Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Pension Insurer Shifted to Stocks

The Boston Globe wrote Pension insurer shifted to stocks. The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation is an independent US government agency that pays retirees if their pension plans are terminated. It's not tax payer funded but gets money from premiums of pension plans it insures. It of course invests it's assets but mostly in less risky investments and only 15-25% in stocks.

Until Charles E.F. Millard took over the agency in December 2007. "Under Millard's strategy, the pension agency was directed to invest 55% of its funds in stocks and real estate. That included 20% in US stocks, 19% in foreign stocks, 6% in what the agency's records term 'emerging market' stocks, 5% in private real estate and 5% in private equity firms."

"The agency refused to say how much of the new investment strategy has been implemented or how the fund has fared during the downturn. The agency would only say that its fund was down 6.5 percent - and all of its stock-related investments were down 23 percent - as of last Sept. 30, the end of its fiscal year. But that was before most of the recent stock market decline and just before the investment switch was scheduled to begin in earnest."

A point to note is that exactly when there is such a downturn is when this agency will need the funds to payout.

Remember when the Republicans wanted to "privatize social security"?

Credit Default Swaps, Herald of Doom

The Baseline Scenario has another good post, Credit Default Swaps, Herald of Doom (for Beginners) that describes how the prices are set and how they can easily be used to see how the market measures the risk of a company failing. Until the end when he says maybe not.


The Department of the Treasury has setup FinancialStability.gov . You can see a map showing who got money, economic data, various reports on TARP and Tranches (the other bailout programs like CPP, AIFP, TIP, AGP and the actual contracts for each recipient. The one for Bank of America is 131 pages long.

I'd like to see more of what the recipients have done with the funds, but overall it's hard not to be impressed with this. There's a bunch of info here in a very accessible form.

100 Hours of Astronomy

"100 Hours of Astronomy is a global astronomy event from 2 to 5 April when you can discover the Universe for yourself!  A project of the International Year of Astronomy, there are free public activities happening all around the world, and online right here."

Monday, March 30, 2009

GM & Chrysler

I read the White House's GM Viability Assessment available here. It's a 5 page pdf and it really rips the GM plan to shreds. If management thought what they had was a plan, they're idiots. I don't have it in me to read the Chrysler one.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

New ISS Picture

The new bigger International Space Station "Suspended in space and backdropped by the blackness of space and the jewel-like blue of Earth sits the International Space Station. This image of the station was taken as STS-119 performed a fly around after undocking. "

322542main_image_1314_800-600 1.jpg

How Big is the Internet?

About the size of a shipping container.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Twouble with Twitter

Diagramming the Obama Sentence

I followed several links down the rabbit hole to this post from Feb 16, Diagramming the Obama Sentence.
"In honor of Presidents Day, I thought I'd return to the 'lost art' of diagramming - last practiced (by me) in the Seventh Grade classroom of Mrs. Brenda Wooten - to see what I could learn about the mind of President Barack Obama."


"The diagram, though, offers several insights. First, the elegant balance of the central construction (My view is that x, and that y, but also that z) shows that Obama has a good memory for where he's been, grammatically, and a strong sense of where he's going. His tripartite analysis of the problem is clearly reflected in the structure of the sentence, and thus in the three main branches of the diagram. (Turn it on its side and it could be a mobile.) The third "that" - thrown in 29 words into a 43-word sentence - creates three parallel predicate nouns. And then there's a little parallel flourish at the end: "I am more interested in looking forward than I am in looking back.""

There's more to read in the post.

AIG VP Quits

Jake DeSantis, an executive vice president of AIG wrote this Op-Ed, Dear A.I.G., I Quit!

"I am proud of everything I have done for the commodity and equity divisions of A.I.G.-F.P. I was in no way involved in — or responsible for — the credit default swap transactions that have hamstrung A.I.G. Nor were more than a handful of the 400 current employees of A.I.G.-F.P. Most of those responsible have left the company and have conspicuously escaped the public outrage.

After 12 months of hard work dismantling the company — during which A.I.G. reassured us many times we would be rewarded in March 2009 — we in the financial products unit have been betrayed by A.I.G. and are being unfairly persecuted by elected officials. In response to this, I will now leave the company and donate my entire post-tax retention payment to those suffering from the global economic downturn. My intent is to keep none of the money myself."

It's a good letter and I have no reason to doubt its accuracy (though I expect some reports on it to come). Moral questions are often difficult and reducing things to soundbites (bonuses!) never helps. It all comes down to whether or not these people were involved in the downfall or not and whether or not they were grossly overpaid by a bankrupt company. People deserved to paid for their work, but when a firm fails, even the innocent are hurt. Now Liddy will have to replace some of these people, and good luck doing that in this climate of rage towards AIG. I hope our investment in saving the company isn't lost.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Some Supernovae News

Ars Technica writes Parent stars of recent supernovae mixed news for theorists "Two studies have recently identified the stars that spawned three different supernovae. In two of these cases, the results line up with current models, but the third seems set to send theorists back to try again."

The Geithner Plan

Economist Brad DeLong wrote The Geithner Plan FAQ based on some early press releases. It's a reasonable introduction.

NPR has a similar intro as a Q&A with economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin.

The New York Times collects the thoughts of 4 prominent economist bloggers in Will the Geithner Plan Work?. It has thoughts from:

Paul Krugman, economist and Op-Ed columnist
Simon Johnson, economist, M.I.T.
Brad DeLong, economist, U.C. Berkeley
Mark Thoma, economist, University of Oregon

all basically say that it's buying assets at inflated prices and it's based on the idea that prices could go down and then we're screwed. Kevin Drum writes in Valuing the Toxic Waste that maybe they really are undervalued and makes some sense.

Securing a Mac Laptop

David Blatner wrote What I Learned from Having My Laptop Stolen with lots of tips for a mac laptop owner. I should probably do more of these. The premise is that losing the hardware is painful but is just money. Losing the data means you need a good backup. I'm using Time Machine and am ok with that. The third and usually forgotten part is the loss of privacy as now someone else has your data. While he doesn't go to the extent of using FileVault to encrypt everything, he does turn off auto-login and requires a password to wake from sleep and sets a firmware password to prevent booting from a disc.

The Economist on AIG From 2002

In 2002, The Economist wrote: Scrutiny for AIG, the world's biggest insurer. I doubt I read it at the time.

"The routine public filings that AIG posts with American regulators are widely considered to be unfathomable. When challenged, AIG notes that it provides abundant disclosure, including 40 pages of densely written footnotes in its most recent annual report, as well as extraordinarily detailed statements with the Securities and Exchange Commission. But while the company provides great gobs of information, it is all but impossible to put them together. While AIG boasts of its dominance in various business lines and countries, it discloses only the broadest loss ratios. A source of its resilience is a willingness to reinsure about one-quarter of its underwriting, so spreading risk, but no outsider knows what business it keeps and what it cedes. Plenty of opportunity exists, if not for creative accounting, then certainly for inscrutability.

Part of the recent fall in AIG's share price can presumably be explained by suspicions about sophisticated but opaque forms of financial engineering. The insurer was hit with a $69m loss linked to Enron, and it is now at the centre of a dispute over off-balance-sheet partnerships held by PNC Financial, a regional American bank. AIG is a large and growing participant in complex derivatives markets. It says that derivatives play an important part in reducing the company's overall risk. From the outside, all that is clear is that AIG's credit exposure to derivatives is rising, from $17 billion in 1999 to $33 billion in 2000, according to the most recent annual report. Gross exposure has grown from $435 billion to $544 billion.

Any cracks in the confidence that AIG knows what it is doing in derivatives would be highly damaging. The company has a triple-A rating from Standard & Poor's, in part because a conventional analysis of its balance sheet shows AIG to be well-capitalised. A top-notch credit rating counts for much, particularly in skittish markets like Japan, where local insurers are chronically weak. A good rating gives AIG a low cost of funding. So it is a concern that recent volatility in AIG's share price probably lowers other, quantitative ratings that rely more on market data."

15 Years of NAFTA

The NY Times reports After 15 Years, Nafta’s Promise Still Unfulfilled in Mexico. "Fifteen years after the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect...Mexico’s exports have exploded under Nafta, quintupling to $292 billion last year, but Mexico is still exporting people too, almost half a million each year, seeking opportunities in the United States that they do not have at home."

Academic Earth

Academic Earth is like Hulu for college lectures, aggregating content from all over the net.

Why No More 9/11s?

Here's a long article on Slate onWhy No More 9/11s?. It's remarkably comprehensive and includes followup on all the known terrorist plots since as well as various tactics we've used.

