the moon story". The first interstellar faster-than-light travel stories were published before Einstein published special relativity, which rules out faster-than-light travel. Although faster-than-light drives persist in movies and TV, they faded out of science fiction stories by the 1980's. In short, science and technology advances have over run or ruled out of action many fruitful subjects for good stories.
Perhaps we need to broaden the definition of science fiction. For instance Tom Clancy's numerous thrillers are really science fiction set only a few years into the future, instead of the more traditional decades.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

US House outlaws "Predatory Lending"

New thought crime, "Predatory Lending". Sounds worse than loansharking. Congress wanted to be seen doing something about the sub prime mortgage scam. Sometime around 1990 or so someone on Wall St invented the "mortgage backed security". This was a brokerage house IOU "backed" by home mortgages that channeled the interest yield on a home mortgage to investors (rather than to the lending bank) . The brokerage house bought home mortgages from the issuers (banks) and did some legal magic to wave a thin coating of "backing" over the IOU's. The sub prime crisis currently rocking Wall St occurred when investors discovered how thin the coating really is AND that the mortgages are going into foreclosure at a much greater than expected rate.
The bad effect of this financial wheeling and dealing is the willingness of banks to grant mortgages to shaky borrowers, backed by inflated property evaluations. Once the issuing bank could sell the mortgage, they stopped caring whether the mortgage would default in the future, and lending standards were lowered, a lot. The new house bill proposes to penalize lenders for granting mortgages that the borrowers won't be able to pay.
Mortgage lenders used to be fairly tight in the granting of a mortgage, because should the borrower default, the lender gets hurt. When the borrower defaults (misses enough mortgage payments) the lender seizes the house. Unfortunately for the lender, the repossessed house rarely sells for enough to make the lender whole again. In many cases the house doesn't sell for years. The lenders all know this, it's been true since Shylock's time, and so they used to make sure the mortgage was less than the price of the house, so the borrower had to put a significant sum into the house. This weeded out a lot of destitute buyers. They also checked for inflated house prices and insisted that the borrowers income be 4 to 5 times the mortgage payments. Best to avoid doing a shaky ("sub-prime") mortgage than risk the losses from a default.
Now that the issuers no longer care should the mortgage default (no skin off their nose) Congress proposes to outlaw the granting of mortgages that the borrower might have trouble repaying. Boy what a lawyer's delight. Prosecutors and defense lawyers can have a field day (and collect handsome fees) arguing about the soundness of this or that mortgage deal.
Better would be to outlaw the sale of mortgages. Make sure the man granting the mortgage has a real stake in the soundness of the mortgage, i.e. his bank gets hurt when the mortgage defaults. Presto, end of problem, the banks go back the the lending standards they used before the "mortgage backed security" was invented.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Follow on to the Russian Anti Missile Radar

Another interesting detail from the same Av Week article. "Russian officials say it can locate missile launch sites and predict trajectories by transmitting data to computing complexes near Moscow."
Wow. A multi million ruble system doesn't have the on site computing power to compute trajectories, launch points and impact points? In the year it was built (1985) or today? Russian anti ballistic missile defense relies upon the phone lines from Azerbaijan to Moscow staying up under nuclear attack? Is a system that vulnerable to enemy action even worth building?
Could it be that the Russians were incapable of providing the necessary on-site computer power back in 1985? Did the Russians only have one main frame computer in Moscow to serve the entire anti ballistic missile system?
By way of comparison, the US had a mobile anti artillery radar project in 1975 (ten years earlier) that detected and tracked artillery shells in flight, and computed launch and impact points all using a smallish 16 bit mini computer (AN/UYK-20). ICBM re entry vehicles move the same way as artillery shells; the trajectory computations are exactly the same for both objects. I programmed this beastie and the software could aim the phased array radars and do trajectory computation at the same time. The whole computer was the physical size of three modern desktops and was in the IBM PC class (4.77 Mhz 8088, 128K bytes ram) for computing power.
In short, an small mobile American system from 1975 could compute trajectories, and a larger stationary Russian system from 1985 could not.

