Friday, September 30, 2011

ProFlightSimulator - the Scam Lives On

In this newest iteration of Whack-A-Mole, the ProFlightSimulator scam is back.  Now it's fronted by a website called GamerXtreme.  GamerXtreme gives you two scams for the price of one:  Pro Flight Simulator Suite (yes, that's right, Suite) and Flight Simulator Plus.  Um, don't worry, they're identical.  And they're still ripoffs of Flight Gear and its add-ons.  I don't thnk the two scams use duplicate screen shots, but they both contain screen shots stolen from websites of FlightGear and its fans.  You'll recognize every screenshot.

Dan Freeman, the sock puppet that flogged ProFlightSimulator, is flogging PFSSuite.  And FSPlus introduces us to a new sock puppet, Huge Miller.  Yes, that's right:  his first name is "Huge", spelled H-U-G-E.  Either English is not his inventor's native language, or his inventor is just plain stupid, or Huge is a real person and that's his real name and his mama didn't like him.  Hmm - which do you think is more probable?

Remember Ed Dale?  His testimonial is reprinted for PFSSuite (word for word), but his alter ego, Wayne Mayer, is gone.  Oh, both packages have some really beautiful bogus testimonials.  They're almost believable.  And there's no duplication.  Some of the pictures looked like they were harvested from the scam-the-Nigerian-scammer webpages.

And, as with the previous versions of this scam, there's page after page of breathless, in-your-face hype about the products.  Seriously, it's like reading a Ron Popeil script, complete with "NOW how much would you pay?", "But wait, there's more!", "If you order now, we'll give you a bonus", and of course "Satisfaction guaranteed, or your money back."  Don't believe a word of it.

It's still the same scam, mutated and bifurcated.  Don't fall for it.  If you're tempted to buy one of these packages, don't.  Instead, go and download the real thing, the original, the non-ripoff version:  FlightGear.

Also, please tell your friends about this.  Seriously, say something about it on Facebook.  Tweet about it.  Put something on your blog.  Click on the "X" in the upper right-hand corner of the Facebook ad, and report it to FB as "Misleading."  If enough of us do this, eventually it won't be worth "Dan Freeman's" time to continue the charade, and he'll drop it permanently.  Maybe.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

George Wright: What an Interesting Guy


Towards the end of February, 2012, the Portugese government announced that the U.S. had missed an important deadline for filing an appeal in the case of George Wright's extradition, and therefore, they would not be honoring the U.S.'s extradition request and Wright could stay in Portugal as a free man and, I believe, a Portugese citizen. A senior judge in the Portugese tribunal said, "The case is now closed."

CBS' 48 Hours news show did a story about Wright last night, which is what brought all of this back to the top of the jumbled stack that is my memory.


Okay, let's acknowledge the facts first:  he was convicted of murder, he escaped from prison, and he hijacked a jetliner.  So he's a bad guy, okay?

But he lived in the open in Africa for many years, even socializing with a U.S. ambassador.  He has been happily married to the same woman for over 20 years, and they have two grown children.  He is a legal resident of Portugal.  He was a law-abiding citizen in both of his adopted countries. He has made enough clean money to buy a modest but nice house in a Portuguese seaside resort.

This is George Wright, an American fugitive from justice, with two different pasts and what must be a fascinating story.  He sounds like someone I'd like to meet and become friends with.

(Clive Cussler is also on that list.  Maybe the three of us could get together on Cussler's boat some day - no, I think that Wright will be unavoidably detained for the next few years.)

George Wright was convicted in 1962, at age 19, of murdering a WWII veteran and small-business owner, and was sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison.  Eight years into that sentence, in 1970, Wright and three other inmates staged a jailbreak and went underground.

In 1972, Wright and fellow members of the Black Liberation Army hijacked an airliner heading from Detroit to Miami.  The hijacking was front-page news for days.  Wright and co. finally ended up in Algeria.  The Algerian government took custody of the aircraft, and I think they took custody of the $1 million ransom as well.  Wright didn't take it.

The group then went to France, where in 1976 the other hijackers were arrested, tried, convicted and imprisoned.  But by then Wright had left France and was in the tiny country of Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony on the west coast of Africa.  (Two days ago, I didn't know the country existed, didn't know where it was, and couldn't spell its name.  Wikipedia is your friend.)  He settled down and made a new life there.  He used his real name and his real nationality.  He was friendly with the U.S. ambassador at the time, John Blacken, who was genuinely surprised this week to learn that Wright was a fugitive from justice and a heinous criminal.  Nobody in Guinea-Bissau imagined that the George Wright they knew was that kind of guy.  In G-B, he was a peaceful, friendly, law-abiding citizen.

While living in G-B, he met and married a young Portuguese woman who worked occasionally as a translator at the U.S. embassy.  They had two sons and, after an unspecified number of years, they moved back to Portugal sometime in the 1990s.  They lived in a pretty house on a cobblestone street, in Almocageme, a small town on the Atlantic coast with a beautiful beach.  According to press reports, it's a sandy beach in a cove, surrounded by high cliffs.  It sounds  like heaven to me.

Being a law-abiding citizen, and with nothing to fear from the authorities, Wright got a Portuguese identity card.  He listed his name as "Jorge Santos," and his country of origin as "Guinea-Bissau."  He gave the authorities a fingerprint, which is printed on the ID card and stored in a national database.  Portugal routinely shares the database with law-enforcement agencies in other countries.

And in the United States, the FBI routinely washes the fingerprints it receives through its database of unsolved crimes.  Statistically speaking, it was inevitable that Wright's fingerprint would find a match in the database.  It was only a matter of time.

I imagine that everybody was surprised when the bells started ringing and the red lights started flashing over the cold case of George Wright.  But the FBI took swift action and, after they were sure he was the right man, they notified their Portuguese counterparts.  Local authorities arrested him on Monday, September 26.  He is now 68 years old.  American and Portuguese officials, and an army of attorneys representing everybody, are preparing for the extradition proceedings and court challenges that will, inevitably, bring him back to the U.S. to face justice denied and deferred.