"Islamist terrorists struck Bali, Madrid, London, Mumbai, and many places in and around the Mideast, but they haven't struck the United States. Why not? The question is impossible to answer with certainty. But given that the "war on terrorism" was (for good or ill) the defining pursuit of George W. Bush's presidency, anyone seeking to understand the previous eight years of American political history must ask it. More urgently, our new president, Barack Obama, is surely pondering this question as he assesses the present risk of a terrorist attack on the United States and how best to address it. I spent the Obama transition asking various terrorism experts why the dire predictions of a 9/11 sequel proved untrue and reviewing the literature on this question. The answers boiled down to eight prevailing theories whose implications range from fairly reassuring to deeply worrying."

US Missile Strikes Take Heavy Toll on Al Qaeda

The LA Time reported U.S. missile strikes take heavy toll on Al Qaeda

"Predator drone attacks in northwest Pakistan have increased sharply since Bush last year stopped seeking Pakistan's permission. Obama may keep pace as officials speak of confusion in Al Qaeda ranks."

"U.S. intelligence officials said they see clear signs that the Predator strikes are sowing distrust within Al Qaeda. "They have started hunting down people who they think are responsible" for security breaches, the senior U.S. counter-terrorism official said, discussing intelligence assessments on condition of anonymity. "People are showing up dead or disappearing."

"The stepped-up Predator campaign has killed at least nine senior Al Qaeda leaders and dozens of lower-ranking operatives, in what U.S. officials described as the most serious disruption of the terrorist network since 2001."

It seems once Musharraf was out of office we felt less compelled to get Pakistani approval before launching strikes. So we weren't waiting while the intelligence became outdated. In spite of the civilian casualties, the Pakistani government isn't complaining loudly because we're also targeting militant groups that threaten the Pakstani government.

Coming Soon: Declassified Bush-Era Torture Memos

Newsweek wrote Coming Soon: Declassified Bush-Era Torture Memos "Over objections from the U.S. intelligence community, the White House is moving to declassify—and publicly release—three internal memos that will lay out, for the first time, details of the 'enhanced' interrogation techniques approved by the Bush administration for use against 'high value' Qaeda detainees. The memos, written by Justice Department lawyers in May 2005, provide the legal rationale for waterboarding, head slapping and other rough tactics used by the CIA."

Bailout Hearings

The House Financial Committee had a hearing today with Treasury Sec. Tim Geithner, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, and President of the NY Fed William Dudley (who was barely asked anything).

I didn't get much out of the hearing other than this. The structure of these hearings is completely broken. There are 75 members of the committee and they each get 5 minutes time. Chairman Frank (D-MA) was good about limiting the time, but still that's would be 6.25 hours. And on a topic like this, everyone wants their 5 minutes for a sound bite and to be able to tell their constituents they were rough on Geithner and Bernanke. They also alternate, first a Democrat then a Republican. So there is no momentum built up in the questioning. The 5 minutes includes the reply from the witnesses and the representatives can cut off the witness. As such they ask complex questions and demand yes/no answers even when not appropriate; this lets them maximize their tough talk. There's no opportunity for complex issues to be explored in any way.

The committee should be made smaller, or if that's not possible, they should cut off questioning to a smaller group selected by seniority or random drawing or round robin list across hearings. Also, questioners should group according to topic. All those that want to explore the AIG issue should ask questions at once and then later representatives could build on previous questions instead of having to waste time setting context.

Apparently 15 of the top 20 AIG bonus receivers have agreed to return their bonuses. For all the talk of breaking contracts and specific taxes at 90%, it turns out asking works pretty well. Of course that's in the environment of outrage. Now we get to be outraged about the other 5 (and I don't know about the rest) of the recipients.

Another 100 Movies to See Before You Die

Yahoo lists 100 Movies to See Before You Die. /Film comments on it. I've seen all but two, The Battle of Algiers and The World of Apu. Maybe I won't rush to see both of them :)

Monday, March 23, 2009

Let the Right One In DVD Gets Bad Subtitles

Icons of Fright reprots Let The Wrong Subtitles In To LET THE RIGHT ONE IN?! "The subtitles had been drastically changed since the last time I saw it, and dare I say... had been completely dumbed down? Sure, the basic gist of what the characters were saying was kind of there, but missing completely was the dark humor, subtleties and character nuances which made the movie so powerful and a favorite amongst audiences last year. I tried to carry on and ignore it, hoping that only a few of the translations were off... but... I was wrong. Just about the intent of every single line of dialogue was completely off and ruined the movie."

The article has plenty of examples and it's really a shame. Let the Right One In was one of my favorite films of last year and was visually stunning. It had a very limited release and I was looking forward to recommending and loaning the DVD to people, but I don't think I'll be doing that now.

Update: Magnet Plans to Fix Let The Right One In Subtitles, But Not Offering Exchanges

The Settlers of Catan

I was reading a Wired article (not online yet) and found out about The Settlers of Catan, a 1995 German board game that's apparently the biggest game since Risk (1957). It's apparently simple to learn, challenging, different each time, very well-balanced, takes 15-60 minutes to play and is good for families. Has anyone reading this played it?

Madoff Employee Breaks Silence

The Daily Beast writes Madoff Employee Breaks Silence. "In a Daily Beast exclusive, one of the fraudster’s employees tells Lucinda Franks that the supposedly legitimate brokerage operations were in fact just money-losing fronts for the fraudster's scheme. Plus, what Madoff’s sons told staff the day after Bernie’s arrest, trips to the company’s secretive 17th floor, Bernie’s obsession with the color black and employee neatness, the roles of other family members, and visits to the founder’s Montauk home."

Extreme Sheep LED Art

Sunday, March 22, 2009

World's Largest Model

Gizmodo writes World's Largest Model Covers 11,840 Square Feet, Uses 300,000 LEDs. The article has a number of facts and images but this video is the most impressive...

On TCM This Week

Turner Classic Movies has some interesting programming Monday and Tuesday.

Monday at 8pm starts some William Wellman pre-Hayes Code films. I haven't seen many of these but I think I'll set the TiVo.

Tuesday morning has some early Hitchcock films including Blackmail (the first British talkie), the original The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Shadow of a Doubt (Hitchcock's favorite of his films).

Tuesday at 8pm starts with a documentary on Warner Brothers cartoonist Chuck Jones and then shows lots of his amazing cartoons including Duck Amuck, What's Opera Doc and The Dot and the Line.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Moral Rants

Columbia economics professor Jeffrey Sachs writes about Capitalism and Moral Sentiments.

"In recent days, both Tom Friedman and David Brooks urged us to take our attention away from the trivialities of the AIG bonuses (just 0.001 percent of GDP, sniffed Brooks), to focus on truly weighty macroeconomic matters. Friedman bade us to look forward to, and support, the next mega-bailout of the banks, and Brooks applauded the leadership of Mssrs. Geithner and Summers in leading the G20 to macroeconomic stimulus and a rejuvenation of the International Monetary Fund.

Both pieces had the feel of planted stories, with insider tips about what's coming next and praise for the economics team as it battles against little minds in Europe and populist sentiments at home. Whether or not the stories came from Washington, both stories are wrong. There is no tradeoff of great macroeconomic themes and attention to little details like AIG and Merrill bonuses. We can focus on both the bonuses and the macro-economy. Indeed, we must. Nor is the concern over the bonuses mere populism. It is, rather, woefully overdue attention to the core issues of reckless greed and arrogance that did so much to get us into the current fix."

Paul Rosenberg writes in Embedded In Wall Street,

"Jbearlaw in quick hits points to an article by David Corn and Jonathan Stein at Mother Jones as "More Evidence Geithner in Wall Street's Pocket", but I don't quite think that's the right metaphor. Nor is Geithner necessarily the one to focus on. Rather, I come away from the article feeling, more than ever, that the entire Obama Administration is embedded in Wall Street. It's not a question of doing Wall Street's bidding, because they won't, necessarily. Rather, it's a question of thinking Wall Street's thoughts, of having absorbed them by osmosis for so long, and through so many channels that even when they seek to oppose Wall Street on some issue or another, the form it takes is virtually indistinguishable from agreement to anyone who's not an insider themselves."

And Glenn Greenwald writes about The virtues of public anger and the need for more. "This anti-anger consensus among our political elites is exactly wrong. The public rage we're finally seeing is long, long overdue, and appears to be the only force with both the ability and will to impose meaningful checks on continued kleptocratic pillaging and deep-seated corruption in virtually every branch of our establishment institutions. The worst possible thing that could happen now is for this collective rage to subside and for the public to return to its long-standing state of blissful ignorance over what the establishment is actually doing."

And if you want rants, no one is more fun to read that Matt Taibbi who wrote The Big Takeover in Rolling Stone. A long detailed history of the crisis that begins "It's over — we're officially, royally fucked. no empire can survive being rendered a permanent laughingstock, which is what happened as of a few weeks ago, when the buffoons who have been running things in this country finally went one step too far." In the midst of lots of good details you'll read wonderful prose like this...

