THE VIEW FROM CHAOS MANOR
View 568 April 27 - May 3, 2009
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April 27, 2009
The SFWA annual business meeting was last Saturday, and Sunday I had lunch with my agent before Niven and I went over to the LA Book Faire at UCLA.
Thought for the day: is swine flu caused by porkulus?
On a more serious note: I have had little comment on the current administration's economic policies, in part because there's nothing to say that others aren't already saying, and in part because I really don't wish the nation ill. It is also depressing. In 100 days we seem to have spent more money than anyone ever has in the history of the Republic. This enormous spike in spending and the national debt will have to be paid somehow. The claim is that we will grow the economy to do that. Perhaps, but the deficit financing has often been paid by taxing savings and fixed incomes by the process known as inflation. The results of that have never been beneficial, and sometimes have been disastrous.
What is certain is that the government now controls far more of the economy than it ever has in peace time. We have not yet got to rationing, price controls, wage controls, etc. Perhaps we never will. We do have a larger proportion of people on the government payroll than we have thought needed, but that too may be a good trend.
Several correspondents keep assuring me that the path to socialism is easy and pleasant, and the result will be what Europe has been doing for the past century. They're way ahead of us over there and it's time for the United States to catch up. All is going to be well. Communism came in by revolution, never by constitutional vote, and things are going to be just fine as we begin to civilize as Europe has.
After all, no country has ever followed the classis pattern described since Aristotle in which the have nots voted themselves benefits to be paid for by those who have, resulting in the destruction of the society.
They may not be one step closer to communism but they are certainly some steps farther from what we used to call a free society. Go back through the Letters from England for examples. For those who want to know more about the classical arguments against direct democracy, I recommend Parkinson's Evolution of Political Thought; but then I have recommended that before.
The news is full of praise for the coolness and brilliance of the current administration, and how we need to have patience while trusting in the brain trust. I fear I have seen no evidence of this, and in fact most of the policies of the Administration seem to come from the Congressional side. I had not heard that Pelosi and Reid were thought to be especially brilliant. And I have seen few signs that the policies adopted are going to grow our way out of the enormous debts we have acquired in the last 100 days. What I have seen is momentum toward greater expansion of government obligations while imposing ever heavier burdens on those who produce energy. What I have seen and see now is a looming energy crisis.
The correlation between productivity and energy cost is high and negative. Most "green" energy measures make economic sense only when oil prices are above $150 a barrel. Oil isn't going to be at that price unless we make it so by taxes. Meanwhile what seems to be in the wind is a war on coal in the United States (but not in China -- perhaps we can export coal to China to pay some of the debt?) while in practice ignoring the nuclear option.
We do live in interesting times.
I remind you that despair is a sin.
I have not ignored the torture discussions -- if they can be called discussions -- but I haven't got into the matter because I see so little upside to it. I suppose at some point I'll have to comment, but my immediate reaction is to ask what the objective is? Is our goal to see that nothing of the sort ever happens again? Vengeance against those who relied on legal opinions? Vengeance against those who gave those opinions? Vengeance against elected officials of the previous administration?
If the goal is to end torture and anything that might be construed as torture, and do so forever or at least until the nation changes its mind, this can be accomplished by Congress. I am certain the President would sign such a bill. It can provide criminal penalties, and be quite specific in what practices are forbidden. There is no need for this to be retroactive.
If the goal is vengeance, then something else is needed; it also opens a more serious question of loyalties. History shows that such questions are sometimes best not opened.
It's not a matter of great importance, but I understand there is a sort of on-going Turing Test on Second Life. I thought I would go have a look, only to discover that I have entirely forgotten my Second Life User Name and Password, and my cursory efforts to discover them produced not a clue. Apparently I didn't even write them down, or if I did I've lost where, so I have not the foggiest notion. To make things worse, the only copy of Second Life I can find is on a computer that's semi-retired. It would make sense to try Second Life on Emily, my Intel Extreme Quad, just to see how well it works on that; it has certainly been long enough since I was last on there (at least a year, perhaps longer).
If someone out there is familiar with Second Life administration, I'd appreciate advice: should I just start over, or should I download Second Life onto Emily and make some attempt at finding out what my previous account was? When I first got on, I had considerable help in the form of gifts of money and clothing and gadgets which might be worth recovering, but then again they might not be.
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April 28, 2009
I have a medical appointment this afternoon.
Let's understand this: those who put up money to buy GM bonds get less of the company than the UAW, which put up less. But we do not have a situation in which largess from the public treasury is handed over to those who vote correctly? Now perhaps this is a good thing; perhaps worker ownership of the auto companies will prove to be the properly civilized way to go; but do note that this is a government action.
