Friday, January 30, 2009

Responsibility and accountability

Further to the comments in the previous post about "perversity", today brings the headline in the New Zealand Herald: "Banks hang tough over home loan 'break' fees". They are refusing to drop the fees paid by a mortgage borrower on a fixed rate who decides they want to break the term of the fixed rate. This is understandable as it would effectively mean there is no such thing as a fixed rate if people were able to break these agreements every time it was to their advantage to do so. It would then be readily understandable if the bank decided it needed to break the terms and lift the rates when it was to their advantage to do so.

"Perversity" becomes relevant in so far as people seem to think they are entitled to trash their contracts and what a big, bad, ugly old bank it is that expects them to hold to what they had agreed to! If the shoe was on the other foot, they'd howl like wounded animals.

No wonder we are seeing fraud and corruption at all levels. Almost everyone seems to think they should not be responsible for the choices they make and the consequences rendered. Sorry, it just doesn't work that way. If you signed up for a 3-year fixed-rate mortgage at 9% or 10%.....then relax and enjoy your mortgage payments for the rest of your term.....or pay the fees to get out of it. Stop whining and expecting others to pay the cost of your choices. If we demand accountability and responsibility from everyone else, they expect the same from us, me, you.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Climate change effects for 1000 years minimum

Researchers are reporting, through the dry-sounding "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" in the US that the effects of climate change due to increased carbon in the atmosphere and oceans will be with us for at least a thousand years. Even if we stopped producing any carbon tomorrow, the effects of carbon we have ALREADY released will see out the millenium.

The current level of 385ppm (parts per million) of CO2 in the atmosphere is picked to "inevitably" rise to 450ppm and whether or not it goes beyond that level depends on what action is taken now to reduce CO2 emissions.

The outlook isn't good.

This story has really grown legs over the past 12 hours and we might even see it in our own media here in New Zealand.

Banker's pay and meltdowns

Check this link out. Banker's pay over the last 100 years. See anything interesting?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Ignorance, unfounded faith and perversity equal trouble


Following on from my post yesterday, I've continued to think on this topic. So much to think about!

The Guardian in the UK has compiled a list ("Twenty-five people at the heart of the meltdown ...") of people to....well.....blame for the crash. All the big names are there and the role of each is summarised in more or less detail depending on their part in the big picture.

In each case belief appears have have played a significant role in the way each behaved. The article explains that even 'The Maestro' himself, former US Federal Reserve Chair, Alan Greenspan, now admits he acted on beliefs he now considers to have been incorrect.Many of the people listed in the article (like George W Bush) would have had no real idea themselves as to what economic or financial policy regime would have been best. They were almost certainly acting on the advice of others, many of whom are on the list. But acting beyond one's competence can't be an excuse when you are ultimately reponsible for the outcomes. If anything, this highlights there is too little diversity of opinion close to the where the big decisions are made, and the people who make the final decision on these matters don't actually KNOW.....they have merely been persuaded.The difference between the two is huge.

But how did they all get it so wrong for so long? US investor, Warren Buffet was warning of possible disaster 6 years ago, as was Nobel Prize winning economist, Paul Krugman in 2003's "The Great Unravelling".

Leon Gettler, writing in Melbourne's "The Age" at the end of October, cited "The Perverse Organisation and Its Deadly Sins" by RMIT academic Susan Long as providing some insight into why things were able to go so wrong: perversity.

Long argues that:
"... organisations and corporations can create perverse systems, of which there are several forms. "

"First, there is the state of primary narcissism, where certain interests are pursued at the expense of the general good, and others are turned into objects to serve certain ends."

"Second, there is a system where the awful truth is acknowledged and, at the same time, denied, echoing Freud's view that there is a part of the personality that sees things realistically and another that is locked into a delusion."

"Third, accomplices need to be seduced and set in place. These relationships need to be instrumental, turned into transactions. And perversion, she says, begets perversion. Which means collusion and turning a blind eye permeate the system."
On the RMIT page about her book, Long also says:
“To look at the formation of perverse practice, structure and culture within organisations is also to look at that development in society more broadly.”
So there it is. Perversity on this huge, globe-spanning scale isn't isolated or exceptional. It's most likely to be a reflection of the wider society. In that context, the ignorance of each of us about so much that we SHOULD know become very relevant. From climate change, to peak oil, to the way our own municipalities and countries are run, large parts of the population don't know (and don't want to). It's all part of the wider context in which the financial systems of the world become a slow motion train wreck right before the eyes of everyone.....and most weren't even paying attention and even most of the experts claim to have not seen it coming.