I will not defend George Wright's crimes.  That would be stupid.  But I look at the life he has lived since 1973, and can only say, "wow."

I hope the courts give the guy a break.  His crimes were not crimes against humanity, like those of the WWII concentration camp guards who are occasionally flushed out of their quiet, repentant lives in the Chicago suburbs to face the vengeance of a world that, thankfully, will not forget.

I'm not sure what else to say.  I keep thinking of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge and Victor Hugo's Les Misérables.  There must be some redemptive value in living a good life.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

FEMA does Congress' job for them, this time

That emergency budget bill finally passed.  Here's how it all came out.  The emergency budget bill got stuck in the Senate, where it was trapped by more politicking and grandstanding.  Read some of the outrageous stuff the Senators were saying, at Yahoo! News.

If that article, and others on CNN and other websites, are accurate, then it looks like nobody standing at the podium in the Senate chamber cared one way or the other about the looming government shutdown, or the disaster victims in the northeastern U.S.  They only cared about winning.  In their eyes, this budget bill had nothing to do with the good of the country or the fate of the disaster victims.  It had everything to do with political power - winning and losing.

Nobody was going to compromise on this.  The elected officials only wanted to engage in posturing, stonewalling, and name-calling.  It was Business As Usual.

And what hung in the balance, other than the poor lady in Vermont whose house was nothing but a naked frame with the wind blowing through, was funding to keep the Federal Emergency Management Agency running.  If this bill didn't pass, the federal government would shut down, including FEMA - and that lady in Vermont was depending on FEMA to help her.

(We can save for another time the debate on the merits of FEMA, or whether hurricane and earthquake victims should depend on federal agencies to help them recover.  That's peripheral to the crisis happening in Washington DC right now.)

Once more, to make it clear:  the fiscal year ends on September 30.  The problem was that FEMA would run out of funds before the end of the fiscal year, and this budget bill was an emergency bill to keep FEMA, and other agencies, running until then.  You may think it's only 3 days, but a lot of money passes through Washington's hands in 3 days.  If the U.S. government shuts down for one day, that's a big enough problem.

In the end, a compromise was reached.  It wasn't the Democrats.  It wasn't the Republicans.  It wasn't the Senate.  It wasn't the House of Representatives.

It was FEMA.

FEMA, not wanting to shut down (obviously), had a look at their accounts and figured out a way they could legally shuffle things so that they could make it through Friday.  Once they figured it out, they told the Senate leaders, who must have looked a bit confused and said, "Oh, okay then."  Shortly afterwards, the Senate voted 79-12 to approve it.  Now, according to Yahoo, it goes back to the House for a final rubber stamp.  Let's hope they can manage that.

Just so you know where I stand on this:  Our elected legislators in Washington DC have proven for the third time this year that when the chips are down, they can't legislate their way out of a wet paper bag.  If they can't complete a task this (relatively) simple, we cannot depend on them to achieve anything really, seriously important.  This Congress is totally dysfunctional, and anything they try to do is doomed to failure.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Dear Congressman: It's official. You really are IDIOTS.

To all the members of the Congress of the United States:

Actually, "idiot" is the best G-rated word I can think of to describe all 535 of you right now.

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives voted that all 435 of its members are idiots.
On Friday, the Senate followed up with their own vote, confirming that all 100 of its members are idiots.

I can't believe we entrusted you with this one, simple thing, and you couldn't deliver.  You had the chance to compromise, to truly work together to make something happen.

And you chose words over deeds.  You chose to do nothing.  Instead, you're going to tell us why you did nothing.  Well, We The People are sick to the point of nausea of hearing you talk, of reading your words, of seeing you in front of a microphone or a television camera.  We just want you to shut up and do something, for a change.

Do you not understand what is at stake here?  Lemme quote Yahoo! News to you:
The dispute throws into question lawmakers' ability to find common ground on the more painful choices they will have to confront in the coming months as a special bipartisan committee searches for trillions of dollars in budget savings.
Now do you get it?  We don't think you can do it.  You don't have what it takes to do it.  You are SO fired, you incompetent bunch of chimpanzees.

Dilbert would be so proud

Hewlett Packard, the company that everybody used to admire, the one that people used to be proud to work for, the one that the last four CEOs have tried to flush down the toilet, has a new leader.

The board of directors have chosen Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay, as their new CEO.  Immediately after her appointment, she and Ray Lane, the executive chairman (what in the world is an executive chairman?), sent an email message to all HP employees.  In this message, they say, with perfectly straight faces:
We must invest in innovation, leverage the strength of our core businesses, enhance our software capabilities and integrate our assets to maximize the value of our investments. 
Wow.  If you were playing buzzword bingo, you'd be sure to win the game with just that one sentence.  If I didn't know better, I'd say that Scott Adams, the writer of Dilbert, wrote that steaming pile of executive babble for them.  Let's hope they can manage HP better than they can write.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Dear Congressman: You did it again! Good grief, how stupid ARE you?

To all members of the Congress of the United States:

On Wednesday, September 21, the House of Representatives voted that all 435 of its members are idiots.  We're waiting to see if the Senate comes up with something similar.

Once again, a serious deadline looms:  the federal government will be out of money - operating funds, that is - on October 1, little more than a week from now.  Another emergency budget bill was presented for a vote in the House of Representatives on Wednesday.  Forty-eight Tea Party Republicans voted against the bill because it didn't cut taxes.  (That's not what it was intended to do!  Idiots!)  Almost all Democrats voted against the bill because it didn't spend enough money.  (Haven't you learned?  That's the last thing we need to be doing right now: spending more money.  How do you think we got into this problem in the first place?  Idiots!)

And you, the empty-headed, drooling, mouth-breathing, slope-headed, beetle-browed, lawyers and millionaires, whom We The People naively elected to "represent" us in the Congress of the United States, you are back to Business as Usual.

Party politics.  Brinksmanship.  Obstructionism. Ultimatums.  Tantrums.  Narrowmindedness.  Selling of favors.  Catering to special interests.  Everything except the cooperation and compromise that we expect of you.  Didn't you MORONS learn ANYTHING from the debt-ceiling debacle?