"In essence, Paulson used the bailout to transform the government into a giant bureaucracy of entitled assholedom, one that would socialize "toxic" risks but keep both the profits and the management of the bailed-out firms in private hands. Moreover, this whole process would be done in secret, away from the prying eyes of NASCAR dads, broke-ass liberals who read translations of French novels, subprime mortgage holders and other such financial losers."

"As complex as all the finances are, the politics aren't hard to follow. By creating an urgent crisis that can only be solved by those fluent in a language too complex for ordinary people to understand, the Wall Street crowd has turned the vast majority of Americans into non-participants in their own political future. There is a reason it used to be a crime in the Confederate states to teach a slave to read: Literacy is power. In the age of the CDS and CDO, most of us are financial illiterates. By making an already too-complex economy even more complex, Wall Street has used the crisis to effect a historic, revolutionary change in our political system — transforming a democracy into a two-tiered state, one with plugged-in financial bureaucrats above and clueless customers below."

After reading these, I'm way more depressed. Then again, I see articles like this, Administration Seeks Increase in Oversight of Executive Pay and realize the headline is weak because the new regulations cover far more than just executive pay and I have some hope.

The Plan for Dealing With Toxic Assets

James Kwak talks about the expected treasury plan to buy 'toxic assets', This Time I’m Not the One Calling It a Subsidy.

"In the best-case scenario: (a) the government’s willingness to bear most of the risk encourages private investors to bid enough to get the banks to sell; (b) the economy recovers and the assets increase in price from the prices paid; (c) the investment funds pay back the Fed (which makes a small spread between the interest rate and the Fed’s low cost of money); and (d) the government gets some of the upside through its capital investments. (I think the main purpose of that government capital is to deflect the criticism that all of the upside belongs to the private sector.) In the worst-case scenario, the market stays stuck because the banks have unrealistic reserve prices. Perhaps the idea is that, in that case, the TALF will allow the government to (over)pay whatever it takes to bail out the banks."

Krugman writes Despair over financial policy.

"The Geithner plan has now been leaked in detail. It’s exactly the plan that was widely analyzed — and found wanting — a couple of weeks ago. The zombie ideas have won. The Obama administration is now completely wedded to the idea that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the financial system — that what we’re facing is the equivalent of a run on an essentially sound bank. As Tim Duy put it, there are no bad assets, only misunderstood assets. And if we get investors to understand that toxic waste is really, truly worth much more than anyone is willing to pay for it, all our problems will be solved."

Jeremy Bulow and Paul Klemperer say Reorganising the banks: Focus on the liabilities, not the assets and offer details on a plan that splits the bank into two, one solvent the other not. Their conclusion:

"A plan that isolates the bad liabilities rather than the bad assets of the banks, and pays the owners of those claims everything they legally deserve in liquidation but does not fully immunise them from losses, will achieve three major objectives.
* It will help unfreeze the credit markets by creating healthy banks able to lend.
* It will assure that depositors are paid in full, and all creditors are paid at least their entitlement.
* It will make the bailout cheaper for the government, increasing its flexibility.
Finally, as an additional benefit, paying creditors based on market values rather than government guarantees reduces moral hazard in bank finance, and increases the prospect of better monitoring by sophisticated private creditors in determining the future allocation of capital across financial institutions."

Cramer Changing Story Since Stewart

Media Matters After admitting culpability during Daily Show interview, Cramer now calls Stewart's criticism of CNBC "naïve and misleading".

"Summary: On Today, Jim Cramer asserted of Daily Show host Jon Stewart that 'it was a naïve and misleading thing to attack the media' for their coverage of the economic recession, just one week after acknowledging that CNBC's reporting deserved criticism during an appearance on The Daily Show."

"CRAMER: Well, I think it was a naïve and misleading thing to attack the media. We -- we weren't behind this. CNBC, in particular, has been out front on this. [CNBC senior economics reporter] Steve Liesman broke the first big, big subprime story. [CNBC anchor and reporter] David Faber did the best work that I've seen of any journalist -- print. [CNBC host] Erin [Burnett] has been at the forefront; talked about it so much we used to joke about, "Erin, how often are you going to talk about subprime?"

CRAMER: I think that there are people who bear so much more responsibility that it's just wrong-headed -- the politicians, the regulators, the SEC, the lenders, the investment banks. I mean, listen to AIG. I mean, you're going to compare the media to AIG? There's some people who really should get in line to do -- to really take the responsibility. And the media, it's just a naïve focus. It really is, Meredith.'

I agree others have responsibility too, probably moreso than CNBC. That doesn't excuse their mistakes. 'Oh a CEO lied to me what am I going to do?' I still say fact checking.

How to Dust Effectively

Reader's Digest has an article, 8 Smart Strategies to Make Your Home Dust-Proof.

New MA Law: Leave a Lane Around Emergency Situations

New law requires motorists to change lanes to avoid emergency vehicles. MA is the 44th state to enact such a law.

"A new law -- dubbed the 'Slow Down, Move Over' law -- goes into effect Sunday. The law asks drivers approaching emergency situations to leave the lane closest to the incident, if possible, and slow down to a reasonable rate of speed."

And really, why weren't you doing this already?

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Rise And Fall Of AIG's Financial Products Unit

TPM has a very good history, The Rise And Fall Of AIG's Financial Products Unit "So here's a rundown of some of the key developments in AIGFP's tumultuous history -- many gleaned from a superb three-part December 2008 Washington Post series on the unit (parts 1, 2, and 3)"

Off With the Bankers

MIT Professor Simon Johnson (of the Baseline Scenario) and James Kwak wrote a NY Times Op-Ed Off With the Bankers. "A.I.G. can hardly claim that its generous bonuses attract the best and the brightest. So instead, it defends the payments by arguing they’re needed to retain employees who are crucial for winding down transactions that are “difficult to understand and manage.” In other words, only the people who stuck the knife into the American International Group can neatly extract it for a decent burial. There is no reason to believe this."

They follow that up with a post on the Baseline Scenario, Why Bail Out AIG’s Creditors?. "I think that the government could let AIG fail, if - and this is a big if - it can first identify which creditors and counterparties would be hurt, determine which of those cannot be allowed to fail (which should not be all of them), design a program to provide them enough capital directly, and announce everything on the same day. The net cost to the taxpayer cannot be higher than under the Too Big To Fail strategy, which implies a 100% guarantee for all counterparties and creditors (not to mention employees - bankruptcy would settle this whole question of whether the bonus contracts are legally binding once and for all)."

and Paul Krugman is back from vacation and is now writing on AIG, "At every stage, Geithner et al have made it clear that they still have faith in the people who created the financial crisis — that they believe that all we have is a liquidity crisis that can be undone with a bit of financial engineering, that “governments do a bad job of running banks” (as opposed, presumably, to the wonderful job the private bankers have done), that financial bailouts and guarantees should come with no strings attached. This was bad analysis, bad policy, and terrible politics."

2008 Hugo Nominations

Here are the 2008 Hugo Nominations ""

Barney’s Great Adventure

The New Yorker in January had an interesting (and long) profile on Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) Profiles: Barney’s Great Adventure.

Some Truths About Guantanamo Bay

Here's a must read by former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell Lawrence Wilkerson Some Truths About Guantanamo Bay. "There are several dimensions to the debate over the U.S. prison facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba that the media have largely missed and, thus, of which the American people are almost completely unaware. For that matter, few within the government who were not directly involved are aware either."

"The first of these is the utter incompetence of the battlefield vetting in Afghanistan during the early stages of the U.S. operations there. Simply stated, no meaningful attempt at discrimination was made in-country by competent officials, civilian or military, as to who we were transporting to Cuba for detention and interrogation."

"The second dimension that is largely unreported is that several in the U.S. leadership became aware of this lack of proper vetting very early on and, thus, of the reality that many of the detainees were innocent of any substantial wrongdoing, had little intelligence value, and should be immediately released."

"The third basically unknown dimension is how hard Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy Richard Armitage labored to ameliorate the GITMO situation from almost day one."

"The fourth unknown is the ad hoc intelligence philosophy that was developed to justify keeping many of these people, called the mosaic philosophy. Simply stated, this philosophy held that it did not matter if a detainee were innocent. Indeed, because he lived in Afghanistan and was captured on or near the battle area, he must know something of importance (this general philosophy, in an even cruder form, prevailed in Iraq as well, helping to produce the nightmare at Abu Ghraib). All that was necessary was to extract everything possible from him and others like him, assemble it all in a computer program, and then look for cross-connections and serendipitous incidentals--in short, to have sufficient information about a village, a region, or a group of individuals, that dots could be connected and terrorists or their plots could be identified. Thus, as many people as possible had to be kept in detention for as long as possible to allow this philosophy of intelligence gathering to work. The detainees' innocence was inconsequential. After all, they were ignorant peasants for the most part and mostly Muslim to boot."