...and they really didn't. That IS perverse.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Making sense of it all - Finance, Politics and Greed


I've made it clear in past posts that the financial crash was something that many had foreseen and that I, personally, had planned my own affairs since roughly 2003 with the risk of such an event very much in mind. This was the thinking behind buying the farm in the Manawatu in 2004. Concentrate equity. Reduce exposure to debt. Get out of the residential property market. Have an asset that can produce as well as simply exist.....and so on.

The rationale, for me, was that Bush, through invading Iraq and running huge deficits, would almost inevitably lead us toward the same stag-flation of the early 70s caused by spending up huge on war and borrowing to fund it instead of raising taxes to pay for it. Then add on peak oil, climate change and other things that didn't exist then. Plus no sign that the US (or the world in general) was in any mind to actually, really change the negative, destructive behaviours that lead us all to this point.

I could see that ever-increasing debt simply wasn't sustainable. I had in mind that the tipping point for the housing market in NZ would be about 8%-9% for mortgage rates. I could see - from my vantage point within AT&T as an Asia Pacific Client Solution Manager - that the accelerating shift of manufacturing to China would in 4-5 years time (about now) lead to HUGE job losses in most of the OECD. I was handling the pre-sales projects for bids to build the networks to service and connect the planned factories / distribution centres and R&D sites for the companies now shedding jobs by the thousands. Millions of jobs were doomed anyway, I suspect. The crash just allows the process to happen sooner and faster.

But this week, The Economist puts forward another reason for the crash that ignores most of what I thought was important, relevant and obvious. Instead of monster US government fiscal deficits and the torching of billions in war, they blame "imbalances" in global trade for an Everest (or three) of free-floating cash looking for short term homes. They say the reason money was so cheap was that there was so much of it around from China and oil economies. I had thought very low interest rates in the wake of the Tech Crash in 2000 were intended to provide "stimulus" and prevent a recession. The same justification was used to go ahead with the Bush tax cuts in 2001, despite their original conception in 1999 as a means to return the surpluses to taxpayers (and don't worry about funding Social Security). But that's history and political context and The Economist appears to avoid these in its analyses.

In another article in the same issue, The Economist reflects the breach of trust resulting from the human and regulatory failings that contributed to the crash. In the end, they call for a
"system that supports economic growth through the best mix of state-imposed stability and private initiative."
It isn't clear what "the best mix" might be, though I'm sure it would be a close match with the interests of any person or company that cared to advance their own view.

The Economist also has a think about the future of "sovereign wealth". It's a erm used to describe the group of investment companies owned by cash rich governments (China and Qatar and Saudi Arabia and others) around the world. In some cases they have direct access to money approaching trillions of US dollars. They have taken a mighty pounding in the crash, having invested in some of the banks and businesses hardest hit.

There is a lot of food for thought there. One gets the sense that the writers still emotionall cling to the paradigm they know and have defended in the past, while a the same time seeing that the future cannot be as it was. Assumptions once taken for granted must be tested and reviewed and may even have to be changed. The tone is careful. The overall feeling is reluctance mixed with accepance of what has occured. But as to what to DO about it.....old ideas die hard indeed. Some regulation clearly needed, but not too much and no specifics anyway.

Overall, The Economist's explanations are technical and fail, in my view, to adequately recognise and take account of the policies - and politicians - that hugely contributed to the crash.

What seems clearer to me, trying to make sense of it all, is that - for now - the people making the decisons about what to do next and where to go next should be those directly accountable to the taxpayers who are - now - in many countries being essentially forced to cover all the risk, back the bad debts and pour money into the carcases of large that are now essentialy among the walking dead.

Nothing else seems to make any sense. The finance markets had the chance to show the world they could regulate themselves and the blew it spectacularly.

To allow the failed to simply pillage the world's Treasuries in order to make good their losses....and then expect to cary on as before makes nosense at all. It would amount to the biggest theft in history.

"We'll be good - honest! We really mean it THIS time!"

Pull the other one.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Beats Per Minute (BPM) software on Linux

Google Fodder: This is one of those blog posts you write so people will find SOMETHING on the topic when they Google it.

I was trying to sort out a playlist on the iPod that would be suitable for a long (couple of hours) fast, walk. Heart pounding stuff for uphill or down, mindfull that music with at least 100 beats / minute was best for a variety of physical pursuits, including keeping time while administering CPR.

