Wednesday, April 30, 2008

From "Ocho Cinco" to big zero!

Apparently Cincinnati fans are upset with Chad Johnson…. What a shock! Even while deriding other wide receivers as damaged goods (think TO) for their past antics, narcissism, and 'bad' behavior, many fans cheered on “Ocho Cinquo” for indulging in essentially the same capers. As long as the team was on a roll and winning, “Ocho” was one of the boys, and all was well with the world. Alas, it could not last, “Ocho” stayed true to type, began to let slip that he thought himself greater than the team, and suddenly his antics were no longer funny… What did the fans expect? 

To these fans, jersey represents a turncoat

Monday, April 28, 2008

Mental Health Break

Backward Iraqis

Definition: complex
Antonyms: naïve, unsophisticated
Definition: complex, advanced
Antonyms: easy, naïve, simple, slow, unsophisticated
Definition: cosmopolitan, cultured
Antonyms: backward, crude, naive, uncultivated, uncultured, unrefined, unsophisticated

This blogger remains surprised at the continued insistence by the U.S. military and administration that the Iraqis, or at least the Iraqi insurgents, are unsophisticated rubes…

Case in point the EFP, or Explosively Formed Penetrator, a “sophisticated” roadside bomb that has been plaguing coalition forces. So “sophisticated” that Iraqis surely aren’t smart enough to make them themselves, and the existence of EFPs is prima facie evidence that the Iranians are smuggling these “advanced” devices to their militia friends in Iraq.

Ignore the fact that EFPs are simply a variant of a shaped charge, and that shaped charges have been around since before World War II. This technology has been used in anti-tank weaponry since 1940. High explosive anti-tank (HEAT) rounds are made of an explosive shaped charge that uses a variant of the Munroe effect (itself dating to 1888) to create a high-velocity jet of molten metal that can penetrate solid armor. With the tens or hundreds of thousands of tons of munitions from the Saddam era all over Iraq it’s not a stretch that knowledge re this old technology was widespread among members of the old Iraqi military. The Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF – Red Army Faction a.k.a Baader-Meinhof Gang) murdered a German banker in 1989 using a EFP. And most of the pictures of these “sophisticated” weapons that have been released by the military have had a distinctly artisanal look (e.g. see link below) about them…

A second example consists of “sophisticated” attacks carried out in Iraq. For example, the January 2007 attack on government ministry buildings in Karbala surely had to be carried out by Iranian infiltrators, given “the sophistication of the attack and the level of coordination necessary.” This meme has been repeated on several occasions since.

I have seen that Sun Tzu is required reading for the Marines and for COIN experts, but for some unknown reason they are ignoring his maxim - “It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.” Underestimating the enemy, internalizing Rumsfeld’s “dead ender” propaganda, assuming that they are stupid, etc. is a big error paid for in lives.

Iranian weapons in Iraq

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

WMD aren't what they used to be...

An 18-year-old accused of planning to bomb his high school in South Carolina will be charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction... (see link below). In 2006 this blogger bemoaned the promiscuous use of the term WMD (see reprint below), the unfortunate trend continues...

Prosecutor says S.C. student to face WMD charge

OPED 43 WMD - reprint from 05/11/06

Ahh, the good old days when one could know what "weapons of mass destruction" really were... Post WWII the term WMD started off as nuclear weapons, but was then extended to include chemical, biological, and then radiological weapons. However, in the U.S. over the past decade the legal list of what constitutes "WMD" has been greatly expanded. US Code Title 18 Part 1 Chapter 113B Section 2332a spells out the penalties for anyone who uses, or threatens, attempts, or conspires to use, a weapon of mass destruction. It goes on to define "WMD":

"The term “weapon of mass destruction” means
  • (A) any destructive device as defined in section 921 of this title;
  • (B) any weapon that is designed or intended to cause death or serious bodily injury through the release, dissemination, or impact of toxic or poisonous chemicals, or their precursors;
  • (C) any weapon involving a biological agent, toxin, or vector (as those terms are defined in section 178 of this title); or
  • (D) any weapon that is designed to release radiation or radioactivity at a level dangerous to human life."
Section 921 lists firearms, destructive devices (further defined as any explosive, incendiary, or poison gas— (i) bomb, (ii) grenade, (iii) rocket having a propellant charge of more than four ounces, (iv) missile having an explosive or incendiary charge of more than one-quarter ounce, (v) mine, or (vi) device similar to any of the devices described in the preceding clauses), shotguns, rifles, antique firearms, handguns, semiautomatic assault weapons, etc.