After this, he dives into Cheney. Really, a must read.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Obama Administration to Appear Before Int’l Human Rights Body

The ACLU blog writes Obama Administration to Appear Before Int’l Human Rights Body "Tomorrow, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) will hold a hearing on accountability for torture and other human rights abuses committed by the U.S. government. This will be the first time the Obama administration will appear before an international human rights body to present its views on accountability measures for human rights violations committed by the previous administration."

Nate Silver on Why AIG Paid the "Bonuses"

Nate Silver of 538 writes Why AIG Paid the "Bonuses". He of course has interesting things to say and starts with real data from their 10K filings.

Undersea Volcano

The New York Times reports Inspectors Head to Undersea Volcano. "Scientists sailed Thursday to inspect an undersea volcano that has been erupting for days near Tonga -- shooting smoke, steam and ash thousands of feet into the sky above the South Pacific ocean." But it's the pictures that are amazing:

19tonga-650 1.jpg

Change Congress Donor Strike

Join the Change Congress Donor Strike.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ever More on AIG Hearings

I have to run out, here are the half edited notes I took during Edward Liddy's testimony....

Edward Liddy came out of retirement in September 2008 at the request of the government to take the job of AIG CEO for a salary of $1/year. His opening statement was quite good. He said "We weigh every decision we make with one priority in mind, will this action help our ability to pay money back the government or hurt it?" They've "wound down" over a $1 trillion in the portfolio of AIG FP, a third from it's peak, but it's still $1.6 trillion and it still contains substantial risk. The CDSs and regulatory capital business have been taken care of and longer a problem. The $1.6 trillion is other derivatives.

Regarding the bonuses, he said that they needed to retain the FP employees in order to fix the problem. They are each responsible to deal with the complicated books of business that they established. What he described above showed progress is being made. He said the bonus contracts as written guaranteed the payments which seems to be true and if he had been CEO at the time he would not have written them that way. He said there was substantial risk of higher costs if they didn't pay them and I've seen some laws written to protect employees that support that. But the real risk would have been if their leaving screwed up the $1.6 trillion of business. That's why it was important to keep these people ot manage these books of contracts. That said, he realized that the taxpayers were not happy and this morning he asked all who received $100,000 or more in bonus, to return at least half of them. Many have returned all of them.

The first question is why wasn't this done beforehand and why wasn't info about this made available to the committee? They've been working on the retention payment issue and made it public in various 10Ks, 8Ks and 10Qs (so this is proof no one reads those). They still had $1.6 trillion to wind down and in that context $165 million was a good investment. Apparently the Federal Reserve was informed of this. He also said that it was discussed with the many of the staff of the committee members and the payments weren't made secretly on a Saturday, but on their due date of March 15th.

The contracts that Barney Frank was reading from are about performance bonuses. Liddy said that no performance bonuses were paid. The $165 million was retention bonuses. Though I wonder about the reported 11 people who had already left the company. Frank asked about that and there was money paid for retention of some length and he wasn't asked if he had the figures on these people on hand but was asked to submit them later. Frank asked for the names of those people that didn't return the bonus and wouldn't accept them under a confidentiality agreement. Liddy said he was only concerned about the safety of his employees, he then read some death threats that were received. Frank said he'd take that into consideration and that threats and plots should be prosecuted but that at this point he wasn't persuaded because otherwise the congress would get no information.

Liddy was asked about the mark-to-market rule. He's a believer in the rule, but he thinks it needs to be adjusted to take into account some long term assets since if the market dries up (as has real estate) they are illiquid anyway.

Liddy defined the $170 billion number and it's not that bad. It's actually $78 billion that's owed to the taxpayers. $40 billion in TARP plus $38 billion "at the end of 2008" (I assume that means addition money given in Dec). In addition the Federal Reserve invested in some of the distressed assets at a discount of 40-60 cents on the dollar. The assets are doing well and have taken no losses. The fed is a patient investor and "they and the American public will do very well on that investment". I think they've only taken $40 billion for the distressed assets but can tap into as much as $60 billion. This figured didn't all add up from what he said, but it seemed due to time constraints and it seemed reasonable.

Still More on AIG Hearings

Rep. Michael Capuano (D-MA 8th, Boston, Cambridge, Somerville) came off like an idiot. He flamed at the witnesses that it was your responsibility to regulate this stuff and then asked when they would be profitable and didn't want details. He also seemed to miss the fact that AIG has an insurance arm and this Financial Products arm which was where all the problems came from. When he asked the state insurance regulator whether AIG's plans where good ones, he seemed unwilling to accept differences between the insurance business and the FP arm, until he did.

Then he asked the S&P guy: "The credit rating agencies, must have an answer on this. You must now be absolutely certain because I know that's what you get paid to do, is to give us your opinion; when's AIG going to become profitable again?" He was flailing his arms the whole time. At least the guy had the presence to answer "I would have to have quite the crystal ball to be absolutely certain on that" and then went on a reasonable answer (some of the businesses are still profitable but until the financial markets stabilize it will be hard for AIG as a whole to stabilize.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX 5th, Dallas, Athens) pushed on the OTS guy on his statement that they should have acted on AIG in 2004 and that they weren't lacking in power, authority, resources, or expertise. His response "In 2004 we failed to assess how bad the mortgage economy, the real estate economy would become in 2008."

Rep. Brad Miller (D-NC 13th Raleigh, Greensboro) asked if anyone was looking at if AIG was insolvent and if they were cooking their books. GAO said they had not looked into that issue and OTS said the same. And then the Congressman's time was up. It's just moronic. First neither of those agencies should have been looking into it; second, there doesn't seem to be any evidence of it, their downturn can be explained by the known info; third asking the question this way is unsystematic, and fourth getting an answer of no and doing nothing about it is irresponsible.

Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO 7th) says the bonus contract seems to have contemplated their loses. He then wanted to know what a guaranteed investment contract is. Ario explained that it's when a government agency has money from a bond to say build a bridge, but doesn't need it all right away. They buy a GIC from a company like AIG to pay it back when they need it (I assume getting interest). Perimutter said ok, because it seems a lot of the TARP money went back to the states. But it didn't seem like he really listened to the answer.

Rep Joe Donnelly (D-IN, 2nd) asked Polakoff "For naked CDS, how are those anything other than gambling? Back home in Indiana if a fellow goes and places a bet on Bears game, he can go to jail. On wall street he's considered a master of the universe. How does this work? And why is it allowed? And the last question and maybe the most important. Why should we be paying for a gambling casino, just bets, there's no real product there and you know what, the casino's closed you go home." Do we have to explain the market system to congressmen? Polakoff agreed they needed to be regulated. He added that "naked CDSs are not the subject of AIG FP" and Donnelly just said "If you're a waitress or a truck driver or another hard working person, why should you pay the other side of a bad bet." This is what counts as oversight? It sounds like cable news show ranting.

A woman from CA (I didn't get a name) said Congress had a lot of finger pointing to do at itself. People came to congress saying CDSs needed to be regulated and she lost her job and Congress did nothing. And they overturned the Glass-Seigel act. Then she said to the S&P guy that "in our growing up an A means good and a AA means really good" and yet in 2008, after it had lost $12 billion it was still rated AA, "So I believe that you need to go back to the drawing board and come up with different ways to rate these agencies". Really, that's what you wanted to say? In school A meant good?!?!

That was the end of this panel.

Yet More on AIG Hearings

Questions started an hour and 20 minutes into the hearing.

If you hold an AIG insurance policy you should not be worried about their ability to pay.

Scott Polakoff, Acting Director Office of Thrift Supervision said, OTS should have realized in 2004 that the housing market would get as bad as it has in the last two years and the affect on AIG. They didn't do it and they should have.

S&P's six tick upgrade is based on the bailout funds and the possibility of additional bailout funds, but not based on implicit government guarantee going forward.

Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY 5th, Bayside) used his time to find out if his understand of a credit default swap was accurate. I was worried that he sounded like an idiot at first, but he was somewhat better than that. He said CDSs were thought of as insurance but it wasn't really insurance because they didn't have the money to pay. "They called it credit default swaps because if they called it 'I can't believe it's not insurance' maybe nobody would buy it." He asked "How do we allow this to happen" He said congress makes the laws and has oversight but they rely on the regulators to come and say 'hey somethings going on here', how did this happen? The witnesses said that CDSs were well-respected instruments but that they needed to be regulated. Also that "the CFTC Commission came before congress a number of years ago asking that CDSs be regulated". Ackerman said that the NY state insurance supervisor said the same thing in Oct to a different committee. He then said, "Where's they guy on television that does the bells and whistles and gongs. We need all these things going off here otherwise there's nobody getting our attention."

So according to Rep. Ackerman, it's Jim Cramer's fault that his committee didn't pass laws to regulate the hot new financial instruments, invented in 1997, that had trillions of dollars in assets and that officials were asking them to regulate. Unbelievable.

More on AIG Hearings

There are four witnesses. They didn't start speaking until 56 minutes into the hearing where they were given 5 minutes each for their statements.