It was a simple thing!  All you had to do was pass a bill!  You couldn't even do that!

Once again, you are going to wait until just before midnight on September 30 to do something that you are perfectly capable of doing right now, because you're too stubborn, too immature, and too fond of power.

Listen to me carefully.  I want you to remember these words.  The American people have lost all confidence in their Senators and their Representatives.  (This time, it's the Representatives' fault.  Senators, I'm sure your turn is coming.)  This November, and in the next five Novembers, We The People are going to show you what you can do with that power which you think you possess.  We are going to kick all of you out of Washington, D.C. and send you back home, where you won't cause any more trouble.  We will replace you with people who know what it's like to try to survive and keep a family together in these times, who know how to get something done.

You obviously don't know, and you apparently don't care.  And for that reason alone, you are unworthy to hold office.  You're all fired.

UPDATE, FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 23:  The House of Representatives stayed up past midnight, and finally got a version of the bill passed.  The vote went right down party lines, revealing that, even though they were able to pass the bill, all 435 members of the House of Representatives are still idiots.  Stupid.  Morons.  Mental disasters.  Buck-toothed jackasses, braying and kicking and blocking the trail.

The bill does contain a compromise:  $1 billion of a requested $3.6 billion spending increase for disaster aid now, and another $2.6 billion in fiscal year 2012, which starts October 1.  See, that wasn't so hard, was it?  And they even threw in some spending cuts to appease the Tea Partiers.

Today, the bill goes to the Senate, where the Senate is expected to vote to reject it.  As in the House, the vote will go right down party lines.  Like I said at the beginning of this post, today the United States Senate is going to vote that all 100 of its members are flaming idiots, just like their counterparts down the hall.  Here's why.  An unnamed aide to a Democratic Senator gives this hypocritical, two-faced, self-serving comment in a CNN article:
On Thursday night, senior Senate Democratic leadership aide said the party's caucus is united against Republican-tailored versions of the measure.  "We are looking for a real attempt to compromise, not just an attempt to appease their own people," the aide said.
Nobody in the Senate - on either side of the aisle - is interested in compromise, as they have made clear.  For either party to suggest that they are is an insult to the intelligence of the American people.  This is a do-nothing Congress.  All they can do is talk and talk, and they do way too much of that.  We The People want deeds, not words.

Once again, to all members of the Congress of the United States:  Today, the Senate will vote on whether or not you are idiots.  And the money's riding on a "yes" vote.

With the screeching sound of the Eurozone crashing and burning in the background, the whole world is watching you, the Congress of the United States.  Nobody is watching Europe.  They're all focused on Washington, and wondering whether a nation so gridlocked, and so mismanaged, can long endure.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Teaching binary arithmetic to 12-year-olds

I used to teach my 7th graders how to count to 1023 on their fingers.  It's easy to do:

Your right thumb is 1.
Your right index finger is 2.
Your right middle finger is 4.
Your right ring finger is 8.
Your right pinky finger is 16.

Your left thumb is 32.
Your left index finger is 64.
Your left middle finger is 128.
Your left ring finger is 256.
Your left pinky finger is 512.

Representing a number between 0 and 1023 is simple.  You just hold up the fingers and thumbs whose values add up to the number you're looking for.  For example, 21 is 16 + 4 + 1, so you hold up your right pinky, your right middle finger, and your right thumb.

The kids caught on quickly.  Twelve-year-old minds are sharp.  In no time at all, we were waggling our fingers rapidly as we counted to 100 together.  Some kids went further on their own, finishing triumphantly at 1023.

One time, I told the kids that they had to be really careful when they counted 4 or 128, and that they might get me in trouble if they went around flashing 132 at people.  (Try it yourself; you'll catch on quickly.)  Then little Mickey Cramer got a mischievous grin on her face and said, practicing for when she got home, "Hey Mom, look what Mr. D taught us in math today!"

I miss Mickey.  She was great.  I hope she's having fun in her senior year.  Or college, maybe.

A Review of the Hexadecimal Number System


Humans were born with ten fingers on their hands (if you include the thumb as a finger), so it is natural that the first humans invented a counting system that went from one to ten, from counting on their fingers. In fact, the word digit derives from the Latin root for "ten" and is used to mean both a single number between 0 and 9, and a finger or thumb (or toe).

Computers and digital electronics, on the other hand, deal with two states:  on/off, one/zero, plus/minus. Since a computer digit can have only two values, it is called a "binary digit," or bit for short.

Binary arithmetic is very useful. You can count on your fingers in binary, all the way up to 1023. But counting in binary quickly gets cumbersome, and so most binary arithmetic is done in hexadecimal.

"Hexadecimal" is a word derived from the Latin roots for six ("hexa-") and ten ("decimal"). It is a form of expressing numbers in base sixteen. "Hexadecimal" is often abbreviated to "hex."

The Decimal System as an Example of Counting Systems

As we said in the introduction, most human beings count in the decimal, or base-ten, number system. In base ten, you use the numerals from 0 to 9. To count past nine, you need some way to indicate the overflow, so you use a second digit - the "tens" digit - to count the "number of overflows."  Likewise, when you run out of digits to express the overflows, you add a third digit - a "hundreds" digit, to count the "overflows of overflows" - and so on, until you have enough digits to express any given number.

So, proceeding from right to left, the first digit represents the number of "ones," or 10^0, in the number; the second digit represents the number of whole sets of ten (10^1); the third digit represents the number of whole
sets of a hundred (10^2), etc. Thus, the nth digit represents the number of whole sets of 10^(n-1) in the number.

(This blog doesn't allow for superscripts, so the ^ symbol is used to indicate an exponent, or "raised to the power of ...")

So you could think of the number 3401 as:

3x10^3 + 4x10^2 + 0x10^1 + 1x10^0

Significant Digits

Obviously, changing the leftmost digit in the number has a greater effect on the number than changing the rightmost digit. That is, the leftmost digit is the most significant digit; and the rightmost digit is the least significant digit. For example, if you see a house selling for $293,499 and one selling for $293,500, you'd say that they both cost the same. One dollar isn't very significant compared to two hundred ninety thousand dollars.