Under 2332a's more expansive definition prosecutors have brought charges, and secured convictions, for the use of "WMD" in multiple cases, including offenses involving truck bombs, pipe bombs, shoe bombs, cactus needles coated with botulin toxin, etc., etc. More recently, this was one count against Zacarias Moussaoui in his conviction and sentencing...

Once, nuclear weapons were in a class by themselves and their use was virtually unthinkable. Now, and going forward, there is a real danger that they could become just another tool in the available arsenal of weapons. First, by conflating nuclear weapons with explosives over a quarter ounce in "WMD", you dilute "top of mind" awareness re WMD. This is further weakened as politicians play fast and loose with the term "WMD." And for some inexplicable reason there are many in the administration that seem hell-bent on pushing the possible use of nuclear weapons as the answer to what to do about caves or fortified bunkers... (think RNEP). The very first time a nuclear weapon is used against a natural formation or man-made bunkers it will sound the death knell for non-proliferation efforts worldwide!

What we should be doing is maintaining nuclear weapons apart and in a special place, both in language and in metaphor; avoiding things like the RNEP that will transform the use of nuclear weapons from quasi-unthinkable to just a "bigger bomb" that everyone needs; and continuing the drawdown of existing stockpiles. The U.S. should also encourage Britain and France to decommission their nukes... why exactly do these two countries need to maintain their nuclear forces?? Truth be told, the only rational reason that Britain & France maintain nuclear weapons is for reasons of national prestige, exactly why some of the non-nuclear countries desire "WMD". Worldwide efforts to ensure non-proliferation would receive a boost, as would the NPT After all, this was an implicit part of the "quid pro quo" entered into by the nuclear "haves" and "have-nots" (Article VI) in 1968.

Did they say that? (II) - updated

Pursuant to legislation passed by the Congress following 9/11 the Department of Homeland Security was tasked with putting in place a system to record the entry and exit of foreign visitors to the U.S. The intent was to have an automated system that would match arrival and departure records, making it possible to identify visa overstays and get an accurate picture of overstays by nationality, immigration status, the numbers from visa waiver countries, etc. In 2004 it implemented US-VISIT/Entry program that recorded visitors’ digital fingerprints and a took a digital photograph.

Now the department has proposed the exit portion of the US-VISIT program. It wants the airlines to be responsible for collecting departing visitors’ biometric data, something that will cost the carriers a bundle. Not the best of timing, given that three airlines have recently declared bankruptcy (ATA, Aloha, and Frontier), United Airlines just announced its largest ever quarterly loss since it emerged from bankruptcy in 2006, and Delta and Northwest are proposing a merger to survive better, etc. The airlines and their trade group (IATA) are protesting vociferously.

Driving home I heard a DHS spokesman defend the proposal on the radio, saying (not a verbatim quote) that it is fair because … this a cost of doing business, bringing visitors into and out of the United States… Wow! So perhaps we can stretch this to charging the airlines for any/all illegal activities done by visitors, just another “… cost of doing business…” Or perhaps the airlines should bill the federal government billions of dollars as “… a benefit of doing business, bringing visitors into and out of the US…” After all tourism contributes over three percent of U.S. gross domestic product!

DHS Proposes Biometric Airport and Seaport Exit Procedures
Statement of the IATA CEO about the US-VISIT/EXIT program
IATA doesn't like this fingerprint proposal

04/23 update: Delta Air Lines announced a first quarter loss of $6.39 billion, while Northwest reported a $4.1 billion.

Delta, Northwest report combined $10.5B loss on fuel costs

(Veteran) Kamikaze Pilots

The movie ‘Wings of Defeat’ interviews kamikaze pilots who survived; covering their lives, their training, the ultimate sacrifice they were called upon to give, their experiences, their flights, and their survival while their fellow kamikaze pilots perished. Several of these survivors have been speaking at high schools and colleges around the United States. Amazing stories, see the trailer and some clips at the links below….