Scott Polakoff, Acting Director Office of Thrift Supervision

AIG's problems came from the rapid decline in two areas, credit default swaps and business lending.
AIG stopped issuing CDS on mortgages in 2005, but had $50 billion of them on its books. They stopped them while the housing market was still good, but their model forecast problems. AIG's CDS were protecting on "the highest rated, super senior, AAA+ rated credit tranch of the collateralized debt obligations". As of Dec there have been no realized credit loses on these. The problems have come from the enormous sums of liquidity needed to meet collateral calls trigged by one these three events: rating agency downgrades of the company, of the underlying CDO or a reduction in the market value of the underlying CDO. AIG's security lending program began before 2000 lent securities from state insurance companies to 3rd parties who provided cash collateral. The cash was invested in residential mortgage backed securities which declined. When the trades expired, AIG has to pay the cash back to the 3rd parties. He also said some new regulations on these products is required.

So for the second part they bet on the mortgage market continuing to do well and lost and we have to foot the bill. I'm ok if that bill means we pay foreign banks or Goldman, if that's who lent the cash to AIG.

Joel Ario, Penn. Insurance Commissioner

I didn't get much out of this opening statement.

Orice Williams, GAO FInancial & Community Investment Director

The Fed's stated goal is to prevent systemic risk from ratings downgrades. The bailout has prevented further downgrades. AIG has had mixed success in restructuring plans, they've had problems selling some business units. This combined with the decline in their assets makes it harder for them to pay back the bailout money. GAO thinks (but has not concluded) that AIG prices on commercial property casualty insurance has been somewhat aggressive but is still reasonable. That is, the bailout money is not going to subsidize insurance rates at the detriment of AIG competitors.

Rodney Clark, Managing Director Standard & Poor's Financial Services Rating Group

For many years S&P had a AAA rating on AIG, this changed in 2004 and they've lowered it four times since then mostly on the CDS credit loses. The current rating is at A- but would be six notches below that (BB-) without bailout funds.

AIG Hearings

I'm watching the House hearings on AIG on C-SPAN 3 (somebody has to). So far the representatives are giving opening statements, about 40 mins so far. They are all just reading prepared statements. Barney Frank (D-MA) is the one exception, he's the only one who is apparently knowledgeable enough to speak extemporaneously on the topic.

The common GOP refrain seems to be, we wouldn't have this problem if we hadn't bailed out AIG. This issue is the rationale why government shouldn't be involved. Of course if we hadn't bailed out AIG we would have had other bigger problems. And really, if you think government can't be effective, why are you in it.

The one bit of fun at this point was Rep Scott Garrett (R-NJ 5th, Paramus, Newton) the ranking minority member on the committee who complained that he sent a letter to chairman Frank demanding hearings on "how the Fed was putting American taxpayers at risk in such financial institutions. But it took him over 3 months to schedule one."

Frank replied that yes Mr. Garrett asked for the hearing. There were a number of other legislative things going on at the time and the hearing was held in July 2008. He checked the transcript and at the hearing Mr. Garrett asked no questions about this program. He did ask a question about "covered bonds" but that's it. "I suppose I understand he's disturbed that we didn't give him a chance not to ask any questions a month earlier but I am unconvinced that that would have made any difference."

Update: Frank came back later and apologized. Apparently the official transcript is incorrect. It cut off the questioning. He began with covered bonds and then got to this topic.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Chuck Schumer - The Man in the Middle

Having just recently said I'm tired of Chuck Schumer, I found this article on him from the January Atlantic, The Man in the Middle to be very interesting. I did say I liked his politics, I think I like them even more.

"Chuck Schumer, the brash New York senator, helped drive the Democrats’ recent rise to power with what he says is a critical insight about the American middle class—that it is more affluent, and wants different things from an activist government, than most policy makers think. If the new administration and Congress can strengthen the bond between government and the middle class as he defines it, Schumer believes, this new Democratic era could last for a generation or longer."

See the Space Station and Shuttle

Here's a NASA site providing information on Orbital Tracking for the Space Station and Space Shuttle. It tells you went to look up to see them. E.g., tonight in the Boston area at 7:40pm the Space Station will appear about 10º above SW, travel overhead and then set at 7:46 at 11º NW.

iPhone Software 3.0

I followed along on Macworld's, iPhone Software 3.0: Live Update. This looks like a great update. A developer beta of 3.0 is available today but users won't see it until the summer. It will be free to iPhone 3G owners (yah) but iPod Touch owners have to pay $9.95 for most of the features (it's an accounting requirement, the difference is that phone owners pay a subscription, otherwise apple would be giving past iPod customers new features for free).

For end users:

Cut, Copy, and Paste. Double tap to select text and get a popup menu of commands. Shake to undo and redo. It works between applications and has been folded into existing developer APIs so it should be in most apps.

All applications get a landscape mode keyboard (certainly Mail, Notes and Messages). The SMS app has been renamed Messages and it now supports MMS and lets you send contacts, sounds files, pictures, locations, etc.

All applications get search support: Mail (can search all headers), Calendar, iPod, Notes (title and body). Also a new Spotlight app that searches everywhere and can be used like a launcher. It's located to the left of the home screen.

A new Voice Memos apps with editing and sharing features

Calendar app now supports CalDAV (used by Google, Yahoo, etc.), .ics subscriptions, and search (local then remote).

The Stocks app got an update too but can it compete with Bloomberg?

Also: Notes Sync, Shake to shuffle, audio/video tags, live streaming, Wi-Fi auto login, Stereo Bluetooth, LDAP, iTunes account creation, YouTube ratings, Anti-Philshing, Call Log, Parental Controls, Media Scrubber, OTA profiles, VPN on demand, Languages, YouTube subscriptions, YouTube accounts and Encrypted profiles. Also, auto-fills.

For developers:

The iTunes App Store will now let applications sell additional content. So games can sell new levels, book readers can sell new books, newspapers can sell subscriptions.

Push notifications are finally here and apparently really scalable. Of course that will be tested. There are three types of notifications: badges, audio alerts, and text alerts. They looked into providing support for applications running in the background, but it ate up battery life by 80%. Push notifications just cost 23%.

There's a new API providing peer-to-peer connectivity for apps. So two close iPhones can play the same game or share a whiteboard, etc. It uses bluetooth (not wifi), bonjour, and requires no pairing. It also doesn't require you be around a wifi network, but the iPod Touch doesn't do bluetooth.

Applications will be able to interact with hardware accessories connected to the device (e.g., speakers using an equalizer app or a blood pressure monitor recording measurements).

The Map API using Google Maps has been extended making it easier to embed full function maps in applications. It can also do turn-by-turn directions, but there's a separate license needed if the app embeds these maps.

Also, in-app e-mail, proximity sensor is available, the built-in iPod library is now accessible (background music for games), streaming audio and video (over HTTP), shake API, data detectors, and in-game voice (built-in voice chat for games, for example).

Breaking News on AIG

Apparently 11 executives have resigned.

And according to NY Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, 73 employees received bonus of over $1 million. And apparently $1 million in bonuses was paid out to employees no long with the company.

Stephanopoulos Interviews McCain on Twitter

So I guess this is one of those experiments in journalism. George Stephanopoulos is conducting an interview with John McCain, on twitter. The problem is, there's no threading. You can see one's statements or the other but not interleaved.

When McCain writes, "@GStephanopoulos i haven't seen it but i would explore every option. i repeat, we wouldn't have this problem if we hadn't bailed them out" I don't know what "it" he's referring to.

There is a service Tweader that tries to solve just this problem by showing conversations. You enter the Twitter ID of a post and it follows the "in reply to" links. The problem is, Stephanopoulos' posts don't have these links.

With a few technical details fixed (and these really should have been taken care of beforehand), this might be interesting. But do we really need to reduce interview questions and answers down to 140 characters? Were soundbites too long?

Clay Shirky on Newspapers

I finally got around to reading Clay Shirky's excellent article, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable. He compares the current change in newspapers due to the web with the advent of the printing press and describes things about that process you probably didn't know.

"The problem newspapers face isn’t that they didn’t see the internet coming. They not only saw it miles off, they figured out early on that they needed a plan to deal with it, and during the early 90s they came up with not just one plan but several. One was to partner with companies like America Online, a fast-growing subscription service that was less chaotic than the open internet. Another plan was to educate the public about the behaviors required of them by copyright law. New payment models such as micropayments were proposed. Alternatively, they could pursue the profit margins enjoyed by radio and TV, if they became purely ad-supported. Still another plan was to convince tech firms to make their hardware and software less capable of sharing, or to partner with the businesses running data networks to achieve the same goal. Then there was the nuclear option: sue copyright infringers directly, making an example of them."

"Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know ‘If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?’ To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke. With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data. It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem."

"That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify."

Monday, March 16, 2009

AIG’s Bonus Bonanza

Some legal thoughts on AIG’s Bonus Bonanza.