The right-to-left order of increasing significance is a convention used in other place-value numbering systems, including binary and hexadecimal.

Hexadecimal Values

Computers count in binary, using only the numerals 0 and 1. That's difficult for humans to comprehend and uses a lot of space in displays and printouts. A more convenient way to organize binary data is to group the bits together in groups of four, and assign each group a single value.

Look at the table below. You'll see that a group of four bits can range from 0000, with a value of zero, to 1111, with a value of fifteen. That's sixteen values, which is why sixteen - hexadecimal - is such a convenient number base to use when working with computers.

Of course, when expressing number values, you have only ten conventional Arabic numerals (0-9). But when counting in hexadecimal, you must go all the way to fifteen before adding a second numeral as a "counter of overflows." So the letters A-F are used as numerals to represent the values ten through fifteen in hexadecimal.

Decimal Binary Hex
0    0000   0
1    0001   1
2    0010   2
3    0011   3
4    0100   4
5    0101   5
6    0110   6
7    0111   7
8    1000   8
9    1001   9
10  1010   A
11  1011   B
12  1100   C
13  1101   D
14  1110   E
15  1111   F

(Some digital systems also use base eight, or octal, numbers. We'll ignore octal for now.)

What the Numbers Really Mean

Similar to the way decimal digits in a number represent different powers of ten (tens, hundreds, thousands, and so on), with the most significant digit on the left, hexadecimal digits in a number represent different powers of sixteen, with the most significant digit on the left. So you could think of the hexadecimal number C30F as:

12x16^3 + 3x16^2 + 0x16^1 +15x16^0

or, in decimal,

49,152 + 768 + 0 + 15 = 49,935

Most calculator and spreadsheet programs include built-in tools for converting back and forth between decimal, binary, and hexadecimal.

Decimal numbers use a separator (a comma in the Americas, a period in Europe) to group the digits and make them easier to read, such as:


Hexadecimal numbers use a space between pairs of hex digits, such as:

01 04 2A 59 FF F0

You may also see a dash or colon employed instead of a space. You may also occasionally see groups of four instead of pairs.

Binary numbers are easiest to read in groups of four:

1101 0100 0110 0001

A pair of hex digits represents 8 bits and is called a byte. Two bytes equal 16 bits, four bytes equal 32 bits, and so on. (Some programmers call a single hex digit, representing 4 bits, a nybble, but we'll ignore that for now.) If all the bits in a byte are ones, the byte will have a value of 255 (one less than 256, or 2^8).

A Practical Example

When reading Modbus registers or decoding SNMP objects, it's helpful to know how to extract the data from the byte string. For example, a Digital Power Meter outputs the two bytes "5C E1" to represent a voltage reading. The manufacturer's data sheet says that the bytes can be converted to a five-digit decimal number which, when divided by 100, gives the voltage in human readable form.

5C is 92, and E1 is 225. So 5C E1 converts to

92 x 256 + 225 x 1 = 23,777

Dividing by 100 yields a value of 237.77 volts.

One Last Note

When you're juggling numbers in different bases, you may get confused and forget whether 1000 represents eight, one thousand, or four thousand ninety-six.

Several conventions have arisen to distinguish between the bases in written form. Two common conventions are to write hex numbers with a "0x" prefix or an "h" suffix, such as 0x1000 or 1000h. Binary numbers are written with a "b" suffix", such as 1000b. Decimal numbers stand alone, without a suffix.

In speaking, every hex digit is pronounced individually. While the decimal number 128 is pronounced "one hundred twenty-eight," the hex number 128 is pronounced "one two eight." Further ambiguity can be avoided by saying "one two eight hex" or "hex one two eight."

(This article first appeared on the RLE Technologies community forum.  Parts of this article are from the book Graphics on the HP48G/GX. Used by permission of the author.)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Wave At the Bus

Here's a blog kept by a FUN father and mother.  The dad managed to be on the front porch to wave at his (sixteen year old!) son's school bus every schoolday morning for the entire 2010-2011 school year.  The mom took his picture every day and posted all 170 of them, a day at a time, on their blog.  Like the blog featured in "Julie and Julia," this one went viral, and has been featured in international news publications.

I don't know why I didn't find out about it until today.  Fortunately, it's not too late to enjoy it.  It will bring a smile to your face.

Wave At the Bus.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Online gamers help scientists unravel AIDS-related enzyme

I'm going to copy and paste an entire article here.  The source for the article is Yahoo! News .  Normally I don't do this, but I've seen too many of these "news" articles expire and disappear, and I don't want it to happen to this one.

This article illustrates two things.  The first thing is a "serious game," a ten-percent slice of the gaming industry, where gaming hardware and software is used to do serious work.  And this is a pretty exciting serious game.  The second thing is an intersection between gamers and scientists, showing how the power of online gaming can be harnessed to benefit society.  No, seriously.  Okay, there's a third thing.  This is a phenomenon known as crowdsourcing, where someone turns a crowd of marginally-skilled people loose on a problem that is way beyond their individual capabilities, and working as an unorganized crowd, they are able to solve the problem.

Okay, on with the show.

Online gamers have achieved a feat beyond the realm of Second Life or Dungeons and Dragons: they have deciphered the structure of an enzyme of an AIDS-like virus that had thwarted scientists for a decade.
The exploit is published on Sunday in the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, where -- exceptionally in scientific publishing -- both gamers and researchers are honoured as co-authors.
Their target was a monomeric protease enzyme, a cutting agent in the complex molecular tailoring of retroviruses, a family that includes HIV.
Figuring out the structure of proteins is vital for understanding the causes of many diseases and developing drugs to block them.
But a microscope gives only a flat image of what to the outsider looks like a plate of one-dimensional scrunched-up spaghetti. Pharmacologists, though, need a 3-D picture that "unfolds" the molecule and rotates it in order to reveal potential targets for drugs.
This is where Foldit comes in.
Developed in 2008 by the University of Washington, it is a fun-for-purpose video game in which gamers, divided into competing groups, compete to unfold chains of amino acids -- the building blocks of proteins -- using a set of online tools.
To the astonishment of the scientists, the gamers produced an accurate model of the enzyme in just three weeks.
Cracking the enzyme "provides new insights for the design of antiretroviral drugs," says the study, referring to the lifeline medication against the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
It is believed to be the first time that gamers have resolved a long-standing scientific problem.
"We wanted to see if human intuition could succeed where automated methods had failed," Firas Khatib of the university's biochemistry lab said in a press release.
"The ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems."
One of Foldit's creators, Seth Cooper, explained why gamers had succeeded where computers had failed.
"People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at," he said.
"Games provide a framework for bringing together the strengths of computers and humans. The results in this week's paper show that gaming, science and computation can be combined to make advances that were not possible before."