Wings of Defeat
'Wings of Defeat': Kamikaze Stories, Told in Person
Kamikaze Images

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Did they say that?

1. Location: Zimbabwe. Parliamentary & presidential elections held March 29th, all indicators that the MDC and Morgan Tsvangirai came out ahead of the ruling ZANU-PF and Robert Mugabe; no presidential results announced yet; the government accusing the opposition of treason and plotting “illegal regime change’; riot police and security forces deployed across the country in a show of force; all this against a backdrop of the economy cratering. South African President Thabo Mbeki on a visit declares “There is no crisis in Zimbabwe.

2. Location: New York. A construction worker who is a Boston Red Sox fan buried a jersey of his favorite team in the concrete of the new Yankee stadium “to curse” them. Apparently he couldn’t keep his mouth shut; the Yankees found out and dug up the jersey. Yankees President Randy Levine said "The first thought was, you know, it's never a good thing to be buried in cement when you're in New York. But then we decided, why reward somebody who had really bad motives and was trying to do a really bad thing?" Levine said the shirt would be cleaned up and sent to a charity affiliated with Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. "Hopefully the Jimmy Fund will auction it off and we'll take the act that was a very, very bad act and turn it into something beautiful," Levine added. Really bad, very bad!

Yankees curse foiled by construction workers

3. Colin Powell exited the Bush administration with his reputation slightly tarnished (by his UN allegations of Iraqi WMD that turned out to be chimeric) but mostly intact. He then remained mum, avoiding any criticism of the Bush administration. However retired U.S. Army Col. Larry Wilkerson, Powell’s chief of staff from when he was Secretary of State, made a splash when he came out strongly against poor treatment of detainees; laid responsibility at the door of Vice President Cheney; and said that Powell had no first-hand knowledge of how abuse/torture had come about. His views were taken as reflecting the views of Powell, and (see linked article below) “in many ways Wilkerson's sizzling speech was a vital part of the effort to preserve Powell's legacy and indicate that he didn't sign off on the administration's efforts to institutionalize soft torture techniques or ignore the Geneva Conventions…. Wilkerson saved Powell's reputation in the eyes of some people…” Powell did not agree with or deny Wilkerson’s characterization.

Now evidence has come out that mistreatment and ‘enhanced interrogation techniques” i.e. torture were discussed in precise detail at the Principals meeting, of which Powell was a key part. When asked re this Colin Powell said that he didn't have "sufficient memory recall" about the meetings & that he had participated in "… many meetings on how to deal with detainees…” & “…"I'm not aware of anything that we discussed in any of those meetings that was not considered legal” Way to go!

Mental Health Break

Saturday, April 19, 2008

One Version Permitted (news from this week)

1. "Any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted." - His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI at the prayer service with U.S. bishops at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. Yikes!

2. From the news (AP):

"President Robert Mugabe devoted his first major speech since the unresolved elections three weeks ago to denouncing whites and former colonial ruler Britain, an attempt to convince Zimbabweans that their political and economic troubles stem abroad."

Some of his more memorable lines included:  "... Down with thieves who want to steal our country..."; "... Zimbabwe will never be a colony again. Never shall we retreat...."; claimed that his political opposition wants "... this country to go back to white people, to the British, the country we died for. It will never happen..."; "... Beware. Be vigilant in the face of the vicious machinations of Britain and its other allies," Mugabe also said. "Yesterday they ruled by brute force. Today they have perfected their tactics to be more subtle. They are literally buying people to turn against the government. We are being bought like sheep because they have money and because we are suffering...."