Send 'em back for remedial marketing

The usual load of Christmas mail order catalogs is gladdening the hearts of marketers and straining the backs of "letter carriers" (can't call 'em mailmen anymore, that's sexist :-). Today I am thumbing thru "Historic Rail" , full of model trains, railroad posters, and rail fan books. Nicely printed, 63 pages, full color on every page. Not too shabby.
Just one problem. The catalog seldom mentions the maker's name. In the model train business there are some good makers ( e.g. Kato, Atlas, Broadway Limited). And there are some not so good maker's names (e.g. Tyco, Bachmann). Products from the good makers cost two or three times as much as product from the not so good makers.
So, reading the fine print underneath the nicely photographed products and mostly no maker's name. If one was to order this product what would be delivered? Kato or Atlas? Or Tyco. It does make a difference to us customers.
Where did these guys learn the fine art of selling?

First snow of the season

Winter got here. Started yesterday with rain. Cooled down over night and we had an inch of snow down by first daylight. Then the electricity went out. I called the PSNH service number and the usual voice mail thingie took the call. It was relatively sophisticated, it had caller ID and a reverse phone book and was able to figure out my street address correctly just from the phone number. Then it promised me the power would be back within two hours. Okay...
The voice mail thingie had it right, power came back just exactly two hours after I called. Not bad at all. By this time we have six inches down on the porch, the town plow has plowed the road, and Ken King has plowed the driveways. Ken, bless his soul, took a hellova bite out of my hand planted, hand weeded, hand watered and cherished grass. He thinks he is creating more room to plow the rest of the winter's snow. I think he is committing herbicide upon my grass.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Iran may get the bomb by 2009

Israeli Brig. Gen Yossi Baidatz, chief of Israel's military intelligence research division, made the prediction to the full Knesset recently. I have more confidence in Israeli intelligence than anything coming out of CIA.
Backing this up, Amadinejad boasted that he has 3000 uranium enrichment centrifuges running. That's not a pilot program, that's a production setup.

Russian Anti Missile radar runs on vacuum tubes. (Av Week)

You may have heard of US plans to install an antimissile system in Europe. Talk is going round about locating radars and missiles in Poland. Naturally the Russians are unhappy about an American mini-star wars anti missile system right on their border. After huffing and puffing for a while, Putin made a counter offer of access to a Russian anti missile radar in Azerbaijan. He must have figured it's better to Americans snooping around inside a Russian radar site than have the Americans setting up their own radars.
Putin recently allowed a team of Americans into the Azerbaijan site to assess it's suitability. The Americans were not impressed. The 1985 radar runs on vacuum tubes. This is a big step backwards. In 1973 I designed sections of the American ABM radar and it was all solid state, not a tube to be seen. To learn that the Russians were still using vacuum tubes 12 years later indicates that Russian cold war technology was neolithic.
The basic problem with vacuum tubes is they burn out, rapidly, like light bulbs, for the same reasons (hot filament eventually fails). Tube reliability was so bad that 1960's USAF aircraft required replacement of the UHF voice radio after merely four missions. The solid state radios in later aircraft would last forever. Going to solid state, from vacuum tubes changed a flaky unreliable device into something that lasted the life of the plane. A UHF voice radio is pretty simple compared to a radar. The real reason the Azerbaijan radar used tubes has gotta be that the Russians couldn't make decent transistors as late as 1985. The article didn't say what the mean time between fail (MTBF), and mean time to repair (MTTR) is on that radar, but it's gotta be horrible.
The Russians made the excuse that vacuum tubes could better withstand the electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) from the detonation of nuclear weapons. Right. When the EMP is strong enough to damage transistors, the blast has already leveled the place.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Glenn Reynolds pointed to this story in Popular Mechanics.
Anti IED laser armed Hummer pictures.

I posted about a story here in Aviation Week concerning the same laser vehicle last month. The Popular Mechanics story had good pictures, which the Aviation Week story lacked. Looks like it's real. A first step toward a science fiction laser death ray.

Words of the Weasel Part 5


Often used by computer people as a neutral sounding replacement for “bug”. Issue is favored because it holds out the hope that the “issue” can be negotiated away, rather than requiring the programmers to get off their duffs and fix the problem. Also used as a replacement for “problem” and “malfunction”

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Who reads a 1000 page act of Congress?