Again, I did not write this.  Yahoo! News owns the copyright.  If they ask me to delete it, I will comply and rewrite the story in my own words.  But they did a fine job at it, and I'd prefer not to change a single word.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The new bubble: China

In the wake of the dotcom bubble of 1995-2000, and the real-estate-bubble catastrophe of 2003-2008, economists and policymakers are looking around anxiously, trying to predict the next bubble to burst.  In all their casting about, they are quietly ignoring the dead moose lying right there on the coffee table in the middle of the room:  China.

Consider the dotcom bubble for a minute.  The bubble was caused by a bunch of entrepreneurs who jumped on the make-money-fast-on-the-Internet bandwagon (the ".com" suffix, pronounced "dot-com," became a new word and a label for the whole fiasco), and all the investors who fed them money.  Greed fueled the dotcom bubble.  Even people who should have known better, smart and educated Wall Street professionals, bought into the boom.  Some college professors and very conservative investment advisors warned that both the entrepreneurs and the speculators were ignoring the basic principles of investing, but others said that the dotcom boom had rewritten the rules.  I actually heard several "experts" on public radio saying, "This time it's different."

Well, that time, it was no different.  Most of the dotcom businesses  went bankrupt in a few years.  The entrepreneurs and the investors lost everything.  The money simply disappeared, along with everything built on that money.

When you get right down to it, the cause of the dotcom bubble was pure and simple greed:  people wanted to get rich quick.

The real estate bubble was the same way:  Before the bubble began, mortgage lending was governed by strict rules.  A potential homebuyer had to have a large enough down payment to indicate a serious intent to keep the property, and a demonstrated ability to make the required monthly payments.  Potential lenders did serious evaluations of buyers' ability to pay:  the credit appraisal.  Millions of homebuyers have experienced the anxious waiting period while their credit appraisal was being completed, wondering what kind of credit risk the lender would assess them at, and what mortgage terms they would be offered as a result.

Suddenly, almost overnight, the lending rules changed.  The required down payment dropped from 20 percent, to 10 percent, then five percent, and finally zero percent.  No down payment was required to get into a house.  At the same time, credit terms were relaxed.  There was no longer any need to demonstrate that a buyer could sustain a mortgage payment - not for one month, let alone for 30 years.  And finally, an insidious form of mortgage which had been quietly gaining in popularity for 30 years seemed to take over the market.  This was the negative-amortization loan, which allowed a buyer to make smaller payments than the minimum required by the traditional formulas, with the accrued interest being added to the principal, so that the buyer owed more and more money as time went on.  Some of these negative-amortization loans had a a schedule of gradually increasing payments as the years went on.  Some only had a term of three to five years, with a huge "balloon" payment at the end, with the unwritten (but oft-spoken) mutual expectation that the buyer would arrange new and better financing before the loan expired.

Two things happened as a result of this relaxation of the rules.  First, people who should never have been buying houses started buying houses.  Second, everybody - well, almost everybody - started buying houses bigger than they could afford.  Then sellers started realizing that they could get a lot more money for their property than they were expecting, and so they started jacking up the prices of their homes.  Home prices had been rising steadily for decades anyway, but suddenly the prices accelerated their upward trend.

Everybody was getting rich.  Buyers were getting bigger houses than they could afford.  Sellers were making lots of money.  Lenders were getting lots of mortgages - meaning that they owned lots of homes.  Then the sellers, mostly banks, started bundling the mortgages together (think of the physical metaphor, all of those paper mortgage agreements, stacked up and held together with rubber bands) and selling them to each other as investment instruments.  Heck, if all those buyers actually made their payments for 30 years, those mortgages represented a lot of income for the lenders!

(We haven't even talked about China yet.  Stay tuned.)

So buyers, sellers, lenders, and stockholders saw the chance to get really rich, really quick, and they jumped on it.  Once again, as with the dotcom bubble, people ignored the safe and sensible rules of investing, caught up in the chance to make money off the rapid rise in property values.  Builders built, banks lended, flippers flipped, and real estate agents (and their friends, the mortgage brokers) paid cash for fancy new cars and stuff.  As before, greed ruled the day.

This entire house of cards was built on a foundation of borrowers - home buyers - who couldn't afford to pay back the money they had borrowed.  When these people eventually ran out of money and defaulted on their loans, the lenders exercised the terms of the mortgage, kicked them out of their homes, and took over their property.  But foreclosed property doesn't make the banks any money.  They try to get rid of it as quickly as they can.  But the banks had acquired so many homes that they couldn't sell them all - not quickly, not slowly, and not for anywhere near their appraised value.  That's because the home values had been horrendously inflated in the price runup that was the bubble.

Now the banks had the properties, but not the cash flow that the properties were supposed to generate.  Without money coming in, the banks couldn't take care of their own financial obligations.  So the banks started failing, or at least were in danger of failing.  The only way they could generate money in a hurry was by selling some of their investments.  And the vast majority of investments were those bundles of mortgages - "mortgage-backed securities," they were called - and since those mortgages were in default, they were worthless pieces of paper.  Nobody wanted to buy them.