The occasion? Friday, April 18th, 2008 was Zimbabwe's 28th Independence Day celebration. OK, so this might be a reasonable approach to the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, etc. anniversary of independence, but the 28th?? Surely there’s a ‘statute of limitations’ on blaming others for one’s situation, especially when the country is now much worse off? At what point do Mugabe & the ZANU-PF feel that they begin to bear some responsibility for the conditions in the country? Apparently ‘lousy British colonialists’ is the excuse that keeps on giving…

3. Former President Jimmy Carter met Friday with Hamas senior leader Khaled Meshaal (in Damascus). He has been severely criticized by many, and even vilified by some for agreeing to meet with the head of a terrorist organization. The Israeli Government has been very critical, and there was a minor kerfluffle re the lack of Israeli secret service protection for Carter when he was touring Israel. Well, the GOI has in the past (and will undoubtedly in the future) had “back channel” and “third party” contacts with Hamas and other terrorist organizations. Also, as reported in Ha’aretz”, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai asked Carter to tell Hamas leaders that he (Yishai) would like to meet with them to order to expedite a prisoner exchange that would bring home kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. So what are we to make of their criticism of Carter? Simple, no significant U.S. politician can be allowed to “wander off the reservation” re issues in the Middle East…  And strange how the discussion in Israel can be much more vigorous and wide-ranging that what is “allowed” in the United States.

Jimmy Carter, Hamas, and the Media
Carter gets reduced protection in Israel
Yishai to Carter: Tell Meshal that I want to discuss prisoner swap

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Well Said ?!?

His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman province, Sovereign of the State of the Vatican City, Servant of the Servants of God is visiting the United States. Yesterday he spoke at a prayer service with U.S. bishops at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC, where among other subjects he addressed the issue of the sexual abuse of children by members of the clergy.

Part of his remarks included the following (complete transcript of remarks here).

"Among the countersigns to the Gospel of life found in America and elsewhere is one that causes deep shame: the sexual abuse of minors. Many of you have spoken to me of the enormous pain that your communities have suffered when clerics have betrayed their priestly obligations and duties by such gravely immoral behavior. As you strive to eliminate this evil wherever it occurs, you may be assured of the prayerful support of God's people throughout the world. Rightly, you attach priority to showing compassion and care to the victims. It is your God-given responsibility as pastors to bind up the wounds caused by every breach of trust, to foster healing, to promote reconciliation and to reach out with loving concern to those so seriously wronged.

Responding to this situation has not been easy and, as the President of your Episcopal Conference has indicated, it was "sometimes very badly handled". Now that
the scale and gravity of the problem is more clearly understood, you have been able to adopt more focused remedial and disciplinary measures and to promote a safe environment that gives greater protection to young people. While it must be remembered that the overwhelming majority of clergy and religious in America do outstanding work in bringing the liberating message of the Gospel to the people entrusted to their care, it is vitally important that the vulnerable always be shielded from those who would cause harm. In this regard, your efforts to heal and protect are bearing great fruit not only for those directly under your pastoral care, but for all of society.

If they are to achieve their full purpose,
however, the policies and programs you have adopted need to be placed in a wider context. Children deserve to grow up with a healthy understanding of sexuality and its proper place in human relationships. They should be spared the degrading manifestations and the crude manipulation of sexuality so prevalent today. They have a right to be educated in authentic moral values rooted in the dignity of the human person. This brings us back to our consideration of the centrality of the family and the need to promote the Gospel of life. What does it mean to speak of child protection when pornography and violence can be viewed in so many homes through media widely available today? We need to reassess urgently the values underpinning society, so that a sound moral formation can be offered to young people and adults alike. All have a part to play in this task — not only parents, religious leaders, teachers and catechists, but the media and entertainment industries as well. Indeed, every member of society can contribute to this moral renewal and benefit from it. Truly caring about young people and the future of our civilization means recognizing our responsibility to promote and live by the authentic moral values which alone enable the human person to flourish. It falls to you, as pastors modelled upon Christ, the Good Shepherd, to proclaim this message loud and clear, and thus to address the sin of abuse within the wider context of sexual mores. Moreover, by acknowledging and confronting the problem when it occurs in an ecclesial setting, you can give a lead to others, since this scourge is found not only within your Dioceses, but in every sector of society. It calls for a determined, collective response.