I Googled around a bit and found that Amarok had a "BPM" column, so using "sudo apt-get install amarok" in a terminal, I installed Amarok on my Ubuntu 8.10 Linux laptop system and found......that it was just a column. It wouldn't calculate the BPM's for me. I would have to sort that out myself. Ta.

Back to Google. Located "bpm calc 4 amarok". It's a script that drives 'soundstretch' to work out the BPM for songs for use in Amarok. It adds the info directly to the music database! Great! Sounds like what I need.

I installed "bpm calc 4 amarok" and found that the author only supports MySQL databases, not the SQLite database Amarok uses by default. Well, I'm not adding the complexity of MySQL setup, admin and network access to my chosen problem. Not yet anyway. Maybe another day.

I reviewed options and chose another path. Maybe Windows.

Pistonsoft's "BPM Detector" looked promising and it's free. I downloaded it and was going to boot to Windows Vista, but instead decided to install the "WINE" support for running Windows apps on Linux. I had recently been very happy with DosBox on Linux for running my old DOS games, so maybe WINE was as good as that by now.

The result was that both the installer and the app itself work well with WINE.

In \home\steve\desktop, I ran "wine BMPdetector_setup.exe" and followed the installer prompts. I de-selected adding icons or things to the taskbar. Not necessary without a real Windows desktop UI and an unnecessary potential source of error for the install.

Then, to actually run the installed program, I entered:

wine "C:\\Program Files\\Pistonsoft BPM Detector\\bpmdetector.exe"

...and the app runs and gives me BPM values for each song. That done, I created a shortcut / launcher on the desktop so all I have to do now is click on an icon to start BPM Detector. I don't appear to be able "Select All" in a list and batch the BPM caculations, but it works fine if I click on each song one at a time. It can play the songs, too. No problems. Now at least I can get the BPM value for a given song and manually enter it into Amarok. Overall, the MySQL solution and "bpm calc 4 amarok" would have been better and faster if I had MySQL already running and knew more about how to drive it. That "if" was too big for me today. This alternative will get the job done, too.....

Here's a screen shot. Click on it to see a larger version.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Channeling Reality

Freshly minted President Obama's main contribution this week to global politics, society and well-being would, in my opinion, be the re-implementation of reality and evidence in developing and executing public policy.

The Chinese didn't think much of it, but it was long overdue and the lack of a frank and balanced appraisal of reality in US policy, in particular, has been a major contributing factor to many of the difficulties we face today in finance, economics and security.

Would undisciplined and poorly regulated finance markets deliver endless prosperity? The claim was made that it would. The reality, as 'The Economist' observes in a special report, is that it doesn't.
Obama: "Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control - and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous."
Economic policy for much of the past 30 years has been dominated by the faith-based ideology that apparently no longer fits the real world, if it ever did. For the past 10 years, real investment has lagged well behind speculative, short investment thanks to mountains of money from oil-rich countries, China and a few others, looking for what they thought was a safe haven in, mainly, US financial markets. It wasn't sustainable.
Obama: "...But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed. [...] The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act — not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age." [...]
"What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account — to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day — because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government."
Well......Yeah! Surely the bottom line for any initiative must be whether or not something - large or small - actually works! It's a matter of some considerable head scratching that something so obvious hasn't been the status quo for the past 30 years (at least) - through both Democratic and Republican administrations. But it wasn't. All manner of irrational, faith-based (whether in markets, deities, libertarian theorising or ignorant prejudice) misapprehensions have been allowed to creep into and define public policy in America.

But what about the mis-named "War on Terror"? It would be more correct to call it a "War against Blowback", terrorsm against the US being, in large part, the consequence of 60 years or more of flawed foreign policy in the Middle East. Is America able - finally - to frankly appreciate the role it has played in contributing to - and exacerbating - its own security and foreign policy difficulties in recent years?
Obama: "As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today [...] : Know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more."
"Recall that earlier generations [...] understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint."
It sounds like America - at least in euphemism - can be honest with itself once again. Obama gives voice to simple, obvious social principles that govern human relations from homes, wokrplaces and school yards to the United Nations. Bullies can't win. The arrogant and callous will ultimately not only be defeated, but risk being punished, too, by those who have suffered at their hands. The rewards go those who are liked and admired and emulated.

Bush and his people thought themselves exempt from these rules of human behaviour. In almost every area, their view of the world was flawed to the point where it simply wasn't a valid view any longer. They thought they could dictate reality. Clearly, they failed.

Obama's election is a sign that, at least for now, America is prepared to embrace the real again. That could change. Reality can be unpleasant. But I hope it doesn't. As we have seen, over time, denying reality tends to extend, enhance and compound the consequences of doing so.