So the homeowners lost their homes, the banks lost their money, and the investors lost their money.  Banks couldn't afford to pay their bills or their employees.  All the money that went into the real estate market disappeared and was gone forever.  The ripple effects from this disaster led to failures in other, tightly connected industries, such as investment broker Merrill Lynch, insurance company AIG, and automaker General Motors. That's when all the banks, the investment companies, the insurance companies, and the automakers ran crying to the government, saying "we're too big to fail."

In case you haven't figured it out yet, I'll say it again.  The entire dotcom bubble and bust was caused by greed.  The entire real estate bubble and bust was caused by greed.

And that brings us to China.  I speak of China here as one monolithic entity, encompassing its government, its financial institutions,  and its industries.  Some of you may object if I include Taiwan and Hong Kong in the monolith, but for now that's what I'm doing.  I may lump the Chinese people in here as well, because the individuals are what make up the aforementioned institutions.

China is the next big bubble, and when it busts, the results will be a worldwide catastrophe.  And as with the dotcom and real estate bubbles, the driving force behind it all is greed.

China has systematically undercut prices for manufactured goods all over the world.  Because of the low prices offered by Chinese manufacturers, many American companies have moved all their manufacturing from North America to China.  It saves the American companies lots of money, which shows up in their  corporate profits.  Besides, it lets them sell their goods to American consumers more cheaply, and American consumers like "cheap."  Most American consumers prefer "cheap" over "quality," but I don't think we'll get into that here.

As a result, most, if not all, of the American companies who make their goods in China are trapped.  For example, all of Apple's iPads and iPhones are made in China.  They could not stay in that business segment if they were suddenly forced to make them here.  Even if they could set up an assembly line, they couldn't run it without the components - the display, the batteries, and so on - because the components are also made in China.

(There was a great article in Forbes recently, called "Why Amazon Can't Make a Kindle in the USA.")

Much of today's high-tech gadgetry, including the cheapest cellular phone on the market, depends on some exotic minerals known as rare earth elements to operate.  Those rare earths used to be mined in Africa, Russia, and North and South America.  Several years ago, China started mining them and selling them at drastically reduced prices.  The other mines could not compete and shut down, leaving China as the sole source for these rare earths.  Recently, China has been talking about jacking up the price or restricting the supply of these minerals.  Guess what would happen to Nokia and other (non-Chinese) cellphone manufacturers if rare earths became too expensive to buy, or simply unavailable?  That's right!

Recently, I wanted to buy my wife a new kitchen mixer.  I went to three department stores here in the western U.S.  Every single mixer I looked at was made in China.  The venerable domestic brands like Sunbeam, and the classy European brands like, um, Braun (I think) all had "Made in China" stamped on the box somewhere.  And they were all made in China because it's cheaper.

Our first vacuum cleaner was a Hoover.  It was made in America (or Canada, I think) and it was mostly made of metal.  Our second vacuum cleaner was also a Hoover.  It was mostly made of plastic, but it was still made in America.  Together, those two vacuum cleaners lasted over 30 years.  They were sturdy machines, and we used them A LOT.  Now we're shopping for our third vacuum cleaner.  We looked at the offerings from Hoover.  They're made mostly of plastic.  They're made in China.  They have a terrible reputation for workmanship, reliability, and vacuum-ability.  Why should we buy Hoover again?  We won't.

Hoover's not the worst, nor is it the cheapest.  There are cheaper vacuum cleaners.  They don't work very well, either.  And guess where every single one of them is made?

It gets worse.  Shall we look at automobiles?  The concept of a "made in America" automobile, even a manly American pickup truck, is laughable.  All of the electronics are made in China, or assembled in the U.S. (or Mexico or another country) from components made in China.  The bumpers and fenders may be made in the U.S. (or Mexico or Ohio), but the raw materials for those metal bumpers and plastic fenders were shipped to the U.S. from overseas - mostly from China!  Even the fabric or vinyl upholstery for the seats comes from China.  The light bulbs!  The floor mats!  Detroit has outsourced all of it, in an effort to make a buck.

(John Deere, in Iowa, still makes a lot of their own components.  But Chinese electronics are starting to make inroads there, even.)

How did the U.S. government finance the bailout of the companies that got caught in the 2008 financial crisis following the bust of the real estate bubble (especially the "too big to fail" companies that should have been allowed to fail, or else cut up into smaller pieces that were no longer "too big to fail")?  They sold government-backed securities to other countries.  And which country bought the lion's share of those securities?  Which country was so flush with cash (or the promise thereof - remember how the real estate bubble worked!) that it could step in and buy billions of dollars of U.S. treasury bonds without flinching?  Well, China, of course!

And guess where China got all that money from?  From America, of course!  They sell us their stuff, they collect our money, and then they buy our country and our future.

But it's all a house of cards, just like the dotcoms and the housing boom.  China has looked into their future and they're forecasting massive growth - so massive that they've gone out into the countryside and carved out entire cities from nothing.  Street lights, apartment buildings, government buildings and shopping centers have risen out of the pastures and are waiting for people to move into them.  These "ghost cities" can be seen on Google Maps, and they're eerily empty.  The Chinese are mining coal and burning it at a furious rate, to literally fuel their growth.  They are damming rivers and gouging out strip mines to supply their hungry industries with raw materials.

And they are engaging in a centuries-long tradition of imitation and deception.  They take products made in the West, try to figure out what makes them work, and then try to come up with a copy that looks the same - right down to the trademarks, the colors and the textures.  Some of the patented and trademarked cable that my own employer makes has appeared in counterfeit form in Asia - made in China.

In the ultimate irony, they duplicate not only Apple's computers and handheld products (and remember, the legitimate ones are also made in China), but they sell them in 22 imitation Apple stores.  The stores are not affiliated with Apple Computer in any way, but their layout, decor, and even employee uniforms and name badges are exact duplicates of what you will find in real Apple stores.  The deception is so complete that some of the store employees think they are really working for Apple Computer.

I have already written about the sham (and the scam) that was the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  It was a plastic imitation of the real thing, a shameless ripoff of other people's hard work, enabled by the duplicity of the Chinese government and the gullibility of the rest of the world.  In the same way, the duplicity of monolithic China and the willingness of the rest of the world to be led around by the nose (or other body parts) has contributed to the growth of the house of cards that is the Chinese bubble.