Answer, no one really understands 1000 pages of anything. When it gets to court, lawyers will argue for this interpretation or that interpretation, and in the end, a judge decides what the law really means. These overly wordy acts are Congress's way of shirking their Constitutional duty to legislate. The verbose legislation fails to bind anyone to do anything, nothing happens until some judge decides what the law is.
The overly wordy acts occur for a number of reasons, all of them bad. For openers, its hard to get agreement on anything these days, so rather than negotiate, the committee (probably the committee staffers) just puts in everyone's pet language and sends the bill to the floor.
Then everyone on the job is a lawyer. Lawyers get sent to special four year schools that teach how to use a lot of broken English and some Latin mumbo jumbo to make the paperwork unreadable by anyone. Once the paperwork is 1000 pages long and unreadable, they can slip all sorts of goodies (pork) into the nooks and crannies of the law and it will slide right thru Congress.
We ought place a word limit upon acts of Congress. For instance, require that no act of Congress contain more words than the Constitution itself contains. The Constitution has enough words to keep the US of A going over for better than 200 years, that ought to be enough for anything else.

No WSJ, No inspiration for posts

What with veterans day and all, its been two days since I last got the Journal. I kept trying to think of things to blog about, but everything that came to mind seemed like I'd said it before, or it came off as a plain old rant.
Drought is over, USPS just delivered both the Monday and the Tuesday Journal, Aviation Week and Eweek. That oughta keep me going.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

First over ride of a Bush veto to save the pork

What more needs be said. Lets stand up to Bush and get our pork. Defense bills, children's health insurance, ho hum, but let Bush veto a "water projects" bill and Congress will rise up in righteous wrath and restore every dollar in hard won pork.

Fiscal Responsibility Proves Costly (WSJ)

"Democrats took control of Congress this year with a pledge to me more fiscally responsible than their Republican counterparts. Trying to fulfill that promise, however, has cause strains among lawmakers, forced cutbacks on big policy goals and snagged major legislation,
The root of the problem is what is known as pay as you go or paygo, a budget rule revived by the new majority that says Congress must offset new costs with tax increases or spending cuts. The rule's purpose is the prevent new entitlement spending from increasing the budget deficit.
Thus far, it has complicated efforts to pay tax breaks for renewable energy, slowed progress on a farm bill, and become a sticking point with the Bush administration over an effort to expand children's health insurance. "

Costly? Sounds to me like paygo has saved us long suffering taxpayers from yet more fleecing. No kind of energy (renewable, nuclear, biological, fossil, or magical) needs any kind of tax break. The price of energy is so flipping high that it will draw investment dollars out to thin air. Farm bills are subsidies for farmers, taking my money and giving it away to farmers. Why should that happen? What makes farmers worthy enough to take my money? The "children" s health insurance will give my tax money away to adults, and children of families making more than I make.
Lets have more paygo. It's saving us taxpayers real money. The Republicans ought to make a campaign promise to retain paygo should they regain control of Congress next year.

Ford is losing less money than GM? (WSJ)

" As Detroit's two biggest auto makers brace for economic turbulence their respective turn around efforts are running in different gears.
The surprise: Ford Motor Co., not General Motors Corp, suddenly appears to be on a faster track to profits.
Ford, considered by many industry executives to be the sickeset of Detroit's big three, yesterday surprise investors by sharply narrowing its third quarter loss and forecasting it would break even for the year and generate positive cash flow."

Well, good news from Ford and all, but the comparison with GM is worthless. GM reported a $36 billion loss on some kind of tax credit scam, totally unrelated to the real business of assembling cars and selling them. That's a loss of $68 a share on shares that are only worth $35. This kind of accounting isn't real. It tells us nothing about what's really happening in the real world of styling new models, buying parts to produce today's models, negotiating better labor costs, advertising, and selling cars. It's an accountant's magic wand, reporting a fantastic paper loss. The accountants tilted the books by $36 billion with a wave of their pens, hiding any modest gain or loss in the core business. Yet the WSJ and the industry pundits really think Ford is doing better than the General, based upon this kind of phony financial reporting?
At least the Ford suits were responsible enough to spent Ford money on the core business, as opposed to the GM suits who used GM money to speculate in the sub prime housing market and rack up a $750 million loss (which is almost invisible compared to the $36 billion loss the accountants invented).

Government backing for McMansion mortgages (WSJ)

"Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke floated a new idea to fix the troubled market for mortgages to large for Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac to buy. All the companies to securitize jumbo size mortgages but have the Federal government guarantee them.
Fannie and Freddie currently can buy mortgages only up to $417,000 and Congress, so far, hasn't acted to lift that limit, despite distress in that market that has made jumbo mortgages at "somewhat tighter terms and higher prices" as Mr. Bernanke put it."