Obama is channelling reality for many in the US for whom it had become a strange and unfamiliar place. Policies based on invalid assumptions wren't working. But were supposed to anyway. Obama will have to be careful untangling the myth from reality, the consequences of past propaganda from plans for the future. People (anywhere) tend to react angrily when faced with things they would prefer not to face or something that contradicts a strongly held belief......valid or not.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Distraction

I'm ashamed to admit it, but my time has been consumed by toys, tech, tunes and games.

First distraction: (um...not *really*) The family! We been doing....stuff.

Second distraction: The iPod Touch I got as a Xmas pressie has proven to be incredibly versatile, useful, absorbing and.....well....fun....and very absorbing. It's like having a laptop in your shirt pocket. A really cool one. Touch this, touch that. A tenth the size of a netbook, but on the Net anywhere I can get wifi. That's mainly my house and my work, but there are a lot of $3 / hour Tomizones out there, too.

But the iPod. Yeah...I'm raving. You can add loads of new programs to it. So far, among the many, my favourites are:
  • WifiTrak - for finding and connecting to wifi hotspots
  • Speedtest - for finding out how fast these hotspots are 
  • SimCity 
  • Facebook
  • WeatherNZ 
  • TouchTerm (for SSH-ing into other systems) 
  • Safari browser and iPod IMAP for Gmail
  • Air Sharing - lets me share files I put on the iPod Touch with PCs over wifi. Sort of like a wifi-capable USB stick, if you like.  
....and loads of other stuff. The  "Lightsaber" app makes my iPod touch sound like a Star Wars light sabre as I wave around.

Third distraction: Tunes. The whole family is kitted out with iPods, so we need music to play. No problem. I spent 4 days, dawn to dusk, ripping every CD in the house as 256k mp3 files. They reside in a shared folder on the home server for ease of access by anyone in the house. There are also a variety of USB sticks available for quickly composing "sets" for playing on the USB-capable (nice and cheap) stereo we got from DSE.

Fourth distraction: DosBox on Ubuntu Linux. The kids and I have been playing old favourites like "Crystal Caves", "Monster Bash" and "Duke Nukem 3D". They all play perfectly on Linux. Especially Duke 3D. At 800x600 with 22Khz sound and 8 voices, it's better than it used to be on the old system I used to play it on.

Fifth distraction:  Windows v7 beta. I installed the 64-bit version a few days ago. It looks and feels a lot like Vista on my AMD Opteron-based system with 4GB of RAM. MS IE (64-bit *and* 32-bit) at first crashed accessing msn.com, which I thought was funny. I managed to change the home page to Google and it's been stable since.  I didn't think much of the (Windows 7 only?) "Homegroups". I have Linux, XP and Vista in the house and it wasn't at all clear whether they would be accessible. I'm also able to share files on the iPod Touch.

I know that in the background there is important stuff going on. Gaza. The unfolding economic mess. The new copyright law that says I'm guilty if accused - never mind due process. Much, much more. Most of it bad.

But right now I'm having some fun and playing with my toys and tech. There will be time enough for outrage and action in the months ahead.  Certainly no shortage of things to get up in arms about. The people who backed the US-originated foreign, financial and economic policies that made the present mess are - perversely - now running New Zealand. The timing is fascinating and shows how very little so very many in NZ really understand about the world around them. 

Friday, January 9, 2009

Gaza

Other blogs have said a lot about this and I've made some comments on those.

I used to be a 'fan' of Israel, but since Likud and the more extreme Right there took power about 25 years ago, that country has steadily slid ever downward in my estimation. Their tactics today are too often akin to those Jews fled Europe to avoid. In particular, the collective punishment (including the indiscriminate deaths of hundreds men, women and children) of everyone in Gaza for the actions of a few. This is clearly a crime by any measure. So are the indiscriminate missile attacks on Israel from Gaza.

The problem here is that there is no overlap in aspiration for peace. The Israelis don't really want to give up any land and the palestinians won't accept anything less.....so conflict ensues.

Both sides are reaping the "dividend" - the consequences - of their inflexibility, pushing the price of peace ever higher.

I see no end to it until these attitudes change. As it is, Israel thinks more force will solve their problem. The reality of the failure of this policy over 30 years (at least) doesn't seem to penetrate their collective consciousness.

Hamas won't stop reacting to what they see as Israeli intransigence and aggression. The more lethal force used against them, the more hatred is stored in the "bad will" bank. Israel may be able to destroy the organisation temporarily, but their actions simply ensure the perpetuations of the emotions / passions that demand something like Hamas, doing what it does, must exist in the first place.