Dan Kalikows Favorite Graph

Dan Kalikow describes his Favorite Graph in five parts, Part 1/5, My Favorite Graph: at the Equator.

"About 30 or 40 years back, I saw this graph in 'Sky & Telescope' magazine (see link at [1] below). I don't recall its author. I loved it and hung it on my office wall. It turned up again behind a bookcase a couple months ago, and I was so glad to renew acquaintances with it. For me, it has remained simply the most beautiful, the most chock-full of information graph ever, and that includes Minard's stunning multidimensional map/graph of Napoleon's March to Russia)"

Starbucks to Offer New Strategy Blend

The Wall Street Journal reports Starbucks to Offer New Strategy Blend "A broad series of changes at Starbucks Corp., from instant coffee to new menu boards that leave off drink prices, show how Starbucks is adjusting its upscale formula to the economic downturn."

"In the past month, Starbucks has entered the instant-coffee market with a version called Via that the company bills as offering a cup of Starbucks coffee for less than $1. It also has introduced pairings of breakfast sandwiches and drinks priced at $3.95, or about $1 less than when bought individually."

Offering bonus combos makes sense, leaving prices off your menu is just wrong.

Best Sandwiches in America?

Slashfood Readers Pick the Best Sandwiches in America. I've had numbers 1, 39, and 46.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Reinventing the Presidency

January's Atlantic had an article The Founders’ Great Mistake that comments on some problems with how the executive branch works (or doesn't work) and suggests some solutions. Interesting read.

"Who is responsible for the past eight years of dismal American governance? ‘George W. Bush’ is a decent answer. But we should reserve some blame for the Founding Fathers, who created a presidential office that is ill-considered, vaguely defined, and ripe for abuse. Here’s how to fix what the Founders got wrong—before the next G. W. Bush enters the Oval Office."

No It's Not Fixed Yet

I like this post by Kevin Drum last week: Fixing the Economy "So, yeah, in public he appears to be dithering.  And the rock jawed titans of Wall Street are doing the same thing they always do when things aren't quite going their way: they weep and moan and panic.  It's quite a spectacle.  But honestly, this is something that's going to take months to address at a minimum.  That's just the way it is.  Going into a panic because we're well into his seventh week and Obama hasn't cured the economy is silly."

Saturday, March 14, 2009

More Proof Quantum Mechanics is Spooky

I hope someone can explain this to me. The Economist wrote Quantum physics and reality, I'm not looking, honest! and Science News wrote 'Spooky Action At A Distance' Of Quantum Mechanics Directly Observed.

if a particle and anti-particle collide, they annihilate each other. Hardy's paradox is that they might not if the interaction isn't observed. Basically if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, did it really fall?

"This week Kazuhiro Yokota of Osaka University in Japan and his colleagues demonstrated that Hardy’s paradox is, in fact, correct. They report their work in the New Journal of Physics. The experiment represents independent confirmation of a similar demonstration by Jeff Lundeen and Aephraim Steinberg of the University of Toronto, which was published seven weeks ago in Physical Review Letters."

Both groups used quantum entangled photons, "In this version, two photons were used instead of a positron and an electron and relied not upon non-annihilation but on polarization degrees of freedom values measured."

They uses a technique known as weak measurement which gives some information but not all and doesn't disturb the particles. "Dr Yokota (and also Drs Lundeen and Steinberg) managed to observe them without looking, as it were, by not gathering enough information from any one interaction to draw a conclusion, and then pooling these partial results so that the total became meaningful."

At first read, this reminded me of AAA rated financial derivatives based on bad mortgages, but that's probably just because of what I've been reading lately. :)

The Economist wrote: "Not disturbing it is the quantum-mechanical equivalent of not really looking. So they were able to show that the universe does indeed exist when it is not being observed."

"What the several researchers found was that there were more photons in some places than there should have been and fewer in others. The stunning result, though, was that in some places the number of photons was actually less than zero. Fewer than zero particles being present usually means that you have antiparticles instead. But there is no such thing as an antiphoton (photons are their own antiparticles, and are pure energy in any case), so that cannot apply here. The only mathematically consistent explanation known for this result is therefore Hardy’s."

Here's the researcher's own description from their abstract, "Unlike Hardy's original argument in which the contradiction is inferred by retrodiction, our experiment reveals its paradoxical nature as preposterous values actually read out from the meter. Such a direct observation of a paradox gives us new insights into the spooky action of quantum mechanics."

The Bees are Back in Town

Remember the bees disappearing? Well maybe not so much. The Economist reported The bees are back in town "The economic crisis has contributed to a glut of bees in California. That raises questions about whether a supposed global pollination crisis is real"

Periodic Table of Typefaces

For you font geeks: Periodic Table of Typefaces

Pattie Maes demos the Sixth Sense at TED

This TEDTalk by Pattie Maes of the Media Lab demos a new Sixth Sense technology that puts the Minority Report interface to shame. It seems to be the work of her student, Pranav Mistry. It's a wearable computer that projects an interface and controls wherever you are on whatever surface you want. Hold up your fingers in a rectangle to take a picture, draw a circle on your write to project a clock there, scan items in stores and project info about them, right on the item. Very cool ideas...

Stewart-Cramer Interview Analysis

Balkinization has a must read post on The Stewart-Cramer interview and the predicament of journalism.

"The reason we don't see interviews like this on television is first, that interviewees don't sit there and take accusations of this type-- they fight back, spin, obfuscate, or change the subject; and second, that if a contemporary reporter started laying into a subject the way Stewart laid into Cramer, no one would ever agree to an interview with that reporter again. It was a rare combination of circumstances that led Cramer to agree to sit still and listen to Stewart engage in his j'accuse."

There was also a segment on Friday's News Hour, Controversy Continues to Brew Over Media's Role in Financial Meltdown. They spent a bit too much time on the misdirection that yes, Jim Cramer makes mistakes. It of course wasn't about the hazards of stock picking. They did list a number of good articles covering the mistakes of the market that occurred over several years, but another commentator brought up that they were lost in the noise of how to get into this new market. Another said that they started reporting some of the problems, like the housing bubble, too early. So people stopped paying attention and how many times could they continue to write the same story. That's certainly the case with The Economist. But of course, where was the analysis saying that the bubble was being kept artificially alive by bad fed policy?

It ended with: "The thing that people need to realize about journalism is that it's largely telling you what has happened, not what is going to happen. And so the only part of journalism that tells you what is going to happen is investigative journalism. And that's getting savaged right now in a lot of media companies where they're laying people off."

Update: Of course, Glenn Greenwald has stuff to say on this that is worth reading, There's nothing unique about Jim Cramer.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Watch Thursdays Daily Show

Seriously, you have to watch this. Jon Stewart had Jim Cramer on and it wasn't funny at all. He did the best interview on the financial crises I've seen. He must have lost a ton of money because he is pissed. And the same way he handed it to Crossfire on CNN in 2004, he just did the same thing to CNBC with Cramer sitting next to him.

A CEO lied to you, shocker. Maybe reporting involves doing some fact checking. Uncovering 35:1 leverage shouldn't be difficult.

He apologized that Cramer became the face of this while deploring the programming of CNBC.

The video isn't up yet, but it will be here. It will also be rerun on Comedy Central friday at 10am, 2pm, and 8pm ET.

FlowingData - Data Visualization and Statistics

Rachel Maddow had this great tweet today, "As a radio shlub who is new to presenting info visually, I'm falling in <3 with people who worry over how to do it well" and then she pointed to FlowingData Data Visualization and Statistics.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

So I went to the first day of the Gender and the Law conference at Radcliffe today. I got there early and managed to get a seat in the second row:
IMG_0058 1.JPG

The first panel was led by Linda Greenhouse who used to report on the Supreme Court for the New York Times. It included Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Judge Nancy Gertner and Judge Sandra Lynch. We all stood and applauded as she walked in and I and at least a few of those around me were all surprised at how well she seemed. She is tiny but had no problems walking and negotiating the stairs unaided. She had surgery 5 weeks ago and will be 76 on Sunday.

Greenhouse commented that she was surprised that Ginsburg attended the State of the Union message and commented that in another interview she said that she did it "because I wanted the country to see that there's a woman on the Supreme Court." That seems to be a paraphrasing of this.

IMG_0061 1.jpg

It was an interesting overview of the field which I hadn't known much about. Greenhouse's introduction set the stage very nicely by pointing out that three of them were all within months of each other in age and basically had Ginsburg to thank for paving the way for them. I knew she had done some gender discrimination cases, but I hadn't realized that she basically created the field in the seventies, much as Brown v. Board of Education had done for civil rights cases.

She went to Harvard Law School in the fifties where she was one of nine women in a class of over 500. She left after two years and finished at Columbia because her husband got a good job in New York. Harvard wouldn't let her do her third year at Columbia and then get a Harvard degree and if I understood it correctly, they would have had she been a man.