I'd rather see the auto workers end up with GM than have it handed over to government bureaucracies; I prefer fragmentation of power to its concentration; but this is a pretty big step.
Swine flu: why is there a higher death rate in Mexico than in the US? But then there is always a higher death rate from influenza in Mexico than in the US. In the US, about 36,000 people die of influenza complications each year. That is not considered epidemic, and a larger number of people die every year in traffic accidents, which isn't considered epidemic either. The disturbing thing about the Mexican situation is that it seems to be infecting younger people.
We need a new discussion of education, but first some background. http://reason.com/news/show/28479.html tells a story anyone doing education policy needs to know. There are implications.
The story will continue. There is a real problem about orphan works and clearing rights. This settlement doesn't solve the problem. Neither will the continued negotiations.
April 29, 2009
My medical appointments went well. Apparently I am in pretty good shape for a man of my age.
For those with an interest in the Google Grab, I recommend:
Thanks to those who wrote about how to get back on Second Life. I managed it, and reclaimed my character. I am not likely to have any great amount of time for SL, but I will look in now and then. I do want to see what they are doing with the Turing Test.
Roberta says that it's clear that swine flu is caused by porkulus.
The political and economic news is complicated, as expected. The financial geniuses have discovered that many of those whose mortgages are failing owe on both first and second mortgages. In some cases they borrowed their down payment. In other cases, they bought the house, then, when the value of the house went way up, they took out a mortgage to "cash in" on their increased equity, then spent the money, perhaps on investments that went bad, perhaps on home improvements, perhaps on travel, perhaps on medical expenses and emergencies, and perhaps on a trip to Las Vegas that didn't turn out so well. In any event they do not have the money, and they now owe more than the house is worth; and while the credit swaps and other derivatives involving first mortgages are complicated, those involving second mortgages are far more so.
I note that the credit rating agencies, still built into the law -- you are required to go buy a rating from one of the Four if you wish to issue bonds -- still exist, still have legal monopolies, and still have made no restitution for having rated, for payment, pure junk that they certainly did not understand as having the same safety as Treasury Bonds. I do not understand why no one is upset about this -- and why the practice continues. Nor do I understand why anyone in his right mind would pay the slightest attention to a "rating" from one of those companies. They have proven they do not know sewage from Shinola, and they will in fact, for enough money, rate the town drunk as a reliable borrower.
Leaving out the paradox of the survival of the ratings agencies whose incompetence caused the financial crisis -- had they given the credit swap derivatives a rating of junk, we would not be in this mess -- we now have both a financial and a moral problem. What do we do about toxic mortgages? Example: a pair of just graduated yuppies "buy" a house, borrowing the principal on a "stated income" loan. They borrowed the down payment on another. They "stated" their income based on their expectations for jobs. Both have degrees in sociology. Both got jobs at decent salaries, but they found that the payments on their house and their student loans were eating nearly all the income. Still they got along. Their house rose in value. Rose again. Kept going up. They renegotiated their loans to lower interest rates, and while they were at it, borrowed more on their increased equity so they could take a proper honeymoon.
Then came the crash. The value of their house fell back to below what they had paid for it in the first place (and far below the "value" it held at its height). Meanwhile their companies downsized. One job vanished. The other was redefined with a lower salary. And now they are in default. What ought to be done about this "toxic asset"?
Which may be a good thing and may be overkill. The judge has granted an extension of the date on which authors must file statements to OPT OUT of the agreement.
My own view is that no one will ever be paid except that Google will pay the Author's Guild legal costs and the lawyers will make millions. And the problem of orphan works, which Google wanted to address, will not be corrected until Congress acts. Congress only seems to respond to those who will pay to play, but perhaps there will be a Congressperson who has an actual interest in the public good.
Glorious! They should make a documentary.
I would have thought it fairly obvious. Glorious!
April 30, 2009
I did not watch the continuing campaign last night, but I understand there were no questions about the economy or the success or failure of the porkulus bill. Once again, I remind you of Amity Shlaes' The Forgotten Man, which tells about Roosevelt's 100 days -- and the next years as well.
We did learn what was enchanting about the office of the presidency. Alas, there isn't a wardrobe with an entrance to another world. The most enchanting thing about today's White House is its occupant, who continues to act as if he believes he has a mandate to remake America; and given the Congressional figures, one would think he can. But note that Congress isn't going along with all of his transfers of wealth, nor will it. The ravenous wolves remain...