Priests, too, need your guidance and closeness during this difficult time. They have experienced shame over what has occurred, and there are those who feel they have lost some of the trust and esteem they once enjoyed. Not a few are experiencing a closeness to Christ in his Passion as they struggle to come to terms with the consequences of the crisis. The Bishop, as father, brother and friend of his priests, can help them to draw spiritual fruit from this union with Christ by making them aware of the Lord's consoling presence in the midst of their suffering, and by encouraging them to walk with the Lord along the path of hope (cf. Spe Salvi, 39). As Pope John Paul II observed six years ago, "we must be confident that this time of trial will bring a purification of the entire Catholic community", leading to "a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate and a holier Church" (Address to the Cardinals of the United States, 23 April 2002, 4). There are many signs that, during the intervening period, such purification has indeed been taking place. Christ's abiding presence in the midst of our suffering is gradually transforming our darkness into light: all things are indeed being made new in Christ Jesus our hope.

At this stage a vital part of your task is to strengthen relationships with your clergy, especially in those cases where tension has arisen between priests and their bishops in the wake of the crisis.
It is important that you continue to show them your concern, to support them, and to lead by example. In this way you will surely help them to encounter the living God, and point them towards the life-transforming hope of which the Gospel speaks. If you yourselves live in a manner closely configured to Christ, the Good Shepherd, who laid down his life for his sheep, you will inspire your brother priests to rededicate themselves to the service of their flocks with Christ-like generosity. Indeed a clearer focus upon the imitation of Christ in holiness of life is exactly what is needed in order for us to move forward. We need to rediscover the joy of living a Christ-centred life, cultivating the virtues, and immersing ourselves in prayer. When the faithful know that their pastor is a man who prays and who dedicates his life to serving them, they respond with warmth and affection which nourishes and sustains the life of the whole community."
His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI decried the sexual abuse of children by the clergy and exhorted the gathered bishops to heal wounds and proclaim the message of Christ. He later met privately with a number of sexual abuse victims (see CNN’s “Sexual abuse victims describe frank meeting with Pope”), and they had very positive things to say after the meeting. So, it is to be hoped that this matter will be taken care of expeditiously going forward. However, a close reading of his speech to the bishops shows that in many respects he deviated from some of the elements that are considered to make up part of a “good apology” e.g. see HBS’s “The Art of the Apology." His Holiness the Pope may not have meant some of it this way, but a) he is very precise in what he says and uses words very carefully, and, b) it wouldn’t be much of a stretch for a victim of clergy abuse to take pause at some of his language, for example:

  • … in America and elsewhere…” => this is something (regrettable) which happens everywhere (repeated further, see below)
  • … as the President of your Episcopal Conference has indicated, it was "sometimes very badly handled”…” => the Pope did not say that clergy sexual abuse of minors had been handled badly, as reported by most news outlets. He said that he had been told that by the President of the Episcopal Conference…
  • … Now that the scale and gravity of the problem is more clearly understood…” => could be taken as minimizing or excusing the U.S. Catholic Church hierarchy’s slowness to acknowledge the problem and to act more forthrightly to prevent further occurrences…
  • … the overwhelming majority of clergy and religious in America do outstanding work…” => completely true, but again could be construed as the “few bad apples” defense (a la Abu Ghraib) .
  • … need to be placed in a wider context…” having ‘apologized’ in the next breath the Pope appears to tie the abuse to the wider societal context, not so much as a ‘we also have this problem outside the clergy and need to do something there too’ argument, but more in the nature of ‘this wicked society is somewhat to blame.’ This suggested link is strengthened by further words, e.g. … What does it mean to speak of child protection when pornography and violence can be viewed in so many homes through media widely available today? We need to reassess urgently the values underpinning society, & and thus to address the sin of abuse within the wider context of sexual mores….
  • … you can give a lead to others, since this scourge is found not only within your Dioceses, but in every sector of society…” Repeat of the ‘this is something regrettable which happens everywhere’ meme (see first bullet above)

Individually each of these could be put down to nit-picking. However in aggregate we have an ‘apology’ that a) distances the Pope from the issue - by saying "you", "your", etc. rather than "we", "our", etc. His words put the onus for this on the U.S. bishops, though they are all inseparable parts of the body of Christ, and b) seems to seek to minimize this in many regards (this happens everywhere, it’s a few bad apples, society is wicked, you need to do something). It’s great that the Pope has gone this far, but there still a way to go!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Truth or ??