Wow. Fannie and Freddy were set up by act of Congress to make it easier for working stiffs to get home mortgages. For this reason Congress limited to size of mortgage eligible for US government subsidy to $417K to prevent fat cats buying McMansions taking advantage of subsidies for working stiffs. $417K will buy one hell of a house in any market you care to mention. Why should Uncle Sam use my tax dollars to make it easier to finance rich people's houses? Let the fat cats pay market rates for their houses, just like real people.
Presumably Mr. Bernanke was attempting to ease the pain for banks and brokerage houses who are getting burned in the sub prime crisis. I'm agin it. Let the speculators take some solid losses. That will teach 'em not to drive up the price of housing by speculation.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Can the cookiepushers destablize Iran?

We have here , a participant in the Iranian deal bellyaching about how the State Department is handling $75 million intended to destablize the mullahs in Iran. The arguments in the article are sorta murky, and there is a strong smell of bureaucratic turf battle about the whole thing.
But first one has to ask; Can the State Department ever do any good in a clandestine attempt to do any thing? The corporate culture at State can be expressed thusly: Make enough nice to the scumbag and he will come around to our way of thinking in the end. Supporting a liberal democratic Iranian party isn't making nice, it's attempting to subvert the mullah's power, and even a cookiepusher knows that. No way is State ever going to conduct such a program, it goes against their grain, and their diplomats lack the skill set to pull it off.
Plus, any Iranian who gives the American's the time of day is in deep doo-doo. Taking American money is high treason rewarded with the death penalty. Supporting an Iranian democratic party, hoping they will overthrow the mullahs, requires the utmost in secrecy, something that neither the leakprone State, or the even more leakprone CIA can pull off. Soon as the program got to first base, some argent leftist at State or CIA would leak the whole thing to the NY Times, and get everyone in the program killed.
The idea of destabilizing Iran is a good one, by all accounts there are plenty of disgruntled Iranians who don't like their regime. Problem is, a lot of those disgruntled Iranians hate us as much as they hate the mullahs, which makes contacting them difficult. The job calls for some legendary secret agents, who can blend in, speak the language, avoid the Iranian police, locate and make contact with the local underground opposition, and finally, discriminate between the real revolutionaries and all the other Iranians who will be happy to take Yankee dollars but never do anything in return.
This job description calls for Superman or James Bond. Can we recruit agents good enough to pull it off? Where is Lawrence of Arabia when we need him?

Thursday, November 8, 2007

How is GM doing the books really?

GM has announced a loss of 38.96 billion dollars for just last quarter. It comes to $68.85 per share which is humungous considering the shares are only worth $34 each. The bulk of the loss is $38.6 billion for a write down of tax credits and doesn't effect its cash position. Oh really?
What sort of accounting is this? GM is supposed to be a car maker, with a few sidelines like diesel locomotives. Accounting, profit and loss, ought to show money made or lost building cars. In the fine print, GM announced that it only lost $247 million on cars, still a bundle, but peanuts compared to $38.6 billion.
Why was a "tax credit" carried on GM's books as anything? Taxes are an expense, paid every year. You pay 'em and that's that. GM is supposed to do accounting to allow management and investors know what's happening in the car business. When GM's accountants pull an enormous "loss", that has nothing to do with making cars, out of thin air, how can we outside investors, stockholders, have any confidence that the other numbers in the report mean anything? Back when the accountants put the "tax credit" on the books, did that imaginary gain turn a losing year into a winning year?
What is really going on here?

How to loose a zillion dollars (From WSJ)

For years, Alan Greenspan and the minded argued that allowing Wall Street to slice and dice loans and sell pieces as securities was an innovation that dispersed risks widely and made the financial system and the economy more stable. There's a lot to that. But as the loans leave the books of those who make them and are sold off in part to different investors, no one can be sure who holds the risk. If everyone fears that the other guy has a portfolio of toxic waste, markets freeze and the rest of the economy can be hurt. That in large part explains the behavior of big banks in the US and Europe since early August.
At some point the risks that greater opacity and complexity pose to financial stability offset the benefits of widely dispersing risks. Because what is in the clear interest of each individual player may not be in the interest of the system as a whole, market players aren't likely to get this balance right without at least prodding from government.