People don't respond to beatings and torture with love and affection. If they get their chance, they may well slit your throat and claim it was justified. Both sides need to bear that in mind. Neither seems capable - despite the teachings of their respective 'peaceful' religions - of the generosity of spirit and frank, open-eyed appreciation of reality that this sad situation demands.

Until they can, the rest of us owe them no support enabling agression by either side. The United States funding Israel's military to the tune of US$ 3 billion annually is clearly enabling the crimes currently underway. Again (for those with one eye and no 'ears' -> the dishonest sort who accuse critics of Israel of being "anti-semitic"), that does not excuse or justify crimes committed by anyone else. But right now, Israel has - more or less randomly - killed close to a thousand people in one week in response to Hamas having killed 27 people in 8 years. That IS the sort of collective punishment the Nazis used to mete out in France in towns and villages where German soldiers were killed by the resistance. That comparison is apt and makes this not just sad, but tragic. Israel is becoming what it was established to allow its people to escape from. That isn't anti-semitism. It's a frank apprecition of the explicit Israeli policy of collective punishment.


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Wifi everywhere!

It's amazing! There is wifi everywhere! 

Wandering around my neighbourhood with my iPod Touch (with WifiTrak installed), I've been amazed by the number of wireless access points / devices I'm seeing. Sometimes there are ten or more visible at the same time. It is very rare for the iPod to report "No networks detected". There is almost always at least one...

Even more amazing is the number of homes / businesses who don't use any encryption AND have DHCP turned on.

Wide open wifi. Incredible. If your device (iPod, Laptop, whatever) is set to "auto-connect", then you can't avoid connecting to them. Interesting legal issues there, I suppose.

Coverage by these unsecure APs comes close to being ubiguitous. On average, it would be about one for every 200 metres in the area I walk around in. Wide open wifi Internet is never much more than a  minute's walk away. That makes it hard to resist the temptation of taking advantage of what might be described as the unwitting 'generosity of spirit' demonstrated by people who don't secure their wireless Internet access at all and leave DHCP turned on to allow you to connect easily.

It's like leaving a basket of shiny, fresh apples sitting right on the footpath......

Monday, January 5, 2009

iTunes and iPod

Play-time is over and I'm back at work. Since Xmas Day I've learned a lot about my iPod Touch and iTunes and discovered once again why I like Open Source and Linux so much. It's the freedom. You can't beat it.

My iPod Touch is a beautiful thing. The style, the size, the Wifi. All very cool.

But then the marketing needs of the vendor kick in and they don't match mine. I can only bring anything onto the iPod via iTunes. That means I can't just copy MP3s from my Linux system. I have to go to a Windows system. The files have to be available on that system. If I use a Windows system other than the one my iPod knows, then I can't get the files OFF the iPod onto any other system. Once they go onto the iPod, that's it. No way back.

I'm glad I ripped all my music well away from iTunes and THEN imported it.

YouTube works provided Apple's YouTube to Quicktime server is available. Apple won't let flash run natively on iPod or iPhone because Flash apps could let users by-pass iTunes. For the streaming video content they do provide, Apple don't use http for that function (Googling indicates). Instead, they feed iPods and iPhones Quicktime content they translate from YouTube flash content. Whether that is true or not, I can't play YouTube video content when behind the proxy servers I find myself behind. I can see the list of vids, search on them - whatever - but can't play them. The same applies to Facebook, WeatherNZ and many other apps. The cached content is there, but I can't update it. Yes, Facebook works through Safari, but that mode doesn't support the additional functions of the iPod facebook application......and so on.

What really annoyed me was that I had some video of my own that I had made and imported into my iTunes library and put it on my iPod. I then wanted to copy it from the iPod to my other Windows PC's iTunes...and I couldn't. It's a one-way trip.

In short, Apple's need to control all content means I can't use my iPod the way I want to. Hmm. The bottom line there is that as soon as there is a comparable device available that IS open......then I'll be buying that and consigning the iPod Touch to the "crippled relic" category.

I still really like the thing. Having a micro-netbook - even crippled - with such great software isserious  goodness. But my affection for my iPod Touch is now very much qualified. The sort of affection that is now situational and not very loyal. I'm on the lookout for something that better meets my needs. 

I really just use the wifi and play the odd video or movie on the iPod. I have an mp3 player that lets me load whatever, from wherever, and have reverted to it several times simply because I find it easier to use in so far as I'm able to do what I need to do on the PC on front of me instead of the single "home" iTunes allows.