The U.S. military is deploying a handheld “lie detector” for battlefield use in Afghanistan (and then perhaps Iraq). It consists of a handheld computer that has three wires connected to two types of sensors that are attached to the hand of the person being questioned. One type of sensor measures changes in capillary dilation at the tips of the fingers, while the other measures the perspiration on the surface of the skin. The interrogator (most likely via an interpreter) asks a series of questions, then will enter the (yes/no) answers. After a delay for processing (via a proprietary algorithm developed), the handheld will display green (truth), red (false), or yellow. A yellow calls for a repeat, a case of double-yellow then signifies no opinion. 

The new device is the PCASS, or Preliminary Credibility Assessment Screening System. Following a series of tests the DOD says that the device has an accuracy rate of 63% to 79%, or, excluding the yellows and only considering green/red, 79% to 92% (trial numbers shown below): 

The intent is to use this as a screening tool (e.g. after a roadside bomb) to triage suspects to identify those that should get further investigation. The process and rules surrounding PCASS use include:

1. Operators are supposed to get 40 hours of training (24 hours classroom and 16 laboratory)
2. Only certified operators are to conduct PCASS examinations (certification requires an internship of 25 examinations after training)
3. The device is supposed to be used ONLY for initial screening – from the regulations, “PCASS examination results shall not be the sole means to validate information…”
4. Yellows are not to be taken as “false”
5. “The PCASS operator must obtain the examinees’ voluntary consent before conducting an examination.”
6. The operator has to document each examination, and the paperwork “shall be maintained for at least 20 years.”

OK, so how realistic are the rules governing PCASS use? Are the troops going to be asking permission to conduct PCASS examinations after being subject to an IED attack? Seems unlikely. For example in Haditha 24 civilians were killed by troops when a patrol suffered killed and wounded in such an attack. Although some members were put on trial the prosecutions fizzled, because even though investigations uncovered some issues/lapses (e.g. no positive IDs, etc.), the troops had been under attack and mostly followed the rules of engagement. If troops suspect someone are they going to let them go after a double-yellow? In real life in dangerous situations, will PCASS only be used for initial screening and be followed up by other methods of investigation? Seems unlikely.

There is also criticism of the device and its utility. Some contest the accuracy numbers. Others wonder how applicable/correct an algorithm developed in a lab setting and tested on Americans will work on Afghans and Iraqis in battlefield situations and in the field. And re the hardware, how good will a portable sensor attempting to measure slight perspiration changes be in an Iraqi summer when it is 120 degrees in the shade? Also, will this become a technological “crutch”? Will the false negatives (per the study the device will show green for 2.8% percent of those actually deceptive, and yellow for 5.6% i.e. 8.4% of those lying will “pass”) allow “bad guys” to get through? What about false positives? Even at the quoted accuracy 11.4% of those telling the truth would show up ‘red’ and 22.9% as ‘yellow’, so potentially 11 (or more likely 34) of every 100 people tested would then be suspect (and probably hauled off and warehoused in the prisons for follow up). At this point the base rate fallacy comes into play, so even if the accuracy rates of these devices was much higher than currently claimed they would still be troublesome.

The bottom line is that much as it would be nice to find a technological magic bullet (e.g. see OPED14 Science to the Rescue) it is unlikely that PCASS is it.

U.S. Soldiers to Receive Lie-Screening Devices
New anti-terror weapon: Hand-held Lie Detector
Operational Approval of the PCASS
Efficacy of Prototype Credibility Assessment Technologies PCASS Final Report

Mental Health Break

Needed In Lebanon

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Some Updates...

The March blog entries above discussed the situation in Iraq. On April 8th General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker made the rounds of Capitol Hill to testify re the same. The following links provide information re their appearances:

Petraeus Recommends Troop Pause
If You Missed Today's Testimony...
Some Thoughts on the Petraeus Hearings - tongue in cheek, but oh so true!
The Limits of the Surge (SWJ’s comprehensive collection of links re “Petraeus/Crocker”)
The Best and Worst Of Congressional Theater - a look at the Senate side of the Petraeus/Crocker hearings by Winslow Wheeler. "World's most deliberative body", yeah right... (For an older parody of the Senate from 2002 see The Chamber)

The ANWR Oil… blog entry from March wondered if the estimates of the amount of oil available in the ANWR 1002 area had been refined given improvements in technology and the escalating price of oil. Recently there have been breathless reports on the web of up to 200 billion barrels of oil being found in the Bakken formation, and of the American “energy independence” that would result from this find. Publius Maximus has a round up and debunking: Euphoria About the Bakken Formation.