"Disperse risks widely" means nobody really cares how risky the deal is, 'cause their money isn't at stake. How good is any particular mortgage? Only the loan officer granting the loan really knows. Nobody else has a clue. The whole idea of mortgage is the lender can seize the property and sell it if the borrower defaults on his payments. This doesn't work if the house isn't worth the face value of the mortgage. You don't want to issue $100K mortgage on a dog house or a two car garage.
So how much is a property really worth? The loan officer guy has to know the local real estate scene. He has to know the good locations from the less good, which takes local knowledge. For instance he has to know that Melrose is a better location than Malden, Wakefield, Stoneham and Saugus, or that Cambridge is better than Somerville. Then he has to decide if this couple can make the mortgage payments based on what they earn now, and the likelihood of of a layoff, a pregnancy, a divorce, a death, or disablement.
If the loan officer is loaning his own money, he will be quite prudent. If on the other hand he plans to sell the mortgage to Bear Stearns or Merrill Lynch as soon as he can, then he doesn't care so much. If the mortgage goes sour it's no skin off his nose (or money out of his pocket). If he gets paid closing costs, then he will be inclined to OK nearly anything, he wants those closing costs, and since risks have been "dispersed", why not approve just about any loan?
One other effect of reckless mortgage lending. It allows the price of houses to rise. House prices are limited by how willing the bank is to grant a mortgage. The house doesn't sell without a mortgage, so to a large extent the mortgage lenders hold down the price of houses by refusing to grant mortgages on overpriced dwellings. Remove this constraint and the price of housing climbs.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

U of Del faculty unaware of student indoctrination program

More sad news from my old Alma Mater. According to this, the faculty claims ignorance of the student indoctrination/brainwash program until students brought it to their attention. If true it means a truly clueless faculty or a Machiavellian administration, or both. Otherwise it means the faculty is trying to distance itself from the storm of criticism. Either way it reflects little credit upon U of Del.

American Assn of University Professors on Academic Freedom

In response to a rising chorus of critics, including the National Assn of Scholars, the AAUP report on academic freedom was published this last June. It contains a few really amazing ideas. For instance.

"Freedom in the classroom" is ultimately connected to freedom of research and publication. Freedom of research and publication is grounded in the exercise of professional expertise. Investigators are held to professional standards so that the modern university can serve as "an intellectual experiment station, where new ideas may germinate and where their fruit, though still distasteful to the community as a whole, may be allowed to ripen until finally, perchance, it may become part of the accepted intellectual food of the nation or of the world."
According to this, freedom of the classroom means freedom skip teaching of the well understood and generally accepted concepts of the subject in favor of experimental, fringe, and controversial concepts. All subjects have many ideas that are well understood, generally accepted and true. All subjects also have many new, experimental, and controversial ideas that are still subject to debate among experts, poorly understood, and needing more study before they are known to be true. The amount of generally accepted material that students ought to know, is so vast that it is irresponsible for professors to teach the experimental and controversial at the expense of teaching the well understood basics of the subject. It is perfectly OK for professors to research and publish new, way out, and controversial ideas, but it is NOT Ok in my view to consume valuable class time teaching them at the expense of teaching the basic generally accepted ideas.

Under this test, however, the Committee for a Better North Carolina could not possibly have known whether the assignment of Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, which explores the economic difficulties facing low-wage workers in America, was an example of indoctrination or education. It is fundamental error to assume that the assignment of teaching materials constitutes their endorsement.

It is a fundamental error on the student's part NOT to assume that the professor assigned the book 'cause he believes it true, valuable, and relevant. And to avoid criticizing it within hearing of said professor.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Citigroup Announces $11 billion writeoff

"Mr Prince's four year tenures as Mr Weill's successor ended yesterday wit hte bank engulfed in problems stemming from massive write-offs due to the turmoil in credit markets" (WSJ).
I like the "turmoil in credit markets". Couldn't have been caused by Citigroup speculating in subprime mortgages, deals that involve lending long and borrowing short. No, it's something beyond Citigroups control, "turmoil in the credit markets", an act of God, like the weather, for which no blame can be attached.