Every indication is that the current swine flu is less deadly than the usual seasonal flu, and many of us already have some partial immunities to it. Just as that news comes out, our Vice President says he wouldn't allow his family to travel or go into public places. The White House is now trying to rewrite Biden's public statement. So it goes. Clearly one wants to be a bit more careful now, but in fact washing one's hands several times a day is good advice at any time. The standard annual seasonal flu kills something like half the number of people per year as traffic accidents. The latest swine flu variant does not appear to be more deadly than the usual, and may be less so.
There may be another Spanish Flu pandemic in our future. There may be, at this moment, at some house in Asia a family living with chickens, and within one of those chickens there is a mutant influenza as deadly as the World War I variety. For that matter, someone seems to have resurrected the Spanish Flu, but it is kept in close confinement and isolation, and we can all trust the laboratories to keep it there and never let it out. We know nothing can go wring...
I am listening to talk radio, because KUSC is having a pledge drive, and that goes on all week. After a while I tune to another station.
Of course public radio has to do pledge drives. And that gives me the opportunity to remind you that this site operates under the Public Radio model: it's free, but it needs subscribers to stay open. My thanks to those who do subscribe. If you haven't subscribed and you like what you see here, I don't have week long pledge drives. But this would be a good time...
May 1, 2009
Obama has wrested Chrysler from its creditors in order to hand it over to the UAW. That's a bit of a simplification but not by much. The implications of this growth in government power are staggering, and it will take some time to digest them; but it's a new precedent. One doubts that Obama realizes just how important this precedent may become.
It is not nationalization, but a transfer from one set of owners to another, which is definitely preferable.
The real question is, what will happen do Dodge Ram trucks, and to Jeep? Those were the most profitable lines, but their products are not in favor among the governing elites. When fuel prices rise high enough, people will reluctantly turn to lighter weight, less comfortable fuel efficient cars, but the market has not been kind to the greens. Will anyone make cars people want to buy?
If someone magically converted all the cars in the US to run on electricity, we'd be in bad shape, because we don't have the kilowatts. Had we invested $400 billion in building nuclear power plants as our means of retaliation against the 9/11 attacks, we would by now have enough kilowatts to lower energy prices; we'd ship less money overseas; and we'd have the kilowatts at prices to provide some incentive for developing ways to use them in transportation such as installing (trolley power on major Interstate highways. We didn't do that.
We still could. For what the porkulous bill has cost we could be buying a lot of nuclear power plants. They're clean, they're green, and they don't cause us to send all that money overseas. So of course we won't do that.
Francis Hamit calls my attention to
Fastest growing is a bit misleading because the base is small, but it's certainly a trend with some hope for authors. I don't know much about the economics of the music industry as compared to book publishing. I do know that it makes sense for eBooks to be sold at a lower price than printed books. The distribution and warehousing costs are much lower for eBooks. Other costs -- editorial, publicity, payments to authors -- will be about the same.
The theory of royalty payments to authors is that over time authors make about as much as publishers make in profits. Publishers get their expenses off the top before that division. That includes salaries and benefits of employees. Authors pay their own expenses, and get no salaries or benefits.
This all varies in practice, but it is the rule of thumb, and has been in place for a long time. If one applies that to eBooks, I would guess that eBooks ought to cost under $10 for new well publicized books, and could go as low as a buck or two for backlisted items. Actually the prices could go lower than that (the costs of 'warehousing' and delivering an eBook are not zero but they are pretty low), but costs of collecting the money become significant at lower prices. Royalties to authors should probably be between 35 and 45%. Of course that's not a picture of the eBook industry at the moment. And of course this is merely informed guesswork on my part.
Hamit also notes:
Lexcycle developed Stanza, one of the most popular iPod/iPhone applications. I have used it to bring over eBooks to my iPhone.
May 2, 2009
I took the day off and Roberta and I went to the movies. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (she wanted a chick flick; me, I wanted Wolverines, but we took our friend whose husband is out of town, so I was outvoted. Actually it was a cute picture. But definitely a chick flick.
May 3, 2009
Catching up on stuff and getting started on the column for May. And working on getting the Mac Experience.
This is a day book. It's not all that well edited. I try to keep this up daily, but sometimes I can't. I'll keep trying. See also the weekly COMPUTING AT CHAOS MANOR column, 8,000 - 12,000 words, depending. (Older columns here.) For more on what this page is about, please go to the VIEW PAGE. If you have never read the explanatory material on that page, please do so. If you got here through a link that didn't take you to the front page of this site, click here for a better explanation of what we're trying to do here. This site is run on the "public radio" model; see below.
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