The United States Geological Survey estimate came in at a mean estimate of 3.65 billion barrels of technically available oil reserves, along with large reserves of natural gas. USGS Press Release.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Rings

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is playing on successive nights on television. Seeing it again was a reminder of what a good series of films it was, even though as somewhat of a LOTR purist this blogger was upset at some of the liberties taken by Peter Jackson. A couple of examples… While understanding that limitations of time meant that not all of the myriad subplots and twists could be included, it was most annoying that some were left out (e.g. Tom Bombadil, etc.) even while a significant amount of time was wasted on wholly made up Arwen-related scenes (e.g. at the Ford of Bruinen, and several Aaragon ‘flashbacks). Also, Jackson put his ‘spin’ on a number of characters which, in the opinion of this blogger, changed them for the negative. These included Frodo (made out to be a complete weenie); Gimli, son of Gloin (turned into a one-dimensional idiot), and Treebeard (having to be tricked into going against Isengard after pulling a Pontius Pilate…). However, in spite of these liberties a great series… 

Housing stories

 Dynamic Maps of Nonprime Mortgage Conditions in the United States
from the New York Federal Reserve Bank web site...

The housing crisis which started in the subprime sector has precipitated a slump in housing prices. With ARM resets set to peak this year and the next and Option ARMs in 2009 the housing "bubble" may yet have a lot more downside and the housing slump may continue for a while before the bottom of the market is reached. With record foreclosures across the U.S. calls for relief have been multiplying; politicians have been jostling each other to be in the forefront of putting forth proposals of governmental assistance; 'community activists' are coming out of the woodwork to lambaste greedy financial institutions for tricking innocent people into signing up for loans that they could not afford; and sob stories abound in the newspapers, magazines, on the radio, and on television. This blogger has been amazed by some of these stories….

After many years of renting this blogger purchased a house in the first quarter of 2007. Although not the best example of market timing, a number of factors mean that the housing downturn should not be disastrous:

First, when buying a home this blogger did not over-extend, choosing to incur a mortgage expense approximately only 60% of the amount that would have been acceptable to most financial institutions i.e. buying much less house than this blogger qualified for in order to have a more comfortable monthly payment (PITI). Second, this blogger put an appreciable amount down, rather than the minimum. Third, this blogger also bought the house as a place to live in, not as an investment vehicle (although if the place appreciates massively this blogger would not be one to complain!). This blogger also paid attention to the paperwork. If house prices keep dropping it is conceivable that this blogger could end up ‘upside down.’ However, with a comfortable payment there is no reason to panic, you continue to live in the house, and hopefully prices eventually rebound.

So, when reading the stories of some people in difficulties (e.g. the ones referenced in some of the links below), this blogger finds it hard to find sympathy in many of these cases. Take for example:

The Sinclair family featured in Marketplace’s Ghost Town USA piece. They apparently felt the need to purchase a 3,600 square foot, four-garage home using an ARM. After their $3,000/month payment reset to $4,000 they decided to stop making any payments at all, as the house’s value had fallen below what they owed. Reprehensible – first purchasing too much house and incurring a level of payment they could not sustain, apparently convinced that they have an inherent right for their property to continually appreciate, and then ready to just stop any/all payment vs. at the least continuing to pay the amount that they had been able to afford (the $3,000/month) while talking to the mortgage holder.

The Goslins from Marketplace’s “Nothing left to do but walk away” who a) bought too much house, financed it 100% with no money down, started off with an ARM and then refinanced into an Option ARM (paying only interest so that their obligation actually increased as prices slid); and apparently gambled that the home would continually appreciate and allow them to come out ahead… Bad bet, that didn’t pan out.

The Clavons, who refinanced their home just two years after they bought it and were “tricked” into a signing an interest-only ARM

The Shearons, who while making $30,000/year apparently thought it was reasonable to buy a $335,000 house.