Pakistani Politics

Pakistan is a country of 170 million, of which 20 million live in the major city, Karachi, and most of the rest live on the land. The land is watered by the Indus river and has been productive farmland since the prehistoric Indus valley civilizations. The bulk of the land is owned by a few wealthy aristocratic landlords, the great mass of the people work for landlords. Only the landlords are wealthy enough and educated enough to stand for election to parliament. The mass of the farm workers are uneducated, lack newspapers, radio, and TV. Uneducated and poorly informed they may be, but they are not stupid. They know it's a good idea to vote for their landlord lest something bad happen to them. This makes the elected Pakistani government into a government of landlords, who tend to be more interested in preserving their social and economic position than anything else.
In the normal course of events, an elected Pakistani government will slip into corrupt practices that would make the worst of US politicians look like boy scouts. Things will deteriorate until finally, despairing of reform, the Pakistani Army will depose the civilian government and take matters into it's own hands. The Army is widely respected in Pakistan, so that military rule is seen as a good thing, a needed house cleaning. The incoming military regime will make some reforms, and for a while things will seem good. After the passage of some years, the new wears off and a new civilian government is set up, the Army goes back to the barracks and life goes on. Pakistan has gone thru this cycle repeatedly since the country was created in 1947.
Today could become just another turning point away from a military regime back toward a civilian one. If it were not for the growth of extreme Islamic parties in Pakistan, we could distance ourselves from the turmoil and come to terms with the new government whenever it establishes itself. Unfortunately, the true strength of the Islamic extremists is not well known. Saudi financed madrassas educate a huge percentage of Pakistani youth in the Wahabi sect of Islam, which is a bad sign.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

University of Delaware takes heat

Follow up. University of Delaware (my old Alma Mater) had been conducting an offensive and gross student indoctrination. White students were told they were racist just for being white and scheduled for mandatory sensitivity training. Students were asked "When did you discover your sexual identity?", which sounds more like a sexual proposition than a serious question. This caused a furore in the blogosphere and seems to have spread. My mother heard about it somewhere (she doesn't read blogs) and gave me Xerox of the F.I.R.E handout on the subject. This widespread bad publicity might have had something to do with the University's public back down on the program.
Even after canceling the program, you have to wonder how many of the wonderful left thinking folks who set it up are still in the U of D administration, planning a comeback when the heat lets up.

We need some car company ro build a "micro hauler"?

Trouble with nice green small sedans. They won't haul stuff (other than passengers). You can't go to the lumber yard or the second hand furniture store with a Toyota Corolla, cause the stuff just won't fit into the car. Which is why a lot of families buy pickup trucks and SUVs.
We need a small car that somehow accommodates 4*8 sheets of plywood or sheetrock, or a yard sale bureau. Maybe a factory roof rack? Since the stylists declared war on rain gutters many years ago the only roof rack that fits is the ultra pricey Thule rack. I musta dropped $400 on Thule rack and adapter pads over the years. Just trading up from a 85 to a 99 minivan and I had to buy new adapter pads. Surely a factory roof rack (removable) wouldn't be that hard.
Or how about a hatchback with removable seats? Or a lift off roof? or both? Or something else.
What we need is a small 4 passenger sedan, about Corolla size, that lets you haul lumber or furniture occasionally. I'd be OK with leaving the hatchback or truck lid open and keeping the speed down on the way home, just so long as I could do it at all.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Is Detroit adjusting to $3 a gallon gasoline?

Well, lets see here. Just picked up the mail and we have a flyer from Crosstown Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep, "Model Year-End Closeout". On the cover we have a pair of full size crew cab pickups, 4.7L Magnum V8 or a 6.7L Cummins turbo-diesel. Thrifty those are. Open the flyer up and we have another pickup truck, an SUV, a crossover SUV, another SUV. Finally we get down to a four passenger sedan. For extra fuel economy it's got a slush box and factory air. You need that air conditioning up here in northern NH. At the bottom of the page we have a Chrysler 300, with a hemi (you NEED a hemi to get to work) . MSRP on the 300 is $41850 , the same as a new Cadillac DeVille. Dreams of glory by the Mopar suits, our luxury sedan is as prestigious as a Cadillac.
Looks like the same line of gas hogs they were selling before Katrina pushed up gasoline prices.
No wonder Daimler dumped Chrysler.