Actually, that's not completely accurate.  At the core of everything, it is the greed of monolithic China and the greed of the rest of the world that have contributed to the Chinese bubble.

One day, the U.S. government or another government will not be able to make good on the financial instruments that China holds.  China will find out that it is holding on to worthless pieces of paper, and that China does not have enough real money to keep operating.  With no money to pay its own obligations, power plants and mines will shut down.  Trains will stop operating.  With no way to get raw materials, factories will shut down and send their workers home.  With no jobs and no money to spend, Chinese people will stop buying their own goods.  With nothing to ship, ships will stop crossing the ocean, and Americans will no longer be able to buy Hoover vacuum cleaners, Sunbeam mixers, or Apple iPhones.  Without the raw materials and components from China, American automakers (and Japanese and German ones, too) will no longer be able to build cars.

Printing presses, computers, traffic lights, tables, chairs, dishes, cutlery, light bulbs, furniture, clothing:  all of it will come to a stop until alternative sources can be found or tooled up.  Those alternative mines and factories will spring up all over the world, but they won't start producing overnight.  They will take years.  And the wealth, or commerce, or economic prosperity - the money - that was lost forever will take even more years to replace.

It may take a decade for the bubble to burst.  Some people will argue with me and say it will never happen.  But it ony took 15 years for the gigantic Japanese economic machine, which was also supposed to take over the world, to come crashing down.  It surely did, and the Chinese one will come crashing down just as surely.  And when it does, it will take years for the world to recover.

From its own greed.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

OCR for people in a hurry

If you're like most computer users, you have never needed OCR (Optical Character Recognition) capability on your computer.  OCR is relatively easy to do, so many printer/scanner manufacturers include free OCR software bundled with their printer drives.  When you install the printer drivers, the OCR software is also installed, and it clutters up your PC's hard disk, desktop, Start menu, context-sensitive menus, memory, and CPU cycles - even though you end up never using it.

Granted, some people use OCR regularly.  These people use serious OCR software, though, not the crapware that ships with your printer.

For the user who needs OCR only occasionally or rarely, there's an online alternative - actually, there are several online alternatives.  Many of them are really good.  The one that I've used (and bookmarked) is Online OCR.  I know, it's such an imaginative name.  It makes it easy to search for, I guess. 

Using Online OCR is simple.  You upload an image of whatever you need to have read, you enter the Captcha pattern, and you click "Recognize".  It spits out the text, and you can copy and paste it into your local document.

Maximum file size is 4 MB.  Maximum throughput for "guests" is 15 images per hour.  Online OCR can read 32 different languages and output in a variety of file formats, although I just use the plaintext output.    Additional capabilities are available for those who register and for those who pay real money.  Most of the questions you may have about Online OCR are answered in their FAQ list.

Remember, I'm not a shill.  I get no compensation for recommending Online OCR to you.  I just think it's a Good Thing, one that you might find useful someday.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Everything You Need to Know About the Debt Supercommittee

As part of the last-minute compromise on August 2 that resolved the debt-limit crisis, Congress set up a 12-person Super Committee.  Officially called the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction,this committee was charged with coming up with a permanent fix for the budget and deficit problems facing the country and threatening the still-shaky economic recovery.

The idea that this Super Committee might come up with a "permanent" solution reminds me of some "permanent" solutions to other wide-ranging problems from the very early 20th century:
  • World War I, the "war to end all wars."
  • The League of Nations.  (And its successor, the United Nations.)
In recent years we've also seen "permanent" solutions like No Child Left Behind, which is at best partially successful and at worst an unmitigated disaster in every way.

I can think of so many ways that the Super Committee idea will fail.  All of them have to do with the inability of our elected officials to set aside their own agendas, ignore the Special Interests, be willing to compromise, work together for the common good, and act with foresight, courage and maturity.  And if it does fail, the nation will be plunged into another economic crisis, and members of the Super Committee and Congress at large will stand around, pointing their fingers and blaming everyone but themselves for the failure.

In this article, I will give you the names of the twelve members of the Super Committee, and the timetable for the Super Committee and Congress.  This is public information.  I copied it from the National Journal and the Christian Science Monitor.

Members of the Super Committee

  1. Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana - chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which handles Medicare and tax policy.
  2. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D) of California -vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus and senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee.  He voted against the August 2 debt-limit compromise.
  3. Rep. Dave Camp (R) of Michigan - member of the House Ways and Means Committee.  He has a reputation as a moderate who is skilled at "working both sides of the aisle."
  4. Rep. James Clyburn (D) of South Carolina -member of the House Appropriations Committee and No. 3 in the House Democratic Caucus.
  5. Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R) of Texas - appointed as co-chair of the Super Committee.  A "true-blue conservative" who is not known for any ability to compromise, or to work effectively with non-conservatives.  To his credit, he broke with the Republicans and didn't buy into the "too big to fail" argument during the bail-out talks of the recent Great Recession.
  6. Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts - former presidential candidate, former chair of the Small Business Committee, current chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  Rumor has it that he lobbied hard to get appointed to the Super Committee.
  7. Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona - Senate Republican whip and member of the Senate Finance Committee.  He retires at the end of this term, so while he may be doing this to pad his résumé, he's not doing it to consolidate his power in the Senate.  He may actually help the Super Committee do something useful.
  8. Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington - appointed as co-chair of the Super Committee.  Chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.  She probably got on the Super Committeeat least in part because she is trusted by Senate majority leader Harry Reid.
  9. Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio - former Representative (for 12 years) and former member of the House Ways and Means Committee, this is his first term as Senator.
  10. Sen. Patrick Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania - also a former Representative (for 6 years) and freshman Senator.  Sen. Toomey has a refreshingly independent voting record:  he has voted with Democrats at times, and against his own party and the Tea Party at times, and he worked with a Democratic Senator to ban earmarks in spending bills.
  11. Rep. Fred Upton (R) of Michigan - chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, with a reputation as a "moderate conservative."  He is suspected of planning to use his position on the Super Committee to further his agenda of weakening environmental protections and taking the teeth out of the Environmental Protection Agency.
  12. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland - member of the House Budget Committee.