She mentioned a case but I don't know the name, I think it was from 1961. It was set in Florida where the law did not require women to serve on juries. They could volunteer, but of course few did. A Florida woman was on trial for murder of her abusive philandering husband and was convicted by an all male jury. She argued she wanted a juror of her peers that might understand her frame of mind. Ginsburg found the FL law objectionable because it said women weren't important enough to have to perform this duty of citizenship.

In the seventies she founded the Women's Rights Project at the ACLU and worked on several seminal cases. One of the panelists said "We would not have Title VII or Title IX without Ruth Bader Ginsburg."

I have a few cases I want to read about:
Reed v. Reed (1971) - unanimously overturned the Idaho Probate Court specification that "males must be preferred to females" in appointing administrators of estates.
Frontiero v. Richardson (1973) - changed military benefits so that could not be different based on gender. This was the first case Ginsburg argued before the Supreme Court and apparently her performance was brilliant.
Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld (1975) - Overturned a clause in Social Security law. Women could only get benefits for themselves not their family. This case was a widower who couldn't get benefits for his child, no one was going to vote against it.

She mentioned a case they never managed to bring to court as it became moot. During Vietnam, an Air Force Captain (Susan Strut?) became pregnant and told her commanding officer. He gave her two choices, leave the air force or get an abortion (which would have been provided by the base as was apparently common practice). She didn't want to leave the Air Force as it was her career, was Roman Catholic and didn't want an abortion, and had arranged for adoption at birth. I've forgotten why it became moot, but imagine a government forced abortion coming to trial today?

It turns out that most of the sex discrimination cases rely on the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, the state can not "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." This was a post civil war amendment and the framers clearly were applying it to issues of race. It was not for gender reasons as there were many discriminatory gender laws on the books at the time. But they used the word person, and can we now interpret it more broadly/ This is the liberal vs originalist argument. She explicitly said she thought the framers intended it to grow beyond race and while it didn't sound like just her viewpoint, she didn't cite any evidence for this view.

It was a very interesting discussion. The ACLU has this article on some of these topics, Tribute: The Legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and WRP Staff.

Afterwards was a panel on gender and education. The main case cited was the 1996 VMI case, United States v. Virginia. Apparently there's a movement in the country to allow public schools to offer single sex classes (or even schools). There are supposedly some benefits of this an a few examples of schools having great success in helping troubled students by moving them to single gender classes. However, Emily Martin of the Women's Rights Project of the ACLU listed many examples of discrimination and listed two primary instigators of such programs as Leonard Sax and Michael Gurian. She said they say some reasonable things but listed many crazy sounding differences between the genders that supported quite different teaching methods. One was that girls hearing is 10 times better than boys, so a male teacher speaking in a normal voice sounds as if they are shouting at them, and since boys hearing is bad, teachers should speak louder to them to be heard. There were more differences about math ability, etc. She made them come off as the Intelligent Designers of single sex education.

I had a difficult time understanding the issue as it seemed clear cut to me. Brown v. Board of Ed had found separate is inherently unequal. For public schools it seems they should be co-ed. Private schools can of course do what they want. I wouldn't be allow to start a company and hire only a single gender because it would make management techniques easier. I didn't get to ask any questions but a law professor sitting next to me explained that while this might be true in the broad sense, when you get to the legal details and connecting the dots it wasn't as clear cut. Also employment law is different from education law which is clearly true. Like software, it seems lots of laws have bugs too.

Questions were submitted on index cards and the moderator collected them and asked the panel. Apparently 8 people asked about transgendered K-12 students. This was in Cambridge after all. The answer was that most single sex school advocates pretend they don't exist.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Cheney's Executive Assassination Ring

The Raw Story | Hersh: 'Executive assassination ring' reported directly to Cheney

"Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh dropped a bombshell on Tuesday when he told an audience at the University of Minnesota that the military was running an 'executive assassination ring' throughout the Bush years which reported directly to former Vice President Dick Cheney."

"Hersh then went on to describe a second area of extra-legal operations: the Joint Special Operations Command. "It is a special wing of our special operations community that is set up independently," he explained. "They do not report to anybody, except in the Bush-Cheney days, they reported directly to the Cheney office. ... Congress has no oversight of it."

"It’s an executive assassination ring essentially, and it’s been going on and on and on," Hersh stated. "Under President Bush’s authority, they’ve been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or the CIA station chief, and finding people on a list and executing them and leaving. That’s been going on, in the name of all of us.""

Almost makes me sorry I like The Unit. Can we torture Cheney yet?

RBG at Harvard

I probably won't be blogging much Thu and Fri this week as I'm going to conference at Radcliffe on Gender and the Law. A panel Thu afternoon will include Pulitzer Prize winning former Supreme Court report for the New York Times, Linda Greenhouse and more interestingly, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Should be fun.

Lithium Battery Breakthrough

Ars Technica Lithium breakthrough could charge batteries in 10 seconds "A new version of lithium battery technology can either provide a higher storage density than current batteries, or can charge and discharge as fast as a supercapacitor, emptying its entire charge in under 10 seconds."

The article gets into some details and this could be huge. Then again, it ends with this:

"A more significant problem is that these batteries may wind up facing an electric grid that was never meant to deal with them. A 1Wh cell phone battery could charge in 10 seconds, but would pull a hefty 360W in the process. A battery that's sufficient to run an electric vehicle could be fully charged in five minutes—which would make electric vehicles incredibly practical—but doing so would pull 180kW, which is most certainly not practical."

But didn't Obama want to upgrade the electric grid to deal with alternative energy? Hmmmm....

Greenwald on Chuck Schumer

I don't know anything about Charles Freeman. Glenn Greenwald writes about The agenda of Chuck Schumer (D-NY) about his history of confirmation votes.

"You can break the law when spying on Americans.  You can store massive amounts of data about the activities of American citizens without the Congress authorizing or even knowing about it. You can give cover to torture, endorse the idea that Americans can be imprisoned without charges, and assert that the President can attack Iran without Congressional authority.  You can advocate aggressive wars against Iraq and Iran and even take positions too extremist and belligerent even for the Bush administration. That's all perfectly fine for Chuck Schumer.  All of that is perfectly consistent with occupying the highest and most powerful positions in Government.

But you can't make 'statements against Israel.'  Even for far less important and influential positions, even for positions that require far-ranging debates of ideas, that will cause Chuck Schumer to call Rahm Emanuel and -- echoing the views of the further-right members of the Senate -- demand that you be disqualified from serving in the American government, and then run around boasting that making 'over-the-top' statements 'against Israel' is the supreme sin in American politics. Chuck Schumer represents nothing other than the rotted ways of Washington. "

I like Schumer's politics, but I'm liking him less and less when he speaks. I saw him with Lindsay Graham on a sunday morning show I think last weekend, and I was impressed with how useless both of their statements were.

Remember Private Social Security Accounts?

The Cunning Realist writes: "Anyone seen any recent calls for Social Security private accounts?" At least one thing that Bush wasn't allowed to screw up.

Damning Jim Cramer Video

I wonder how much of this Huffington Post piece Jon Stewart is going to use. Jim Cramer Shorting Stocks, Manipulating Markets, Saying The SEC Doesn't Understand.

"In light of the current economic crisis, and with the hullabaloo ignited recently by Jon Stewart over the accuracy of CNBC's reporting, we thought it might be useful to revisit this shocking 2006 interview Jim Cramer gave to TheStreet.com's Aaron Task. In it, the host of Mad Money says he regularly manipulated the market when he ran his hedge fund. He calls it "a fun game, and it's a lucrative game." He suggests all hedge fund managers do the same. "No one else in the world would ever admit that, but I could care. I am not going to say it on TV," he quips in the video."

Hello? SEC?


Twitchhiker documents the travels of Paul Smith. "On 1st March, [he’ll] attempt to travel as far around the world as possible in 30 days, relying only on the goodwill of people using Twitter." He left from Newcastle upon Tyne, UK and the goal is New Zealand. The first rule is "I can only accept offers of travel and accommodation on Twitter, from users who are following @twitchhiker." He can only spend money on food and drink, can't make plans more than 3 days in advance and must move every 2 days.

How strange.

All Clear, Well Mostly

I went to my ENT for my 4 week followup today. My septum is completely healed and straight. My turbinates are 95% healed. The remaining 5% explains the post-nasal drip and sore throat I've been experiencing (he saw no evidence of infection). He saw a few dry patches still and I should continue "moisturizing" with the bacitracin for a few more weeks.

The dry winter air doesn't help; everything heals more slowly in winter. He said the humid air that comes with 60º April days should help a lot.

I still have some numbness in my two front teeth but that's normal and should continue to get better day by day. Same with the soreness in my nose. I am allowed to blow my nose like a normal person.

I finally figured out where the turbinates are. All the diagrams I've seen show a profile of the nose and I thought of them on the outer part of the nose. But they are above the roof the mouth and go back almost as far as the ears. They are huge.