Dovetail joints by hand

Dovetail, the coolest joint in Western woodworking. Actually, Chinese/Japanese woodworking has even fancier joints, but I'll ignore them for the time being. After 40 odd years of home hobbyshopping, I got around to doing some. After passing up a router jig at a yard sale for $50, I decided to try the all manual technique. I laid the four pieces out on the bench and turned them over and over again, looking to put the nicest side out where it shows, and then penciled 1,2,3,and 4 on each joint, so as to get things to fit right. I laid a "How2DoIt" book out on the workbench open to a fine color picture of a joint, just to avoid getting the tails confused with the pins. Laid out all four tails with a sharp pencil, a square and a carpenter's bevel. I made the tails roughly square for best strength. Laid out one tail in the center of the board and worked sideways from center to edge to get a symmetrical layout. Be sure to mark the waste from the tails, otherwise you can make a terrible mistake.
Cut in from the end of the board with a small back saw. Was able to stay on the pencil marks without great difficulty. Then used a coping saw to cut out the bottoms. Cut all four tails and then went back and shaved them out with my sharpest chisel. In fact, sharpened the chisel before starting and a couple of times before the job was done. Was able to shave across the grain of the poplar wood without using a hammer on the chisel.
Then I used the cut and trimmed tails to mark the pins on each matching piece. Since this is hand work, each piece comes out slightly different. I made a point of using the proper tail to mark each pin. A handscrew held the two boards together at right angles, so I could pencil the pins without anything slipping. Keep pencil needle sharp. I have a yard sale electric pencil sharpener in the shop for just this purpose.
Hallelujah, just rough cut, the joints were close to fitting together. I shaved down the bottoms of the tails and pins until the top of the joint went together flush. Only after getting the depth right did I trim the sides of the pins and tails. After maybe 10 minutes of shave, try fit, shave again each joint goes together with just a tap from a mallet.
Still got a number of things to do, but the tricky joints all fit and look quite good. A most satisfying afternoon in the shop. And accomplished all this goodness with just ordinary hand tools, no pricey gee whiz power tools.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Blogosphere heat applied to University of Delaware

I was depressed when I saw my old alma mater, the University of Delaware had fallen to the forces of political correctness, accused the entire student body of thought crime, and ordered mandatory re-education for all. I graduated in 1972 when U 0f D was a gracious and civilized place with a wonderful faculty. It saddened me to read that the lefties had taken over and remade the place along the lines of Mordor.
The policy received wide publicity in the blogosphere, and the heat has done some good. The university adminstration Backs off . Go blogosphere.

Newborn Screening yields 90% false postives (WSJ)

New born genetic screening, now required in all 50 states, has a false positive rate up to 90% For each case of an infant genetic disorder identified early and treated, nine other parents are scared out of their wits when the doctor says "There is something wrong with your baby's blood". Speaking as a practicing parent , I can tell you that the fear of a congenital defect in your child is the worst of parent's nightmares. The nine months of pregnancy are plenty of time for fear of congenital defects to grow in both father and mother.
Each false positive screening result will trigger a frantic round of test and retest, treatment, doctor's visits, special diets, special this and that. A newborn child is the most precious thing parents possess and they will do anything to preserve its life. Cost is no object when a newborn's life and health are at stake. The fear, sorrow , and uncertainty put the parents thru a psychological hell.
Yet another advance in medical technology puts nine parents thru hell for each newborn actually aided. And we wonder why 14% of GNP goes into health care. A test with a 90% false positive rate is not the responsible practice of medicine.

Getting tight with lraqi local goverment

We Americans have been trashing the Iraqi national government for ineffectiveness, corruption, sectarianism and halitosis. Plus spitting on the sidewalk and walking on the grass. But government here, and in Iraq is not all national, we have state and local, the Iraqis have tribal sheiks. When the national government is bollixed up, the sheiks seem to be able to make things happen. The Americans are figuring this out and getting in tight with these influencial Iraqis. This article by Michael Yon relates comments by Sheik Omar Jabouri, of Tribe Jabouri on the progress of the war. More interesting is the attention and respect paid to Sheik Omar by US Army commanders. I'm thinking the sheiks represent some lower level of Iraqi government, equivalent to US state or local government. which is effective, and joining our side. US Army officers are quite pragmatic and will deal with anyone who can get the job done. Maybe the key to getting the job done in Iraq is to get tight with the effective local leadership who seem to be tribal sheiks.