 Timetable for the Super Committee

In a nutshell, the Super Committee has to come up with a plan for cutting the national debt by $1.5 trillion over x years.  They have to present the formal, approved-by-all-twelve-members, plan to Congress by November 23.  The House and Senate both have to vote to approve the plan by December 23.  (I guess President Obama has to sign it into law by then, too.)  If this doesn't happen, then the automatic spending cuts written into the August 2 compromise swing into action, much to the consternation of American citizens, other national governments, and banks worldwide.

Here are the details.  You know who lives in the details!

Sept. 8: The committee holds its first organizational meeting; on the agenda will be setting the rules.

Sept. 13: First public hearing, which will include testimony on "The History and Drivers of Our Nation's Debt and Its Threats" from Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf.

Sept. 22: Deadline for Congress to consider a resolution of disapproval for first $900 billion tranche of debt limit increase.

Oct. 1-Dec. 31: Timeframe in which both houses of Congress must vote on a Balanced Budget Amendment.

Oct. 14: House and Senate committees must submit recommendations to the committee by this date.

Nov. 23: Deadline for the committee to vote on a plan with $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction.

Dec. 2: Deadline for the committee to submit report and legislative language to the president and Congress.

Dec. 23: Deadline for both houses to vote on the committee bill.

Jan. 15, 2012: Date that the “trigger” leading to $1.2 trillion of future spending cuts goes into effect, if the committee’s legislation has not been enacted.

February 2012: Approximate time when the first $900 billion of debt ceiling increase runs out.

February/March 2012: During this period, 15 days after the president uses his authority in the bill to increase the debt ceiling a second time, is the deadline for Congress to consider a resolution of disapproval for the second tranche ($1.2-$1.5 trillion) of debt limit increase.

Fall/Winter 2012: The additional $2.1-$2.4 trillion of borrowing authority from this law runs out.

Jan. 2, 2013: OMB orders sequestrations for defense and non-defense categories of spending necessary to meet spending cuts required by the “trigger."

Good luck to all of us

Like the great-aunt who throws rice on the bride and groom and wishes them well, then turns around and mutters, "They'll be divorced in less than a year," I wish the Super Committee all the success in the world, but I expect them to fail miserably.  I'd love to be proven wrong on this.

A note on Kerry "lobbying hard" to get on the Super Committee:  I wouldn't be surprised if all twelve of them (and others who didn't get nominated) aspired, and pushed hard, to get onto this committee. However, I don't believe that anybody who did so, did so for primarily altruistic or patriotic reasons.  I'd love to be proven wrong on this, too.

Dear Congressman: Grow up, already

To all the members of the Congress of the United States:

You haven't learned a single thing.

The compromise upon which you settled, in order to bring an end to the debt-limit crisis and avert a larger crisis, was admirable.  We must give you credit for that.  But the acrimony, the stubbornness, and the brinksmanship which preceded the compromise were deplorable and childish.

Or, in more common language, your behavior sucks.  Your attitude sucks.  You're acting like a bunch of little babies.  If I were a private businessman, I would never hire someone like you to work for me.  If I did, you would alienate all of my customers.  My suppliers would refuse to do business with me, and my best employees would resign, all because of you.  You would ruin my business.

Immediately after the compromise became law, you ran out of town en masse for your summer break - leaving undone all sorts of important tasks that had been repeatedly deferred because of your STUPID arguing over the debt limit.  The most visible of these undone tasks was the FAA funding bill that needed closure, in order to pay air traffic controllers, repair many of the nation's runways, and generally keep air travel safe.

Once again, if you were a salaried employee at my business, I would fire you for such immature behavior.  Even teenage burger flippers are more responsible than that.  And we pay you, as senators and representatives, to get the important stuff done, not to punch a time clock.  Hourly employees punch the time clock; salaried employees stay until the job is done.  Do you not understand that?

If you don't understand that, then you've lived in Washington for too long.  It's time for you to come home permanently, and not just for the summer.

Now, traditionally, on summer break, you meet with your constituents back home.  This year, many of you are breaking with tradition and hiding from your constituents.  The number of so-called "town hall" meetings you are holding has been sharply curtailed, and many of these meetings have been replaced with invitation-only events, or events which carry an admission charge, or carefully scripted and fiercely moderated Internet events.  These events allow you (or your handlers) to control who has access to you, and what they're allowed to say to you.

In a way, I can understand the change.  On CNN and other television news outlets, we've seen video of town hall meetings and other face-to-face events in 2011, which have been hijacked by organized groups and used to promote their own narrow agendas.  Don't worry about those people.  Let them hijack the events.  The rest of us won't put up with it for long, and we'll use the power of We The People to shut down those disruptors.  But for you to attempt to hide from your constituents, and to surround yourselves with fans and sycophants, is cowardly and immature.  When we elected you, we thought you had more courage than that.

We can still vote you out of office.  And believe me, we will.  I'm surprised that none of you have faced a recall vote yet - my guess is that the inertia of the American voter is temporarily saving some of your hides.  But in November 2012, We The People will definitely make our voices heard.

And don't tell us you didn't see it coming.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Hey Gadhafi, grab a rifle, come out, and fight!

It's no surprise.  In the almost-liberated country of Libya, the almost-former dictator and supreme ruler for 42 years, Moammar Gadhafi, has exhorted his few remaining loyal citizens to grab their weapons, go out into the streets, and fight the rebels.  Gadhafi's sons have echoed their father's words, calling on the people to keep fighting.

Yet Gadhafi and Sons are nowhere to be found.  They're in hiding somewhere.

If Gadhafi and co. feel so strongly about the importance of combating the rebels, then why don't they show us how important it is?  Why don't they grab some guns, come out of hiding, and lead the charge?

I think we know why.

p.s. Every news organization spells his name differently.  They're all phonetic spellings, and none of them is "wrong".  Don't bother trying to correct mine.