With all the government-mandated disclosure this blogger has a hard time believing that people didn’t understand their loans. He remembers being notified of the payments, the APR, the total amount that he will have paid if he completes 30 years of scheduled payments, and much more. Granted, there probably are real cases where home buyers were victims of skullduggery and in such cases these folks should be protected, but this should only be the case where they bear no culpability themselves. This would not include cases where buyers were approved for home purchases based on falsified documentation of inexistent income – although we hear cries of fraud that paint such buyers as victims, this blogger would argue that in such cases the fraud was perpetrated conjointly by the borrower and agent (whether of the loaning institution or a third party broker) against the lender.

Minorities Hit Hardest by Housing Crisis
How Will the Housing Crisis End?
The Truth about the Housing Market
Fighting Back Against Foreclosure
Amid Hard Stories, Help for Fighting Foreclosure
Changing From Subprime to Alt-A and Option ARMs
Housing Crisis? How About Buying a House You Can Afford!
It's unfair prices, not unfair loans (Regarding Housing Crisis in California and US)

04/15 update: a couple more stories that also have folks who brought their miseries upon themselves:
Suffering in Silence Over Foreclosure
'My House. My Dream. It Was All an Illusion.'

Friday, April 4, 2008

Misc. Updates

1. On March 28th the McCain Too entry bemoaned the fact that Senator McCain seemed to be one with President Bush, who mistakenly believes that his oath of office (and highest priority) is to preserve, protect and defend the United States, when in actuality it is to “.. preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States.” Now the infamous Yoo OLC memos have been released, see Part I & Part II, and it is apparent that the same thought process is involved. In essence it argues that a) since the President’s paramount duty is to protect and defend the US, and b) it’s an armed conflict (war), anything goes in furtherance of these goals. Amazing how dropping just three words so completely changes the focus of what it is all about. Also amazing is thesethree missing words seem to be unrecognized, as opposed to the volumes of ink spilt to decry the President’s extra “sixteen words in his 2003 State of the Union speech.

2. On March 24th the Priorities?!? entry mentioned the government's snooping. Some more information re NSLs here and at the included links: NSLs and the National Surveillance State

3. The January 2nd post, Pakistan & Benazir Bhutto referenced the ninth report of the UNIIIC on Lebanon. On March 28th Daniel Bellemare issued the 10th United Nations International Independent Investigation Commission report on the years-old assassination of Rafik Hariri in Lebanon...

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Mental Health Break

Can It Be?

Can it be that Robert Mugabe will step down in Zimbabwe, having lost the election? Or will the ruling ZANU-PF rig outright yet another election result? It is possible that Mugabe will concede that Morgan Tsvangirai is ahead in the votes but claim that he is below the 50% threshold forcing a runoff… that then can be fixed (with Mugabe claiming that the voters who cast their ballots for Simba Makoni broke to him)? One can only hope that this tyrant will see the writing on the wall and go into a “facilitated” exile…

Independent Results Center

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Motgage Meltdown (update)

Mortgage meltdown ran through the Bear Stearns meltdown saga. Now apparently it is possible that there was an additional reason for JPMorgan to "rescue" Bear, other than the upside gain potential. The latest derivate to cause worries is the 'credit default swap.' 

At approximately $45 trillion the total value of existing CDSs is greater than twice that of the entire US stock market. Commercial banks are among the largest players in this field, with (according to the Comptroller of the Currency) the top twenty five banks holding credit default swaps worth approximately $14 trillion at the end of 2007. Among them JP Morgan is the largest at approximately $7.8 trillion. As concerns mount re CDS it is likely that JP Morgan acted to make sure that problems with Bear’s approximately $1.2 billion of CDS did not spill over to JP Morgan…

Which leads us to another set of losers. Per the NYT “… an effect of both deals, should they go through, is the elimination of all outstanding credit default swaps on both Bear Stearns and Countrywide bonds. Entities who wrote the insurance — and would have been required to pay out if the companies defaulted — are the big winners. They can breathe a sigh of relief, pocket the premiums they earned on the insurance and live to play another day…” 

How to price a CDS
Arcane Market Is Next to Face Big Credit Test
Credit Default Swaps: The Next Crisis?
In the Fed’s Cross Hairs: Exotic Game