My sleep is improved and I feel rested, which I didn't before. But I am waking up in the middle of the night I think due to some heartburn I can't quite explain. I'll work on that. Getting one thing taken care of doesn't fix anything else that might be wrong. Software is so much easier to debug.

Thanks for all the well-wishes.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Missing $1,000,000 Tax Bracket

I really like the point of this post by Nate Silver, The Missing $1,000,000 Tax Bracket.

Movie Review: Watchmen

My expectation for Watchmen was that it would be a fairly faithful retelling of the plot of the graphic novel but not much more. I think the film exactly met that expectation. Unfortunately, the plot is the least interesting thing about the graphic novel.

I saw the film with a group of 12 people, only about half had read the graphic novel before and only a couple of us had read it multiple times. I can't say anyone loved it and most of the uninitiated found it quite long and a couple found it boring and the others were certainly not fascinated but thought it ok.

As a superhero movie for a general audience it's a tough sell. The characters are all original; no one has ever heard of them before unless they've read the book. It's probably a bit worse that they're based on old Charlton comics characters from the sixties that even fewer people have ever heard of. Perhaps the hook is that it tries to postulate what a world would be like if costumed heroes really existed, the problem is that some of the changes from the book really weaken that element of the film and that other films have already tried to do that with more familiar heroes (Batman Begins, Spider-Man, X-Men).

A lot of people have said that Watchmen is unfilmable, but few say why. The real special quality of the Watchmen graphic novel was that it pushed the medium of comics further than anything had. In that respect it's like Citizen Kane, doing everything at the highest level. Every page has a layout with a 3x3 grid which gives a metronomic quality to the pacing. Very few times are the panels combined or split, giving added emotional weight to the scene. Cinematic techniques like zooming, cross cutting and match cutting are used.

Every scene change has some transitional element. It might be a phrase repeated by two characters or an image or a theme. Rorschach throwing hot oil on a fellow convict is followed by a drop of coffee in a pot. Jon's former girlfriend complaining about their breakup is cross cut with his current girlfriend running out on him. One character saying "there is so little time" cuts to another saying "it's getting pretty late". An image of trick-or-treaters followed by someone saying "it's like all our old nightmares come back to haunt us". Sometimes it's too forced, but you have to be impressed with the dedication.

The relationship between words and pictures are explored. Sometimes the words in a panel relate directly to the image, sometimes ironically, sometimes thematically. Sometimes there are multiple dialogs happening at once and unlike in a film, you can make sense of them at your own pace. Sometimes the story is conveyed in words, sometimes just in the images, sometimes additional information is buried in the details of the images. You're encouraged to flip back to previous parts of the story to relate images and phrases. Often the same scene is shown from a different perspective or the similar phrases are used repeatedly.

The most obvious example of how it explores comics versus any other medium is issue 5. It's titled Fearful Symmetries and explores the idea of symmetry every way it can. There are reflections in mirrors and puddles. Symmetrical ink blots are shown. Words and letters and numbers that are symmetrical like V and 810018 are used repeatedly. There are thematic symmetries between different characters. A parallel story with a pirate comic within a comic is told. Even more so, the layout of the whole issue is symmetrical. The center two pages are a symmetrical spread and the next two outer pages have symmetrical layouts and story elements and so on. I don't know as it adds much to the storytelling, but no other medium could do this.

There are hundreds of repeated motifs, including lots of repeated imagery. The smiley face, clocks, radiation symbols, graffiti, silhouettes of two people in an embrace, newspapers, a face surrounded by hands, etc. fat man little boy.jpegSome are very subtle. My favorite is this image from issue 4 page 6 that make a subtle nuclear reference. Notice the "fat man and little boy" as background figures in adjacent panels. Yes, I'm sure this was deliberate. In another fun visual pun, a short villain has only his voice balloons in his first panels because he was too short to be in the panel.

Watchmen really requires multiple readings to appreciate. Like the movie The Sixth Sense, you can watch it once and enjoy the ending, but it's only when you watch the whole thing again that you appreciate that every scene works two different ways. On repeated reads of Watchmen you always pick up more things. It unfilmable not because the story was too complex or dense, but because it did things that just don't work in film (or prose for that matter). For the same reason you can't translate a poem or an instrumental song into a film (aside from a performance) you can't translate a comic pushing the medium this far. My one hope was that they would instead push the film medium as far as they could, but of course they didn't do that.

So how did the movie do? It's a pretty faithful adaption of a rather complex story that's filled with lots of flashbacks to flesh out a fictional world. I think the story was easy enough to follow. The opening credit sequence explains lots of the backstory and was one of the highlights of the film (and some easter eggs in it are explained here). It's hard for me to tell if they made it so that someone unfamiliar with the story would care about the characters. Even given the 2:40 runtime, there's so much story, I'm not sure you have time to relate or really understand the characters.

They added a little more action and removed minor characters and a few plot points and changed the ending a bit. They also removed the comic-within-a-comic Tales of the Black Freighter. There are certainly compromises that need to be made in a film adaptation, but I found all of these hurt the point of the story (well except for the Black Freighter, I was ok with that going). Yes the book was violent but the film has more graphic depictions of violence onscreen which seemed unnecessary.

In a story in part about how we need to look to ourselves and not superheroes for our own future, removing the common man seems like a big loss. Dr. Manhattan's alienation from human kind was played down and so his realization that even a single human life is special is less significant. In the comic Laurie and Dan were pathetic and mostly useless figures, the bad guy doesn't even bother with them, twice. In the film they were beefed up and given seemingly superhuman fighting abilities which undercuts the idea that even the most ordinary can make a significant difference. And I don't know why people are ok with the change to the ending, I don't think it makes sense at all.

On the other hand, I thought Jackie Earle Haley made a great Rorschach, and seeing his mask actually changing was a nice improvement (though you can't compare when the images are the same). Jeffrey Dean Morgan made a great Comedian, which is especially impressive considering he was Grey's Anatomy's all too likable Denny. Dr. Manhattan was also done well. I did miss that the film did not attempt to explain to us how he perceives things and by shrinking the role of Rorschach's psychologist they played down how bleak his world view actually is; which for an uncompromising objectivist that seems significant. Nixon's makeup was awful; he had Pinocchio's nose.

One big difference between comics and film is that film can have a soundtrack. Watchmen certainly does. There are lots of very recognizable, loud and unsubtle musical choices. A couple work pretty well, but less obvious choices might have been better in keeping with the techniques of the comic.

Overall, I'm not sure seeing the movie will make people want to see it again or make them want to read the graphic novel. If you're debating seeing it, I'd say read the graphic novel instead. Twice.


Here are my problems with the ending. In the comic, Ozymandias manufactures an alien invasion to scare the world into working together against a common enemy. All the people who help him work on this plot are fed a fake story about making a very secret Hollywood film and then eliminated by people who eliminate each other before the squid is launched. There are no loose ends for anyone to trace back to him.

In the film, the alien is replaced with technology based on Dr. Manhattan and the public thinks Dr. Manhattan attacks them. They unite to defend themselves from him. But he's left earth 2 days prior. Why do they think he's attacking them? And in the film upon hearing of this plot Jon says he must leave to keep the story going. Shouldn't he stay to continue to frighten people? And at least several major energy industrial figures know that Veidt has been working with Dr. Manhattan on a new energy source (if not the general public). Wouldn't someone connect that he might be responsible for the explosions? Isn't that a big thread for the world's smartest man to leave dangling? And why would Janey Slater hire someone to hire someone to kill Moloch? In the book, she just thinks she'd dying of cancer from Jon. In the film she's involved with the plot and is still alive at the end of the film.

In the comic, the alien was created from genetic technology and Bubastis, Veidt's mutant lynx, is created via that research. In the film she just appears out of nowhere with no explanation. In the comic Veidt made his fortune by creating new energy sources, the film it's unclear how he made his money.

Finally, in the book there are two short and critical conversations between Jon and Veidt that are not in the film. In the 70s Veidt says to Jon "With your help, our scientists are limited only by their imaginations" and Jon replies "And by their consciences surely?" to which Veidt says "Let's hope so". That's a lot of foreshadowing for Veidt's character. At the very end Viedt asks Jon "I did the right thing, didn't I? It all worked out in the end" and Jon says "In the end? Nothing ends Adrian. Nothing ever ends" and Veidt replies "Jon? Wait! What do you mean by..." and Jon leaves. The film doesn't have that conversation and has Laurie say the "nothing ever ends line" to Dan. That really undercuts the moral issues with what Veidt did.

I didn't care about Lukas changing Star Wars so that Han fired first. I'm surprised I care so much about the above changes; but they do feel more significant to me. Sure, they allow the scene in Antarctica to work mostly the same, but they don't work as well as a scheme thought up by Ozymandias. And the comic went to great trouble to be internally consistent.

Ok, have at me. I'm really curious to hear other people's thoughts on the film.